Pamela Bourke Topham’s silk and wool tapestries—subtly hued, complex, layered designs woven on a framed loom—are beloved by the public and recognized by professionals. Topham’s “Northwest Harbor, Early Light” received top honors this past spring at Guild Hall’s annual Artist Members Exhibition, a show juried by Marla Prather, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Modern and Contemporary Department. Topham’s “White’s Farm,” the fifth in a six-part series of Sagaponack images (all 10” x 10”), is the cover art this week. The piece pays homage to this oldest—and last—family-owned oceanfront farm field in the Hamptons. Stitched sun-streaked skies and yellow-gold, green and brown gradations in various stitch sizes mark water, houses
In an interview given shortly after the Guild Hall show, Topham says she was “kind of surprised” when she won because her work is “not super edgy.” Though her representational scenes nod to abstraction, they tap into a growing national interest in folk arts and regional culture, especially as real estate incursions continue to erode historical areas.
Weaving is just one aspect of your artistic talent and training—training that includes getting a BFA from Syracuse’s School of Visual and Performing Arts. You’re quite proficient in drawing—pen and ink and colored pencil sketches serve as drafts for your weaving. What prompted you to specialize in tapestry art?
My classical art training included a lot of drawing, especially figure drawing. Although I studied painting, I also studied costume design, hence a relationship to fiber. In the early days I did pen and ink drawings of the Sag Harbor Whaling Captain houses. It was a trip to Guatemala where the huiples [rectangular pieces of cloth folded and stitched at the sides], woven by the women on back strap looms, fascinated me. Then, returning to the East End, I found a tapestry class at Guild Hall…that was just the beginning.
After years of being self-taught, I have had the good fortune to study with Master Weavers Archie Brennan and Susan Martin-Maffei. I weave in traditional and untraditional techniques in most of my work.
You’ve lectured at Amagansett Applied Arts and at the Ross School and participated in the Long Island Art Teachers Association’s East End Artist Mentoring program. What do you tell young people about art as a career?
Mostly with the young students at Ross, I appreciate when a student after three days of weaving says, “now I see those unicorn tapestries in a whole other way.” Art can be a wonderful career, but one must also attend to the business side of it.
Where to you see yourself in five years?
I look forward to working on a larger scale again and exhibiting more widely. On the East End, although I weave only out here, I do show with other media, but in other parts of the country it’s only tapestry. The big thing for me right now is my new studio, designed by Maxine Liao.
My longtime inspiration is Eastern Long Island—the ever-changing beauty of land, sea and sky, the tradition of Thomas Moran. But it’s interesting to seek images of contrasting places as well, so I will leave the possibilities open.
I am now continuing a series, “East of Montauk,” depicting the time I was caught in a squall in Block Island Sound. The tapestry is now on the loom.
Topham will have a solo exhibition at the Spiga Gallery at Guild Hall in October 2017. “Materials Matter,” curated by Arlene Bujese, will be on display at the Southampton Cultural Center from October 10–November 15, 2015.
Viewers are invited to visit her studio. See pamelatopham.com for more information.