Tina Kane Interview

by Tina Kane

with Nancy Willard

August 2009


Tina in Venice




Nancy: So I’m going to start right in the middle and ask you about the remark you made about horses. And I just wanted to know, can you tell me about how it was to grow up in Australia? You said it was a wild and wonderful place. What was that like? The horses suddenly brought something into focus for me.

Tina: Well, I’ll talk about the whole horse thing…

N: Talk about the whole thing and anything you like.

T: OK, I was seven when I was asked if I would like to move to Australia. I was living in Rochester, New York, and I was a little equivocal about it, because I didn’t understand what Australia was [laughter] and I was living with my new step-father and my mother and they helped me over my feeling that maybe I didn’t want to go by promising me that when I got there I could have a horse. And having a horse had been my dream, like many little girls, and in Australia there were wild horses called Brumbies. And I was told that I could have a Brumby and that we could keep it in the backyard [laughter]. My mother was quite inventive. I was told that Australia was an island and that it was in the South Pacific. So when we left Rochester, I saw this very small place in my mind’s eye, with this house and this horse—that was going to live in my backyard—that was wild, and I was probably going to tame it. And my mother, being a very good person, actually did, in part, fulfill her promise.


The first horse that actually did manage to come into our suburban backyard, however, was not a wild Brumby, it was a riding school horse that had had an accident, and my mother kept it in the backyard because she had promised me that I could have a horse in the backyard, and it used to foul her clothesline. But several years later I did get a horse. And at that point we were living on the edges of Melbourne, which was even then a very big city—this was 1950—and we were living in what is now a suburb, but at that point was the edge of Melbourne, so when we looked out we saw nothing except the Bush. And I was ten when I was given my horse. My horse had been rescued as a foal from the abattoir. It was about to be killed and, because we didn’t have very much money, it wasn’t a very expensive horse. And it was not what you would call a show-horse, but it was a perfect horse for me. I had it for eight years and it never hurt me. Whereas I had many very serious accidents off of practically every other horse that I would ride [laughter]. My horse’s name was Misty. And Misty was the gateway to the most wonderful childhood you can imagine because we were set loose on these horses. There were maybe three or four other girls about my age who also had horses, and it was a complete freedom. I don’t know what it’s like for kids now, I don’t know if they’re given that kind of freedom, and it was better than a bicycle because you didn’t have to stick to the footpaths or roads. You could saddle up your horse and you could go any direction. And we would leave in the morning and come back as it was getting dark. And on school days we would ride our horse to school. We would tuck our pleated box tunics into our blue jeans [laughter] and tether the horses outside of the school. We didn’t do this all the time, but it was very nice, riding your horse to school. Yes, it was, as I look back on it, an idyllic childhood because where we lived was not country that was in any way broken up. It had no roads or paths or anything, and it was ours. And I suppose there were dangers in this sort of Bush, I mean we were warned about snakes. But horses were clever about snakes—they didn’t like them either. And I had a sort of freedom that I wonder now if kids have. I doubt that’s possible anymore. Maybe out in the country.

View from 40 Orchard Crescent

N: In the country, maybe. Some.

T: Yes, right. So it wasn’t exactly a Brumby in the backyard, but it was…

N: Something pretty wonderful.

T: Yes, it was pretty wonderful, it really was. I think it helped me a great deal to have that freedom, and I think it gave us independence.

N: It sure did that.

T: And I think it also made us a little bit fearless, perhaps fearless to a fault. Wonderful to be able to spend that much time on your own as a kid.

N: Now I think, when children play they’re often told what to play, or there’s a game that they’re told, or a video. Just to have someone—your mother probably did this too—say “Go out and play!” And no one told you what to do.

T: Yes, nobody told us what to do. I remember doing stuff that, when I look back now, I think if they’d known what we were doing, they wouldn’t have liked it. For example, we used to take the horses to a big river, and on a hot day we’d take the horses down to the river and take off the saddle and we’d probably have our bathing suits and we’d ride the horses into the river. Well, it’s very dangerous to ride a horse into running water [laughter].

