Reflections on Harold Keshishian and the RTAM Programs

On November 13, 2010, the Textile Museum’s Rug and Text Appreciation Morning program was devoted to reflections on the late Harold Keshishian’s


fecund relationship to, and work with, these free Saturday morning programs that have been, for nearly 40 years, an important part of The Textile  Museum’s  public outreach efforts.

The Myers Room was full.

Michael Seidman (left) and Wendel Swan (right)

led the efforts to organize, produce and conduct this session.

Via Powerpoint, 150 images of Harold and some of his pieces in RTAM sessions over the years were projected in background during the program.

I am going to try to provide you with an approximation of this session as it was conducted, but am also going to take some liberties with it.

In particular, I am, from time to time, going to:

1.  Show you, without comment,  some of the images from the projected Powerpoint array, and

2.  Use particular images, or groups of them, from the Powerpoint array and, then, repeat an associated Harold comment, or tell an associated story.

As one example of each of these points of punctuation, here is a first set of images from the Powerpoint array.


And here is an image illustrating a comment that Harold frequently made in these RTAM sessions.

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Harold comment:

“The weaver of this piece would not recognize it.”

Fading of synthetic dyes is notorious and often obvious, but Harold’s point is different: natural dyes fade too, and often the colors in a given piece with putative natural dyes, have likely changed, sometimes considerably, since the piece was new.

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Such comments and stories will, I think, to a degree convey, concretely, the sort of “force” that Harold was in the RTAM sessions.

Maryclaire Ramsey, The Textile Museum Director, and Bruce Baganz, the President of the Museum Board, spoke to Harold’s contributions to the textile world and to the TM in  particular, saying that the Museum today especially wanted to acknowledge Harold’s role in fostering the RTAM programs.

To that end she said, the Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning programs will in the future by presented “in memory of Harold and his many contributions and accomplishments.”

They presented Melissa Keshishian, Harold’s widow, and her two sons and daughter, with a plaque with this indication.

Wendel Swan spoke next.



Wendel said that the Rug and Textile Appreciation Mornings were a rare occurrence in today’s museum world:  a series of quality programs offered to the public free and without reservations.

He acknowledged the presence in the room of some people who had contributed to the RTAMs over the years: Russell Pickering, Michael Seidman, John Wertime and Ed Zimmerman (a long-time president of the TM board).

He further noted the absence of others who had sent their best wishes for the day, but regrettably could not attend: Leonardo Contardo, Virginia Delfico (the head of the TM’s Education Department for 11 years and a brilliant producer of RTAM programs), Jerry Thompson and John Howe (that’s me) .

(Wendel, himself, has worked actively with the RTAM sessions for years, and has presented frequently.  He is, currently very active, in producing them.)

He said that those in the room: trustees, colleagues and friends, were here to discuss and illustrate the contributions of the late Harold Keshishian to the RTAM programs, Harold’s contributions being one example of how individuals help the Museum fulfill its mission.

History recedes rapidly, and the origins of the RTAMs are a little murky.  But the best memories and information  suggest that the notion of the RTAMs originated in 1973, while Tony Landreau, later The Textile Museum’s Director, was a TM curator, and that Harold was asked to implement it.

Wendel said that the TM was managed very differently then.  Generally, speakers would go into the vaults and bring up pieces to show and tell on the floor in the galleries.

Wendel said that he arrived in the Washington area in 1986.  The first RTAM that he can remember is one given by the late Gayle Garrett on yastiks.

This was a time when objects from the TM collection were shown in RTAMs three or four times a year, and Gayle had some Museum material in her yastiks session.  Wendel said that he especially remembers this particular RTAM because he innocently reached out toward one of the Museum pieces, triggering a strong reaction from Gayle.  Wendel said that if Gayle had been holding a ruler, the back of his hand would have had a red welt… possibly his forehead as well.

Harold was a frequent RTAM presenter at that time and in subsequent years.

(Harold and Virginia Delfico)

Courtesy of Barry O’Connell

His programs were always popular and people were sometimes turned away because the capacity of the room had been exceeded.

Wendel said that he had often maintained that Harold knew more about more kinds of rugs and textiles than anyone else he had ever known.  Harold spent a lifetime in the rug business that his Armenian father founded, learning about the production, importation and identification of rugs and textiles from all kinds from various regions of the world.

Harold, Wendel said, owned a lot of rugs and shared them with us, generously.  Scarcely a topic could be presented here to which Harold could not bring an interesting example to share.

Most important, Harold had a passion and enthusiasm.  Passion and enthusiasm for the material,  for The Textile Museum and its programs, but especially for these Rug and Textile Appreciation Mornings.

Harold believed that those who have accumulated a certain amount of experience or knowledge, or who have attained some position of leadership in the rug and textile community have an obligation to participate in the RTAMs and, whenever possible, to present programs.

Wendel said that Harold’s absence in the RTAM sessions would be keenly felt.  His passing leaves a large hole in our access to an extensive and valuable, knowledge and experience.  A question is going to arise in an RTAM, and we are going to turn to the chair at the side where Harold often sat, and be a little surprised to find it empty.

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Frequent Harold comment:

“I think this piece is older than we think it is.”

Harold noticed that the most frequent responses to the question of how old a given piece might be were: “Last quarter of the 19th century.” or “Turn of the 20th century.” or “Probably before 1930.”

He said that it was not plausible to him that nearly all of the material we have was woven in years between 1875 and 1930 and that more of the pieces we have, than we might think, were woven before 1875, we just don’t have reliable bases for identifying them.

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Wendel called on several folks in the audience to talk about their experiences with Harold vis-a-vis the RTAM.

Russ Pickering noted  that the 70s were an exciting time at the TM.  Good work was done, and they had a lot of fun, despite the fact, Russ said, that they often didn’t really know what they were doing.

John Wertime said that Harold was likely the only person in the world who could identify some textiles accurately.

Michael Seidman echoes this indication, saying that once in a TM session someone brought in a textile that was very unusual, something that even the experienced people in the room could not identify.  But Harold said, “This is an Indian piece, right after WWII.”  Harold did not collect in this area, but he could recognize a great range of things.  As I heard him say once in another context, “If you live long enough, you see everything.”

Bruce Baganz said that it was likely that Harold was the last person still active in The Textile Museum and its programs, who personally knew Mr. Myers, the TM’s founder.  Part of what is noteworthy about Harold’s passing is that that personal link to the TM’s founder has now been lost.

Wendel concluded this part of the program by talking to the audience, even challenging them a bit, about their relation to the RTAM programs.


How, he asked, can you make a contribution to the continuation of these RTAMs?  There are several ways.  You can attend.  You can bring material to them.  You can express yourself in them (the more you give to these sessions, the more you will learn from them). You can encourage others to attend.

He said that Michael was going to take us through some pieces that he and Melissa had selected from Harold’s collection, but that the audience was encouraged to participate with questions such as:

Do you remember your first RTAM?  Tell us about it.

How can we best carry on the mission of the TM and the RTAMs?

How did Harold specifically, or the RTAMs more generally, affect your interest in rugs and textiles?

Michael Seidman now began to treat selected pieces from Harold’s collection.

Comment on the long red piece on the right: 19th century Italian velvet panel, still with an ogival pattern, so typical of the influence of Ottoman design introduced a few hundred years ago.

Here are some closer looks at this piece:

Comment on close-ups: wonderful condition, essentially two colors, aubergine pile and ivory ground.

The next piece was another fragment of what,  given the scale of the devices on it, must have been a huge carpet.

Here is an unobstructed image of it.

Comment on fragment above:  17th century fragment of a carpet from Herat.  Often referred to as Indo-Herat in recognition of carpet production in both India and Herat.  The design is a two plane  lattice formed by two vine systems with palmettes and floral devices.  Note the Chinese inspired cloudband adjacent to the palmette.

