sandhill cranes

A moment of silence.

Honestly, I have been half crazed for the last few months. I have been working at the nursing home much more than I would really like and I have been trying to finish a monumental stack of projects... and sometimes a glass of wine just doesn't take away the tired from all that.

This week I finished that job at the nursing home. I have worked there for one year and fourteen days. It is a place where I have learned a lot about myself as a therapist and, as stressful situations are wont to do, I have located some communication issues in relationships with other people. It would probably be wise for me to blame them on my boss consider the source of those issues before starting another job.

The people who live there are stellar in so many ways. When I am twice the age I am now, I know I am going to be like Nancy. She broke her hip a few months ago. She lived alone in a little house that used to be a potters studio so her kitchen sink is 3 feet deep and her furniture is all 12 inches off the floor. She is a hippy-dippy lady who only eats organic food, does a lot of meditation, is still really strong, and looks a lot like Diane Keaton (so I fancy I am resembling her already). She is funny and socially appropriate and she is completely losing her memory. In fact, she really isn't safe to go home alone anymore. The little things are what get her. How to dial the phone. One minute she remembers, the next she can't do it and it COMPLETELY freaks her out. Then wait, oh yeah, she got it again. Whether the director of nursing who she just remembers as the "lady with the big ears" is mad at her because she didn't say hello when she passed her in the hall just now. Whether she ruined her surgery and has popped her new hip out of the socket because it sort of hurts more today than yesterday. And the anxiety circles and mounts and then she decompensates in to a little pile of Nancy-ness in the pink chair in the corner of her room. That is going to be me.

I know because I have these moments of anxiety and I'm only half her age. What if the vague but unrelenting stomach pain of the last week is really pancreatic cancer and I only have 3 months to live (if that turns out to be true I'm heading straight to Alaska for a bit of a vacation; but really it couldn't possibly be the stress of the job and the imminent changes; nope, must be cancer). What if the little yellow spots on the dishes ARE really mouse pee and not just some random water spray? What if that limp in the dog's right front leg means she won't wake up tomorrow morning and I'll have to figure out whether anyone can dig a hole to bury her when it is still this cold outside? See what I mean?

This was my last week of work there. I feel the anxiety of the work draining away as I sit at my ball winder preparing the balls and balls of yarn for my summer workshops and watching the sandhill cranes feeding in the barley fields across the street. The San Luis Valley is a place with huge skies, 14,000 foot peaks, and lots of wildlife. Some days I go outside to the honking of geese and cranes, see owls and hawks and bald eagles on my drive to work, smell the skunks outside (NOT inside!) my house, clean the carcasses out of the mousetraps (we gave up the live traps--sorry to the mice-lovers out there. It was just too much.), hear the coyotes howling at night around the sheep pens, and I think "lordy, I'm living in Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom." The bald openness of the place gives me pause and makes me stop and stand still. I need that. To stop the anxiety in its tracks by watching a flock of cranes fly spirals overhead in the updrafts. I will miss this place.

Fortunately I can come back and visit often. This little one will definitely make sure that I do.

There are some big changes coming in March and March is upon us. When they are all firmed up and I'm sure I won't be doing another U-turn, I'll let you know what they are! In the meantime, watch for those mouse-pee spots on your dishes just in case.

Warm sunshine

Today is a beautiful sunny day in the San Luis Valley. The temperature is just above freezing and it feels warm and beautiful. As I trek in and outside again to check the dye pots and give them a little stir, I stop to watch the cranes circling high above my house. Sometimes I have to search a long time to locate them as they are circling so high they are just little dots in the sky. On days like this they do big lazy circles around and around, croaking and crying the whole time.

I am making black today. Very light and very dark. I am attempting to level the very light black (gray) with the addition of Abegal SET and sodium acetate to my usual glauber's salt. We shall see if it works.

The sun shines brightly in my south-facing studio and I am happily winding yarn. Life doesn't always seem so idyllic, but it is amazing what a little sunshine, some crane cries, and a pile of yarn can do for me.