N: It’s understandable why you might wish to do it.

T: It was so much fun. I can still remember that feeling of slipping under the muddy water.

N: That’s nice, that you grew up near water, in a sense, you could get to it.

T: Well, it was a river. The big river that runs through Melbourne, it’s called the Yarra, and it’s famous because it’s the only river in the world where the mud is on top and the water is on the bottom.

Yarra At Warburton-1a

N: That’s wonderful actually. So you must have learned to swim early.

T: Ah, yes, swimming was my passion.

N: Yes, I grew up near water, too, so I remember for safety we had to learn to swim.

T: Yes, yes. I actually learned to swim in Lake Placid, before we left America. We used to spend our summers…

N: Who taught you to swim?

T: Well, you know my father was playing in the Eastman-Rochester Symphonette for the Lake Placid Club, which had its attendant problems because, of course, at that time it was extremely anti-Semitic. And my mother would not let me step foot into the Lake Placid Club because they wouldn’t allow Jewish people there. So I wasn’t allowed to go to the fancy beach at the Lake Placid Club, we went to the people’s beach on Mirror Lake, and there was a nice man who in some way was crippled, and I can’t remember exactly how, I just remember his face, but he now made a living teaching children to swim.

N: Interesting. When he’s in the water, he’s like Roosevelt, the water lifted the weight of him…

T: Something… I think it was his legs. But anyway, he was a very good swimming teacher and I took to it like a fish. I loved it. And when we moved to Australia it was no longer freshwater swimming, it was the ocean, and we used to spend hours and hours and hours in the salt water, in the surf, body surfing. We were probably about half an hour from the bay that Melbourne is on, and maybe an hour from the open ocean and…

N: Wow.

T: It’s one of the most glorious oceans. Australian beaches are—well, they’re famous—it was pretty nice.

N: Well, I know you’re a gardener. You must have, living there, you must have really connected with the visual part of the natural world, the plants, things like this. Did that happen to you there?

T: I don’t think I was aware of it so much, but when I came back to America when I was sixteen, it was a long time before—probably another six or seven years—before I got back to Australia again, and I remember getting off the boat when I went back to Australia, seeing the Eucalypts, the Gums, again and realizing—I guess it happens to everybody where they grow up—that that was my landscape, and that everything else was a divergence, didn’t look quite right, because that was how things were supposed to look.

N: That’s a nice way of putting it.

T: Yes, the Australian bush is quite unique. And it’s a very different color, it’s very drab, gray, greens, and blue-greens and sort of mustard-y…


N: There are different seasons I should think?

T: No seasons.

N: No seasons? That would be different.

T: It is a temperate climate. There are seasons, I mean it gets cold and it gets hot, but no deciduous trees.

N: What do they have? I mean Eucalyptus…

T: It’s Eucalypts, mostly Eucalypts. And because it was a British colony, there had been during those years a real effort to make it look like anywhere but Australia

N: [laughter] Ah, the British!

T: And so there were always a lot of unhappy looking palm trees and stuff like that [laughter] to give it the colonial feeling.

N: But they can grow there?

T: Yes, sort of. You know it’s interesting, now Australia’s in drought, terrible drought, because of global warming. And that’s not a dialogue about whether this is happening—it’s happened.

N: It’s happened, yes.

T: And the Australian vegetation is surviving, but many of the European transplants are perishing. So in an odd way Australia has reasserted itself.

N: How much were you aware of the other cultures going on there?

