Much of Susan Klebanoff's work begins with quirky associations that most likely would occur to no other living human. Take the time a decade ago the U.S. Embassy in Ireland commissioned her to weave a tapestry on an American theme.
"I was thinking of heads of state ... America ... how we're represented ... heads of state ... heads -- hair!" the fiber artist says in her Silver Spring studio. "It seemed very obvious to me."
What seemed obvious was to go to the Senate barber and ask for a sampling of senatorial clippings, which she would then spin and weave into art. She could only hope the hair actually belonged to senators and not to legislative aides and other peons. "It's hard to verify that sort of thing," she says.
"The funny thing was getting clearance to get it out of the building," she laughs. " 'What's in that bag, lady?' 'Hair.' 'Oh.' "
Eventually,the commission fell through (for bureaucratic reasons, surprisingly, rather than esthetic differences), and so "Heads of State" still hangs on her studio wall. "Nobody wants to buy it!" she exclaims. A curly brown mat that vaguely resembles a fuzzy mushroom, the creation looks less like human hair than wool off the back of a sheep -- suggesting interesting questions about the men and women who run our country that are perhaps better left unasked.
Klebanoff describes the piece as "a somewhat ambiguous form. Some people think it's two opposing profiles, some think it's the back of George Washington's head, some think it's a phallic symbol. I was expecting it to be a little gray patch, but it was the youngest Senate ever."
Thus does history shape the work of a weaver.
But the fuzzy mushroom was hardly Klebanoff's last encounter with the exciting world of politics -- her wall hangings are about to play a part in international diplomacy. Rebecca Matlock, an art expert and wife of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, had included Klebanoff's work in several previous shows and invited her to inaugurate a new gallery in the U.S. Embassy there. The show opens Wednesday.
Visitors to the embassy will see "Heads of State" ("I thought that would be appropriate") as well as pieces like "A Day in the Bath," which chronicles just that, and "Pending Divorce" -- one panel the lacy, frothy, ribbony whites of a wedding gown, the other a tangled, curled, weighty mass of black. The two sides are connected by thin red strands. ("Like any divorce," she says with a smile, "there are strings attached.")
Visitors will, however, not see the cabinet with doors that Klebanoff made of tangled branches and twigs she found on a walk in the woods, or the pillows she whipped up for her father after he complained about the white fur her beloved Samoyed puppy deposited on his furniture. He should have known she'd spin the fur into yarn. "Feel it -- it's more expensive than cashmere," she says of the luxuriant, fluffy stuff.
The artist wears a long black suede shirt and high black suede boots fringed with metallic threads, clothes that could easily be woven into one of her tapestries. A woman quick to smile, she is delighted by such things as a UPS man delivering yarn who notices a mock-up for a recent job and comments, "That's neat!" The shelves of her studio hold swirls of richly colored wool, and streamers drape the small bathroom. What she calls "the Cadillac of looms" sits empty for the moment while she occupies herself packing up the art that will go to Russia.
Klebanoff, 32, began weaving as a college student at Carnegie-Mellon, where she studied drawing. "The neat thing about fiber is it can be so many things," she says. "It can be conceptual, like 'Heads of State.' It can be painterly. It can be mathematical, like designing on the loom."
Over the years, her work has moved from geometric color studies to sculptural explorations of the possibilities of white yarns to her current style, which involves weaving three or four layers of tapestry at once. The panels hang in front of one another, giving the abstract works the depth and perspective of landscapes.
"What I'm doing now is playing with people's perceptions," she says. "What's background? What's foreground? What can you see? I've done imagery that's only visible from one point and fades away from others."
The technique occurred to her after many hours spent in pools. "I started seeing things in layers. I do a lot of swimming -- you know how you can see light as it comes down through the water? It has a physical presence."
Her work now hangs in more than two dozen corporate offices and private collections. For the last eight years, she has been kept busy with commissions for pieces that cost from $4,000 to $40,000, decorating the walls of such companies as Trammell Crow Corp., TRW and IBM. "Not to brag!" she adds quickly, but "there was a point when people were paying to get in line. I think the material is so wonderful and the buildings so cold -- the granite, the glass and steel -- they need some warmth. I think they also respond to my ability to come up with ideas about how I feel about their company."
She often begins her commissions before the site is even built, studying blueprints and talking with architects. While not all of her work relates thematically to the corporate giant paying for it, she has ripped up brown grocery bags and woven them into a hanging for Giant and created an urban landscape for Trammell Crow.
"I'm alone -- what, 12 hours a day? -- working without assistants. I enjoy meeting with the architects and designers and developers. Also, I think I see a real nice side of some really powerful business people or developers who are always worrying about 'What's the deal?' or 'Shall we limit the square footage?' "
On a day especially full of such questions of deals and footage, perhaps an executive would appreciate the opportunity to take a moment out to ponder one particular Klebanoff piece. It is studded with cigarettes and money and a general air of angst. "I called this one 'Obsession,'" she says, and smiles.