At home with the fiber artist, who
fell in love with the Valley landscape
By Madeleine Ahlborn | firstname.lastname@example.org
photos by Madeleine Ahlborn and Chrissie White
ON Oct. 19 I drove out to the prairie south of the Sand Dunes to meet with artist Chrissie White. I “met” Chrissie on instagram, actually; her handle @thelonesomeweaver came up as a suggested friend so sent a request and explored the work she had posted.
Upon arrival in the sand and sage brush, the wind was blowing a wooden wind chime. The sound was paired softly with a spaghetti western soundtrack coming from the inside of her tiny house. Chrissie and her partner have been building their home since they moved to the San Luis Valley in May 2021. She gave me a brief tour of the house. I turned 4 times and had a view of the one-room house with a table sitting in the middle of the space. This is where we sat for our conversation that felt more like “catching up” with a far-away-friend rather than meeting for the first time.
WE talked about the space, the house, her time in the Valley thus far, art practices, mentality around work vs. life constructs and there were other parts and pieces to fill the gaps. One photograph she posted on her instagram was of the windows that hold the south facing walls of the house. “These are the old gym windows from the highs chool from somewhere around here…I had to replace like 18 of the panes. I learned a lot
about glass cutting, all of them were this hand rolled glass which is cool. You can see one of them broke, there was a huge haboob (sandstorm) and I think I will replace it with a piece of colored plexiglass, maybe orange plexi.”
Chrissie’s main art practice at the moment is focused on learning about fiber arts (weaving) and continuing her passion for photography.
Let’s rewind her story…
“Art photography was my thing, still my thing, I was determined to make money at it, then ended up getting a commercial photography degree in Seattle,” she said. Growing up near the coast and mountains of Washington state, Chrissie has always felt a close connection to the landscape, which innately inspires her photography practice.
Artists always seem to have a “day job” to help support their art practice. Chrissie tells me a little of her experience working luxury retail and upholding a studio practice at the same time: “As I was doing that I did have a commercial studio with a friend in Seattle. We were mostly doing still-life product-type things and music videos and then I just didn’t want to live in Seattle anymore, I didn’t want to live in the city…”
Here comes the change…
“My good friend that I lived with – I lived with like 6 other people – one of my roommates said, ‘I found this farm (she is an artist) in Port Townsend, which is on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington.’ There are lots of artists and farms and people who are living off-grid and trying to be more sustainable.”
Seems like a perfect opportunity for learning and change and the start of a new adventure. Chrissie tells me that this was really the break-away from the area where she grew up and also the start of discovering a new realm of her identity. Hold that thought we will come back to in a moment…
White learned to take care of sheep and process sheep fiber.
‘I had been getting interested in weaving because my mom is a big quilter, sewer, she had a loom and she does crochet too. So, I went to the farm and learned how to take care of sheep and process sheep fiber. I lived there for about six months, then worked on another farm nearby after that.”
Chrissie is very much a seeker of unique opportunity and goes where those opportunities present themselves. I got the impression right away from how she spoke about farm work that she is very in-tune with the seasons and lives her life in a seasonal manner. That winter she traveled to Hawaii and worked on a coffee plantation.
“I was disillusioned with the photography industry at that time, I was really just focusing on farming and doing something that I felt was a bit more meaningful than commercial photography.”
As artists and as human beings we change all the time, our interests change based on surrounding context, visions for projects and work we want to do changes. It is a natural process everyone goes through even though we experience change at different rates.
Let’s pick up that thread of Identity from before…
We can think about Identity in different ways, we give ourselves titles: Artist, Nomad, Seeker, Writer, Teacher, etc. But we don’t have to limit ourselves to a single identity. Because of how often we can change what it is we are doing or where we are going, it widens the lens for experiences to shape who we are as individuals. Then, there is the identity of how others see us. When change happens it can feel more abrupt for the person who knew us as “this” and not “that.” Expectations of upholding a certain Identity can make us feel trapped.
”I started photography around age 12,”
Chrissie said, “and there were no expectations, so I felt like I was able to be really free. I think doing commercial photography really killed that for me, and working for other people.”
Let’s talk about pressure for a moment in relation to identity. Blahh I hate pressure, either deadlines or feeling pushed into a corner or pressure from peers or clients, yuck.
How do we get away from it? How do we let go?
“I feel like when I relinquish that identity of ‘I’m a photographer, this is my life’s work’ it has allowed me to explore other art forms… I can still be a photographer and just do it when I feel like it, just take the pressure off.”
Let it go, don’t take it (yourself) so seriously that you get trapped in a single identity. There is tension and anxiety around this idea, at least I feel like the tension is there, because we cling to our identity to keep us grounded in a way that gives us “purpose,” right? Or are we just floating around near one another making seemingless connections and relationships?
“When I moved to the farm and away from the city where I grew up, I also moved away from the expectations people had of me, and that I had for myself. Everyone knew me as that person. That I was going to be this big-shot photographer, but it just didn’t work out that way for me. I don’t know if my style changed or I didn’t know how to open the right doors after a certain point, or if I even wanted that life, so I was stagnant for a while.”
This kind of separation is powerful and Chrissie brings to light the notion of making art for the sake of art, leading to the act of compulsive making. “For me, weaving is more of a meditative process. I just make things and maybe later on find a meaning in them. In the making I don’t have a concept in mind, it is just a compulsion to make whatever is in my imagination.”
