“I’m horrible at this,” my mother confesses in a low, anxious voice as I slip into the studio seat beside her. “Everyone else is getting it. You’ll get this right away, Alison. I’m so behind.”
A yarn ball-sized snarl forms in my stomach. This is all my fault. On my recommendation, we are taking the inaugural offering of Monica Setziol Phillips’s frame loom weaving workshop together, but I am truant, slipping in late after missing the first half of the first day to facilitate Sitka’s mid-year board of director’s meeting.
“Oh, Mama!” I offer with as much tenderness as I can quietly express, instinctively reaching out and putting a hand on her slender shoulder, feeling guilty for not being there for her from the first warp thread and unsure how to untangle the mess I’ve created. I should have known that weaving has a steep beginner’s learning curve! I should have anticipated how technical an art form it is! I should have remembered that, as a mechanically uninclined, introverted, left-hander, learning how to weave would not be a relaxing undertaking for my mothe—
And then Monica appears.
Like all gifted teachers, she arrives discretely at our sides at just the right moment: patient, unapologetic and trusting, holding our mother-daughter team capable. With practiced fingers and without judgment, Monica ties off a first weft thread and demonstrates how to carry a stabilizing pattern out across the loom. Before we think we’re ready, Monica hands over the reins so we can learn by doing.
This is why I wanted to take Monica’s weaving workshop with my mother. It wasn’t about the weaving. It was about how deeply Monica’s learn-by-doing teaching style reminds me of my mother’s own gifts as an elementary school teacher. Throughout my childhood I watched with awe as my mother met each child in her care where they were and without comparison. From reluctant readers to voracious savants, she held each individual she served as whole and created a safe space for each young person to learn in their own way and at their own pace.
On day two, I abandon my loom so my mother and I can work side by side on hers, with her serving as our left hand and me as our right. With fresh eyes and conviction, we assess the peaks and valleys in our uneven rows from the day before and decide to try filling in the wibble-wobbles with complementary colors to create a clean, level start for learning new stitches. Monica works her way to our table and cocks her head to the side as she examines our beginner’s work-around. “Good idea,” she encourages, and leaves us to keep experimenting.
My mother takes the creative lead, choosing crimson and coral yarns as I batten the beginnings of a sunset into our tabby-stitched skyline. Something has sparked. We are no longer learning how to weave in the abstract. We are making something we are excited to be making and learning by weaving.
On day three, Monica shares a list of “creativity ingredients” that have surfaced through group conversation during our workshop:
It is a good list.
Later, as my mother and I sumac-stitch a textured cloud layer into our sampler, Monica shares a quote from sculptor and interdisciplinary artist Isamu Noguchi: “We are the landscape of all we know.”
“It’s a potent insight when you think about it,” Monica introspects. “What is my landscape? What landscape am I building?”
Later in the week, I visit Sitka’s summer youth workshops in action as part of Nestucca Valley K-8’s four-week art and science day camp. Like Monica’s workshop, the kids have also been participating in three-day immersive experiences led by working artists. Aiden, who is going into 9th grade in a few weeks, is immersed in making a photo essay book with guidance from photographer Mike Vos, curating his best images of foxgloves and arranging them on the pages to create a visual narrative. “My character is me, only evil,” David, a 2nd grader, shares with glee in a comic book drawing workshop led by cartoonist and graphic novelist Jonathan Case, inking in the bars on his own jail cell. The gleam in his and his character’s eyes foreshadow an ingenious breakout.
I hope you feel a shared sense of joy as Sitka’s Youth Program begins its third school year this fall. Through your membership and annual operating support, we are now serving over 1,300 rural Pre-K-8 kids with art and nature-inspired school-based workshops. I am inspired daily that the “landscape” we are building together in this community includes arts and nature access and opportunities for beginners and experts of all ages to work and learn immersively, side by side.
“I do believe that the crafts are profoundly important,” Monica reflects in the week following our workshop, “and we need to do what we can to preserve and promote them. So I have a renewed interest in teaching people to weave and carve.”
In addition to her Sitka teaching, you can learn more about Monica Setziol Phillips’s own rural youth arts advocacy work here.
Grateful for all Monica and Sitka are teaching me about life’s ins and outs and the power of the arts to strengthen community.