Creativity looms large

Loom Room owner Christine Keller (seated at left) and tapestry artist Marilyn Rea-Menzies at the...
Loom Room owner Christine Keller (seated at left) and tapestry artist Marilyn Rea-Menzies at the workshop where participants create their own works. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED / LINDA ROBERTSON
Top New Zealand tapestry artist Marilyn Rea-Menzies visited Dunedin recently to pass on her skills to a new generation of weavers. Rebecca Fox spoke to her about her work. 

Concentration is thick in the air at the Loom Room in North East Valley.

A group sits around a table at individual frames, pondering the placement of their next line of wool.

Present is Marilyn Rea-Menzies, quick to give a hand and show how it is done.

‘‘They’re doing really well. They’re keen. It takes a lot of concentration. They’ll be exhausted at the end of the day.’’

Rea-Menzies should know. She has been creating tapestry since the 1980s and teaching it just about as long.

Former governor-general Sir Anand Satyanand and Lady Susan Satyanand who commissioned the double...
Former governor-general Sir Anand Satyanand and Lady Susan Satyanand who commissioned the double-sided Kowhai Screen for Government House in Wellington.
She was attracted by the process of creating the works. A keen drawer all her life, she initially trained as a teacher.

Even after having five children, she continued to draw and paint, joining local art groups wherever she was living to keep her skills up.

It was not until the 1980s when living in Tauranga she heard about tapestry and thought she would give it a go.

Extinction  is  Forever — Saddleback, Tieke by Marilyn Rea-Menzies.  PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Extinction is Forever — Saddleback, Tieke by Marilyn Rea-Menzies. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
She got her ex-husband to build her a frame and got a book out of the library.

‘‘I taught myself. I didn’t know anybody else doing it and once I started I was hooked. I love the process.’’

She liked how it was different from painting in that she could feel the yarns and loved the way colours could blend together.

Rea-Menzies also found the long and ancient history of tapestry fascinating.

‘‘It was the first art medium in the world. The jacquard loom inspired the first computer. The warp and weft is binery code.

‘‘Textiles and computers go hand and hand — they even pinched a few textile words for computers.’’

She then moved to Picton to help establish an international weaving school before moving to Christchurch in 1994.

Her studio was in the Christchurch Arts Centre where she worked on her own work and commissions.

In 2011, she was busy weaving the four-panel, double-sided Kowhai tapestry screen for Government House when the earthquake struck.

The work was locked up in the damaged art centre for nearly two months before Rea-Menzies was allowed in to rescue it.

‘‘It was covered in dust.’’

It took hours of work to vacuum it clean and then, with the help of an assistant, get the work finished in a tiny two-room flat.

The earthquake took the shine off Christchurch, so Rea-Menzies moved to Hamilton to be closer to family and she set up her own studio.

Marilyn Rea-Menzies helps Adrenne Mulqueen with her design at a workshop at North East Valley’s...
Marilyn Rea-Menzies helps Adrenne Mulqueen with her design at a workshop at North East Valley’s Loom Room.
In recent times, with family moving to the South Island, Rea-Menzies decided it was time to return to where she was born, Westport.

She found the perfect home on the main street which could double as her studio and fortunately it was high enough to avoid the flooding the town faced recently.

Her childhood in Westport has always been credited as her inspiration for many of her works involving nature and wildlife, especially birds.

One of her more recent exhibitions, ‘‘Extinction is Forever’’, featured her environmental concern for the flora and fauna of New Zealand which she attributed to her childhood experience of nature and the native bush of the West Coast.

Central to the exhibition were cloak-shaped tapestries featuring depictions of various endangered birds including the kokako, kieke and hihi. Below in the ground are depictions of dead bird specimens Rea-Menzies photographed in a museum from the Walter Buller Collection from the 1870s.

Rea-Menzies uses photographs as the base of her works, mostly her own photographs, but sometimes, with permission from the taker, another’s photograph. She then designs her work on computer.

As well as nature, Rea-Menzies also built a reputation for portrait tapestry.

‘‘They’re a lot more exacting.’’

A small tapestry titled Doll won the Kate Derum Award for Small Tapestries in Melbourne in 2015.

‘‘It was a big buzz to get that award.’’

She has garnered other awards over the years and in 2019 she was invited to show her ‘‘Extinction is Forever’’ work at an invitational Premier Tapestry Award exhibition in Ontario, Canada.

Her work is also held in the Christchurch Art Gallery and the Musee Jean Lurcat et de la Tapisserie Contemporaine in Angers, France.

These days Rea-Menzies is putting equal time into her drawing and painting, showing those works alongside her tapestry.

‘‘I love to draw. I struggle with the painting but I’m getting better.’’

Teaching has continued to play a large part in her life. She has been tutoring Creative Fibre members and other interested parties in tapestry and design.

In 2015, she was asked to write a correspondence course in tapestry and design for Creative Fibre and she has been tutoring this course with more than 40 students so far.

Rea-Menzies has also judged exhibitions throughout New Zealand for Creative Fibre.

These days, she can see a resurgence in interest in crafts across the board with tapestry no exception.

After the craft industry was hit hard by the 1980s deregulation and cheaper items flooded the market, many stopped producing their work, just as ceramicists did.

‘‘Most could no longer make a living so only a few kept going.’’

But the past 12 to 18 months had seen a real upsurge in interest in all crafts and Rea-Menzies had noticed the interest in her correspondence course increasing.

‘‘This year, I have a student from America and one from Australia.’’

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