Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fine art tapestry: found at the Denver Art Museum and your local thrift store

You don't expect to find fine art tapestry in a thrift store. At least I don't.

But one day last winter, I happened to check my email at 9:50 on a Monday morning and had a note from a friend in Santa Fe about two tapestries by James Koehler that were spotted over the weekend at a thrift store called Look What the Cat Dragged In. After I got over how mortified James would have been to have his tapestries in a store with the word cat in the name, I looked up their website. They opened at 10. A quick call later and I owned this tapestry.
Jeremy Koehler, unknown title, 1995, 60 x 60 inches, tapestry
Let me back up. James Koehler was my teacher. He was a tapestry artist working in New Mexico. He taught me about craftsmanship, honed my dye skills, pushed my design skills, and pretty much made sure I never got lazy. I might have heard a few too many Broadway musicals during those years working in his studio, but I learned to be a tapestry artist. James died in March of 2011.

At the thrift shop, the people who drove over looking for those tapestries that Monday morning were disappointed. The store was in Santa Fe and I now live in northern Colorado. Another student of James bought the other tapestry and I decided that a little pilgrimage to Santa Fe was just what I needed. The next day I drove down to pick up those pieces. My sister has a deep freeze, and after wrapping the piece in plastic, it lived in and out of the freezer for a couple months. It is my policy that anything fiber that comes from a thrift store must have some moth-management before it comes into my wool-filled studio.
I rescued the piece from the freezer in February and brought it home. At some point soon it'll make a trip to a photographer, but for today, the snapshot above gives you an idea of the work.

I love the slight color shifts between shades of blue-violet. In true James fashion, he was using a large number of colors just slightly different in hue and value. Subtlety in color was one of his favorite things to play with.

Yesterday I was at the Denver Art Museum again to hear a talk by a dear friend of mine, DY Begay. While there, I visited the sixth floor to see the tapestry show yet again. The piece in the collection of the Denver Art Museum by James is from the same era as the one I just bought. It is one of his Chief Blanket pieces.
James Koehler, Chief Blanket, collection of the Denver Art Museum. Piece to the right is Ramona Sakiestewa.
Later in the evening I sat and listened to DY Begay speak about her work as a contemporary Navajo artist working in tapestry. DY's work springs from her connection to her home, Tselani, in Arizona. Her process reflects her life as a Navajo woman, and her quiet insistence on her methods of materials collection for wool and dye inform everything she makes.

On my long drive home I thought about how both of these artists working in tapestry exert a quiet, steady influence on my own tendency to follow every little mouse trail off into corners, distracting myself from the work I would most love to do. James was a persistent anchor for years--until he was gone. I realized that I have other anchors now. DY and a few other tapestry friends remind me to follow my call to create woven art. My own practice of tapestry weaving, including designing and preparing materials, grounds my work. The doing of it I mean. The practice becomes its own entity over the years and it becomes one of the most important forces in the creation.

I still don't think James would be happy to have his tapestries sold in a thrift store, but I am grateful that I saw that email and they are now appreciated by two of his former students. This piece, the title of which I have not yet found, can be a reminder of where I came from and the principles that James taught me, both the ones I cling strongly to and the ones I have rejected. It will also remind me of the importance of focus and doing my own most important work every day.
Jeremy Koehler, unknown title, 1995, 60 x 60 inches, tapestry
If you don't know the story of James, he published an autobiography with Carol Greene before he died. You can buy a copy HERE. When he wove this piece in the mid-90s, he was still going by the name he took as a Benedictine monk, Jeremy. a few years later he went back to his given name, James. He did these pieces in series. I don't know if other pieces of this design exist out there somewhere since this was number one. If you have one or have seen one somewhere, please let me know!

Do you have a piece made by someone who has influenced your artistic practice or your creative life in some way? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

11 comments:

  1. Rebecca, how fortunate you saved this exquisite tapestry. I noticed in his book, page 107, figure 29.3, Koshare Window V, the piece is very similar to the one you have. Is yours a part of this series?

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  2. P.S. I just looked further in the book, as I'm sure you have. Did you notice, page 187 the tapestry on the cover of Fiberarts in 1997. It sure looks like the one you own. Am I grasping at straws here?

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    1. You are not! The piece on page 107 is indeed this piece. Someone else pointed it out to me just a few minutes ago. I actually flipped through Woven Color to look for it and somehow missed it. Later in the book there are some photos of a show at Kent Galleries with many Koshare Windows pieces including this one. The one on the cover of Fiber Arts now is another in that series. Thanks Michele! I hadn't seen that page with the cover. I'd love to find a copy of that magazine. I definitely wasn't getting it in 1997.

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  3. Fiberarts was published by Interweave. Maybe they have back issues still? It is different from the current mag Fiber Arts Now. But maybe you know all that. Anyway, glad the piece came home to you!

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  4. I'm sure there is a copy of that FiberArts magazine at the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum but it will take some digging around in boxes of old magazines to find it again. If it pops up between now and when you come in September for our workshop I'll save it for you.

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    1. Thanks Karen! I did find a copy on ebay. It is amazing what you can find there.

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  5. And I thought I was the queen of thrift store finds... I must hand the crown over to you, lol!

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    1. Ha Ha!!! You can keep the crown. I can't take credit for this one. A friend of a friend was in the store and took some photos and passed them on or I never ever would have seen this tapestry. :-)

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  6. Love this find. Would love to read more about the life of your teacher, unfortunately the book is out of my price range on Amazon. :-( I put it on my wish list in case any family or friend feels charitable! Would love to have a teacher but none live where I do. It's a bit overwhelming learning from books and youtube but I am having fun trying!

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    1. You might try interlibrary loan. Guild libraries also often have a copy. He self-published it through Blurb which is fairly expensive. The colors are great, but the book ends up being about twice what it probably should be. It is a beautiful book. And if you want a more structured learning approach, check out my online Warp and Weft course!

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