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Summer 2001


FAYE ZHANG - Evolution of a Language

Word Path (front view, top, and detail), 2000; handwoven linen, ramie, and cotton tapestry with painting on warp; 5 by 10 feet. Photo is by the artist.

Faye Zhang works out of a studio in the hills of San Francisco, yet her weavings reflect diverse cultures. Her proficiently and laboriously crafted works draw inspiration from classical Chinese opera, the traditional performing and visual arts of Asia, and written languages of many lands.

She is fond of supplementary wefts, dense tapestry weaves, and double weaves richly detailed on both sides. She also has a striking command of color and utilizes tonal variations to produce a sense of depth or fluidity. Her varied and vivid palette - fiery reds and oranges, earthen browns and golds, and watery blues - evokes the elements, while her opulent application of shimmering metallic yarns gives her works the semblance of fine brocades reserved for royalty or celestial beings.

Measuring 5 feet high by 10 feet wide and double sided, the impressive Word Path addresses the evolution of language and also pays homage to the calligraphy and landscape painting of Zhang's homeland - she is originally from China. Configured like a folding screen, each side consists of three panels joined by vertical strips. The frontal piece is a tapestry weave depicting a giant spiral (symbolizing energy, momentum, and growth), laced with characters from cuneiform, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Native American writing and letters from the Russian and Arabic alphabets. A portion of the warp remains unwoven to reveal the textile on the other side.

Its partner, a plain weave, portrays several high pinnacles reminiscent of the famed karst formations near Guilin in southern China. However, these peaks - unlike those of the classical brush paintings that inspired Zhang - are composed of hundreds of letters and characters.

Zhang began studying fiber art less than a decade ago. As a teenager, she dreamed of being a writer, hoping to follow in the steps of her father, a playwright and theater director. To gather material, she decided to become a lawyer.

"I thought I'd encounter interesting stories and have lots to write about," she said. "But at that time, in China, you couldn't go to college directly out of high school. You had to work for a factory or farm. If you proved politically correct, the party would let you continue your education."

Zhang was dispatched to an industrial textile factory for 3-1/2 years - until China's policies changed and she was finally allowed to take a qualifying exam for law school. After obtaining degrees in family and international law, she was appointed assistant professor at Shanghai's East China Law and Politics Institute.

In 1987, she immigrated with her husband to the United States. She did legal research and later, taking a hiatus from law, had a baby. However, when her son turned four, she enrolled in art school. She initially studied fashion design but eventually developed an interest in fabric. She soon learned to weave, and even her earliest works demonstrated a distinctive style.

In 1994, she created 14 weavings based on Chinese opera warrior masks. By 1996, she was already experimenting with language, fashioning textiles after ancient pictographs on Chinese oracle bones. Subsequent pieces have been modeled after Hawaiian petroglyphs and stone tablets of the Naxi, a Chinese national minority. She also has made some lively pictorial weavings.

Presently completing her M.F.A. at San Francisco State University, Zhang is finishing up her most ambitious and sumptuous work to date, Blue Bird, a double weave comprising 92 blue and silver panels. It bears a poem comparing love to a wave, written in Chinese calligraphy and English. She will present it in an installation alongside three handmade books of poetry.

-- Victoria Alba

Faye Zhang's URL is

Victoria Alba is a freelance arts writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.


This profile first appeared in:

Summer 2001

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