Happy Monday from the San Luis Valley of Colorado. (I will let you know how the black turns out.)


The cranes are back. This morning I was re-tying yarn skeins to get them ready for dyeing and I heard them through the double pane windows. I ran outside, and yes, it was the unmistakable sound of sandhill cranes calling. This is the front of the troop. Thousands and thousands more will be arriving in the next few weeks.

These birds are a big sign of hope for me. It is a time of indecision and uncertainty in my little family. The return of the cranes is something I didn't think I would be here to see, but here I am. They make me feel hopeful. Time isn't linear, it moves in circles. The good we plant comes around again. I am so happy to witness the return of these big beautiful birds. They'll be here a few months before heading north to Oregon or Canada to their summer nesting grounds. Maybe by the time they leave I will be following them on my own migration.

Here is a video compiled from photos and video taken over the last year. Listen to the sound of thousands of cranes circling. The cranes arrive in the San Luis Valley sometime around Valentine's Day, stopping here after leaving their wintering grounds at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. They will be here for a couple months before they fly north for the summer. They stop here again in October and November on their way back south with their new young in tow. Most of these cranes are greater sandhill cranes as opposed to the famous flocks of lesser sandhills on the North Platte in Nebraska.

Rainshadow and crane feathers

I had the opportunity to visit this old tapestry of mine. It was bought by San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center in 2007 or 2008 and is hanging in their outpatient clinic. The piece is called Rainshadow and honestly, it is one of my favorites. I'm not sure why I like it so much. I did a companion piece with the exact same design but different colors which I did not like as much. There was something about the color of Rainshadow and the way the center square glows that I really liked.

So this piece has been hanging between a door to a medical hallway full of doctor's offices and the therapy office. I thought it might need a cleanup after 5 years, but it seems to be in good shape.
Current linen storage beneath it aside, it was fun to see it again.

And on my evening walk I found a crane feather. The cranes have been feeding in the barley field behind our house the last few days and they have clearly been walking along the acequia which my neighbor recently burned. I suppose the bugs are easier to find when the grass is gone.

These photos are for Tommye Scanlin who is working on some beautiful feathers lately. I especially enjoyed this post about her process working with feather images and how she manipulated the images to create a tapestry design.

Sunset looking west from my backyard toward the South San Juan mountains

Eppie's Capulin and the San Luis Valley

I work some of the week as an occupational therapist in a handful of rural school districts in the southern half of the San Luis Valley (which is HUGE!). Today I decided to take a little detour on my way home and see if Eppie Archuleta's studio is still in Capulin. I had heard that she now lives in Medanales, NM with her children, but I remember not too long ago there being activity at her studio. Clearly it was longer ago than I thought.
 I don't think anyone has woven here in a very long time.
Eppie is a matriarch in the traditional hispanic weaving community. Her mother was Agueda Martinez and Eppie herself had several daughters who have become famous weavers in their own right. Here is a link to the blog post I did in 2008 which mentions Eppie and remains the number one blog post viewed on my blog (and considering this, I wish I knew more about her and could really do her justice).

Sometimes I like to drive through the less traveled places to get a feel for the real life of a place. The San Luis Valley is a very very large place in area (someone just told me that the state of Virginia could fit inside it, though that seems a bit of a stretch... unless I have to drive to a meeting in Antonito from somewhere like Crestone which could take something like 2 hours) and a very small place in terms of people who live here. It is the kind of place where you run into your boss at the grocery and your neighbor at the Vietnamese restaurant. Frequently. (This means you should be careful what both your boss and your neighbor know about you.) Today I went through Capulin which is a small town 10 miles west of the highway surrounded by center pivot farms and a few Amish families.

