Color and Energy
|Left: Entrelac hat, 1996; hand-spun, -dyed,
and -knit silk. Above:Two details of entrelac sweater
cardigan, 2000; hand-spun, -dyed, and -knit wool,
silk buttons. Photos are by the artist.
The work of Kathryn Alexander brings to mind cobwebs and
color. This may seem a dichotomy in concept: cobwebs are fairly
colorless and open in a positive/negative spatial design,
while color usually implies a somewhat compact surface to
show off its hues. But these are indeed the two opposing but
driving forces of Alexander's concentration. Fine examples
of both were evident in an exhibition during September and
October, 2000, in the Catherine C. Johnson Gallery at the
American Handweaving Museum in Clayton, New York.
The one-person show of 16 pieces was called "Color and Energy
- Elements of Design" and included knitted and woven garments,
hats, and fiber art. However, the nucellus of Alexander's
work is spinning. When visitors come to her studio, which
is now near Troy, New York, she is fond of pointing to a spinning
wheel and saying, "It all starts here." It may start there,
but in the transfer to a finished item a certain magic takes
Part of this magic is color. The immediate impression as
one entered the gallery was that this is a person who loves
and knows color. In the knitted sweaters, hats, and socks,
in which the surface is compact, a vibrant luminosity was
achieved by Alexander's arrangement of many different hues
in a mosaiclike pattern of squares, triangles, and stripes.
Every composition of these geometric shapes was different
since she doesn't graph out her patterns in advance but rather
lets design principles guide her to a finished realization.
The result is a wearable item that is very definitely an art
These knitted objects have not only colors with the depth
of jewels but also a unique textural surface. Since 1989 Alexander
has studied and worked with a technique called entrelac. In
every new piece, she challenges herself to manipulate and
push this stitch in new directions so that it emerges as peaks,
bumps, or some other dimension that enlivens the surface.
In Alexander's woven pieces, color turns away from bright tones
and becomes subtler and more in tune with nature. The wovens
were almost all diaphanous - the cobwebs in the show - the surface
open so color impact is diffused but no less sensitive or beautiful.
In some pieces, one was reminded of striated rock formations.
One see-through garment posed a dramatic contrast between black
and white, while in another white was the whole story. It is
in these pieces in which the color was neutralized that the
yarn became almost the whole design element. Its structure,
texture, and inherent liveliness became the focus in a myriad
of lines that were like drawings in the air. The lines curled,
merged, sometimes interlaced - ever delicate yet strong enough
to form useable cloth.
|Top: Copper tunic, 1997; hand-spun
silk and linen with copper wire. Handwoven cloth by Kathryn
Alexander. Garment designed and made by Carol Lee Shanks.
Photo: Don Tuttle. Above: Bodice, 1996; handwoven
copper wire and mylar; 24 by 24 inches. Photo: Don Tuttle.
Right: Party top, 1997; hand-spun mohair, silk,
and cotton with pieced silk organza overlayer. Handwoven
cloth by Kathryn Alexander. Garment designed and made
by Carol Lee Shanks. Photo: Carol Lee Shanks.
The energy in Alexander's exhibition title refers to the
spinning of these yarns. Through five years of research, she
has developed what she calls "overenergized" yarns. Her technique
involves not only controlling the amount of twist or turns
per inch and the direction of the twist in a yarn but also
not finishing the yarn so that it has a chance to do what
it wants given enough space. Her absolute control at the spinning
wheel enables her to fashion a yarn for a specifically designed
texture. In the knitted pieces, this works with the stitch
to form an even more complex surface. In the wovens, she achieves
what she has termed a "collapse structure" that is the basis
of the open, airy look.
Alexander's control also extends to her colors, which are
all hand dyed. This is a formidable task when her typical
garment or fiber art construction uses about 70 to 80 shades.
The fibers include wool, silk, and mohair. The fiber art also
includes various metals found in scavenger hunts in salvage
yards. In the Clayton show, these included grounding cables,
brass, and copper wires all working with the handspun yarn.
The recycled copper wire even found its way into a few of
the woven garments.
The knitted works are a total Alexander product from spinning
wheel to final product. The woven garments are the result
of a collaboration with clothing designer Carol Lee Shanks.
Whether doing art as wearables or objects, Alexander has shown
a unique sense of color and texture, as well as a virtuoso
control over her chosen medium.
-- Nell Znamierowski
Nell Znamierowski is a textile artist, writer, and teacher.