Creativity Q+A with Nancy McRay
Nancy McRay, 65, is “a fiber artist … mostly a weaver” of tapestries who pushes the medium out of its historic, domestic context, and into the Capital “A” Art world. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan/Fiber Art; but getting there wasn’t a straight line in an academic system that lodged the fiber arts — weaving especially — in the home economics department. Nancy has worked as a studio artist and community arts organizer since 1994. This interview took place in March 2021. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and was edited for clarity. Nancy lives in Williamsburg.
Describe the medium in which you work.
The work I do is tapestry weaving or multi-harness weaving.  Tapestry is weft-faced weaving, which means you only see the weft. The warp is covered. The weft is discontinuous, which means that if the weft goes from one edge to the other edge throughout, it’s a striped rug. It’s not a tapestry.
What draws you to the medium in which you work?
I almost feel like I wasn’t given a say in the matter. I’m mysteriously drawn to it. In fact, there have been times I’ve said to myself, I don’t care about fabric; what am I doing? And yet, every time I try to turn aside from weaving and try to pursue something else — like drawing or painting or sculpture — that’s fun, and I enjoy it; but it’s like, Now I have to get back to my work. I’m pulled back in. I don’t feel like myself unless I’ve woven that day.
It’s not just yarn. I enjoy knitting and crochet and even quilting and sewing; but that’s not my work. I used to own a yarn shop  so I would be seduced by soft yarns, textures, colors. My customers would be, as well. When I started a spinning group in my shop I … was bemused by their level of interest in the fiber. They were passionate about which sheep [wool the yarn was made from], the crimp, all of these technical terms. I understood; that’s how I feel about weaving. When I opened [Woven Art] I was intending to sell some yarn; but I was mostly intending to create a weaving center where I could have looms and teach people how to weave. Not everyone is as passionate about weaving as I am, so the direction of the shop became very supportive of knitters.
How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?
I’m going to tell the story of how all that formal training came about. My parents gave me a [floor] loom when I graduated from [Michigan State University, 1997] with a degree in advertising. My mother was a potter, and she wanted me to have something was just for me, and about me, knowing that I was going to get married and have kids and jobs. She wanted me to have this thing; I don’t know why she chose weaving, but she did … I started taking classes through community ed [East Lansing Arts Workshop.] A teacher, [weaver and gallerist, the late John DeRosa] encouraged me to go back to school and study art. I was 30 at the time. I had three small children, but I did that, and I studied for two years at [Michigan State University] to get just a foundation in art. Up to that point, I was doing some pictorial work and I think that’s why John sent me in that direction … After two years at MSU studying composition, color, painting and drawing and sculpting and all of it, I had this revelation that MSU didn’t have what I needed. In the midst of that realization, I had a conversation with a professor. I was very excited. I’d just been accepted into the East Lansing Art Festival, and I was thrilled. I was going to have a booth. I was a real artist. So, I was telling this professor about that, and he said, Aaaarrrgh, the East Lansing Art Festival. If you want to be in a real art show, the Snake Rodeo  up in Old Town [Lansing] is the real art show.
I was so angry at him for devaluing my moment. I lived about a mile-and-a-half from campus, and I remember clearly stomping all the way home. When I got there I called the art department at the University of Michigan, and was able to talk to Sherry Smith and she said, Bring some weavings down. She let me in as a special student. I studied with her for two years. I think that experience taught me that I craved exploring weaving as an art form. When I realized I wasn’t getting that, I went and found it. UM helped validate pursuing fiber as a fine art. After two years, I did make my way into the graduate program.
Media, such as fiber, is still perceived as a domestic material. At MSU, was the message that weaving/fiber weren’t Capital “A” Art disciplines?
There was absolutely no support for me as a fiber artist, although in order to get into the [MSU] program, I gathered up all my weavings to show the dean [of the art department]. She looked at my weavings and said, They’re very painterly. And I thought, I don’t know what she means by that ….. The dean of the college saw the value in pursuing fiber as an art, but she could see I needed a stronger art foundation. None of the professors there acknowledged that I was a weaver, or that I should look deeper into that. They wanted to teach me how to draw, how to work on the computer, how to work in color — but never in the context of fiber. If you wanted to weave, you had to go to home ec … A large part of my practice is helping people understand fiber as art.
