Interview With Karen Hampton

Interview With Karen Hampton

March 16, 2019
Karen’s home

S:
On Saturday, March 16, 2019, I’m sitting here with Karen Hampton in the kitchen of her new apartment, where the interview takes place.

S:
Tell us, of your awakening to the importance of storytelling to your artistic life.

K:
The two greatest influences on my life where my grandaunt and my grandmother; they were both born in Jamaica at the turn of the century. When I was born, my grandaunt was in her late 50s, and disabled. She had become disabled in her 30s, but she had had this very active, athletic life when she was younger. Because I was always asking about her childhood, she would tell me stories about the past, about her life, and about her childhood. She was the matriarch of the family, my mother’s family and held all the family pictures. And she just was the most incredible human being on the planet. She just gave unconditional love.

When I was a young child, my parents had a duplex, and my grandaunt had an apartment downstairs. When I was two-ish, my grandfather (mother’s father) died and my grandmother came to live with us. My mother and father were working, and so I spent most of my time with grandaunt and grandmother.

My grandmother had been a seamstress in New York, and, and had four daughters, who were born right after the Depression. She and my grandfather bore a heavy load, raising children especially as they had never experienced American racism before. My grandfather couldn’t work and that meant that my grandmother was the sole earner, everyone relied on her.

Grandmother was a masterful seamstress and taught all of her four daughters to become incredible at sewing. And, that was what they did, they could look absolutely gorgeous; that was their whole thing. It became my mother’s creative place as well, and as a child, I was dressed.

Of course, we had a sewing room, and my mother saw, when I was eight that I was precocious. I just wanted to be in the sewing room. I wanted to use that machine, it meant magic to me. So, she had to teach me how to sew just to get rid of me. The way she taught me was that she would frequently make the same pattern for my sister and I (my sister is three years younger). In making a dress for my sister, she went step by step and I would copy her and do the same thing. And that was how I started sewing at eight years old.

With my mother working full-time, it was my grandaunt who became my most engaging sewing teacher. When I wasn’t playing outside with other kids, I was at home and became this sewing and cooking dynamo. I sold my first outfit at twelve and was making all of my clothes by fifteen. But, as I grew, it really became something to cope with. When I’m a teenager I’m the strong feminist, but the skills I have are really very domestic. It was kind of strange.

When I was a senior in high school, and in my last semester in high school, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I “grew up “. And when you have a father who is a banker, that’s kind the question that was coming down every six months. I took it really seriously, because I’m processing the world. And I’m thinking you have all of these hours in your day and everything, and I could not imagine not enjoying the majority of life.

My grandaunt and grandmother were enjoying life and spent time doing the primal things that I thought were so important. I had a picture that the most important thing in the world is really the nurturing of children and the growing of the world.

As I started thinking about the world as a whole, bigger picture, I had always felt like, my grandaunt had been giving me magic. She had been taking a dropper and telling me things that were important. I was trying so hard to get them into my memory, they were the seeds for this greater kind of spirituality. That is what follows me and leads me all the time. When I’m in her house, I would go through all of the family pictures methodically and try to remember who all these people were. It felt like this ritual thing. I grew up believing Jamaica was Mecca.

S:
Somehow. there was strength taken from the storytelling that allowed you to move from your grandmother and grandaunt to your life beyond high school…

K:
When I get to the last semester of senior year in high school, I was going to make my own choices in school. And so, I took a life drawing class, a first time I ever took an art class, I also took design craft, and wood shop.

S:
This opens you up to the arts for the first time.

K:
I didn’t know it was so perfect, but it was. My life drawing teacher had a rule that you had to you had to draw from life. You could not work from photographs. I would like be on the bus for an hour and a half. In the design class I started working on my first weaving. And suddenly, here was a merger of school and home.

But during that first week of school, my grandaunt went into the hospital. And she goes into a state of comatose during the surgery. So here is this transition where I’ve had this person, I’ve talked to every day of my life. And now I can’t talk to a live person anymore. I can speak with her; but she’s not talking back. She finally dies in April.

