Western North Carolina Woman

community and ecology through art:
the work of joyce metayer

Joyce Metayer with Josephine Lero, retired head of the Bristol High School Home Economics Department, acted as the local liaison for the 25th anniversary celebration.

When asked, “What’s your passion in life?” Joyce Metayer says, without a moment’s hesitation, “Making art and being in nature.”.Joyce is an artist who is best known for her Sculptural Archetypes…wall reliefs that are a combination of painting and sculpture, impeccably constructed by sewing, and often circular in format. The look of her work is very contemporary even though she claims it is based on Paleolithic feminine symbology. “I feel I am creating pieces that have an ageless quality about them since they honor the past, explore significant symbolism in the present, and suggest the future.”

I wonder why so much of her work is circular…she says she wonders why we tend to hang rectangles on our walls! Jung felt the circle was the most basic, primordial form. Joyce tends to see circles and cycles in most everything…nature, the solar system, our families, relationships, communities.

Within 6 years of receiving her undergraduate degree in painting, Joyce had broken away from traditional painting forms and was inventing a totally new art form of large, 4 to 6-foot, dimensional paintings. By the time she finished her masters in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-seventies, her Sculptural Archetypes were becoming well accepted in the art world on the East Coast, and expanding and refining her invention was Joyce’s passion.

Joyce has had dozens of museum and gallery exhibitions from New England to the Southwest (and Mexico, where she lived for many years) and her work is in many corporate and private collections. She has been honored in Ms Magazine as one of New England’s major female artists. She has also spent a good part of her life teaching art “from kindergarten kids to graduate students and evening adult education classes.”

Of all the innovative work Joyce has been involved with over the years, she talks most passionately of a public artwork she created with 55 women in New England 25 years ago as being one of the highlights of her creative life. In the late seventies she applied for and was the only woman of 4 artists chosen for a one-year Art in Public Places grant. She lived, and would create her art, in Bristol, Rhode Island. Instead of making her own art work to fit in particular public spaces, Joyce wanted to create a significant work that would describe that particular place of Bristol in a unique way.

Some time earlier, a group of women from Bristol, England, brought over a historical tapestry to exhibit at the Bristol Art Museum. One day, tramping along the shores of Narragansett Bay and mulling over her own work of circles, cycles and her love of the natural world, she had one of her Eureka! moments. She would create a large “tapestry” of embroidered sections that would represent the ecology of Bristol at that moment. When all the sections were designed and painted she would invite women from the town to embellish them with lustrous embroidered handwork. She imagined a map of the town in the center with all the streets that were there at that time, surrounded by the elements of the Town Seal: a sailing ship, a Wampanoag native, a stylized local hilltop. And circling around that would be 64 panels depicting 113 examples of local flora and fauna. Joyce talked with naturalists to determine what species were most representative but also unique for the area.

“The largest circle I could draw on the largest wall” in her studio determined the 7-foot diameter of the entire Tapestry. When the drawings were finished and turned into colored embroidery “kits”, others became involved. In a short time, the project became part of many women’s lives. She first enlisted her mother-in-law and her sewing circle; they each took on one piece to embroider. She approached a high school Home Economics class and a local retirement center, finding experienced and talented needle workers as well as novices. The project spread by word of mouth, and women from the community came to her studio and selected the section each wanted to embroider, often for sentimental reasons…one woman’s son used to catch a particular fish when he was a boy, and another woman watched for the blooming of a certain wildflower because it represented a significant point in the seasons for her or reminded someone else of a loved ones’ birthday. As Joyce moved this huge project for the winter from her unheated studio to her home, the dining room table became the workspace for sorting through and selecting from the hundreds of different colored threads for the various embroidery “kits”. Some individual panels contained as many as 4 species. Her daughter Jessica loved to re-organize the skeins into their color families when she came home from school. “Jessica was 10 years old at the time and the youngest person to work on the tapestry. She embroidered the pussy willows.” The living room furniture was pushed back as Joyce needed more and more space for sewing the pieces together and stretching it on a circular frame she designed and helped build.

The Bristol Tapestry has hung in it’s specially-made glass case in Bristol’s Town Hall for a quarter century, but it also holds a special place in the hearts of many people in that community. Penny De Luca, whose mother, Eva De Luca embroidered the opossum, oyster mushroom and elm tree panel writes to Joyce, “Thank you…My daughters and my grandchildren and their children for many generations can go to the town hall and see the mark my Mom has left long after we are gone…I hope you are contributing something like (our Tapestry) for other towns to be proud of.” Kimberly Kirby, great niece of Mary Bense who embroidered the winter flounder (and has passed on) writes, “I am especially proud that a part of her lives on for many generations to enjoy. Thank you for making that possible.”

Circles are never broken, they simply expand; in October there was a 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Bristol Tapestry to bring together the women who worked on the piece, relatives of those who have passed away, the artist, and friends from the community. “The Tapestry has created a kind of common bond among us, and those friendships are such precious gifts.” And the circle is expanding again: students at Roger Williams University will use the tapestry to study the current condition of native species depicted in it 25 years ago. Joyce feels “this may be a first for a public art work to be used as an ecological benchmark.”

Joyce Metayer will be showing samples of this work and speaking about both the Rhode Island project and the potential Western North Carolina project at our January WNC WOMAN potluck Sunday, January 4th, 4-6 at the Enka Campus of AB TECH. Call us at 689-2988 for details.

Example of portion of
Wildflower panel for proposed
Western North Carolina Tapestry
Photo by Robert Arruda

What's next? "I think one of the most important things I can do at this time in my life is devote whatever abilities I have to preserving and enriching the environment that I leave behind." Joyce has an interesting twist on how she can do this. "We don't have to make art out of nature; I know that nature is art, but when we take images from nature—wildflowers, bushes, trees, etc, and arrange them into a design that we call an artwork—we call attention to the incredible beauty, diversity, richness, and uniqueness of the natural environment. The more we can call attention to the nature that surrounds us, the more interest we can create for caring for and nurturing our ecology." Joyce and her husband, Don, were hiking through the Western North Carolina Arboretum one day last January, looking for signs of spring, when it came to her that this year marked 25 years since she had created the Bristol Tapestry."It was one of those moments again where I knew in a flash that making community created public artwork could be my way of working for the environment. I also knew that somehow the community of women that had created Bristol's piece had to reconnect."

Joyce feels that Asheville is a perfect place for another Tapestry. "The botanic diversity we have here is unique, and needle work is well respected in this area. Can you imagine the trees, bushes, and wildflowers all embroidered together with our gorgeous Seal of the City of Asheville? Why, it would look like a shimmering jewel."

When she talks about what a huge effort the New England project was, and she envisions an even more elaborate piece for Asheville, I wonder why she would want to take it on? "I think community-created public art is a visual metaphor for the concept of community. When we put the best of ourselves into our own individual sections, and then all those are joined together to create one beautiful piece—and that work is a representation of our ecological environment and our geopolitical place—that is a visual metaphor for community. I want to be a part of that."

Joyce lives in Asheville with her husband Don Lanoue and their cats Hera and Zeus and sings with Womansong. [ joycedon@buncombe.main.nc.us ]

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