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A continuous thread: Athenaeum marks director Erika Torri’s retirement with showcase of her weavings

An example of Erika Torri's woven textiles to be featured in the exhibit "The Continuous Thread."
(Courtesy of Athenaeum Music & Arts Library)

An exhibit opening June 11 will include about 40 of Torri’s woven textiles, plus artist books, portraits, publications and ephemera that represent her 33 years at the library.

In her 30-plus years at the helm of La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, Erika Torri has woven concerts, lectures, film series and educational opportunities into its offerings. Now, as she prepares to retire at the end of this month, a showcase of her own woven textiles, plus artist books, portraits, publications and ephemera that represent her time at the library, will be shown in a special exhibition June 11 through July 16.

The show, titled “Erika Torri: The Continuous Thread,” will display about 40 of Torri’s 1,400 textile pieces created in the late 1970s and 1980s, according to the Athenaeum. The weavings, as Torri calls them, are several narrative series that depict family, landscapes, travel and architecture. They were exhibited widely in the ‘80s but have not been shown since Torri became executive director of the Athenaeum in 1989.

The weavings were done throughout Torri’s life and may have been instrumental in keeping her in Southern California.

“My husband and I were living in Boston — he went to MIT and I was at Harvard — and when he got his Ph.D., he wanted to come to California for one year,” Torri said. “He just loved it. He loved the ocean and we had avocados in our backyard.”

“I had a tougher time,” said Torri, a native of Germany. “I missed the culture of European cities.”

UC San Diego in La Jolla offered her a job, but because she had two young children at the time, any job would have to be part time.

“They couldn’t offer me half-time, but I told them what most people get done in a day I could do in half a day.” she said. “Still, they couldn’t do that, which turned out to be a blessing.”

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Instead, Torri dedicated those days to her artistic weavings, which she learned to make as a young girl in confirmation classes at church. “I always wanted to be a weaver, and I loved creating little pieces,” she said. “I continued weaving when we came out here and it became a real thing for me. I made miniatures that were accepted at local galleries because everyone had a little wall space where they could hang my weavings.”

As she settled into her new home and her new role as the Athenaeum’s executive director, the weavings helped her when she was homesick, as they reminded her of her childhood in Germany, Torri said.

“I was very homesick for Europe, and I mostly did the things that reminded me of Europe,” she said. “When we came out here … I was so depressed and thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ I made a few large pieces the size of a rug, but they took forever. I thought I had to weave what I saw when I went back to Europe. I started with small miniature weavings of France, where my sister has a place, then things about Germany. That is how I got over my homesickness. It was a long time before I could weave an [image of the] ocean, because most of my images were of Europe.”

When she moved to San Diego County, she saw a newspaper story about some local weavers. “That saved me,” she said, because it gave her the opportunity to continue her passion here.

“As a child, I had little looms. Now I have three larger pedal looms,” Torri said. She added that one might be on view as part of the exhibit.

“Making a weaving doesn’t take all that long and it is very rewarding, and I get ideas for weavings everywhere. I would see something lovely and decide to sketch it and make a weaving.”

Athenaeum Music & Arts Library Executive Director Erika Torri is retiring at the end of this month.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Sybil Roubottom, the Athenaeum’s artist in residence, came up with the idea for the exhibition, but at first, Torri didn’t want to do it. “It was a surprise to me,” Torri said. “I thought, ‘My weavings? I haven’t shown them in 30 years!’”

Nevertheless, Roubottom said, “when Erika mentioned that she would be retiring, I knew people realized all the extraordinary things she had done at the Athenaeum, but I had this idea that maybe people didn’t know that she is also this incredible weaver.”

The two have known each other for 45 years and were in the same weavers group for a time.

“I always loved her weavings; they were these miniature landscapes,” Roubottom said. “She’s an artist and she approached everything she did as an artist, and this is a way to see a big side of her that people don’t know about.”

After 33 years of expanding the cultural footprint of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, Executive Director Erika Torri has announced she will retire June 30, leaving the La Jolla institution in the hands of someone she hopes will mark the community as she has.

With 30 weavings already available in Torri’s home, plus others that had been sold or given to friends and relatives that they put in the show, the foundation for the exhibit was set.

In addition to the weavings, the show will include portraits of Torri by other artists, plus pieces from her personal collection by local artists. “But my specialty is artist books, which are the books the artists make, and they become an art piece,” she said. “Since the ‘60s this has become an art form … and I have 1,000 at home, so I am going to bring some that we don’t have here.”

Having an exhibition that shows “the vast array of Erika’s personality” seemed fitting to honor her retirement, Roubottom said. “It’s full circle. ... I hope now she gets back to the weaving.”

In addition to the exhibit, jazz pianists Mike Wofford and Josh Nelson will perform a concert in tribute to Torri on Wednesday, June 29, at the Athenaeum.

‘Erika Torri: The Continuous Thread’

When: Saturday, June 11, to Saturday, July 16; public reception from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, June 17

Exhibit hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Where: Joseph Clayes III Gallery and Rotunda Gallery, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla

Cost: Free

Information: ljathenaeum.org/upcoming-exhibitions

Jazz at the Athenaeum: Mike Wofford and Josh Nelson — Tribute to Erika Torri

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 29

Where: Joan & Irwin Jacobs Music Room, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla

Cost: $35 for Athenaeum members, $40 for non-members

Information: ljathenaeum.org/events/jazz-22-0629