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September/October 2001


Cecilia Christensen's Brocade Narratives

Lost Her Bearings, 1996; 20.5 by 25 inches. Both this piece and the one below are woven from cotton, linen, rayon, and silk. Christensen uses hand-dyed supplementary wefts with painted and ikat-dyed warp and weft.
As to inspiration, no chicken-or-egg dilemma encumbers Cecilia Christensen. It was a fowl at play that gave her a focus for her weaving.

Ten years ago, a midlife recognition came to her: life was not full enough. Her response was a return to weaving, which she had last practiced 11 years before. The catalyst: a Handweavers Guild of America conference workshop -- "The Woven Image," taught by Morgan Clifford, on the techniques of woven brocade -- whose course flyer asked participants to be prepared to tell a story. "I tried to figure out how to tell a story about the mundane circumstances of my domestic life," Christensen said.

Having raised chickens for 16 years in Palo Alto, California, she focused on the most errant of her current flock, a recalcitrant old hen who frequently escaped. Cecilia's yearnings for this wayward hen became her metaphor: "I really wanted to fly the coop myself," she said. Since then, she has created 35 weavings, half with the chicken theme.

Christensen's images are suggested by some outside stimulus -- a magazine or newspaper picture or story -- that fits into her inside world. This course is not intellectual, more what she calls "a working reverie ... my mind floating over certain issues." These vague images then provoke a title -- a specific phrase that gives the image a working identity and from which the whole narration grows.

Though the pictorial impetus is usually something from her life -- hanging laundry, feeding chickens, playing in the landscape -- her work is not entirely autobiographical. Her stories occasionally receive the embellishment of readings: recently, the Inanna myth (from around 2000 B.C.), an allegory of descent, disclosure, and revelation.

Of Moles & Muses, 2000; 32 by 19.5 inches. Photos: George Waters.
Primary to most of Christensen's weavings is the element of Woman. Her views on Woman, and the images she creates to represent them, come from her mother and grandmother's lives. "I see [through them] the independence of the female spirit fighting against constraints, though not with the courage to overthrow them." Though she holds an empathy for feminism, its influence missed her by a decade. "I come out of a little older order," she said. "I'm more cautious."

Christensen weaves her adventures and those of a domestic chicken, her mother, and grandmother and hopes we see Woman confronting obligations. Her work until now has been a layering of metaphors that suggest a message. Of late, abstraction informs her work in weavings "more happenstance than planned." But as abstraction enters and the message tempts the esoteric, the story begins to fade, and the universal connections become at risk. "At this moment, that's a risk I have to take," she said.

The stories have not stopped, but they are slowing down. Unlike ten years ago, she feels her life is very full right now. "I don't have the working reverie I had for a while," she said. "You have to allow a certain kind of spaciousness in your experiences for the stories to well up."

-- Sandy Thompson

Sandy Thompson is a freelance writer who focuses on the arts of Northern California.

This profile first appeared in:

Sept/Oct 2001

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