T: I was aware of it in the way that kids are. There were attendant rituals that were perplexing to me when I went, because it was a very Anglophile place in the ’50s. Australia was very, very British, and there were terrifying things like tea parties. I don’t know if you ever were made to go to a tea party as a child, but it was a very scary experience, because you were given these very delicate little cups of tea, and I will never forget this: being handed this cup that I was very scared of dropping in the first place, and holding onto it with both hands, and trying to figure out, one, how I was supposed to drink the tea, and then somebody would come by with a plate of sandwiches! [laughter]

N: So you thought that was hard, try this! [laughter]

T: Yes! There was a kind of formality to it, and there was a severity to it, that I think came from a class consciousness which, in America, we don’t know about. And I think there was a cruelty and a sort of superciliousness to it that, as a child, you pick up, that there’s this system of judgment going on that you don’t understand.

N: A caste system sort of…

T: Well, people placed each other in a class. And that was how they classified and that was how they related to each other. And, of course, that was, to us, a real foreign territory.

N: So, in the school, was that one of the things that made the school not pleasant? What kind of school was it?


T: Mother was very concerned that I get a good education—God bless her—so initially I was sent to the best school in Melbourne. It was a school called St. Catherine’s, and it’s still probably one of the two best girl’s schools in Melbourne. I was in the fourth grade and it was, I think actually, a sort of finishing school for girls. And the kids were OK because kids are generally kind of OK, but it was a snob school. It was in the snob suburb of Melbourne, and you were being groomed to be the sort of person who would live in that suburb. I think that it took both me and my mother a little while to figure out that the emphasis here was not necessarily getting a good education or keeping the mind open and alive and inquiring, but learning a certain coded behavior, and I think that it was probably quite hard for me. When I was home this summer I was looking at my report cards and when I first went there I was like all A’s, and everybody was saying what a terrific kid and what a terrific student I was. By the second year I was there I wasn’t getting A’s anymore. I can’t remember it too well, but I think that I’d gotten unhappy about being there, and there were some problems, I think, with my behavior and stuff like that. But anyway, mother and I came back to America because her sister was very ill. And we were here for a short time, probably about a half a year, when her sister died. And then we went back to Australia and we moved at that time from where we were living to this place where I got this horse. And my mother asked me if I wanted to go back to that school and I didn’t. I said I wanted to go to the school that the kids in the neighborhood went to, and it wasn’t a private school, it was a public school. And in some ways it was better for me because it wasn’t a finishing school, and in some ways it was horrendous. It was awful. Because, well, things were endemic to the school system from the British at that point, such as corporal punishment. And very strange ideas about things, for example being taught that Aborigines were not human beings…

N: Really?

T: Yes, and stuff like that. I think the thing that I talked to you about, which I always thought was a sort of wonderful piece of irony in my life, was that one of the things we had to do was take sewing which [laughter]…I would say it was not my favorite subject, but I more or less tolerated it. And at a certain point we were given a project that really intrigued me, which was to make our own dress, and I got quite excited about this and I went and got some fabric that I really liked and I got a pattern that I really liked. We were told to make it in stages and we were to do the side seams of the skirt or something first, but I got really excited about it and I made the whole dress. I thought perhaps that I would get praised for this—I was very proud of this dress—I hadn’t actually tried it on, however. So, I took it to the sewing class—at this point I was in the sixth grade—and the sewing teacher was a woman called Mrs. Lee. Mrs. Lee was a rather fierce character. We had to bring out our projects and she came by and looked at what I did and she looked at it and she said “Reynolds”—we were referred to by our last names in class—she said, “Reynolds, would you come up to the front of the class please?” And I still at this point thought that I was going to get praise for having completed this lovely dress, and she took my dress and she held it up and she said, “This is what happens to people who don’t do what they’re told.” And I had put the arms of my dress in backwards, and she took the dress and she ripped out the arms and then she ripped it in half…

N: Good heavens!

T: And I burst into tears…

N: Oh my heavens…

T: And I ran screaming out of the room, and well, my mother was not happy about this [laughter] and I did get excused for the rest of my life from going to sewing class.

N: Wow, that’s a story…amazing.

T: But I always thought it was rather ironic that I ended up working for the Metropolitan Museum restoring medieval tapestries.

