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Summer 2001


Kathryn Alexander:
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 over.

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 piece.

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.

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.
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.

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.


This article first appeared in:

Summer 2001

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