Sam Dienst Weaves the Everyday Into Rich Tapestries

DETROIT — The word “tapestry” conjures Medieval constructions in dark, simple palettes, conveying religious rites and hunting motifs — but modern practitioners like Ebony G. Patterson have demonstrated that the form is due for a (second) Renaissance. Following the call of her own weaving practice, Detroit-based fiber artist Sam Dienst makes tapestries from small to large, deploying an arsenal of industrial yarns to create playful, bright, and unexpected compositions that give the medium a friendly new face.

“I went to Mass Art [Massachusetts College of Art and Design] in Boston in 2012, and at first I thought I wanted to do fashion,” said Dienst, who was born and raised in Connecticut. “And then I realized that I’m not actually fashionable, I just like fabric, and clothing was like the most obvious thing you could do with textiles that also sounded like a job.”

Dienst discovered weaving in her junior year, and initially resisted it due to the extensive set-up, measuring, and prep work required to begin the making process, as well as a hesitancy to engage with the rigidity of a grid system inevitably formed by the relationship between weft and warp.

“The initial structure of weaving was not for my brain, but I took weaving anyway,” Dienst laughed. “And then we had a small unit in our one semester, where we learned about tapestry and figured out how to weave a circle, which is sort of counterintuitive to the loom, where everything wants to be rectangles and squares, or maybe triangles at most. So to make something round, you have to really break into the grid.”

Suddenly able to hack the matrix, Dienst became obsessed.

“I had always been painting and drawing,” she said, “and then I also loved textiles. This was like the perfect marriage, where I could be making pictures, but also touching stuff.”

Dienst’s current output evokes the opposite of grids: The tapestries are painterly, dynamic, and surreal. The movement that Dienst is able to wrest out of static rows of intersecting lines, often overlaid in the finishing phases with touches of appliqué, beaded ornamentation, and small areas of paint, enhances the works’ depth of field. From across a room, they would easily be taken for Pop Art paintings — only a fringe of twisted warp-ends that run along the bottom or outside edges of each finished piece betrays them as woven. These threads could be easily tied up, but Dienst embraces them as a hint to the tapestries’ materiality, one which might cause the viewer to draw a little closer.

This might be the first reward of long-looking at Dienst’s work, but it won’t be the last. Unlike the epic subject matter of traditional tapestries, she prefers to present tableaux that are amalgams of objects from daily life, with whimsical touches, inside jokes, and oblique cultural references strewn throughout the surreal fiber still lifes.

“Most of my work is my stuff, kind of anthropomorphized or Frankensteined together,” said Dienst. She doesn’t pull images from databases, preferring to take her own reference photos from objects gathered together through daily interactions.

“So when I’m prepping dinner, and I really like the way a bunch of vegetables look, I’ll stop and take a photo of them, and then keep cooking, because I like the way that the shapes are coming together,” said Dienst. “I don’t want to pull other people’s images — they don’t resonate for me that much. It’s sort of self-portraiture, in that it’s all my stuff, and I have these relationships to my things, especially things that are part of my rituals, my habits that I do every day.”

She gestured to a work-in-progress on the loom.

“I’m weaving the half-and-half box container right now that goes in my coffee every day,” she said. “Other people’s stuff just doesn’t have any of that energy in it.”

Food is a recurring subject of Dienst’s works, as are plants, electrical outlets, kitchen implements, make-up supplies, and art tools. Using her own reference photos, Dienst will start digitally collaging loose sketches for composition, which she then translates into large freehand drawings on butcher paper, which she calls “cartoons.” The cartoons are then magnetized behind the warp to give her rough guidelines that hold her compositions in place as she begins the line-by-line, block-by-block process of materializing the finished works, which can often take months.

It is during the act of weaving that Dienst’s gift of improvisation, as well as her uncanny knack for stunning color combinations, once again begins to shine.

“All the colors are spontaneous,” said Dienst. “If I were to pre-pick my colors, I would just be doing a paint-by-number of sorts, and then I check out. I have to be playing a game with myself.”

It’s a complicated game! Dienst pre-loads her warp in a strata of bright colors, currently yellow, purples, and blues. This detail, which is rarely visible in the finished work (except in the telltale fringe along the bottom), helps her distinguish the warp from the white wall behind the loom as she weaves, offering her visual wayfinding in her own compositions. She also loves to use color-shifting yarn, which leads to surreal gradations and a deeper visual complexity. The results are tantalizing, visually dense, and also somehow childlike — an effect that complements the way Dienst talks about her use of pre-established colors.

“I think about it as a Crayola palette,” said Dienst. “You have 24 crayons, and that’s what you’re working with.”  

“I do have way more than 24 crayons, though,” she adds, laughing and gesturing to the storage bins of yarns that are arranged in loose chromatic order. “I got the big set, but it still has that logic of: You have these shades of blue to work with, and you can scribble them together, but you still only have so much to pull from.”

Dienst came to the Detroit area to pursue an MFA at Cranbrook — a place with a long relationship with weaving and loom-making. It is heartening to see a graduate of an institution grounded in traditional craft emerge with such a fresh and forward-looking twist on tapestry-making — though it seems that Sam Dienst has always been forging her own path in fiber art, both before and after Cranbrook. Certainly one to watch: A compelling portrait of a bold artist is emerging, line by painstaking line.

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