S:
What a powerful push into some other kind of communication.

K:
And, the loss, we’re like talking 10 years of grieving. It’s not a short grief period at all. It was that way for my mother, my sister and I. It was a really strong grief period. Then I started learning other ways to talk to her. And so, the loneliness wasn’t there.

S:
While you have is this 10-year period following high school, what’s happening for you?

K:
I discover weaving. The following year, September, the first thing I knew for sure in my life, was that I am leaving LA. I’m leaving my crazy family.

I moved to the Bay Area. And I enrolled in a junior college. And as I’m enrolling in my classes, in those days, when you’re enrolling in school, you’re like, standing in long lines forever – waiting to register. As I’m doing that, I go, “Oh, my God” at the end, (of the registration book) there is Weaving. It’s offered on Saturdays, an all-day class, a five-hour class on Saturdays! I am over the moon for that. I took that class for a year and a half. And it was just, you know, the most wonderful thing and the teacher took me under her wing, and introduced me to the world of weaving. She took me to the yarn shops, she introduced me to the magazines to all of that kind of thing. I actually got to use a loom in that class, you know, it just was so wonderful. Delicious. And I got my first commissions during that time.

S:
We’ve talked about your childhood experiences and growing up. I’m interested in the point where it happens that you are realizing that you are weaving your personal life experience.

K:
I start weaving in the mid 70s. And, you know, the feminist art movement is in full swing. One of my best friends is going to school at the feminist’s studio workshop in LA, and I’m right there politically. But I have this major conflict. I cannot weave anything political.

S:
You’re learning…

K:
Yes. It is healing me. Weaving at that point is just healing me because there was all of this stuff that happened in my childhood. I just go and do it, because it felt good. But I realized as I was doing it, what it was doing for me. it was just like, it was just this free flow of healing energy that was coming out, it was like letting my unconscious unreel.

 

 

S:
What an amazing realization.

K:
And no pressure, just letting it go and letting me feel joy and see the beauty. Yeah. You know, because that is deep down who I am and where I go.

By the time we hit ‘77. I end up apprenticing with the master weaver Ida Grae. I worked with her for a year and a half. It was like a 40-hour week of production weaving.

I did whatever she wanted me to do. And she and I became the best of friends. She would give me projects so I could learn. She was doing that same thing my mother had done. She was creating a curriculum, especially for me, as opposed to filling in the gaps. She gave me a rigorous training, but I also had the space for creativity at the same time. I worked with her from 19 to 21 years old.

S:
What joy!

K:
It was too. She lived in the most beautiful place on the planet, she had five acres of a canyon in the SF Bay Area with a dye garden. I didn’t have any money and was on scholarship – two/thirds of the year I produced work for her and one/third, I wove what I wanted. I needed money, so I would work in her garden, or I would clean her house, or whatever. I have no qualms of ever having done it.

K:
Her house was a gathering place for the West Coast group of artists from the Black Mountain College, and so many of those people were her friends. Part of my experience in working with her was that she would have dinner parties, where I would meet these people and listen to their stories. I was a very lucky person. there were all these creative deposits that were going into my mind and feeding me.

She was one of the founders of the Baulines Crafts Guild, (CA) which is still going. It is this incredible guild that covers all of the different crafts in the Bay Area. And these are very serious artists working in their crafts. I became an apprentice member and once a month, they would have their dinner meetings where we all met in one of their homes and talked about art.

This experience is totally up my alley. You start feeding and seeing what the possibilities are. What happened to me in those moments was that my work started growing. I made a lot of rugs, and blankets. I had a line of women’s jackets. I just did all of this different stuff. But what I was coming face to face with is that and I’m one of these people that have to discover it for myself.

So I am in my 20’s and it is the mid to late 80s.

S:
Is there’s a lot of racial unrest in the SF bay area?

K:
Nationally there was a growing recognition of racial injustices, but in general the SF Bay area was 10 – 15 years ahead of the nation politically, except in the textile world where I did experience racism. At this time, I was living in the country on my farm and doing craft shows. Here I am, someone who has been working for many years, and showing my work publicly, when I find that I was being challenged by people coming up and saying to me that I could not have made my artwork.

