Silvia Heyden once said she had an eye in each of her fingers.
The remark came during an interview four years ago, when a documentary about her career as a world-renowned tapestry artist by local filmmakers Kenny Dalsheimer and his wife, Marybeth Dugan, was about to be released.
Watching Heyden weave at 84, it was clear what she meant.
Sitting at her loom, a device that took up most of the sun-filled living space in her solar home near the Eno River in Durham, her hands swam across the strings. She seemed like a harpist, as her fingers deftly pulled and wove the thread.
“I was a naughty weaver,” she said about her technique. She worked on the diagonal, pushing the yarn through the taut vertical strings, carefully choosing, yet improvising as she went.
“Going diagonal is against every rule, every rule there is,” she said.
Though Heyden trained in one of Europe’s most established art academies, she turned that traditional foundation on its head when practicing her craft. She created her own technique, turning out more than 1,400 tapestries that look nothing like the traditional Gobelin works designed to be literal images painted in thread. Hers were fluid, inspired by nature.
Heyden, 88, died this month from complications following heart surgery. For months she could neither weave nor walk the Eno River, the two rituals that defined her life for years.
“If she couldn’t weave, life was not worth living,” said her daughter Françoise Heyden.
Loom at first sight
Born in Basel, Switzerland, Heyden was artistic from the start, and often took art supplies along on her hikes through the Alps with her father.
When very young she wanted to be a violinmaker, but at the time women were not allowed into such guilds. Art school beckoned, but would have to wait. At 16, Heyden spent five years recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium.
Heyden was an adolescent through most of World War II, and though her family was fortunate enough to reside in neutral Switzerland, she remembered being afraid at times. Her parents worked very hard to keep life “normal” for their four children. They also took in Jewish refugees, feeding them and offering shelter for a night or two.
Once able, Heyden entered the School of Arts in Zürich and studied in the Bauhaus tradition. She attributed her strong foundation in color theory to her time there. It wasn’t until after her studies that she discovered the loom. She knew instantly it was her artistic medium.
Her husband, Dr. Siegfried Heyden, worked two jobs to buy her first loom. They lived stateside and abroad throughout their married life, and when the couple moved back and forth the loom made the journey as well.
‘She found freedom’
Her loved ones marveled at the way Heyden embraced parameters that many others would have considered restrictive.
“She found freedom within the constraints of the medium, so she really honored the loom and the threads and their limitations. But within those limitations was this constant exploration of possibilities,” said Dugan, a fellow weaver. “She was really against trying to represent an image that would hang on a wall as if it was a painting.”
The loom itself was an enormous, clunky structure, one suited for climbing when her children were young. Well into her 80s she was lithely able to set it up, a physical process that required much leaning and pulling. She called weaving “massage” for her hands, and refused to use the tools many other weavers depend on to pull and tighten the threads.
When Dugan first met Heyden some eight years ago, she was struck by her self-possession.
“She very much knew, as she would say, that she didn’t follow rules, that she followed the thread, she followed the loom,” Dugan said.
She also followed the Eno River. Many of Heyden’s tapestries were inspired by the Eno, whose banks she walked year-round. Heyden was synesthetic, which in her case meant she saw sounds in color.
“The orange is the sound you hear when you lie in the water,” Heyden once told Dugan.
Born: Feb. 28, 1927, in Basel, Switzerland.
Family: Married Dr. Siegfried Heyden in 1954. Two children, Françoise and Daniel, and four grandchildren. Widowed in 2009.
Education: Studied in the Bauhaus tradition at the School of Arts in Zürich.
Career: Created at least 1,400 tapestries, showing at museums and private and public exhibitions all over the world; wrote “The Making of Modern Tapestry,” and the yet-to-be-released “Movement in Tapestry;” starred in the documentary “A Weaverly Path.”
Died: March 2, in Durham.