Here is a closer detail.

The next piece was the one Michael is drawing attention to below.

Here’s an unobstructed view of it.

Comment on fragment above: Another fragment of a different 17th century Indo-Herat carpet, this with very clear cloudband, palmettes and saz leaf.

Both carpets have variations on the typical  purplish red  ground.

The next piece treated was this one:

Comment on piece above:  18th century Greek island embroidery- Epirus.  A happy piece as Harold liked to say.

One day in an RTAM, when Harold was showing this piece, he mentioned that it was part of a woman’s undergarment.  A lady in the audience asked whether it would have been visible when worn.  Harold smiled and said, “Not usually, but perhaps, on a special occasion.”

Here is one closer detail of this piece.

The next piece was difficult to photograph in this session.  Here is the session photograph.

Here is a series of photos of this piece from another occasion to let you see its qualities.

This is a rare Kerman shawl, fragmented and then reconstituted from several pieces.  Estimated to have been woven in the 18th century.  Persian botehs in field, with a border from another piece.  Note the difference  in coloring between the two elements.

Here are some additional detail images of it.

Michael now moved to a second level of Harold’s pieces on the board, starting with one Harold often described as a real favorite.

Harold believed it to be a Laver Kerman weaving.

A very whimsical, pictorial piece, very nicely woven.

Here are some closer details of this piece.

There was another pictorial rug on the board and Michael discussed it next.

This is another rug that Harold described as one of his favorites.

Michael said Tabriz.   Harold always felt that this piece was probably woven specifically for a client, presumably one who had a valued cat.

Here are some closer details:

Harold often said that 1) collar indicates cat was owned, 2) henna-dipped feet indicate cat was loved, trying to make it especially beautiful, parallel to use of henna by women, 3) Kaiser Wilhelm mustache is a reflection of the fact that, at one time, things Kaiser Wilhelm were all the rage in Iran and many men adopted Kaiser Wilhelm mustaches.

The next piece was a “Transylvanian” rug reconstituted by couching the four quarters (into which it had been divided) onto a backing.

Here is a closer corner:


This is an example of Harold’s range.  he had something from every period.

The next two pieces are from Northwest Persia with very similar boteh designs.

The first of these is a mafrash side panel done in extremely fine sumak wrapping.  It is perhaps the most famous piece that Harold owned.

Here are some closer details of it.

This mafrash side panel was published in the seminal flatweave catalog “From the Bosporus to Samarkand” and drew a full, two-facing-page treatment in John Wertime’s “Sumak.”

Wertime spoke to it and a larger piece with botehs on a blue ground but done in slit tapestry (kilim) technique rather than sumak wrapping.

Below is a detail of the drawing of the botehs in the larger piece that shows how similar their designs are (compare with the detail of the mafrash panel two images above).

My notes on what Wertime actually said about these pieces in this session, are not good, but,

in his book “Sumak Bags,” he gave the bag panel a dramatic, two opposing page, display and said that it is “recognized as one of the masterpieces of sumak bag art.”  He said that the weave is “unusually fine,” and this face “must be one of the oldest of the Shahsevan-Persianate sumak pieces to survive.”

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Here is a second set of images of Harold in RTAM sessions:


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Harold frequently said:


“The three most important things about a weaving are color, color and color.”

Harold did not claim to have originated this mantra, and lots of folks have said similar things, but it articulates something widely believed.

It is not necessary to ignore other aspects of weaving such as design composition,  drawing, graphic contrast, texture, and even technical quality, to acknowledge the importance, even the primacy, of color to many collectors.

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The next piece illustrates Harold’s concern for. and appreciation of, color in his own collecting.


This is an Alpan fragment and was Harold’s most favorite piece.  Wendel said colors are “terrific”  and cited the yellow, burnt orange,  and the dark blue ground as examples of great color combinations.

