The Painted Carpet
Artist Tom Stocker Talks with Mark Hopkins
This article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review  Vol 15, No. 1.   Copies of this issue may still be available for purchase - please consult the Oriental Rug Review website.

A Talish, painted to actual size by Tom Stocker


The rug world has long benefitted from the presence of rugs in paintings. But rugs as paintings is another story entirely. In mid-September New England artist Thomas Stacker held an exhibition of his recent paintings at the Armenian Museum in Watertown, Massachusetts, that surprised many viewers when they discovered that every canvas in the show depicted a full-sized Oriental rug. Boston collector Mark Hopkins interviewed Tom Stacker to discover the whys and wherefores of such a curious and colorful undertaking.


Did people ask you why you chose to paint rugs?

Stocker: Of course. I'm asked the question all the time.


So let's get right to it. Why rugs?

Stocker: Well, it goes back about four years ago when I bought an old house in New Hampshire that needed a lot of restoration. I've been painting ever since I studied at the Museum School in Boston in the '60s, and with the new house I began dabbling in decorative painting techniques. You know, stencils, floor paintings, that sort of thing. I read a book on the subject, and it said something that really fascinated me. It was talking about painting oriental rug designs, and it basically said, "Don't try it; it's so difficult that the results are usually unsuccessful." Well, somehow that really fired me up, and I took it as a personal challenge.


So you painted your first rug.

Stocker: I did indeed, and I found it a very interesting experience. There was a spot near the kitchen where I wanted a   rug. I knew almost nothing about oriental rugs, so I started perusing through books looking for a colorful example that was the right size for my floor, and I found just what I was looking for in the book called Oriental Rugs of the Hajji Babas.


What kind of a rug?

Stocker: It was a colorful little Kazak prayer rug full of wonderful reds and greens. I believe it was Plate 11.


How did the painting turn out?

Stocker: I was very pleased with it in spite of all the dark warning from the American crafts author. But it wasn't easy. I was nagged by doubts while I was painting it, because I didn't want the end result to look like a craft shop product. Basically, I just painted what I saw. Then as I got into it, the process took on its own life. While I painted, I started thinking about the weaver. Where did she live? Why did she make the rug? Whom was it for? I started realizing how little I knew about these things, and how much I wanted to know. The painting turned out very satisfactorily, and when it was done I knew I had just started something that I wanted to keep going.


You said you painted the Kazak for your floor?

Stocker; Exactly, m fact, for almost four years it's been in the passageway between the kitchen and the family room. It gets lots of traffic.


How on earth do you protect a painting so you can use it like a rug?

Stocker: It's quite easy. I paint with acrylics after preparing the canvas with a couple of coats of gesso, and I use a heavy canvas, like sailcloth. At this point it's stretched on a frame.


On the floor?

Stocker: No, no, not yet. It's not a rug yet. Besides, I'm a disaster painting on my hands and knees. I paint it on an easel, the way you would any painting. Then I urethane it. That's the coating that gives it the protection it needs. With the urethane dry, I remove it from the stretcher and what I've got is a flexible, well-protected floor cloth.


How durable is it? How long does the urethane last?

Stocker: Well, one of my floor cloths, a full-sized Borjalu Kazak, has been on the floor of an architect's office in Boston, in the heaviest traffic area right in front of the receptionist's desk, for more than three years. When I borrowed it to hang it in the exhibition, it was in perfect condition with no touchup needed.


But not all your rug paintings are floor cloths?

Stocker: Oh, no, many of them are conventional paintings.


So what happened after you finished your first rug painting?

Stocker: I was quite amazed at how satisfying the experience had been. I had wanted the painting to be pleasing unto itself, to do justice to the original, and I felt I had succeeded. The upshot was, I immediately wanted to start another one.


Which you obviously did.

Stocker: Yes, but it wasn't easy. I knew it was difficult to get to see good rugs from my days as an antique dealer in Boston. So I figured book illustrations were my best bet. I went to the Boston Library and took out some rug books, and found to my dismay that most of the good illustrations had been razored out and stolen. Finally I discovered Jon Thompson's wonderful Carpet Magic in a store, and I was off and running. Not only were his illustrations great, but his writing spoke about rugs in such a humanistic way that for the first time I began to understand what the art form was all about.


How many have you painted since?

Stocker: I believe I've done 26 or 27 paintings of rugs in the past four years.


All full size?

Stocker: Oh, absolutely. When you reduce any rug in size its whole character changes. It becomes something else. It's important to me to retain the integrity of the original rug. I always try to stay as close as possible to the original.


How do people react when they see your rug paintings?

Stocker: Well, I think that's one of the most interesting parts of all this. It's sad to say, but in general people don't think of oriental rugs as being art. Art to them is paintings, sculpture, those sorts of things, while rugs are just pieces of furniture that you walk on. Even highly educated people the ones who are trained to look at paintings in terms of composition, content, color and all the things that colleges teach many of these people draw a blank when they look at a wonderful old rug. But, suddenly, they see the rug in a painting and right away they know how to look at it. It's one of the most exciting things about doing these paintings... seeing the way it helps people discover the art of oriental rugs that they would otherwise have walked right past.


Would you consider doing rug paintings to order?

