Rugs As Art

A New Exhibition at the Denver Art Museum Explores Historic Carpets From West Asia

Article by Sarah Kuta

Photography by Courtesy of the Museum

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

For Paul Ramsey, rugs are so much more than utilitarian floor coverings. They’re also works of art, windows into world cultures and vessels for exploring history.

He hopes other people will feel the same way after wandering through Rugged Beauty: Antique Carpets from Western Asia, a new exhibition on view at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) from Dec. 18 through May 28, 2023.

Paul, co-founder and co-owner of Shaver-Ramsey Fine and Custom Rugs in Denver, helped develop the exhibition, which features more than 40 rugs from Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus from the 1500s to the 1900s. Many are from DAM’s permanent collection, but several are also on loan from the Textile Museum in Washington D.C., the Saint Louis Art Museum and local private collections in Denver and Boulder.

The exhibition is located in the Avenir Textile Art and Fashion galleries on the sixth floor of the Martin Building and is included in the price of general admission.

Paul describes the exhibition’s rugs as “among the most beautiful objects ever created by humans.” Throughout history, talented artisans across west Asia lovingly made each one by hand, weaving hand-dyed wool using a technique known as knotted pile to give the rugs their signature raised surface and rich texture.

Curators chose to focus on rugs from Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus—which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia—because those regions played a key role in the evolution of rug-making.

“They represent the heart of the origins of rugs—from there, rugs spread around the world,” says Paul. “These areas have mountains and fertile ground for raising sheep. That’s one of the instrumental characteristics of these regions is the access to sheep and their wool. These areas of west Asia that have mountains were the heartland of rug production.”

As a local visiting scholar for the museum, Paul has been involved with Rugged Beauty since day one, working right alongside curatorial staff over the last four years to help select the various rugs and tell their stories. To help bring the exhibition to life, he joined forces with DAM’s curatorial fellow Jane Burke, interpretive specialist Stefania Van Dyke and curatorial assistant Courtney Pierce.

For the exhibition, the museum decided to tap into Paul’s vast knowledge and expertise, which he’s honed over the last 46 years while running his boutique-style store on Fillmore Street.

“We’ve always tried to engage people into understanding the beauty of rugs,” says Paul, who is 80. “We’ve tried to focus on picking the very best rugs and carpets from around the world to bring to Denver.”

Curators organized Rugged Beauty into three sections to help showcase different types of rug-makers: nomadic and seminomadic; court and commercial workshops; and regional cottage industries. 

The “Local Identity: Nomadic Origins” theme sets the scene by mapping out the region and exploring how the landscape of west Asia influenced rug makers. Historically, these artisans led a mostly nomadic lifestyle, following seasonal migration routes as they tended to their flocks of sheep and other livestock. A subsection shines a light on prayer rugs, which Islamic practitioners kneel on while facing Mecca to pray throughout the day.

Museum-goers can marvel at rugs made by specialists in court and commercial workshops while exploring the “National Identity: Workshop Carpets” section. Also on display are three rugs from the Safavid Dynasty—which spanned the years 1501 to 1736—in Persia, now modern-day Iran.

Women also produced many carpets by hand in their homes for sale in the marketplace, creating small but important cottage industries within their villages. The exhibition explores those rug makers—who often intermixed court designs with nomadic and village motifs—in “Regional Identity: Village Carpets.”

After gleaning inspiration from the rugs in the exhibition, visitors can try weaving and knotting themselves in a special exploratory space in the adjacent Nancy Lake Benson Thread Studio. There, they can also learn more about natural dyes, knotting techniques and contemporary rug artists—and, hopefully, walk away with an even greater appreciation of this unique art form.

“I hope people see the beauty of these rugs, whether it’s the old natural plant dyes or the texture that comes from the knotting process,” says Paul. “I also hope people come away with a deeper understanding of the origins of rugs and the cultures of Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus.”

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