Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Myself, James, and Cornelia Gardella at the opening at Open Spaces Gallery, July 2010.
Copyright The CTB and SHR Trust, used by permission

James and his newly released autobiography, Convergence July 2010
James Koehler passed away unexpectedly March 3rd, 2011.  He taught until the day he died and I think that says something real about him.
(Update 3/4/13: James actually died on March 4th in the early hours of the morning.)

James occupies a complicated place in my heart.  He was a committed and exceptional teacher and was generous with his time and talents.  He loved teaching and felt that passing on the knowledge of creation – of making things especially in tapestry – was important.  My journey with James, which has come to an end before it should have, is marked by my own struggle to find my way as an artist while learning from an accomplished teacher who had some very specific ideas about tapestry and art.  We agreed on many things, and disagreed on others.  But one of the most important things that James taught me was about getting to the essential nature of something.  He believed that you have to question and ponder (and perhaps meditate) and understand who you are—and from that place you can express something that is meaningful and useful in the world.  I think that James was able to do this in his own art and he encouraged me to do this in my work.

I think of my years working in his studio and often remember things in pictures and in feelings—the brilliant wall of yarn that is in so many photos of his studio, the well-used student looms, the Cranbrook I used, the worn weaving tools the apprentices used to wind warp and yarn, his particular dyeing process so different from my own… I hear him calling from his 8 foot loom, “just let me know if you have questions!” And one older student saying, “I’m coming to a question now.”  James would invariably reply cheerfully, “I’ll be right there.”

James often said, “That’s bizarre!” and I hear his voice every time someone uses that word.  He loved stories and the studio was often full of chatter.  Other times he was focusing on something and only the classical music station would accompany the loom beaters clacking.

The door to Koehler studio was always open.  James welcomed visitors regardless of who they were and when they were showing up.  He could be hard-pressed to make a deadline for a commission but would stop weaving to give anyone who knocked on his studio door a tour.  He was unfailingly open-hearted with strangers and the pages in his studio guest book were frequently filled.

I was fortunate enough to get to do a three-year project with James and Cornelia Theimer Gardella.  We were hanging our tapestry show, Interwoven Traditions: New Mexico and Bauhaus in Michaeliskirche in Erfurt, Germany 6 months before he died—to the day.  There are some links to my posts about the two shows we did together, including photos, below.

James touched many people’s lives—perhaps we each knew a slightly different person.  But I know that the people who worked with him the most took something away from their experience with this extraordinary man which will live on even though he is now gone.  I have received many emails and phone calls from people expressing their condolences.  I want to thank you all for that.  I will miss him as will many many people. 

I believe that this is an opportunity to look at James’ life and ask ourselves, those of us who benefited from his influence, what we can do in the future to carry on his work.  He was a strong supporter of tapestry as an art form and worked hard to have tapestry accepted as a mainline medium instead of being just a craft pursuit.  I believe that we as fiber artists have a long way to go to finish this work.

James, no one can replace you.  I thank you for your time and tireless energy and for being my teacher.  I hope that I can continue some of the work that you started especially since you had to leave so soon.

James at Michaeliskirche in Erfurt, Germany, September 2010
James in Erfurt at the Interwoven Traditions opening, September 5th, 2010
photo:Hamish John Appleby

I have written about our project, Interwoven Traditions: New Mexico and Bauhaus before.  Here are some links to those posts:
The photos of the opening at Michaeliskirche, Erfurt, Germany.

Further photos of the opening in Germany.

James, Conni, and I hanging the Germany show.

Some photos from the Albuquerque show.

James' website is here.

All content copyrighted Rebecca Mezoff, 2011 unless otherwise stated.


  1. Rebecca,
    A beautiful and loving tribute. I'm glad I finally had just a few days to spend with him last summer. But to have worked so closely with him as your mentor and colleague... you have a deep loss, I know.

  2. Beautiful! Thank you.
    Maryse Levenson

  3. How very beautifully & soulfully written, Rebecca. Thank you for giving us a tiny glimpse of what it was like to be his student & friend. It is going to be very, very hard to say the word "tapestry" & realize that James is gone.

