Around the Island

Tapestry forms centerpiece of Shelter Island’s History Center

The Shelter Island Historical Society is sharing online images of a unique tapestry woven by artist Helena Hernmarck, depicting the original 1652 contract for the purchase of Shelter Island between the Manhanset people and English settlers.

The artist calls it “1652 — Traces of Care.” Woven of wool, linen and cotton, the 60 inch by 90 inch work is startlingly faithful to the appearance of the original paper document.

“What I’ve woven is not just the document,” Ms. Hernmarck said, “but also how the document has been cared for over the years. I made a big point of showing how the document was carefully taped together at a later date. When the document was originally folded, this is the side that you can see.”

Noted architect Bill Pedersen and his wife Elizabeth had been friends of Ms. Hernmarck and knew her work, which has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other prestigious institutions. The Pedersens had spearheaded the construction of the Shelter Island History Center to preserve more than 100,000 documents and objects that were at risk of fire or damage from the elements.

The Pedersens, who had summered on the Island since 1975, donated 90% of the project’s approximately $6 million cost, and Mr. Pedersen contributed his architectural services pro bono.

“Knowing we were building an addition to the Havens House,” Mr. Pedersen said, “Helena offered to weave a tapestry for the addition and donate it to our collection.”

After Ms. Hernmarck selected the 1652 document, the oldest in the Society’s collection, for her theme, the Pedersens and board members decided it would be the centerpiece of the main gallery and positioned it between the two stairs leading down to it.

“It will be the only permanently positioned art work in our collection,” he added.

Once Mr. Pedersen designated the wall for this tapestry, the artist’s challenge was to make it a natural pairing as it hangs against the concrete wall. “The quality of the color of the paper in the old document was so subtle,” Ms. Hernmarck said, “that I had to make a special trip out with paper and paint to capture in watercolor what the concrete wall, with exposed aggregate that had been sandblasted, actually looked like. The common tone marries the two together without being too similar, because there is a warm aspect in the tapestry which picks up the color of the wood. Bill Pedersen calls it “Gesture and Response,” which makes a lot of sense. It is also the attraction of opposites: The hard and the soft.”

The artist climbs a ladder up her ‘wool wall’ to select a color. (Credit: Ross Mantle)

The tapestry took the artist 530 hours — 16.5 weeks — to weave, and an additional 43 hours for her assistant Mae Colburn to finish the backing.

“The Historical Society was thrilled when Helena committed to creating “Traces of Care,” said Executive Director Nanette Lawrenson. “Helena is world renowned, and to be able to exhibit her work is a tremendous honor.”

Elizabeth Pedersen, who had been the Society’s president, passed away on July 25, 2019, shortly before the Center was opened. “Elizabeth’s primary wish was for it to be inviting to the young people of the Island,” Mr. Pedersen said. “She bequeathed a gift for an educational program” with a vision of engaging young people in history through the arts. The Elizabeth Pedersen Education Fund is dedicated to the continuation of successful programs and exhibits and the creation of new ones.

Although visitors are not able to enter the Center and view the tapestry during current quarantine rules, the Historical Society has placed numerous pictures online, taken when the exhibit, entitled “Shadows and Light,” was first installed in November.

At some point in the future, the COVID-19 crisis will become a closed chapter in the Island’s history of resilience, Society officials said, and the History Center will be open to visitors again. The 1652 tapestry will be awaiting them, on display in its permanent home.