When the art committee of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas first approached New York-based artist Suzanne Tick about a weaving for its new chapel, the brief called for a handmade work, as she puts it, of ‘silk or lovely fibres’. The Reform synagogue, the largest in the South, already boasts a weaving by legendary midcentury modernist Anni Albers on the ark doors in the enormous main sanctuary and wanted something similarly elegant in its new, more intimate Stern Chapel for the ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept. Tick – by day a leading designer of luxury textiles – is a master at the loom and has created scores of proprietary threads in silk, cashmere and wool for her commercial projects. But her art is a different story, and the idea of churning out a conventionally beautiful but kind of blah decorative work was less than inspiring.
‘It’s not who I am as an artist, and I went down that road with them for a while,’ she says with a flat Midwestern accent that’s a quick giveaway of her childhood in central Illinois. ‘I kept weaving things out of bought materials, which didn’t feel right. It had no lustre and it had no light. It was a struggle.’
Finally, sensing she was about to lose the commission, Tick asked if she could take one last stab at it. Working at her vintage loom, Tick stayed true to her practice of turning humble, discarded materials into art. Colourful and a little shiny, with a hint of metallic, the sample delighted, if slightly baffled, her prospective patrons. They inquired what it was made of. Tick hesitated before telling them. When she had initially sent images of her past work with descriptions, the committee was wowed by her unusual, textural aesthetics but a little squeamish about her decidedly unconventional materials, which ranged from plastic dry-cleaning bags to her own shredded divorce documents. For some, evidently, Tick’s art is a bit like sausage: it goes down better if one does not know the contents.
But Tick came clean: the weaving was made of deflated mylar balloons salvaged from the beaches near Tick’s weekend house on Fire Island. Strange, perhaps, but layered with metaphor apt for a house of worship. ‘My work is very much about transformation. To me, going to a religious service is about transformation,’ says Tick, who is Jewish. ‘It’s about shifting your thought processes.'
The balloons evoked the concept of renewal, as well as the many rites of passage observed in the synagogue. ‘Every human celebration that exists is being woven into this, from births to bar mitzvahs to graduations to Father’s Day,’ says Tick. ‘All of these very personal experiences, unfortunately, are printed on these mylar balloons, which will never biodegrade. Which is another discussion that they had – is this going to be a permanent material? I said, “Well, I did a lot of research, and this is one product that will never biodegrade. You’ll have this forever”.’
Rabbi David Stern, Emanu-El’s senior rabbi and namesake of the new 13,000-sq-ft chapel, which is being completed this spring, admits that, when he tells friends the ark doors will be made of mylar, ‘a lot of eyebrows go up’. But he has fashioned his own spiritual reading of Tick’s work and says her use of found materials, even litter, ‘declares the beauty of all things’. The balloons also speak to a playfulness that is as important to the religion as prayer. ‘You want to embody Jewish joy,’ he says. Stern notes that the ark stands in front of a glass wall looking out on a garden, setting up a fitting juxtaposition of Tick’s art and four majestic live oak trees. ‘Outside the glass wall is nature’s creation. Inside is human creation.’
On an unseasonably warm autumn morning, Tick, petite and plain-spoken, has removed her bangles and silver rings to weave at her vintage loom in the basement studio of her East Village building (the upper floors house her thriving design business as well as her apartment). Typically, Tick waits for her staff to go home at night, then steals down to the basement. The work is slow-going: an hour at the loom produces maybe an inch and a half of textile. The finished piece, consisting of a separate panel for each door, will be nearly six feet tall. Today she threads her loom with a mylar balloon she has cut in a single, connected strip, as if peeling an apple in one go. To add yet more interest, Tick alternates the mylar rows with unusual threads and varies the weave structures, or over-under patterns.
Tick collected the balloons over the course of two years. Her friends and their children also combed the local beaches for balloons over the summer, leaving them dangling on her fence. ‘I’ve gone out and gotten 40 on a walk, especially after a storm,’ she says, against the rhythmic clacking of the loom.
After washing them thoroughly, Tick sorted them by colour. The piece mimics the order of a rainbow, with each colour gradually bleeding into the next and glints of the balloons’ silver backing giving a reflective quality. Tick kept a careful archive of the balloons, taking a photograph – a ‘mugshot’, she calls it – of each one. As Tick wanted the panels to join seamlessly when the ark is closed, she used half of each balloon for each panel. ‘The beauty of working with found materials is I’m not trying to control them,’ she says. ‘There’s this natural perfection when you don’t try to control things.’
