Monday, September 2, 2013

Barbara Heller


            “Medieval tapestries were often political or religious parables clothed in classical allusions. I use this ancient art form with modern symbols and metaphors to circumvent the rational mind and reach people on an intuitive, emotional level. The familiarity and non-threatening nature of textiles allows me to seduce the viewer into taking a closer look at preconceived assumptions.

I draw on my heritage, my own photographs and old family photos, the mystical side of world religions, and my personal experiences to develop an iconography to express my passionate concern. I am concerned with humanity and its relationship to the environment, both natural and man-made, and to itself. We have lost our sense of who we are and how we fit into our world.”

                                                                                                                  Barbara Heller

Left Window           Passing Shadow            Right Window

            Tapestries and fiber based wall art in general is often stuck with the perception that it's an archaic craft, dating from medieval times and only existing as either museum pieces or reproductions thereof in the present day. Contemporary artists like Vancouver based Barbara Heller, however, take the time honored craft and transform it into a vital expression of modern concerns.

            Tapestry wasn't Heller's first choice in arts though. She started out as a printmaker, until an allergy to the chemicals forced her to switch careers.Her introduction to tapestry came in the form of an evening course in someone's basement. Later, inspired by a traveling show of Polish tapestry, she set up her first loom and taught herself by trial and error. She has been a full-time tapestry artist since 1980.


            To act as a mediator requires an ability to accept as valid more than one point of view and to show alternative paths to resolution that all parties can agree to. In tapestry, politics partakes of an historical tradition that willingly shows the mutilations of war, the betrayals of kings, and the apocalyptic nature of fate in a way that is much like theater. Both Heller and Lurçat [French artist who revived the tapestry tradition after WW2] take the stage as mediators moving between real-world events and old-world history. To succeed in mediating a consensus requires an understanding of both the world around them and the strength of their medium. And neither of them could know in advance with any certainty whether the communities they spoke to would agree to discussion and be able to see the possibilities their mediations provide.

War Zones: Somalia                The Apple of God’s Eye         

            The Artist is concerned with humanity and its relationship to the environment and to itself. She is concerned with war and homelessness and poverty, which she believes results from the loss of our sense of who we are and how we fit into our world. These concerns are not always evident in her work, but they are always there as subtext. Viewing Heller’s work promotes meditation, and enhances our perceptions. The artist invites us to rethink ourselves not only in art but also in social and environmental justice. We are all integrated circuits. Her work is a process of restoration and an echo of the natural and man made world’s unremitting cycle of decay and renewal.


            Barbara Heller’s stunning tapestries carefully draw the line (in both senses of the term) between myth and history, past and present, art and craft, the individual and the community, the artist and her world, again and again underscoring the intrinsic interdependence of each binary pair. What sense, their work suggestively asks, can one have without the other? Where do the specific and the universal, the local and the global intersect?… What do we hide from or seek in both others and ourselves in the masquerade of everyday existence? What meaning does an individual have outside the community?…

 Still Life…With Bird                   Stones #19: Zion      

            Equally committed to fulfilling her fair share of responsibility to mend our world,   Barbara Heller, too, chooses to imbue an ancient art with new aesthetic, political and spiritual dimensions —a radical move that further positions both artists as leaders among a growing international movement whose aim it is to restore tapestry, mosaics, and other art practices similarly demoted to the status of craft or decorative art to the recognition they thoroughly enjoyed before the Enlightenment…

            Heller’s approach is rather inductive. Initially enticing the viewer by the tactile beauty of the yarns and the image itself, allowing time for the message behind the image to be absorbed, she slowly builds upon the constitutive elements of a nascent image and concept, allowing for the paradigmatic emergence of the larger whole to become manifest gradually throughout the piece and cumulatively throughout all her work.

Shiva Dances                         Red Poppy         

            In some of her series, Barbara Heller uses historical images. There she distills ideas from newscasts selecting images that comment on humankind’s historical struggle to live in dignity. Using tapestry with mixed media she expresses horrific implications resulting from international events. She weaves adults in scenes where they seem alien to their environment; children lost in poverty created by war; destroyed buildings become carcasses of hate; fragments of birds’ wings and bones imply inexplicable loss of life, freedom and joy. Initially the soft qualities of tapestry mask her terrifying visions. When the full impact of her intent is seen, the effect is ominous. It is demonic — not on her part, but what her art represents. Tapestry allows Heller to give reality to the unspeakable while drawing the viewer to wallow in texture and color before soliciting contemplation and a sense of responsibility to form the future…

    Surgeon      - Cover Up Series -    Afghani Woman 

            The life experiences and perspectives lead Heller to believe that allegiance to country, ethnicity and religion can be fool’s false truths. Instead, her art takes us into an international arena of politically sensitive artists where historical art, media, images and ideas applied to current events become powerful tools for social statements.

 Seagulls: The Herald                  Passages                         


            Barbara Heller is an artist who feels passionate about tapestry. Her art defines her life. She has exhibited widely locally, nationally, and internationally for the past thirty years and her tapestries have been featured in several books and been the subject of numerous articles. To promote all the fiber arts, and tapestry in particular, Barbara has organized symposia, written articles, given lectures, edited publications, taught workshops and curated exhibitions. She has represented Canada overseas and lectured on Canadian tapestry and her own work. She sat on the Board of the American Tapestry Alliance for eight years. She still volunteers with ATA as chair of their distance learning mentorship program and personally mentors two people. She founded the British Columbia Society of Tapestry Artists and is co-editor of the Canadian Tapestry Newsletter. 

Stonewall #5                   War Zones: Rwanda         

Currently she shares the Fiber Art Studio with three floor-loom weavers and a knitter. She is the animated display in the corner window and she can be seen weaving tapestry almost every day. The studio is on Granville Island in Vancouver and is open to the public.

For more of Barbara's work you can check her Website:

The Shaman    - Seagull Series -      The Patriot              

Barbara Heller