Richmond’s Andrea Donnelly is redefining a centuries-old craft.
Watching Andrea Donnelly weave, creating cloth out of thread, is like watching a skilled organist at work as her bare feet push pedals beneath the loom and her hands move deftly above.
On this day, 864 warp threads, each 60 feet long, are tightly suspended between two roll bars on one of Donnelly’s looms. The warp’s counterpart, the weft, is wound around a bobbin in a wooden shuttle, which resembles a tiny kayak. With a push of a pedal, Donnelly lifts a set of warp threads, creating an opening, and with her left hand whips the shuttle through the gap, across the width of the loom, spinning out the weft. Pushing down on a different pedal, she lifts another set of warp, flings the shuttle the other way, and continues the crosshatching process.
The technique is laborious but the lanky, 34-year-old Donnelly revels in the intricate process that is weaving – the thread counting and tying, the dyeing and painting. The appeal of weaving, she says, is that it is tactile, like playing a musical instrument. “It is repetitive and rhythmic, and you can watch your body interact with the machine in a very interesting way.” She calls the cumulative effort that goes into one of her cloth creations “an intense personal meditation.” Though she works with wizardlike alacrity, it takes days or weeks to finish a project.
Based in Richmond, Donnelly is both an artistic and commercial weaver. Over the past several years, she has made a name for herself producing high-concept art – large-scale cloth wall hangings – as well as luxury scarves. Straddling the contrasting worlds of art and commerce can be tricky, but Donnelly is pulling it off. Last March she displayed a collection of her painted woven cloth art at the Work Program Architects Gallery in Norfolk’s Monticello Arcade. And there will be two more exhibits later this year and early next, in Richmond and Raleigh. The other side of her studio practice, her scarf business, supports her artistic ambitions.
The Raleigh native was majoring in psychology at North Carolina State University before switching to design as a junior. “I kept seeing all these kids walking around with their sketch pads and thought, ‘Gosh, that looks awesome,’ ” she says. “That year I decided I was supposed to be an artist.”
Weaving was her first studio class – and, she says, it captured her imagination. She went on to earn a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, and received two Windgate Fellowship grants from the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design in Asheville. Today Donnelly and her husband – whom she refers to as “a normal worker guy” – live in a condo in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, but she shares her art studio with an energetic pit bull mix named Huey. There she has three looms that she has named the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria – a play on her artistic explorations. Each is dedicated to a specific project.
On one she is busy making works for her first solo museum exhibition, to open at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art this month. It will feature large-scale woven cloth panels made of natural and dyed cotton – some featuring human figures, others abstract blot patterns and colors that evoke water, sky or landscapes.
On a second loom Donnelly is crafting two large works for the inaugural exhibition of VCU’s Institute of Contemporary Art, to open in Richmond in the spring. The short story The Garden of Forking Paths, by Argentine writer Jorge Louis Borges, inspired the architect, and so Donnelly is incorporating excerpts from the story into the large cloth panels that will be her ICA works. She will, she says, “transcribe text onto the cloth, pull the cloth apart and then weave it back again in a way to obscure the text, so that it is not legible.” She has done this
before. She is intrigued by the idea of returning words to “a less defined” state, of a story doubling back on itself. More practically, the technique “plays with our imaginations – it is up to readers to fill in the blanks based on their own experiences and the works.” The panels will be all-cotton thread, “and I envision them hanging in space … with this translucent quality. Depending on the viewing angle, they will be see-through or opaque.”
If it is not already apparent, Donnelly is no old-fashioned craftswoman. She’s an artist who weaves, seeking, she says, intellectual meaning, an aesthetic, in her creations. In her view, weaving does not get its due as an artistic medium. For that reason, she says, “It is important that my work be understood as capital-A art.”
Her third loom is dedicated to her fashion scarves, which she started making in 2010 as an alternative to teaching. A stack of them sit on a shelf in her studio. Most are oversized and willowy, made with a natural cotton (from a mill in North Carolina) combined with a luxury fiber, typically silk,
merino or alpaca. The cotton, she says, “has a wonderful sheen and a wonderful hand” – how a material feels when held. She describes a few of her colors as black cherry, spearmint and mist lime, adding: “I seem to name colors based on food.”
She sold about 70 scarves last year, but her focus isn’t on quantity. “My scarves are about the beauty and uniqueness of each one. They are created as art objects and meant to be experienced on the body, with the idea that they will become meaningful heirlooms.
They practically melt to the touch, but it’s good that they don’t. They cost between $480 and $1,200. Though she has participated in select, high-end craft fairs for a few years, she’s moving now toward New York trunk shows, which would let her create more custom scarves for clients.
Hand weaving is “an exacting, orderly process,” Donnelly says. It can take up to nine hours to weave a scarf, for example, and that doesn’t count the full day it takes to count the threads, the two to three days it takes to put the thread into the loom, and the upwards of a week it can take to dye a pattern.
A new series of scarves can take five weeks to produce. “Andrea plans her work in advance and to great detail,” says Caroline Wright, an independent curator in Richmond who has worked with her. “There are different weave patterns, different palettes, hand-dyeing. It’s really Old World processes, even for her scarves. Her craftsmanship is extraordinary.”
For Donnelly, cloth is so elemental and mundane, in one sense, and yet also offers so much visual potential. “It represents basic human needs like protection and love, and it is also a rich, expressive medium to use as an artistic tool.”
Susan Iverson, formerly head of VCU’s textile program, praises Donnelly’s technical ability and her passion. “She does things that I would have discouraged a lot of other students from doing, because they are daunting. There is this wonderful marriage
between her ideas and her technique and her ability to make her work look effortless. It is extremely difficult and yet she makes it look easy.”
At one time, Donnelly suffered a minor crisis trying to create both art and commercial products. She’s moved past that issue, no doubt owing to her busy schedule and increased recognition. “I’ve become more comfortable with the nebulous world in which I work,” she says with a smile. “It’s a lifestyle choice, a slow process to develop an identity. It is enriching.” Those who see – or wear – her work might say the same.