Spotlight: Anne Niles Davenport, Textile Artist and Weaver
Anne Niles Davenport took up weaving on a dare and immediately felt a connection. She has never repeated a piece, so every time you look at her work you will see something unique; every piece she creates springs from a new inspiration and follows a distinct path to completion.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
It was an evolutionary process that I wasn’t really aware of until I was well into my 40’s. I had taken some art courses in high school, but don’t recall having any sense at all of it being a calling. It wasn’t. Not even close. I was a somewhat geeky and athletic girl, headed for a liberal arts education. I still squirm at calling myself or hearing others call me an artist. Very uncomfortable.
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Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to textiles and weaving?
Oh good heavens yes! I think I began to learn to knit around the age of 7 or 8 from my Quaker grandmother and mother, started sewing in 4-H club at 9, made many of my clothes through high school and into college. Had to fight my mother often over my choice of fabric colors, even though I was spending my own money on materials, because I wanted strong bright colors and she wanted me to wear quiet subdued ones. Happy to say that I often won.
The knitting turned out to be a lifelong pursuit; I still knit for at least an hour every day. Much to the dismay of professors, I knit during college classes, and I used to knit in business meetings. I still knit in meetings of any sort and in many social situations.
During college, I began designing my own sweaters, largely because I got so tired of following patterns that more often than not had errors in them. And I hated sewing parts together, so devised ways to knit sweaters without seams, a practice I still follow. I have also done a lot of needlepoint, bargello, counted cross stitch, and spent much of eight years doing mostly quilts. So by the time weaving arrived in my life, I was completely comfortable with yarns and thread-bending.
How/why did you shift your interest to weaving?
It began as a kind of dare. I owned a small yarn shop in Hawaii, catering to knitters, weavers and needlepointers. I was designing and knitting art sweaters, selling them in a Honolulu boutique. One of my customers was a weaver who pestered me for months, saying that I needed to learn to weave. I resisted repeatedly. Not interested.
Finally, to get her to quit bothering me about it, I told her one day that I would let her teach me to warp a loom if she would allow me to teach her to knit. I was certain that she wouldn’t agree. But of course she did, and I was hooked from the beginning. I still have the first thing I wove, from way back in about 1982; my eventual aesthetic is perceptible in it.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? How does your environment influence your creativity?
More than anything else, color and combinations of colors are the foundation for all my work. It’s been that way since I was very young. Visitors to my studio, after walking through the large and complex garden, wonder if I am inspired by it. My response is that if so, it’s not directly. Rather, it’s the context within which I do my work; it surely influences me, but not in any way that I can easily identify.
I also love the interplay of color and pattern, and since I design all my own patterns I’m often able – in my best moments – to intentionally combine the two elements in ways that truly sing. I work in series, several pieces on a single warp, each different but clearly related. Each series has a name, often a reference to a thing or event or process in the natural world.
When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?
Most of my warps are made up of multiple warp chains, combining multi-colored hand-dyed yarns with each other and/or with solid commercially dyed yarns. It’s often the case that at least one yarn is textured.
The patterns I weave are usually complex twills which are designed using weaving software. I almost always use solid color weft yarns that will shift back and forth between blending and contrasting with the colors in the warps, so that the patterns I weave play peek-a-boo with the eye. Thus, it’s pretty nearly impossible to visualize exactly how things will look when they come off the loom. Which is a good thing, because if I knew ahead of time, the process itself – which is my great love – would be devoid of interest or mystery. At the beginning of a new series, I have a general idea of how the final pieces will look, but no clear picture in my mind. I am always glad to be surprised.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
Well, it pretty much doesn’t. My two razzle-dazzle computer-assisted looms take up a good portion of the main living space of this very small (815 square feet) house. The bookshelves behind them are now half books and half yarns. Knitting yarns are on shelves in the hallway and in a closet in the bedroom. Many more weaving yarns are in “the back room”, which is office/laundry/yarn storage. All the weaving yarns are visible all the time, and that’s what I absolutely need more than anything else to be able to envision possibilities. Having my work space in my house (a change from a former off-site studio) means that my work as a weaver is an integral part of my daily life; there’s little separation between the work and everything else. It’s always accessible.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My looms, absolutely. Two computers, each dedicated to a loom so I don’t have to move one back and forth. The weaving software I use, with hundreds of patterns filed there.