As I was coming north I didn't know exactly where I was in relation to my house, but I knew I was south and west of my farm-surrounded rental house. The valley is like this. The roads are numbered differently in each county, but if the mountains are not obscured by forest fire smoke, fog, snow, or blowing sand, you can figure out where you're going. The roads are mostly gravel and run in one mile blocks. They are numbered differently in the different counties, but if you watch the mountains, you can find your way home. I took a quick right knowing I had to head further east and came across another frequent sight in this part of the valley. It was an Amish buggy with two rows of seats containing at least 7 children. The one driving seemed to be a teenager though I suppose there aren't any rules about younger kids driving buggies. I see buggies frequently, fortunately so far, before I have collided with one. Often they are on the paved roads with no shoulders moving 15 mph to my 65. They don't have lights or blinkers. Just one big horse and a little carriage full of children. It scares me. But at the same time I am fascinated by this slower pace and often feel somewhat envious of these people who seem to have simplicity at the forefront of their lives.

The cranes are back. They have returned to the barley fields surrounding my house and seem to be sticking for a bit to eat before heading south to the Bosque del Apache in New Mexico and beyond. Most of the ones I've seen are greater sandhill cranes and they seem so big. Their haunting cries are a welcome sound in the morning as they fly over the house headed for the fields.
This is a place where farming is a way of life.
There are frequently sheep in my yard... which is somewhat appropriate considering the amount of wool I dye. (Starting about 2 months ago we started hearing this loud sound that seemed somewhat like a rifle shot, but it was happening about every 4 minutes, usually at night. The first night I heard it it freaked me out and I closed and locked all the doors and windows. Finally our neighbor was chasing a sheep behind our shed and we asked him what the noise was... coyote gun. It is a propane-fueled pop that scares the coyotes away when the sheep are not in their corral at night. Who knew.)
Wildlife on the road...
Rural places are good. They can bring rest and fill my mind with wide open spaces.

The Wedding Tapestry

I wanted to weave a tapestry for our wedding. I wasn't able to focus on this project until March. The wedding was scheduled for July 14th (and we just couldn't push it off for the sake of art). It became apparent after a few weeks of hard work on design and color choice that I couldn't possibly realize the large project I had envisioned before the end of June.

So this was what I made instead.  I still like to call it the wedding tapestry, but it is clearly not tapestry at all. The origami forms are cranes. Watching the sandhill cranes in various parts of the west has been a favorite activity of mine ever since I ran across a pair accidentally on a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon in 2003 (no, I wasn't supposed to be walking there during nesting season, but honestly it was a mistake. The fish and wildlife guy who drove in to tell me to get off the refuge until nesting season was over couldn't get out his spiel before I was interrupting him--yeah, I'm sorry, I know I'm not supposed to be here, but what are those big birds with the crazy call!?). I folded cranes for my mother when she had cancer and for myself when I was going through a rough patch. It was such a rough patch actually that I folded 1000 and made a large mobile out of them which hung in my house for a long time... only recently retired as I didn't need it any more. Cranes are healing and peaceful and fascinating. So for our wedding, I folded cranes. Quite a lot of them as it turns out.

The idea was to create a sort of art installation that was comprised of pieces that could be sent home with our guests. They were asked to hang the crane strings in their homes as a way of supporting us for the first year of our marriage.

Each of the crane strings had a marker with our names and the wedding date on it as well as a charm at the end which was chosen specifically for each person.

At the end of the weekend, each crane strand was taken off the copper display rod, packed in a round box, and sent home with our family and friends.

The whole project was rewarding and I realized how powerful adding a lot of similar pieces together can be in a work of art. It was kind of mesmerizing as I was close to finishing it. A curtain of cranes.

James and the cranes

I woke up this morning not to my alarm clock playing the first few bars of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy in C minor but to the morning flight of greater sandhill cranes flying over the house and feeding in the barley field across the street.  (Of course the insistent whines of my dog in the corner reminding me that it was far past 6 am and she was hungry might have contributed.) The cranes have been amassing for 4 weeks now, the first arrivals coming just after I moved here the beginning of February. The experience of watching 1000 or more cranes feeding, circling, taking off, calling to each other, and dancing from my front window day after day has been magical.

