By Leigh Werrell
Yvonne Pacanovsky Bobrowicz, dressed, as usual, in all black, sits in her Fitler Square row home, surrounded by plants, light, and various artifacts – clues to the narrative of her full life. Her husband, an artist and former architect named Joe, is in the kitchen. As Yvonne and I chat, she gestures to objects in the sitting room, showing me the intricately carved furniture her father built and a copper plate her mother hammered and etched with a floral pattern.
Bobrowicz’s home is also filled with remnants of her own artistic explorations. A weaving hangs in the window: a vertical train of transparent strands falling down the pane, catching the light like water. Her more recent work resides in an upstairs room and in her sunlit studio. Bobrowicz’s work is made of thin, plastic monofilament, each strand knotted together and hung to form an organic mass that glows like a jellyfish when touched by light. A few of these pieces are over six feet tall and four feet wide, however they all have a distinct feather-like weightlessness. In some, the texture of the filaments changes halfway down the piece, as Bobrowicz has inserted ties coated in gold or made of organic materials, such as linen. These pieces in particular have a certain – almost sensual – bodily quality, maintaining a distinctly figurative anatomical form while remaining ethereal in nature.
Bobrowicz has been weaving since the 1930’s, and continues to work today. She studied at the esteemed Cranbrook Academy of Art, among other institutions, and started teaching at Drexel University in 1966. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Racine Art Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago own work by Bobrowicz, and she was represented by Snyderman-Works Galleries in Philadelphia from 2000 to 2017. Her work is currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art along with that of Jack Larimore and Sharon Church.
Bobrowicz sat down with me to chat about her family, life and artistic intentions a few days ago.
Leigh Werrell: How long have you been a practicing artist?
Yvonne Bobrowicz: My parents were art-craft, but at that time, art and craft were apt to be separate, when actually they are a degree of one. I didn’t think of myself as an artist, really, until mid-life, when that whole art-craft evolution started. I grew up in a very creative household. It was the depression – survival – beauty was something that I would be exposed to, develop and live with. My mother always had to set the table the night before, so you started the day in calm and beauty. At one point there were seven of us around the table because of the aunties. How she did it, I don’t know, but there was always something good to eat, and she designed and made a lot of our clothes.
We had to go forth looking the way she wanted us to. She would put our hair up because little girls had to have curls. My father had wavy hair. None of the three of us got it, and she lamented. So she would put our hair up in paper and safety pins every night- there was a night ritual- we got the hair curled and then she’d read wonderful stories. She took elocution as a child and she was very good- she probably could have been an actress except her mother would have had a fit, because she was old Victorian…
LW- So basically when you were a child you had the idea of aesthetics all around you and then –
YB- It was something we lived with. My older sister was very good. She was going to be a painter, only she was a girl. My mother realized she had talent, so she looked up an artist in town. He was an impressionist. He had come from Texas where he was so poor he had to draw with charcoal on the ground.
LW- So you found that you were proficient at art as well, at that age?
YB- I did enjoy painting. In boarding school my mother said, “You should take typing, because girls should know how to type – you might be starving at some point!” and that’s what girls did – but I was terrible! I almost flunked.
I would draw my roommate or scenes of the campus. But when I went to Cranbrook, I went into craft and not fine art and it worked for me.
LW- Your parents were both creative – your father was a woodworker – did they encourage you in your pursuit of art?
YB- Oh, yes. When I was in 7th grade, the teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be an arts and crafts teacher – of course my parents were arts and crafts teachers. So my mother said, “Oh, fine, you can go to the state art school.” which was part of Rutgers.
My father came from a farm, and in the winter he would carve little sticks with a penknife. His father had three boys out of nine children! Anyway, they said, “We’ll send him to the carver.” because he could be apprenticed at eleven. You see this was the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and in the early 1900s the farm children could only be educated if they went to the army or into priesthood.
My father had incredible handwriting – he prided himself. He was smart in the head, really an intellectual. When he died he said he wished he had been a philosopher. Anyway, at eleven he was out of the house. What you did was you went to live with the guy who had the business, the carpenter. He swept the floor first and then he taught him – that’s how he went to school. And when they were 17 they would become journeymen. They worked all the time, but every once in a while they could dance. He lived to be 95 and taught ‘till 80. He worked and he made beautiful things.
LW- I know that you studied at Cranbrook, University of Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now University of the Arts) and taught at Drexel. How did these institutions influence your work?
YB- The school on Broad and Pine [University of the Arts] was wonderful- Annie Albers came, so I took her course, and I read a lot, sort of like my father.
Cranbrook was most important to me. The campus was beautifully designed. It was a total aesthetic environment, philosophically and physically. But remember – with hand weaving – people would say, “Oh how relaxing.” They thought that you had a nerve disease or something, either it was like knitting or you lived in Appalachia and you were trying to survive. It didn’t bother me. I love my weaving, and I lucked into Cranbrook.
LW- What was the art community like when you first moved to philly?
YB- The Art Alliance was important. The Academy (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) was important. There were not a great many galleries. When I first left school, one of the architects there said my friend from Carnegie Mellon is opening a design studio, go and talk to him. So I did. And he said to go to the Art Alliance. He said, “there’s something called the Home Fashion League” – and these were the decorators. See, the terminology for the designing of spaces has changed.
