Vermont Textile Artist Karen Henderson
Text by Julie Dugdale
Karen Henderson’s artwork isn’t what it seems at first glance. From a distance, the canvases look as if they were layered with brushstrokes in muted, natural shades to create delicate landscapes: a fog-shrouded field or a forested path or a sunrise over a pond. Each is hazy yet familiar, like a vision in someone’s dream. But a few steps closer and you realize the evocative imagery isn’t simply painted on a canvas: it’s woven cloth, hand-dyed, stitched, and sometimes layered or pieced together to create the rich texture of a moment in nature.
The Montpelier, Vermont-based textile artist has been fascinated by fabric since childhood, when she’d watch her mother sew and her grandmother knit and relish a trip to the fabric store to lose herself in the endless colors and patterns. Henderson studied fine arts and immersed herself in batik—an Indonesian cloth dyeing method that uses wax resistance to create patterns on the fabric—then studied textile design at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. After a stint designing for a wallpaper company, she ran two fiber studios in a New Jersey craft center, where she worked on a loom—the jumping off point for her art today.
Henderson begins by making her own cloth. Starting with plain, neutral yarn of different weights and textures, from linen to silk, she decides how wide and dense she wants the fabric to be and “dresses the loom” accordingly. “I really use the simplest process of weaving,” she says. “Basically, I’m creating a canvas. There’s so much you can do on a loom to create the imagery—but I’m not using it that way.”
That’s because she likes to craft the imagery herself by hand, stitching and layering to control the textures in the material she built on the loom. “If I’m using a simple fabric, I can achieve a different visual quality I can’t bring with a loom. I can really push the textures a little further.”
Once she has her canvas, dyeing is next; Henderson selects from techniques like batik or shibori, a Japanese method similar in concept to tie-dyeing. Instead of looping rubber bands around twisted fabric, she accordion-folds her cloth and runs it through a sewing machine before dyeing it then ripping out all the stitches. “It’s like a Christmas present,” she says. “You’re dying to see what it looks like when you open it.”
Depending on the piece, she might use the entire swath of material or cut it up and combine it with a few other fabrics of different qualities. “Silk and cotton will take color differently, which is exciting,” she says.
So what drives all this weaving, stitching, and dyeing? In a word: nature. Sometimes she takes photos—quiet moments in special places—for inspiration. “I’m trying to capture things that are not substantial, but rather, fleeting and ephemeral, fuzzy around the edges,” Henderson says. “I find fog really beautiful and mysterious. It’s metaphorical.”
That dreamy, misty vibe comes through in pieces such as Storm Lifting, Early Winter, and Almost Twilight—each a part of a series grouped by themes such as Elements, Light, and Reflect.
Fueled by the deliberate rhythm of textile work that lets her achieve just the right effect in the image, she calls it “a way of marking time.” Currently, she’s experimenting with mixed media, using tools such as colored pencils for added texture and depth, and considering more technical woven structures like lace-weaves.
Henderson’s work hangs in several corporate and private collections around the country, but she particularly enjoys personal commissions. “I get to visit a spot that has meaning for a person, and based on interpretations, come up with an image for that. I get to bring it to life for them.”
The best part, she says, is that her textile images help people experience those special moments in time and nature even when they’re inside their homes. “I hope people connect with my art on a level that’s emotional, from their own place, wherever they are,” the artist says. “There’s a calmness to all the things I’m drawn to. That’s also what I hope people are drawn to in my work. That it brings them to a little sanctuary.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: To see more of Karen Henderson’s work, visit karenhendersonfiber.com.