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A Loom with a View: Phoebe McAfee's Rich Life Tapestry
By Betsy Bannerman
This past fall, a tapestry created by Phoebe McAfee had a place of honor at the Noe Valley Ministry wedding of Roy Seto and Maureen Persico. The 36-by-48-inch weaving is a colorful, humorous likeness of the couple and their cat Patience, who are, respectively, floating and leaping, Chagall-like, through the fog over the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are many whimsical details in the portrait. Roy's black hair sticks up in the yarn as it does in real life. The train of Maureen's wedding dress becomes the roof of their house. A favorite character from the TV show South Park peeks from behind the stairs.
The newlyweds had commissioned McAfee to do the wedding portrait after being impressed by her 12-piece retrospective show at the Ministry a year ago. One of the weavings from that exhibit, a tan/brown/orange/yellow church interior called "Courage, Patience, Grace, Love, Gratitude, Clarity, Compassion," was purchased by the Ministry and remains hanging in the meditation area. While not an exact likeness, the piece is certainly a tribute to the church where McAfee has been a member since 1984.
At the moment, McAfee is finishing up a second commission resulting from the show, a 48-by-64-inch tapestry for the man who does sound recording at the Noe Valley Chamber Music series. His house is full of art--quilts, rugs, carvings, even the light switches--and the new tapestry will complement the existing colors in his living room. I saw the beginnings of this piece--purple, wine red, soft gray, and sky blue--on McAfee's large loom at her Bernal Heights home. She shares the house with her husband, Richard, a retired Muni and Gray Line driver, and their 5-year-old Swiss cattle dog, Zelda.
Texas-raised McAfee learned to weave in 1967, after graduating from Trinity University in San Antonio with a major in art. After a visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, where the Zapotec weavers inspired her, she moved to Arroyo Seco in New Mexico to apprentice under Rachel Brown. Brown taught a style of weaving that was loom-controlled, using many treadles and a shuttle that is basically thrown back and forth. "Picture Mexican serapes," McAfee says, "and you'll know what I mean."
McAfee knew right away that she had found her life path. "Rachel taught me, not just how to weave, but the context of weaving, how and where you live your life, plus what the components of weaving are, from sheep to tapestry."
She spent two years with Brown. "The first year you learn to spin, to dye the yarn using natural dyes, to thread looms and help other weavers," remembers McAfee. "Then in the second year you get to weave, and the first-year apprentices help you."
Later she would do a 48-by-60-inch tapestry called "Southwest," whose rust, sandy brown, and gold colors evoked the mesas, deserts, and mountains of that area.
After finishing the apprenticeship, McAfee moved to San Francisco, bought a small loom, and set up her first studio in her house at 22nd and Collingwood, then later one at 23rd and Eureka. On her days off from working at the Yarn Depot on Sutter, she began weaving, this time with her own apprentice. She earned extra money making large appliqué pieces and eventually tapestries for the interior designers, architects, and artists whom she met at work.
In 1976, she went for her master's in textiles at San Francisco State. There she studied with Jean Pierre Larochette ("His name means John Rock Little Rock," she smiles), a tapestry weaver in the French Aubusson tradition, which is a finer weave and is weaver-controlled instead of loom-controlled.
McAfee and her fellow graduate students actually learned this style on a loom set up at the Palace of the Legion of Honor as part of an exhibition called "Five Centuries of Tapestry."
"I'd never taken a class [in the Aubusson style] before," says McAfee, "but it's a fairly simple kind of weaving. You only work one treadle or the other. It's not fancy weaving, like Hopi belts or American pattern weaving. She says she likes it because the weaver is making decisions every step of the way, such as where each pass of the bobbin starts and stops, and where the colors will change. "I find this kind of weaving much more thrilling."
In 1977, McAfee, Larochette, and others in the S.F. State textile program organized the San Francisco Tapestry Workshop at 23rd and Chattanooga. The workshop was in Noe Valley for five years; the building still houses a gallery. Watercolorist, stained-glass artist, and tapestry designer Mark Adams lived nearby in a converted firehouse on 22nd Street.