  4. I had the pleasure of taking a class with him and interviewing him at ANWG 2009. I'm sorry that there won't be more time with him. He was a remarkable man.

  5. Thanks for sharing, Rebecca. I did not know James well,but having worked with him on the ATA retreat last summer, I know how generous, kind and devoted to his work he was. He has touched many with his work , his teaching and his focused presence. He will be missed.

  6. A beautiful and heartfelt tribute. And a good reminder to the rest of us, to think about how we can carry on his work, perhaps the best tribute of all.

  7. I had been reviewing his work recently because he was to teach a class nearby this summer and I was saddened to hear of his loss. I would appreciate knowing just a little more about those "specific ideas" about tapestry that you mentioned ... especially ones where you felt differently. This dialogue between weaver and mentor would be of great value to others.

  8. As one of his many students, thank you for another glimpse into the life of this wonderful man. James was not only a great artist but one of the most generous people I have ever known - I will miss him.

  9. Helen says, I never had a class from James, had an evening lecture some years ago and as everyone says even if you never met James, you knew he was a very special person. I deeply wish I had taken a class from him as I was supposed to in Durango, CO at Intermountain Weavers Conference July, 2011. Thank you so much Rebecca for your kind words. He will have a place in our hearts for years to come.
    Helen Hart
    Cheyenne, WY

  10. Such a beautiful tribute to James! I had the opportunity to spend some time studying at his studio on two separate occasions. Both were very peaceful and meditative experiences. I am sure I will never think of tapestry weaving without thinking of James. The weaving world will greatly miss him.

    Mary Doherty

  11. Thank you for this wonderful tribute. We and the world of tapestry have lost an incredible man.

  12. Thank you Rebecca for your beautiful tribute to James. I met him at his studio about 3 weeks ago. I was familiar with his body of work and planning on taking his upcoming workshop at EFAC on Color and Design. I was struck by his gentle demeanor and generosity of knowledge and time. We spoke about our both experiencing long periods of bad health and I took it very hard when I read of his passing on the Tapestry list. Your tribute was beautiful. Thank you.

  13. Thank you so much for your lovely writing about our teacher James. I have been his student and friend since 2000 where I met him at the Taos Institute of Arts. I am a tapestry artist in large part because of James and he truly was one of the most brilliant and generous teachers I have ever known. I just spent a week with him in January and am so grateful to have recently had this time with him in his studio and home. He gave his all even though he was not feeling well. He was just a beautiful and gifted human being and I feel heartbroken right now over his sudden and too soon exit from this earth. If anything, my passion and dedication to this tapestry art medium has deepened more. I hope as you say that "those of us who benefited from his influence" can continue sharing this amazing medium of tapestry with each other and the world. I can't think of a better way to honor the memory of such a great artist, teacher and friend as James. He will live in my heart and my tapestry life always.

    Anji Bartholf
    Sonoma, Ca

  14. Rebecca, I so appreciate your tribute to James, both your words and these beautiful photos. It helps me try and grasp his death. His work lives on in so many ways: through all of his students, the people he talked to and invited into his studio; and of course through his tapestries infused with the essence of who he was in the world. May he continue to be a voice in your ear, as he is in mine from time to time.

    Elizabeth Buckley

  15. About a year ago I was between a rock and a hard place: make a choice to take a workshop with James Koehler at Peters Valley or sign on the dotted line to go for an MFA in Poetry at Drew U. I decided on the latter. I'm sorry I missed his great talent for teaching and art.

  16. This was a great article to stumble upon as I am trying to cope with my Uncle's death thank you so much. He truly was an amazing man.

  17. I am an old friend from his days at Christ in the Desert-but always kept up with him, I knew he wasn't well, his emails said so much, but it was still a great shock to find his death notice via the web, reading all your wonderful tributes just shows how much a teacher and friend he was-like you all I shall not forget him and pray for him, but I suspect that where he is now a greater tapestry is finally complete. May he rest in peace. Robin Gibbons,Oxford GB

  18. Rebecca, your tribute is wonderful and captured the essence of James. Thank you.


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