Mindful Maker Interview: Rebecca Mezoff
Rebecca Mezoff is a Tapestry Artist who has an extensive background as an Occupational Therapist. In this interview, Rebecca discusses her work and provides us with advice for maintaining a healthy studio practice.
Missy Graff Ballone: Please tell me about your background. When did you become interested in weaving?
Rebecca Mezoff: My grandparents were weavers. As a small child, I watched them weave on the looms that filled their house. My grandmother loved tapestry weaving. My grandfather wove fabric and, in the last decade of his life, countless rugs on his Harrisville Rug Loom with shaft switcher.
After I finished graduate school in occupational therapy, an old barn loom came my way. I wove fabric on it for a while and quickly realized that I needed some better equipment. I bought a better loom, learned about weave structure, and settled on doubleweave. I was trying to make complicated images in doubleweave and eventually realized that tapestry might be the thing for me. I moved home to New Mexico and enrolled in a traditional Rio Grande tapestry weaving course at Northern NM College. I wove tapestry on a standing loom that I made myself. While I was there, I met the master tapestry artist, James Koehler and became his apprentice. I worked with him for about 6 years until his untimely death in 2011.
MGB: How is your daily studio practice influenced by your training as an Occupational Therapist?
Rebecca Mezoff: Occupational Therapists are trained in ergonomics, so of course safe and healthy workplace practices are very important to me. However, I think at the base of the philosophy of occupational therapy is a belief in doing things that are meaningful. Health is directly tied to being able to spend time doing things that are important to us in some way. That could mean just about anything, but if we spend enough of our time doing things that contribute to our idea of good in the world, we will be healthier humans. Creativity is perhaps the most meaningful thing in my life. It could be argued that it is the most important thing to all humans. Being an artist allows me to utilize my creativity every day, and that brings meaning to my life.
Of course, healthy studio practices are also important to me and mine have been influenced by my training as an occupational therapist. They are reinforced by my long experience of working with people who often are not healthy and are not helping themselves become any healthier. Prevention of injury and care for our mental health is so important!
So a typical day for me looks something like this: I groggily stumble downstairs to my yoga mat in the morning and spend some time reading, journaling, and doing sun salutations, plus any poses that will help with recent tightness (often shoulder work). I make some breakfast and then weave for about three hours. My work is currently complicated enough that I have to get off the loom bench every 15 minutes or so to make new butterflies, ply more singles, advance the warp, or go to the bathroom because I’ve already had three cups of tea. I don’t make all the butterflies I know I am going to need for the morning at once, because I want to force myself to get up and change my position as I need them. Occasionally, I do a little mental scan of my body to see if everything is feeling okay. Often, a few hand stretches are needed due to the frequent pinching required to manage the weft.
After lunch, which I never eat in the studio or at my desk, I head to the computer (computer use is big problem for modern humans and the work you do in the studio can be exacerbated by poor positioning at the keyboard). I spend several hours teaching online, writing, or doing other business-related tasks. In the late afternoon, I take an hour-long walk or get some other form of exercise. After a break and dinner with my family, I often spend another hour or so at a different loom back in the studio.
This variety of activities is important. While it is possible to spend all day at the loom, it is hard on the body. Since I don’t have the luxury of complete days of weaving time, this sort of schedule helps me keep my body in good shape. I am currently 43 years old and I hope to have many more decades of weaving ahead of me.
MGB: What is your process like?
Rebecca Mezoff: I carry ideas around in my head for a long time. I make sketches, play with paper and paint and collage, and create woven samples, but most of the hard work happens in my head, often while walking. Actually, I think most problems in life get clearer when walking or doing something that slows down our monkey minds enough to settle into some kind of path we can follow. So I walk and I take a lot of photos and make a lot of notes. I play with ideas sometimes for years before they get discarded, changed, or maybe even woven.
Once I have a solid idea, I make a full-scale cartoon. This cartoon is just black and white with areas of weaving indicated by lines that I can interpret when the lines are on the actual warp. Not everything is drawn on the cartoon. Many color changes are added while I am weaving, especially if I am working through a color gradation.
Then I have to dye the yarn. Often I dye large quantities of yarn because lighter colors are difficult to dye accurately in small amounts. The extra yarn will either be used by students in my workshops or re-purposed for later pieces. Some pieces might have 10-15 colors in them. More often, I use many gradations and the total number of colors I have to dye, one pot at a time, is closer to 50 or 60 depending on the size and complexity of the piece. This process can take a couple of weeks to complete.
After the dyeing is finished, all of the yarn has to be put into balls and tagged. The combinations of yarns I use when combining the singles yarn makes further colors possible and each combination gets coded so I know what the colors are and don’t put the wrong one into the weaving. It can be difficult to see if you’ve chosen the wrong color when you’re weaving a piece, but if I use the wrong color, it will be obvious when the piece is off the loom and hanging.
I use my grandfather’s Harrisville Rug Loom for most of my tapestry. It is a countermarche loom and is one of the best pieces of equipment for tapestry weaving available. I most often use a cotton seine twine warp set at 10 epi. The loom gets warped if it isn’t already, the waste put in, and then the cartoon is drawn onto the warp with a permanent marker (this happens one section at a time and I have to draw the next section on as I weave and pull new warp forward). I weave a header and I’m ready to start the piece.
