Featured Artist Interview : Isa Rodrigues

We are very excited to have textile artist Isa Rodrigues as our ninth artist. Isa is a textile artist and educator currently based in Brooklyn but who grew up on the coast of Portugal. She is a founding member and Co-Executive Director of the Textile Arts Center, an important resource for both the local and broader textile community. Through playful experimentation, she seeks to capture and visualize a feeling through her weavings. Textiles allow her to access unique memories that can reveal themselves through imagery or in the tension of the weave itself. 

Scroll down to read the interview, learn about her process and enjoy photos of Isa’s studio.

How did your journey into textiles begin? What drew you initially to weaving?

I first started playing with textiles when I was little, through spending time with my grandmothers. They taught me embroidery, knitting, crochet, sewing,…we always had to have a project to keep us busy, and these were the works that they did. They would also tell stories about who had made that coverlet on the bed, or the shirt I was wearing, or the millions of doilies we had at the house. I think my love for handmade, and for textiles started then. Later, in college, I studied Textile Conservation, and that’s when I first learned about weaving. Mostly we were learning about structures and drafts, and how to identify them in textiles, not actually weaving. I started working at the Textile Arts Center when I moved to NYC thirteen years ago and what initially drew me to it was when I would get to learn how to set up a loom and weave. I remember that the first time weaving felt like a homecoming, like a crab back in the water 🙂

Tell us about your process, start to finish how you make your pieces.

It depends so much from piece to piece. But normally I’m just seeking a feeling and I’ll stay in that place for a little bit – thinking about it, writing about it, photographing ways that I see it manifesting in the world. And then I start translating it to a textile in my mind, like in terms of technique. Sometimes that sends me to a weaver’s forum on the internet learning about a specific draft, or researching the physics of waves. Materials are also important to me, but I tend to work within what I have available. I always have leftovers from my textile fabrication gigs, and I like the idea of repurposing and reinterpreting those. By the time I sit on the loom, I tend to have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do.. But that’s also when magic happens. I like that duality of having something resolved in my mind, but actually not knowing exactly what shape it’s going to take until I start making. And lately, documentation of the work has become a very important part of the process for me too. For instance, with these burnout velvet pieces I was making two years ago. I was originally thinking of them as garments, but then took them to a beach near my home and spent some time playing with them and photographing their cast shadows, or them floating in the water. When I saw the photos it just made sense, that was what’s missing to finish the work.

What part of textile/weaving history interests you the most? Are there any textile artists that you are influenced by?

I think the part that interests me the most about textile history is that it is so connected with our history as people too. A few years ago, my grandmother, after many years of me weaving, told me that her grandmother was a weaver. I think almost everyone, if they go back a few generations, will meet a weaver in their family, or someone that did textile work. I think a lot about how people in different parts of the world, in different times, came up with textile processes and technologies adapted to the different materials and resources available.  And how a textile object can contain in itself all this history, like a memory, that can be revealed through the materials, processes, imagery…  That’s one of the things that has always interested me about learning textile processes, that allows me access to these memories, to these stories. And about making too, that I’m storing my memories. Like, for instance, how my different moods or emotions can get documented in the ondulation of the selvages of my weaving, because I’ll sometimes pull too much, or be too loose. 

I’m constantly influenced by other artists – most times in just an aspirational way, as in like “wow”. I think it’s still the textile conservator in me but I love discovering how something is made. Some of my long-time references are Kay Sekimachi, Lenore Tawney, Paracas weavers, fishermen’s nets and lacework. I also recently saw Diedrick Brackens’ exhibition and I’m still thinking about the beauty of it.

Where/what do you look to for inspiration? Has this changed over time or stayed constant?

I’m inspired by my surroundings, nature, anything that moves me. Growing up in a beach town, the ocean and sea culture are always a reference, and often something I’m chasing – a set of waves, the light projecting in the caves, smell of seaweed in the sand. I think a lot about how do you capture that feeling, how do you weave a feeling.

How do natural dyes play a role in your work?

Working with natural dyes is part of my practice but it doesn’t often appear combined with my weaving work. I tend to work with upcycled yarns that have already been dyed. However, like in weaving, I’m also very interested in natural dyes from a research perspective, like learning about different sources for natural dyes, specific to different regions of the world and cultures. Getting color from natural materials is something that people have been doing for thousands of years all over the world, and the resourceability through which different materials and techniques were explored is something that will always amaze me. Over the last few years, I’ve been exploring more the use of natural dyes as a paint for textiles. I like the freedom of being  able to apply natural dyes in a more painterly way, like many colors at once, and modulating those colors using the different modifiers (like iron sulfate, or lemon juice). 

Tell us about how ideas evolve from your dreams? Do you envision things visually or conceptually?

Most of my work starts as this idea that stays in my mind, changing and morphing in this dream state. I think a lot of my practice is problem solving. Or at least that’s how I engage in new projects – how do I get this color, how can I translate this feeling. The part of figuring out how-to-do-it is definitely the most exciting for me, and I’ll keep working on it even when I sleep. And sometimes the answers do come to me in dreams. By the time I actually sit on the loom, or start dyeing, I already have a pretty good idea of what’s going to be my approach, and there’s a very special feeling when it first starts materializing, like it works! When I started thinking about the Modular Weavings series, I didn’t even try to actually begin weaving until I resolved it in my mind. But when I finally did, at a residency in Iceland, I think so much of what they became had to do with the place where I was: the colors, the materials, the documentation. 

How has being a part of the founding team of Textile Arts Center had an impact on your work?

I joined the founding team of TAC in 2009, after I sent them an email on a whim after seeing an ad in a subway magazine. Initially, I was helping with the kids program in exchange for weaving time/loom, but over the years as the project continued developing I have worn many hats. One of the visions for TAC was that it’d be this open studio space where people of all ages and working with different textiles techniques could be working at the same time. I think that vision has deeply influenced my approach to projects, my understanding of what education can be and fostered this resourceability. Like everything is possible! Working for TAC and in the TAC studio has also allowed me to meet so many incredible textile artists, who constantly inspire and teach me.  It’s been a very beautiful, community supported way of learning how to be a maker and an artist. 

Do you believe the pandemic has had an impact on your work?

Definitely, but mostly because I didn’t make any work. Or it felt like that way.  But thinking back, I actually did. One of the pieces at Heirloom, Piscina, was started during the lockdown. I was feeling very distant from my family, from home, and I think that materialized in a craving for bodies of water, I was thinking a lot about pools, and how the light on the pool surface always brings me calmness. So I wove myself a pool. I tried to capture that feeling through warp painting, and the distortion that happens to it while weaving.  But through the process, and because weaving takes so long, I started thinking about other ways to capture the light interference and that feeling, so I’m going to definitely be weaving more pools. It might be my David Hockney phase. 

How do you imagine your work evolving in the future? Do you have any upcoming shows or events you are excited about?

So far my work has evolved on its own time and in direct response to what’s happening in my life at the moment. I’ve spent the last 10 years working for an arts organization, as an arts administrator and teaching, but also as a textile fabricator. However, I keep my own practice and work very personal.  I’ve learned that it takes me time to access what I’m feeling or thinking about and that’s ok. I’ve loved doing residencies for that reason, because they allow me time and space to think and make. I’ll be going back to Portugal for a few months this Fall and I’m excited for what that will transform into. I have a little loom at home that we rescued from the trash at the highschool my mom teaches at, and I’ll be having a lot of time…

Thanks for being part of our Heirloom community and tuning into our ninth edition of Contemporary @ Heirloom.

– Zach, Lynn & Sam

*Illustration and Photography by Lynn Hunter

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