Skip to main content

Woven together, the dramatic threads of Tamara Jaworska's 97-year life create a story as compelling as the tapestries she shaped on her 12-foot loom.

Ms. Jaworska, a contemporary weaver, had the distinction of being the first North American fibre artist to be represented by the prestigious Galerie Inard, Centre National de la Tapisserie d'Aubusson, in Paris. There she joined the ranks of masters such as Dali, Picasso and Chagall, who permitted some of their artwork to be woven by hired hands. But unlike these cultural titans, Ms. Jaworska undertook the painstaking task of weaving her art herself. She frequently took as long as two years to complete a masterpiece. In the 1980s, François Mathieu, curator of decorative art at the Louvre, wrote of Ms. Jaworska, "Her tapestries are at the peak of modern weaving art."

Her artistry first came to the attention of the Canadian public in 1974, when Unity, a competition-winning tapestry, was installed in Place Bell, in Ottawa. The piece, symbolizing Ms. Jaworska's newly adopted country, was so large and heavy that it had to be lifted into place by cranes. It now resides in the lobby of Gulf Canada Square, in Calgary. Unity, featuring provincial flowers, the Rideau Canal, the Gatineau Hills and the Parliament Buildings, drew critical praise.

A commission from businessman Albert Reichmann followed. The result, Quartet Modern, comprises four tapestries, each five metres by three metres. They adorned the main lobby of Toronto's First Canadian Place for 35 years. When the building was renovated, restoration work was carried out on Quartet Modern to repair damage caused by exposure to light. The tapestries are now in storage until a new display venue can be found. In an interview from New York, textile scholar John Vollmer, an expert familiar with Ms. Jaworska's work, said, "Unlike a painting, it's easy to roll up a tapestry and forget about it."

By the mid-1970s Ms. Jaworska's burgeoning reputation in Canada led to sales of earlier works, including Stream of Life to Metropolitan Life's headquarters in Ottawa. The company was amalgamated with another firm in 1998. The whereabouts of this work is currently unknown.

Over the course of a lengthy career, Ms. Jaworska racked up prizes, including a 1957 Gold medal at the Triennale di Milano. In 1994, Ms. Jaworska was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. She was later awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee medal. Leon Whiteson, a writer on architecture and design for the Los Angeles Times, described Ms. Jaworska as, "One of Canada's proudest cultural treasures."

Her work has been exhibited in her chosen homeland as well as Russia, Poland, Germany, Austria, Spain, England, Scotland, Switzerland, Mexico, Belgium and France. Major museums that own her work include the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, in Moscow; the National Museum, in Warsaw; the Museum of the History of Textiles, in Lodz; and the Scottish College of Textiles, in Galashiels.

Ms. Jaworska, who died on Oct. 29 in Toronto, worked 10 to 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week using centuries-old Gobelin techniques, in which threads are drawn through the warp by hand. By this method, only a small area of a large tapestry can be worked at any one time. Esteemed Scottish artist and art promoter Richard Demarco, who crossed the Iron Curtain almost 100 times in search of talent, likened Ms. Jaworska's fortitude and perseverance to that of a long-distance runner.

In the late 1940s, Ms. Jaworska studied painting and design at the Polish State Academy of Fine Art in Lodz. She was awarded a master's degree from the faculty of design and weaving, and remained on the teaching staff until 1958. By then, she had been awarded the Triennale di Milano gold medal, a powerful impetus to branch out on her own.

Ms. Jaworska began each massive project by designing it first as a working model in acrylics and pastels. Her 10-inch-by-12-inch painting, a meditation on nature, geometric shapes or the cosmos, then sat behind her loom as a template. Never improvising, she expanded the dimensions of her original design with precision using a variety of materials ranging from basic wool, (frequently dyed by her) to silk, sisal, horse hair, gold thread, artificial fibres and feathers. By the time it was completed, her work, hard in some places and soft in others, held a deep visceral and tactile appeal. "Jaworska's expressive work assaults the senses with urgency," Mr. Vollmer wrote. "Viewers of her tapestries encounter visual and sensual stimuli of incredible lushness."

