Late bloomer weaves a new career in art

CorrespondentApril 3, 2010 

  • Name: Ann Roth

    Wares: Woven wall textiles

    Location: Raleigh

    Contact: 559-4130,

    Prices: $1,800 (for 20- by 50-inches) and up

    Where to buy: Tyndall Galleries online, Chapel Hill, 942-2290; Hodges Taylor Gallery, 401 N. Tryon St., Charlotte, 704-334-3799; and directly from the artist.

    Where to view: Chapel Hill Town Hall through April 29, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill, 968-2749, Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ann Roth is both an arts veteran and a beginner.

For several decades, Roth, 59, has been immersed in the arts. Since 2001 the Raleigh resident, who is married to John Coffey, deputy director for art at the N.C. Museum of Art, has been gallery director and adjunct teacher at Meredith College. Before that she held administrative and curatorial positions in galleries, arts organizations and universities.

But only in the past decade, and especially the last two years, has Roth devoted a good deal of time to her own art - hand-dyed and woven wall textiles.

A collection of her latest work is featured in the Juried Exhibitions Series at Chapel Hill Town Hall, up through April 29.

"I guess you could call me a late bloomer," Roth said with a laugh. "I have no regrets about these side trips or wanting to be there when my children came home from school."

Roth, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., was drawn to fiber arts from an early age.

"I got into textiles by way of my grandmother, who taught me to sew. That got me into making my own clothes, all the way through college. I loved the fabrics, colors, textures," she said.

"I especially loved the Vogue patterns because they were complicated. They had details and intricate structures."

Roth, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts, has worked in several mediums, but textiles won her over.

"I loved holding the fabric in my hand," she said. "That's one of the reasons I don't paint. I like to hold and feel the cloth."

It was at a weaving workshop with a basket maker that "everything came together," she said. "That was the moment I turned into a weaver. I bought my loom in 1975 and have used the same one ever since."

In the 1980s, Roth worked in Vermont as director of a nonprofit craft center, and then in Maine, where she helped start a gallery. It was in Maine that she met Coffey, then curator of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. They moved to Raleigh in 1988, when he was offered a position at the N.C. Museum of Art.

"In 1996, when both our children were in school, I finally felt liberated enough to start focusing on my art," she said. The couple's sons are now 18 and 21.

From humble cloth

For years Roth had an idea brewing in her mind, a way to turn the traditional rag rug into fine art, accentuating color and pattern.

"I'd decided I would make rugs that were really beautiful and artistic. Well, it turned out that they took too long, and then people said, 'Oh, I could never walk on that. It's too nice.' "

So Roth took her technique and applied it to wall hangings.

Instead of feeding yarn into her loom, Roth uses strips of cotton fabric. The pieces that run lengthwise measure a half-inch across, while the crosswise fabric is even wider, from one to three inches.

Well before she begins to weave on her loom, Roth applies color to a white cloth that acts as her canvas. Before she cuts the lengthwise strips, she dyes the entire piece of fabric using a Japanese process called shibori, the precursor to Western-style tie-dye. Shibori creates patterns by wrapping, binding, folding and clamping the cloth.

For the crosswise fabric, Roth first measures out the strips then dyes those using another Japanese resist-dyeing method, called ikat. Weaving together the warp and weft - the lengthwise and crosswise strips of cloth - she constructs a composition of color and texture.

"I use the strips of cloth as you would a piece of yarn, feeding them to the loom," she said.

Planning her patterns

Before Roth dyes her fabric, she plans her abstract designs.

"Sometimes I sketch it out with colored pencils or markers and other times I actually paint paper with colors and cut those into quarter-inch pieces and weave them together to get an idea of what it will look like," she said. "I do a lot of mathematical calculations for patterns. I've developed some formulas, including some Excel worksheets where I can just plug in the numbers."

Still, she's never sure what the outcome will be.

"Once I get it on the loom, it's really cool because it doesn't always work out the way I thought it would. It can be like Christmas: a big surprise."

Color is central to all of Roth's work. Using the dyed strips, she can layer or diffuse color in fascinating ways.

"When you look at the world, the first impression you get is color," said Roth, who teaches a color theory course at Meredith. "It's an energy source for me. I like subtle combinations; I like bold combinations."

Color draws attention

Viewers also note her use of color.

"People do seem enthralled by the combination of color and the overlap of warp and weft," she said.. "I've been grateful to get a lot of praise."

Still, she said, textiles are simply a harder sell than other mediums. "I don't know if it's people's perception about what is art, but it's a lot easier to sell paintings."

Roth most recently has started to work with corporate collectors and interior designers.

"Really it's just been the last year or two that I've begun to sell these latest weavings," she said. "It's taken a while to build up a good body of work that has a cohesiveness about it. It's been a slow progress, but good. I'm very excited about it."

Another reason for Roth to be excited is her trip next month to view Central Asian textiles and techniques in Uzbekistan, which has a rich tradition of weaving and embroidery. The visit is being partly financed with a grant from the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County.

"The Silk Road ran right through Uzbekistan, and they have a strong ikat dyeing tradition and industry," she said. "I really want to see them in action."

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