Mary Cohen: Portrait of An Artist
Mary Cohen was an amazing woman. She was a miniature artist, knitter, and tapestry worker. She stitched six reproduction tapestry panels each measuring five feet square. The originals are displayed in the Cluny Museum in Paris and date from the early 16th century. Mary worked on these pieces for a total of 7 years while working a full time job.
“To My Only Desire” Mary Cohen
She also stitched many miniature rugs. Each rug had over one million stitches. It is hard to imagine how one person was able to complete so many projects on this scale. Mary was also a devoted knitter with projects equaling the difficulty level of her other undertakings. I think that she was the most dedicated person I have ever met and feel lucky that she gave me this interview back in 2003. The text and photos were originally seen as a post in the Productive Spinners group on yahoogroups. Any reference to a “group” indicates the Productive Spinners group.
I hope you all enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed knowing Mary. She was a very special person who deserves to have her work acknowledged and celebrated.
Mary shared these original photos of her tapestries with me. As you can see, they are stunning and even more so in person.
“Sight” Mary Cohen
I would love to know what attracts you to a new project and your thoughts before you undertake them. For instance, when considering the tapestries, did you imagine how long it might take you to finish them before you started? Does color or the materials used in a piece play a big roll in choosing your project?
I think there are several things that draw me to a design. Intricate, complicated, delicate stitching attracts me. Mythical and medieval designs are a magnet. Any design that requires very subtle shading is also attractive. I love William Morris.
How did you decide to undertake your first large tapestry piece?
Many years ago my husband gave me a very unusual Christmas card – unusual because it was very different from the “to my wonderful wife” genre that I was accustomed to. The card had a pale gold background and outlined in black were some medieval figures of two women flanked on either side by a lion and a unicorn. The background was milles-fleurs (many different flowers) and there were dozens of little animals and birds sprinkled throughout the flowers. The only other color was a light olive green and all the figures and flowers were washed over with this color so I think it’s safe to assume that it wasn’t glorious color that enchanted me and to this day I’m uncertain why I fell in love with it, except that the amount of detail was incredible.
I had little knowledge of tapestries back then – I was a knitter, did crewel embroidery and cross-stitch and that was about the extent of things. I had seen many tapestries in museums and antique auctions but nothing that looked like this.
“Smell” Mary Cohen
On December 26th, I got on the phone and finally located the card company that had produced this fascinating thing and wrote a letter to them asking if anyone could give me more details about it. I didn’t expect a reply but a week later, I received a letter from the president of the company, thanking me for my interest and he took the time to explain that this was one of a set of six tapestries from the sixteenth century and the originals were in the Cluny Museum just outside Paris.
I went to the library and found them almost immediately in a tapestry book and for the first time, I saw them in all their glowing colors – they were fabulous. Five of them represented the senses – smell, taste, hearing, touch and sight. The fifth was a tribute to the lady pictured in the other five. To this day textile experts are still trying to discover who commissioned them (they would have cost a king’s ransom to produce) and who the woman was that meant this much to her suitor but as yet, no records have been unearthed so she remains to tapestry what the Mona Lisa is to art – an enigma.
At that time, I was ordering all my needlework supplies from a wonderful firm in Oxford, England and I had become friendly with the Director who was probably the world’s foremost authority on textiles and especially tapestries. I told him I wanted to needlepoint one of this set and that I wanted it to be four feet high and the same width. He wrote and said he would be happy to put the canvas and wools together but it would take about three months. He was a perfectionist and wanted to match the wools as closely as possible to the originals. I was disappointed that it would take so long but there was no alternative. I wrote back and said “send it by air the moment it’s ready”. He wrote back and said “absolutely not – the cost would be prohibitive and you could put the costs of shipping towards another tapestry”. It would come by boat and would take an additional three months!
Another letter arrived from him rather quickly saying that the tapestry would have to be nearly five feet square to keep the proportions correct. I wrote back and said that was fine and could he please get on with it.
I had purchased a quilting frame and set it up in my living room and somehow I got through six months of waiting. The moment it arrived, I stapled the canvas to the rods, pulled out all the wools and was overwhelmed to find countless hundreds of different colors. I actually had the self control to get a flush door and set it up across two saw horses in another part of the house and used it to lay out all the color groups. I can honestly say that at no time did the thought ever cross my mind about how long I would be working on it – I just wanted to do this tapestry.
I was working part time during this period and by the time housework and all the other details of taking care of a house were completed, evenings were the only time I had when I was sure I wouldn’t be interrupted. I sat down one night to decide what I’d work on next and to my horror I discovered that everything was finished except the rose red background. The area of the background was more than the entire portion of the piece, with all the details, that I had already completed. I realized I had seven months of nothing but red ahead of me, and my courage failed completely. I couldn’t get through it emotionally. That is when I discovered distraction.
