The Montana Horses Tapestry

The Montana Horses Tapestry
Montana Horses Rya Tapestry

The largest rya in the world is Rudy Autio’s Montana Horses tapestry. I would like to tell how this remarkable work of art came about, as I was there. When I started working in the Dean’s Office at the University of Montana’s School of Fine Arts, the School lived in a variety of buildings spread all across campus. The Fine Arts Building started its life in the mid 1930s as a WPA Project for a Student Union. In 1980, it served the Art Department and the Department of Drama/Dance. By that time, the building was woefully inadequate for the School’s needs.

Fortunately, the “Powers That Be” agreed, and the State of Montana authorized a new building for the UM Campus. The new structure would house not only Drama and Dance, but also Radio and Television. The project carried the name Fine Arts Radio-Television Building. At least until someone woke up to the sophomoric acronym. In authorizing the building, the State did something new. Cost estimates came in at $8.6 million. The State would put up $7.1 leaving the University to raise an additional $1.5 million.

Enter Champion International

Sr. Kathryn Martin, UM’s Dean of Fine Arts, worked hard to raise the money. One gift came from Champion International, one of Montana’s largest private landowners at that time. Champion contributed toward the project, with a special condition. $40,000 of their money should purchase art to decorate the Performing Arts/Radio-TV Building (its new name).

At the time, Rudy Autio headed the Ceramics Program in the Art Department. Born in Butte, Montana, of Finnish immigrant parents, Rudy had studied at Montana State in Bozeman. Archie Bray owned a large brick making plant in Helena, Montana. Bray hired Rudy as an artist. He then sold bricks to projects around Montana promising art with the bricks. Many churches, schools, and other Montana buildings have Rudy Autio sculptures built into their design. In time, Rudy and his colleagues built the Archie Bray Foundation, a world-renowned art center.

At the University of Montana, Rudy built a premier ceramics program and came to the attention of Arabia, the leading porcelain manufacturer in Finland. Arabia had long had an Artist-in-Residence program, but it always invited native Finns. Rudy was the first non-native to serve Arabia that way. He was in Finland when Champion gave us their bequest. When Sr. Kathy asked Rudy to do a piece for the PARTV project, he agreed immediately. However, he had no interest in doing another ceramic piece. Instead, he asked if he could design a tapestry and have that tapestry woven in Finland.

Ryijy is what it’s called in Finland

A traditional Finnish Rya (Ryijy)
A Traditional Finnish Rya (Ryijy)

While in Finland, Rudy had come to know the traditional Finnish tapestry known as the ryijy. In English, we use the Swedish name for the fabric, rya, although I’m not sure most Americans would know that word either. (I’ll continue using the Swedish/English word. To many i’s, y’s and j’s in the Finnish.) Finns had long used the ryas as wall hangings, seat covers, even bedding. Often a couple would commission a rya to use as a prayer rug at their wedding. The rug then became a family heirloom, hung in pride of place at home.

When Rudy told us he wanted to design a rya, we gladly accepted his proposal. We contracted with the Friends of Finnish Handicraft to produce the rug. Designed to fit in the stairwell that leads from the PARTV lobby to the Montana Theatre, the rya would measure 30 feet across at the top, 20 feet long in the center, and tapered on both sides. Woven in seven panels, it would take master weaver Anneli Hartikainen eightteen months to complete.

Weaving the Montana Horses Tapestry

While I won’t go into the intricacies of the weaving process, I will say this. A rya is woven with a series of hand-tied knots leaving a fringe on the face of the fabric. In between each row of knots, there are several rows of plain weaving which hold the knots in place. When finished, the fringe completely covers the plain weave, so you are left with, in essence, a fancy shag carpet.

Rolled panels of the Montana Horses Tapestry
Montana Horses Tapestry Panels

The photo above shows two panels of the tapestry rolled. The orange in the center is the shaggy face of the work. The back shows the weave itself, with the light blue as the plain weave. The colored stripes are the backs of the knots that make up the face.

The weaver studies the cartoon and ties knots on the warp of the Montana Horses Tapestry.
Anneli Hartikainen studying the cartoon

In this image, we see master weaver Anneli Hartikainen studying the cartoon (the drawing hanging from the loom’s castle to her right). In her hands are a collection of short woolen strands which she will tie into a knot. You can see that she has pulled a few warp strings up. You can also see the difference between the face and the back of the fabric. The Friends of Finnish Handicraft say that this is both easy and fun. As a weaver myself, I say they are pulling your leg, but then I flunked knot tying in Boy Scouts.

Thank you FinnAir

Sr. Kathy convinced FinnAir to fly the finished tapestry from Helsinki to Seattle. She also managed to grab a round-trip ticket to Helsinki from any of FinnAir’s US destinations. In the end, Sr. Kathy decided she really didn’t care to make that trip, and handed the tickets to me! On September 4th, 1985, I flew Delta from Missoula to Los Angeles, and boarded FinnAir for the flight to Helsinki. Thank you, FinnAir. Today that flight would cost over $1200 round-trip.

A FinnAir DC10 at Los Angeles International
My Carriage to Helsinki

Seventeen hours after leaving Los Angeles, we arrived in Helsinki. Eeva Pinomaa, Director of the Friends of Finnish Handicraft met me and drove me to my hotel, the Rivoli Jardin. A lovely, small hotel, the Rivoli Jardin was newly remodeled when I checked in. Just a block off the pedestrian garden, the Esplanadi, my hotel was in easy walking distance of most places I would visit. Almost exactly midway between the Harbor and Helsinki’s commercial heart, Mannerheimintie, the Rivoli Jardin was the perfect base for my walks around Finland’s capital.

