Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 4: Teacher

This post is a continuation of the series of blog posts about the Denver Art Museum's videos of James Koehler.

Barb starts this video talking about passing on the knowledge of tapestry. I agree with her about this. Though weaving tapestry is a rather crazy way to spend a life in some respects, the rewards are great and passing on those things to a new generation of weavers is important. It is why I do so much teaching now myself.

In the video I talk about seeing a piece of James' at a lecture and knowing that that was what I wanted to do. That is quite literally what happened. I was a student at Northern New Mexico Community College in their fiber arts program and James came to give a lecture one afternoon. At NNMCC I was studying traditional Rio Grande Hispanic tapestry weaving which is a wonderful tradition with many expectations and rules. Once I understood the possibilities of contemporary art tapestry, I knew I had to leave that program and learn the techniques necessary to create my own vision of tapestry art.

It is true that the inspiration for James' Harmonic Oscillations pieces was a sine wave. Once he started playing with this mathematical form, he was able to create tapestries with these waves that looked like they were three dimensional.

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Here is one of the Harmonic Oscillations pieces which were designed from sine waves.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation XL
James did love teaching. There are crazy stories from students about workshops he was teaching while he was sick in his last year when he just kept teaching. I struggled for a long time with feeling angry at him for not taking care of himself. For not stopping when he knew he was sick. But he couldn't. He was teaching in southern New Mexico just a day before he died.

The Rhythms of Nature pieces were ones he did very near the end of his life. I believe this one was woven around 2010 as it was included in the Albuquerque Interwoven Traditions: New Mexico and Bauhaus show.
James Koehler, Rhythms of Nature III

Monday, July 27, 2015

The James Koehler Videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 3: Meditation

This post is the continuation of my series of blog posts discussing the five Denver Art Museum videos about James Koehler.

James Koehler was a Benedictine monk. He lived for about a decade at Christ in the Desert monastery in Northern New Mexico and this is where he learned to weave.

James talked about needing to weave as a meditation while at the monastery. When talking about why he left the monastery, he often sited the fact that the new prior would no longer allow him to spend his private meditation time at the loom.

In his own words:
When I entered the monastery in 1977, there were only six monks. In many respects, it was like a family. We met every morning to discuss some aspect of the Rule of Saint Benedict and to take care of community business. The prior acted as a moderator who helped us come to a consensus on any decision that had to be made. In many respects, we were a young and idealistic community.
As time went on, many aspects of our life there changed. Several men arrived to experience monastic life. Sometimes, they stayed for a few months, and sometimes, they stayed for a few years. The community became progressively more stable. The increased size in our membership affected [sic] several changes in the structure of our lives together.
In 1983, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert was received as an independent priory into the English Province of The Subiaco Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict. Consensus was no longer our modus operandi. Clear lines of authority were established along with a system of anonymous voting on important issues. Our Customary, a document that described our daily life in great detail, was rewritten by the prior. Many of the ideals that drew me to monastic life at Christ in the Desert had been written out, and I now found life there to be increasingly difficult.
For many years, I was able to arrange my schedule so that I would be able to weave whenever possible. Brother Philip had encouraged me to explore the creative process through my weaving as a way of experiencing the Creator. But now, I was allowed to be in the weaving shop only when I was scheduled to be there during work periods. I was to spend all of my personal time alone in my cell.
That was really difficult. It was at the root of my discontent, and it started a struggle for me that lasted a whole year and a half. I kept asking myself -- Should I really be here? 
One of the things that James modeled for me so well was his ability to focus. He could focus on his work to the exclusion of everything else, whether that was a good or bad thing for life overall. When he was working, he was working.

In this video, Barb talks about his use of the golden mean in his work. He taught this frequently in his classes and he used the proportions of the golden mean in all of his tapestries, from the outer dimensions of the work to where to place certain elements. I am not quite sure that my statement, "Every single design he ever did was based on that" is true, but he did emphasize sacred geometry heavily.

Here is the video where Barb and I discuss James' ability to focus and his feeling that weaving was meditation for him.
If you get these blog posts via email updates, you'll need to go to the internet to view the video. You can see it in your browser on my blog here:

Near the end of this video Barb talks about how he applied the golden mean ratios that he loved to color dyeing. I am not sure the actual dye ratios were based on the golden mean, but they were definitely based on a mathematical progression. And then of course because he was using a singles yarn and mixing at least three colors in each bobbin, the color choices became so vast that he labeled every bobbin.

