Laurie Wohl unweaves the world

Laurie Wohl’s tapestries do the opposite of what you would expect from a fibre artist. 

The earliest evidence of weaving, closely related to basketry, dates from Neolithic cultures of about 5000 BCE. The people of the Navajo Nation have used weaving to preserve the stories passed down through generations, and to show their rich way of life. The most literal use of weaving for storytelling appears in the form of tapestries. The art form dates back to ancient times in many regions around the world.

Wohl uses spiritual stories found in various medieval and contemporary texts from Europe and the Middle East, alluding to the oldest traditions of narrative textiles but in a contemporary idiom. Wohl honours these textile traditions through form, colour, texture and calligraphy. Yet she boldly “unweaves” the fabric to reveal beginnings of new artwork.

“Birds of Longing” by Laurie Wohl. Photograph courtesy of Art & Scroll Studio

In Wohl’s artist statement from her latest exhibit Birds of Longing: Exile and Memory she writes that the “Unwoven spaces form symbolic shapes,” including “wings, ladders, prayer shawls, veils, trees, falling waters, and the sacred architecture of windows, domes and gates.” Alongside these images she includes Christian, Jewish, and Muslim poetry and spiritual texts from the Convivencia period in Spain. As well as texts from contemporary Middle Eastern poets, particularly writers who are Palestinian, Syrian, and Israeli. 

Her research on the medieval ages and contemporary Middle Eastern poetry, led her to discover themes that constitute the project: the poetry of spiritual love, the poetry of exile, the poetry of nostalgia for Andalusia, the poetry of referencing Old and New Testament texts, and the Quran; and the poetry of yearning for reconciliation. The project consists of 18 pieces and was completed between 2011-2015.

Wohl first releases either the warp or weft threads, of the heavy cotton canvas, to create the desired shape. Various textures are collaged onto the surface, such as fibrous papers, sand, and pumice. The images and calligraphy are applied with modelling paste. She applies acrylic paints to the surface, and a final thin layer of gold wash. Where gauze is used, the fabric is dipped in diluted paint, then hand-painted and embellished with fibrous papers. In the last part of the process written prayers and marking points such as beads are affixed with acrylic gel.

Portions from poems and spiritual texts in English, Arabic, and Hebrew are heard through an audio component, which is integral to the project. The languages are interwoven in a specially arranged soundscape by contemporary composer Daniel Wohl. Using prepared iPods, viewers are able to aurally as well as visually experience the poetry relating to specific pieces as they move around the exhibit.

At first glance one might think the tapestry resembles an ordinary wall hanging you would find in a home decor store. But upon closer inspection Wohl’s artistry comes alive. The text and materials used challenges the viewer to contemplate spiritual connections. The Hebrew and Arabic poetry provides a meditative quality. The overall effect is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Wohl is internationally known for her unique “unweavings,” liturgical projects, and interfaith messages. Her works are recognized by the AIA Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture, and by the Surface Design Association, are held in the collections of the Museum of Arts and Design, American Bible Society, Constitutional Court of South Africa, Catholic Theological Union, and numerous other public and private collections. 

With her previous experience working on special projects centring on interactive set designs for full-length dance pieces by Callince Dance and Jan Erkert and Dancers, it is natural that elements of music or dance accompany her work. Much of Wohl’s work is reminiscent of music in that the composition is layered with different elements. 

Her art is a dynamic concerto that is powerful and moving. By taking her cue from the fabric she unweaves, she conveys her spiritual journey through text, visual rhythm and tactile elements.  Their beauty and complexity unites different traditions and offers an opportunity to reflect on how to unweave the past into something new. 


Laurie Wohl will be the featured guest on January 18, 2023, 7:00 pm MST on Art and Scroll

Studio: A zoom series that celebrates the makers and creators of Judaic art. To see a short preview click here

To register for the virtual and free program please click here


Header image is of “Birds of Longing” by Laurie Wohl. 

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