In her Brookside studio, Debbie Barrett-Jones works the pedals of her floor loom. The rhythmic click, click creates a transfixing, meditative sound as she gets into the zone, weaving her latest scarf. Slowly, a beautiful zig-zag pattern of brown and blue begins to take shape.
Scarves are Barrett-Jones’ (’03 Fiber) sketchbook. She uses them to figure out patterns and design and then applies them to larger, one-of-a-kind textiles she creates for homes, businesses, hospitals and churches. She discovered her love of weaving when she was a student at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI), where she went from having little confidence in her artistic abilities to discovering her passion. “The moment I walked into the weaving room and saw the shelves of yarn, my life was changed. There was an instant connection I never knew was possible,” she said.
That’s exactly the reaction KCAI Fiber Chair Pauline Verbeek-Cowart wants. She’s made it her goal to expose new students to weaving and her efforts have made KCAI’s Fiber program one of the most respected in the country. Originally from Holland, Verbeek-Cowart is a gifted artist whose woven work crosses the boundary between fine art and applied textiles. She has exhibited in France, Austria, Korea, Japan and Australia.
At a time when some fine art colleges are eliminating weaving from their curriculum because of the cost and space requirements, KCAI has invested in new equipment to enhance the craft. KCAI has 22 traditional looms and two digital looms, one in the Fiber Studio and one in the David T. Beals III Studios for Art & Technology.
Students weave by hand first and then move on to the digital tools. Taking an ancient art like weaving that dates back tens of thousands of years to the Paleolithic era, and using new technology like a digital loom, is the future of weaving. According to Verbeek-Cowart, the marriage of the two enhances what the artist does. “The touch of the hand will always be something that attracts people to fiber. Artists will always create by hand because of the tactile quality, but digital tools bring new possibilities.”
Though weaving is an integral part of the KCAI Fiber department curriculum, at its core is something more fundamental — materials investigation. Verbeek-Cowart is committed to teaching students a holistic approach to fiber. They experience knitting, weaving, painting, papermaking and printing. Students also learn how to create and dye their own materials. Last year, they even planted a natural dye garden to encourage the use of sustainable dyes and materials.
“We want our students to explore all materials and get really comfortable with understanding how the materials they use affect the outcome. In turn, students can embody and embrace the processes to do something unique and specific to their aesthetic and desires,” said Verbeek-Cowart.
Barrett-Jones is branching out into new materials like metal. She has explored a variety of photographic processes in the digital prints on display through Jan. 28 Women to Watch – Metals at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. “With metal,” she said, “I can go larger on images than I could before. It allows you to see the detail that people would otherwise pass by.” Currently, Barrett-Jones is designing new fabrics to be put on pillows, upholstery and even wallpaper.
Verbeek-Cowart is proud of what Barrett-Jones and her other students have accomplished.
“I’ve been in awe from the first day in 1997 when I walked into a critique at KCAI and saw the work our talented students do. I knew right then that I was meant to teach. It’s always exciting to see how students interpret the information I give them. They take it to the next level and I learn from them, too.”
To learn more about KCAI’s Fiber department and Pauline Verbeek-Cowart, go to http://kcai.edu/academics/majors/fiber/.
–Kathy St. Clair