The Process

The Process

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Kate Aoki
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Kate Aoki

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The Process: Artists Emerge Through the Exercise of Craft

On Jan. 5, 1964, my father departed Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan, and, by way of Honolulu, arrived in San Francisco. In pursuit of a Western philosophy and practice of painting inspired by the action painters of the Abstract-Expressionism movement, my father had been encouraged by his own father, an architect who painted in his spare time, and his grandfather, a silk-stitch embroidery artist, to abandon the tradition of inheriting the family business. Instead of insisting he take over the architecture practice, they urged him to seek a career, in either Japan or the United States, not based on prescribed expectations.

My father’s professional endeavors evolved as he matured as an artist, and while he maintained a painting studio, he pursued a master’s degree in technical theater under Paul Baker, founder of the Dallas Theater Center. He was the resident set designer and technical director for the theater until the late ’70s. But while his professional life progressed, he never left behind art or the need to create.

My parents’ house is a veritable shrine to his carpentry skills, with a vast wood deck covered by a trellis and canopy that has been rebuilt at least a half-dozen times over the last 20 years. The urge to create, and to craft, was unrelenting — he had to do it. So, incidentally, did his father, the painter and architect. So did both his grandfathers, one a shrine carpenter trained in traditional joinery, the other the silk-stitch embroiderer who, in addition to being commissioned on occasion by the emperor, was also commissioned by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to embroider a portrait of Lana Turner.

It’s no surprise, then, that I was never going to be an accountant. I grew up surrounded by art and craft, and when it came time for me to choose a college, all four of the applications I filled out went to art schools.

I received my bachelor of fine arts in textile design with a focus on weaving, a discipline I was introduced to at a young age when a neighbor down the street invited me to weave a simple scarf on her loom. I was drawn to weaving in particular by the combination of a craft rooted in a highly technical process and an end result that can be as artistic as anything created on a canvas. Weaving is not unlike architecture; it is extraordinarily calculated, and the result must be mapped, planned, drafted, and premeditated far in advance, should you wish your weaving to be successful.

Because weaving has many centuries behind it and inspired thousands of books, I won’t spend much time explaining the technicalities. What is worth keeping in mind is the time, forethought, and calculation required to execute a woven textile. A floor loom is a frame upon which hang several harnesses, and within each harness hangs a collection of loops through which the yarns are threaded. The weaver must calculate not only how the threads will hang from their heddles and subsequent harness, but also how much yarn will be needed for the weave and in what order it will be wound to be tied onto the loom, followed by notations to remind her how to lift and lower her harness to achieve the desired pattern.

Proper and careful setup is essential, but the setup is also what gives the weaver her charge; I loved the process of getting the loom ready to weave, the physicality of pulling a bundle of threads through the frame and tying them on to the loom. The action of weaving itself was secondary in satisfaction to knowing I had a beautifully setup loom.

This rigorous setup and the tradition of the weaving process is why weaving is considered a craft. However, the lines between art and craft have always been, to varying degrees, blurred. There is art and there is craft, but the spectrum between the two rapidly disintegrates, leaving us to wonder about the differences and why we need to distinguish between them. That we feel the need to elevate exceptionally crafted objects to art speaks to the disparity and how we shape the discussion around craft as a practice.

Anni Albers, Weaver

Anni Albers was among the first modern weavers to move the discipline from a traditional application into contemporary practice by combining artistic philosophies with a crafting process.

