Steven Woodward - Sculptor

Guirlande du Monde > Project Description

Guirlande du Monde | 193 National Flags - Braided | 2018

Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle. It has evolved to mean many things over time, primarily as a pattern for concentration while praying or meditating. Religious contemplatives originally used lengths of knotted cloth for counting their prayers, prior to strings of prayer beads and rosaries being developed. Guirlande du Monde, this circle, is of a scale that one can only see the entire form by not looking directly at it. Peripheral vision is necessary to see it in its entirety, which places the viewer within its center.


For my birthday when I was very young, my mother knit a sweater for me with all the flags of the world on it, or so it seemed at the time. Of course, all the flags were not really there, and despite the loving intention of my mother, I was embarrassed to wear it because it made me stand out. My mother also braided rugs for the floors of our family home, created from recycled fabric (a very thick felt) from the drying machines at the St. Regis paper mill where my father worked.

Long after she had died and the last of her rugs was to be discarded due to wear and tear I instead brought it to my studio. This material -physically flattened from the history of my family’s weight for 40 years- soon became a swirling three dimensional sculpture resonating a very different culture’s history. Five more sculptures using hand-braided rugs were created within the next few years, culminating with “Judith” in the year 2000. This sculpture was based on the Buddhist pagoda “Shwedagon” in Yangoon, Myanmar. Many pagodas in South-East Asia are often covered with gold but for this more modestly scaled sculpture I chose a re-recycled hand braided rug to express similarly precious qualities of the human spirit.

Given this background, I knew that if I were ever to braid anything together myself, it would be flags. And not just a few flags, as my mother had knit for me, but all the flags of the world. In 2004, I was given the time and place to create such a work at the Camargo Foundation in the south of France. Central to this international project was an expression of unity and peace. All the flags (193) had to be donated (gifts) and over 100 embassies donated their own national flags, many having been taken out of service (used) from flying above their embassies in Washington.

Originally realized in 2004 as a single braid 63 feet in length, it was re-imagined last year as a perfect circle, twenty-two feet in diameter. Upon seeing this sculpture completed, a friend told me that for her it was both politically and poetically correct. For me it is an expression of gratitude. The kindness and care given to me by complete strangers during extensive periods of travel and study was truly a blessing, this “Garland of the World” is my way of returning that gift.

“Metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about.”

Walter Benjamin

Guirlande du Monde | Process 2004

     This sculpture was completed during a three-month artists residency program at the Camargo Foundation in southern France. It was an idea I had years before: simply, to weave the flags of the world’s nations together into a single braid. My intention was to compress these symbols of nations -the banners used to demarcate their borders - into a single line of color and pattern, expressing their underlying unity within our world. I also wanted to return my mothers love of braiding and the deep resonance of self-sufficiency, and frugality that it still evokes in the central United States, back to the country and culture in which she had been raised.

     In keeping with the spirit of the project, all of the 193 flags I required needed to be donated. My efforts for these donations led me to contact various international student organizations, Peace Corps volunteers, the American Refugee Committee and, of course, international arts groups. I also posted a web site to act as a catalyst and information center for the project. I next contacted all the foreign embassies in Washington D.C. with photographs of my previous work, and a cover letter describing the project and asking for their countries participation. One week after the mailing I began telephoning the embassies asking if they had received my request and, if the proper person at the embassy had not seen it, I began e-mailing and faxing the same information to them. Within a month, nearly one hundred embassies had agreed to participate and the much-needed flags began to arrive, along with handwritten notes wishing me luck with the project and mirroring the peaceful intentions motivating the artwork. With only a few weeks left before my departure date, my friends in the United States and other individuals from around the world came to my aid and donated the remaining flags.

     The unity that I was seeking, that I was trying to represent, was actually accomplished by the very act of the donations themselves. Also by this time I realized that I could not use the technique I had planned on to create the braid. The method that I was familiar with, that my mother had used, called for the cutting of the material into equal widths, folding, ironing and then using three of these equal lengths of material to produce the braid. The thought of cutting these flags was out of the question. The power inherent in their physical presence, compounded by their stunning individuality, demanded that they remain whole and intact within the project. So I packed these beautiful symbols of 193 nations and left for France, knowing what I wanted to create but not having any idea how to do so.