Weaving is a partnership between the maker’s hand and the machine [loom]. What have you learned about handwork from weaving?
Every loom I work on presents a different relationship with my body and my hand. One of the great things about weaving is your hands are involved; but really, your whole body is involved. The rigid heddle loom …. presents different possibilities from a floor loom, and not just the fact you could put it under your seat on the airplane; but also, it involves your body more directly. I believe that has an impact on the finished product, although that impact is incredibly subtle — especially since [some] weavers’ goal is to replicate what a machine will do. On the tapestry loom, that loom holds the warp thread rigid while I place the weft thread in, so my impact on the weaving is based on the tension of how I pull the threads in, and how I pack them in. Again, I can replicate what a machine can do, or I can choose not to do that.
So, your loom becomes your partner. It’s another set of hands.
It’s a tool. People often refer to it as a machine. I tend to think of it as a tool I control. My role is the passing of the weft back and forth, and deciding which threads are up, and which threads are down; trying to do my part to keep the weaving even — how I put tension on the weft threads as they go back and forth; but also, there’s a third element. That element has to do with the subtle variations in the yarn. It has to do with the subtle variations of my application. No matter how hard I try to control it, there are variations every time I throw the shuttle  I’m handling it differently, and it shows up …
I’m interested in your comment that some weavers strive to replicate what a machine will do. What does that mean?
That is not my goal; but I have been the member of many guilds and taught at guild meetings, and I teach at [Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City] … and [based on students’ comments] I will know if what they’re trying to do is to make something perfect that could be passed off as a machine-made object. They fret about uneven spacing. They fret about uneven edges. And I will give them techniques to improve those, but I really hope that instead they will fall in love with the act of making, and what happens at the intersections, how it feels, how it functions. Did you sew your own clothes when you were younger? I did. I recall thinking it was a high compliment for someone to say, That looks store-bought! … I don’t see the point in doing [replicating machine perfection]. You can go buy machine-like perfection.
Before people achieve mastery of their materials and tools, things never look machine made. They’re wonky. I would liken it to an English teacher who begins teaching the rules of composition and grammar, which one can later break.
Yes. You’re right. It’s much like that. I do agree with that — to some extent. I had a spinning teacher at my shop who worked with beginning spinners. Their first yarns were lumpy, irregular, and she would take that yarn and hold it up to the person, and she would say, You’ll never be able to make yarn like this again.
The classical Art world worked diligently to erase any trace of the maker’s hand. The fiber arts, however, are especially amenable to showing the maker’s hand.
Maybe, the fact that the fiber arts tend to show its hand makes it more personal and intimate than those other art forms, which can make [fiber art] more terrifying than those other art forms, which is why it’s more suppressed.
Everyone has had personal experience with a quilt or a rug. So people already know fiber — the material and the medium.
Right. And they don’t want to understand it in a different way. That requires something of them.
An entire retooling of their world view?
How did you think about handwork before you began weaving?
I thought that it was part of who I was. From an early age — 8, 10 years old — I always had a project. Embroidery was my first fiber art project. I think I was annoying my mother, so she took me to Michael’s and bought me an embroidery project … I also explored needlepoint, cross stitch, knitting and crocheting. I always, always had a project. And, I sewed some of my own clothes.
Did you regard that handwork as a hobby, as a diversion, as pleasure?
Yes. All those things. Not as art. I always followed someone else’s pattern, until I got into college [MSU], and then I took a couple of art classes in college, which, in my mind, were completely separate from the needlepoint project I was doing in my dorm room.
Why does working with our hands remain valuable and vital to modern life?