N: Is that teacher still around? If she’s in the next world, send her a telegram.

T: She’s clearly in heaven because she was a Christian Scientist.

N: Well, at least she never was ill anyhow, right, she’s in somebody’s heaven, right?

T: Can you imagine doing that? I mean I suppose that kind of thing does…

N: No, no I cannot, I cannot imagine that.

T: Can you imagine that?

N: No I can’t, that’s impossible.

T: When I think back on it, I can hardly imagine that it happened either, but it is one of those moments that you will never forget. I remember the sound of the cloth as this…

N: I can imagine…

T: As this sleeve was torn off. Well, it was dismembered, she dismembered the dress in front of the class.

N: That’s incredible!

T: Isn’t it?

N: I mean the destruction of it is bad enough, but the humiliation for the child, having done something good? Good night!

T: But it was the culture, and I mean it was the same culture that was expressed in the razor strop, which was what was used for disciplinary purposes.

N: Yes, I was going to ask about it. I know often boys would be punished in this way but were girls punished the same way?

T: Girls were hit behind the knees; boys were on the hand. And these were pieces of leather that were maybe half an inch thick and maybe two inches wide. I don’t know if your dad had a razor strop, I mean they used to, you know, sharpen their razors…

N: He had a razor, but I don’t know if he had that.

T: It used to hang in the bathroom, this thick tongue of leather, and, you know, the kids would have to hold out their little ten-year-old hands and these big teachers would haul back and really pound!

N: I wonder if anyone got really hurt?

T: I don’t know if they broke people’s hands or what. But the girls had to stand and lift up their dresses, and in those days you wore bloomers, you know, you had knickers, your little bottoms [laughter] and they would whack you behind the knees.

N: That’s amazing, where it didn’t show, right. But I mean, a musician—that could do considerable damage.

T: A musician, I know!

N: Wow, that’s amazing.

T: Yes, it’s really quite extraordinary.

N: Who was the teacher you told me about—was it a French teacher?—when you had done well in her class? It was the spirit, I remembered, the spirit of the place, that was embodied in what you told me about this woman.

T: That was at a different school, that was the high school—she was the headmistress. She was, if you were to design a headmistress [laughter], she would be it.

N: God help us! [laughter]


T: Perhaps she was not quite as terrible as I have made her in my memory. But her name was Miss McMillan and she hated me. I was American and in those days Australians did not like Americans. Curiously, because they didn’t like the way that the American soldiers had behaved during the war. You’ve probably heard about that. I mean, that we helped by winning the Battle of the Coral Sea doesn’t seem to have made as much of an impression as the fact that the American soldiers were better paid than the Australian soldiers and got all the pretty women. Believe it or not, that got so deeply embedded in that culture. But, anyway, she didn’t like me, and I also was a bit—I was quite cheeky—and I was not a very well behaved child, to put it that way. And she was also the French teacher.

N: That’s what I remembered.

T: And I was good at French. In fact, I was very good at French. And it was really very irritating to her [laughter] that I was very good at French and also so hateful in all other ways, and she was never pleasant to me. But I think the incident that you’re recalling was that the Alliance Française had tests every year, or competitions, and there was a competition—I remember it was a three-part thing and I only remember two parts, one of it was that you had to memorize a French poem, and I memorized Alfred de Vigny’s “La Sauvage,” and you took a dictation test. And so sometime later I was sitting in class, somebody else’s class, and a student came and said, “Reynolds is to go to the headmistress.” And I was quite scared of her and I went wondering what on earth I’d done now! [laughter] And I walked in and she very unsmilingly said, “Reynolds, you won the dictation.” [laughter]

N: Begrudging.

T: Begrudging!

N: And that was it, right?

T: That was it. Yes. “You won the dictation,” and I thought, well, this was quite a moment between us, that she had to say that. That was the nicest thing she’d ever said to me.

N: So the memories of school are not so pleasant?

