Lilian Tyrrell (1944 – 2007) only entered the world of fiber art and tapestry at the age of 30, after a sheep raising project of her son’s saw their family left with a large amount of wool. She took a weaving course at Kent State University and made up for lost time with gusto, creating some 70 works over the next three decades – a feat all the more impressive when one considers some tapestries required multiple assistants and took almost two years to complete; a day of work often produced only half an inch of actual weaving. And while it’s possible to measure daily workflow, it’s much harder to measure the great impact her beautiful and striking creations have had on those fortunate enough to view them.
The lush landscapes of her home in Ohio formed the subject matter of her early work, but Tyrrell was best known for her Disaster Blankets that followed. The transition was inspired by a night in which she witnessed the controlled burning of an abandoned building as she drove through Cleveland – it led her to a whole new color palette, and ignited a burning desire to make a statement with her art. Intricate and arresting, beautiful but bleak, the series explores ongoing tragedies such as political greed, religious intolerance, racism, terrorism, pollution and warfare.
John Perrault, in his 1990 review of the pieces, described the Disaster Blankets as “fear frozen in thread” – a view consistent with Tyrrell’s own description of her motivations. In her own words: “This is my personal way of dealing with the frustrations and feelings of hopelessness that can accompany the information one receives with the evening news.”
The first Disaster Blanket was created in 1986, shortly after the Reagan administration proclaimed its theme of “Morning in America.” For Tyrrell, this theme belied the reality of life for far too many people – something she felt that campaign may have forgotten, but a condition that did not elude her. The images in Tyrrell’s pieces are vivid exposés of the downfalls of society, of the persistent problems – and, in the case of 9/11, the extraordinary choices – that so many ordinary people face. Her colors and fabric may be rich, but her imagery is a plain spoken and bare-knuckled critique of our collective conscience.
Yet the Disaster Blankets are still blankets, with all that blankets evoke – the warmth, comfort, intimacy and familiarity associated with these objects. Everyone needs a blanket, and the essential and fundamental requirement for them stands alongside the eye-popping beauty and bleakness that make up Tyrrell’s work. These blankets shine with both the warmth and the ferocity of fire.
Susan R. Channing, the director of SPACES Gallery Ohio (where a retrospective of Tyrrell’s work was displayed in 2006), professed her gratitude to Lilian “for a lifetime of moral courage, artistic skill, and love of humanity, and for making work that will echo through generations.” While Tyrell’s medium broke new ground, her concerns remain as timely as ever. These Disaster Blankets continue to exude the warmth, humanity, and provocative concern that emanated from Tyrrell’s work when she created them, and call us to action still.