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Emma Welty: Weaving Heritage from the Past into the Future

By Lizzy Vartanian Collier

Textile artist Emma Welty primarily works at the loom. Having first learned to knit as a child, she took up weaving at Art College. She subsequently found out that the craft was in her blood when her mother was doing some spring-cleaning, and discovered woven carpet samples woven by her grandfather. Welty’s work, which is large in scale and often neutral in color, is largely research-based and is currently being informed by Armenian proverbs and legends. Honey Pump met with Emma to speak about her practice and how her Armenian heritage has woven its way into her work.

it/it (G. Bayan, “Armenian Proverbs and Sayings Translated into English,” 1889)
Wool, cotton
19” x 41”

wool, cotton, madder root
36” x 96”

radical reconfiguration of the body (Janice Okoomian, “Becoming White: Contested History, Armenian American Women, and Racialized Bodies,” MELUS 27, no. 1 (2002)
Wool, cotton, madder root,
16” x 26”

How does your Armenian heritage impact your work?

If you asked me that two years ago I would have told you that my Armenian heritage didn’t have a role in my studio. But when I moved to White Plains to attend Purchase College in 2017, I realized that my great-grandparents settled here after they escaped the genocide and the home they lived in is about a mile away from my current apartment. That realization felt like a prompt to explore the textile language that I have in common with my great-grandparents, especially since I had recently inherited the heirloom textiles that they had made.

How did you get into working with textiles?

My mother taught me to knit, sew and embroider when I was small. When I was in high school I took up knitting more seriously and began to integrate it into my portfolio as I was applying to art school. When I went to MassArt for undergrad, I majored in Fibers and learned to weave on a floor loom and I’ve been weaving ever since.

Textile weaving is in your family, can you tell me how your ancestors’ influence your work?

I learned to weave while I was working on my BFA at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. At the time, I knew that textiles were a part of my family as my mother, an avid knitter, often spoke of her grandmother as a talented lace maker. After my mother passed away and I was cleaning out her old baskets of yarn and fabric, I found three small woven carpet samples that were likely woven by her grandfather, a refugee of the genocide. It was at that point where I realized the craft legacy I was working within and started weaving with Armenian carpet techniques, specifically the Ghiordes knot.

What do you think about the history of textiles in art, and how it is perceived as a ‘feminine art form’?

The reality is that there is a significant history of both men and women working at the loom and the associations with cloth and femininity are the result of a very limited narrative. However, the assumption that textile processes are feminine or “women’s work” is something that artists working with textiles will continue to grapple with and we have to decide whether we want to push against that narrative or harness it to change the conversation. While I will admit that I tire of some of the gendered critiques of my work as “too precious,” I have found strength in the language of materials that are traditionally seen as feminine.

What are your main influences?

My work is currently very research based. Language (poetic, narrative, historical and theoretical) is my main source of content. While the work literally transcribes found text, the words I am weaving serve to create a space where I can explore my own complex relationship to my mother’s cultural legacy. While the textiles that I inherited from her family are among my most cherished belongings, I’ve often kept the legacies of my Armenian ancestors at arm’s length as I was raised with the knowledge that my mother’s upbringing was fraught and abusive.
Reclaiming these techniques and incorporating this research has had a significant impact on the way that I collect and make work.

I love how you weave words into objects that you wouldn’t quite expect (especially “no thank you”), can you comment on that?

My most recent body of work includes text from several sources including Armenian proverbs and folktales that have been translated into English, as well as several pieces of contemporary theory about intergenerational trauma, cultural memory and matrilineal inheritance. “No thank you” is actually an erratum to an earlier piece transcribed from a book of proverbs that reads “I do not want it, put it in my pocket.” After I made that piece, my father told me that he remembered my mother’s family using the expression “No thank you, put it in my pocket” so I corrected the mistake with “No thank you.” While the first weaving had been transcribed in the font of the book of proverbs, I wove “No thank you” in a cursive font that I wrote in an attempt to imitate my mother’s handwriting.

No thank you (erratum to “it/it”)
Wool, cotton
21” x 22”

Emma's Studio in Purchase, NY

Emma Welty in her studio

Emma's Studio

blood/milk (A. K. Seklemian, “The Bride of the Fountain,” in The Golden Maiden, and Other Folk Tales and Fairy Stories Told in Armenia, 1897)
wool, alpaca, cotton,
36” x 84”

Your neutral color palette is strangely soothing to me, can you comment on the colors you use? And the materials too?

The neutral palette actually comes from a fairly practical place. As an artist working with textiles, I often encounter discussions about the impact that textile production and chemical dyes have on the environment and the inhumane labor practices associated with textile processes across the globe. The more research I did about the problems associated with textile production, the more I realized that the only way to be confident that my fiber has been processed as ethically as possible was to do it myself. I source most of my fiber directly from farms and I clean and spin it myself. Most of the color comes right from the sheep or the alpaca, and occasionally I introduce a natural dye (in the case of my most recent work, madder root).

What will you be showing at your upcoming show?

The upcoming show Performance Space New York (May 10-19), is the MFA Thesis show for my cohort from Purchase College, SUNY. The show will include a selection of weavings from my current body of work that uses carpet weaving techniques to transcribe language from my research (Armenian proverbs, folklore, theoretical texts about trauma and cultural memory).

What are your plans for the future?

I intend to continue to expand on my current body of work while maintaining a parallel line of academic research. As I have been making this series of weavings, I have been incorporating my studio research into a body of art historical research about Armenian artists in the diaspora who are utilizing craft processes and exploring notions of postmemory (a term coined by Marianne Hirsch to describe the ways that children of trauma survivors experience memories of events that predate their lives). I hope to continue to expand this work and find ways to engage with other artists and historians as it develops.

Regardless (Rachel Yehuda, Amy Lehrner, and Linda M. Bierer, “The public reception of putative epigenetic mechanisms in the transgenerational effects of trauma,” Environmental Epigenetics, 4, no. 2 (1 April 2018).)
Wool, cotton, madder root
16” x 26”

Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a writer and curator based in London, specializing in contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. Her work has been published by Canvas, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Hyperallergic, After Nyne, the Guardian, Ibraaz, Jdeed, EVN Report, Tribe and Suitcase along with many other publications. Her recent exhibition ‘Perpetual Movement’, which took place during Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018, was featured in Vogue Arabia and the Art Newspaper, and later traveled to the debut Armenia Art Fair. Lizzy is also the founder of the Gallery Girl. You can follow her work on and on Instagram @gallerygirlldn and Twitter @lizzycollier

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