True Grid: Judy Tuwaletstiwa

“When I was first discovering myself as a visual artist, though I’d been a voracious reader, I went through a period when I really couldn’t read. I’d started to distrust language. The line across the page didn’t make sense to me anymore,” said Judy Tuwaletstiwa. She didn’t conceive of herself as a visual artist until a van Gogh exhibit in 1970 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco altered her life. She was living in Palo Alto at the time and hadn’t given much thought to making art since seventh grade, when a teacher told her that a painting she had worked very hard on was terrible. An East Los Angeles native, she had gone on to major in English literature at the University of California at Berkeley and earned an M.A.T. in English lit from Harvard. She had gotten married and had children. The Summer of Love came and went. But that day in 1970, after she got home from the museum, she sat down to draw.

“The van Goghs opened up what I had closed off,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing, but making art became a passion for me.”

Soon after, she moved with her family to Scotland for a couple of years, where she learned tapestry weaving at a night class at Edinburgh School of Art. Her interest in the medium stemmed from her affection for medieval literature, but she didn’t expect to fall in love with the visceral experience of weaving, the rhythm of it, the sense of accomplishment that came with building something line by line. “With tapestry, the world suddenly made sense to me in a way it never had before,” Tuwaletstiwa said. “I realized I saw the world as a woven structure. Tapestry weaving is like laying once sentence on top of another on top of another. And the words ‘text’ and ‘texture’ both go back to the same root, which means ‘to weave.’” She was eventually able to come back to language, and it became a focal point for inspiration, which for her always comes directly from the unconscious and is based in experience rather than theory, technique, or trend. Over the years, she moved from tapestry to papermaking to painting, showing her work in galleries in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Ohio, and New York, and eventually evolved into a mixed-media artist known for incorporating natural materials into her work. She is process-driven, often prompted by text and memory, elements exemplified in her books. The Canyon Poem (Galisteo Press) was created in conjunction with an exhibition at Linda Durham Gallery in 1997, and Mapping Water (Radius Books), a searing, contemplative study of memory, began during a 2000 Lannan Foundation literary residency in Marfa, Texas.

“There are things that go on in life that shift the work,” Tuwaletstiwa said. The death of a parent, divorce, travel. When her children were teenagers, she set off by herself on a month-long camping trip through the National Parks of the Southwest. In Chaco Canyon, she camped next to the man who became her current husband, Phillip Tuwaletstiwa. They got married and moved to his family home in the village of Kiqotsmovi, on the Hopi Reservation, in Arizona. While they lived there, she began showing with the Linda Durham Gallery in Galisteo; they relocated there several years later. Moving to New Mexico was a childhood dream of Tuwaletstiwa’s, who attended a summer camp in Tesuque when she was 11. “I remember falling in love with the landscape and the light. The light in Los Angeles used to be like the light in New Mexico until I was about thirteen. I was just beginning high school, and we’d sit in class and cry, and no one knew what was going on. Eventually they identified the culprit as smog.”

Tuwaletstiwa's current body of work, A Patterned Language, shows at William Siegal Gallery, with an opening reception on Friday, July 29. Working with the concept of a grid—an organizing principle that drives much of her visual language—Tuwaletstiwa’s finished products contain a design sense that evokes a midcentury modern aesthetic, yet the individual parts are exceedingly complex in their constructions, as in Patterned Language 1, in which a seemingly smooth black surface is textured by painting, scoring, and layering, as well as woven with reeds and quills. The only color outside of black, white, and the occasional appearance of gray, is red, sometimes used for texture and depth, as in Attribute 1—where it appears as one more element in a subtle interplay of silk, bamboo, feathers, sand, cotton fiber, and acrylic—or more prominently, as in De Harmonia Mundi, Remember 1, where red dominates the grid and grabs the viewer's gaze. The title of the show is not a direct reference to the well-known 1977 book on architecture, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, though the show and the book share some themes, especially regarding rhythm and the importance of patterns to humans. “We’re tool-making animals, but more importantly we’re pattern-making animals. We’re constantly making patterns to make sense of life.” This is why the grid has been so important to Tuwaletstiwa’s work, whether she is weaving, painting, or writing. The grid provides a neutral structure to arrange a wide variety of information. Mapping Water began with 10 boxes of personal memorabilia—old photos, articles she’d read, childhood mementos—that she brought with her to Marfa. She cut a set of 8-by-8-inch index cards and set out to “create an index for the material in the boxes that defied any kind of intellectual construction, so that each time I dip into the material, it would be like dipping my hands into the waters of the unconscious.” Each day, she found something in one of the boxes that interested her and spent the day working with it. “If it was an article, I’d read it, and I’d find the most essential sentence in the whole article, and I would type it on one of the cards, and then I would burn the article. Burn the source material. It felt like this is how to begin a book like this—the capturing and then the burning and going right to the essence.” After creating hundreds of cards, she separated them into categories, a few of which became the sections of Mapping Water.

The tension between the intuitive, emotional way she speaks about her process and the clean rhythms contained in the pieces in A Patterned Language captures the essence of the drive behind the work—a longing to “hold the inchoate,” as she described it—“the kind of yearning towards chaos that everything has, and the stasis it wants, and to see if there's some way to have both experienced at the same time. In a peaceful way, not in a frightening way—though knowing that this can shift at any moment.”  

This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 07/29/2011