I think often about what is the benefit of what I do, and on dark days [it seems] there’s no benefit to what I do. You should go march. You should go volunteer somewhere significant … [Working with one’s hands offers] an immediate and obvious benefit to the maker …. There is science that backs that up. It lowers your blood pressure. It calms you. It absorbs you. So, there’s a ton of benefits to the maker; but what about the benefit to people other than the maker? The recipients? The viewers? This is what I wrote this morning [in her journal]: In order to get that benefit, the viewer, user or recipient must first stop and consider the maker. So, the viewer has to try to find out why it was so important to the maker to put in that time, that effort, those resources, and all that thought, into the making of this object … The viewer has to stop and pause for a moment and consider … If they’re willing to do that, the benefit is similar to the benefit of listening to a poem or wonderful music. If you an open yourself to it, you’ll begin to comprehend it’s a language you can only understand fully with the non-verbal part of you. We’re communicating with viewers on this level that is so deep, there aren’t words. My fear is this benefit is lost. It’s very subtle. You have to work to get it. Our society, our world is not amendable to putting in that work to get that benefit. We haven’t been taught how, from grade school on, how to pause, look and consider.
Describe your studio/work space.
It’s in my house. One of my daughters became an architect, and she designed our house. She knew the studio was going to be the most important room for me, and she talked to me extensively about how we wanted it to be … It’s about 12 feet x 20 feet. It has windows on both ends; one of the windows overlooks our lake [Elk Lake]. The other window overlooks the swamp on the other side of the road. I’ve got lot of natural light. I’ve got a wall of shelves that holds yarn and books. I have a big, 4 foot x 6 foot table the builders built for me. It’s basically a large table on saw horses. And then, on top of that, is a separate plywood board that has been grided off [into 1-inch squares] … I love my table. I have many looms. Some of them are in drawers. Some of them are under tables. I’ve got three looms functioning at the moment … I have one floor loom. I would love to have more than one floor loom; but I don’t have that much floor. I have a table loom that’s functional right now. The tapestry loom needs to sit on a table top. They’re upright.
How does your studio/work space facilitate your work? Affect your work?
For the most part, everything I need is right here. Over the years of dabbling in lots of different things, I have lots of different materials that I use if I break away from the loom for a minute. I have to do that from time-to-time. I have to step away from weaving to draw or paint with pastels or play with wire. I say “play,” and I mean play. It’s engaging my brain in a different manner; but I need to do that to stay fresh, and to stay engaged.
Talk a little bit about the cartoons  you make for your tapestry.
Weaving with cartoons is something that has happened more recently. Flow: Blood Breath was the first time I used a cartoon. It’s an interesting switch for me. Developing the cartoons is painful. It’s that design process where you’re tweaking and working on it … I think I do most of my composing in my head, when I’m walking, when I’m sleeping, when I’m taking a shower. I’ll do quick sketches in between to try to capture a thought, but most of it is done in my head.
What themes and ideas are the focus of your work?
It tends to be nature based. It tends to be what I see. The area in which I work [Northern Michigan] has had a huge impact on the way I work …
Improvisation is also part of your process.
Right. In fact I think that’s one reason I’ve been resistant to cartoons. The openness to improvisation in my work is important to me. I tend to surprise myself, and it’s very entertaining. It keeps me going.
How do you think of “mistakes” in your work?
Sometimes a “mistake” is something you have to go back and repair, especially in a weaving. Many, many times, more often in painting and drawing, I see [mistakes] as a message from myself, from the deeper self I’m trying to get to. It’s a message: Look at this. See what that is. What is that about?
What prompts the beginning of a project or composition? A theme? Or, something that’s pulled out of thin air?
Both of those things can happen. As you get more into a working artist mode, then it could be you have a show you have to do something for, and it’s a themed show. So that prompts the work …
How much preplanning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?
That varies a lot. I like to work both ways — where I spend a lot of time thinking and planning it, being very intentional. I’m noticing I’m going deeper and deeper into the design process, but I also really love just seeing what happens, which is more difficult with weaving …
You have to be alert and open to the opportunities when they present themselves. How do you keep your mind open? Is it training? A muscle?
