Source: The Taos News
Date: October 2003
Author: Rick Romancito
There are probably a hundred metaphors for weaving – how it interconnects different colors and textures, how it blends the origins of many elements into a strong and beautiful fabric. But if any one could be applied to artist and businesswoman Rachel Brown, it’s how precious gems were entwined in the yarn that made a singular and vital human being, one who is being honored this year as a Living Treasure.
While Brown may have been amazed when told of being chosen for the honor, a lot of weavers in New Mexico won’t be terribly surprised. To them, Brown is already known as somewhat of a goddess.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1926, Brown started out her professional life as an artist after stints at Radcliffe College, Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Art Students League and Cooper Union in New York. It was, however, as a silkscreen printmaker. It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she and then-husband Malcolm Brown (who died July 4) moved to Taos and she discovered weaving. Or maybe weaving discovered her.
At the time, the couple had just built a house out in Arroyo Seco, she said from the showroom of her well known tapestry gallery and studio called Weaving Southwest at 216B Paseo del Pueblo Norte in Taos. She and a few other women ran a small business called the craft House, but the bills to heat the place were a little too much. Just as they were moving out, a disassembled loom was discovered in a shed.
Told it would “just get used for fire wood,” Brown took the pieces home; she and her husband put it together – “and that’s when I started weaving.”
She immediately became obsessed with the medium.
“The magical twisting of glossy fibers, dyeing them and then intertwining them with the warp definitely became a satisfying art form for me,” she says in her artist statement. “Luckily, I was impoverished at the time so spinning and dyeing my yarns was also necessity. (She also had three kids to raise.) Since then, I have become spoiled and cannot weave unless I have an extensive palette of hand-dyed colors with which to work.”
Her first exhibit was in 1964 at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. Since then, her work has been shown all over the nation and resides in collections in the United States, Canada and Europe. Eventually, as she became familiar with not only the hundreds of weavers in the Southwest but the rich and varied textile tradition among the American Indian and Hispanic natives of the region, she found that venues to show these woven works of art were a rarity.
Saying she’s always been “business minded,” she began a small gallery in Seco, which eventually grew to become Weaving Southwest here in Taos. Along the way, she also wrote “The Weaving, Spinning and Dyeing Book,” which was published in 1978 by Alfred Knopf, now in its impressive 20th printing. Also, 20 years ago this year, she helped found Tierra Wools, a worker-owned wool grower business that continues to provide natural products for the weaving tradition.
Because of her efforts to promote, preserve and encourage innovation, Brown was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. She was among 37 women in the craft arts who were honored for “making a difference” in their fields.
Although one might assume that someone as deeply immersed in the textile tradition would evaluate weavings on extremely technical terms, when asked what she looks for in a weaving, she replied, “Visual impact.”
It’s not the number of threads per square inch nor the some arcane method. It’s how the piece strikes her upon first impression. The same is true of her love of old classical Navajo weavings. “The simplicity can’t be beat,” she said.
Until last year, Brown said she used to make about five to six full tapestries per year. “I used to be able to stand at the loom for 10 hours a day,” she said. In more recent years, along with help from her good friend, Ann Huston, she used to hand dye about 150 pounds of yarn between dawn and dusk. These days, she has to take it easy, but the people surrounding her still work in collaboration with Brown to produce weavings of singular beauty, along with organizing regular exhibitions of works by regional weavers.
The threads of her life have been varied and richly spun, the colors still vivid and enduring. For Rachel Brown, a true Living Treasure, the weave is a tight one.