The city that never sleeps

20 June 2014
Written by Sacha Kenny | Images by Sacha Kenny
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Reflecting on a ‘life less ordinary',  Sacha Kenny chats to weaver  Annie Atkinson about the two decades  she spent living a creative life in New York City 



What does it mean to you to be a creative woman?

"It means you have to do what is in you - or it doesn’t work. 
If you’re allowed to do what you want to do then you feel like you’re almost what you were designed to be."

As a young woman of 22 Annie Atkinson and her husband of one year Paul packed up their courage and moved from suburban Christchurch to New York City, landing at JFK airport on the first day of 1969. It was Paul’s job as a research scientist with a Jewish university in the Bronx that drew them there and it was Annie’s creative bent that tied them to the city for the next 23 years.

A willingness to let go of who she thought she should be, in order to become who she really is, led Annie on a journey of creative discovery, a journey that took her from an office job with the New Zealand Consulate to the hub of New York’s garment district mixing with ‘immigrants, trade union workers, creative people young and old’ and forging a career as a textile designer and weaver.

“I’d work during the day at the consulate with all these nice New Zealanders and then in my lunch hour I’d rush down to Time Square to kind-of mix with the dirty and the dangerous. Can you imagine coming from the consulate where there were the ambitious diplomats and really lots of people like me, to break out of that and be part of a vibrant community – it was just like going to paradise."

Where do you find inspiration? 

"The inspiration comes from the best of everything – I don’t try and reinvent the wheel or muddle through from the bottom, I’ve seen something and it rings a bell. I’ve got extensive books of ideas for sculpture; for painting. Even by cutting something out or putting it aside the connections been made, you don’t always need to check it again the subconscious connection is there."

First undertaking a casual class in weaving held in a rented spire of the socially active Riverside Church in Harlem, Annie became driven by the desire to learn more and so applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, where she undertook a degree in Textile Technology. Years later Annie returned to the university in a professional capacity as a teacher of woven design and nature studies (drawing).

“The school had everything from window dressing to pattern designing, pattern cutting, interior design and fashion design – Calvin Klein went there. It was a real trade school. I would catch the subway in the morning making sure I had matching earrings and shoes, the subway took me straight to were I needed to be. Because the school was a whole city block, to get to my floor meant that I passed through interior design, jewellery and packaging before I got to my classroom – it was marvellous.

“I’d gone to Canterbury University were the professors would swish around in their gowns, rattle off something, no questions or answers then leave with gowns fluffing, it was just so old English it was ridiculous. But in New York the teachers were terrific, it was not like any kind of teaching I’d ever experienced, no arrogance what so ever - a real freedom of knowledge.

“Once I started studying in New York it was the difference between life and death really, night and day it really was."

Upon graduating Annie won a $1000 prize for her work - money that allowed her to purchase a loom and launch her career as a freelance weaver. “I could go around companies like Field Crest who make sheets and I would line up with a lot of other freelance weavers and the stylist would come out and give us each a sack of yarn and the weave plan, say when they needed it by and we’d all trot off back on the subway – it was amazing."

It wasn’t long before Annie’s work caught the eye of German fashion designer and artist Karl Lagerfeld, with an apparel design she created based around the rings of Uranus purchased by Lagerfeld via her agent.

What do you appreciate about texture and colour?

"I just still have so much gratitude for my training. Because of those four years of study and being drilled every day by teachers as to what good design is, how much yellow is in this blue as opposed to this blue - it means when I look at something I know whether it’s well woven or not, where it came from, if the dyes have shifted and moved and shouldn’t have. 

"My technical training kind-of underwrites everything I know. I have a sense of standards I think - if that doesn’t sound odd, I am aware of what has been done before and what can be done."

In 1981 Annie was hired by the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Devine (centre of the Anglican Diocese of New York), as part of a team, to restore and conserve a set of 17th century tapestries. Originally from the papal House of Barberini in Rome the tapestries were donated to the church in 1890 by an American collector who had purchased them from the Princess Barberini in 1889. The estimated value of the Barberinis tapestries in 1891 was $75,000 (Cathedral archives).

"Thousands of people visit the cathedral every year and so the director of the church conceived of the idea to have the cleaning of the tapestries done under the public eye. The cathedral is huge - it had a poets' corner, a ‘honour our brave firefighters’ corner, it had a photographer in residence, it had a mime in residence. The Frenchman Philippe Petit, who walked on the high-wire between the twin towers in 1974 – he was made to do penance and give a free performance by high-wire walking between the cathedral and the main apartment building opposite. He was the high-wire walker in residence, it was just a title but it meant those 'in residence' were on tape and could be used by the church if needed.

“The cathedral is this magnificent building but at that time it was in need of repair so they had disenchanted youth from Harlem working on the building - we were these prissy white girls running around while these glistening, shirtless youths clanked around the place, it was just lovely. 

“Unfortunately our work only started really, we’d got to the stage of photographing and sorting the tapestries when the church had a change of director and when the new one came in he fired us all – I have to say he was a bastard, but he’d done his doctorate on these tapestries and he wanted it done his way."

“New York is a wonderful place. I was talking to friend recently who had also lived there in the 1970s and we were talking about Downtown - an area that’s now full of the very finest most expensive European clothing stores. But then, when we lived there, artists where living there illegally and having performances on the street, it was marvellous. 

“Everyone comes to New York – you come from a small town where you’re a big fish, you’re famous and you think 'I’ve conquered this city so I’ll go to the big one' but the competition is furious - you can die trying to get attention in New York City. 

"I was unformed when I left New Zealand but I came back as someone with this New York trained and slanted interest - I still look out of New Zealand. 

"We’ve been back in New Zealand over twenty years now and I don’t really want to go back (to New York) because they tell me the city's been cleaned up, which absolutely horrifies me – you know you need that little bit of danger, never knowing who’s behind you to keep you on your toes, it’s exciting."




+1 #1 Anna Williams 2014-06-25 12:13
This woman is fascinating.. Someone needs to write a book about her/ do a doco!!!!!!

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