Thursday, April 23, 2009 | 2 a.m.
In a tiny apartment across from the Hard Rock Hotel, a 72-year-old nomadic artist who goes by the single name Sola has spent the past three years weaving a vibrant tapestry of Las Vegas that will blow your mind.
Embroidered and textured palm trees frame casino properties. Turquoise blue pools dot the landscape. MGM Grand, woven in metallic green, anchors the south end of the Strip. Golden beads mark streetlights that extend north toward the mountains.
Marquees announce Elton John, Danny Gans, Cher. Air-conditioning units sit atop the Sands Convention Center. Hotels, civic buildings, Hard Rock guitars, motel signs, office parks and side streets all clamor for attention.
She put more than 8,000 hours into the piece, working alone in her tidy, sparse apartment, sometimes measuring buildings and counting windows at night from the tops of parking ramps and Strip towers. If a hotel has 54 stories, she wove 54 stories from the ground up.
Holidays, birthdays, weekends, every day.
“I’ve reduced life to the simplest focus — my tapestry,” she says, glancing at the 11-by-7 1/2 foot work that leans against her living room wall.
Today, with the help of Marty Walsh, owner of Trifecta Gallery, the tapestry moves to Atlantic Aviation, the former Las Vegas Executive Air Terminal, where it will hang until it is sold. As she has with her other tapestries, she will donate the profit to arts and other organizations.
Sola has been weaving cities since the 1980s, when she wanted to create a portrait of Vancouver, British Columbia, for the 1986 World’s Fair, but didn’t know how to draw or paint. Textiles were her only sure terrain.
She mostly weaves Olympic cities, traveling to different countries, then moving on. She plans to be in London for the 2012 Olympics. She’ll know in October where she’ll be for the 2016 Olympics — Tokyo, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro or Chicago. She hopes it’s Rio.
She came to Las Vegas after reading about Strip implosions and felt an urge to document the city before the buildings were gone. Already, her piece is outdated — the Stardust (imploded March 2007) is on the Strip in her tapestry, and the Tropicana marquee lists “Folies Bergere” (closed last month after 49 years).
Recycling yarn from thrift store sweaters, Sola literally wove Las Vegas from the fabric of the community. Stretching a swatch of a coal gray Gap sweater, she says, “See, that’s parking lots.”
She’s friendly, chatty. Maybe that’s what happens when you spend all of your time alone, creating and building a city from yarn and string — you feel like talking again.
She has no valuables, aside from what will fit into a rolling suitcase, and buys furnishings at thrift stores and gives them back when she leaves. She wants to own nothing: “I wear the same clothes every day. I just wash them. It frees up income and imagination if you don’t have a lot to take care of.”
Fleeing is her history. As a child during World War II, she was sent away from her family in London during the blitz. She stayed with a host family in a village in Wales, roaming the hills and picking wool off fences, then returned to London after the war. In the ’60s, she settled in Toronto and opened coffee shops and other venues for folk singers and rock stars passing through.
Her daughter lives in Vancouver. Her mother, 96, lives in London. Friends are spread across the globe. Her income comes from knitting hats that sell for about $40 in Vancouver. “Thank you, Gap, for using such incredibly beautiful materials,” she says, stretching a stylish hat, one of hundreds stacked in her bedroom.
Sola shows no sign of fatigue. Trim and fit, she talks about wanting to live to 100.
“If I can touch yarn for 10 hours a day then I am in absolute heaven and I want to do it for as long as I live.”
She heads soon to Vancouver, where she’ll stay through the 2010 Winter Olympics. A cartoon map of Vancouver is taped to a door. When she leaves her apartment for the last time, she will peel it off, fold it up and tuck it into her suitcase. It will be the last item removed.