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.
James Koehler was my mentor. I was his student and apprentice for about six years before he died unexpectedly on March 4th, 2011.
I like to remember James on the anniversary of his death each year. And this year I think he would be pleased that I was able to celebrate his life with a mutual friend and someone who has been a mentor to me since he passed. Sarah Swett is an artist full of the joy and mystery of creation. And she takes that love of life and fiber right into her work and her writing.
Sarah wrote the forward to James' book, Woven Color. Though the imagery in their tapestry work is very different, there are many similarities in their approach to weaving. As Sarah says in her forward, they both experienced early adulthoods spent in isolation. James was a monk and Sarah worked alone in the Idaho wilderness as a forest ranger and caretaker... "experiences which forged lives of self-discipline, honed inner resources, and influenced, in one way or another, our subsequent work. Physically and metaphorically, we both weave in our ends."
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.
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.
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: http://rebeccamezoff.blogspot.com/
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.
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
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.
It has been four years today since my teacher, James Koehler passed away unexpectedly at 58 years of age. I started a tradition of posting on the day he died and I think I shall keep it up. You can find the links for the last 4 years below including the post I wrote just after he died. I also wrote an article about him for the newsletter of the American Tapestry Alliance, Tapestry Topics. It is in the Summer 2011 issue which is now available for free on their website
Perhaps the best part of that article is all the voices of his students, apprentices, and friends.
I had the opportunity to visit the conservation department at the Denver Art Museum last month. We looked at some large 16th century tapestries that are being stabilized for the upcoming tapestry exhibition and then, when the class had dispersed, textile conservator Allison McCloskey pulled out the James Koehler piece that is in their collection.
James Koehler, Chief Blanket piece, in the collection of the Denver Art Museum
He wove these chief blanket-inspired pieces before I knew him and I had never seen this piece before. But as soon as she unrolled it it was clear it was a James Koehler. His signature weft interlock join was there along with precise, unwavering craftsmanship. And the thing that made me chuckle and convinced me no one else could have woven this piece was something my camera was just able to capture.
James Koehler, Chief Blanket detail
He loved to put things together that you couldn't really see in every light. See the purple square in the diamond? From him I learned to tag my butterflies because the colors are too close to reliably decipher. But when you stand back and look at the finished weaving, you can tell the difference. I think life is like that a lot of the time. We can't see things up close that if we just got some distance from, would be obvious.
If you'd like to see what I wrote in years past, here are the links.
The book is self-published through Blurb Publications and you can also buy it directly from them.
James loved teaching. In his book he had this to say about that part of his career:
I want to continue to teach because the world of tapestry has enriched my life in so many ways. I want to pass on that gift to a new generation of weavers who are willing to learn from me. Tapestry weaving is an art form that does not get a lot of attention from the mainstream art world. I hope my work will help to change that…. [Tapestry] 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 the same way. (Koehler 253)
I also love teaching. I didn't learn this from James, but I do understand it. I have been teaching various things since I was a kid playing school with my little sister, but teaching tapestry is the best thing I have ever done. When I look back at the last four years of my studio career, I sometimes indulge myself a little bit and think, "James would be proud."
I was sitting at a table, drinking an Izze soda (I had already had a chai tea latte that day at another coffee shop and couldn't go for a second round), and was delighted to watch a woman enthralled by the tapestries. She was holding her coffee (and frankly I was afraid she was going to spill it all over her shoes as she wasn't paying any attention to it), stumbling along between the tables and people looking up at the tapestries. People do find tapestry fascinating if we can just show it to them!
Morning, 55 x 33 inches
Note: This tapestry was hanging high on the wall thus the photograph makes it look narrower at the top. It is actually rectangular.
Mary also used to study with James Koehler. Her work has changed and grown significantly over just the last couple years. I think these recent architectural works are stunning and I hope she considers weaving something really large one of these days. I think it would be gorgeous.
Spring at last, 48.5 x 28.75 inches; Morning, 55 x 33 inches; Inside Looking Out, 38 x 27 inches
So Mary Cost is out there in Santa Fe making sure people see her tapestries. Lets go see them! Her work is beautiful and though the walls are not well-lit, the coffee shop is bright and you can see the work (if you can get by the people--the place was packed by the time I left!). She is represented by La Mesa of Santa Fe.
It has been two years now since I got a phone call on my way to Chaco Canyon that James Koehler had passed away. It seems like a lifetime ago, and like yesterday.
Harmonic Oscillation HOLXIII,
I have been thinking about James and my time studying with him over the last few days. I learned many things from James, both positive and negative. I am sorry he is gone as there are still questions I would ask him. Here is the original post from shortly after his death: