Western North Carolina Woman

lynne caldwell
by lisa horak

Sometimes our first impressions are right on the money.

Last year the first thing I noticed in my daughter’s preschool classroom was the bright, whimsical mural on the wall. I was charmed by a blue and purple house flanked by huge flowers, in the center of which were each child’s handprints. It was exactly what a preschool classroom should be: fun, inviting, happy, and warm. When I learned it was the teacher, Lynne Caldwell, who had created it, I knew that both the school and the teacher were going to be a good fit for my child. As a teacher, and indeed in all she does, her work embodies her true self. The art and the artist are one and the same.

I soon found out that painting murals is just one of Lynne’s many talents. First and foremost, she is a fiber artist, a weaver of extraordinary silk fabric called ikat weavings, which originated in Indonesia and Central Asia. By definition, ikat involves a complicated, multi-stage process. For Lynne, it is a labor of love. She mixes her own dyes, individually dyes each stand of yarn, and actually wraps and re-wraps (sort of like tye-dying) the yarn to create a resist—areas where the color doesn’t penetrate. After dyeing, the wrapping, is removed, and the procedure is repeated for subsequent colors. The colorful, patterned threads are then woven together on a loom. Sometimes Lynne embroiders the cloth to produces subtle changes to the colors. The final step involves wetting the cloth and “beetling” it by beating it with a mallet on a hard, smooth surface to give it the patina of age and distress.

If this seems labor intensive, consider the history at stake in each ikat weaving. They are special because they are historical documents as well as beautiful art. “Ikat was used in ritual and trade, with generations-old stories depicted on cloth. Long after the stories were forgotten, patterns and designs remained, linked to their origins,” Lynne explains. The stunning, vibrant patterns are recognized from village to village.

So how did this native of Atlanta, Texas, evolve into a nationally known ikat expert? Although she enjoyed art as a child, she originally wanted to be a teacher. She went to the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, where she studied English and art history, with a strong interest in fabric. She then received a Masters in Fine Arts in Fibers from the Savannah College of Art and Design. “I took a ‘History of Textiles’ class and I loved it,” she says. “I realized I needed to make art that meant something. So I decided to use my background in literature as the point of departure for my weavings. I try to visually represent a poem, so that even if the details of a story or poem fade from my memory, the mood remains.”

And maybe the English and the art are not so far apart. “There is a link between the verbal and the visual, since both rely heavily on metaphor and form,” says Lynne. The names of her weavings are as colorful as the cloths themselves: “The World Imagined,” “Look at Me,” and “As Far As Cho-Fu-Sa,” to name a few.

Lynne has received national recognition for her weavings. She has taught ikat workshops at The Textile Museum in Washington, DC and the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery, as well as at NC State University and East Carolina University. She has received commissions from UNC in Chapel Hill, Caldwell Memorial Hospital (no relation), the Freeman Center for Jewish Living at Duke University, and the Duke Medical Center. She has had numerous exhibitions of her work and has even made a Christmas ornament for the White House!

As is often the case, however, fate intervenes and alters one’s plans. When her son Graham was born four years ago there was suddenly much less time to work on her weavings. Ikats can take months or even years to complete, especially for a major commission.

Lynne and her family moved to Asheville a week before September 11, 2001, a day that prompted her to reevaluate her priorities. In an attempt to juggle motherhood and life as an artist, she began teaching pre-school (where she could see Graham and know he was in good hands) and giving art lessons. After a year she realized that although teaching made both dollars and good sense, she didn’t have enough time for her son or for her artwork. Time to go back to plan A: pursue her art and be a more present mom, and to find that delicate balance between creativity and financial security.

Now that she is no longer teaching, she is busy with a variety of projects that she works on from her studio in her home in North Asheville. Along with her ikat weavings, Lynne is illustrating several children’s books for friends and family, a collaborative process that she finds particularly rewarding. One book, entitled “My Mommy’s Midwife,” will be published in Spring of 2004. Lark Books is including her work, along with that of several other artists, in its book “The Artful Egg” and one on decorative t-shirts.

Perhaps most exciting, Lynne and fellow Sewanee alum Jodie Williford have started a company called “Two Friends Off The Wall.” Together they paint murals (often in children’s rooms) and faux finishes in houses, as well as signs for commercial spaces like Va Bene downtown. In addition, they also make jewelry, custom pillows, and other decorative objects. “We are having so much fun,” says Lynne. “We feel like we can do anything. We have such similar interests and talents and we love to bring our creativity into people’s homes. We may do a job twice if we’re not happy with it the first time, but we know we’re eventually going to get it just right.”

With her unique style and wide range of talents, Lynne is a busy woman. Still and all, ikat remains her passion. “My dream,” she says, “is to have a lot of commissions for weavings and painting projects, and to have lots of time to hang out with my family.”

Contact Lynne Caldwell at caldwelldugliss@charter.net.

Lisa Horak is a stay-at-home mom raising two young daughters, Molly and Isabel. She has written for non-profit organizations and is the co-editor of Heart of the Land and Off the Beaten Path, a fiction and non-fiction anthology of nature writing for The Nature Conservancy.

[ horak@charter.net ]

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