S:
Incredibly frustrating.

 

K:

You know, because I didn’t look like everybody. Finally, I was so angry about it that I started to completely cut myself off from the textile world. It was around the time when I went back to school and finished my BA.

I took about a year and one half off from weaving, at the time I was mainly weaving tapestries and they would take at least 3 months so I decided to just concentrate on papermaking until I finished school. I just stopped weaving because I had so much else to do, I was teaching and still making and casting paper and doing lots of creative stuff. But weaving just seemed like too much of a commitment at that point too dangerous.

I finished up with school in fall ’91 and decided that my thesis project would be to combine my art and my politics for the first time. I was already aware that my unconscious was playing a part of my soul. Here’s my moment.

S:
I want to know, you were aware that your unconscious was having its impact or its influence.

K:
Yeah.

S:
How did you know that just because of the choices you were making?

K:
I think it occurred over time. I think it really began to change – my whole sense of my art, when I went back to school. I went back thinking I was going to go into museum studies.

S:
I’m sorry.

K:
Excuse me?

S:
Well, Museum Studies is so different than creating your own work.

K:
Yes, but, that’s where I was going. I needed a job that would provide me with enough money to support myself and my kids. And it was the most tolerable job I could imagine. I tried many times to go take a straight job.

I just had a brand-new baby. I was still married then. And thinking, let me have the one night to go to class, and then I could be home and do my work. So, I’m taking this museum class. And it’s at an anthropology museum collection, which is what I wanted. The textiles that I’m drawn are so beautiful and so full of the broader world.

One thing I know is that the textiles in this country are very much rooted in colonial times. And I’m distinguishing the broader world from the US colonial history. And, you know, it was in during that period of time, my work was to catalogue part in the African collection. I had to handle a ritual piece from African. And as I handled this piece, and it threw me out of the room.

K:
My reaction to touching this piece was that it really threw me out of the room. And I went running down the hall, to the teacher and other students, and I was terrified. That piece that was part of a male ritual piece and no woman had any business handling this. It was the first time I met a power object, you know, I was forever scared to go back into the room.

There’s the unconscious, that’s part of my story.

During this same period, I had a farm situated on the valley floor between mountains and located North Eastern Mendocino County, Northern California. Originally, the Yuki tribe lived there – estimated at 10,000 tribal people in a valley bigger than San Francisco.

The first place we lived was seven miles beyond electricity, we used a little hydro system. And we had a generator. You know, I was in my glory. Absolutely, in my glory.

It was so incredibly spiritual there. It’s what that led me to experience what the world really was. if you empty all of energy, and just have the quiet, and then you have the rhythm, the cadence, and the natural world. The farm in the valley gave really fed me, I felt like it was precious.

By the time I’m finishing school, and doing this final project, I decided that my project would be uncovering my father’s mother’s story, because my father’s mother died when he was five years old. And her name was never spoken again. Part of him remained as the traumatized five- year old. When she disappeared, he was the oldest of four kids. This loss overshadowed his whole being.

I started with the interviews, and interviewed everyone that was still alive of which there were only a few men. There were no photographs of her. These men could only give me descriptions of her. And then I took all of that and turned it into a weaving which became my first weaving using images. I had all these images on it. As I was weaving, I watched it and saw every image, kind of disappear. It’s a totally vibrant and beautiful piece. She lived her life in a mystery.

So that’s how I began the transition.

Next, I started doing striped woven pieces. And I was making painted warps and double weave and then I would stitch these strips together. Very loosely related to Kente Cloth from Ghana and I tried to unconsciously make color changes and create poly-rhythmic patterns. These rhythms being the cadence for jazz.

S:
I am going to ask, if we can move further along in your story; What are the essential things for your students to know, that allows them to embrace their process?

K:
(The essential thing) is that I see them. And then I will help give them the tools to bring out their work.

S:
One of the things I’m struck with, is this interplay of the subconscious into fiber, and how the symbolism comes through from the sense of the storytelling, and how you’re using fiber, photography, and other things to get there, which is stunning.