“Sound” Mary Cohen
I began inventing games – I outlined all the animals, flowers, trees, etc. with red. That didn’t get me too far so I turned to music, which I love, and for the next couple of months I listened to oratorios, masses, operas, whatever. Now I actually had a lot of red filled in. I turned to TV – I listened to talk shows, home shopping, anything that distracted me from the boredom of the task. I invented game after game to get myself through and the more I got done, the more energy I had to do more. Fourteen months later it was finished.
I learned two valuable lessons while working on the first tapestry. I’d like to pass them on to readers interested in needlepoint. Force yourself to do at least one square inch of background for every inch of the fun stuff. This is a difficult discipline but one well worth mastering. The second is (and this applies to all forms of the needle arts) don’t start any project that you don’t love – and I mean that in the most literal terms. If you’re going through a dry spell and you’re yearning to do “something”, wait. Don’t start something to fill in your time with a project that you really don’t love – wait for the real thing to come along, it will and sometimes it will be from a very unexpected source.
My husband persuaded me to do the other five (after an incredible scene between us in which I told him he was crazy). I told him I couldn’t afford the materials-I thought that would end it. He offered to pay for them. It was a losing battle so I spent the next six years doing the others and in retrospect I have absolutely no regrets.
There is an amusing story connected to the tapestries. A husband and wife (friends of Joel) came to visit shortly after I had finished them and she asked how long it had taken. I said, seven and a half years and I thought she was going to faint. She said, “You could have used the photos that were in the tapestry book and had Polaroid blow them up to any size you wanted and you could have saved all those years!” Silly me, why didn’t I think of that?
The morning after I finished the last tapestry, I couldn’t wait to go into the living room to see them all. I sat down and looked at them and began to cry and it took a while for me to understand that I was having the equivalent of a post-par tem depression. I had a job that I loved for over seven years and suddenly, without warning, I’d been fired. What would I do with the rest of my life – nothing would ever compare with the joy and sense of accomplishment I had felt working these beautiful tapestries.
By pure accident, I discovered silk gauze needlepoint and my discovery started me out on a whole new career. I think it would be inappropriate to get into a lengthy description of miniature needlepoint here but if anyone is interested, they can contact me.
I have never thought about how long any project was going to take-I just wanted to make whatever it was and the process was the main focus, not the amount of time involved. I have developed a rather Zen attitude about time-the project is going to take as long as it takes.
I have one personality trait which may be the key to my accomplishing any project. I am tenacious, determined and persistent to a degree that sometimes alarms even me. I am driven to do things which sometimes seem beyond me but I can’t let them go. Sometimes I feel blessed at having this marker in my DNA and other times I wish I could just stop-everything-and relax. The most difficult (technically) piece of embroidery I ever did was a piece of stump work. It was a type of embroidery popular only from 1600-1700. Women must have had far less leisure time after that because this wonderful three-dimensional embroidery all but vanished although many attempts have been made to resurrect it.
“Taste” Mary Cohen
Do you work on one project at a time?
I am a firm believer in having many projects going at the same time. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the feeling of not wanting to spin today or knit or whatever we’re mainly involved in at the moment and the relief of a totally different project can be very refreshing, restful and provide us with renewed energy to return to the primary project. Don’t ever put the big project(s) away in a closet – it’s very easy to ignore them when they aren’t visible. Keep them in plain view where they remind you constantly that you need to go back to them some time-just not right now.
Many people,when working on a large project, feel as if the hour they spent on it wasn’t enough due to the small portion they finished in that time. Were you able to appreciate the work you were doing as you were doing it? As you work a piece, do you feel a sense of accomplishment as you are working on it?
I use available short periods of even five or ten minutes at a time even though it might not seem worth putting in 15 or 20 stitches or two rows of knitting. If I work ten minutes 6 times during a day, that’s an hour?s worth of work that wouldn?t have gotten done at all if I waited for a better time. I embroidered a 41/2′ x 8′ panel of crewel embroidery while I sat in doctors’ offices, dentists, on the subway to and from work, and on coffee breaks and lunch hours. I confess it took me over three years but I got through it during short periods that would have otherwise been wasted.
Many people have trouble picking up a project again after a huge mistake where they have had to rip out or unstitch a sizeable section of their work. Has this ever happened to you and if yes, what do you feel got you going again?