James used Aubusson bobbins to hold his yarn. He would write in pencil the numerical tag that he had created for each combination of yarn on every bobbin so that he could keep them straight. He wove on a 100 inch Cranbrook loom which had a tool tray hanging at eye-height the entire length of the loom. Frequently that tray was completely filled end to end with Aubusson bobbins with little penciled numbers on them.

Below is one of James' artist statements, written for the Interwoven Traditions: New Mexico and Bauhaus project and show we did together with Cornelia Theimer Gardella. You can read more about his life and work in his autobiography, Woven Color, available now on Amazon.

James Koehler -- Artist Statement

Tapestry focuses on the creative, constructive process.  My woven images reflect the relationship of this process with the rhythmic, repetitive and unpredictable processes inherent in the natural world.

I am influenced by the extraordinary landscape and the unique cultures of New Mexico and by an aesthetic of simplicity, purity and portraying only what is essential. The source of my design inspiration often is found in meditation.

James Koehler is an internationally recognized tapestry artist whose work can be found in several museum, corporate and private collections.  He began weaving in 1977 and has worked with numerous students since the mid-1980’s.
This image was one that I took at Convergence 2010 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the first day his book was for sale and he was taking his turn at the author's table, signing autographs.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 2: Flat Tapestry

I have to admit that I am a proponent of the very flat tapestry that James taught me. I am almost as picky about it as he was, and that is saying something because James could be picky. He would probably not like that word. Perhaps exacting or particular would be better words. Being particular leads to a mastery of craftsmanship and James definitely was a master craftsman.

This is the second of five blog posts about the Denver Art Museum videos of Barb Brophy and I talking about our teacher, James Koehler. I am talking in this video about the interlock that James used in most of his work. I have posthumously named it the "James Koehler interlock", but it is really just a specific variation of a weft interlock. If you're interested in learning this join, I have a video on my YouTube channel about it HERE.

If you receive this blog via email updates, you will need to go to the internet to watch the movie. You can see it on my blog in your browser at

The search for a very flat join can be traced back to a desire for a very flat textile. A lot of tapestry weaving is not very flat and in fact can be quite thick with yarn tails hanging on the back. Everyone has their favorite style, but I love the way James taught me to weave. His work was exceptionally flat, thin, and flexible. There were no tails hanging anywhere and most of his pieces were virtually reversible. This James Koehler weft interlock join contributes to that sort of textile because it is very flat when done correctly.

This join can be seen throughout James' work. The piece below is Ceremonial Masks which is in the State Library Archive in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The date on the plaque is 1998.
James Koehler, Ceremonial Masks
And here is a detail of that join. Note that he did the join every other sequence. I also use it in this way. It is faster and even flatter than if you interlock every sequence.
James Koehler, Ceremonial Masks, detail
And here is the same join in the Denver Art Museum piece, Chief Blanket with Blocks. Note the warp is running right to left so the joins are happening between the green and red at the top and bottom of the photograph.
James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, detail
And one last example of this join which shows what an expert he was at it. This is from Harmonic Oscillation XL from 2006.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation XL, detail
And this is an edging technique that James no longer used when I knew him. The Chief Blanket piece at DAM has this fringe folded over the top in hanging. In his later work, all his work was hemmed.

James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, installation Denver Art Museum Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry show

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 1: Color

A few months ago I did a long interview with the curatorial staff at the Denver Art Museum about my tapestry teacher, James Koehler. The interview, broken into five parts, is part of a display of one of James' pieces in the current tapestry show at DAM, Creative Crossroads: The Art of Tapestry.

I'd like to talk a little bit about each of the videos here on the blog. Of course I have background stories about all of them and I thought you might like to hear some of them. If not, I'm sure I'll be back to my regularly scheduled salad of tapestry information soon.

