Missoula weaver embeds spiritual, personal messages into her work

May 22, 2017 GMT

As a weaver, Bonnie Tarses has noticed how her art form is used as a metaphor for coming together.

“It’s what community is,” she said. “It’s a ubiquitous word. It’s used as a metaphor for bringing together disparate elements and making something that’s a synergy, that whole concept is beautiful. That’s what it’s all about.”

Tarses, 75, weaves on looms at her home studio here in Missoula, keenly aware that around the world people weave not for pleasure but for food. And so she tries to use her skills to reach out to her own community.

Tarses’ latest works, “The Eight Pillars of Joy,” were inspired by a book by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in which their concepts are literally woven into the design.

She’s always been inspired by textiles from cultures around the world, especially ones that “use cloth and thread to convey messages, especially in cultures where there isn’t a written alphabet.”

She began using “color horoscope” weavings in the 1970s, in which she takes a person’s horoscope and translates it into color by superimposing a color wheel over the horoscope. It wasn’t a far stretch to adapt the alphabet using a similar system: She assigns a color and number to each letter of the alphabet (A equals 1, Z equals 26) and then “spells” a word in tints and shades.

For her latest works, the eight pillars are divided into two categories. The pillars of the mind are perspective, humility, humor and acceptance. The pillars of the heart are forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. Tarses wove one scarf for each, embedding the message into the color scheme.

The material, too, holds meaning. As someone who makes clothing with her hands, Tarses is keenly aware that most people don’t think about how — or where — their clothes are made.

So she made her pillars with recycled cashmere. She developed the idea in the last five years of her mother’s life, when her mom couldn’t knit anymore. Tarses wanted to find her a yarn-related activity as a substitute.

“I started to collect old cashmere sweaters. I would take them apart and she would wind them into balls,” leaving Tarses a stock of cashmere to weave with. Her nickname for it is “outstanding moral fiber.”

“Somehow by putting eight hours of time into taking apart a sweater, I felt like I was undoing some of the karma that goes along with ruing the cashmere industry” in Asia, where low-cost sweaters are churned out in poor working conditions.

Elsewhere in her “Eight Pillars” exhibition at the Artists’ Shop, Tarses shares works with her own color horoscope, some in handsome wall installations. A particularly stunning piece, “Gathering Over Time,” features 50 different samples of color horoscope commissions from 20 years, arranged in a row of 12 narrow scarf-like forms, measuring 31 inches wide 72 inches long.

Two framed pieces show off her interest in a Guatemalan pattern called ikat, involving tie-dyed yarn. “Siobhan’s Mandalas,” two framed pieces with rectangular designs, have the look of geometric abstraction art.

Knowing her path

Tarses grew up on the East Coast. For college, she enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design to study clothing design. During her freshman year, she was on her way to have lunch and took a wrong turn into a studio filled with looms. She was so struck by the sight that she went and changed her major, without having tried her hand at weaving once in her life.

“When I was 19 years old, as many people spend their whole lives looking for what they want to do, I said I know what I want to do. I want to be a weaver,” she said.

Tarses, who gives workshops around the U.S. and Canada and teaches privately, is on her third stint living in Missoula. She first moved here in 1966 to put her then-husband through graduate school. After a few years back East, she returned and spent most the 1970s here before moving to Seattle in 1980. It was 30 years later when western Montana beckoned once more.

A friend in Polson told her about the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, a spiritual center on the Flathead Indian Reservation. There were plans to have the Dalai Lama himself come to consecrate it, and Tarses wove his horoscope in a piece to be auctioned off as a fundraiser.

She returned to Montana in 2010, and soon was under way with another community project at the Hangin’ Art Gallery in Arlee. She set up a loom for a month, where 78 different people contributed to the weaving of peace banners. The Jeannette Rankin Peace Center invited her to do a similar project.

Origami cranes emerged as another community art project. She originally began folding and hanging them on her porch to keep pigeons away. A friend introduced her to the Japanese concept of Senbazuru, a thousand folded cranes hung on string that permit the maker to wish for a friend.

“At the time, I had a friend who was quite ill, and I decided I would fold a thousand cranes for her with the wish that she would not suffer,” she said.

That led to a crane-folding project in 2015 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, which in turn led to a regular Wednesday folding group. They’ve made cranes for the Har Shalom Synagogue after the distribution of anti-Semitic pamphlets in the weeks after the presidential election; and another in which they folded cranes and solicited donations for the Standing Rock protesters.

She’s considering her next community-minded weaving project.

Her work is still greeted by some with a sense of surprise. No one spends too much time thinking about how clothes were once made. In some sense, she said, it’s anachronistic.

Some weavers use computers to program their patterns, but she does hers by hand, falling into its particular rhythm.

“I believe that weaving is a very spiritual practice,” she said.