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.”
A film produced by Julia Louise-Dreyfus about her father, William Louise-Dreyfus.
It’s little wonder we often talk of ‘life’s rich tapestry’ to describe the vibrancy of life itself; tapestry is a unique medium that captures shape, form, color and texture – suspending vivid images in fabric for all time. Many ancient examples of the art form are as fresh and vital today as when they were first woven centuries ago.
Practiced for thousands of years, the art of tapestry making is woven into a diverse range of cultures around the world. In Europe, tapestry has a long history dating back to the middle-ages when tapestries combined practical, social and aesthetic functions; helping to keep out drafts in chilly medieval castles and baronial halls as well as communicating stories of myth, morality and religion in times when few people were able to read.
While the nature of design themes and the materials used vary across cultures and over time, the process of tapestry weaving has remained largely unchanged for millennia. By weaving interlocking threads, the artist is able to interpret designs with unique results and produce images with a textural dimension – very different from a painting or a photograph.
Alongside painting, sculpture and architecture, tapestry remains one of the most important visual arts – still flourishing today as new generations of artists use the medium to create contemporary designs.
Comprised of seven wall hangings, each at least 12 feet high by 8 feet wide, the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters were created 500 years ago by an unknown artist for unknown royalty in Western Europe.
In violent and disturbing detail, the series tells the story of hunters stalking through the woods with their canines, hunting the mythical beast. As the story progresses, the unicorn is found and surrounded, ambushed and eventually attacked from all sides. Despite getting away from the hunters, the unicorn is eventually calmed by a virgin maiden and killed while under her charm.
Most people who have studied the tapestries believe they come from 1495-1505, from somewhere in southern Holland. Although even those details are often debated. Despite a general geographic location, the identity of the author is completely unknown. The tapestries’ only connection to the past is a small cipher, showing the letters A and B intertwined by some rope, which may signify the artist or the owner of the work.
From this slight hint, some have devised that Anne of Brittany commissioned the works to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII, but there is no conclusive proof and the code of the Unicorn Tapestries remains unbroken. Despite the mystery, art historians have reveled in the chance to interpret the tapestries, often comparing the hunt of the unicorn to the Passion of Christ. The unicorn itself, once a pagan symbol, became a symbol for Christ.
All of the vibrant tapestries are available for personal interpretation and are held in the Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan. The exhibit is accompanied by the 6-foot long horn of a narwhal, which many in 16th century Europe confused with the horn of a unicorn, inspiring stories and depictions of the magical beast.
- The Trojan War tapestry referred to by Homer in Book III of the Iliad, where Iris disguises herself as Laodice and finds Helen “working at a great web of purple linen, on which she was embroidering the battles between Trojans and Achaeans, that Ares had made them fight for her sake.” Though the composition of the Iliad spanned a period of approximately 700 years, it is worth noting that this method of weaving was in common use in or before the eighth century BCE.
- The Cloth of St Gereon – second oldest European tapestry still extant.
- The Överhogdal tapestries – the oldest European tapestry still extant.
- The Sampul tapestry, woollen wall hanging, 3rd–2nd century BCE, Sampul, Ürümqi Xinjiang Museum.
- The Hestia Tapestry, 6th century, Egypt, Dumbarton Oaks Collection.
- The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth — not an actual tapestry — nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, likely made in England — not Bayeux — in the 1070s
- The Apocalypse Tapestry is the longest tapestry in the world, and depicts scenes from the Book of Revelation. It was woven between 1373 and 1382. Originally 140 m (459 ft), the surviving 100m are displayed in the Château d’Angers, in Angers.
- The six-part piece La Dame à la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), stored in l’Hôtel de Cluny, Paris.
- The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, four Flemish tapestries dating from the mid-fifteenth century depict men and women in fashionable dress of the early fifteenth century hunting in a forest. The tapestries formerly belonged to the Duke of Devonshire and are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
- The Hunt of the Unicorn is a seven piece tapestry from 1495 to 1505, currently displayed at The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
- The tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, designed by Raphael in 1515–16, for which the Raphael Cartoons, or painted designs, also survive.
- The Wawel Tapestries, (mid 16th century) a collection of 134 tapestries at the Wawel Castle in Kraków, Poland displaying various religious, natural, and royal themes. These famous tapestries, created in Arras, were collected by Polish Kings Sigismund I the Old and Sigismund II Augustus.
- The Valois Tapestries are a cycle of 8 hangings depicting royal festivities in France in the 1560s and 1570s
- The New World Tapestry is a 267 feet long tapestry which depicts the colonization of the Americas between 1583 and 1648, displayed at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum; this is not (strictly speaking) a tapestry, but is instead embroidery.
- The biggest collection of Flanders tapestry is in the Spanish royal collection, there is 8000 meters of historical tapestry from Flanders, as well as Spanish tapestries designed by Goya and others. There is a special museum in the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, and others are displayed in various historic buildings.
- The Pastoral Amusements, also known as “Les Amusements Champêtres”, a series of 8 Beauvais Tapestries designed by Jean-Baptiste Oudry between 1720 and 1730.
- The Prestonpans Tapestry is a 104 metres long embroidery which tells the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Battle of Prestonpans.
- Christ in Glory, (1962) for Coventry Cathedral designed by Graham Sutherland. Up until the 1990s this was the world’s largest vertical tapestry.
- The Quaker Tapestry (1981–1989) is a modern set of embroidery panels that tell the story of Quakerism from the 17th century to the present day.