An unconscionably large collection of hand-dyed yarns, many from The Drop Spindle (now out of business) and scads from Kathrin Weber of Blazing Shuttles.
Several hundred cones of commercial yarns in tencel, pearl cotton, rayon, silk, and blends. Only natural fibers.
Three Schacht boat shuttles, one that I’ve had from the very beginning; they’re the only ones that have ever felt exactly right in my hands.
Lots of small tools like scissors, tape measures, tapestry needles and bunches of others.
Oh! And a heavy expensive electric bobbin winder, as well as an ancient many-times-repaired wooden swift and a couple of ball winders. There’s a LOT of stuff I need.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Often silence, which I find relaxing and soothing. If it’s music, it’s going to be “new age” (is there a better term?) or classical (Baroque especially). I don’t listen to audio books or podcasts; it’s too distracting, especially when I’m doing design calculations and pattern design on the computer. I’m often working out new designs in my head while I’m sitting and weaving, so talky-talky stuff impairs my ability to think.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
No sketchbook, but a journal which gets my attention intermittently, primarily to work out thoughts, problems, questions both in my personal life and in my work. The essential record is my weaving notes, kept in a binder that years ago was a fancy calendar holder. Leather cover, with my initials on it. Very solid and durable.
Every warp I have put on a loom for over 25 years has been recorded, with details about the yarns in warp and weft, information about the structure, colors, sett, the specific pattern woven on each piece, and other special considerations. I don’t very often go back and look at old notes, but there’s something deeply satisfying about knowing they’re there.
What do you believe is a key element in creating a successful weaving?
Knowing what the end use of the cloth will be, designing for that purpose, and using materials appropriate to the intended result. Also, knowing how the different fibers behave both in the weaving process and in the finished product.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
My characteristic work tends to be complex, combining multiple colors, fibers, and overlaid with long-repeat patterns. It could be described as “if a little is good, more must be better”.
Many traditionally-trained weavers think my work is kind of unseemly; it’s not at all the standard they have learned. Wearables, like scarves and shawls, always have the quality of luster, the result of the materials I use.
Workhorse items like kitchen towels also have a slight shimmer because of the use of fine pearl cotton in the weft, a departure from what most weavers use. I have been weaving for close to 40 years; I have never repeated a single thing. Every piece is unique.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I am certain that an inherent characteristic of being human is being creative. It gets trained out of most children in many societies, quite firmly, but the capacity is there.
Still, that’s not enough. To develop that quality, the individual has to put in the work – figure out what medium is appealing, learn the skills to work with it, and then persist in a practice that produces outcomes. And creativity comes in many forms and fields, not only what we think of as art or craft. My fundamental understanding of creativity is that it’s the process of inventing a problem, and then figuring out how to solve it elegantly.
When you have time to create for yourself, what kinds of projects do you make?
Oddly enough, I don’t. At least not woven items. I have never kept a single finished piece for myself. (I do knit sweaters and shawls for myself.)
Other people, weavers or not, are deeply puzzled by this quirk; so am I. As best I can tell, when a batch of new work comes off the loom, I’m finished with it. It no longer interests me much, I’ve solved whatever “problem” I’ve devised,and it doesn’t ever feel like it belongs to me.
Even when I’ve started out to make something for me, it ends up being sold; it’s just not something I want to keep and wear. I don’t even have any of my own handwoven kitchen towels, though I have a lot given to me by other weavers.
Why do you do what you do?
The most interesting question that visitors to my studio/home have ever asked me is “Why do you do this?” It’s very difficult to answer thoughtfully or fully; my quick response is usually something like “because I love the process”, or “because I love cloth and color and yarns”. But that’s just the surface, and wildly incomplete.
For the past year or so, I have been periodically writing down thoughts and memories I have that are connected to this question. I think it’s important and tantalizing, and it turns out that I enjoy digging deep to try to find my personal answers. It might end up being a book one day.
Where can people find and purchase your work?
My blog, where I post photos and narrative, Facebook, at RainShadow Textiles, Instagram, at Anne Niles Davenport, Website (under construction) – www.rainshadowtextiles.com and at my studio, by appointment.
Interview posted January 2020.
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