Questions about Lenore Tawney

An Interview with Kathleen Nugent Mangan, Executive Director of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Lenore Tawney in her Chicago studio, 1957. Photo: Aaron Siskind. 
Courtesy, Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.

The search for the spiritual characterized Tawney’s long life, and was reflected in both the iconography and materials she used in her work. She was a regular diarist and her journals provide valuable insight into this deeply personal search. bauhaus imaginista researcher Erin Freedman interviews Executive Director of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, Kathleen Nugent Mangan, about Tawney's approach and work.

Lenore Tawney received formal training at the New Bauhaus in Chicago in the 1940s. Who were her mentors there? How did their teachings influence her work on the level of form and practice?

Lenore Tawney spent only a year and a half at the Institute of Design (as the school was called when she attended in 1946–47), but that brief time was foundational to her career as an artist. She studied sculpture with Alexander Archipenko, drawing with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, drawing and watercolor with Emerson Woelffer, and weaving with Marli Ehrman. “Moholy taught me to draw, when I thought I could not draw,”1 Tawney recalled. Drawing later became a significant part of her practice. The importance of learning to weave cannot be overestimated, for Tawney’s weavings are considered to be her most groundbreaking works. Studying sculpture with Archipenko proved critical to her Woven Forms—the innovative sculptural weavings created during the 1960s. Tawney would say later: “Archipenko would have liked them…they showed his influence.”2

So the roots of these key areas of Tawney’s practice—weaving, sculpture, and drawing—can all be traced back to the Institute of Design.

Lenore Tawney, Shield III, 1967. Linen, feathers; approximately 22” x 12”. Courtesy, Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.

Can you say something about where Lenore was coming from when she began incorporating beads, feathers and other found objects into her work? What caused her to shift from making monumental sculptural forms in linen to the small, densely woven works she termed “shields” and “masks”?

Tawney’s pioneering work in weaving began after a six-week tapestry workshop with the noted Finnish weaver, Marta Taipale, at the Penland School of Crafts in 1954. After returning to her Chicago studio, Tawney immediately began to experiment, leaving large areas of warp unwoven and essentially “drawing” with weft threads to create what she called “open-warp” tapestries. From the start, birds and feathers played a role: “In fact, in the very first open piece I used feathers,” Tawney said, “that was the first time, way back in ’55 … because it’s the essence too, you know birds and feathers, it’s almost the same.”3

From that point on, feathers, quills, small shells, pebbles, and other found materials from the natural world could be found in her weaving, collage, and assemblage works, reflecting her tremendous reverence for the natural world.

When she shifted scale radically and began to weave the intimate, densely woven works called “shields” in the late 1960s, her monumental weaving continued, although at a slower pace. “It seems shields are for protection,” Tawney asserted “I didn’t know what I was protecting myself from.”4 Her use of feathers in these works—begun a decade earlier—reached its high point. “I made some very small shields with thousands of threads and thousands of feathers, one on the end of each thread—very tiny feathers, some of them.”5 In a journal entry, she wrote: “The feather is the pictorial representation of life, and breath is the symbol of life.”6

What do you think she was protecting herself from? Do you consider her massing of found materials some sort of protective mechanism, or was her collecting driven by something else?

Tawney’s “studio environment” was as much a part of her practice as weaving, drawing, or collage. To enter her studio was to step into a cabinet of wonders. Tawney’s extraordinary collection of objects and materials reflected her great sensitivity to their natural beauty. For example, she described collecting tiny stones on the beach to Paul Cummings in an oral history interview for the Archives of American Art:

“When I’m picking up stones on the beach, you know I’m down on my hands and knees and you can’t imagine how many people come over and they look and they can’t see and they say, "What is it?" They think I’m picking up something valuable and finding very marvelous things, which I am.”7

Each of these objects had value to Lenore, both as inspiration and material for work. On one occasion when an interviewer commented, “You’re a real saver then?” Tawney replied, “I’m not a saver—I’m a user!”8 The materials that filled her studio were undoubtedly intended for use. In addition, she would have perceived their power to communicate (through the life force in feathers, eggs, bones, or shells) in each of them. With that in mind, we might consider not what she was protecting herself from, but that she was creating works of inherent power.

