In the spirit of Women’s History Month, I write of Esther J. Kolling. It is time to begin telling her story…
As an artist, you have to find what speaks to you. --Esther J. Kolling
Fiber Artist, Esther J. Kolling, had an infinitely curious mind that lead her to create works ranging in techniques from macramé, sprang, and basketry, to ikat, double weave, complex weave-structures, inlay, and tapestry. During the 1970’s – 1980’s her award-winning works were exhibited nationally at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City and at the Denver Art Museum, as well as regionally at Midwest Weavers Conferences and Kansas Artist Craftsman. Esther Kolling was also my mother.
When I was about 3 years old and Esther Kolling was in her late 30’s, she discovered her artistic leanings through ceramics, mosaic, drawing and painting classes that she took at the local college. During the height of the 1960’s, she pursued her masters degree in art education over the course of six summers at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and at the end of each summer, she transitioned back to her life in small town Kansas.
How difficult it must have been to go from the spirit of the 60’s in full swing, classes that stretched her, and studio space to work in to none of that. There was no separate room available for her to work on art in our 800 square foot home totaling five rooms: the kitchen, living room, bathroom, my parent’s bedroom, and the bedroom my older sister and I shared.
Esther often did art on the kitchen table or at the living room desk during the day while my sister and I were at school, or late at night, after everyone had gone to bed. I remember going to sleep to the sound of the brayer squeaking while she made wood block prints. She also kept taking art classes at the local college, to have access to studio space, and stay artistically active in between summers.
Toward the end of her degree, she joined the Wichita Weaving Guild. There she discovered her love of fiber: macramé, sprang, vegetal dyes, spinning, weaving, and later complex weave structures, ikat, and tapestry. Soon I was joining her in slow drives along country roads, helping to collect dye plants growing along the ditches and on hillsides. The house began taking on the peculiar odors of dye bathes out of mullen, coreopsis, sedges, walnut hules, onion skins, and marigolds. Evenings would find her carding and spinning wool.
She made a place for her 48” width Macomber loom after measuring an area on the edge of the living room that bordered the kitchen. She removed a chair and shifted over a plant stand. Not a room of her own, in the sense of Virginia Woolf, but an area for her to work, with light from the west picture window.
I was fascinated by watching her weave, and wanted to learn. She showed me how to warp up a cardboard loom and the basics of over and under, gave me an assortment of yarns and a large needle, then left me to explore on my own. When I finished that weaving, she put together a frame loom out of canvas stretchers for me. I was all of ten years old, and I felt a kinship, a contentment when weaving tapestry that I never before had experienced. I loved how my hands could make hills, valleys, angles, and shapes in the warp. As my mother learned new techniques, so did I. By the time I was in my early teens, I was her teacher’s assistant in the community continuing education classes she taught at the local art center. Together we taught macramé and non-loom techniques, as well as beginning weaving.
Over the years, Esther Kolling taught workshops in dyeing through the Wichita Weaving Guild, and weaving at Southwestern College. She regularly juried into and won awards in the Kansas Fiber Directions exhibitions, as well as the War Eagle Arts and Crafts Fair in Arkansas. Her gallery representation included The Sign of the Acorn in Wichita, Kansas and later in retirement, the artist coop gallery in Socorro, New Mexico.
Esther Kolling’s creative process involved working from sketches or a thumbnail design, taking a small section and expanding it or superimposing it onto another design. The composition would evolve and change as she kept working with it. At the loom, she would add or delete design elements as she wove.
In the tapestry, Flight, she used slits to create vertical lines, and combined woven shapes with some irregular hatching, using both commercial and her handspun yarns, as well as weft bundles of varying textures.
In Reflection, her vertical lines are woven and double-weft interlocked. She blended via weft bundles of her hand-dyed yarns with some pick-and-pick and irregular hatches.
Later in life, after moving to Socorro, Esther Kolling’s entire townhouse became her studio, filled with multiple looms, spinning wheels, an extensive textile library, and a sizeable yarn stash, with inventory including her hand-dyed wools, cottons, silks in varying weights and quantities. These she kept saving for “special projects” that she never lived long enough to create.
She had six years in this space, exploring a range of techniques in textiles from Africa, Japan, Indonesia, Peru, Guatemala, and the desert Southwest. Her later work became a blending of ethnographic elements into her own designs and sketches, evolving an idea through many steps until it became a reflection of her own consciousness.
After her death, I sorted through the 57 file boxes of yarn she had in her stash. Her hand-dyed yarns are now part of my inventory in my studio, which is about the size of the house I grew up in. I make sure to include something from her “special projects” stash in each of my tapestries, so that her artistic legacy continues in the flow of yarn that her hands touched and now passes through mine while I weave.
I find myself drawn to the weavers who sat behind looms in other times and places. I like what the individuals made for their own use in prehistoric times, and what we can learn from them. You can’t separate the ethnographic textiles from the cultures of their people. I’m drawn to this because of the mastery these people had. When I’m weaving, my mind seems to merge with the mind of the weaver who’s work I am studying. I appreciate their minds, their patience, their mastery, their hands…
Esther J. Kolling November 19, 1925 – January 5, 2000