James Davis is a weaver, handspinner, and writer living in Denver, CO. He approaches fiber art as a meditative, healing practice that he has used to explore storytelling, community, and history. Currently, he is working on spinning 80 ounces of Navajo Churro fiber on a Navajo Spindle and weaving a series of tapestries that explore his connection to the Southwest Contemporary Tapestry Tradition. He is also a writer with Weaving Southwest. As part of that collaboration, they plan on writing and distributing a fiber zine telling stories about weavers, handspinners, natural dyers, and shepherds in the Southwest. James invited us into his home and makers space to share little about his practice with us, which left us equal parts humbled and inspired. Let's get to know James Davis together!
Tell us a little about your creative self. What inspires you to create?
I weave and spin yarn every day because those practices provide me a vehicle to heal and tell stories. Repeating those practices each day provides me a gateway that allows me to touch the depths of the human mystery where I learn about intention, emotion, and tradition.
My inspiration to weave started as a healing journey. My mom, who passed away in 2014, always wanted to weave. In 2016, I took a weaving class at the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center in Española, NM to connect to her memory and finish some of her unfinished business. Little did I know that weaving would become such a central part of my life and be a powerful source of healing. After that class, I took Tapestry Weaving and Weaving as Meditation classes with Sarah Neubert, which unlocked an everyday home weaving practice for me. Spending so much time by myself at a loom, I softened around grief and decided to start therapy to address what I came to find out was Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). As Sarah often talks about in her classes, weaving has the power to restructure and heal your brain in extremely beneficial ways. Prior to weaving, I avoided dealing with my mom’s death and refused to go to therapy. I now sit on the other side of getting help with my grief and OCD, which has dramatically improved my life. I can only thank Sarah and weaving for helping me.
Weaving has always had a power to allow people to tell stories about their experiences and the traditions they are connected to. In many cultures, textiles hold creation stories and are used in healing and rite of passage ceremonies. I share in that storytelling tradition in my weaving. I tell stories about my emotional landscape and my connection to my family and the Southwest Contemporary Tapestry Tradition. As someone who has always valued a grounded, place-based approach to art, I find such inspiration developing weavings that tell of my artistic journey to work in the same style as the weavers centered in and around Weaving Southwest in Taos, NM. My heart whelms up with pride and joy to think that I can use minimalism and repetition to tell fiber stories in this weaving tradition alongside the work of great textile artists like Rachel Brown, Teresa Loveless, Margaret Hermann, Kristina Wilson, Joan Potter Loveless, Fred Black, and so many others.
Tell us about the person/people who taught you to do what you do.
I am nothing without my teachers: my mom, Lily Schlosser, Sarah Neubert, Meg Kemp, Natalie Novak, Neil Goss, Teresa Loveless, and Lynda Teller Pete. I take who I learn from very seriously because I can see their teachings in every decision and motion of my hands. In short, I become their continuation. The minute I synch my breath up with my weaving, I am a continuation of Sarah. The minute I hold a beater in my hand as Lynda taught me, I become her continuation. Every time I spin yarn, I am a continuation of Meg. When I use hemp warp, it’s because Neil taught me the value and strength of that fiber. When I discuss my local weaving community, it’s because I learned to value community from Natalie. When I discuss the impact of Northern New Mexico on my practice, I am a continuation of Teresa and her grandmother Rachel. I may be a bit old-fashioned that way. Most people today don’t think of themselves in a creative lineage. Consumer, capitalist culture seems to reward artists/craftspeople that try to tell a story of how they are unique. However, when people think about my work, I would like them to see the traditions and creative connections I am embedded in. I think it is extremely healthy to subvert and provide an alternative to that tendency in our culture.
How do you identify most? An artist, a maker, a craftsperson, etc.
“One day we shall win back art again to our daily labour.” William Morris in his essay Art and Socialism.
I think of my practice as a constant circle that iterates between art and craft. For as long as I can remember, I had a burning desire to be an artist. Writing was my first expressive outlet, but it lacked the tactility that I wanted. I wanted to work with my hands and find a medium where I could express feelings that were ineffable. When I found weaving, I discovered, like Morris’ quote says above, a way to win art back into my daily labor in the nooks and crannies of my spare time. Having art as a daily practice feels like strong medicine in our society where virtually everything has a price. There is something so nourishing about having an outlet to express myself that has no function other than to help me explore skills, traditions, and ideas I am interested in. Art should be a fundamental human right.
Navajo Churro Fiber and a Navajo Spindle
I also have great respect for what it means to be a craftsperson. As I started to delve into the technical details of weaving and handspinning, I started to appreciate the incredible level of craft knowledge that goes into all the artistic work that I and other weavers produce. Most of my energy nowadays is spent trying to become a more proficient weaver and handspinner. As I expand my skill set, I will have more control over my work, which will open more possibilities to tell different stories. That is incredibly exciting to me and inspires me to take classes and experiment.
Highway 285 by James Davis (photo courtesy @engagedweaving)
What is the one thing you are most proud of from this year?
I somehow got a piece in an art museum. My piece Highway 285 was included in the Connective Threads exhibit in the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House. The exhibit will be up until July 1. It is strange to even think about something I made being in an art museum. Never in a million years did I think I would have a piece of art hanging in that context. My work has always been extremely DIY and personal. Before weaving, I whittled little boats out of balsa wood or made zines about the music scenes I was a part of with pictures from old national geographic issues. I figured my weaving would follow suit. One of the big surprises of my weaving journey has been people’s interest in what I do and my thoughts about the process. That interest is like a strong wind in my sails. It is deeply humbling to have people care.
