By Amy Abrams
Dreams Come True for Talented Swedish Tapestry Artist Living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore
While growing up as a girl in Sweden, Ulrika Leander’s parents often fretted about how their dear daughter would support herself if she became (gasp!) an artist, her intended career. Clever parents that they were, they whisked her away to language school in Switzerland—for which she showed zero inclination, then nursing school—until she flunked out, due to dire lack of interest. Finally succumbing to their daughter’s wishes, as well as wooed by her exhibited talents (tapestries woven on wooden looms with boldly colored threads), Leander’s parents set her free to realize her dreams. She relocated roughly six hours north of her family’s rural home to attend art school in Stockholm, the country’s capital and cultural center.
Ultimately, Leander would obtain a master’s degree in Fiber Art and Design, then establish and direct the Fiber Arts Department at the Course Center at the University of Lund in southern Sweden. Today, her large-scale tapestries, created from watercolors of her own designs and then carefully crafted on a mammoth loom in her Royal Oak art studio on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, are in the collections of major corporations and hospitals worldwide, as well as grace the walls of some of the grandest homes across the globe.
Leander, like most tapestry weavers, loves solitude and possesses the patience of saints. Large-scale tapestry-making is an extremely laborious process. Picture it: one thread at a time, hand-woven through a large loom where hundreds of vertical threads have been strung. To achieve the final product, her initial watercolor design is enlarged and then set behind the vertical threads, so she can follow the often-intricate patterns by weaving varied colored yarns. Leander has created tapestries as large as 32-feet wide, taking over a year to complete. In our faster-is-better, highly technological world, this is a refreshing and welcome return to the slower pace of pre-industrial society, where craft was honored, and even considered noble.
Leander describes her day-to-day (often six hours at the loom) as a kind of meditation. Quiet, serenity and peace are prerequisites for a successful outcome. Even music is a distraction. Even her two cats in the studio are a no-no. As she approaches new areas of her design, she’ll tell you, “High concentration is required.” New challenges, and therefore new resolutions, continually present themselves in her tapestries. Overcoming these obstacles has developed her sophisticated command of color and strong sense of composition, elevating her tapestries, considered by some as craft, into masterful works of art. While working from original designs, she appropriates the paintings of some of her “artist heroes,” including Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Victor Vasarely and Claude Monet. Leander portrays, on occasion, a childlike simplicity in her drawings, a “naive” approach (as it’s coined in art world terminology), adding a freshness and liveliness to her tapestries.
Leander shares that her primary intent is making joyous images. “Why would an artist make something depressing?” she asks. “I want the viewer to be happy. I want the work to be easily understood. The work should be uplifting.”
Commissions from houses of worship are common, and Leander’s tapestries decorate walls of churches and chapels throughout Europe and America. Abstractions of soaring birds, seascapes and skyscapes, and of course, religious figures, are well-suited designs for these sacred, vaulted interiors. Geometric patterns depicting cascading light created from carefully woven wools often represent the divine, such as in a pastel-hued tapestry for Seacoast Community Church, in Encinitas, Calif., and in the more boldly-colored “Mary’s Gift” for St. Joseph Catholic Church in Downingtown, Pa.
Narrative designs are frequent requests from business owners and private clients, who aim to document and celebrate personal and professional achievements in commissions such as “GROCO,” a tapestry Leander created for an Eastern Shore manufacturer of marine, industrial and automotive hardware, depicting three generations of family ownership in the almost 10-foot woven mural. In another narrative tapestry, Leander depicts the successful career of William B. Bryant, the first African-American chief judge in DC’s federal court that hangs in the United States District Court of the District of Columbia, in Washington, DC. Many offices, hospitals, churches and homes rely on the large woven works to absorb distracting echoes and improve the acoustics of their spaces, a common function of large tapestries throughout history.
Occasionally, Leander designs a tapestry inspired by personal narrative, such as “Ingrid and Gey,” which includes Matisse-like figures, as well as abstracted forms, representing chromosomes and DNA, to mark the finding of her biological family. Adopted soon after birth, it was decades later that Leander met genetic family members, including a brother who, unbeknownst to her, also became a successful tapestry designer and weaver. Other popular motifs in her tapestries, primarily trees and flowers, are a response to “the sheer beauty of nature that surrounds me here in the United States,” she shares.
Leander followed her husband’s career from Stockholm to Florida in 1980, and then to Tennessee. After his untimely death, and a subsequent remarriage, she and her husband purchased an old post office and general store, circa 1896, in Royal Oak, just around the bend from the Belleview, Md. ferry, which takes cars and passengers to nearby Oxford, across the Tred Avon River. The couple transformed the 2,000-square-foot space into their home, her weaving studio and a successful gallery, The Gallery By The River, showcasing her award-winning tapestries, as well as presenting the artwork of other Swedish artists. Leander’s large vertical loom – often featuring a tapestry in process—is always a crowd-pleaser.
From November through March, the artist’s tapestries are on display. Sculpture and multi-media works of other Swedish artists are exhibited from June through October. Making regular pilgrimages to Sweden to visit the studios of emerging and mid-career artists, Leander and her husband bring the artwork of some of Sweden’s finest to a new audience in America and have developed a devoted client base on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, as well as a growing base of browsers and buyers from Washington, DC and Baltimore. With formal studies in craft and interior design, in addition to her education in fiber arts, Leander often assists galley-goers with the right selections for their homes and offices.
Sweden has one of the longest, continuous and richly-indigenous tapestry weave traditions in Europe, and Leander grew up with textile art as a daily part of her life—with folkloric tapestries in her own home and most homes she visited. However, centuries ago, tapestry was an art of extravagance, a symbol of prosperity and elegance, filling the treasure chambers and courts of Europe and Asia. Dirk Holger, a noted author on the subject, museum curator and tapestry weaver, explains, “While tapestry became the most popular art form in the Renaissance, by the Baroque era, an insistence on too much detail in design led to its decline. After 1900, especially in the 1930s and 40s, a revival of contemporary tapestry was fueled by Jean Lurçat, a prominent French weaver.”
“The New Art of the Loom,” an eight-city traveling exhibition throughout America and Canada curated by Holger, includes a major work by Leander. “Midsummer” is an abstract landscape celebrating the summer season and the sun. Leander feels honored to be included in this prestigious show that features only 24 artists from 16 countries, displaying the most renowned contemporary tapestry weavers in the world.
Leander’s “Our Bounty, Our Duty,” designed and created for The College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville, Tenn., is featured in the exhibition’s recently published companion book. Leander’s father was a veterinarian and the displayed tapestry’s design, illustrating animals, was inspired by memories of her childhood when she accompanied him to administer cures for animals on nearby farms. On these excursions, the growing girl developed an early affinity for nature and animals, often represented in her work.
Leander shares that the picturesque shoreline near her home reminds her of Swedish towns. “I love living on the Eastern Shore,” she says. “I feel right at home.”