Albers, born Annalise Fleischmann in Berlin in 1899, had planned to become a painter. She studied painting in her youth under a series of tutors and instructors, including impressionist Martin Brandenburg, after which she gained admittance to a Kunstgewerbeschule (school of applied arts) in Hamburg. But the lure of the newly founded the Bauhaus and its philosophy of the “inseparability of art and craft” led her to apply there, and she was accepted into the school in 1922. [1]

She found upon enrollment that, due to the circumstances of her time, weaving was the only workshop she could enter, which disappointed her. “I didn’t like the idea at all in the beginning because I thought weaving is sissy, just these threads. And there was a very inefficient lady, old lady, sort of the needlework kind of type, who taught it. … But the only way of staying at that place was to join that workshop. And I did. And once I got started, I got rather intrigued with the possibilities there.” [2]

Albers realized that the vast world of painting, sculpting and other studio fine arts intimidated her, yet with no formal restraints and infinite choices of medium, her world was boundless. The freedom struck her less as liberating and more as paralyzing, and she came to appreciate the boundaries and limits put in place by weaving, which allowed her to carve her own space and form. “I felt that the limitations and the discipline of the craft gave me this kind of like a railing. I had to work within a certain possibility, possibly break through, you know.” [3]

Working within the confines of the weaving process and structure, Albers flourished in her practice. Her studies at the Bauhaus engrained in her a deep respect for exploration, and she delved into all facets of textile design and production; her work was not simply a reaction to the loom and the carrying out of instruction. She learned how to produce textiles on an industrial scale that still maintained the beauty of pieces designed and woven by hand. In that sense, she was a master of transferring the philosophy and the technique of craft into mass production. Her obvious devotion and attention to detail led Florence Knoll to invite Albers in 1951 to collaborate with the Knoll Textiles Department, a collaboration that continued 30 years.

However, her deep connection to art and her longing to create were instincts she could not ignore. While she was capable of weaving elegant repeating patterns for interior textiles such as upholstery and drapery, her “Pictorial Weavings” satisfied the fine artist in her and gave her the medium with which to express herself artistically. These pieces, typically woven in figure-ground style compositions meant to hang on a wall, represent the liberties Albers took with the traditional methods of weaving. They are abstractions and employ a form of tapestry technique in which yarns are integrated (usually by hand) within a woven structure in order to produce an image, and in these particular pieces, a composition of finite area, similar in concept to a painting.

The malleability of Albers’ approach and technique afforded her the freedom to apply a design process particular to each piece. (It should be noted that while I am, for the purposes of this article, looking solely at Albers as a weaver, she has a vast body of graphic work and academic exploration that is well worth further investigation to more fully understand the rich complexity of her design thinking and application.) Her designs would often bridge applied arts, with a more crafted approach, and fine arts, with a purpose suited to a display of a singular piece to be appreciated as an entity unto itself. This particular process is notable in Ark Panels, a piece conceived when Albers was commissioned by Temple Emanu-el in Dallas to design panels for the ark. The original suggestion was the hung drapes, a traditional method of covering the opening to the ark, be designed and woven. Instead, Albers suggested that the fabric wrap eight wood panels, resulting in fewer yards of custom textile to be woven. [4] Wrapping the panels also provided the woven fabric pieces a stability that allowed them to transcend the nature of their physical properties and to truly become architectural elements interacting with their architectural spaces.

Anni Alber's fabric-covered Ark Panels (1957) at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX. / Photo: Shirley Che

The result is a series of gold, green, and deep blue of bands running vertically along each panel. The repeat is the same in each band, but the pattern set point begins at a different spot for each panel, allowing for a stepped pattern of blues and golds, evocative of the Howard Meyer, FAIA, brick design lining the walls of the sanctuary. The decision to use the existing architecture as the launch point carries great significance for this work, with symbolic weight manifest in the design of the panels themselves as religious objects, and as the function of craft, and weaving, to allegorically transmute the physical presence of the building and its spiritual meaning into the textile.