Stocker: An artist has to eat, doesn't he? But, seriously, yes, I do take commissions. Sometimes the best challenges happen that way. Naturally, there are certain limits. I was commissioned to do a rug painting by an interior decorator whose only interest, it turned out, was that I match the colors in the client's living room. I maintained my patience and managed to hold my tongue until the client insisted that I paint a fringe on all four sides of the rug, and that did it. But I've done others that were very rewarding.


What about, say, the Pazyryk rug? Would you tackle that?

Stocker: I actually had a customer ask me to paint it. But he wanted it in half size, so I declined. It's such a marvelous thing that it mustn't be compromised in any way. Yes, I'd like to do the Pazyryk some day.


What about painting fragments?

Stocker: One of the paintings in my exhibition is of the famous 15th century Dragon and Phoenix rug from the Berlin Museum, the one with the missing right-hand border. I took the liberty of painting it as a complete rug, with the border and fringes in place. Of course, that in itself is tricky business, because there has been speculation that the Berlin piece may be only one side of a multi-compartmented rug. You can go both ways when you deal with fragments.


How do you mean?

Stocker: Well, there are some wonderful pieces pictured in the Kirchheim's Oriental Stars collection and the Chris Alexander book that I'm itching to paint. But doing so calls for a lot of discretion. Should I "fill in" the piece or just leave it like it is? Sometimes I'm willing to fix holes and repair wounds to the piece in

my painting when it's clear to me what the weaver probably did in the missing spaces. But in other cases where parts are missing, I'm sometimes reluctant to extemporize on somebody else's art. Besides, many of those old fragments are so beautiful in their own right that who  would want to mess with them?


If someone commissioned you, would you be willing to take a great fragment and turn it into a complete rug?

Stocker: Sure, if I felt I could do the weaver justice and had enough evidence to be pretty sure I was doing the right thing. And, of course, the buyer would have to accept it as my own personal interpretation of someone else's art. It would be very exciting to complete the picture and get an idea of what the original piece looked like. Yes, I would definitely do that.


Do you consider yourself a copyist?

Stocker: Not at all. I'm not reproducing rugs in my paintings, I'm documenting them for people to see. I guess the best way to describe my work is that I'm doing portraits of rugs.


Do you need to understand the technical aspects of rugs construction and that sort of thing in order to paint them?

Stocker: To a slight extent, yes. I'm not much interested in that, but you have to know things like what are the warp and weft colors because they affect the appearance of the rug wherever there's wear. Generally, though, I just paint what I see.


Have you ever had the itch to put aside your brushes and try weaving?

Stocker: Not really. I find the weaving process to be too restricting. I want to work the whole canvas at once, while the weaver builds a rug from the bottom up, one row at a time. I find it mysterious that anyone could work that way. It's wonderful, but it's not my way of doing things.


What are the things you look for when you're deciding which rug you'll paint next?

Stocker: Color, mainly. I want to paint great rugs, and to me the most exciting aspect of a great rug is its color. I know there's a lot more to it than that, of course. But while the graphic structure of the piece appeals to the structure side of the brain, it's the color that really fires up the emotional side. And it's the emotional appeal of great rugs that I'm really interested in capturing.


So how would you sum up the contribution you feel you're making with these paintings?

Stocker: What I'm trying to do is to make the art form of oriental rugs accessible to people who otherwise are likely to ignore them. There's so much to be gained by having someone say to you, "Hey, look at this. Isn't it terrific?" Sometimes your whole life can be changed by someone else doing that for you. That's what I want my paintings to do; I want them to help people see oriental rugs perhaps for the first time and discover what marvelous art they are.

So what's next?

Stocker: More paintings of more rugs. I'm really caught up in this thing, and there are so many exciting pieces I want to paint that the hard part is deciding where to start. Right now I think I could live  to be 100 and still have not done it all. It's a very exciting prospect.



  "My interest in 18th century English and American painted floor coverings, or floorcloths, inevitably converged with my love for oriental rugs and led to the challenge of translating them to painted canvas. By presenting them in their entirety, in the original size, and as the sole object of the painting, I intend to show that both painter and weaver make similar decisions in the creative process. And by seeing my painted interpretations of Armenian and related weavings, I hope that a wider audience will come to appreciate the inspiration of the people who created them and the artistry of the carpets themselves.
"The history of oriental rugs depicted in Western painting reflects the change in our perception of them as works of art. A 13th century Italian painting whose the Virgin Mother enthroned upon a carpet, and in another picture Mass is sung upon a carpet before the altar. Kings and nobility are similarly portrayed confirming the status of the carpet as a symbol of spiritual and worldly power. Later, carpets enter the secular and commercial world of Dutch and Flemish merchants who commission artists to paint elaborate still lifes of prized possessions set out on tables draped with carpets. And by the 20th century, the Post-Impressionists had used carpet motifs and patterns as a decorative device. In all these paintings, the carpet serves as a detail of the composition, and no matter how rendered or regarded, only a portion is seen.

"It was the mechanization of weaving and mass consumption, however, which devalued the oriental carpet in Western culture to little more than a household furnishing. Its symbolism of authority, honor, and refuge had been lost and its status as an "art form " in the western sense was reduced to a skill. The purpose of this exhibit is to celebrate and affirm the carpet as an art form through the medium of painting.

Tom Stocker is a former teacher and antique dealer who now devotes himself full time to painting. He splits his life between Boston, Massachusetts, and Haverhill, New Hampshire. You can visit his website at www.tomstocker.com


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