Ornament Magazine, Volume 27 No.1, Autumn 2003 Joyce Wilkerson, The Rhythm of Pattern by Leslie ClarkImagine walking into an artist's studio at a defining moment, just when she has made a creative transition in her work and is not even sure, herself, where it will lead. A kinetic expectancy hovers in the air, rife with the electric feeling of new possibilities. Despite her quiet composure, weaver Joyce Wilkerson's eyes sparkle, bright with news of amazing discoveries, like an explorer returning with tales from the edges of the known world. For the past year both her life and her weaving have been going through an explosive sea change. Wilkerson is in the throes of putting the finishing touches to an unprecedented body of work which debuts at the Santa Fe Weaving Gallery, and her voice as she describes it brims with excitement. "A trip to Vancouver started it," she explains. "I was looking for some remarkable Japanese fibers that I knew Takako Ueki was selling at Convergence, the weaving conference. The Japanese fibers were a springboard into this new work, all of which I consider experimental at this stage. I know there are ideas that I've developed that will move on past this into my other weaving. This project really is about stirring my imagination. "I'm known for my patterns," Wilkerson remarks, a vast understatement considering a nearly thirty-year career that has catapulted her into the front rank of her profession as a weaver of extraordinary, rhythmic patterns renowned for their textural depth and complexity. Since she was last interviewed in Ornament (Autumn 1992), Wilkerson's weaving has continued to evolve by leaps and bounds in marvelous, intricate interplays of curves and shapes, balanced by a simplicity of cut and shape in her jackets and vests. "One of the reasons we have always loved working with Joyce Wilkerson is that her cloth is very cerebral, as well as imaginative and expressive," states Jill Heppenheimer, co-owner with Barbara Lanning of the Santa Fe Weaving Gallery. "It engages you mentally as well as emotionally. She continues to push the boundaries of what her loom can accomplish, and she has a real love of fiber. With these pieces she has reached a new plateau as a weaver and an artist." Wilkerson, who admits she has always had a penchant for technology, for the past fifteen years has created her designs using sophisticated software and a computerized loom. In her spacious, immaculately tidy Albuquerque studio, with cones of yarns stored floor-to-ceiling along the walls, she spends hours at her computer, developing and fine-tuning her pattern ideas. Next to the computer monitor sits a big twenty-four-harness AVL floor loom. "I use the computer more like a sketchbook, to figure out the structure," she demonstrates, and the familiar black-and-white grid of graph paper appears on the screen. "First I'm looking at the visual elements, then I pin down the structure and then I go to the loom. It's really a dance between the two. Until you're interacting with the loom and with the fibers, you can't know what works." She points to some material folded on her cutting table. A lively, grass-green color, the supple fabric is covered in rows of white curlicues that resemble coils of charged energy. "This is what I call a loom-controlled weave," she explains. "I don't have to stop and decide where to put a strip of something. I've done my designing in the computer, and as it's woven on the loom the pattern appears." Bamboo, stainless steel and paper-like fibers (actually several minute strips of cotton, coated and bound together into the consistency of paper), represented unknown properties in how they would behave on the loom—exactly what stimulated Wilkerson. Only a very knowledgeable and dedicated weaver could have made such a commitment. The stainless steel, wrapped in a fine rayon thread, was tricky. "It would yank the shuttle, and then the shuttle would fly off the loom and sail across the room. Or it would hit some warp ends and break them," Wilkerson says with a touch of exasperation. The only solution was to keep trying different shuttles and different combinations of threads to make the unruly stainless steel work. The springy bamboo, on the other hand, had a mind of its own. It refused to fold where she wanted it to go, at the last moment lying down sideways. "I found myself talking to the bamboo, coaxing it," she says, smiling. In contrast, the paper fibers handled beautifully and Wilkerson made a trial run with dyes. She was inspired by a walk on the beach. "I saw so much color around me. I brought back a pile of rocks in reds, magentas and corals, and they gave me the idea to work with a dyer on the paper fibers and see what would happen."All of this entailed long bouts of trial-and-error, and for Wilkerson and her assistant, an experienced weaver, taking time to resolve innumerable technical problems in setting up experimental warps that would induce the fractious fibers to weave into fabric. "I needed the computer program in order to tell the loom what to do, but, in fact, visualizing the designs [on the computer] didn't work with these fibers. I had to sit at the loom and manipulate them, saying, now where did I put those steel