Ọmọlará Williams McCallister gently pulls a bumpy twig off a pear tree as the sun shines through the leaves. Known as suckers, because they sap nutrients away from the healthier canopy, growers usually prune these twigs to help the fruit of the tree grow.
Williams McCallister bends the sucker, tilting it into the shape of a basket and tying it before it dries. Fellow artist Najee Haynes-Follins follows with another sucker as Williams McCallister teaches them the weaving technique.
Foraging materials from nature is the latest art technique Williams McCallister picked up during travel, this time after a summer in Maine. It had always been the plan for how their Baltimore Community Weaving Studio was run: Haynes-Follins would be the “porch sitter” to Williams McCallister’s migratory bird.
The porch sitter watches over the center, making sure it is a safe, supportive haven for those who want to learn weaving and fiber arts, as well as a place that values and cherishes Black artists and people of color like them.
The migratory bird travels — coming and going — and finds techniques, tips and new art styles to bring back to the studio.
“And when I come back,” said Williams McCallister, who uses the ọ pronoun, “I bring back whatever knowledge I have gained while I’ve been away.” “Ọ” is a third-person singular pronoun in Yoruba, a language in which pronouns are not gendered.
Based in a shared studio space within Blue Light Junction, a community-based organization and natural dye farm, the focus of the two artists is to make the art of weaving accessible to everyone, regardless of income, disability or neurodiversity. They say too often craft classes are taught and taken by white artists and students, while people of color and queer people may not feel welcomed. Both artists have felt unwelcomed in certain environments.
William McCallister had gotten a scholarship last year to attend an eight-week intensive weaving program in Western Massachusetts, hoping to learn about Swedish weaving methods. Ọ left within two weeks, after the institution signaled there wasn’t much they would do to address ọ's concerns about racism among its students, who ọ said were primarily wealthier and older white women.
“We are working to make things accessible for us,” Williams McCallister said. They are hoping to offer workshops starting in October.
In art, the cost of a loom and yarn can be a barrier, as can the location of a center and the vocabulary and language used in weaving. Names of parts of the loom or weaving techniques should be relevant to the community learning them, Williams McCallister said. Take “shed,” the opening between warp threads when weaving. Williams McCallister calls it “mouth.”
The artists don’t just teach the weaving of parts of trees, but cloth and other materials, too. Cloth is an abstract aspect for many in the U.S., where many people don’t know how and where it’s made or its value. And yet, there’s a natural intimacy that comes with cloth, the artists said.
“We wear it every day, we sleep in it every night. We get directly into it after the shower,” Williams McCallister said. “It’s so important to our lives.”
While weaving exists in all cultures, many of them Black and brown, those who teach and can afford to learn in the U.S. are usually white, the artists said. The schools and centers also tend to be in more rural settings rather than the cities, which may require travel, they said. And looms and materials can be expensive.
African American culture in particular is deeply rooted in fiber crafting, said Yéjidé Washington, a recent graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. Black people who were enslaved were not allowed to buy or own things, so they resorted to making them.
“We had to make clothes. We had to make clothes for our children, blankets to keep them warm,” said Washington, who curated an exhibit on weaving and the effects of fiber-crafting therapy on Black communities. “It became a hobby, but it started off as a necessity.”
Weaving also has deep historic ties to anthropology, politics and capitalism, said weaving artist and fiber arts teacher April Camlin, who traces the history from textile trades like the Silk Road, the East India Trading Company and the cotton industry. Weaving is also be connected to religion and spirituality in many cultural traditions.
“It’s a really beautiful access point to learn more about cultures and histories of people and places and ideas and cosmology and orientation of societies,” Camlin said. “It’s really important for us to consider that when we’re weaving, we’re not just starting with a blank slate, but that we are continuing the lineage and actively shaping it and making it into helping to grow it into something new.”
“It also could be a bridge to examining and exploring our own culture and our own heritage and ancestry, learning about the textiles that are connected to our ancestry,” she added.
