“How long have I been here, Carol?” asks Casilly Woll (pictured above with her classmate Gabriel Rumeto in the background) as she sits at a Saori loom in a Honolulu Museum of Art School classroom, her taupe spectacles gently sliding down her nose. “Forever and six days,” replies Carol Lerseth from across the room. Woll giggles.
She is a part of a group of seven “BeWeavers”—adults who practice weaving at the Honolulu Museum of Art School four afternoons per week in the We BeWeave class. They all also live with emotional, physical, and intellectual challenges. It is early in the afternoon and three students are in class, along with three volunteers and their instructor, Marie MacGregor. They are preparing for their annual exhibition in the Art School’s mezzanine gallery. (The show opened on Dec. 12 and is on view through Jan. 5).
The We BeWeave program was created by VSA (Vision, Strength, Artistic Access)—an international organization on arts, education and disability—in the early aughts, and joined the Art School in 2013. Like Woll, most of the students featured in the exhibition have been involved in the program since its inception. They have stuck with it through several changes in venue and curriculum.
“Before we brought it in-house it was sort of vocational training, the students didn’t have a lot of creative choice,” explains Art School director Vince Hazen. “It was like, ‘Here’s your color, weave this as perfectly as possible to make this scarf so we can put it in a gift shop.’ So we switched it to an art class where they were learning to draw what they wanted to weave and then turn them into tapestries—weaving pictures that could be hung on the wall. Since then we’ve started to add a lot more skills to the curriculum, especially in the last year or so with Marie. They are artists making art, so the exhibition is really important to them.”
Lerseth, who took her first weaving class at the Art School in 2003, has volunteered with the BeWeavers since 2010. She credits kanaka maoli artist and cultural practitioner Wendy Kamai—who passed away in August—for introducing the students to Saori. “She was an incredible woman, she taught these guys to weave,” Lerseth says. “She had gone to Japan, learned Saori weaving—their whole thing is art should be available to everyone. There’s actually an attachment for the Saori loom for someone who doesn’t have any arms to weave with their feet. And there is a way for someone who is a paraplegic to weave by adding a weight and some clips. So their weaving is more free, with a lot of open spaces…and their designs are over the top if you ask me. But it’s free weaving and these guys are hooked!”
Today the class is helmed by MacGregor, who began volunteering at the Art School in March. “Everything I know about weaving I learned from Carol and these guys,” she demures.
“Marie has taken them to the next level with the fancy stitching,” Lerseth chimes in. “I would’ve never believed it. Pushing the envelope—it’s still evolving.”
“We’re trying to branch out into different textiles, so we’re doing embroidery right now,” MacGregor explains as she pulls a needle through a student’s design. “And we’re going to start working on some macrame and things like that. Next semester we’re going to learn to weave a basket out of clay.”