T: It was mixed. I had a very terrific education somehow, but I wanted it very badly. And in the midst of all of this there were wonderful teachers.

N: OK.

T: A lot of them were women. Particularly the literature teachers were women, unmarried women usually, who were absolutely passionate about what they were teaching. They loved poetry and they loved literature. I had a wonderful art teacher. And I got a very good education—so good in fact that when I came to America when I was sixteen to live with my dad again, I’d finished all of the work that was to be done in the next two years in American high schools…

N: Oh, my god.

T: So they put me into college instead. It was a very good, very strict education system. So, I have mixed memories about it.

N: Well, now, tell me this, this was interesting. I know you’ve written about the Berkeley experience, and I’m to going to hold off on this—it was astounding, the recollection of it—but how did you get into the weaving, and the tapestry.

T: Ah, many, many years later.

N: Was there one thing that took you in that direction? Were there other things you were doing? I know you were in Paris for a while.

T: Well, I don’t know about you, Nancy, I have a feeling you kind of figured out life quicker than I did—it took me a long time to figure stuff out. I loved education—I love learning—I was good at languages.

N: Yes, I remember.

T: I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my life. You know, this was the ’60s, and I was in graduate school and I, you know, had gotten my Masters in Comparative Literature. Well, do you know how many Comparative Literature departments there were in the United States then? There was Berkeley and Princeton and that was it.

N: I can’t imagine there would have been many, right.

T: That was it. And I was bright but not brilliant, and I was not going to be hired by either of those, so I was going to go on and get a PhD because I loved studying, but I’d probably end up being a French teacher. So, I went to the Southwest. I’d gotten interested, after the political experience in Berkeley in the ’60s, in spiritual ideas. I got involved in a group, a spiritual group, and one of the members of this group was teaching at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and I went to visit him. I had just gotten my Masters and I had qualified for the PhD. I went to stay with him and his wife for the summer and he had in his class at St John’s the first of the Navajo ever to have gone to St John’s College.


And that was Ben Barney. Ben was probably about…he was a freshman? Maybe a sophomore. He was probably about eighteen or nineteen. And he was also interested in these spiritual ideas, so I met him through Tom and through that group. Now, I had never done anything with my hands…

N: I can’t believe it!

T: In my life.

N: Amazing!

T: I had been brought up to be an intellectual. And mother had been extremely clear that she didn’t want me to do the women’s, usual women’s, stuff. Which is great [laughter].

N: You would have it both ways eventually.

T: Yes. But I had been living in a house in Berkeley that belonged to a woman who had been married to a very famous architect, a man called William Maybeck, who had designed many famous buildings in San Francisco—a beautiful house—and I’d just been living there as a student in rooms that she rented out. And she had a collection of Navajo rugs that she’d gotten from Taos. And I thought I’d never seen anything as beautiful as that in my life. I didn’t know anything about them. This was the mid ’60s by this point. And so when I met this Navajo boy and we just got to know each other—he was such a delightful boy. I mean, he was completely unlike anybody I had ever met because he was very truly Navajo.

N: That’s interesting.

T: And there was a different quality there than I’d ever met in anybody—I mean, we never even got that close but there was this open friendly relationship. So, the only thing I knew about Navajo was the rugs. I asked him about it. His mother was the main weaver for the tribe. I had said that I’d tried to find out a little bit about the rugs and how they were made and everything during those years—there was nothing available. Now, there’s books on it. But at that point the Navajo were not sharing that world with Americans. But because he trusted me and we had this sort of common friend and common interest, he said, “Come and I’ll teach you how to do it.” He said, “We don’t show this, but I’ll teach you in the Navajo way.” So, the Navajo treat their crafts—I don’t know if this is still alive or not—but in those days they were part of their inner life, part of their spiritual life. And they brought great seriousness to this. When a young member of the tribe—and it’s always the women who weave in the Navajo—becomes interested in weaving, she will usually go to the grandmother and say she wants to learn to weave. And the grandmother will organize a time when the youngster can be shown how to do the warp for a blanket. This is a sacred ceremony. They set the loom beams. You’re not allowed to speak during the whole process. You’re not allowed to do anything accidental. If anything accidental occurs, such as you drop…

N: A needle…

T: A needle or something, you have to undo everything you did and start again. Once the warp beams are set nothing can enter the space where the warp is being set up, because it’s a sacred space, and what you’re doing is you’re actually invoking the spirit of the rug to come and manifest itself.

