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Volume 24, Number 8 — August 2017

In Focus: Helen Morgan

Helen Morgan is a resident studio artist at The Arts Depot in Abingdon, Va.
Helen Morgan is a resident studio artist at The Arts Depot in Abingdon, Va.

Studio Artist at The Arts Depot in Abingdon

By SUZANNE REID | May 17, 2009

*** Reprinted with permission from The Arts Depot newsletter, April 2009. ***

ABINGDON, VA — Helen Morgan is a weaver and an artist. She considers weaving a craft and, although she is modest to the utmost, most people would judge her to be an expert and an artist in this craft media. She also creates art in other media — paintings, framed paper constructions, and collages of different but commonly found materials.

As an only child growing up in Bristol, Virginia, she amused herself and her family by making things out of paper, fashioning handbags out of construction paper and inventing little three-dimensional paper figures. At about nine years old, she learned knitting from her mother who had taken a class from a yarn shop. Helen's mother worked as a nurse at night so Helen amused herself experimenting with knitting and paper crafts. Other than an art class in middle school, she received no formal arts or craft training until attending Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap for a year's study in their crafts curriculum in the early '70s.

She earned a degree in psychology from King College, but it was her interest in making things that eventually defined her career. While looking for a first job after college, she started working with macramé. When she read about the Cave House Craft Cooperative beginning in Abingdon, she thought perhaps this would be an outlet for selling the macramé items that were piling up in her home. There she met Ed Morgan, who was the first shopkeeper for the Cave House. They married a year later and settled in Abingdon. She continued working with macramé and knitting until Ed, inspired by a weaver on the Cave House staff, surprised Helen with a loom for a Christmas present. Thrilled with the ability to actually create usable fabric quickly (in comparison to the knitting she had been doing), Helen began to fashion items that were functional and wearable. After a spate of the typical placemats and hand bags that beginning weavers make, she began to make clothing to sell through the Cave House. In addition, she picked up other outlets through a booth at the Virginia Highlands Festival and other weekend fairs that helped sustain her work. She also took a few workshops with the Overmountain Weavers Guild in Kingsport. She worked from her home until the early 1980s when she opened a studio at the William King Regional Arts Center where she worked until other parts of her life interfered — motherhood, community involvement, and part-time work. She began a job as a church secretary and also volunteered at the Morrison School where their son Peter attended. As time permitted, she returned to weaving at home.

In 1994, Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer and was recommended for a bone marrow transplant at a hospital in Winston-Salem, NC. While she was waiting for the operation, her son Peter, at this point in Abingdon High School, decided that he wanted to wear a kilt to his junior prom and he wanted his mother to weave it for him. With barely a month before entering the hospital, Helen researched her family tartan — the Lamont tartan of dark blue, green, and black with a white stripe. (Since then, the Morgans have discovered that Ed is a descendant of the same clan, so this choice was perfect for their son Peter). Against great odds, Helen wove the material and began construction on the kilt, with finishing touches added by Peter's grandmother just in time for Peter to wear it to the prom. By that time, Helen was in the hospital, but she enjoyed the pictures. Obviously, the bone marrow treatment was successful, but she had trouble carving out time around her job and being a parent, as well as recovering the energy and focus it takes to weave on a large loom.

The weaving process begins by choosing colors and yarn for a project. While Helen's favorite aspect of fabric design is working with various colors, she also has to decide on a pattern for the warp — - the threads that are arranged on the loom to make either stripes or a plaid or other textural design. Her loom can hold a width up to 30 inches and an unlimited length, though she generally weaves less than 10 yards of the same pattern. The process of threading the warp onto the loom takes about six hours — or longer with the interruptions of a normal day. The actual weaving of the weft onto the warp takes about three hours for a simple piece, and even longer for a pattern. Helen usually weaves enough yardage in the same color family for three garments in different sizes. After the fabric is created, she cuts it off and takes it home to construct the garment on her sewing machine. She tends to select bright colored threads in lighter weight material — cotton, linen, rayon and silk — year-round fibers.

Helen started volunteering at The Arts Depot as a greeter and, when a studio vacancy came open in 1999, she decided that she would like to be in a studio. She applied and was selected, working alongside Janet Rasnick. In 2006 Helen was diagnosed with a second case of breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy from February to May. Sadly, she had returned to the studio for only a week before Janet entered the hospital for cancer treatment and died little more than a year later. Penny Hite now shares the studio.

Helen finds the Depot a supportive environment, a place to receive feedback from other artists and share creative experiences. She also enjoys interacting with customers and listening to their stories which often involve family or friends who weave. Since the closing of the Starving Artist restaurant and the recent Depot Square renovation construction work , the number of tourists has dwindled, but Helen is hopeful that more local residents will discover the Arts Depot and enjoy all the exhibits and activities that go on here.

In the near future, while continuing to weave and knit, Helen has begun to experiment more with other media. Especially interested in the decorative artists of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, she hopes to create some two-dimensional work, reflecting that style. Who knows what will appear in her studio soon!

Son Peter has earned an MFA degree in ceramics, specializing in sculpture and currently teaching art at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Although he claims to be ignorant about the source of his artistic talent, certainly he speaks in jest. Nobody could be blind to the undeniable talents of his mother.

A! ExtraTopics: Art, Crafts