Weaving a new career
Teacher rediscovers her 'artsy' side -- and a latent love for dyeing and working with hand-woven textiles
Ann Robinson weaves a scarf in her home all her scarves are dyed and woven by hand. (Autumn Cruz/Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Last summer, however, she had to ask herself a question all too familiar to people with long careers that come to an unexpected end: "Now what am I going to do?"
Robinson, 64, became a statistic of the teaching community. After 40-plus years teaching linguistics on campuses including the University of Wisconsin and Stanford, she found herself without a classroom -- a victim of budget cuts at the University of California, Davis, and Sacramento City College.
"I'm originally from Berkeley, with two grandfathers who served on the faculty," she says. "There's this built-in institutional loyalty. Teaching was my life."
A year later, Robinson answered her own question by rediscovering her "artsy" side -- and a latent love for dyeing and working with hand-woven textiles.
In a twist, the artist's scarves and wall hangings -- all made from natural fibers such as cotton, silk, bamboo, even soy -- have become teaching tools.
"When the economy didn't rebound after the first of the year, I started volunteer work at the Women's Wisdom Project in (Sacramento's) Oak Park," Robinson says.
The program, offered through the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, offers free classes to women to bolster their self-esteem.
Robinson had the teaching skills, and the program didn't have a weaving class. In May, the teacher-turned-artist held her first weekly class at Women's Wisdom; the number of students varies, with 10 to 12 on average. (She now teaches two days a week.)
"I'm really offering the basics because I'm still learning myself," Robinson says. "And I like that I'm helping women who've been shattered by poverty or abuse, working with them through the medium of art to get them feeling good and confident and back on their feet.
"That's my driving force."
Robinson says the women in her classes have created small woven squares (20 total). The squares were sewn onto three 1-by-6-foot panels to create one piece that's 3 1/2-by-6 feet. The artwork will be shown Nov. 14-15 at the Sacramento Center for Textile Arts exhibit at the Shepard Garden & Arts Center in McKinley Park.
Helen Plenert is program manager for the Women's Wisdom Project. She says volunteers like Robinson bring something special to the women who come to the center.
"Some are sculptors or painters. Ann is the first to teach weaving," Plenert says. "Helping others through art is the goal we share."
Patricia Bechtold, a life coach and personal counselor with her own Sacramento business, Bechtold LifeWork Strategies, says women like Robinson are having to expand their definition of "career."
"Career represents progress in life," she says, "and it's also about what a person can control."
Bechtold applauds Robinson for allowing herself to do a variety of things that increase her satisfaction and sense of meaning.
"The industry she was in might have changed," she adds, but Robinson "still identifies herself as both an artist and a teacher."
In addition to teaching the classes, Robinson continues to be her own work in progress.
As an artist, Robinson spends more than 20 hours a week at home with her three looms. Her raw material, including Tencel (which she calls the "green fiber of the 21st century"), comes from suppliers in the United States and Canada.
Each scarf is one of a kind. The cotton versions are the least expensive to make and sell ($145 to $150); all silk is the high end (pushing $200).
Felicia Strati, owner of Felicia Strati Boutique in midtown Sacramento, has featured and sold Robinson's scarves and says they're a nice complement to the clothing lines she carries.
"What I like about her scarves is that they're hand-dyed and hand-woven. You don't find this personal craftsmanship anywhere. It's a form of art." Strati says.
Robinson, who also is a cancer survivor, says she has that "Peace Corps kind of mentality."
"It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but I believe in community service and helping others. Art is a good way to express that."
(c) 2009, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).