N: Wonderful!


T: It’s a very beautiful process in itself—simple, but beautiful. Ages old. And everything about it is very prescribed. There might have been chants that went with the various processes, I don’t know, but there were no chants. So Ben said “We’ll just do it as if you’re a little Navajo girl who’s interested in weaving.”

N: That’s nice.

T: After the end of this ceremony, of setting up the warp, the grandmothers or the mother undoes everything that’s been done and asks the child to repeat what she’s seen. And if she can, then that means that she’s meant to be a weaver. So that’s what they did with me. It was only maybe six or seven hours of my life but I had never seen anything like it. I had never, for one, seen the sort of wholeness that these people brought to what they were doing, and I’d never seen spirituality combined with activity that produced. So the end result of all of this was that if you went through all of this and you did it in the right way that at the end of the process you would have a vision of the design of the rug. Well, I didn’t have the vision. But the interesting thing about that is that I learned about the visualization experience. The Navajo never work from design, they never work from any sketch, they have an impression of this and then they make the impression happen on the warp.

N: That’s amazing, that’s amazing.

T: And now that weaving is dying out because, of course, they can’t make any money doing that, they use the Navajo women to put together electronic circuit boards because they have instant visualization. They can look at a pattern and reproduce it like that. Anyway, I took this in and it made such a profound impression on me that it changed the course of my life, and I just decided that that was what I wanted to do. And I pursued it.

N: So after you saw it happen, and you knew it could happen—you knew that was what you wanted to do—did you go for further instruction from some other place, or did you just learn it on your own?

T: No. That was it.

N: That was it?

T: That was it. And after that I kind of mumbled my way through it again and again and again, figuring out how to do it. I moved to New York and started a small business, a tapestry weaving business, and wove probably for about six years, made a meager living and had the most wonderful time because it had become a passion to learn how to do this. I worked with a few other people who had the same sort of passion and we made funny looking rugs [laughter] and sold them for very little money but made enough and it was absolutely wonderful and by the end of it I was a good weaver!

Tina Barn Weaving

And then someone came to me with a Navajo rug that had a hole in it…

N: Ah, so you were repairing…

T: And they said, if you could do that, can you fix my Navajo rug? And I looked at it and I sat and worked with it probably for about thirty-six hours trying to figure out how you would do that and I figured it out and I did it. And lo and behold, they gave me a lot of money for doing it! [laughter] And I went on from there.

N: That’s remarkable in terms of repairing—the variety of things that you have been asked to repair and restore is astounding, and yet, you could adapt to all of them! You were able to solve them all!

T: One of the things I actually like about what I do—some of the work is actually kind of dull and repetitive—but there is a problem-solving element in all of the private work that I get, and each one presents different problems, and I love that.

Tina in studio 2N: And solving it…

T: Yes, I love solving them.

N: So, no two tasks will ever be the same?

T: No.

N: That’s a good way to work.

T: Yes, it is. It keeps it alive. And that’s a nice story isn’t it? And, as you know, we’ve kept up with Ben Barney. I mean, he was just here a couple weeks ago.

N: I remember seeing him.

T: Yes. Paul has him into the class every year, right before Bill Clift comes. Bill and Ben know each other.

N: I’m sure, I figured they would.

T: Yes, yes, and Ben thinks that my story is very funny.

N: It’s an amazing story.

T: Well, he laughs [laughter], he laughs at my reverence.