It must be a muscle. It’s very rewarding if you can open up to accept that. Let me give you an example. I made two major pieces I did in that last year — one is the River panels, and one is Flow: Blood Breath. Now, I want to make [more work] in response to those two piece, so I’m carrying this [idea] around in my head. [Recently] I’m taking a walk on my street, the same street I walk daily, and these birch trees [along the street] practically throw themselves onto my path and say, Weave me, I want you to weave us … They’re nondescript birch trees … The next time I took a walk I took a camera, and I took a photo of these birch trees, and they’re now on my loom. I’ve walked by these birch trees a hundred times, and this time they said, Weave us. I swear …
Do you work on more than one project at a time?
Yes. The other day, I was writing in my journal and I was describing my studio, and I thought it’s as though I’m sharing the space with six artists. I have three looms set up. I have a collage station that is a rut-buster set up. I begged for a tiny press for my birthday … It’s an open-source, 3D-printed printer … You can print a one-inch square print on it. It’s fun. It’s fascinating, and it’s occupying a quarter of my table. I’ve got all these things spread out around my studio, and I’m also trying to intentionally draw something every day. I have two pieces intended for shows [upcoming], and I work on them at least an hour-and-a-half every day.
Do these activities cross-pollinate?
I’m sure that they do. It’s hard to notice, though. It’s a tiny percentage. It’s like cross training. I’m not a runner; but if you are a runner, you really should do some weight training also, to balance your body. That’s the reason I have all these other outlets. I see it as cross training. It helps balance my art brain. It keeps the creative blood circulating. It must have an impact. Sometimes it’s really direct, but that doesn’t happen very often.
Do you work in a series?
Sometimes. But it’s not always obvious. Like I said earlier, I’m weaving the [Birch] trees as a response to the Rivers series, but I don’t know if that really a series.
What’s your favorite tool?
I really love all my tools. I think, sentimentally, my cherry Norwood floor loom is my favorite tool. It was gifted to me by my husband one Christmas when my youngest was 1, and I remember wanting the loom. The purchase of this really big loom was symbolic of his acknowledgement of the importance to me … Once it was in my living room, in place, I sat down at the loom with my baby in my lap and I felt complete … It felt like a big part of my personal puzzle had clunked into place.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? What tool do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work?
I journal every morning. And the function of that is twofold. The first function is to clear my mind of debris: to respond to politics; if there’s a family issue, I put it there; just other stuff. And then what happens rather naturally is I start to get to deeper questions. Sometimes work comes from that.
For weavings, anything that has to be done on my floor loom, there’s extensive math and planning that goes with that. I do have a notebook full of those notes: How many yards do I need in warp and weft? What’s the dye formula for this yarn, and what’s the dye formula for that yarn. Technical note taking happens there.
In terms of how I record my thoughts for other pieces, it feels a lot more scattered than that. I cast about for clues everywhere until something falls in place … [After journaling about a weaving in process] I realized [the journal entry] was incredibly autobiographical. I’d [recently] experienced a series of blood clots in my lungs and legs. That was resolved; but it happened again, so I have this underlying concern about my blood flow and the health of my lungs. It’s everpresent. I’m not even aware I’m thinking about it; but on that night when I was journaling I thought, This is what [the weaving Flow: Blood Breath] is about … It’s about [Northern Michigan]; but it’s also about me overcoming the event. That’s where the red spiral [in the weaving] comes in. The rest of it is pretty straightforward: It’s veins, it’s lungs, it’s lakes, and then the red spiral is representative of my own spirit, which overcomes.
How do you come up with a title?
A title is a clue to what the artist is trying to present, that a person might not see just by looking at it. It’s another way into the piece. The best titles cause you to stop and question and look harder in order to find what [the maker] is saying. But sometimes a title is just a label.
I come up with a title in the same way I come up with my next subject. I think and ruminate, think and ruminate, and then it slips into place. It’s not a good answer for someone who’s trying to figure out how to come up with their own titles, except to write about it a lot, pay attention to your thoughts during the day — sometimes it will sneak up on you when you’re cooking. It goes back to trying to remain open to what you’re looking for.
When did you commit to working with serious intent?
It goes back to that teacher I had in the community-based art class who told me I needed to go to art school. The suggestion landed. Before he said that I hadn’t considered that, and then making the commitment to go to school [in the late 1970s] to pursue art.
