How A Chicago Artist Is Using Nautical Rope To Redefine Landscape Painting


A woman with short hair since at a table in front of a rope hanging.

Fiber artist Jacqueline Surdell first became passionate about art when spending time with her grandmother, who was a landscape painter and macrame artist.

Two things set artist Jacqueline Surdell on her creative path: her grandma and volleyball. Let’s start with her grandmother, whose artistic pursuits were landscape painting and macramé. “I always painted, and in many ways I grew up in her studio,” Surdell recalls. “Landscape as a genre is still really important to my work. She played a huge part in that.”

Sculptures made from various colors of rope hang in a room with wooden ceiling beams.

Surdell's studio is full of both finished and unfinished pieces.

A rope weaving hanging on a white wall.

Surdell’s use of rope in her topographical interpretations, such as Gully in the Mountains (left), which is constructed of braided cotton cord, allows for a physical interaction with her pieces.

A detail shot of colored rope woven together.

A detail of Surdell's "We Will Win: Our Banner in the Sky (After Frederic Edwin Church)."

A woman's hands weaving rope around a piece of art.

Many of Surdell's current works in progress (opposite and below) incorporate color and collage.

While portrait painting was her early focus, Surdell’s trajectory shifted during her time playing varsity volleyball at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Pondering her next step after the sport, Surdell looked to her artistic practice, but, having spent 10 years as an athlete, painting just wasn’t physical enough. So she began playing with the idea of rope as a medium. “I was thinking a lot about tensile strength—things that can be limp but have the potential to be extremely strong,” she explains. “I’m not a big person, and so I was always a kind of scrappy player. Rope made a lot of sense in that it’s like muscle and tendons.”

Fashioning a loom from a canvas stretcher bar and using nautical rope, Surdell started experimenting with the macramé techniques she had learned from her grandmother. “I was interested in the idea of this small movement being built up over time,” she says. “It’s kind of like sports, where you do the same thing over and over until you don’t even think about it.” Surdell’s technique evolved, and she began using knotting as a connective drawing device that creates structure and defines space. “To me, they look like landscape paintings,” she notes of the topographical nature of her works. “They still have that conversation with painting and with the idea of canvas.”

While her initial works were monochromatic, Surdell’s more recent explorations incorporate color. After discovering a website where she could print any artwork on fabric, Surdell began printing works from the mid-19th-century Hudson River School movement, tearing them into pieces and weaving them among the rope. While the compositions of the original prints aren’t visible, Surdell says it’s about subverting the traditional ideas that such paintings present as the “beginning of America.” Those works, Surdell explains, are mythological representations of westward expansion in which no humans were present. “That is just not true,” she avers. “We’ve been told what this place looked like and who was here first. Ripping up these paintings and re-weaving them into a new canvas is a gesture suggesting we could do something else—we can have a new story or we can add other stories.”