Explore, explore, and explore some more.
“I never thought about Colorado as a state that I’d want to move to, which is funny because I love the southwest. On all my trips to New Mexico and Utah I’d always just drive through Colorado. I never really explored it until last year when I moved to Denver to hang Christmas lights… well, I moved to Salt Lake then I was sent to Denver a few weeks later. Not a bad winter gig; Denver is where I met my partner”.
‘Tis the season to hang lights and be merry. Chrissie said she did not love this job at all; in fact, she is not a fan of the Christmas holiday due to the oversaturated commercialism that surrounds it. The story moves forward as her partner is looking for land and voila here is the introduction to the construction of their life in the San Luis Valley.
In May 2021 Chrissie and her partner began building their tiny house. This is when she began her full-time practice in weaving. “I am still learning a lot. I’ve been doing commissions, but I don’t think I’ve found my ‘true voice’ yet.”
Most of her sales are direct to consumers via her Instagram account, mainly because she does not have the stock to start an Etsy shop or approach galleries. “I make the work with the expectation that someone else is going to have it, so it’s easy to let them go. I don’t know if it’s because I’m making it with that expectation or if the objects feel like gifts.”
Left: A wool and cotton piece inspired by the Great Sand Dunes.
Right: ‘As Above So Below,’ a hand-knotted rug in black and white.
SELLING artwork is a different process for all artists and it is a question that I love asking because the artist-to-art relationship can vary across all mediums. “Someone once told me the best gift you can give someone is a blanket, and I’ve thought about that a lot: you’re giving someone the gift of warmth.”
Many weavings are landscape-based or pictorial tapestries; the work varies in size and, like Chrissie said, most of her work is commissioned right now so she only had some small coasters to share with me and raw material that she was dying with natural elements.
“Over the last few weeks I’ve been experimenting with dying, natural dying, I actually have some on the stove I should probably take off.”
Chrissie explains the process a little or at least the materials she uses to dye the wool.
“I’ve been using roses, they work really well. Rabbit brush is only super good when it’s in bloom. Oh and onion skins, so I’ve been trying to eat a lot of onions. They make this orange color which is the brighter onion skin and this brownish color is the purple onion skin. You can turn it purple by adding lemon juice or lime juice.” She pulls out two smaller weavings to show me the color differences and explains the mordant (allum, copper, tin, or ash) that allows the dye to bind to the fiber.
Expanding on her experimentation process, she compares it to film photography in a scientific sense of chemical reactions. “As I got older that playfulness and experimentation has been harder for me to pull out of myself. This is
where dying has been really fun because it allows me to let go.”
I had a few more questions before we parted ways:
Creative Citizen: How has life been now that you’re here full-time while your partner is in school?
Chrissie White: I’ve slowly transitioned away from my loneliness. I’m a pretty social person, very socially energized. I’ve gotten used to my solitude now, I have my spaghetti western soundtrack to keep me company. It has afforded me a lot of time to focus on my artwork, the less I socialize the deeper I can get into my art so I try to remind myself of that. This winter though I may have an apprenticeship with a fiber artist in Fort Collins. It seems like I will be able to work with her part-time then come back to visit, because I miss it here when I’m gone.
CC: Is there a through line in your weaving or your photography?
CW: I fell in love with the landscape of the Southwest on a road trip with some friends in 2015, it is just so inspiring to me. I spent so much time making pictures that were very much constructed. I would imagine a scene, if that makes sense. Then when I came to the Southwest all my pictures became about finding a landscape and inserting a character or story into that particular landscape, whereas before it was the opposite, I was inspired more by a character and how I could build a landscape around them.
CC: Do you see yourself as this character that has been inserted into the landscape, this scene of wonderment?
CW: Well I came up with this idea of the Southwest when I would visit, what it would be like. Maybe I do have a romantic fantasy about it in some ways. I asked myself, “what if my fantasy gets ruined if I’m there all the time?” I hate getting “used” to something. So I don’t know.
CC: We’ve been talking about time and place. Is there a certain amount of time it takes to identify with a place?
CW: To find my identity within a place? Like, my identity in relation to a place or just myself?
CC: Identity in relation to a place.
CW: Maybe it depends on the space. I connect very much with the landscape but I was struggling because I didn’t have friends, and I’m not used to that. I think you have to become familiar with the seasons, the way a place changes in a day even. That’s why I feel like I need to live here in the winter to have a full scope of what it is and who it is…
I don’t think you can get to know a place, or know how you relate to a place until you’ve been there long enough to witness how it changes over time.
THIS struck me in a profound way. To some degree, we understand the habitual cycle of how we evolve through contextual change but it is humbling to be in an environment that supports this idea on a daily basis. How we add to that understanding can be created in so many ways, art (I believe) is a huge part of this, not only in tactile objects but also through meditation, conversation, and experience.
“In that aspect, Mt. Blanca is right there, I’m watching it and it’s watching me, and I can watch how it changes. Having a lack of people to be around, I’ve attached myself to the mountain and the plants…these are my friends, they love me and I love them.”
To see more of Chrissie White’s work visit her website: chrissiewhite.com
Follow on instagram: @thelonesomeweaver