What role does social media play in your practice?
In my mind I feel deeply that making art is a way of communication, a way of having a conversation with people I will never meet. Social media is an easy way for me to get an image out into the world and get a reaction. I don’t use it well for self-promotion. That’s not usually my intent. My intent is to get an image out into the world, and get a reaction to it … To get feedback from an informed, critical thinker [via social media posts] is something I crave and would like more of. I [also] love to scroll through and see what other people are doing.
What’s social media’s influence on the work you make?
I sure it has some, but I’m not aware of it. I’ve spent too many years battling what other people expectations of my work are versus what it is I want and need to make. I’ve been trying to intentionally hear and listen, but not regard it as direction.
What’s social media’s influence on how you let the world know about the work you make?
I would say there is some pressure on artists to share their work on social media … It’s an expected thing that you should put your work out on Instagram.
What’s the expectation about?
To know you’re visible, I guess. Being an artist is lonely. You work, generally, by in a space by yourself, with thoughts you’ve generated by yourself …. So, if a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear? If creating in your studio on your own, by yourself, you want to share it. You want someone else to see it.
What do you believe is the creative practitioner’s role in the world?
It’s related to the question of skepticism, and believing or not believing in science. Science and art are two sides of the same coin. It’s my belief that the role of science in our world is to explain the way things are, how they function …. Art explains to the world how it feels … It helps you to see the world in a way that’s more human. They both have a role in explaining the world; but art explains how it relates to your soul.
What parts of the world find their way into your work?
I think everything. I really do. And I’m not even aware of it until sometimes later. I’ll look at it and realize what was bothering me or what was in my mind. Obviously, the natural world that I live in influences my images, and I hope to communicate my reverence for my external world, through loving portraits.
You’re involved with a group of fiber artists who collaboratively work on activist projects.
GRETA — Generating Responsibility for the Earth Through Art — is a group of artists, many associated with North Central Michigan College in Petoskey. They generally make collective responses to environmental issues. The first project was the Tempestry knitting project. Each member knit a long panel documenting temperature changes over the course of several years. I did not take part in that. But it was cool! The next project was in response to the problem of invasive species in Michigan — each artist chose a troublemaker to make their image of. The only restrictions were that it be framed in a 12 by 12 inch frame, and that it be fiber based. We also did a series on climate change, in which we all chose some manifestation of what could be our reality in 20 years. I chose climate-driven migration. Currently we are working on a series to complement the invasive species “Rogues Gallery.” This one will feature endangered species. All present in Michigan.
Is this a way for you to comment about the world?
I’ve done some work that’s overtly political … In that case, it is a way to comment. Many years ago, during the Gulf War, I was compelled to make a weaving about the Gulf War. I needed to say what I needed to say in thread. It ended up being a large wall hanging that incorporated garbage bags — that were also made out of oil — an aerial view of the Persian Gulf desert region with … oil wells flaming. Hidden in the desert were missiles, airplanes, helicopters. It didn’t help anyone but me, but I needed to say what I was going to say.
How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?
My parents retired to Old Mission Peninsula in the mid ‘70s. I visited them extensively, and I felt a really deep bond almost immediately, so that when I’m not in this region I feel out of place. I lived in East Lansing for many years, and always felt like I needed to move. Five years ago we finally moved here — built a house on a lake, and I feel so incredibly grateful that I’m finally being in the place I feel I’m supposed to be. Before I would never have entertained the idea of being a landscape artist. I didn’t think that’s who I was, but I’m loving it. It’s an homage to being home.
Is the work you create a reflection of this place?
Yes. Pretty directly. I have a tapestry of what I see out my window. I have a tapestry of a field I walk past. I made the River panels as a comment on the vast water system we enjoy here. And then I made the deeply personal Blood Breath piece that includes that the lakes embedded in my body. I hoping that my work moves more in that direction: that it’s a less literal reflection of what I see, and more about my relationship to this area.
Would you be doing different work if you did not live in Northern Michigan?