K:
I truly believe that fiber has the potential of healing in such a great way. But especially anything that works with your hands allows your mind to let go. And I think that that is where the healing is.

As for teaching, I enjoy beginners, I love to help them to fall in love with weaving. At the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, I begin with a 4-harness sampler then move to a tapestry sampler, tapestry project, then pattern weaves. I talk about weight of warp and weft, different weave structures, dyeing techniques, styles of weaving around the world.

S:
Well, and it’s similar to your experiences where your family, your teachers, all who created a mentorship environment that was just for you.

K:
And that’s so powerful. It’s such a powerful thing. I think that was really lucky when I was young. And now, I can give it and I give it a lot of ways. For example, I’m on the Board of Directors of the Textile Society of America. One of the things that that I do is I use that forum to teach them, to show them all the stuff that they that they haven’t been exposed to. And I just got a major thank you for doing that. It’s means so much because, because I love this field. Yeah, I am in love with this field. I love to geek out with fiber people, its then I get to learn more about fiber history…

S:
As we close the interview, one last question: how would you assess the current trends in the textile world.

K:
My view is that the textile world continues to show a strong Euro-centrism focus and the textile artists often do not see what is going on in the rest of the world. For a long time, I have been aware of bigger art world politics and feel frustrated and at times, angry about cultural appropriation that occurs in the name of integration.

Trends and developments indicate that the world of textiles is becoming more active and more informed, and that is the hope I offer here.

One group who is asking questions is the Textile Society of America. In recent conferences (Savannah, GA 2016; Vancouver, BC, CA 2018) panels and discussions introduced ideas and stimulated discussions on racism, geography, and economics in the textile world.

Surface Design Journal comes into being in 2013 and offers a quarterly magazine of artists’ works, including those from around the world.

And a last suggestion, for serious discussions on craft, there is the Critical Craft Forum blog at www.criticalcraftforum.com.

S:
I want to thank you so much for your time.

End.

An Interview with Sarah Fortin

An Interview with Sarah Fortin

An Interview With

Sarah Fortin

August 23, 2018

Sarah Fortin is a professional weaver, designer, and teacher. She produces elegant, handwoven women’s clothing that she describes as practical, wearable art.

She became a juried member of the League of NH Craftsmen in 1985, weaving and sewing women’s clothing, throws, and blankets. Sarah has taught weaving extensively in the Northeast and across the country. Her work has been awarded many times at the League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair, New England Weavers Seminar, NH Weavers’ Guild Exhibits, HGA’s Convergence and The Blue Ridge Handweaving Show in NC with several of her pieces receiving recognition for excellence in craftsmanship and creativity. Work appeared in Convergence’10 exhibits (2nd place in the Fashion Show) and ‘12. Her coat,” Wine Country” received 3rd place at the recent HGA Convergence Fashion Show, and yardage “Shuttered Reflections” was Best In Fiber in the Living With Crafts Exhibit at the 2014 League of NH Craftsmen Fair. Other work has been published in Handwoven magazine. Sarah continues to explore and expand in her art with new techniques as she teaches and exhibits in the area and around the country.