While there’s often a desire to fit and categorize people in a “nice little neat box,” Williams McCallister said, the center is supposed to be free-flowing and out of bounds, going where curiosity and community leads. It isn’t different from how Williams McCallister approaches art. A desire to reconnect with Yoruba culture led ọ to the textile markets in Nigeria, where artisans sold àdìre, white patterns created by painting wax on the cloth before dyeing it with indigo. Curiosity took Williams McCallister to Indonesia to learn about wax resist dyeing methods that create patterns, and later to Brazil for further research.
The more Williams McCallister looked into indigo, natural dye and weaving, the more important it became.
“I follow the things that my hands are interested in,” ọ said.
The foraged branches from the trees used to make baskets are new to Haynes-Follins, but they have been learning basket weaving on their own, finding cultural and ancestral meaning embroidered within the material. It’s a powerful experience, they said, to be able to make art about Black diaspora and use material that their ancestors would have touched. They are exploring that in their work: how to reconnect to ancestors they will never know by name in order to heal.
“I’m a descendent of enslaved people,” said Haynes-Follins, whose family is mainly Black and mostly born in the U.S. “There’s a lot of separation from me and certain lineages that I don’t get to connect with.”
There’s a hidden harvest “annex” garden in the back of the Blue Light Junction, a studio and natural dye farm hosting the community center, where medicinal and dye plants grow. Marigolds bloom along with holy basil, while indigo will be harvested for blue and cockscombs for red and pink.
“I could spend a very long time identifying all these plants and telling you what they do,” said Williams McCallister, who was part of the project that started Blue Light Junction.
It was a natural fit, Williams McCallister said, to have a weaving center where artists could also learn about dye. The natural dye can be used in many materials, including natural fiber, ọ said. A wide-open space with cascades of plants and flowers drying from the ceiling and hundreds more hanging on walls, the first floor is for storage and community, where people can rest and snack by the couch. The place smells like loose leaves, as if the studio were inside a teapot.
“Making a dye is basically like making tea,” Williams McCallister said. “You’re gonna use the color of the tea to stain something.”
‘All trees are holy trees’
The two artists swiftly detach the branches from the tree. Sometimes, there are mishaps.
“It keeps snapping,” Hayne-Follins said, bending the suckers and trying to twist them together.
“It’s what I was saying about rushing,” Williams McCallister said. “Not just you, but also me. It really asks us to be a little more patient and mindful.”
The tree is not far from the garden that harbors the plants for dye and shades the way to an apartment building onMcAllister Street, where the studio that hosts the community center is located. There’s a rhythmic pace to their work — cutting the branches, bending and twisting, then tying them into a circle. A construction worker across the street asked if the pear tree was “some kind of holy tree.”
“All trees are holy trees,” Hayne-Follins said.
Williams McCallister points to the fruitful canopy with the pears, telling the two construction workers in bright yellow-green vests that the artists were gathering materials to make baskets. Williams McCallister asks if Hayne-Follins and ọ are on their way, noting the rest of the crew with bright yellow-green vests across the street. They were not.
“I’m just nosy,” the worker explained.
“If you’re nosy and your arms can reach, I would love a pear!” Williams McCallister said, pointing to the top of the tree.
“Hold on,” the workers said.
And within minutes, there was a roar from a bulldozer, almost like a determined battle cry. It drove toward the tree, carefully stopping next to just by the canopy. A worker stepped on the metal blade to the front, signaling to his colleague that he was ready.
The blade rose, high enough for the worker to reach the pears. He began to pick them, one by one, and gave them to Williams McCallister and Hayne-Follins.
It’s the brilliance of having community spaces, the artists said, that brings people together.
“Should we leave some for Miss Barbara?” Hayne-Follins said, referring to a resident who lives in front of the pear tree and has been its caretaker for many years.
“I think we should leave a little pile there,” Williams McCallister said, pointing to a spot within the tree’s shade.
“I feel like we should leave them in something,” Hayne-Follins said. “You know what I mean?”
And yes, Williams McCallister knew.