In this first video, Barb Brophy, another Koehler student, and I talk about James' use of color. We talk about his ability to create intense colors in his hand-dyed yarn. Many of his very intense colors were created for student use however. James' work was more subtle than that and the colors he used were toned or created with some complimentary colors mixed in.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation LXI
As many of his apprentices did over the years, I spent a lot of time watching the dye pots. He would not let us measure the dyes. His one secret in relation to his work in tapestry was his dye formulas. He even (and I'm not kidding here) had cans of dye in which the labels were covered with duct tape. I have a few suspicions of what was in those cans, but we'll leave his secret where it is for now.

In the dye process, he measured out the dyes himself, dumped them into water baths which he heated, strained, and stirred on his dye kitchen stove, and then let me take it from there.

He had three huge dye pots just outside the studio heated by propane burners. He could dye three pounds of a color at once with acid wool dyes. He only did one run a day. So for most of the summer, the pots were running. Nine pounds a day. Much of it for the workshops he taught constantly.

In the video I make it sound like making the colors James did was a mystery. There were a few colors I have been unable to create in my own dye studio (see prior comment about mystery ingredients), but for the most part, a good dyer with a solid knowledge of color theory can create amazing things with acid wool dyes. Yes, James had a special ability to produce lovely evenly dyed yarns. But many of you could do it too if you wanted to. I bet James would tell you that himself if he could.

The piece that the Denver Art Museum owns is one of the Chief Blankets series. This is what James has to say in his book, Woven Color, about those pieces:
But the images I really liked--that had an aesthetic of simplicity and were efficient in terms of my being able to weave them--were from the Navajo Chief Blankets. . . . I looked at the Chief Blanket as though it were a triptych. There were three areas of color that were separated by very broad repetitive bands of black and white. The stripes could be woven with relative ease, and the color areas could be done with tapestry techniques. So it was like weaving three smaller tapestries as part of that large format. I approached the creating of design elements for the colored panels as if I were designing a triptych.
Here is the video:
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Here are the yarn balls Barb talks about in the video.

And here are some more photographs of that Chief Blanket piece. You can visit the show to see it in person. It runs from now through March 6, 2016. It is a great excuse to visit Denver.
James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, in the collection of the Denver Art Museum
One of James' trademarks was subtle use of color. Get a close look at the diamond shape in the center of the red squares. The violet and blue are so close in value they are difficult to tell apart, but there is a blue square in the center of the violet diamond. I suspect it is the same blue as you see in the three intermediate squares though the violet shifts the color somewhat (simultaneous contrast!).

James Koehler, Chief Blanket with Blocks, detail

If you are interested in more of the story, here are some blog posts about the time in my life I was apprenticing with James.

I'll have more about the other four videos in the next week.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Yarn lovers unite!

I received an email this week that made me gasp a little bit.
Village Wools is closing.
This is the yarn shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico that my mom brought me to as a kid. It has been open for 44 years. I love the smell. I loved hearing Franzi call, Hello! when we walked in. I was a little afraid of her because she seemed so on top of everything and was so assertive. She knew everything about yarn. But when I got older and had questions about patterns and yarn substitutions, I sought out Franzi every time.

I loved touching all the yarn and flipping through the patterns and finding a new book to go home with. I loved this place because it was always a destination. We're going to Albuquerque [with some dread faced with the two hour car ride and uncertain errands at the other end, turned to anticipation with...] Let's go to Village Wools!

I was talking to another yarn store owner friend of mine awhile back and she was telling me how she is afraid that brick and mortar yarn stores are all going to disappear. I understand that fear given the different climate of internet sales and marketing. But I think we need brick and mortar yarn stores. We need a place to go with shelves of patterns, employees who know the difference between sport and worsted weight yarn, and the needles for any project right there. We need the community that yarn creates. And we need them everywhere.

I wish more yarn stores sold weaving supplies. I've lived many places where I had no alternative other than ordering on the internet. But if your local yarn store does carry your weaving yarn and tools, buy them there for goodness sake! (The Recycled Lamb in Golden and Shuttles, Spindles, and Skeins in Boulder are two great Colorado options.)

I do not think that brick and mortar yarn stores are necessarily on their way out. I think that things just have to be different in this marketing climate than they were two decades ago. Seeing things on social media about your local shop is helpful. Blogs with stories, presence at local fiber events, lots of great classes all draw people in. I'm not a yarn store owner, so I don't know if any of that can overcome how easy it is to buy the exact yarn a pattern calls for by pushing a button on the internet, but I can hope.

