Ancient Awakening: Lenore Tawney’s “Lekythos”

Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, draws attention to influential women artists and designers from the mid-20th century to the present.

Lenore Tawney, Lekythos, 1962; Linen, 50 x 31 x 1 3/4 in; Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Installation view of Lenore Tawney’s Lekythos, 1962; Linen, 50 x 31 x 1 3/4 in; Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

One artist who challenged the divide between art and craft was Lenore Tawney (1907–2007).

Tawney was influential in the development of fiber art, a medium that often emphasizes the artist’s manual labor along with a work’s aesthetic appeal.

Tawney’s “woven forms,” which hang suspended in space, united the disciplines of weaving and sculpture. Comprised of undyed linen fibers, Tawney’s works emphasize the individuality of each thread. On view in Pathmakers, Tawney’s work Lekythos continues to transfix viewers.

Described as “open and diaphanous as a spider web,” Lekythos (1962) flows down from the ceiling. Visitors may notice the delicate and airy appearance of the work’s individual threads.

Toward the upper section of the work, Tawney gathered a central group of threads, creating a silhouette reminiscent of the flared lip and pared neck of a vase. Given the work’s title, Tawney seems to have been inspired by the ceramics of antiquity.

“Lekythos” is a term used to describe a type of Greek pottery. Popular during the 5th century BCE, lekythoi were small vessels used to store oil. Many of the everyday scenes depicted on these ancient Greek vases involved women.

One work by the Amasis Painter (c. 550–530 BCE) shows women engaged in wool working with an upright loom. Weaving was one of the most important occupations for women in ancient Greece, as they were responsible for the family’s clothes and other household textiles.

Lenore Tawney’s fiber works transformed the ancient craft of weaving to construct free-flowing fine art forms. Drawing from the imagery and silhouettes of ancient Greek vessels, Lekythos is exemplary of the artist’s groundbreaking creations. Tawney believed in the Zen ideology that all things are interconnected. Her oeuvre has been described as an ongoing spiritual quest to express that intangible belief.

Visit the museum to see Lekythos in-person and explore other works by women artists and designers in Pathmakers, on view through Feburary 28, 2016.

—Sarah Mathiesen was the fall 2015 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.