I think I might have been a tapestry weaver in a past life,” says Tammy Kanat, as she stands before her loom in her picturesque home studio in Melbourne’s east.
So deep is Tammy’s passion for this old tradition, that she can often be found surrounded by threads of wool and silk as early as 5am.
“It’s my happy place. If I’m stressed about anything, I can just go and weave and it’s like a meditation. Thoughts go in and out of my head. It soothes me and there’s a rhythm to it,” she says.
While it’s notoriously challenging to make a living as an artist, Tammy, 46, found critical acclaim, plus a strong customer base, almost immediately upon completion of her first work. As soon as she launched, she had commissions coming from around the globe. Which is no small feat considering Tammy was initially self-taught.
After struggling to find the perfect wall art for her new home renovation, she took herself off to Melbourne institution Wondoflex Yarn Craft Centre to create her own piece.
When she returned to Wondoflex to show off her work, the staff confirmed she was doing “something special”, and she enrolled in a series of classes at the Australian Tapestry Workshop.
“I wanted to learn the traditional tapestry weaving techniques, and really understand them, to then be able to become really free with using different wools and textures,” she explains. “I can be inspired by anything. It can be tiles on the floor. It can be the colours of the land, the water, the greens of the trees or the red earth,” she says, citing US interior designer Kelly Wearstler, German textile artist Gunta Stolzl and US artist Josef Albers as being among some of her biggest inspirations for her craft.
Tammy’s works range in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the size and the materials she uses, from silk to wool, rope, hessian and hemp. No two pieces are alike.
“I love playing with new ideas. I like experimenting. I do get a buzz out of creating something that just doesn’t exist,” she says.
Since launching, Tammy has exhibited her works locally and, more recently, alongside designer-maker Katharina Eisenkoeck and glass and ceramic artist Pia Wüstenberg at 2017 Milan Design Week. She also collaborated with local rug manufacturer Cadrys and with New York-based architect Peter Marino, who’s renowned for designing high-fashion boutiques for clients including Dior, Louis Vuitton and Bulgari. Marino discovered Tammy on Instagram.
In the wake of strong demand for her work, the challenge, Tammy says, has been to keep the business simple and authentic.
“It feels like it’s a very personal business,” she explains. “I have the potential to make a lot more volume, repeat designs. I’ve had the opportunity to do various things to make it a bigger business. But I suppose when I say it’s a business, I want it to be art. I want each piece to be special.”
Tammy knows first-hand the pitfalls of growing an artistic venture into a large-scale commercial enterprise. In 2001 she launched Mink Jewellery. At its peak she was making and selling bracelets, earrings and necklaces across Australia and New Zealand. Mink quickly grew from a local, small-scale, handmade business to an offshore, mass-produced operation.
“Mink became more about a business than about the creativity. It became more commercial. That’s when I fell out of love with it, because it’s the artistic factor I like, not the commercial. That’s not where my heart is and it’s not really what I want my art to be about.”
One of the things that “killed” her the most at Mink was the PR company that “took up everything I had, financially and energetically”.
“It was this neverending bottomless pit,” she says, adding that closing the business after 11 years felt like a challenging but necessary step in her creative development. “I had to just sit uncomfortably for a while without a creative outlet, but I always think I have to be truthful with myself. I wasn’t [feeling] proud of the work I was doing. I couldn’t keep going.”
Even with her weaving, Tammy constantly taps into her intuition to stay on course and not allow herself to get dragged into seeking recognition or growing beyond her intentions.
“I have kept it so simple. I work from home. I haven’t got any employees, I don’t do any PR. I don’t want to complicate it.”
It also slots seamlessly into the mother-of-three’s lifestyle, which includes regular trips to the family’s holiday houseboat on Lake Eildon, north-east of Melbourne.
“I’ll take a smaller loom with me so I can weave up there. I’m so impacted by my surroundings that, when I’m at Eildon, I’ll subconsciously produce works in the colours that are surrounding me.”
A single work can take four to five weeks for Tammy to complete.
“I generally find that once I’m in a piece, it’s like I’ve just got to get to the end. I just want to know what happens because I don’t know. I don’t plan. Planning makes me nervous,” she says.
Though the art forms of tapestry and rug-making have a rich history, they’re currently experiencing a resurgence.
“Everything is so fast-paced now and so immediate. People are looking for things or processes to slow down… people appreciate the bespoke aspect of creating something handmade. They’re appreciating the textures of wools,” says Tammy.
In fact, clients and followers have become so enamoured with the art form that Tammy now teaches weaving workshops from her home studio.
The trick to living and working creatively, says Tammy, is to do it for yourself. She tells the story of a famous singer who came onstage and performed for an adoring crowd despite being sick. At the end of this intimate performance an audience member thanked the singer for making the effort. The singer replied, ‘I don’t do it for you. I came out because it makes me feel better.’
“To me that’s when you do your best work, when you’re not trying to please others. You’re probably your best self when you’re doing it without ego.”