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Fabric of Her Life 

Fiber artist Lydia Van Gelder has spun, dyed and woven her way through 96 years of living

the arts | visual arts |

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Courtesy Lydia Van Gelder Warp and Weft: Retired SRJC instructor Lydia Van Gelder sees the yin and yang of life through art.

By Patricia Lynn Henley

Lydia Van Gelder's hand moves gracefully through the air as she talks, first pointing left, then right, then off at a diagonal. Her gestures deftly illustrate her point that weaving goes actively in many directions, as does life itself.

"As things develop, some go in this direction, some in that. Whether you're doing warp or weft, all these things enter into it. I could always see the possibilities developing into another direction," Van Gelder explains. "That doesn't mean that the direction we left has died. No, it's just that there are others that have developed."

Whether it's patterns in fabric or patterns in living, there isn't one right way, she adds. It's all a matter of possibilities, relationships and choices.

"You work with dark and you work with light, and then go back and forth and back and forth. But then there's a time when they come together. That's true of most all the things we ever do in life."

Now 96 years old, Van Gelder has literally spent decades exploring, developing and promoting fiber arts. One of her first major pieces, a heavily textured wall hanging titled Houses on the Street, was displayed at the Pan Pacific Exhibition at the 1939 World's Fair on Treasure Island. It's now part of the permanent collection at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

Van Gelder took such techniques as tatting or bobbin lace, which were traditionally used in small, delicate projects, and applied the same skills but with coarser handspun fibers on a larger, architectural scale. She also did extensive research and experimentation with natural and synthetic dyes. Three separate times she was chosen as one of 10 artists representing the United States in fiber exhibitions in Japan (Kyoto in 1987, Tokyo in 1988 and Nagoya in 1989).

In addition to teaching spinning, dying and weaving at Santa Rosa Junior College for 26 years, she was instrumental in starting spinning and weaving guilds throughout Northern California. Over the years, Van Gelder presented lectures and fiber workshops worldwide, and wrote two books on her specialty, the resistance dying process known as ikat. In 1994, she was honored as a Sonoma County Living Treasure in the field of visual arts.

This month, the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild honors Van Gelder with a small retrospective of her work in display cases at the Frank P. Doyle Library at Santa Rosa Junior College.

"Our problem is that we could only get a few pieces in the display cases. Lydia's work could fill a gallery," laughs Suyin Stein, who is organizing the exhibit and opening reception for the guild.

Stein adds that it's astonishing what Van Gelder has accomplished in 96 years.

"She really has been a major player worldwide in fiber arts," Stein explains. "It's amazing that she lives right here amongst us. Lydia's work is timeless. Some of it was made 50 years ago, but it's as contemporary as if it was made yesterday."

The pieces chosen for display range from wall hangings to the deceptively simple potholders and wildly colorful socks that Van Gelder has been knitting in recent years, often using yarn she has spun and dyed herself.

Socks and potholders may seem like rather prosaic items for a fiber artist, but they let Van Gelder explore patterns and designs without the strenuous activity needed for weaving, explains Kay Elsbree.

"She's enthusiastic about fiber in all forms, whether it's art or practical," Elsbree says of Van Gelder. "She wants to see it done and appreciated."

Elsbree is part of a group that took Van Gelder's class for two semesters (the maximum allowed by SRJC) and then wanted to continue, so they've met weekly in each other's homes ever since. Van Gelder joined the Tuesday night group after she retired from SRJC a decade or so ago.

Van Gelder was a wonderful teacher, always encouraging her students, says Sui Gouig, a member of the Tuesday-night group.

"If you ever ask her anything, she'll say, 'That sounds good, try it,'" Gouig laughs, adding, "She's always been our leader and our inspiration to keep going and trying new things. We just really treasure her."

Asked how many pieces she thinks she's created over the years, Van Gelder laughs and says she lost track long ago. She started experimenting with fiber as part of her formal art training in the 1930s at the San Francisco Art Institute (then called the California School of Fine Arts). She married Homer Van Gelder in 1936. They settled in Lodi, moved to Fresno in 1950 and to Santa Rosa in 1963. They had three sons.

"As a child, I remember climbing through the pedals of her large loom," recalls Roger, her third child.

Her husband ran a trucking venture, then worked for the state managing various farm associations. She began teaching at SRJC in 1968, and her classes often had a waiting list of eager students. Her husband was one of her strongest supporters, and after he retired, he spent a lot of time hauling gear and helping her set things up. He died in 1992.

She's remained active in retirement, but in recent years has made a few concessions to aging. She's gotten rid of her looms, which require a lot of physical activity, and concentrates on knitting instead. "It's easier to carry a pair of knitting needles than it is to carry a loom," she laughs.

She no longer drives, but when she can get a ride, she still attends the Tuesday-night group, the monthly guild meetings, and a weekly knitting session at a local bookstore. She eagerly displays the new potholder she's starting, using circular needles and a tricky double-knit method.

"See this?" she asks happily. "This is starting the patterning. It's dark and light. This is how it all starts.

"Such is life," Van Gelder adds thoughtfully. "We get variations and we look into that, and one thing leads to another and things develop."

As is often true, her words apply both to fiber arts and to life in general.

"There's never anything perfect or just right. It's always a little of this and a little of that, and each in its own way also makes and brings out an issue. You have to relax. Never fight a situation; just face it and see."

The opening reception for Van Gelder's exhibit is Wednesday, April 9, in SRJC's Frank P. Doyle Library, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Free. 4pm. Her works will be on exhibit in the library's display cases throughout April.

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