There are several fantastic yarn shops in Fort Collins. I love them all for different reasons. I was in My Sister Knits the other day just to get a size of needle I needed for a project (yarn and book purchased a few days before at the Brown Sheep Company mill) and left with yarn for two new projects. I'm super excited about both of them. I bought it all because they had marvelous samples of things I really wanted to knit and wear and Theresa who was helping me, recommended some combinations I would not have known about if I hadn't listened to her experienced voice. (And well, I'm a total sucker for yarn. I have wanted to try some Habu for the longest time and of course they carry it and had a marvelous sample scarf knit with it... sold.)
Believe me, I am familiar with the internet. I know you can buy large quantities of yarn at big discounts from online dealers. And maybe sometime you need to do that. But for your average project, consider the experience you get by going to your local shop. Thumbing through the pattern books for a pattern or asking the shop staff for appropriate yarn substitutions for that pattern everyone on Ravelry is knitting. Pay attention to the hottest new fiber or ask them what their favorite yarn is and why. I've discovered some amazing new things by asking these questions.

Go to a knit or spin night. Take a class (what could be more fun?). Life is for experiencing yarn. Live it up!

And for Village Wools, please remember,
(Photo taken in their very bathroom.)

Monday, July 13, 2015

The world of Instagram and Pinterest? It isn't real.

Yes, I do like and use a few social media platforms on a regular basis. Facebook is a habit. Pinterest is a great way to feed my obsessive collecting need without actually collecting things that take up space in my home or studio. Instagram is a fascinating scroll through the lives of the beautiful. The images are for the most part gorgeous. But don't you think there must be a pile of crap just out of the frame? I mean, does anyone really have a studio that looks like it stepped out of a high-budget Hollywood production? (If, say, there were art studios in high-budget Hollywood productions...)

Nope. I am absolutely sure there is a bin of unentered receipts under the desk and six empty tea cups on the bookshelf just out of view of the camera. And that etherial, white, floaty-feeling is created by a filter slapped right over reality.

I have felt a great deal of distress centered around Instagram in the last few weeks. It wasn't really an identifiable "I'm upset because this is not what I believe about the world of art" kind of distress (though there was some of that too). It was an amorphous unrest that started when choosing my photo for my daily post and intensified when I scrolled through my feed. I finally had to stop and ask myself what the heck was going on.

The truth is, Instagram is fiction. (Thanks to Kim Werker for giving me those words, only I think she said, "Pinterest is fiction"). IG photos are lovely. The worlds they represent are shiny and happy and people are having fun making things (or cooking or raising sheep or whatever you are interested in following). I just want to remind all of us myself that this world is created with Photoshop and that there are piles of unfinished projects behind the closet door, a drift of un-inventoried tapestry tools in the corner, and a pile of receipts that you haven't entered into Quickbooks because you haven't figured out how to categorize them (and you feel like a complete freakin' failure because of this little fact).

I think the truth is that we learn the most from getting it wrong first. Maybe for a very long time. Why can't we, as humans, admit that this is true? Is our culture so much about being perfect that we have forgotten we are human and we need each other? The pressure I put on myself to do massive amounts of work and to do it "perfectly" is intense (maybe even insane). I do not believe I am that far from the norm of small business owners/entrepreneurs in this country. Instagram is not helping me in my twelve-step program to overcome perfectionism. Not one little bit.

So I will continue to try to keep the piles of crap out of my Instagram photos, but if some creep in, please celebrate them with me. And for goodness sake, don't forget that even those networking geniuses with 57k followers have hairballs the cat coughed up under the dresser. I am just sure of it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Love the one you're with

Perhaps that blog title should be:

Use the fiber you have

I have a bit of a stash. Knitting yarn is confined to my clothes closet. I figure that is a good way to limit both the amount of clothes (never a problem) and the amount of knitting yarn I am tempted to buy (always a problem). And I consider the weaving yarn a business asset though I have tried to use up the undyed yarn stored in huge plastic bins this year (before buying more of course). I am not even going to mention the hand-dyed tapestry yarn stash. That is sacred.

