Even though Brooklyn-based artist Amy Helfand has been designing rugs on commission from her Red Hook studio since 2004 — hand-knotted wool rugs, it should be mentioned, that sell for at least $125 a square foot — she still has trouble defining herself in those terms. “Up until recently, I never really thought about rugs,” she says. “I thought about making my artwork, and some of that artwork I’d make into rugs. But it was never like ‘Ok, this one comes in 5×7 and 6×9.’” Ironic, considering that she graduated from a studio art program at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute called Fiber. “It was a catch-all term,” she swears. “Those people were not necessarily textile people.”
So how did it all come together? In 2004, Helfand was working on what she calls “sculptural installation work — grand-schemey sort of stuff” — when she was asked to put together a show at Wave Hill, a public garden and cultural center in the Bronx where the galleries are actually the domestic spaces of a 19th-century mansion. “I had been doing all of this collage work, and I thought a rug would be a good match for my imagery. It could sit in front of this fireplace in what would be the receiving room.” Helfand’s body of work for the show was inspired by the natural beauty of Wave Hill, and the rug she created was a map-like aerial view, based on the site plan of the gardens there. She lucked out on her first try finding a reputable manufacturer in Nepal, and from there, it was relatively simple: “I liked the rug, I sold it, and I tried to do more,” she says. Inspiration for subsequent series came mostly from her travels in the wilds of America, with one based on the Appalachian Trail, and another on Lewis and Clark and the museum at the St. Louis Arch. “My imagery has always been rooted in landscape and the natural world,” she says. “I like maps and that whole idea of having room to roam. I guess the idea of the journey must be compelling to me.”
In March of 2008, that journey took her all the way to Nepal, where she’d sent three rugs to be crafted in anticipation of that spring’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. It was there she found the subject matter that would drive nearly all of the personal work she’s done since that time. Everywhere she went, everywhere she looked, there were colorful prayer flags strung along streets and cascading out in lines from temples. “It’s this very tiny country, and it’s full of faith, which isn’t something I’m really in touch with in my life. There are Hindus and Buddhists, and their religion is ever-present. I was inspired by the expression of these faiths, which coexist peacefully, and just graphically I liked the way they looked.”
In May, Helfand debuted Garland, her second series of rugs based on the prayer-flag motif, at an ICFF booth that brought the series to life in 3-D. Earlier this summer, on a swampy Wednesday afternoon, I visited her Red Hook studio to find out exactly how the rugs were made.