Rachel Montemayor, Fiber Artist
By Elisabeth Lanier
Did you go to school to become an artist?
No, I didn’t. My love for fiber found me at a very young age. My paternal grandmother was a tailor in San Francisco. I’d spend weekends behind her cast iron sewing machine playing with billows of fabric and lace edgings, pins, batting and other fiber scraps. Textures and colors filled my senses and stimulated my imagination. My maternal grandmother, with whom I spent my summers, taught me to crochet when I was seven. Thirty-five years later, I picked up a crochet hook and re-taught myself. Dyeing fiber and spinning yarn are the children born of my desire for the most lusciously color-rich and texturally interesting yarn I can imagine. A lesson behind a spinning wheel and a class in different methods of dyeing fibers by a gracious and passionate fiber artist who was willing to share her knowledge with me finally made this possible.
Where do you get your ideas?
Ideas come to me almost always while I am working on another project. I have learned to stop what I am doing and write down notes that will trigger that same emotion and idea to explore after the current project is completed. It takes a lot of discipline. My first instinct is to drop everything and move on to my newest idea. So keeping a conceptual journal is invaluable. I use clippings from magazines, odd color combinations that intrigue me, interesting combinations of textures that I find throughout daily life – all of these things are added to my conceptual journal for exploration at a later date. I have a strict rule not to exceed three projects at a time. Otherwise, nothing would ever be completed. Rotating three projects keeps me fresh and allows me to work on whichever project suits my mood at the time.
How long does that take?
Dying fiber can take very little time, about 40 minutes in very hot water under controlled heat. However, in the summer months, I prefer the solar method of dyeing fiber. This requires an entire sun-filled day. I put various fibers like merino wool, tussah silk, alpaca, Angora rabbit, and curly locks from angora goats into large glass jars filled with water and some vinegar and place the jars on my dock for the day. I drop two to four colors on top of the solution, put a lid on it and leave for work. As the solution warms under the relentless heat of the southern Texas sun, the colors begin to naturally drop into the fiber as they choose in their own fashion. The heat of the day sets the colors and thus solar dyeing is accomplished. After work, I drain the jars, rinse the fibers in cool water and hang them to dry overnight. The next day the fibers are ready to be carded into a large batt, which is used to spin into yarn. Then, it takes approximately eight hours to completely spin and ply 200 yards of homespun, chunky art yarn.
My definition of an artist is simply a person who, by virtue of imagination, is able to create exceptional beauty. If I am able to evoke the emotions of goodness, truth and beauty to my audience then I am an artist. Each yard of fiber that passes through my fingers and unfolds like a blossoming flower at the spinning wheel or the joy that I feel at its inherent beauty is a palpable emotion. If I am able to evoke that emotion, that passion that I felt in its making in my audience then I have succeeded as an artist.
How would you describe your own work?
I would describe my own work, as well, incredible! I put my heart and soul into the making of it, but it still amazes me that the finished product actually comes from my hands. I almost feel as if I’m only guiding the fiber and I let each batch do what it intends to do. Fighting the particular nature of different fibers is like swimming upstream. I have found that allowing the fiber to do what it wants to naturally brings out the individual personality of the fiber.
Why do you make art?
Because I must. I haven’t a choice in the matter. I am driven to create and I could not imagine life without it. I also like feeling that I am fulfilling a function in preserving a craft and an art form that has been replaced by machines and is almost lost. There have been times when I haven’t been able to afford, either in time or money, the luxury of creating. I am fortunate and so very grateful to have a wonderfully supportive husband, son and family who constantly encourage and enable me to be my best creative self.
Why is art important in today’s culture?
Humankind and art cannot function without one another. We have a burning desire to create. Creating art, like any other worthwhile goal, requires a driving passion, a fierce determination, perseverance, patience and a positive attitude, all of which build character. Without these, the mind and senses are left to drift idly and without purpose.
Are your from here originally? If not, why did you choose Galveston Island?
No, I’m a San Franciscan and have had the very great pleasure to have grown up in one of the most beautiful places in the world. My playground was the Pacific Ocean with beautiful beaches and majestic mountains, ravines and giant redwood forests that line the coast like ancient sentinels.
I did not choose Galveston Island; Galveston chose me! I was brought here by a very fortuitous series of events and am grateful to have been received so graciously into the arms of Galveston.
What are the special opportunities and/or challenges of making art in Galveston?
First and foremost is the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. The natural beauty that comes from the mix of water, sand, marsh and all of that wildlife is awe-inspiring. The beautiful colors that I am able to produce in dyeing my fibers on the shores, under the intensity of the summer sun are nothing short of spectacular.