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SDA Book Club: Weaving Modernist Art reviewed by Zia Gipson

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!


  • Rhonda Brown says

    July 7, 2023 at 8:35 am

    Thanks so much for reviewing this much-needed book about such an extraordinary artist. browngrotta arts began representing the work of Mariette Rousseau-Vermette and her husband Claude Vermette more than 30 years ago, and we still do. There are so many wonderful stories. One favorite: Mariette traveled to San Francisco after art school to find Dorothy Liebes after reading about her in Life magazine and sat in her reception area for days until she secured an unpaid internship and then a paying job. Others kept their eyes on Europe as a weaving center, but Mariette was always more expansive when it came to education and inspiration. Anne Newlands will curate and exhibition of Mariette Rousseau-Vermette's work at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec in Quebec City in September 2025.

  • Diane Gonthier says

    July 7, 2023 at 11:22 am

    Yes, a fabulous book that brings us into the ambiance and reality of the early Quebec textile revolution! I have had the chance to meet Mariette Rousseau-Vermette between 1990 and 2004, as we were on the L'Amitient board of directors together. But frankly, I had not realised at the time, the extend of the force and determination of the artist, nor the extend at which she pushed bounderies! Her son Jérôme is now a sculptor. His parents encouraged him from an early age to express himself through art. From pyrography on wood, he quickly moved on to drawing and sculpture, creating narrative works with an animal character, in a style akin to art brut, a term designating works produced by people free from formalism or artistic training, but not devoid of instinct or talent and whose creativity is at its purest state. Today, Jérôme has achieved a great dexterity which allows him to create small and large format sculptures. He has also created a series of exceptional drawings that each tell a story. Available at the boutique of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, among others, his works have already been exhibited in institutions as prestigious as the Museum of Masters and Craftsmen of Montreal and, last fall, at the Musée d'art contemporain des Laurentians. Jérôme was deeply marked by the trips he made with his parents to Portugal, Mexico and, more particularly, Italy, where he was able to admire the works of great masters such as Michelangelo, Bernini and Caravaggio, who had a great influence on his work. This book is a testimony to all artists; it tells the insides and the travels of one who truly follows her path!

  • Zia Gipson says

    November 6, 2023 at 3:14 pm

    thanks so much for these comments! It's great to hear the anecdotes and to see the history I read and wrote about, come alive. Zia Gipson

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