McAfee and fellow weaver Rudi Richardson soon began executing Adams' tapestry commissions. At this point, they were renting space at Bethany Church, on Clipper and Sanchez. In 1987, McAfee and Richardson wove their largest piece, an 8-by-22-foot, Adams-designed tapestry called "Garden at the Lake," for a building in Minneapolis.
McAfee says she and Richardson were very compatible weavers, and that most people didn't realize their pieces were collaborations. When McAfee sees a tapestry in a museum, however, she can usually tell where one weaver has stopped and another taken up, or even where one day ended and another began.
"There are differences in the way people track and the way they move their bobbins," she says. "It's a subtle kind of body English." Also, because each weaver is individualistic, "one person may do a flower one way, and the very same flower, up in a corner of the tapestry, someone else will do slightly differently."
McAfee now designs and weaves on her own, although her loom is big enough to accommodate three weavers sitting in a row. The maximum size that her loom is capable of producing is 8 feet wide by.... "Well, I don't really know what the upper limit is on length," she says. "It depends on how much the tapestry grows as it rolls up. It might get to the point where you would have nowhere to sit!"
The first step in creating a tapestry is stringing the cotton thread onto the loom, at which time the weaver makes a decision on how coarse or close-set the warp will be. If it's a commission, McAfee meets with the client, does sketches, and then enlarges the design onto a full-sized paper pattern, called a cartoon.
"Blowing it up changes the image, which is wonderful," McAfee says. "You can see things that weren't evident to you before. It becomes much more lively."
She then determines the colors that the client wants and orders the yarn. The yarn is what becomes the weft, and in Aubusson tapestry, the weft completely covers the warp. Occasionally she will make a small sample weaving on the student loom she has owned since 1978, so the client can see how the colors interact.
McAfee can weave about a square yard a month. "That's working 30 hours a week," she explains, "9 to 12 and 3 to 6." A plain design doesn't go any faster than a complex one, and in fact, "big stretches of nothing are harder to do," she notes. "That's when you tend to space out, and you can really see mistakes in a solid expanse. I prefer complex things; they're more interesting."
A while back, she did a small Celtic cross weaving for the Noe Valley Ministry lectern, and the intricate design fascinated her. Through the use of shadow, she created an optical illusion of ropes going over and under each other. "My Celtic knots started out symmetrical," she says, "but then went kind of crazy," developing into a loopy strand weaving in and out of itself, that has become a recurring theme in her later works. "The strand is like a metaphor for weaving," she says.
Weaving is hard work, and McAfee says her eyes, fingers, and occasionally her back get tired. So, every hour or so, she makes herself get up and wind bobbins or look out the window toward the north and northwest. "We couldn't afford a house in Noe Valley," McAfee declares, "but luckily my loom has a view of the neighborhood!"
She also returns to Noe Valley frequently, in her role as curator of "Gallery Sanchez," the series of art exhibits displayed in the upstairs sanctuary at the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez St.
"We do about six art shows a year, including regular annual shows by San Francisco Homeschoolers and the ARC seniors [Association of Retarded Citizens]. The rest are by painters and other artists from the community. We really like to show local artists."
McAfee laughed when I asked her if she made a lot of money weaving. "One year I earned $14,000, a record year," she says. "But it's really gratifying to be able to 'make a living' at art. It helps support my weaving habit, and it means I can contribute to household expenses and have a little money, too. Also, I'm still paying off this loom. On the other hand, I spent a year working on a prayer rug for myself, and I don't ever expect to sell that, so that must mean I'm not wholly fixated on making money!"
Phoebe McAfee is a weaver in every aspect of her life. Whether blending notes as an alto in the Noe Valley Ministry choir, mixing ingredients for Amish bread in her kitchen, creating hangings of colorful origami cranes for friends, being part of the dog-walking community on Bernal, or bringing pictures to life on her loom, she puts things together, and we get to sit back and enjoy them. M