Interested professionals may contact Sarah at:  fortinsarah1950@gmail.com

What initially attracted you to weaving? I was a student at Washington State University in Clothing and Textiles. It was a required course to take, a weaving class. I took my weaving class and I fell in love with it. All the linear aspects of it, the design, the yarns, the colors, everything about it appealed to me. I then moved to the east coast for a job. I took a couple of workshops but was also able to borrow a loom from the state craftsperson at the extension service where I worked. When you moved east, where did you move to? I moved to Milford, NH. I was working as a 4-H extension agent for Hillsborough County. I have been sewing since I was eight or nine years old with my grandmother and my mother through 4-H. What were the things you made on your sewing machine? Mostly clothing, I have a fun little story: My sister would only make one thing a year, she was four years younger than me, but she would only make one thing a year for the 4-H fashion show. I would sew all the time, and she always won, and I never did!  Oh well. Your early upbringing had a lot of influence on you. Photographer parents, I grew up on a farm. It was a dairy farm at first, then my Dad couldn’t raise four kids on 20 dairy cows, so he switched to photography, he had always had that as a hobby. When I was about 10, he built a studio and a dark room, and he and my Mom did all the work.  But growing up in the Palouse Hills of Washington state has influenced my work — when I post pictures on Facebook of the hills and the harvest season, people will say, now I see where your palette comes from. Sometimes true, but not always. When other people think about your palette, what do they think of? People seem to think now that I have a lot of autumn colors in my palette. Partly because I think people were using a lot of jewel tones, for many, many years. I tried to switch myself away from that to create something different. That is why I was using more the colors of autumn and the qualities of the hills. Speaking of jewel tones and autumn colors, how is your personality reflected in your weaving? I think I am rather quiet. And, we as weavers work alone, a lot, most of the time. So, for me to get out and teach is a stimulant really, because then I come home inspired to actually weave some of those weave structures again. I am not flamboyant, I don’t create garments that people can’t wear most any time.  I am probably somewhat conservative in my outlook, especially in the art world. I have this thought that I won’t teach color.  I could, we could do yarn mappings, scatter paper, and do all that stuff, and play with color and the color wheel, and teach the hues and vibrancy and other color theory, but I don’t think that people learn color until they experience color in the medium in which they are using it. I believe that our inspiration comes from the five senses. I teach a class on that, it is a lot of fun. I don’t want the piece of pineapple that you smelled or the taste of the piece of chocolate. I don’t want you to draw a picture of that, I want you to draw pictures of the memory it creates within your mind. For me, the smell of new-mown hay or grass around here just takes me home to the hills and the hay fields. I used to play house on the hay-wagon when I was a little child. How interesting, you teach a class relating what you experience in the senses through to weaving and fabric. What I do is, with blind-folded students, to pass out little tastes or smells, or  have them listen to music or have them read a piece of poetry, then take colored pencils and draw what colors of the memory of that creates, and then from there, we try to find a weave structure that fits that memory, and yarn that might fit that memory. I had an older woman, who took my class.  I passed out baby powder to blind-folded students, the memory that came back to her was of when she was a small child, and her mother was going out somewhere, her mother would come into her room in a blue and white polk-a-dotted dress smelling of baby powder. We thought about a weave structure that would fit that.  It is a fun class.
Tell me a bit more about your process, do you first envision through the senses, through memories?

Through memories, or sometimes it might be yarn colors that inspire me, especially painted yarns and I’ll look for solids that might go with them, then maybe a weave structure that would create the look that I want.

So, you start envisioning something from the colors.

…Or from pictures. I save a lot of pictures that give me color ideas. For color especially, I don’t use a computer to design; I know how to use a computer program to record what I do. But especially with the 3-dimensional work, it doesn’t show anyway, and with double weave it would show each side, but it doesn’t show up well. For example, one of the jackets I made was based on the colors of a photo of glaciers I took in Alaska and created the jacket “Flying over Glaciers”. The colors and the waviness looked remarkable, which is why I used Turned Taquetè as the weave structure.

Even someone as skillful as you must have creative blocks now and then?

I do, and sometimes I will scan through my photographs, or look over my yarns, because obviously, I have a stash! Sometimes I forget yarn that I have, so it is helpful to look through it. Even going outside for a walk by myself will do those things. It is helpful to change your environment.

Do you read for inspiration?

I read a lot of fiction for relaxation, although I have a wall-piece that was based on the poem “In Flanders Field”. Just knowing, or remembering, sometimes moves you to create something.

On the technical side, are there particular weave structures that you prefer or stay away from?

I’ll tell you what I am not. I am not a structure person. I mean, I do a lot of structure, but not to recognize one lace versus another lace, I would have to go look it up. I don’t teach structure classes, because I would have to really go back and study them. I have never done a master’s program. To have to go through it and make specific little samples of structures does not interest me, just my personal opinion based upon 40 years of weaving knowledge, and knowing the pieces I like to do.

