String Theory

Text by Kristine Kennedy

Orleans weaver Gretchen Romey-Tanzer challenges viewers to find their own meaning in her graphic, colorful, abstract works.

Gretchen Romey-Tanzer holds in her hand an inspirational photograph she took: sunlight streams in through a window, segmented by a blind’s horizontal slats then curved and softened by a sheer curtain. Through all those layers, a bit of blue sky. “I like the idea of fugitive light, or reflected light, or shadows,” says Romey-Tanzer, who then challenges herself to interpret that quality of light, color, and movement onto the vertical and horizontal confines of a loom. “In the weaving, I can’t do the wavy, but I can do the disjointed blocks,” she says.

The double-layer fabrics Romey-Tanzer weaves, then hand stitches onto raw-linen canvas frames, feature not only “disjointed blocks,” but also gradated color fields and such control over the fibers as to evoke illusions of depth. “If people don’t stop to look at it, they think it’s a painting,” the Orleans-based artist says. But closer inspection reveals the warm texture, subtle patterns, and complexity of the thread combinations.

In Screen, browns and blues repeatedly intersect in different combinations and in gradations of light to dark, raising the question of which fields are floating and which are recessed. Cape Cod beaches continually influence her work; in this piece the blues represent the translucent tones inside a wave while the browns echo broken sand fences. Romey-Tanzer wants the final effect to look simple, but fellow weavers know how complex her textile construction is. Every thread change requires her to stop and start her process again.

The Cape Cod Art Museum featured her work Yellow Goddess in its recent show “ALL ABOUT sEVEn,” a multimedia exhibit of work by Cape Cod female artists. Within the piece’s pure yellow color field, Romey-Tanzer plays with the concepts of Eve and the female body, resulting in the integration of seven distinct blocks of varying pattern and color. “There’s a lot going on in each of those units,” she says.

Whether she is inspired by the sunset while crossing the Sagamore Bridge or a newspaper clipping of Buddhist monks in red robes, she distills that inspiration down to its most elemental, abstract, non-emotional composition. For her, the graphic and sometimes bold style makes the best use of the weaving medium. “I like the crispness, I like the hard edge,” she says. “It fits with the structure.”

Romey-Tanzer, who has been the art department chair at Cape Cod Academy since 1993, began weaving in high school. She graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Crafts in 1975, furthered her education with two years of study at the Banff Center of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada, then earned an MFA from Indiana University. Yet a year spent in Norway as a youth and an RIT junior-year abroad in Finland may have influenced her the most in pushing the artistic boundaries of what some con sider a craft. “It’s very much a Scandinavian thing to have a big weaving hanging on your wall,” she says. “I like to challenge the viewer to think of textiles as art. I like the idea of challenging people’s perceptions of what art should be.” The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, welcomed Romey-Tanzer’s work as art, adding Give and Take to its collection in 2003.

Romey-Tanzer finds that architects who design modern homes and commercial spaces are attracted to her graphic yet tactile work. “It’s a good counterpoint to steel and stone. The fabric adds a little humanizing quality,” she says. Her work is also often used to add big splashes of color to neutral, voluminous spaces. “I’m always messing around with color,” she says. “In painting, if you mix opposites, you get the same kind of muddy brown color. In weaving, it always maintains its integrity—you can always see the colors.”

By approaching her work without emotion or figurative representation, she consciously allows viewers to imbue the piece with their own emotions and interpretations. “It’s an object. People should use it the way they want to,” she says. She has even stopped putting her signature on the front of her works, because she wants the owners to hang them in any direction they desire. •

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