Material culture teach-in explores the power of making

Fritz Horstman of The Joseph & Anni Albers Foundation experiments with a charkha, a portable, hand-cranked spinning wheel.
Fritz Horstman of The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation experiments with a charkha, a portable, hand-cranked spinning wheel that can be set on the floor or a table, at the new low-tech maker space at West Campus. (Photo credit: Jon Atherton)

At Monte Albán, a pre-Columbian archaeological site in Oaxaca, Mexico, the artist Anni Albers encountered ancient jewelry composed of stones and shells.

The artifacts inspired Albers to make jewelry out of ordinary materials. She believed the process of making, not the presence of gold and gems, imbued the jewelry with meaning, said Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator at The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation. 

Jewelry was ornament, but it was not necessarily precious. What was precious became so by what the maker infused into it,” said Danilowitz, speaking at the Loria Center as part of a material culture teach-in held at Yale on May 14-16.

The teach-in, based on the theme “Resilience and Reconciliation,” convened Yale faculty, staff, and graduate students with scholars, curators, and artists from other institutions to consider the way objects can inspire or embody resilience and how the act of making can foster healing and reflection. The event was organized by Ned Cooke, the Charles F Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts, and Glenn Adamson and Martina Droth of the Yale Center for British Art, with support from the Chipstone Foundation.

The three-day teach-in took a three-pronged approach to its theme, examining resilience and reconciliation through the collection and interpretation of objects, making, and artistic practices.

Workshop participants tried various methods of spinning wool, including with hand spindles and with a spinning wheel.
Workshop participants tried various methods of spinning wool, including with hand spindles and with a spinning wheel. (Photo credit: Jon Atherton)

It opened with a panel discussion on collecting and exhibiting objects. Erin Gredell, repatriation coordinator at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, was a member of the panel and discussed the recent transfer of hundreds of Mohegan artifacts to the tribe’s Tantaquidgeon Museum. Matthew Welch, deputy director and chief curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, described a forthcoming exhibition addressing the death of Philando Castile, who was shot to death by a police officer during a traffic stop in a suburb of Saint Paul.

The second day was devoted to exploring various making processes. Participants visited Yale’s West Campus for a daylong session featuring workshops on spinning fibers and weaving, raised beadwork, natural dying, and sewing and mending. 

Andrew Hamilton ’05 B.A., a postdoctoral lecturer at Princeton University, led the workshops on spinning and weaving in Yale’s new low-tech maker space — a laboratory at West Campus where students can learn to work with wood, metal, clay, and other materials within the context of classes or workshops.

Hamilton, who has studied making textiles with highland weavers in Peru’s Cuzco region, began the workshop by asking the participants to consider the processes involved in making the clothes they were wearing.    

When we see textiles, we see the finished product,” he said. “We see fibers and the cloth functioning as they are supposed to, and it’s hard to look at it and estimate what the points of difficulty were. You see something that is static and inert as a textile, but it is the product of all sorts of kinetic processes that are difficult to imagine unless you’ve done them yourself.”

A woman weaving with an old-fashioned loom.
Workshop participants got hands-on experience with a variety of methods of weaving. (Photo credit: Jon Atherton)

Participants took turns handling various fibers in their unprocessed state, such as cotton bolls and a fleece of sheep’s wool that was greasy with lanolin, the waxy substance that makes a sheep’s coat water resistant and is washed out before the wool is spun.

Hamilton prefaced the spinning exercise by reminding participants that the workshop’s point was not to produce expert spinners or weavers.

We want you to have the chance to engage tactilely with these different materials and learn how fibers are worked into threads and how threads are worked into cloth,” he said.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, participants attempted to spin wool into yarn using hand spindles. With varying degrees of success, the rookie spinners worked diligently drawing out fibers and twisting them into strong and workable yarn.

It’s very humbling,” said Fritz Horstman, artist residency and education coordinator at The Albers Foundation. “The extraordinary irregularity that I produced was the far end of the extreme of amateur spinning. The point where you could spin a regular and strong fiber is hundreds of hours of experience beyond where I am right now.” 

Cooke, the driving force behind the creation of the low-tech maker space, said hands-on learning helps students gain a better appreciation for the skill and labor involved in making textiles, ceramics, furniture, and other handmade objects.  

My own explorations into these processes are not about becoming a maker myself, but about gaining a sense of humility toward materials and making,” he said.

Hamilton demonstrated spinning fiber on a treadle wheel and a charkha, a portable, hand-cranked spinning wheel that can be set on the floor or a table. Later in the day, participants tried weaving on frame, tapestry, and back strap looms.

While some participants experimented with the charkha, others gathered around a table in a separate room and got a lesson in the healing quality of beadwork.

Bead artist Sam Thomas, a member of the Lower Cayuga Band of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Nation, has spent 40 years reviving Iroquois raised beadwork styles from the 19th and 18th centuries.

A person’s hands as they sew a raised beadwork piece.
Teach-in participants collaborated on two raised beadwork pieces, which will be given to Yale. (Photo credit: Jon Atherton)

He led Opening the Doors to Dialogue, a project aimed at cultivating reconciliation from the legacy of Canada’s Indian residential school system — a network of state-sponsored schools run by Christian churches intended to assimilate indigenous children into the country’s Western-style culture. From 1832 to 1986, when the last residential schools closed, children were taken from their families and stripped of their indigenous culture, many suffering physical and sexual abuse in the process.

Thomas led workshops with survivors of the schools and clergy and staff from the schools in which they would talk about the survivors’ experiences while learning beadwork techniques and making projects. The collaborative beading provided a platform for dialogue and healing, Thomas said.

I’ve found that a natural dialogue takes place when people come together to create,” said Thomas, who also has used beading workshops to foster reconciliation among rival tribes in Kenya.

Participants applied glass beads to two raised beadwork pieces that will be given to the university. Both feature strawberries, which are sacred to the Haudenosaunee as the first fruit and a powerful healing medicine.

I was impressed with Sam’s notion of the meditative process of beading and talking about a cultural practice while being absorbed in that very process; how it freed your mind to discuss things in a way that was deep, but not emotionally fraught, so that it produces a more reflective kind of energy,” said Cooke.

The teach-in’s last day included Danilowitz’s talk as well as talks by current and former artists-in-residence at the Albers Foundation. Fashion designer Christina Kim, who the previous day had led the sewing workshop, spoke about her collaborative work with the Arhuaco people of Colombia. 

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548