More than 30 years ago, Manchester native Judith (Wilbour Nelson) Minzler made a decision she has regretted ever since. A young artist, she opted to sell what she has always felt was her finest work, a tapestry dubbed “Clarion Call.” Its whereabouts remained a mystery ever since.
That all changed when a voice message from an art appraiser told her the piece would soon have a new home — Washington, D.C. “Clarion Call” had been chosen to become a part of the permanent collection of the Renwick Gallery, the American Arts and Crafts wing of the Smithsonian Institution.
“It is a true honor, very humbling,” said Minzler. “It was completely unexpected. The whole process has been very exciting.”
Minzler, who now resides in Seattle, credits her mother, Jean Nelson of Manchester, with passing on to her a love of arts and crafts — and the patience and dedication that goes into creating the smallest of tapestries, let alone one like the 5-by-8-foot “Clarion Call.”
Her mother accompanied her to D.C. in May 2011 and together they shared a view neither had taken in for decades.
“I am so proud of her,” said Nelson. “It's amazing how it all came about. It was gone for years, then a phone call from a woman in New York … and now it's at the Smithsonian.”
“It was more than wonderful to see the tapestry after 33 years and an unanticipated highlight was recognizing that many other craftsmen in the show were already very well known when I was in school and beginning my career,” said Minzler. “I knew of them then, studied their works and now it's an honor being among them — mind-bending, inspiring and revitalizing.”
In the days leading up to the Oct. 19, 2010, debut of “Clarion Call” at the Renwick Gallery, Minzler traced the long road the piece took from a national college crafts show in Ohio to the walls of the Renwick.
“I did it in 1978 as part of my master's thesis at Cranbrook Academy of Art,” said Minzler, a Derryfield School graduate.
“I had always felt that it was the best work of my career — it was special and I knew it. I indiscriminately entered it into the Marietta College Crafts National show in Marietta, Ohio. I didn't know at the time that this was a very prestigious show and difficult to get into. The tapestry went directly from Cranbrook to Marietta and it was sold from the show. I hadn't seen it or heard about it since.”
Minzler said in September 2010 she received a call from an art appraiser who said that she had been looking for her for a couple of months.
“I had a new last name, I had moved 3,000 miles and hadn't been weaving for 25 years, so it was quite a process finding me,” said Minzler.
After she heard “Clarion Call” was headed to Washington, she had a call from Paul Garrison, an interior designer in Marietta who she said loved the piece “at first sight” and bought it without having a place to hang it, opting instead to place it in storage for a few years.
Minzler said that after a few years, Garrison gave it to a friend, Robert Evans of Marietta, who could hang it in his home safely out of direct sunlight.
“Paul talked to him about donating it to the Smithsonian, but he wanted to keep it,” said Minzler.
“Several years ago, Robert died and the tapestry then belonged to his wife, Sally. She moved and it again went into storage, but after a couple of years Paul talked to her about donating it and she agreed,” Minzler explained.
Garrison sent a picture of “Clarion Call” to the curator of the Renwick, Nicholas Bell, who agreed to see it. Garrison transported it to the Smithsonian warehouse in Apollo, N.Y., where he hung it, gave it lighting and showed it to Bell. The curator liked it right away but commented that it looked like it had some sun damage. Minzler said Garrison told him to take a closer look.
“When he did, he realized that the weaver, me, had built the light into the piece,” said Minzler. “He was hooked. The piece was inspired by window panes on buildings in Detroit and the way the light passes through and reflected by them.”
“Clarion Call” was then presented to the Renwick Gallery's board of directors for approval., and a long acquisition process began (including finding the artist, reviewing the resume, testing the tapestry for mold and bugs, getting an appraisal and getting an artist statement and portrait).
As part of the Renwick's permanent collection, it will remain on exhibit for one to two years, then placed in storage and become part of the museum's revolving collection, according to Minzler.
Minzler, who said she hasn't weaved another tapestry in 25 years, wrestled with the idea of starting up again.
“I thought about it a long time, but that was four careers ago,” said Minzler, who now works in the elder care industry in Washington state. “My mother and a lot of family and friends would love me to take it up again. But this is an incredible honor for something I created, and that's enough. That's enough for me.”