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Egyptian tapestries debut at Sonoma Valley art museum

David Williams, an authority on Egyptian tapestries, stands among pieces from his collection in an exhibit at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

DIANNE REBER HART , TOWNS CORRESPONDENT

Just beyond the shadows of the ancient Egyptian pyramids of Giza, generations of children have been handcrafting tapestries from woolen thread and weaving looms, weaving scenes from their tiny farming village into works of art treasured by galleries, museums and collectors for the innocence of their childhood perspective.

Their simple yet fanciful textiles show colorful images of animals and trees, birds and streams, plants and people, each crafted from natural dyes.

This month, David Williams of Sonoma brings dozens of the original tapestries to a new exhibit opening at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, “An Accomplishment in Creativity: The Egyptian Children’s Tapestries.”

The 80-year-old entrepreneur, avid salsa dancer and former engineer is an authority on the tapestries created by children in the remote Coptic Christian village in the Nile River Valley that, until recent decades, hadn’t seen change for 2,000 years.

It’s where Ramses Wissa Wassef, an innovative Egyptian architect and artist, conducted an experiment in 1952 to test his belief that people are innately creative. He built a studio in Harrania, an area untouched by outside influences, and invited 12 village children to learn basic weaving skills and then work without criticism or commentary from adults.

His effort “was a transformative agent for the village,” said Williams, one of the world’s leading experts on Harranian tapestries. “His intention wasn’t to create child artists, but artists period.”

The experiment was a huge success and, in time, the tapestries were declared Egyptian national treasures, even given to Nixon and Kissinger during Harbinger of Peace efforts. Some 20 studios were established in the area, creating a community of tapestry artists, renewing interest in the ancient art form and providing villagers with income beyond traditional farming.

During a 40-year period that started with a 1963 trip to Egypt to visit a friend, Williams built a collection of some 200 tapestries from young weavers at Wissa Wassef Art Center, the original studio.

“A couple dozen of them are so exquisite that I just love them,” Williams said. “They bring back memories of adventures in Egypt.”

The collection includes textiles of various skill levels, from novice to more advanced creations as the child weavers gained experience. Some took several months to complete and could command prices exceeding $15,000.

The children always have been paid for their craftsmanship, both as reward and encouragement for their developing abilities.

“Weaving is slow and painstaking. It takes time to develop individual skills,” Williams said. “Overall, the quality of the work has significant influence.”

It was perhaps serendipity that Williams discovered the tapestries at all.

When he and his late wife Dolores were young students at the University of Chicago and living in a rough neighborhood on the city’s south side, they made it a practice to know their neighbors. Dolores baked a cake, and the couple knocked on an adjacent apartment door to greet some new neighbors, newlyweds from Egypt.

“They were so happy to see happy faces,” Williams said. “They became our closest friends in the two years they were our neighbors. It was the beginning of a long-term friendship.”

When the couple returned to Cairo, the friendship became international. On their first visit to Egypt, Williams and his wife were introduced to the children’s tapestries of Harrania.

“We saw one and were fascinated with that crazy professor and his kids out in the desert,” Williams said.

He was equally intrigued with the children’s talent and Wissa Wassef’s precept that “anyone can do creative work given the opportunity and environment,” Williams said. “It’s very impressive to see new ideas, new concepts, from fertile imaginations.”

The tapestries show vibrant village scenes — a flock of hens and a large rooster in one, a herd of camels in various poses against an expansive blue tree in another. Some appear nearly whimsical, featuring animals with disproportionately large eyes, their feet turned both inward and outward.

The children, all under 12, were never allowed to copy or even create sketches. Their freehand tapestries came purely from the mind’s eye.

“The details,” said Williams, “are created at the loom out of the vision of the weaver, in the same manner a painter would.”

As he became more captivated with the tapestries, he left his engineering job in the aerospace industry to devote full-time attention to the Egyptian artwork. Although major European museums featured exhibits of the Harranian tapestries, it was Williams’ passion that brought them to the American art world.

His first exhibit was in late 1971 at The Handweaver, a textile shop then located on the Sonoma Plaza. From 1975 to ’85, Williams traveled across the U.S. giving lectures, presenting exhibits and selling the children’s work to galleries, museums, corporations, universities and private collectors.

He has given countless lectures and estimates he has presented more than 150 exhibits across the country and in Canada, sharing Wissa Wassef’s experiment with educators and art lovers alike.

“It was one of the most enjoyable periods of my life,” Williams said, “just having the opportunity to promote ideas that were very valuable and important.”

Williams developed his expertise by immersing himself in the Egyptian culture. He relied on connections from his Egyptian friend, Amin Abdel-Malik, who was a highly regarded obstetrician and gynecologist with many elite circles around Cairo.

“I was being mentored in Egyptian ways,” Williams said.

During that time, he visited Egypt once or twice a year, consuming “vast quantities of sweet tea and Turkish coffee” and learning Egyptian business practices and social mores.

“Hospitality is crucial in Egypt, whether you’re Muslim or Christian. It doesn’t matter,” Williams said. “Friendship is above business. With a business meeting in Egypt, the objective is to see if this is somebody you’d want to have as a friend.”

He discovered that a standard — and sincere — business practice in Egypt is telling people what they want to hear.

“It takes knowledge and effort to avoid that pitfall. There were various possibilities to go astray just not knowing the Egyptian way,” Williams said. “Because I understood Egyptian ways, I could visit the original studio or other tapestry studios, and I knew how to ask the right question to get the right answer.”

Through his network of Egyptian friends, he was able to gain access to the tapestries and promote them within the U.S.

“The more I was out there, the more I could spread the word and the more influence it seemed to have,” Williams said.

For more information, visit phoenicialostworldart.com.