SDA Book Club: Weaving Modernist Art reviewed by Zia Gipson
July 7, 2023
Weaving Modernist Art: The Life and Work of Mariette Rousseau-Vermette by Anne Newlands
Mariette Rousseau-Vermette was a Quebec-based weaver-artist, a woman of top flank, complex artistic talents and an internationally recognized figure in the art of the last century. She has finally been given her due by Anne Newlands, long after her better known contemporaries Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney and Clare Zeisler have received world recognition. During a life of seventy-nine years she was wife, mother, weaver, designer, engineer, artist, mentor, teacher, and curator and more. She was also ambitious and enormously hardworking. Weaving Modernist Art tells her story brilliantly but it’s more than a record of an artist’s life. It’s a social and cultural history of the time when women’s art and media in fiber came onto the world stage alongside art by men.
Newlands was most fortunate in that Rousseau-Vermette documented her life and work in extraordinary detail. We are told and shown much from her carnet noir, an exhaustive, chronological inventory of all 644 tapestries Rousseau-Vermette produced between 1956 and 2003. Thanks to this archive the author was able to reconstruct Rousseau-Vermette’s artistic career. Her archive contained the factual outline for each piece and at least as importantly her cartons, or designs made for each artwork, weaving and thread or yarn samples, and woven maquettes for her large-scale architecturally installed work. Rousseau-Vermette’s husband, Claude Vermette, an accomplished architectural ceramic artist in his own right, may have been the perfect mate. Their separate careers crossed in ways of value to both. Rousseau-Vermette has benefitted by early career introductions to successful Canadian architects who would later hire her. Her familiarity and facility with working with architects and interior designers in both the US and Canada opened professional doors throughout her life.
In producing this book,Newlands has been part detective and part author. She tracked down the current location of Rousseau-Vermette’s of many public or corporate commissions, finding some artworks in situ and others gone from sight. Some of her artwork met ignominious ends. Her 1971 commission for the Eisenhower Theater’s curtain at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. was cut up into souvenirs when it was ‘retired’ in 2007.
The best part of Weaving Modernist Art are the copious, color pages from her carnet including many reproductions of her oil crayon project designs. Without question, Rousseau Vermette’s peers are Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella as much as the fiber artists Hicks, Tawney and Zeisler. And always in the book we run across the photographs of the artist in action-weaving, climbing ladders to install works, and listening intently to students.
There are only a few photographs of Rousseau-Vermette with her family. We are told the son Rousseau-Vermette had with husband Claude, Jerome, was autistic and that for many years Jerome was cared for at home. Newlands’ excellent biography made me want to know more about Rousseau-Vermette internal life and I wish that her interiority had been more in evidence. I’d love to ask her how she found balance between the public and private (if she did). That said, I do feel as if I’ve met Mariette Rousseau-Vermette through this remarkable weaver-artist’s biography and I’m very pleased to have done so. I only wish our acquaintance had been longer and more personal.
–Zia Gipson is a mixed media artist working out of a studio on an island in Puget Sound.
- Publisher: Firefly Books (buy it here)
- Date: February 2023
- ISBN: 9780228104179
If you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let us know what you think!
Do you have a recommendation for a recent fiber-related book you think should be included in SDA’s Book Club? Email SDA’s Managing Editor, Lauren Sinner, to let her know!