James Koehler tapestry

The James Koehler videos from the Denver Art Museum, Part 5: Weaving Process

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 fast weaver. Anyone who weaves many hours a day is a fast weaver. But James had a real ability to focus. He could tune out everything and just weave. When there were students and apprentices in his studio as there often were, he was frequently pulled away from the loom to answer questions or supervise an apprentice's activity (I could wind balls of yarn like a champ, but when I got to work on re-hemming his tapestries, that made him nervous... which frankly made me nervous). But when we all went home at 5 pm, he worked. I frequently would return the next day to find that a piece that had several inches left to weave at 5 pm was off the loom. Sometimes he had even done the finishing and the tapestry was rolled up, ready for the photographer.

I talk some about why I weave on a floor loom and what I like about weaving all the way across using the beater on the loom. James wove much of his work all the way across. All the pieces like this Chief Blanket piece we are discussing in these videos were woven one pick at a time all the way across the loom. To do the joins he used in this piece, he had to weave it that way as everything was interlocked all the way across in some sections.

I weave all the way across whenever I can in part because I learned that way, but also because I use this join and a lot of irregular hatching to move color around. When using hatching, the color areas are interpenetrating and you can't weave one section before the other. If my color blends are going throughout much of the piece, I have to weave all the way across.

The other reason I talk about in this video is the nature of the fabric created. I don't see this reason talked about much at all among tapestry weavers. My tapestries certainly feel like a fabric. They might even make a nice blanket. They are fairly soft, thin and flexible. James' work felt similarly. When using the beater on the loom, it is possible to get a very even beat and to create a fabric that is not thicker in some areas than others which also means that it hangs very flat on the wall.

However, weaving all the way across is not possible all the time if you want to utilize the full range of tapestry's potential. James' Harmonic Oscillations pieces were woven somewhat differently. He wove up each curve and often outlined the edge of it before filling in to as close as flat as he could, beating with the beater bar on the loom, and then building up the next wave. I often weave up in shapes with the intention of outlining something or completing a section faster than another one. I like the flexibility of using a floor loom as it allows me to weave both ways in the same piece depending on the imagery I'm creating.

Just a note on what Barb says about an iron. Neither I nor James uses an iron on our tapestries. I use a steamer. For the most part, I don't want to squish the tapestry at all, I just want to use the steam to get a little shrinkage in the fibers to make the tapestry lie completely flat. James used a Jiffy steamer, but any clothes steamer that can be used horizontally (with the tapestry lying flat on a table not hanging on a hanger like a shirt would be) will work.

Below is the last of the five videos. See the links below if you missed the other four.

If you receive these blog posts via email updates, you'll have to visit my blog on the internet to view the videos or look for them on YouTube. http://rebeccamezoff.blogspot.com

This is the fifth in a series of five posts about the James Koehler Denver Art Museum videos.
Here are links to the first four posts:
Part 1: Color
Part 2: Flat Tapestry
Part 3: Meditation
Part 4: Teacher

Here is one of the Harmonic Oscillation pieces. This one was woven sideways and each of the curves would have been woven up to the curve and then he put in an eccentric outline before continuing weaving straight across the grid. In this case you can see that the eccentric outlines were done with a lighter color which really accentuates the curves.
James Koehler, Harmonic Oscillation LXIII
I want to thank the Denver Art Museum for giving me this great opportunity to speak about James Koehler, my experiences as his apprentice, and his work. James died in 2011 but we do hope his work lives on especially through his students and his student's students.

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:
As always, you can view it on YouTube by pushing the icon in the bottom right corner of the player. If you are receiving this blog post as an email, you have to visit the post on the internet to see the video. Just go to my blog here: http://rebeccamezoff.blogspot.com.

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.

James Koehler's tapestry process... the last video

I was bumming around the internet looking for an image of James Koehler's work to show my online class and I found this video now posted. This is a part of a longer movie which I have, but didn't know that it had been shown on PBS and is now online. I was working in his studio when this was shot. In fact he tried to get me to do the ball-winder scene, but I thought better of it. This video gives you a little peek at the process he used for creating tapestries.
The structure gives me limitations. If one understands the limitations of the medium you're working in, you also understand the possibilities. The other lesson that the loom has really taught me is the importance of being consistent in decision-making in my life. The rhythm at the loom, the passing of the shuttles through the tapestry, the back and forth motion, all of that has helped me develop as a person.       --James Koehler, 2010

Note: Just to be clear, this is not my video. It was made by Karen Cantor of Singing Wolf Documentaries and you can find it HERE.