Wendel further commented that Harold seldom, if ever, made critical comments about pieces that the audience brought in to the RTAMs.  For example, synthetic colors that Wendel or other purists might dismiss or disdain were usually found by Harold to be “happy” colors.

Focus now moved to pieces members of the audience had brought in.  In some cases, a connection of the piece to Harold was described.

The first piece was the item of embroidery below.

Classic 19th century Turkish “towel”.  The kind of piece Harold owned and valued.

Here is a close look at part of it:

Now we moved to a yastik.

Southwestern Anatolian, shown in the RTAM on Harold’s Anatolian collection about two years ago.

Here is a detail of one quarter.

The color in the above image is off.   The green is much clearer and brighter.

The next piece was the one below.

Wendel said that this piece has a Saruk look, but is a distinctive type.  It is a Jozan, from between Arak and Malayer.  Shown in Harold’s last RTAM, with Kirk, on Persian carpets.  It has many colors.


Wendel said that Jozans can be recognized in part by their symmetric knots.

The next piece was a small, embroidered Central Asian panel.

Its owner said that this piece originally belonged to Harold, but once she made the mistake of admiring its colors and Harold gave it to her.

She said that she thinks it is Kungrat rather than Lakai.

The next brought in piece was an item of “zili,” a species of brocade.

Here is a closer detail.

You can see its “corduroy” look.

This is the next brought in piece, had an asymmetrical field design.

The warps indicate that it was woven in the orientation of the image above, but it was turned on the board with its “niche” at the top for a more “balanced” viewing.



Here is a closer look at one corner.


The last piece of the morning was a 4.5 x 6.5 Caucasian sumak, which the present owner acquired from Harold in 1975.  Melissa did some restoration on it.


Here is a corner detail:


Here is a third set of images of Harold at various RTAMs.


I have a couple of thoughts of my own about Harold and the RTAMs.   I was an instructional designer for over 40 years.  So my eye goes to instances of learning.  There were two qualities of Harold’s that continually impressed me.

First, despite his vast experience and knowledge, he was never too proud to continue to learn, and to be visibly interested in doing so.  And he was willing to learn from anyone.  A novice would ask a question that attracted Harold’s attention and he would probe it.  The novice would start to back away and Harold would say,

“No, no.  Let’s look at your question.  I want to learn.”

A second quality is admirable because of its care for less experienced folks.  Harold never forgot, was ever alert for, instances in which basic things that many have mastered long ago could be made clear to novices.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen him take out his handkerchief and do what he is doing in the image below,

using his fingers as warps and showing newer folks how a symmetrical knot is tied on them.

I’m going to end with another set of Harold in the RTAM images, but first I want to tell my own story about this second admirable Harold quality: being alert to the potential learning needs of newer folks in the rug and textile world.

One morning, when someone else was presenting and Harold was in the audience, one of the pieces brought in was a fragment of  a Bijar runner that had been cut off on one end.

Harold came quickly to the front of the room insisting that this was something we needed to look at.

In many rugs, Harold said, the warps are all level with each other, that is, they are all in a single horizontal plane.

But pile Bijars like this one are famous for having alternate warps fully depressed, that is one set is directly below the other.


Ordinarily, Harold continued, this structure is nearly impossible to see, even on the rug’s back, but the fact that the end of this one is cut off provides a rare opportunity to look directly into a fully-depressed warp structure.

We will be able to see clearly that one set of warps is directly under another.

Now this was not Harold’s program, but he was irrepressible in such situations.

He even got Wendel Swan to look.

For me it is a classic instance of Harold taking care of the learning needs of less experienced folks.

Who would have thought that depressed warps could be this dramatic?

A final set of images of Harold at RTAM sessions.


Unavoidably, this post is a little “in house” in the sense that what it tries to convey has more concrete meaning to those of us who “haunt” the RTAM programs.

But I hope that it has spoken a bit to others as well, and has conveyed both enjoyment and a sense of what it was like to have access to a resource like Harold Keshishian.

Regards,

R. John Howe

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