I have lived in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado before. Four and five years ago I was here living first in the South San Juans in a mountain house 6 miles from my nearest winter neighbor and then on the flanks of the mighty Mt. Blanca on the other side of the valley--all off-grid, all an adventure. By the summer of 2008 I was trying to fit little bits of tapestry weaving in around the three jobs I was working as an occupational therapist. I had a sunny but much-in-need-of-repair apartment over a realty office as my studio and my Rio Grande loom was turning out some promising work, albeit slowly. But my therapy jobs were becoming difficult and my personal situation was also.

In October 2008 I took another workshop with James Koehler at the Taos Wool Festival. I watched the aspens changing colors at the Taos Ski Valley one afternoon and decided I was moving back home. The next day I asked James if he would still take me on as an apprentice (he had offered two years prior) and he agreed. So I quit my jobs, packed my Rio Grande loom (and my piano--this is a story for another day, but it is another reason my brother-in-law is on my personal beer-for-life program) and moved into a lovely straw bale house in Velarde, NM, 55 miles north of James' studio in Santa Fe. By February I was spending three days a week in his studio and there was a large tapestry in process on the smaller of his Cranbrook looms.

I studied with James as his apprentice until his death March 4, 2011, a year ago today. In the year since he left us, many things have changed in my tapestry world.  I started my own business in earnest, I sold some large pieces, one to the permanent collection of a college, got some commissions, and started teaching workshops. James had a large influence both on my art and on the course of my life.

James finished his autobiography less than a year before he died. In Woven Color: The Tapestry Art of James Koehler he talks about how he came to be the tapestry artist he was. As far as I know, it is only sold by Blurb Publications at this time.

And then there was the Bauhaus project. This undertaking consumed much of three years. I have written about the Bauhaus project a lot on this blog, but I have to mention it again here because it influenced my time with James. Cornelia Theimer Gardella is a good friend of mine and the project was her baby. The idea was to look at the influences of the Bauhaus, the early 20th century German art school, on our contemporary tapestry creation in New Mexico in the early 21st century. James signed on and the three of us read a lot of Paul Klee's notebooks as well as other Bauhaus material and eventually put together two shows entitled Interwoven Traditions: New Mexico and Bauhaus. The first show was in Albuquerque, NM in the summer of 2010. The second was in Erfurt, Germany at Michaeliskirche in September and October of 2010. The trip and the project in general were monumental for me and pushed my thinking about who I was as an artist in the broader world.

I have sold the pieces I created for that show in 2010 and it is time to move on to new projects. There have been many times in the last year that I have wanted to ask James a question about a technique, a design, a teaching quandary, or even a legal issue. I have to rely on my knowledge of him and mix that with my own experiences, because the answer James might give me if he were here today might not be the path I would take. James taught me a lot of specifics, but he also taught me to look for what is important in myself and to follow that above anything else. His words from those years I was working in his studio still echo around in my head sometimes and they have definitely influenced the direction of my art and my life in one way or another.

Cornelia Theimer Gardella, James Koehler, Rebecca Mezoff
Michaeliskirche, September 2010
photo: Hamish John Appleby
photo: Hamish John Appleby

James Koehler, Michaeliskirche opening, September 2010
photo: Hamish John Appleby
Tomorrow I will post some information about his two remaining looms, a 100 inch Cranbrook and a 100 inch Shannock. They were the center of James' tapestry studio and they are in exquisite condition as they were loved by a master for many years. They are in need of new homes.

James Koehler, September 2010
photo: Hamish John Appleby
The sandhill cranes in my front yard are both a blessing and a call to awareness. Life can be much shorter than we expect it to be. We are always on a journey and I, for one, want to pay attention to where I am in this moment, eat all the barley I can while the sun is out, and prepare for the next flight north.