Ethel Stein: A Weaver's Weaver

Ethel Stein: A Weaver's Weaver

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Ethel Stein in her studio. Photo/copyright Tom Grotta, courtesy of browngrotta arts.

Throughout her long career as a weaver, Ethel Stein has enjoyed a quiet but stellar reputation among the textile cognoscenti. She has never achieved wider fame, mainly because she never sought it. Now, still active as ever at the age of 91, she may finally be getting the recognition she deserves.

"I can't think of anyone who qualifies more as 'under the radar,'" says Tom Grotta of browngrotta arts, which represents Stein and recently published a monograph on her life and work. Jack Lenor Larsen wrote the introduction, in which he credits her for cultivating the technical mastery to realize her vision.

Born in 1917, Stein attended the Hessian Hills School in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where she was taught woodworking by Wharton Esherick and painting by George Biddle. Later she studied sculpture with Chaim Gross (with Louise Nevelson among her classmates) and design with Josef Albers. When she took up weaving, her circle included such important textile artists as Lenore Tawney and Mary Walker Phillips (she also worked with Shari Lewis to create sock puppets for the latter's popular children's tv show). Her late husband, Richard Stein, was an architect renowned for pioneering green building practices.

Stein weaves every day in her studio in Westchester County, alternating between geometric abstraction and figurative imagery, and between vivid color and a more muted palette of black, white and gray. Her pieces (a sampling from 1980 to 2006) look modern, yet are informed by her deep understanding of textile history, weave structure and loom technology, honed during the time she spent as a researcher at the Cooper-Hewitt and Metropolitan museums, analyzing rare old textiles in the collections. "I was looking through a microscope, drawing what the threads did," she recalls. "And then the thing I loved was making use of it."

"She is taking what she has learned from historical textiles and making it her own. Exper­imentation is very much a part of that process," says Lucy Commoner, the textile conservator at the Cooper-Hewitt and the author of an illuminating essay on Stein, her lifelong friend and mentor, in the browngrotta book.

Though Stein considers her age irrelevant, it is remarkable that she continues to innovate, still has great facility with the loom and may be at her peak. Her recent works are among her strongest, says Commoner. "Ethel is a true artist, someone whose entire life has been shaped by her creativity."