An artist's evolution and the legacy of a teacher

Every year of the last seven years on March 4th I’ve written a blog post in honor of my teacher, James Koehler, who died unexpectedly in 2011 at 58 years of age.

Last December I gave a lecture to the Rocky Mountain Weaver’s Guild in Denver about my experiences as James’ apprentice as well as an overview of the parts of his tapestry practice that he shared with me. As I went through some new material which was generously shared by other apprentices and his sister and read through at his autobiography again, I especially appreciated revisiting the progression of his artistic work. From initial tapestries woven when he was a Benedictine monk to much less representational works later in his life, I could sometimes hear his voice talking about his inspiration, his process, and the tapestry rules he made for himself.

I’ve put a page on my website with links to more information about his work including video and audio HERE.

The weaving of tapestries is my life’s work. I have lived most of my adult life in New Mexico. The physical environment, the landscape and the various cultures all influence my work. An almost more important influence on my development as a tapestry weaver is the ten years spent as a monk, living a life of solitude and simplicity—learning to listen to the creative voice within myself.
— James Koehler, from his papers, in a letter to Mary Dieterich

James Koehler, Chief Blanket, Collection of the Denver Art Museum being prepped here for the 2015-2016 Creative Crossroads show

James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation LXIII

James Koehler,  Undercurrents I,  2009

James Koehler, Undercurrents I, 2009

James’ work is an excellent example of how a particular series of life events in a particular place can influence an artistic career. I suppose this is true for all creative endeavors and that all of us have our own versions of our creative journey. We can hope that what we create comes from who we are. I think this was especially true of James’ art.

James’ work initially came from his monastic experiences and his practice of contemplation continued to influence his practice throughout his life. His Chief Blanket and Masks series were influenced by the southwestern USA’s native cultures and eventually his love of mathematical proportions led to his lengthy Harmonic Oscillations series. These pieces are largely monochromatic and all contain a series of wave forms. I find them very peaceful. His final works continued use of those forms in different ways as we see in Undercurrents I and his Rhythms of Nature tapestries and introduced more random elements and perhaps more challenge for the viewer.

If you are interested in experiencing this progression for yourself, I recommend his autobiography, Woven Color.

James Koehler, weaving tapestry

James Koehler, Rhythms of Nature, tapestry

James dearly loved to teach. Sure he could occasionally be impatient with the bumbling of his students, but I believe that teaching was one of the things that was most important to him. Yes, there are stories of students crying in workshops as they struggled to learn under a fairly exacting teacher. There are those of us who experienced his displeasure occasionally or when he wasn’t feeling well, for long stretches of time. I also believe that if he were here with us now, he would still be giving freely of his knowledge and love of tapestry weaving. James continues to have a large group of appreciative fans all over the USA. I know because they come and tell me stories when I travel to teach and they go out of their way to send me anecdotes via email. I have spent some time recently with a few of his other apprentices and it is good to revisit the joys and laughter from his studio as well as the struggles as we learned this medium for ourselves.** I hope James would be pleased to know that so many people remember him with fondness and have taken his lessons forward into the world.

My hope is that there will be more people who become inspired to weave tapestries and to pass on that important tradition because it is worthy of continuing in a way that is not stuck in a specific mold. It is an art form that enables people to enter into their own creative process where they can explore the medium and expand the possibilities that are inherent in it. . . . I like to live my life from the vantage point of considering unexplored possibilities, and I am passionate about approaching my work in that same way.
— James Koehler, Woven Color: The art of James Koehler

James Koehler, Penland School of Craft, 2005, cutting a Harmonic Oscillations tapestry off one of the school’s Macomber looms

I often wonder what his work would be like if he were still with us. I was intrigued by the new work he was doing at the end of his life and still feel disappointment that the tapestries still inside him were not realized. I hope that all of us who were touched by his teaching and art will continue to pass on the joy of this rich medium. He would expect us to.

If you have stories of your own experience of James, please add them in the comments.


*The header image in this blog post is Desert Solitude. I remember this piece being on the loom when I was working with him so I think he must have woven it in 2008 or 2009. It was a private commission. Each panel was 6 feet wide and I remember being really excited to see it off the loom. I left the studio on a Wednesday which was the end of his teaching week and when I came back the next week, the piece was finished and at the photographers. It was sent from there to the client and I never saw it again. James was exceptionally efficient.

**Pirates of Penzance anyone?