Philadelphia had a guild of hand weavers. These were ladies from the Main Line, who decided they didn’t want to play bridge. They were mostly upper-middle class. One of them had a husband who traveled a lot after the war. He went to Sweden, and you see, in Sweden, you would rent a loom at the department store. Of course, they weave a certain knotted, Rya rug, which they did for beds, floors, walls, sleds – you know, it’s cold there!
So they decided to have a little group who would learn to weave. They bought looms. And a couple of them went to Cranbrook Summer school. They were all around 50, and I was 22 or 23. They contacted me – they found out somehow that I wove – and I was the young one. A lot of them did a type of weaving where they would copy patterns. Of course we [at Cranbrook] were taught everything had to come out of you. We were into textured weaving. That was an evolution, you could say, from the old patterns. The character of the yarn, the color, and how you put it together were the important things. In a sense I brought that to them, but I learned from them too. They would meet at the university museum, and they’d have speakers at the Ladies Tea at Penn.
LW- In what years did this happen?
YB- This was in the earlier part of the ‘50s. They had Lenore Tawney come in the late 50s, and they asked me to take her out to dinner, so I lucked in! I was so pleased to see her at the Tate. She lived to be 100.
LW- What was it like to be a working female artist in the 70s and 80s?
YB- My mother was much more advanced than many. She went to art school and had a definite aesthetic. I had this dichotomy because it was the ‘20s, near New York – my parents were interested in nudism and vegetarianism. We would be put down in the yard naked. My father had a flourishing cabinet making business, and then the depression killed it, so he went into teaching, and moved from public school to prep school, which was more conservative. Then, my sister and I went to boarding school.
What happened in the ‘70s was that there were more of us, (female artists) and we were allowed freedom. The craft movement was a part of this. There was a group of female artists- the Art Alliance supported them and showed their work. Edna Andrade and Elizabeth Osborne were particularly good – they both have work at Locks Gallery now. They were good, but they were painters, and I was not a painter. What happened was Helen Drutt started the Philadelphia Craft Group. There was a group of women whose children were getting older and they were looking for something creative. So you could see the movement evolving, in all mediums. I had my first rug at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the ‘60s.
Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb (Aileen Osborn Webb) was – you know, “money,” and she was empathetic. She saw all these people around her – women in the depression having a terrible time. So she encouraged them to make something to sell. So she gathered them together, mostly they were potters but some weavers. She had a gallery on Madison Avenue [where she exhibited their work] and I was in two of those shows. The women had been in the factories and flying the planes, and so there was a new women’s energy, after the war. There was an exhibit at the Art Alliance for textiles and Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb had exhibits at her gallery. In one of them, I was supposed to be up for first prize, but mine wasn’t practical, because you see, crafts were supposed to be functional, and you couldn’t wash my drapery! Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb was the money behind the new craft museum (The Museum of Arts and Design), and that was really a smash.
There was some intuitive thing within me. I used to walk around the city and I’d see lofts…I had a lovely home but…
I’m not alone. There were several women who got divorced…I had a friend from Cranbrook who knew a woman with four children – she left them with her husband and went to New York to paint. I could never have done that but I just wanted something new. I remember driving myself to the beach and sitting there alone. I was 49 and I thought, “This is the first day of the rest of my life.” I was feeling it, but I didn’t know quite how to express it. Then when this loft became available, I grabbed it, and I had this commission at a synagogue, and I thought, I could use that for one year’s rent. I had the loft for four years. That was my whole “rebirth.” I had the teaching job and I had the weaving job, then I took an extra teaching job at the Art Institute. I took [the loft] at $150 a month. Can you believe it?!
At that time women were paid even less than they are now. The woman’s job was to take care of the house and the children and the husband, and if she had any time and energy or cleverness after that then she would do something, and any money she made from that was hers. That’s why I felt like “Well, I’m going to do this.” because I was teaching – terrible money – but whatever. When I got there I decided I didn’t want to weave anything functional. The type of yarn and its scale reflected the evolution of the woman. Big fat thick yarn like this (Bobrowicz gestures at a round, high-pile, red and white rug under her coffee table) – then as industrialization evolved, automation, etc., you went the other way. So that was a polarity within me. Someone said, “DuPont gives yarn away.” because they did the plastic and nylon. They made the first nylon stockings – oh my God, they were so wonderful! So I got that DuPont monofilament and I thought, “I’ll go man-made instead of natural.” [The loft] was a wonderful space – it had sun, 5 windows facing southwest, and it had these lights and when you took the monofilament and hung it – my God! It lit up! It lit up my brain!
At that time I was going to Jungian meetings and I read the Tao of Physics. I wanted to express what I was reading, thinking and feeling. I get so excited when I think of the physics of particles, theories of space-time, cosmic energy fields, and how we are all connected through physics. Monofilament allows me to explore these ideas in a dynamic and kinetic manner, through the illumination of the material and the way it moves.
Thank you to Yvonne Bobrowicz for sharing her time and stories! Her work will be on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until summer, 2018.