I really enjoy working on double weave. I only have eight shafts. My Macomber has 10 shafts, but one can’t do another block with only 10.  I am trying to do a lot of shading and two-sided cloth in double weave.  I also am trying to push the limit with the 3-dimensional fabrics having pleats and folds and gathers.

Why don’t we talk about the 3-dimensional projects.

I love doing the 3-dimensional work, now including the ply-split basketry. I learned to do that from Linda Hendrickson, she is an Oregon person. I went to the Long Beach Convergence and took a class with her there.  I felt it was something I could take with me easily and be able to do it on my own as long as I had the cords made. But, as far as the fold and pleats, some people are doing pleats now, (Susie Taylor does the Origami folds) she has two layers for her section, but she uses a different technique, not the double weave horizontal folds like I do.  I am enjoying experimenting with all the different 3-dimensional projects.  Also, I am trying to take my looms to the capacity of their mechanical abilities.

Interesting, have you seen “Tim’s Treadle Reducer” (website), you might need 14 treadles for a piece, and the program comes up with a skeleton tie-up for all of it.  I have done two- three- and four-layers,

I enjoy working with different yarn: the silk and steel, the glass-reflective yarns. The silk and steel yarns may show hard-to-remove creases in the yardage with handling – no squishing.

What do you think are some of the most interesting things happening in the weaving community these days?

  • I think the Jacquard weaving is very interesting. It is not for me, but it is really taking off. The looms are very expensive. It is handwoven and hand-threaded, but computer assisted.
  • Inga Dam, from Ontario, is doing Card Weaving in her fabric. The cards are in her heddles, she turns them as she weaves.
  • The new weavers are expanding to use fine threads more quickly than we did years ago. I have been weaving for 45 years or close to it. It is perhaps because the fine threads are available now.  When I was starting out, they were difficult to find for a small studio weaver.

You are a well-respected teacher, what are three essential things for students to learn that would help increase confidence in their own process.

Aside from all of the mechanical things – learning to dress your loom, learning about color, I still stay, you have to do color in your weaving to learn color, about the way color reacts with different weave structures.

I think that students need to loosen up a little.

I just did a class a shadow-weave class up at Harrisville Designs. I gave them a base color; each student was assigned a draft.  They were to design three color gamps that had the base color as the as the constant, using three different colors in the warp gamps. I had a hard time getting them to loosen up, to try many different colors for the wefts. I think that shadow weave is so wonderful, creating different shadows just using totally different colors than what’s in the warp. It gives the warp a totally different look and may create different colors with shadows.

So, loosen up.

  • Experiment with color. Don’t be afraid to experiment with color
  • Experiment with structure.

But the most important thing for me is to loosen up, and not be so constricted by guidelines, and what has been done before. I know that Handwoven magazine provides projects for people to copy. But I would hope that people will move away once they have seen the patterns. I love Handwoven Magazine, but I will never use the same yarns or same setts on a design.  Loosen up and be less constricted by directions.

Last question…Does your current vision for weaving include possible future directions for you?  You are so thoroughly involved in double weave and 3-dimensional projects, what is next?

I still want to do those but I think also trying finer threads and more smaller pieces, rather than doing the yardage. I won’t take a structure and a yarn and just put on a sample, especially for garments one does not get the feel of the drape and design.  I always put on the whole piece and always put on warp enough to experiment with the color changes and treadling changes. That’s another reason why I don’t want to use a computer, because you are then restricted to whatever you put into that computer, even with the dobby heads, you are restricted by the pegs, and I change treadling all the time. I don’t want to be restricted by that.

The baskets are still an interlacement, so they are still a weave structure. I am especially enjoying the ply-split baskets.  I use the paper raffia and waxed linen.

We are at the end of the interview, is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t touched on?

I think we covered a lot…

I want to thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for Wovenful.com and its audience. We appreciate the time you spent with us sharing your stories, insights, and ideas.

All work on this page is by Sarah Fortin, Images are Copyright, Wovenful 2018 – all rights reserved.