     I arrived at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, on September 8th, 2004, with almost 3,000 square feet of material tightly packed within two boxes, each weighing 32 kilos. Exhausted but happy to be back in the country of my mother’s childhood I was stunned once again by the natural beauty of the Mediterranean. I did not know how I was going accomplish what I had set out to achieve but trusted that the outcome would reflect the enormous opportunity I had been given. I hiked the cliffs surrounding Cassis, swam in the waters of the Mediterranean and began eating the wonderful food that the region of Provence is so famous for. I also began buying fresh flowers regularly at the local market as my mother had taught me by example long ago, arranging bouquets for my studio and apartment.

     To announce the project to the citizens of France, to the sun, to the wind and that lovely Mediterranean Sea, I flew all the flags outside with the help of my friends, covering the Camargo property with three thousand square feet of intense color and patterns. The beauty of the sea, the pure white limestone cliffs and lovely greens of the plants and trees further enhanced this intensity. The extraordinary number of nations represented, and the equally amazing amount of nations that were simply unknown to many of those who saw them, struck a cord of wonder in the other the residents of the Camargo Foundation as well as the citizens of Cassis.

     The flags were taken down, heaped in piles in my studio and the braiding begun. I started using three flags at once, tying the next flags to the ends of the braid as I proceeded. This produced a thin line with tufts of grommets and bunting where the ends had been joined. I was not happy with the thickness of this line and so unwove it and began again. I then started with two flags to produce a line, twisting them together for strength and using three similar lengths to create the braid. After several attempts using this method I remained unhappy with the result. The width of the line did not reflect the power that I was feeling through the presence of the individual flags, their resonance and strength on both a physical and metaphorical level.

     This effort was unbraided and begun again.

     The idea of using still more flags to achieve a thicker, more muscular braid occurred to me and I began using a heavy wire to hold the ends of the flags together. Using three flags twisted together to produce one of the lines of fabric necessitated that I tie together the ends of eighteen flags at once. When I started gathering up this amount of material at a single point in the braid, I was struck by its similarity to the bouquets of flowers I was arranging, often on the very same table. Here was a vivid bouquet of colors, of nations, of cultures coming together in front of my eyes, flowing through my hands. I worked feverishly to allow this idea, this insight to manifest itself. These bursts of vibrant color and form accentuated the methodical, meditative feeling that the thickness and strength of the braid evoked. This bouquet of nations, this flowering of the world, moved me in a way that others have been moved, absorbed in a similar process of reflection and prayer, meditations and intention.

     As satisfied as I felt with these results, I remained disturbed by one seemingly unimportant element of the work. Although the wire I was using was hidden from view, I could feel its presence and it seemed cold, almost mechanical, compared with this organic and very lively form. And then the solution dawned on me. The wire was not needed, I could simply use one of the flags as a rope and achieve the same results of securely bunching the ends together.

     After using a portion of a single flag as a rope, I took the excess length and ran it into the existing braid and then tied it off to another flag at it’s endpoint, creating a seemingly arbitrary and yet essential smaller knot. To my eyes these delicate knots became small blossoms, softly woven into the larger pattern of the braid. I was further elated by the insight, the connection, between these knots and the prayer beads that I have been wearing on my wrist for years.

     Religious contemplatives around the world developed prayer beads after centuries of using a length of cloth similarly knotted for counting their cycles of prayers. The realization that I was creating a garland of prayers knots through my intentions, my own prayers of peace and unity, composed of some of the most revered symbols of nations on the earth was a moment of pure bliss for me.

     The result of my efforts are exactly what I had intended although the method had to be revealed to me through the process. No individual national flag can be discerned within this sculpture but the knowledge that all the flags are present undermines this anonymity and gives the piece a strength far beyond it’s length and breadth. The physical process that is so evident in the work, that actually is the work, acts also as its spiritual center, giving it both its form and rhythm. This garland of the world, this colorful braid of prayer knots, helped me understand that a political expression can also be poetically correct and although manifested physically, remains an essentially spiritual experience.

Steven Woodward

February 14th, 2005

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