I make as many mistakes as anyone reading this-perhaps more-because I hurry too much and am too anxious to see the project done. When I have to rip out two or three days work, my first impulse is to convince myself that no one will notice the error other than me (that’s the problem-I will notice it for the rest of my life). Once I accept the fact that the work has to be undone, I walk away for a day to cool down. The next day I start undoing and then I take another day off to beat myself up for having been so careless. Once this is out of the way, I go back to work but with much more caution (as a good friend of mine once said about cross stitch -count twice, stitch once).
How did you manage your time when you worked on your tapestries? Did you have a projected amount of work to do each day? Did you break it into manageable chunks?
I don’t think any of us should feel guilty about not keeping rigidly to a schedule when working on a project. Things happen in our lives that interrupt our plans and schedules. Our work should always bring a sense of pleasure and fulfillment rather than a sense of undeserved guilt.
I think all of us know that a wonderful needlework kit or a fabulous yarn isn’t going to be around forever- a year is probably more accurate so if I see a yarn or kit I love (even though I’m in the middle of six other projects), I get it and put it away-at least I don’t have the worry of wondering if it will still be available a year from now. If I?m short of cash, I ask the yarn shops I do business with to put the yarn away for me and I’ll pick it up as I can afford to. I have never been turned down yet.
By now it must sound as if I’m a wonder woman-believe me I’m not! I have at least a dozen sweaters which need some degree of finishing, three pieces of cross stitch that each need about fours worth of work, two pieces of needlepoint with fussy details to be finished and a lot of other non-related projects that I’ve stalled out on.
Sometimes, despite our best intentions and devotion to textile arts, we make errors in judgment. The yarn doesn’t live up to our expectations of how it looked in a skein, the needlework doesn’t look quite the same as it did in the photo, the cross-stitch chart is too difficult for us to stick to. I’ve allowed myself to say “it’s okay if I make a mistake in my choices once in a while”. If I decide the piece is really not salvageable, I toss it-I know it’s never going to be completed and keeping it around is not productive. This is a very rare occurrence with me but I’m not infallible.
“Touch” Mary Cohen
Were you ever overwhelmed by the enormity of what you were doing?
I’ve run on for a long time and I don’t know if I’ve really helped anyone but let me tell you one story which may serve you well in the future-I know it has gotten me through a lot of “almost stuck” times. (If I could title this it would be “And We think We’ve Got It Tough!”)
Early in the sixteen hundreds, a little girl named Mary Pettit, age 8, began a set of linens for her dowry chest. She designed and crewel embroidered six bed curtains, a bedspread and a valance for her canopy bed when she married. Each panel measured 4 1/2 feet wide by 7 1/2 feet high. The spread was enormous and covered not only the top of the bed but reached to the floor on three sides.
Her extraordinary sense of color, design, balance and wonderful imagination are astonishing. It is almost inconceivable that this amount of work could be accomplished in just ten years because the last panel was finished by her eighteenth birthday. Life was very difficult in those days and she must have had a great many chores to do as well as learning to read and write and every child learned to memorize passages from the Bible.
When I get feeling overwhelmed, I think of her sitting by a fireplace, for light and warmth, working as late into the night as she was allowed to stay up. These marvels are in the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and can be seen by making an appointment with the curator of textiles. A full-sized line drawing of one panel was available at the museum and I bought it, traced the entire pattern with an iron-on transfer pencil which I then transferred to a length of ivory linen and began working it in the same stitches as Mary used in her set. I have discussed this panel elsewhere in this interview.
There have been many times in the past (and the present as well) when I get too many things going and I start to feel totally overwhelmed and frozen. This is when I stop everything. I take the project nearest to completion and finish it. This is another difficult habit to acquire but it’s miraculous once you get it. I then take the next project that has a little more work to be done than the first and grit my teeth till I finish it. I can always finish needlework, etc. easier than I can complete knitting. I am notorious for completely knitting a sweater and then putting it away without sewing it together – if anyone has this problem and can give me a few hints, I would be eternally grateful.
I have never worked on one project at a time. There is always a piece of needlepoint, a piece of crewel, one or two pieces of cross stitch and at least four sweaters. The moment I get bored with one piece, I move on to the next. I never worry about having so many things up in the air-I love everything I’m working on-sometimes just not now.
Everyone in this group is an artist-we don’t use paint brushes or chisels-but we do create beautiful work with fabrics, and many of our efforts will remain when we have moved on. When I have a gloomy day that makes me feel as though I’ve done nothing with my life, I walk from room to room in my home and look at the work I’ve accomplished over the years. I date each piece in the lower right corner and I can see where l978, l979, etc. went to. I can account for many, many years of my time here and I hope that one day when I’ve moved on, others will enjoy my efforts and cherish them as I have done.
And now, a tribute to my friend, Mary.