Photo: Shirley Che

Albers spent much time and many words trying to parse out the differences between art and craft, and how weaving related to both. Her beautiful designs for mass-production yardage could on the one hand point to a designer who was well aware of the necessity of craft, but who could also implicate design and art in the execution of the craft. Her pictorial weavings are a testament to an artist so skilled as to transcend the boundaries of art and craft, and who repurposed a technique for an outcome of her own. In the end, Albers defined the process of weaving for herself as the “closest to architecture because it is a building up out of a single element, to building a whole out of single elements.” [5]

Interview with Gabriel Dawe, Artist

While Anni Albers transcended weaving into a painting, Gabriel Dawe has been creating three-dimensional sculptures using material and a process wholly similar to that of weaving. Dawe, a Mexican-born artist who lives and works in Dallas, is formally trained in graphic design and studio art. With that, he has transitioned from strong graphic compositions into captivating and large-scale sculptural threaded installations. You’re very likely to have encountered Dawe’s work; his Plexus no. 34 was on display in August and September at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. His work is immediately recognizable: You think you’re looking at a suspended prism of light, a rainbow of colors hanging in space. The colors taper or expand, depending on the design of their attachments, but what are you seeing? How are these prisms constructed?

Gabriel Dawe's Plexus A1 exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. / Photo: Brendan Smialowski/ AFP/ Getty Images

Dawe developed a proprietary technique of winding multicolored threads that encompass the entire spectrum onto attachment hardware by using a tool he designed. “Yeah, I’m not saying,” he laughs when asked what the tool looks like. It has gone through a few iterations as his installation process has evolved, but it is the lifeblood of how his work is crafted and installed.

Although his work is inspired by the embroidery his grandmother taught his sister, Dawe uses a process similar to setting up a loom. In a very mechanical sense, threads are wound onto hooks or nails between two points, establishing a tension that holds them in place. The process of winding the threads back and forth between the attachments yields the final form. Just as Anni Albers maintained a philosophy of allowing her threads to tell her what form they would take, so does Gabriel Dawe give voice to both his materials and the space they will occupy — at his direction.

“To me, it’s always about the dialogue between what the work is and the space and what the space is asking of me,” he says.

The installations are always connections to light within the space, Dawe explains. Whether working with a skylight or a window, the full spectrum is considered, if not utilized. When conceiving a piece, Dawe pays attention to the dialogue between the potential work and the space, and what the space is asking of him. He must consider not just the envisioned form, but the realities of the space and logistical limitations — where can he attach his structures, if ducts or are there are ducts or mechanical considerations, as examples. In this sense, the space shapes the design of the piece.

Gabriel Dawe's colorful work, Plexus No. 27, at Crystal Bridges. / Photo: Jenny Thomason, AIA

When asked if he considers is an artist or a craftsperson, he says, “I would say an artist. I think the distinction between the two are being erased or blurred, but I don’t think it’s mattering that much anymore.” [6]

We often think of craft as being tectonic, with a final result borne out of a process of building and using tactile and dimensional raw materials to form something new. The process and its execution are central to the existential definition of a specific craft: weaving is weaving because of the weaving process. But even through the exercise of craft, the artist can emerge. This is the human touch that each piece evokes and that forms a connection for the viewer. 

During one weaving class taught by renowned tapestry weaver Helena Hernmarck, I expressed dismay at a small error in my weaving. While the error was not catastrophic, it was noticeable and would require me to undo a few hours of work and then reweave - something not foreign to a weaver, but not something in which to delight. When I brought this to Helena’s attention, she told me that such a mistake illustrates the hand of the weaver. We don’t want to eliminate the presence of the human — such marks give the weaving life and bring the weaver’s hand into focus, in turn creating a connection between the craftsperson and the viewer. This connection is art.

Kate Aoki, AIA, is an associate at DSGN and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs.



[1] Nicholas Fox Weber, “Anni Albers to Date”, The Woven and Graphic Art of Anni Albers. 1985, page 16.

[2] Anni Albers, “Oral history interview with Anni Albers, 1968 Jul 5”.

[3] Anni Albers, “Oral history interview with Anni Albers, 1968 Jul 5”.

[4] Feeney, Kelly. “Anni Albers: Devotion to Material”, pg. 118. Anni Albers, ed. Weber, Nicholas Fox, 1999.

[5] Anni Albers, “Oral history interview with Anni Albers, 1968 Jul 5”.

[6] Interview with Gabriel Dawe, June 21, 2018