Installation of weavings by Lenore Tawney in Woven Forms, Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now Museum of Arts and Design), 1963. Photo: Ferdinand Boesch. Courtesy, Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.

How did Tawney’s large-scale works depart from the traditional weaving grid? How did her consideration of space differ from her fiber art contemporaries?

Lenore always maintained that because she hadn’t been trained in the rules of weaving, she was free to break them. This happened very early with the “open-warp” weavings mentioned above. A few years later, Tawney said she “wanted to weave forms that would go up9 and in doing so would acquire contours, breaking away from the traditional rectangular or square format. To accomplish this, she designed a new part for her loom, “a special reed, so that I could make them go out and in.”10 With this reed, she created the iconic Woven Forms, noted earlier for their connection to Tawney’s time studying with Archipenko. These tall, thin, non-rectangular pieces were intended to be seen in space as sculptural forms. In 1962 this was groundbreaking.

How about Pre-Colombian weaving? When did they appear in her work? And where did she access knowledge of these ancient techniques?

Following her 1957 move to New York, Tawney became interested in the weavings of ancient Peru. In 1961, she spent three months studying Peruvian weaving techniques with Lili Blumenau in New York, after which she began to explore leno and gauze weaves and to incorporate twining, knotting, and braiding in the innovative Woven Forms.

Lenore Tawney with Vespers, New York, 1961. Photo: Ferdinand Boesch. Courtesy, Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.

The art historian T’ai Smith has described Tawney’s life and work as a “balance of asymmetries,” a kind of crisscrossing between spiritual practice and material process. How did certain materials allow her to access the spiritual?

The search for the spiritual characterized Tawney’s long life, and was reflected in both the iconography and materials she used in her work. She was a regular diarist and her journals provide valuable insight into this deeply personal search. Tawney was a frequent visitor to the American southwest and deeply interested in Native American arts and culture. “In the world of the Indian the secular was sacred; even common-place artistic practices, as decoration of utilitarian ware, represented a celebration of man’s unity with nature,” she wrote in a journal entry. “The design and motifs of Indian art imply the spiritual import of earth & sky, sun & rain, flora & fauna. The use of fur & hide, feathers & quills, teeth & talons, rocks & clay, & body ptg. (painting) gives the message that the divine force imbues all natural forms.”11

This concept would have resonated deeply with Tawney for whom the expression of “an inner vision of a reality greater than the individual self”12 was always paramount.

  • 1 Eleanor Munro: Originals. American Women Artists, Simon and Schuster, New York 1979, p. 326.
  • 2 Munro: Originals, 1979, p. 330.
  • 3 Oral history interview with Lenore Tawney, 1971 June 23, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (hereafter “Lenore Tawney interview, AAA) accessed at: (downloaded on 10 March 2019).
  • 4 Jean d’Autilia: Lenore Tawney. A Personal World, Brookfield Craft Center, Brookfield, CT 1978, n. p.
  • 5 Ibid, n. p.
  • 6 Lenore Tawney: undated journal entry, quoted in d’Autilia: Personal World, 1978, n. p.
  • 7 Lenore Tawney interview, AAA.
  • 8 d’Autilia: Personal World, 1978, n. p.
  • 9 Munro: Originals, 1979, p. 329.
  • 10 d’Autilia: Personal World, 1978, n. p.
  • 11 Lenore Tawney: journal entry, ca. 1984-87, Archives of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, 34.2.
  • 12 Lenore Tawney: undated journal entry quoting Carl Jung, Archives of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation. Reproduced in Kathleen Nugent Mangan (ed.: Lenore Tawney. A Retrospective, Rizzoli International Publications Inc., New York 1990, p. 122.
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