ones? Count, count, count—those harnesses are the ones I want to lift." The computer could help keep track of which row she was on, but showed all the fibers as identical—it did not differentiate the thread sizes. So Wilkerson worked hands-on, constructing the fabric and evolving her unique designs through many applications. Although all the Japanese fibers share a common thin rayon warp, Wilkerson achieved incredibly different looks in each of the fabrics. The results are stunning. A former printmaker and painter, Wilkerson's work reflects the profound aesthetic influence of the Abstract Expressionists. An undyed bamboo and stainless-steel vest forms an architectural, three-dimensional structure that is austerely beautiful, with a tactile quality that is hard to resist. For pattern, Wilkerson pulled out some of the warp threads, leaving little ladders of bamboo and steel interspersed with strips of saffron yellow and fuchsia dupioni silk inserted beneath the surface. The minimalist effect is rich and subtle. The white paper fibers, dyed a sunny matte red and interwoven into a stylish, dolman-sleeved jacket, look intriguingly like they float on another plane. Another fabric, woven from a stainless steel and rayon warp and a rayon chenille weft, glints softly, flecks of color playing all through it. Seemingly random ridges or folds of material crease the surface. "Because stainless steel has a memory, more surface handling is part of the design," Wilkerson points out, reaching out and carefully scrunching the material. "Garments like these are one of a kind," she observes. "But what I've learned from them I can apply later on, and that's what really makes it worthwhile." There was nothing left to chance in her choice of weaves, fibers or designs. Even while tormented by how to make the steel or bamboo fibers co-operate, she distilled elegant new arrangements of shapes and textures that are as unexpected as they are pleasing. A design that resembles a zigzag brushstroke she liked for its linear quality. Another weave was created specifically to showcase the yarn: small jet-black cotton fibers that project above a luscious pale aqua boucle-like fabric surface. Still another looks sculpted in scrolling indentations. "The contoured surface of that was a really nice surprise," she says. "What happened was that the Japanese fibers didn't shrink when I washed it. A lot of people have warped with the properties of shrinking and not-shrinking, and you can get wonderful effects. This was unintentional, and I don't know yet where I'm going with it!" The lovely textures invite running your fingers over the surface, and all the fabrics seem to shed light. "I try to make the fabrics glow," she says, and a careful look reveals glimmers of shining threads submerged into the weaving. Wilkerson had the advantage of uninterrupted time towork, an opportunity many an artist struggles to carve out inthe midst of attending to the business end of earning a living.It was brought about by another transition in her life in 2001,when Wilkerson and her husband bought a cottage in a smallcoastal town in Washington and began spending part of eachyear there. "That's what was really nice about being in thenorthwest this summer," she notes. "It was a great incubationperiod. When I'm up there I feel removed from everything andit gave me a lot of time to really focus on this project."Moving back and forth between two homes has also ledher to rethink her career. Though Wilkerson has not attendedany American Craft Council shows in the past decade, thedemand from galleries for her production is plentiful, and shealso launched a successful line of custom interior upholsteryfabrics. She manages Joyce Wilkerson Textiles as well asdirecting the work of a group of outside handweavers and aseamstress. All of that may be about to change. Each year nowshe has to deal with the logistics of hauling fabric and yarn andestablishing another impromptu studio in Washington.The experimental weaving and design with the Japanese fibershas shaken things up. "This is not something I would normallydo," she reflects, "yet it's critical, it seems to me, to where I'mgoing. I feel like I can make choices now, and one of the choicesis to live in two places. That means I'm really going to have tolook at the scale of my business." For the time being, she plansto exhibit at the prestigious Atelier show in New York andrefocus on the creative aspects of her work.Not that she could ever forsake her craft. When she wassix years old, a little girl neighbor announced she was goingto art class, and Wilkerson said she wanted to go too. Thatstarted her, every Saturday of her life, taking art classes, andled to a fine arts degree from the Massachusetts College ofArt. Weaving took her passion for art to another level, as dothe people who appreciate and wear her pieces. "A friend ofmine asked me once, 'Couldn't you just make these thingsand not sell them?' My instant reaction was 'That's part of it!'Having someone else respond to what I create," Wilkersonexclaims. No matter where she heads or what far-flungterrain she travels, undoubtedly Joyce Wilkerson will returnwith more wonderful discoveries and woven enchantmentsto astound and delight us.