Tina & Ben Barney

N: Well, the reverence is not so bad either. So then how did you get into working at the Met? What brought you there?

T: Those years were the late ’60s, early ’70s by then, and at some point I heard from a friend of mine—I think it was actually another weaver—that there was this extraordinary woman who was working at the Metropolitan Museum who had started a department there that looked after the textiles in the museum, and I sought her out. She was Japanese and, at that point, she must have been in her forties, I guess. And she was absolutely an extraordinary woman. She probably still knows more about textiles than anybody in the world. And she was very beautiful, very rich, and had sort of by happenstance got this job at the Metropolitan Museum, which at that point had no department that cared for the textiles in the museum.

N: Oh my goodness, wow.

T: There was a woman who volunteered in the corner of Object Conservation who did things like stitching the tops on tapestries so that they could be hung. And the museum had thirty thousand textiles.

N: Oh, my heavens!

T: And it had paid no attention to the entire collection because it was decorative art.

N: Yes. The prejudice.

T: And so a little bit of interest had flared up! Somebody had said, wait a minute, this is an extraordinary collection of stuff you’ve got here! And then questions came up about how to exhibit and how to look after it.

N: And then they needed people who knew this to come in.

T: So, I went and introduced myself to her and said that I was starting to do this. Well, at that point what I was doing was restoration, different from conservation.

N: Oh, well that’s interesting, how do you distinguish them?

T: Restoration is actually reproducing lost fabric and image in tapestries. Or rugs. But the basic problem with the museum collection was how to store it, how to clean it, how to stabilize it, how to do all that stuff. So she didn’t need anybody who did restoration for a while and then this project that I’ve been working on for awhile and just finished after all these years…

N: The Everyman?

T: The Everyman or Burgos tapestry came up and she called me up and asked if I’d come work on it. And that was how that started.

N: But that is amazing.

T: It was amazing, yes!

N: The process of that, what shape did it come and how did you figure out how to fill in various places?

T: Well, by then I’d been doing it for awhile, and I’d actually been working freelance in New York City on various people’s rug collections, so I’d built up a certain body of experience. But I certainly hadn’t worked on museum-quality tapestries. So, there was me and Alice, whom you’ve met, that was working on it. And I’d say we learned as we went.

Tina & Alice Met

N: Yes, which was probably peculiar.

T: Well, we had, you know, thirty years to learn, so we got pretty good.

N: That’s an enormous tapestry for one thing!

T: Well it’s twenty-six by fifteen feet, but it had been cut into four pieces.

N: Oh! So you had to fill in things.

T: It’d been vandalized, and it was in really, really bad shape.

Tina Burgos

N: What I remember is the first time I went in with you into that room where you were doing all the work, I asked you what you were working on and you said you were working on one of Unicorn Tapestries.

T: That’s right.

N: And I couldn’t touch it because it was sacred [laughter]…

T: Was that the first time you went down there?

N: And then I said “what are you doing to it?” and you said, “I’m mending the stocking of a hunter,” and I thought, “He, too, needs his stockings mended.” [laughter]

W; That was the limner’s stocking

N: Ah, that was it, OK. I was much amused that he needed his socks mended. But that was the first one I saw and I realized how much was really involved in what you were doing.

T: Yes, right.

N: And then you mentioned also that the—and this was an interesting notion—that the back is one color and the front is another. How do you bring these two together?

T: Yes, that’s one of the great things about being a tapestry conservator, or a conservator of art, is you get to handle the art. But the front of tapestries are light damaged and the back of the tapestry still has the original color. But with the Unicorns there’s not that much color loss.

N: What was the man with the golden arm that regaled us?

T: That was the first of the Unicorns.


N: Oh it was! And his arm has been replaced.

T: His arm was replaced. Not by me, but by another conservator. It’s been replaced. We used to call it the “atomic arm” [laughter] because somebody had put in a plug made of gold synthetic silk, rayon probably. Yes, so as soon as you looked at the tapestry you saw “the arm.” And slowly figured out the rest of it.

