Magic looms large in fiber artists colorful Judaica

Weaver Judy Calder started years ago making the basics — scarves, blankets and shawls. 

More recently, she realized some of her designs were taking on expressions from Judaism. For instance, one bore a resemblance to Jacob’s Ladder, and Calder ran with it.   

“I fell into the Judaica,” said Calder of San Rafael. “It really speaks to me. The artwork that I’m creating now all has Jewish themes. It’s funny how things just happen that way.”  

Calder, aka “The Fiber Maven,” keeps her studio inside the Industrial Center Building in Sausalito, known locally as “the ICB,” which houses a community of local artists.

ICB will host its free Open Studios event Saturday, Dec. 4 and Sunday, Dec. 5. Visitors will have the chance to wander the workspaces of more than 100 painters, sculptors, fabric artists, jewelers and photographers.

‘Burning Bush’ tallit is woven with cotton and recycled plastic bags.

Calder, 64, shares Studio 205 with fellow weavers Alex Friedman and Emily Dvorin. Each fiber artist works with different techniques and textural elements to express their woven art.

The trio’s space is known as the “colorful studio” because of the array of multicolored yarns used to create tapestries, woven baskets, tallits, and matzah and challah covers, which Calder makes in addition to scarves, shawls and throws.

Calder, a member of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, uses floor looms to create a variety of items, with roughly 80 percent being Judaica. She has sold items to the Jewish Museum in New York, American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Judaica stores in Boston.

“When people walk into our studio, they are surprised to see the Judaica,” Calder said. “I get a lot of, ‘Oh, you do tallits!’ It is definitely good exposure.”

She spent years learning the technical aspects of weaving and the secrets to creating fine fabrics. Once she mastered the basic skills, Calder began experimenting with color and design.

To develop her sense of style, she adopted the basic recommendation for writers: “Write what you know.” Calder said her mind went straight to Judaism, which inspired her to design pieces that convey Jewish tradition and simultaneously allow her creativity to shine.

“Tallitot have been very central in my exploration with color and pattern,” Calder wrote in her artist statement. “Creating these prayer shawls for someone preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah is the most rewarding because we work together on something that represents a lifelong spiritual journey.”

Fiber artist Judy Calder (center) with studiomates Alex Friedman (left) and Emily Dvorin photo/murphy productions and publicity

Calder grew up outside of Portland, Ore., but has lived in California for more than 40 years. She was introduced to fiber arts at a young age when her grandmother taught her to knit, crochet and embroider.

While finishing a degree in English from San Francisco State University in the late-1980s, Calder, who went back to college as an adult, stumbled upon a weaving class. She loved the work and subsequently switched her major to arts, with a focus on textiles.

It was also in San Francisco that she rediscovered her Jewish identity. She started studying with a rabbi from Congre-gation Emanu-El and has kept up her interest ever since.  

After college graduation in 1989, Calder set up a studio in her home and started weaving blankets and shawls. She worked with interior decorators for the Marin Designers Showcase, and was commissioned to make pieces that challenged her skills.

For her daughter’s bat mitzvah in 1991, Calder decided to weave a cotton tallit for her. The experience she shared with her daughter was special, as they collaborated on the perfect colors and design. In the last few years, Calder said that custom orders for tallits have been steady.

“The kids get really into it,” Calder said of the process for choosing colors and design. “Of course some of them don’t have a clue about what they want, but others walk in knowing the exact design and colors.”

The most popular elements?

“Definitely the white with blue stripes,” Calder said. “It’s the most traditional and what many kids think they should have.”

Calder’s newest endeavor is weaving 3-D works using multicolored plastic bags (the kind that protect her morning newspaper). She incorporates the method into her tallit-making in an attempt to marry an ancient concept with current consciousness.

“Things just come to me,” Calder said of her inspiration. “It’s magic. I can’t tell you that I go through any process or source. That’s what makes what I do so exciting.”

ICB’s Annual Winter Open Studios 2010 is 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4 and Sunday, Dec. 5 at the Industrial Center Building,

480 Gate Five Road, Sausalito. Admission and parking are free. For more information, visit www.icbbuilding.com.