In the interest of cleaning out the dark corners of my closets of UFOs (UnFinished Objects), I pulled them all out last weekend. I was a little shocked. I mean, I knew that there were four sweaters that needed finishing, but seeing the pile was kind of like staging my own intervention. I found these almost-finished projects:
  • 3 baby hats (and I suspect 8-10 more are hiding in the stash)
  • 4 adult-sized sweaters, one a long-promised gift
  • 5 scarves needing only ends sewn in and blocking
  • 7 elf sock Christmas ornaments
  • 1 shawl (ends and blocking)
  • 1 felted bag missing only a lining and the handle sewn on
  • 2 kid toys (monsters missing most of their vital parts still!)
  • 1 bath set (ends sewn in only--and there were only 4 ends)
  • 1 pair of socks 
  • 1 friend's sweater from which a dog had chewed a button and left a hole the fixing of which was an exchange for some awesome spinning fleece (I clearly got the better end of this deal)
  • 1 organic cotton baby blanket needing only the lining sewn in. Lining fabric is present.
  • 1 woven baby blanket with pick-up text that says "Giggle"

It took me the length of one movie (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) to sew in the tails of a large percentage of these projects which are now in line for blocking. The big projects remain but I have hope that I will be able to plow through all of them in the next few months.

So all of this brings me to what I did yesterday.
I took a little field trip to Mitchell, Nebraska. Why Nebraska you ask? Because the Brown Sheep Company is there. What do they make?
You guessed it. Yarn.
I was only going to buy the wool warp I wanted to try. Really. But then I found out that their mill store sells their seconds yarn (the skeins with more than one knot in them) for unbelievable prices... and then there was the brand new knitting book from Interweave with the very cool patterns and the yarn was right there... and, well, I brought home two bags worth. I know it won't fit in the closet stash with all those UFOs. So it is back to doing the finishing.

Unfortunately (or fortunately for you, dear readers), Brown Sheep Co. doesn't allow photos in their mill. So you are spared the lengthy photo/video tour of the facility (if this is disappointing to you, you can visit my prior tours HERE and HERE and HERE). Just believe me when I say that it was wonderful and I had a fantastic time.

Here are a few of the things that interested me:
  • They source their wool locally. They get their wool which is Rambouillet and Columbia from local sheep farmers in Nebraska, Wyoming, and the front range of Colorado. I like this a whole lot.
  • Their process is worsted (as opposed to Harrisville which is a woolen mill).
  • The raw wool is processed in South Carolina. They get it back as lovely combed top.
  • All the wool is white. They spin it first (except for some of the heathered yarns they do where they dye the roving first), steam it, ply it if it is not a single... there are multiple times they have to skein the stuff... and then they dye it.
  • The roving was coiled in four-foot tall cylinders perhaps a foot and a half in diameter. The ones that had a mix of white and black created an especially lovely pattern--all that lovely top coiled regularly in a mix of black and white. Really you should see it.
  • I haven't before seen the huge dyeing machines they use before. They use acid wool dye and they do have a hand-dyer for some of their lines. But the solid colors go on trays in one of the huge square dyeing machines. Their largest will dye 200 pounds of wool at a time. (!!!) They recycle the water and what they can't use again is treated and evaporated from a large lagoon.
  • The skeining machines were super cool. Boy do I wish I had one of those!
  • There is a very cool label machine that puts on the labels for many of the kinds of yarn, though all the paper labels you see on their lines are applied by hand. 
  • In case you're interested in weaving tapestry with their yarn, I would recommend Brown Sheep Waverly for this purpose. It comes in hundreds of colors and you can buy it in 8-yard skeins which is great for small-format work.
I loved it. I will go back. Someone might have to hold my credit card when I do though.
There is a fiber festival in Scotts Bluff in September that Brown Sheep participates in heavily including offering classes and factory tours. Let's go!

We also stopped at Scott's Bluff National Monument, took a hike to the top of the bluff, and had some fun with the Oregon Trail replica wagons that were there. How much yarn do you think I'd have if I had to move everything I owned across the west in one of these?
I am going to try again to love the fiber I have. I do think a stash is absolutely vital to the life of a fiber artist. I'm just not sure how many skeins of hand-dyed sock yarn I can realistically knit in the next 40-50 years.