Zati masks and simplified weaving occupy two Towles Court gallery spaces
The current course of Susan Barrett Merrill's artistic career came to her in a dream.
And not just a dream that said, "You will be a weaver," because she already was. No, this was a very specific dream, in which the exact method by which Merrill would create handwoven masks and headdresses was spelled out.
The masks are just part of "Weaving a Life," seven weaving projects that Merrill uses in her work as a fiber sculptor, teacher and certified life coach.
Merrill is artist in residence this season at the textile arts gallery recently opened by Danish weaver Kathleen Keenan, who recently relocated to Sarasota from Massachusetts. Keenan owns two gallery spaces at Towles Court, one of which she uses as a private weaving studio specializing in the Saori method of handweaving, and the other as a gallery showcase.
Merrill's masks, which feature lifesize but semi-abstract faces woven two-dimensionally, are surrounded by huge, fantastic hand-felted headdresses that beg to be touched. The pieces sell for several thousand dollars apiece.
"I realized these are about identity," said Merrill, who makes her primary home near Bar Harbor, Maine, where her spinning, hand-dyeing and weaving is all drawn from natural sources nearby. She developed a series of what she calls "keyforms," which begin with amulets, representing conception, and moving through bowls (birth), dolls (childhood and your future self), the "belt of power" (adolescence and life choices), masks (identity), bundles (mature life) and shawls, which by being worn are given form by their wearers.
Merrill will teach a five-week class, "The Heart of Weaving a Life," from Jan. 9 to Feb. 6.
The workshops move beyond teaching basic weaving skills — the faces are woven on the simplest of wooden handlooms — into truly therapeutic ground, said Merrill.
"We realized this work really changes people's lives in a very real way," she said.
Merrill herself creates one mask series each year. The work appeals to collectors of tribal art.
"What I love about this work is it allows you to use a lot of different techniques in a small way," she said, pointing out a particular braided and felted edging on one of the masks.
Her mask-weaving has also led her into study of the role masks play in various cultures. In America, they are seen as concealing, whereas in many other cultures they are "exceedingly valued, the center of the culture."
Keenan invited Merrill to Sarasota after she took one of Merrill's "Weaving a Life" classes.
"Susan's work is so spectacular, and there's something really magical about Susan as a person," said Keenan, who has opened the only Saori weaving studio in Florida. Saori is a combination of the Japanese words for zen and weaving, and was established by Misao Jo as an "improvisational, contemporary art form." The technique and looms are far simpler than the typical multi-harness looms handweavers have used for generations.
Keenan, who has a large collection of traditional looms in Denmark and in storage in Sarasota, originally bought a Saori loom in 2005 for its portability.
But, she said, it quickly became her "partner in spirit. It never failed, never had any of the usual glitches that I encountered with my regular looms. I eventually I came to love all the Saori tools as they are tools with a twist, not understood until you actually work with them."
SUSAN BARRETT MERRILL’S WOVEN MASKS are on display in the Carriage House Gallery, 1947 Morrill St., Towles Court Artist Colony, Sarasota, through March. Weaving a Life workshops are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays; for more information, call 366-8284. Free weaving activities are at noon Thursdays through December, followed by spinning at 2 p.m. Open houses are from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. For more information on SAORI Weaver SRQ, with private classes by Kathleen Keenan, call 855-347-3674 or visit www.saorisarasota.com.