It’s easy to trace Tick’s preference for found objects back to her childhood in Bloomington, Illinois, where her father ran the family business: a junkyard and scrap-metal company. The Ticks were green long before the colour stood for a movement. Tick took art classes from the time she was three or four years old. ‘There was no question that was my trajectory,’ she says. ‘There was always clay. I had a welder by the time I was 12.’ At the University of Iowa, Tick fell into weaving by way of printmaking, but once she tried the loom, ‘I couldn’t get enough of it’. She knew from the ads in her mother’s interiors magazines that all the important modernist textile companies, such as Knoll, Jack Lenor Larsen and Boris Kroll, were in New York. But when she arrived in Manhattan, in 1981, she says, ‘I couldn’t even wait tables’. So Tick enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology for a year, then took a job in a sweatshop painting paper samples of men’s dress shirts.
Her big break came when Boris Kroll hired her to design textile patterns. When she insisted on visiting the company mills in New Jersey to better understand the whole process, he made her his assistant. Seven years later, she struck out on her own. Tick cemented her reputation designing textiles for Knoll; she now develops products for Teknion and Tandus, among others.
Tick’s award-winning business was cruising along when, in 2007, Knoll CEO Andrew Cogan urged her to visit Marfa, the Texas town that Donald Judd turned into an art installation. The trip proved fateful. While there, she met artist Susan York, who urged her to take up her own personal creative practice.
When Tick returned to New York, she took York’s advice, using a vintage loom she had rescued years earlier from a storage closet at Knoll. A creative surge was a given, she says, but less expected was the fact that ‘it’s doubled my business, no question. When you can tap into your own personal joy, it comes out in a different way than if you’re just chronically working and working.’
Her first art commission was a happy accident: as a holiday greeting in 2009, she sent the scores of architects and interior designers who’d visited her studio that year intriguing card-size weavings. In homage to her junk-dealing dad and as a comment on consumption, she had woven dry-cleaning hangers. ‘A design director from a West Coast architecture firm called me, and she was like, “How much is that a square foot?”’ says Tick, who tried to explain it was not for sale and not able to be mass-produced. ‘I said, “It’s a hand weaving”. “What do you mean, it’s a hand weaving?” she said. “I want a whole wall of it”.’
Tick would need thousands of hangers to pull it off. To save the cost of hiring people to make rounds of the city’s dry-cleaners, who serve as recycling drop-off points, Tick enlisted the architect’s employees to send her their own. ‘I said, “Your firm has 300 people. Let’s make this collaborative”,’ she says. ‘I got a shipment every week. It was fantastic because when I went to hang the piece up, the contractors were like, “Are you the artist? I brought hangers!” To me, social responsibility is about having people participate.’ The piece turned out to be for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, where it now hangs between the founders’ private offices.
Tick delved deeper into her personal life for inspiration. After an acrimonious divorce from her second husband, she was left with boxes of legal documents. ‘I lived with the boxes,’ she says, before deciding to shred the papers and weave them in explosions of white. ‘I had to go through the transformation of what that relationship was and why it ended. I needed to understand because I just needed to heal.’
She titled the first version Pulp Fiction and showed it at Art Basel Miami Beach before gifting it to her divorce lawyer. ‘When I told him I had a weaving for him, I think he was thinking Navajo rug,’ she says with a laugh. ‘He’s not a very artistic guy. He goes, “What is that?”, and I was like, “Richard Meier wanted to buy this!”’
Using a lap loom, Tick made weavings based on moon charts, tracking the convergence of the end of her 16-year marriage, her father’s last years and her son leaving for college. ‘It was the trifecta of men exiting my life,’ she says. She recently helped her mother through yet another milestone, selling the house where she’d lived for 57 years. ‘My mother didn’t throw anything away. I got all this costume jewellery, so I wove a thing with my grandmother’s pearls.’
Temple Emanu-El’s ark doors will not be Tick’s last project tied to her faith. She studies Torah with other members of The New Shul, a progressive congregation in Greenwich Village, and became curious about the possibility of weaving the parchment of a pasul (unfit) Torah. Though tradition dictates such Torahs are to be buried, her rabbi supported the project and even brought in four other rabbis to discuss the ethics of it. Their reactions ranged from aghast to open-minded, with one progressive rabbi, Tick recalls, suggesting, ‘it’s not about the Torah, it’s what you learn from the Torah’.
Tick plans to weave sections of the parchment with another find from her parents’ house, a hairpiece her mother had worn. It reminded her of a sermon her rabbi had given, referencing the Jewish teaching that death can be hard, like forcing a ball of wool through barbed wire, or easy, like guiding a strand of hair through milk. ‘I want to learn from it and build from it,’ she says of the Torah. ‘It’s all about transformation again. The more you touch things, the better they are.’
As originally featured in the June 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*207)