This story begins two years ago, with a ticket to "Object Runway," a raucous contemporary fashion show organized by the International Gallery of Contemporary Art and held at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub. Before even settling in and sipping my beer, I encountered the students. They were sitting in my row and in the row in front of me, all jittery and excited; they had pieces in the show.
How did you do that? I asked.
"We're in Keren Lowell's class. At UAA. She makes us enter."
My first reaction was pleasant surprise. How cool is it that academia connects students to something as freshly subversive as this grass-roots fashion show. If you've never seen Don Quixote in hockey pads and ice skates, or a woman trussed in birch bark, or a full dress constructed of red plastic cups, you've never been to "Object Runway."
Their class was Fiber Structures. Fibers are a discipline -- right along with sculpture, painting, print-making and photography -- within the fine arts curriculum. Mariano Gonzales, chair of UAA's arts department, says that offering a variety of disciplines secures accreditation with the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. UAA holds the only one in Alaska. In the post-college work world, a school's accreditation defines the quality of a student's arts education.
But that doesn't mean the fiber arts program isn't lonely at UAA. It has only one adjunct professor and about 15 students. More than a dozen looms, including a computerized one, live off-campus at 707 A St. in downtown Anchorage, kitty-corner to the Anchorage Museum and right next door to the new Covenant House.
The studio began decades ago in the Fred and Sara Machetanz Building of a Valley community college. Sara was a weaver, and the art building funded by their donation included a well-lit, spacious weaving and fiber studio. A local Valley artist named Vickie Cole ran the program.
Times change; new ideas intervene. The Valley community college became an extended campus of UAA and, over time, the weaving looms migrated south to UAA, into storage. They emerged briefly in a small space at the Sunshine Mall, and for the last three years, on A Street.
I visited a weaving class last week to find out why students pursue it, and how and why Lowell teaches it.
Jillian Anderson of Seattle is a 20-something junior/senior with blonde dreadlocks twisted into a frazzled bun, tips died bright pink.
An environment and society major, she found her way here through anthropology, and a personal fascination with textile dolls crafted by the Chancay, a pre-Columbian civilization along the central coast of Peru. The textiles intrigued her, and talking to friends about them led to a fiber studio visit.
Now she's learning to weave, and even entertaining a plan with a friend to travel to South America and establish a fair trade business raising alpacas, spinning yarn and working with locals to create commercial outlets for their textiles.
Another student, Rylyn Hughes (maker of the red plastic cup dress), will soon finish her degree in art with a minor in psychology for a career as an art therapist. She wants to work with children who've been traumatized, or the elderly with dementia.
I asked Lowell why she teaches weaving and fabric construction, a skill that might seem dated or even forgotten in our fast-paced, instant gratification world.
Employed by the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Lowell shows work across the state and Outside. She earned her MFA in fiber from the Art Institute of Chicago, with an emphasis in installation and conceptual work.
During the summer, I've come across her Mobile Mending booth at the Spenard Farmers' Market. That seasonal money-maker gave rise to a new workshop idea: Fabrica Arctica, personalizing Alaska clothing standards like Carhartt or fur or quilted fabric in the contemporary DIY vein.
"Students come in here and do hack jobs on their clothing all the time," she says, a reaction against consumerism and the sameness of mass-produced fashion.
She would like to involve students in the Anchorage Maker Space community too, like the Decon/Recon group that meets most Sunday afternoons during the school year. Textiles, she hopes, can soften this technical world and make its many versatile tools available to a broader audience.
She unwraps a small piece of deep-blue felt. She's stitched onto it a tiny Arduino computer about the size of a vanilla wafer, called a Lily Pad microprocessor. It runs on a watch battery. She's writing code for it to blink and fade tiny lights stitched elsewhere in the fabric. It may work its way into a future "Object Runway" piece.
Fabric art and computers seems like an unusual mix, but as it turns out, they're old collaborators.
The Jacquard power loom of 1801 based fabric designs on a pattern read from punched wooden cards. Paper punch cards evolved as information keepers and made the 1890 census faster and more accurate. That technology gave rise to the IBM we know today. Even the "hanging chad" from Florida's 2000 presidential election is a remnant.
To Lowell, fiber has no boundaries: "It's all about taking knowledge from one arena and using it in another."
Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.