50 Years STRONG: Thousand Islands Arts Center Celebrates Years of Creative Development

Thousand Islands Arts Center executive director Leslie Rowland.

BY: Leslie Rowland, TIAC executive director

The direction the institution took toward handweaving can be traced back to its first dean, Emily Post. Post, a retired educator, and weaver from Princeton, N. J., summered in the Thousand Islands. In 1966, 44 students assembled to learn the art of handweaving on looms either purchased or loaned from a group of Princeton weavers. The following year, there were 100 students and “lightning!” as a surviving note from Post indicates, referring to the museum literally being struck by lightning. Very early on Post was able to engage nationally known instructors in teaching at the school, establishing a high quality of instruction which is the institution’s past and present, and also its future.
    Post designed the colorful Thousand Islands Tartan, and gave TIAC the rights of reproduction. Post retired in 1976, and at the age of 71 she lamented “I only wish the school had been started ten years earlier, and I could have stuck with it longer…I have a feeling this was the thing I was meant to accomplish from the beginning.” And what Post accomplished was incredible.
    In only four short years the Craft School had thoroughly outgrown its space within the TI Museum and in 1969 purchased its own campus, the 1850 home and carriage barn of faith healer, Antoine Tetrault, located at 314 John St. in Clayton, where it remains today. Within the Arts Center there is a dedicated handweaving studio in memory of Post, complete with more than a dozen looms. Weaving classes are offered during the summer and projects by the Wednesday Weavers, the museum’s unofficial guild, continue throughout the year. TIAC maintains a year-round heritage arts curriculum for all ages and skill levels as well as an onsite pottery studio. Yet handweaving remains at the heart of the institution, and nestled within the second story walls of this faith healer’s home, the miraculous did happen – there grew one of the preeminent collections of 20th-century North American handwoven textiles, books and archival materials, rivaling that found in any major institution. At the nucleus of this gem is the Berta Frey Collection.
    In 1972, the Craft School changed forever when Berta Frey, author of Designing and Drafting for Handweavers left her collection from a long life of designing and weaving to the school. Frey, an occupational therapist at Walter Reed Hospital, recognized the benefits of handweaving for relaxation and therapy. The Berta Frey Memorial Library was established in her memory.
    As news spread of the Handweaving Museum being the repository for Frey’s collection, other donations from prominent weavers in America’s renaissance of handweaving were accepted. In the early 1970s, Emily Belding, a Philadelphia industrial textile designer, bequeathed her collection of more than 2,200 items. This was followed by Elizabeth Trelow, collector of early American textiles, who donated over 100 handwoven 19th-century American fabrics in the late 1970s. Then, in 1981, came Marjorie Ruth Ross, master weaver and teacher, best known for her “500 Treadlings” piece. Finally, in 1982, Myra Young, weaver and world traveler, donated her collection of textile books. Comprised of nearly 1,800 volumes from various periods and written in numerous languages, many of the books are rare and out of print. With these and other promised donations, the Handweaving Museum found itself with an impressive foundational collection.
     Yet these amazing collections did not just arrive at the doorstep. It took the thoughtful planning and persistent dedication of countless volunteers alongside Post and Dee; women like Elizabeth Haxall, Margaret Gosier, Betty Wilson, and Betsy Eppolito gave their time, knowledge and resources. Yet, no person has been more dedicated to the institution over the past 50 years than Sonja Wahl, Curator Emerita. Wahl, a Golden Guild master, couturier, and master seamstress, has been instrumental in the Handweaving Museum since its inception. She was chair of the board and curator, and continues to oversee its fruition today. In 2016, the Sonja Wahl Archives was named after the woman that has spent more hours meticulously caring for the collection than anyone.
    Wahl and her contemporaries worked to preserve and give voice to the women of the 19th and 20th centuries that were the pioneers in the renaissance of American handweaving while bringing this small but significant collection to the height of museum standards. In 1982, the Thousand Islands Craft School was granted a provisional charter under the New York State Board of Regents. This, in turn, opened up opportunities for funding and in 1985 the institution received its first grant to hire a consultant to catalogue its budding textile collection. By 1986, over 200 weavers comprised the collection. In 1990, an absolute charter was granted, making it a 501(c)(3) educational institution.
    In order to further raise awareness about the museum and encourage and promote the study of handweaving, the Historic Weaving Manuscripts Conference was founded in 1994. Its mission was to provide a forum for the discussion and study of early weaving manuscripts and patterns, their creation, development and transmission. The name was changed to the Weaving History Conference in 2005 to include all areas of study in the fiber arts and this conference is held each May.
    As awareness continued to grow, so did the collection. Founder Elizabeth Haxall, Lucille Landis, Lurene Stone and Mary Snyder left significant collections to the institution. Another significant collection is that of Ruth Holroyd, a student of Mary Snyder, who succeeded Mary in the role of director of the weaving studio at the Chautauqua Institute. Holroyd served as technical advisor to the Handweaving Museum and continues to support its collections work annually. Along with her vast collection of handwoven materials and notes, Holroyd donated her outstanding collection of Peruvian textiles acquired throughout her years of study and residence in Peru. The work of such landmark weavers as Klara Cherepov and Theo Moorman are included. To date over 20,000 items from around the world comprise the collection and the principle focus continues to be the work of important 20th-century North American handweavers.
    The Handweaving Museum shares the living history of handweaving through woven samples, clothing, hangings, color studies, looms, tools, books, periodicals, personal, national and international studies, historic documents on textiles, studio notes, curriculum materials, photographs, correspondence, and scrapbooks, articles, and information on the craft before the publication of trade magazines. Indeed, that is one of the unique features of the collection; this museum not only collects finished pieces, but also studio notes and samples. These items reveal the creative process used by handweavers to build upon traditional methods and develop new modes of expression, thus giving the researcher clearer insight into the mind of the artist.
    As TIAC celebrates its landmark 50th anniversary, the future is bright. Continuity and strength in the board of trustees, staff, volunteer base and community involvement are all essential to a thriving museum and these components are the foundation for the Handweaving Museum. New challenges on the horizon include finding solutions to its space constraints as well as to make its collections storage facility completely climate controlled, to bring the entire collection into one central location, to continue digitization of its growing collection and to secure space and resources for a permanent textile exhibition. Each year greater physical and intellectual control over its special collection of 20th-century North American handwoven textiles is gained, enabling it to become more accessible and known to the next generation of fiber artisans and handweavers as the unique resource it is.