For the Love of Art

A portion of one of Peggy Church's looms.
A portion of one of Peggy Church's looms. Photo courtesy of Peggy Church

For someone who's spent 30 years or more as an expert weaver, Peggy Church is exceedingly patient with those who don't know even the basics of her craft.

"It's called a warp," she explains carefully as a visitor puzzles over a complicated-looking series of strings that make up part of a massive wooden loom in Church's studio in Chaplin.

"And this is called the weft," she continues, holding up a long wooden instrument that holds a hank of fiber. "The weft moves from right to left," she adds, repeating a sing-song phrase that helps novice weavers remember what the instrument does.

She even smiles warmly, though with a hint of pain, when that same visitor refers to Church's craft as "looming."

"It's weaving," she says, before giving a brief, dictionary description of the word looming.

Church is a textile artist with a studio attached to her Colonial home in the picturesque Chaplin Street area. She owns several looms, including the large "dobby" loom that dominates one end of her studio and several smaller ones, including a table-top child's loom on which her four-year-old granddaughter is learning the craft.

Perhaps what makes Church so patient with weaving neophytes is her passion for the importance of passing down her knowledge of the art. Besides teaching her granddaughter, Church runs weaving classes out of her studio, is a member of the Handweaver's Guild of Connecticut and is a trustee of the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass.

Her woven creations, and the process by which she makes them, were on display as part of the Artists Open Studios event during the last weekend of November and the first weekend in December.

The annual celebration of artists in 21 northern Connecticut towns will include dozens of artists and artisans, many of them women, across a broad range of disciplines, including fine art, fiber crafts, woodworking, jewelery-making and photography.

During Open Studios, which started last weekend, artists and artisans give visitors a rare look at their process.

Church is one of several fiber artists taking part in the event, and like most of those who will open their private studio doors to the public, she does so not to make sales (which aren't that common during Open Studios) but to educate the public.

She believes ardently in preserving the ancient textile art of weaving that once was essential in Colonial life.

While most weavers today are women, five generations ago, when manual weaving was a major industry, it was done mostly by men, she says.

"It was an important man's trade and men did a lot of fancy weaving," Church says.

Nowadays, she says, weaving and other textile arts, such as knitting and sewing, are seeing a resurgence.

"As the world becomes more technological people want and need to be creative," she says. "Making something with your hands is so primal."

In Mansfield, Carla Kelly will also take part in Open Studios and showcase her luthier - or guitar-making - skills. Using a myriad of raw and exotic woods, Kelly spends weeks, or months, forming those woods into exquisite guitars that are both practical and works of art.

Her craft began of necessity more than 10 years ago when her prized Martin guitar was broken and she couldn't afford to have it repaired.

"I decided to rebuild it myself," she says.

That repair job taught her to love the way wood could be turned into a masterpiece and before long her husband, weary of seeing piles of wood strewn over the couple's dining room table, built Kelly a workshop next door to their home.

She figures she's built about 20 guitars since she started, some of which can sell for upwards of $5,000.

Some are exotic and organic looking, taking on the characteristics of the woods from which they are carved. Others look more like traditional acoustic guitars.

One of her instruments, Kelly says, was recently played by a classical guitarist at Carnegie Hall. On another, from her "stellar class" of guitars, includes on its back a view of part of the universe from a picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. That one took her three years to make, Kelly says.

She also dabbles in making other musical instruments, including drums. She makes little money from her art, she says. She's retired and does it mostly for her love of the craft.

"I figure I probably make about 5 cents an hour," she says. "But I do whatever I damn well want. I'm old enough and surly enough to do that now."

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