Absolutely. I don’t know what it would be because I don’t live here … I’m sure it would reflect where I lived; of if I didn’t feel so deeply attached to where I live, perhaps it would be more overtly political.
Did you know any practicing studio artists when you were growing up?
No. I don’t believe I did. My mom was an avid potter, then later a painter; but she was adamant that she was not artist because artists were unreliable and weird, and maybe that’s why I didn’t allow myself to think of myself as an artist until I hit [age] 30. It’s really ironic. She was the one who dictated that I have a loom …
Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?
Most likely it was my mom — both her pushing away from and embracing the duel messages I got … The collective experience of grad school had the most lasting impact. I can’t point to one particular person. Again, it was a mixed bag of messages. I was mostly focused on doing work documenting the impact of DDT in the air from Mexico on the Great Lakes. I had a large committee of professors who looked at my work. The messages I got back from them were really diverse. At one point, I remember feeling like I was in a free fall. I felt no support, and I didn’t know where I was going. In retrospect, there was some value in that because I had to put myself back together before I hit ground, and determine who I was and figure out that even though my existence depended upon their opinion of me, it didn’t. I had to find my way through them — not because of them, but instead of them. That was empowering. It took almost all three years to get to that point …
Closer to the end of my grad school experience I [took a workshop] called “Writing For Artists” with Arlene Raven. She was, at the time, the art critic for the Village Voice. She wrote several books about art and feminism. She helped me clarify my thoughts through her process. I spent the week writing about my art, and lo and behold, I had my thesis at the end of the week. When it came time to present my work in the final defense, I had those words I’d written under her guidance. At the end of it … several professors came to me and said, I had no idea the depth of your work before listening to you now.
Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?
I’m looking for a community to do that. I get a little of that with Shanna . She’s terrific, but mostly I know my work needs something more when she doesn’t say anything. I miss the critique part of being in school, where you get insights. I’m not looking for people to tear the work down or to say critical things that aren’t helpful; but critical things that are intended to be helpful and kind are a great gift, and it’s hard to come by.
What is the role of exhibiting in your practice?
I see art making as a form of communication ….. where I’m making a statement that can’t be made with words; but it’s not complete until someone sees it and responds. That completes the work for me. Even though in most cases I will never know what they think, I’ll never be privy to their thoughts, I’ll know that it was completed because someone else looked and thought.
Do you teach?
Currently, I have an online class for NMC. I much prefer teaching in person. I would love to have fiber studio with all the stuff in it where I could teach more.
How does teaching cross-pollinate with your studio practice?
I think that it reinvigorates my love [of weaving] when I see someone else fall in love with the process, or see their joy or frustration in it. I relate to that deeply and take that back to the studio with me.
What challenges does teaching present to practicing your own work?
Just time. It takes time out of your studio day. It’s the excuse that I lean on … It doesn’t detract from my creative energy.
1.) Nancy writes: “Within a multi-harness loom are frames that contain heddles. Each warp thread must go through a heddle. The order in which you thread the heddles, and on which combination of harnesses, determines the possibility of patterns. The more harnesses, the more complex and greater variety of potential patterns.
2.) Woven Art in East Lansing, Michigan, which Nancy owned from 2005 – 2015.
3.) The Snake Rodeo was renegade art fair staged in Lansing by Michigan State University and Lansing Community College art instructors. It emerged yearly for an indeterminate number of years until the mid-1990s. In 2013, there was an attempt to revive the Snake Rodeo. Read more here.
4.) A shuttle is a fundamental weaving tool. Read more here.
5.) A cartoon is the tapestry’s design, which “took the form of a painting—made on cloth or paper, the same size as the planned tapestry. This cartoon was either temporarily attached to the loom, flush against the backs of the warp threads, and visible in the gaps between the warps; or it was hung on the wall behind the weavers, who followed it by looking at its reflection in a mirror behind the warps …The cartoon was not physically part of the completed tapestry, and could be reused multiple times in order to make duplicate tapestries.”
6.) Shanna Robinson is a retired professor of art living in Boyne City, Michigan, and a founding GRETA member.
Learn more about Nancy McRay here.
Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.