Rugger Soul: Palouse exhibit displays magical carpet collection

For those who’ve pined for a magic carpet ride, the wait is over. A number of “magic carpets” will be featured at the Bank Left Gallery in Palouse beginning Saturday.

Visitors won’t actually be able to get on the ornate 19th century oriental tribal rugs hung on the gallery’s walls, but they might see some magic woven amid the rich reds and blues.

Paul Smith, a Palouse musician who’s collected these rugs for the past 20 years, explains the background behind their reputation.

“These rugs have repeated patterns that appear to shift after you look at it for a while, so that what you see looks 3D or like it’s floating,” he says.

Subtle changes in the rugs’ designs, whether through color, size, or texture, result in optical illusions that earned the rugs their magical moniker. It’s likely the effect is intentional, but no one knows why. In fact, that’s not the only mystery these rugs hold. Very little is known about these antique tribal rugs. Those on display in the upcoming show, all part of Smith’s collection, are primarily from the region where Afghanistan and eastern Iran meet, up north to Turkmenistan.

The rugs were functional artwork created primarily by women, Smith explains. The nomadic people in the region raised sheep whose wool would be spun into thread, dyed and woven into intricate patterns. Some rugs functioned as tax or dowry pieces, others were used as bags, pillows or flooring in the tents.

Any meaning in the textile design, though, was lost in the tumult of the region’s history. Theirs was an oral society and not particularly welcoming to foreigners, so few records are available to interpret the designs. A woven bird, for example, might represent a clan, a deity or something else entirely.

“You look at them and you can tell they’re soulful,” Smith says. But what story these 200-year-old rugs tell can only be imagined.

The mystery is only magnified being so far removed from their original setting.

“Our vision is so culturally informed and chances are we’re not looking at them right,” Smith says.

He cites a story from the region where the rugs originate, where the native people were unable to recognize human shapes in black and white photographs brought by Westerners. If they were unable to see what we see so easily, he says, what are we not seeing in these rugs that they might have seen?

Smith was introduced to these “spectacularly beautiful” rugs over 20 years ago at a Seattle gallery. As a musician, he noticed more than just their visual beauty as they hung in a room with high ceilings and wooden floors — he noticed a certain acoustic quality they provided. He wanted to replicate it in his own recording studio.

After a bit of experience and research, in 2000 he began buying them on eBay, which had just become a marketplace for antiques. With his educated background, Smith could recognize authentic pieces and bought a number of rugs at low prices. Since then, sellers have become savvy and good prices are hard to find.

“I was in the right place at the right time with the right interest,” Smith says.

Alongside the tribal rugs, the show will display 19th-century clothing and modern handmade textiles by Oaxacan women in Mexico. These modern Mexican rugs will be available for purchase ($60 to $200) and will benefit the women who create them.

IF YOU GO: WHAT: Textile Exhibit featuring ancient and modern textiles WHEN: Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Exhibit runs through March 7 WHERE: The Bank Left Gallery, 100 S. Bridge St., Palouse COST: Free ADDITIONAL INFO: A “Day of Romance” is running in conjunction with the exhibit opening. Lunch in the bistro will be available from noon to 2 p.m. and an antique sale is taking place at the nearby Palouse Grange Hall from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. In the evening, the gallery is holding “Laced with Frost,” a Valentine’s Day dinner and concert from 6 to 8 p.m. Cost is $35; contact bankleft@visitpalouse.com for more information.

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