Warp and weft: MUW offers a rare opportunity to learn a timeless art

February 20, 2010 9:03:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


It may have been an intricate spider web, or perhaps a sturdy bird''s nest. No one is quite sure what inspired early man to experiment with weaving, but archaeologists think it''s probably the first craft developed by humans.  


In spite of mechanical advancements through the ages, there is an humble reverence in knowing the essence of the process remains unchanged from its ancient origins. 


Fiber arts students at Mississippi University for Women seem to appreciate the history behind the craft they are learning. In a bright room filled with floor looms, six weavers -- four female, two male -- focus on creating large scale projects that will eventually measure 5 to 8 feet in length.  


The most prominent sounds are the efficient whumpfs of the looms'' beaters as they tighten the weft, or horizontal yarn, interlacing with the warp, the lengthwise fiber. Each sweep of a beater brings the artist''s envisioned design infinitesimally closer to revelation. The concentration is palpable. 


The weavers raise and lower their loom''s harness with foot treadles. They systematically pass wooden shuttles loaded with colorful bobbins of yarn back and forth within the "sheds" formed between the upper and lower warp threads. In a complex tapestry weave, the rate of progress is about one inch per hour. This is not an endeavor for the impatient. 




Chosen ones 


The students'' instructor in this timeless art is Professor Tom Nawrocki, now in his 40th season at the university. The master printmaker has been teaching fiber arts for about 25 years. Betty Dice taught weaving there before him. The school is rightfully proud to be the only university in the state to offer a fiber arts weaving curriculum.  


"The W art program is an historic one. In the 1960s, the fine art building constructed here was the only building constructed specifically for the visual arts on a state campus," Nawrocki notes. 


"On my very first day of (fiber arts) class each semester, my comment to the students is, ''You are the chosen ones,''" smiles the professor. "They have a unique experience that all other students in this area don''t have."  




Visible progress 


Within a few months, fiber arts protégés move from the embryonic to competent stages in weaving rapidly, says Nawrocki. They study paper weaving, an "off-the-loom simulated weaving experience," and explore the work of professional fiber artists. 


Classes are offered at night, and there are no prerequisites; any age can enroll, non-students included. But, with a limit of 10 looms, classes are first-come, first-served. 


After learning to thread the loom, students create samples of four common weaves -- tapestry, plain, twill and tubular. 


"They experiment with colors and textures," the instructor says. "And they make as many errors and mistakes as possible so that once they start on their large-scale wall or space hanging, they''re what I call ace weavers." 




Work in progress 


In class, Mary Mitchell is deep in thought at her loom threaded with soft hues of pink, greens and sand. Quiet and still, the Amory native focuses on how to incorporate the assortment of charms and trinkets she''s collected into her weave. 


Nearby, Shirley Boudreaux of Blue Mountain, an advanced student, is working on her third space hanging. Two others measuring 8-feet in length are on display on the third floor of the MUW Art and Design Building, along with finished pieces by other fall semester students. 


The senior studio art major deftly handles shuttles of green and maroon yarn. 


"It''s peaceful," she says of weaving''s allure. "I can come in and do this and lose myself." 




Artistic freedom 


Nawrocki steers away from what he calls "professor projects," in which the instructor dictates size, material, imagery, and theme. 


"I''m a firm believer in freedom of expression, giving students the ability to develop personal symbols and move in their own unique direction," he states. He pushes his protégés to foster a personal style. "I like to call it an edge. An edge is, you do something you enjoy doing, and you do it better than anyone else." 


Whitney Langston chose to weave a 6-foot tall self portrait, vibrant in yellow and green. The studio art major began by projecting a photo of herself onto a large sheet of butcher paper.  


"It did get a little difficult around the eyes, because you had to change colors so many times," the junior from Glen said. "It got a little challenging, but I was very pleased. I felt relieved when I got it done." 




Going public 


Nawrocki is generous with praise for students'' work, past and present. 


"They produce some fabulous pieces; I would call it professional quality," he says. 


Some go on to submit finished pieces to the prestigious annual Mississippi Collegiate Art Competition. 


"Through the years, we''ve tended to dominate the fiber arts category," said the professor, whose own artistic work, fiber arts included, have been exhibited in more than 400 shows nationally and internationally. In December, he acquired yet another award, when an original print took honors at the North American Print Competition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. 


"The beauty of fiber art is that it has such a great tactile quality," he says, his enthusiasm apparent. "It doesn''t matter whether the piece is subject art, or a realistic image or a pure design, simply shapes.  


"I like to think I teach undergraduates and teach them like graduate students, giving them the freedom and the opportunity to produce gallery quality art." 


The mentor challenges fiber arts students to stretch their imaginations, in vision and weaving design. 


"After all," he smiles, "if it''s too easy, it''s not worth doing."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.