In a place like the East End, where thousands of artists come to paint the light, I confess Pam Topham is my favorite landscape artist working today. She’s not a painter, per se, but she uses her art school background to help weave the most iconic scenery in colors so sublime, I am affected viscerally whenever I view her tapestries. Currently, 20 of them are on view at Guild Hall in East Hampton for everyone to enjoy.
It is amazing how she can take a scene like Accabonac Harbor and make it come alive with twisted yarns of wool and silk. I find it hard to comprehend how she can take such simple fibers and weave them to mimic the natural beauty that surrounds us.
She does it in part to preserve the vistas, as she recognizes that change is inevitable. Take for example her views of Sagaponack. “I don’t know how long this is going to be there,” she said. “People build houses and plant trees.” Potato fields that used to stretch for miles to the sea, are now dotted with McMansions.
On top of that, vegetation such as dune grass, beach plum and bayberry, hold the dunes in place and are being ripped out by builders who don’t know any better. “If you mess with the dunes, that’s going to make a difference. I felt that was important,” she said of preserving those seemingly little details in her work.
It won’t be long either before the invasive species of phragmites—thanks to the nitrogen flowing from outdated septic tanks and pesticides used to create green lawns—engulf the native plants and views of Accabonac. “People put all kinds of stuff on lawns to control this or that,” she said. “We are right on top of our water. There is no filter.”
“Environmentalism with visuals, that’s what I’m doing,” she said. “I love the natural beauty of this area.”
I love her work, not only because the views she has chosen to weave are near and dear to my heart. Like Ms. Topham, I am a fiber freak. “Fiber is so important to me,” she said. Her silk is dyed in Vancouver, Canada, and comes in 15 different textures and a wide variety of colors.
She has found some of her favorite woolen fibers through the Australian Tapestry Workshop, where she hopes to visit one day. Others come from Sweden, Norway and Japan. “I don’t believe too many things in the world are unique,” she said. “But these Japanese fibers are unique. A shoebox of yarn cost $300. Yikes.”
The cost of yarn does not compare to the cost of her labor. She will not venture to guess how long it takes to complete one tapestry. “I don’t know,” she said. With a full-time job, she makes time after work or on her days off.
Her love of fibers began when she was a child, thanks to her father, John Topham. While working in the construction field in Saudi Arabia, he became enthralled with the textiles, especially those of the nomadic peoples and even curated a show with the Smithsonian Institute years later after growing his collection. “Dad bought beautiful rugs,” she said.
“He went to markets and saw all different kinds of weavers. The better ones are nomadic. They used pit looms, which are sunken and very rudimentary,” she said. People live in tents and the tents are woven from coarse camel yarn in three sections for the men, women and the kitchen.
“I wore a 1930s Turkoman jacket to the opening,” she said. “Nobody commented on it.”
They were probably too enamored with her tapestries to notice what she was wearing at the opening of her show, running to the end of the year.
Ms. Topham entered one of her works into Guild Hall’s annual member exhibition two years ago and won the Top Prize, which afforded her the solo show. “It was a real honor to be chosen for this,” she said.
Ironically, she took her first weaving class at Guild Hall after returning from a trip to Guatemala, where she lived on Lake Atitlán for three months. While there, she followed in her father’s footsteps, visiting markets, small and large, admiring and collecting the local textiles.
“Every village has a traditional huipil or poncho,” she said.
Depending on the geography and the climate, the fabrics are different, from lightweight to denim weight and embroidered woolens. “I was very struck and collected some of these,” she said. “If you paid attention, you could tell where everybody’s from by what they were wearing.”
The richness of those textures turned her life around and when she came back to the East End, she noticed Guild Hall was offering a tapestry class. “Well that’s interesting,” she thought. “Things happen and you never know why.”
It must have been destiny that led her to Alberje Haynes, who taught the class and introduced Ms. Topham to her first loom, a Varpa Finish floor loom. “I liked it because it was very heavy,” she said. “I thought I might weave everything for my home.”
Practicality took a backseat once she learned the techniques to making tapestries. “I started weaving and went back to art,” she said. “Back then, my work was more decorative than what I weave now.”
What she weaves now is fine art but it hasn’t always been easy convincing certain organizations that tapestry can rank that high on the “art” totem pole. “If you can hang it on the wall, it’s art, right?” she said, sardonically.
She later found mentors in tapestry masters Archie Brennan and Susan Martin Maffei who formed a working tapestry group that kept her motivated throughout the years and encouraged her to think outside the box, even though sometimes that meant not fitting into the strict criteria of tapestry art.
Her current work is influenced by the Hoh rain forest on the west side of Olympic National Park in Washington State, where mosses, lichen and ferns cover every surface, as well as the Białowieza Forest World Heritage site in Poland, presently threatened by logging. “Now I’m in a temperate rain forest,” she said. “The air smells like chlorophyll.”
She’s experimenting with the light and dark that occurs when the sun shines through the trees and the endless textures of a forest. She’s using old photographs from trips to the Pacific Northwest and her imagination when it comes to Białowieza. “Who knows, maybe I’ll go there,” she said of the UNESCO site.
Whether UNESCO or our national parks, these designations are important to the whole world. “You cannot allow resources to be taken from them,” she said.
As far as her new work, “I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I’m following my rules.”
“Pamela Topham: Tapestry Visions” is on view through the end of the year at the Guild Hall Museum, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. The museum is open Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 631-324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.
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One fine body…