Sleeping through the concert

The day after my arrival, Eeva and her husband took me sailing on the Baltic in their boat. I dressed as I would for San Francisco Bay, and Eeva hastened to tell me that the Baltic does not have the same climate. Silly me. What I can say is that still jet-lagged, I faced the fresh Baltic Sea air for several hours in a t-shirt and shorts. Returning to port after a bracing day at sea, we feasted on the seasonal delicacy, crawdads. In Finland, apparently, it is customary for men to have a shot of Akvavit after each crustacean. The creatures are small. I was hungry. Is it any wonder I fell asleep during the Chamber Music concert we attended after dinner? We left the concert at intermission. Apparently my snoring was drowing out the musicians.

Eeva was a wonderful host. As well as giving me free access to the Friends’ offices, sales gallery and weaving studio, she took me with her to install a newly purchased commission at a rural home. She introduced me to other fabric artists in Helsinki, including the chief designer for Marimekko. Eeva was very helpful with suggestions of what I might like to see and do, and arranged for a formal reception before I left Finland. How formal? One of the guests was the U.S. Ambassador to Finland, an Idaho Rancher who gave $1 million to Reagan’s campaign in return for the Helsinki post. (He had done his Mormon mission work in Finland.)

The Formal Reception

Panels from the Montana Horses Tapestry on Display at the Friends of Finnish Handicraft
The Tapestry as a Work in Progress

As of September, 1985, Anneli had completed five of the eventual seven panels. In order to introduce the work to the Helsinki arts community, while I was still in town, Eeva brought three of the panels to the Friends of Finnish Handicraft offices. Too large to be shown in their entirety, the panels were suspended from the ceiling, then rolled across the floor. Even then, they were too large for the space, as can be seen above.

The Montana Horses Tapestry was quite the hit, though.  I doubt anything similar had ever appeared in Helsinki.  One Finnish artist commented “What I like about it is that they don’t look like horses.”  (They do to me, but what can I say.)  After the reception, after greeting the Ambassador, after ushering out all the guests, Eeva, her husband, another Finnish artist and I went out to dinner.  Three days later, I boarded another FinnAir flight to return to Los Angeles.  This time I flew business class.  Believe me, there’s no comparison.

The Rest of the Story

Four months after my return, I drove a University van to SeaTac airport in the Seattle area. I loaded seven large rolls into the back of that van, and returned to Missoula. Once in Missoula, we contracted with a company that builds outdoor billboards. They built a frame, hung the frame in the PARTV lobby staircase, and proceeded to install the Montana Horses tapestry panel by panel. There it hangs to this day.

But even that isn’t the end of the story. I’m happy to say that we were able to bring Anneli to Missoula to see her work complete and in place. Anneli had never been outside of Finland. She spoke only Finnish. So we brought Eeva with her to act as her translator and personal guard. The Missoula Red Coats gave Anneli the keys to the city at a ceremony in the weaving store Joseph’s Coat. The Missoula Weavers’ Guild met with her, as did the Helena Weavers’ Guild when we took Anneli and Eeva across McDonald Pass to the studio of Joanne Hall.

Rudy Autio, Anneli Hartikainen and Eeva Pinomaa in Missoula
Rudy Autio, Anneli Hartikainen and Eeva Pinomaa in Missoula

If you compare the photo above, taken in 1986, with the one at the top of the post, taken in November 2019, you’ll see what thirty-three years of sunlight, even UV filtered sunlight, can do to dyed wool. Still, even as faded as the Montana Horses tapestry is today, it still retains its grandeur. And as for me, I’m proud of the very little bit that I had to do with the genesis of this wonderful piece. (Nota Bene: I took every photograph used in this post. I used a Pentax ZX-50 single lens reflex camera and Kodachrome slide film. The 1980s photographs were all scanned from those original slides.)

My Various Daily Offerings

Today’s Photo of the Day is one I took on November 11th, 2019. Having retired from the University in 2010, and now living almost 100 miles away, I don’t return to the University very often. I did want to get a photo of the Montana Horses tapestry as it looks today.

Today’s Classic Car of the Day is my own 1989 Saab 900S Convertible, the first of four Saabs I’ve owned. I’m featuring it today because all Saab convertibles were built in Finland.

I chose today’s Video of the Day to showcase a park I loved in Helsinki. Seurasaari is an Island that serves as a park and open air museum. Many historic buildings from around Finland have been moved and installed here. The park is also a venue for open-air concerts and other arts programs. It was one of my favorite places to spend a sunny afternoon.

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, so once again, I chose a standard Irish recipe for the Recipe of the Day. Pegeen’s Authentic Irish Soda Bread is a keeper. I made a loaf yesterday, and it is delicious. (It went really, really well with the Raspberry Sauce I made for Kevin’s Angel Food Cake!)

Finally, I feel compelled to mention Covid-19. I know that we cannot get away from the pandemic that is closing down our country and many others around the world. I try to stay away from negative thoughts and commentary, but Fatherly magazine’s Emergency Covid-19 Edition has suggestions I find valid for all of us in the days to come. Titled What Now?, it is today’s Guest Site of the Day. (Note please. At my publishing deadline, this link does not connect. I’m leaving it up because the post has important information and I’m hoping the link problem will be fixed soon.)

I’m not sure if I’ll post tomorrow. It is, after all, St. Patrick’s Day! Dia is Mhuire agus Pádraig duit! Erin go Bragh! and a most fervent and sincere Sláinte!


2 Comments on “The Montana Horses Tapestry

  1. I love this story Bryan. I didn’t know you were so involved with this. At this time I had moved away to Kentucky so didn’t know the details of the rya project. It is still quite beautiful.