The joy is mostly in the process for me. Sure, I enjoy the finished work, but the act of using my hands, feeling the materials, and creating something beautiful is really why I do it. It takes hundreds of hours to weave a large tapestry.
MGB: Can you discuss the importance of dying your materials by hand rather than purchasing pre-dyed yarn?
Rebecca Mezoff: I love the dye process. There are some lovely yarns made these days, but most of them are made for knitters. They are airy and bouncy and make very poor yarns for tapestry weaving. The few yarns that are excellent for weaving tapestry don’t come in many colors. The ideas and impressions I am trying to express in my work utilize lots of color gradation. It is almost impossible to buy yarns in gradation in the range that I need, so I dye them myself. I learned to dye in college and would never go back to purchasing commercial colors. I can make literally almost any color I want, and that gives me a lot of control over my work.
MGB: What is your teaching style like? Do you put an emphasis on studio ergonomics in your classes and workshops?
Rebecca Mezoff: I believe that each person has a need to be creative and I think for many people, tapestry weaving can be a wonderful way to express themselves. If they are fiber-lovers who want a way to express an image, then tapestry is often an excellent match. I have my own set of beliefs about what works best to create the kind of tapestry I strive for. My work is very flat and thin. The backs are clean and sometimes reversible. I hang my pieces from support bars that are invisible and stand away from the wall. I want the work to float in the air and act like a textile as opposed to a painting or other stiff works of art. I think it is important when teaching to help people realize that their vision might be different than mine and there might be other techniques or materials that would better serve what it is they want to express. So I am always dancing between showing people how I do things and showing them examples of how other tapestry weavers work and the result of some different techniques and materials.
I do emphasize ergonomics in workshops and in my online classes. In workshops, it is easier for me to observe how people approach their looms and to make suggestions if possible. In the online classes, I often have to ask for photographs if people are having difficulty with pain or even if something they are doing is showing up in the weaving itself. Not everyone is willing to think about how they are using their body, but I always try to plant the seed that this is very important for our long-term health and happiness.
I teach a half-day workshop called Creating Without Pain: Ergonomics for Fiber Artists which specifically addresses positioning, and the things we can do to decrease the impact of repetitive activity. The tips from that class tend to fly out of my mouth in all of my teaching. I suppose that comes from 17 years of being a therapist.
MGB: In many ways, our hands define us as makers. What can artists do to reduce the risk of injury to their hands?
Rebecca Mezoff: Pay attention. If you are having pain, you need to stop and pay attention. Many of us think we are invincible. We assume the pain is transitory and then we get used to it and, eventually, damage that may be permanent is done. Pain is the body’s way of saying “wake up!” If you are having chronic pain, you need to get help. Some physicians can be quick to prescribe pain killers and slow to address the underlying problems, so keep asking questions. Ask for a therapy referral if you feel you can follow through with a program guided by a physical or occupational therapist, and then really commit to taking care of yourself.
By way of prevention, here are a few things to do every day:
Change activities or take a break frequently; at least every hour, preferably every half hour. Just switching to different tools or a different activity every so often can be very helpful. You should be changing position or taking a break after 25 minutes of work. 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes of break, activity change, or stretching.
Use tools wisely. Make sure your tools fit your body. The piece of equipment you use all day long that is designed for someone 8 inches taller than you might well need to be modified for safe use by you.
Drink a lot of water. It helps your tissues stay healthy and it makes you get up to go to the restroom which forces you to take a break.
Stretch. Make sure your body gets some good stretching especially if you are engaged in postures that are static or cause a lot of stress or strain.
Get exercise. Something as simple as walking every day is a fantastic way to increase your physical and mental health.
Pay attention. Are you gripping materials tighter than you really need to? See if you can relax your grip. Pinching is hard on your joints over the long term. If you work with materials that require a lot of this kind of activity, monitor your thumb joints carefully and try to relax a little bit as you work.
If you have arthritis, consider a few sessions with a good hand therapist who is an occupational therapist. They can recommend positions and tools that are better for your joints so that you don’t damage them further and so you can create far into old age.
Use good light. Many poor postures are created because we can’t see what we are doing.
MGB: Do you have any specific advice for weavers?
Rebecca Mezoff: Weavers use a wide range of looms. People who use very large floor looms, as I do, need to look at whether the loom can be modified to fit their body or if the seating surface can be adjusted for the best positioning. Many women are too short for the larger looms. Can you put extensions on the treadles so you can reach them easier? Do you have a place to rest your feet when they aren’t on the treadles? You don’t want them to dangle (not at the loom, not in a chair). Consider, if you weave tapestry on a floor loom, whether you can modify the loom so you can work standing up. Many countermarche looms have locking treadle assemblies, which are very useful for weaving tapestry standing up. You may have to put the loom up on blocks, but it can be a good position for your low back. A Rio Grande walking loom is another wonderful option.
If you weave tapestry on upright tapestry looms, make sure that you are not reaching over your shoulder height. You want the weaving line to be well below shoulder height. This goes for any maker. The shoulder is an unstable joint and anything that requires constant, sustained work above shoulder height is hard on the body.
For people who weave on much smaller looms, consider your sitting posture carefully. Do you put the loom on your lap while slouched in a recliner for hours a day? This probably feels great, but it can be very hard on your lumbar and cervical spine over time. Consider a seating arrangement involving a good-quality desk chair at a table that is a good height for you. If your feet don’t reach the floor, get a footrest or an adjustable-height table.