Steamboat artist practices ancient art of textile weaving
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Wendy Kowynia studied painting in college. But when she graduated, she went back home to Golden to learn the ancient art of weaving. Her teacher was her mother, who was a master weaver.
Kowynia apprenticed for a year with her mother to gain the skills she needed. During that time, she lived at home and worked in her mother’s basement.
“It was a beautiful time,” she said. “When you’re learning to weave, you really need to be around someone who can help you when you get stuck, and she would help me at every turn. It was a very special time for us. She was a huge inspiration for me, and then I became an inspiration for her as I came along in my practice.”
Thirty years ago, Kowynia moved to a house in Steamboat Springs’ Old Town that has a shed in the backyard, which is where she does her weaving. She uses a floor loom to create her pieces — an ancient practice she said she is drawn to for its slow simplicity.
“What fascinates me about weaving is that it’s an ancient technology and one of the first technologies that we created as humans really,” Kowynia said. “Modern technology is so fast, and everything exists in a cloud, but weaving is so hands on and concrete. It feels like that’s something important to hold on to as we move into a more virtual world.”
Kowynia works with yarns that come from Asia and Japan specifically, finding inspiration in the Japanese aesthetic and textile traditions.
“Their simplicity, elegance and pureness resonate with me,” she explained.
The finely made yarns are often made of materials such as paper, silk or pine. For Kowynia, the process of creating a new piece is slow, methodical work. Using a 36-inch floor loom, the first step is to thread the loom to ready it for weaving, which can take four or five hours.
“When I get to the weaving part, that’s a freeing, joyous motion, but you have to do a lot of work to get there,” she said.
She compares it to an athlete or a dancer in training — practicing patience and discipline to perform a short piece.
“It turns our ideas of efficiency in the world on its head,” she said. “We tend to quantify things in terms of time in our society, but with weaving, it’s not about being fast. The longer it takes, the more interesting it is.”
When she starts a new piece, Kowynia said, she creates certain boundaries for it — color, for example, or how wide it will be. Then she starts weaving, taking pieces off the loom as they are finished and waiting to see what the pieces themselves want to do.
“The best ideas aren’t thought out in advance, but they come from interacting with the material itself,” she explained. “I have to let go of what I think I want it to do and let it do what it can do. It’s not about bending it to your will but about bending your will to it.”
In the 30 years she’s been weaving, Kowynia said she is most proud of breaking the barrier into the fine arts world. She has shown her work at several galleries in Steamboat and is currently represented by W Gallery locally and Space Gallery in Denver. She credits her progress to the Steamboat arts community.
When she first moved to town, Steamboat Creates, which was Steamboat Springs Arts Council at the time, gave her a showing opportunity, which she describes as a launch pad. Now, it’s important to Kowynia that the town preserve the value of arts in the community.
As a former Steamboat Creates board member, she said she is hugely proud of what the organization has done to advocate for the arts on local and statewide levels.
“It’s important that the arts community stays strong and relevant here,” she said. “And we have to focus on the importance of the arts and shine a light on that.”
For Kowynia, especially, fostering the artistic community in Steamboat is important because of the effect the place itself has had on her work.
“When we had the option to move to Steamboat, I loved that it was a quiet place and that you can feel time move more slowly here as you move through the seasons,” she said. “Weaving is very slow; it goes thread by thread, but then you turn around and you’ve made something. In Steamboat, we endure long winters, day by day and storm by storm, and then it’s over. Weaving mimics the natural world.”
Sophie Dingle is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today. She can be reached through the editor.
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