Tamara Jaworska was born in Arkhangelsk, Russia, on July 20, 1918. Her Polish father, Antoni Jankowski, spent 10 years in a Siberian gulag for anti-Russian activities before marrying Russian Aleksandra Totolgin. A son, Jerzy, was born later in 1923. The young family escaped to Poland via Sweden, but Antoni Jankowski's family would not forgive him for marrying a Russian. The rejection took a toll on him, prompting his descent into alcoholism and depression. Tamara's parents divorced. Tamara and her brother also experienced much intolerance in Poland because of their Russian lineage.

As a girl, Tamara dreamed of becoming an archeologist. Instead, just before the advent of the Second World War, she married an architect 14 years her senior. The couple lived in Warsaw, a frequently bombarded city, where Ms. Jaworska gave birth to a daughter, Eva, in 1942. With her husband's health failing, the family moved back to the Polish city of Lodz. After her husband died at the age of 46, Ms. Jaworska took up the study of art and discovered her métier within the versatility of textiles. A second marriage, to an actor, lasted five years. It wasn't until she was introduced to divorced Polish film director Tadeusz (Tad) Jaworski that she found a life partner who understood her compulsive need to create. When the couple married in 1967, she adopted the feminine version of his surname, Jaworska, in keeping with Polish tradition.

Prior to the marriage, Mr. Demarco, at that time a gallery owner/director who was trying to internationalize the world of contemporary Scottish art, travelled to Poland to meet with the Union of Polish Artists, in Warsaw. "It soon became evident," he wrote in a foreword to the coffee table book Tamara – The Art of Weaving, "that it was almost impossible to deal with artists without dealing with the Communist bureaucracy that then ruled their careers."

Declaring Ms. Jaworska to be one of the most important artists he had ever encountered, he managed to circumvent the bureaucracy and, in 1968, presented Ms. Jaworska's first touring exhibition, in Britain.

The timing was fortuitous. Poland was in a state of political crisis, with student uprisings and a desperate government trying to control the situation by expelling intellectuals and Jews. Mr. Jaworski was both. All their important documents and Ms. Jaworska's loom were confiscated at the Polish border as they made their way to Rome. Having produced a film for the Vatican, Mr. Jaworski knew he could rely on assistance from the church while he and his wife contemplated their next move. They decided on Canada because it had a National Film Board similar to the one in Poland where Mr. Jaworski had developed his substantial reputation as a filmmaker. Thinking ahead, Ms. Jaworska contacted Mr. Demarco to ensure that her tapestries wouldn't return to Poland. She knew she would need them in her new country.

In 1969, the couple settled in Montreal to begin a new life as complete unknowns. Once again, social unrest – this time in the form of the separatist movement – made them feel unsafe. Within a few months, they moved to Toronto, where a weaving instructor provided Ms. Jaworska with the tools she needed until she could arrange for a loom of her own. As soon as her travelling exhibit arrived safely in Toronto from Britain, Ms. Jaworska arranged an exhibition at the Merton Gallery. Proceeds from gallery sales allowed them to buy a house in Willowdale with enough room for a studio. A specially constructed loom was ordered and shipped from Poland. Upon its arrival, Ms. Jaworska immediately set to work on the behemoth Unity for Bell Place.

Ms. Jaworska's fame was spreading. Many group and solo exhibitions followed, both at home and around the world. Hal Jackman, who would later become lieutenant-governor of Ontario, was a fan of Ms. Jaworska's art and opened her exhibitions whenever his schedule permitted.

Tad Jaworski's career was also on the rise. His 1972 documentary Selling Out, about a PEI man selling everything he owned, won an Etrog, the precursor to the Genie award. The film was subsequently nominated for an Oscar. Doors, previously closed to the couple, were now wide open.

Part of Ms. Jaworska's genius lay in changing the perception of weavers from easily dismissed craftspeople into recognized artists. Her primary concern, however, was always the work itself.

"Tamara was quiet. She was meditative, like her tapestries," said friend and interior designer Kika Misztela, who is now engaged in trying to organize a permanent home in Canada for Ms. Jaworska's work. "She was a tiny woman," Ms. Misztela said, "but she had a very big vision."

To submit an I Remember:

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.