N: It was actually put in as a patch?

T: It was a plug that was actually put in. The arm for some reason had been cut out.

N: Who knows?

T: Warp and weft.

N: Strangest things!

T: Yes, you know, somebody—who knows—suggested, since this was the prince in the tapestry, that perhaps he’d been wearing some sort of royal insignia and it would have been burnt during the French Revolution.

N: Yes, I imagine that you can almost read the damage from that point of view.

T: You could, or it could be that they just wanted the arm out of the way so you could see how the potatoes were doing in the bins.

N: They were often used for that?

T: They were often used to cover potato bins, yes.

N: Or orchards?

T: And orange orchards, yes. Some of the repairs that I worked with on them looked as if somebody, you know, stuck in a knife and opened it up to see how the potatoes were doing.

N: That’s amazing. That’s an amazing story.

T: It’s amazing when you think that they couldn’t see the beauty of it.

N: See it! That is amazing!

T: Yes, it is amazing to me that somehow there was a hole and it must have been centuries when…

N: A failure to really see!

T: When somebody did not perceive beauty in the fabric.

N: Boy it’s a whole different standard. Well, the back of the tapestries looked extremely happy.

N: All right. You must be exhausted. I should be giving you the cup of water.

T: [laughter] No, I’ve got water!

N: I will listen to this when I get home and see if I can…

T: See if there’s anything interesting there!

N: There will be. It’s wonderful hearing you talk about this. It just gives me a context for some of the things I’ve heard you say over lunch and that is fun because there are individual stories that you remember. But also, there is a narrative context and a precision with which you discuss them that is really wonderful!

T: What do you mean?

N: That is to say, there is no fumbling, no guessing, they’re complete sentences. A lot of people don’t talk that way, including me!

T: You know I’ve actually been told that before.

N: Yes?

T: I have been told that I speak in complete sentences and I…

N: That rarely happens! I can tell you from experience.

T: Why is that?

N: I’m wondering why. Or people will fumble or they’ll repeat or it’s as if speech were so informal when most of us—at least in America—speak…

T: Do you think it’s a Brit thing?

N: I think it is.

T: I do, too. I do, too.

N: When you stand up to recite you’d better have it right! [laughter]

T: I think it’s a Brit thing. I do. And it was part of this, you know, this Oxford English thing, which was part of the class thing.

N: Well, that’s interesting too. I’m not surprised.

T: I think that that was one of the class things, that the easiest way to identify somebody’s class was if they spoke well and with certain intonations.

N: And did not hesitate.

T: Yes.

N: Ah. OK that’s it. But I noticed it immediately.

T: But when I go back to Australia and I see some of my old friends, I’m always intrigued—and I wonder if I’m being sort of wrongly categorical about this—but there’s an enjoyment of language and words that’s kind of palpable.

N: I can believe that.

T: Not necessarily a class thing, but there’s a…

N: Cultural thing, maybe.

T: A cultural enjoyment of language that I think might be British.

N: I think so. I agree with you on that completely.

T: Certain turns of phrase that people deliver most lovingly.

N: Yes.

T: Maybe it’s true in our Midwest here, or in the Northwest, or in the South. But I don’t see it on the East coast, do you?

N: I don’t. And I am inclined to maybe look at the different kinds of environment. I noticed out in the Midwest people often speak more slowly, they listen more.

T: They listen more, but do they speak with that… there’s certain phrases that just give so much pleasure to just say them.

N: That may mean we’re “British.” I’ll hear something with pleasure because I’ve never heard anything like it before and I’m charmed by it. I’m not sure that the speaker has heard it, unless they’re listening to me the same way, but perhaps they’re not.

T: Yes, maybe.

N: Or too polite to say something.

T: Nancy, it’s so kind of you to find me interesting. On a very dark day…

N: I remembered all of these stories…

T: I will remember that somebody found me interesting [laughter].