James and Lily's Dog, Winston
What is your favorite type of fiber to work with and why?
In our fibershed, we have access to one of the best weaving fibers available: the fleece of the Navajo Churro sheep. I only use Navajo Churro fiber due to its superior weaving characteristics and its deep history in our fibershed.
The Navajo Churro Sheep has a deep history and tradition in Northern New Mexico and our region. Navajo Churro sheep were originally brought to the southwest by the Spanish in the 16th century. The King of Spain refused to let the conquistadors bring any Merino sheep to the Southwestern United States. Consequently, he made the conquistadors bring along the Churra sheep, which was much more common. Luckily, the Churra sheep’s resilience and adaptability was well-suited to the dry, mountainous environment of the Southwestern United States. That sheep was quickly domesticated by the Pueblo and Navajo peoples settled in the Southwest. The fleece of the Navajo Churro Sheep became central to the Navajo and Spanish weaving traditions in the Southwest. I am just one of the many weavers and spinners that have used Navajo Churro fiber in this area dating back to the 16th century. Connie Taylor wrote an excellent summary of the history of the Navajo Churro sheep that is available here if you want more information. The significance of that connection is very important to me when I source materials.
The Navajo Churro fiber remains important to the Northern New Mexico weaving traditions that are so important to me. Rachel Brown, one of the founders of the Southwestern Contemporary Tapestry Tradition, created a whole line of Navajo Churro weaving yarns to sell in her shops Weaving Southwest and the Rio Grande Weaver’s Supply in the late 20th century using fiber from local flocks in Northern New Mexico and Arizona. Teresa Loveless, Rachel’s granddaughter, continues that tradition today with the help of Connie Taylor. I source all my yarn from Weaving Southwest to support the local Navajo Churro economy in our fibershed. I want those flocks to know they have a local outlet for their fleece, and I want that fleece to remain available for the next generation of weavers. That is really important to me.
Is your creativity and making rooted in family tradition or is this something all your own?
I always say that my practice is a continuation of mom’s prolific fiber art. I have such a strong memory of my mom crocheting in the evenings while we hung out. Her output was voluminous, and she was engaged in drafting her own patterns and designs. I have three 5 ft x 5 ft crochet blankets, a sweater and a hat that she made for me. Not long after my mom continued on, I started to engage in my own fiber art practice in the evenings just like she used to do.
My mom’s blankets are an incredible inspiration for my own practice. Each blanket is all white with a border and bands of cables and bobbles interspersed at regular intervals. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my work is incredibly minimal and centered around natural, undyed colors. This is the color palette and design language my mom handed down to me via her crochet work. I have slept with those blankets on me for decades. That aesthetic has long since seeped into my consciousness.
In recent months, I have turned to those pieces to build my family’s woven language. There is something deeply meaningful about using my mom’s designs in my weaving. I feel so strongly about rooting my practice in her language. Since I don’t get to talk or learn from her anymore, speaking with her woven language feels like we are still in communication even though she has passed on. I recently tied my interest in stripes back to her work while staring at one of her blankets. That really made me happy to see how that part of my practice ties back to her work.
What does your “creative space” look like?
You know, I am a creature of repetition and ritual. I typically do the same thing each night when I get home from work or wake up on the weekend. I will first put on a record. Then I will burn some palo santo. I will typically spin some Navajo Churro fiber on my Navajo Spindle. I am slowly working through spinning 80 oz of Hovenweep Sheep Navajo Churro roving. Then I will start weaving.
I am very interested in crafting my sonic landscape while my wife Lily is extremely interested in our physical space. Lily designed our main living space. We are surrounded by items that have meaning for us, including art, books, records. I have a particularly strong attachment to four records while I am working, Steve Roach’s “Structures of Silence”, Miles Davis “In a Silent Way”, Explosions in the Sky “The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place”, and Dadawah “Peace & Love”. Of those, Structures of Silence is probably my favorite album of all time. I have been known to listen to the title track from that album for an entire day on repeat. Sometimes when I am riding my bike, I just hum the simple melody that loops on and on in the song. I find the song extremely soothing. In fact, I am listening to it right now. (haha)
What is your favorite thing about Denver?
My favorite thing about living in Denver is building fiber community through the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild and the Mountains & Plains Fibershed. I still remember weaving on a small tapestry loom at one of Lily’s markets when a past president of the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild invited me to their meetings. It took me a minute to build up the courage, but I eventually became a member of the guild. Through the guild, I got involved in our Mountains & Plains fibershed, which advocates for building our local capacity to develop clothing and textiles from all local sources within 300 miles. I always marvel at the resources we have available to us in and around Denver. That is even more evident at guild meetings and fibershed events. It is so nourishing to be surrounded by fiber people multiple times a month. It’s a constant source of inspiration to learn from the other folks in my guild; they are an infinitely talented bunch!
Who are the two crafters/makers you find most inspirational?
My wife Lily has been one of the strongest inspirations for my practice. Her minimalism, neutral color palette, and willingness to be vulnerable and honest are such strong influences on my own work. She is an incredible force of nature, and I marvel every day at what she has been able to accomplish. I would not have had the courage to walk down my path were it not for her example. I am extremely lucky to get to learn from her each day.
Ginni Seehagel is also a really big influence on my work as well. Her work has really prompted me to take a deeper look at the intricacies of the mundane and everyday features of my life. She mixes word, painting, video, and photography to produce extremely profound insights about the deep wisdom present in the natural world. I really cannot recommend her work enough. She really influences how I see the world.
Thanks for sharing so much of your life and practice with us James! To keep up with James, follow him @engagedweaving on Instagram