An Artist's Journey: From West Virginia to the World and Back 🌏

28
Sep

An Artist’s Journey: From West Virginia to the World and Back 🌏

Nellie Rose Davis was spending a lot of time at home.

The textile artist, trained in the Japanese dyeing tradition known as shibori, had recently entered the Rural to Urban Markets program in 2013 through the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts. And it was working.

Based from her home in Elkins, West Virginia, the town that she grew up in, Nellie started to see major returns from her time spent at wholesale art shows shaking hands and handing out business cards in giant convention centers in places like Washington D.C. Large orders were coming in. Gallery owners were wanting her shibori-dyed silk scarves. People were wearing Nellie Rose.

Every new order that Nellie received was a validation, a reaffirmation, to a question she’d longed grappled with – “Can I make a life out of art?”

In 2012, after she completed her Fulbright Scholarship studying textile art in Osaka, Japan, Nellie had returned to the states contemplating what to do next. She started looking for other jobs – jobs that came with benefits – unsure if making a life in textiles was a realistic plan.

But after she returned from Japan, she received an invitation from Hiroko Harada, a master shibori artist, whom she’d connected with during her Fulbright. Hiroko was getting older, but she wanted Nellie to be her final apprentice. Nellie lived in Hiroko’s indigo dye studio for three months. Hiroko cleaned out a small storage room for Nellie and a put a little bed in there. Every day Nellie worked with Hiroko on the many traditional forms of shibori, taking a two-dimensional piece of fabric and making it three-dimensional by compressing, folding, sewing and bunching it into a particular form before putting it into dye to create patterns. If Nellie did something wrong, she had to repeat it again and again. The two used a shibori book, only written in Japanese, as their guide. And it was Nellie’s job to understand and perform every technique the book’s pages held.

This time, when Nellie returned to the states, again, the same questions came flooding back – What do I do with this? Can I make a life out of this?

The daughter of two textile artists, Nellie grew up watching her parents practice shibori. It was what originally spurred her interest in Japanese culture and language, inspired her to major in Asian studies with a focus in Japanese language and later to apply for her Fulbright.

After completing her apprenticeship, she knew if she didn’t try to make a life in textiles now, she never would. A year later as wholesale orders were coming in to her Elkins home and Nellie Rose scarves were shipping out, she was watching her business bloom and at the same time could feel her wellbeing declining.

Because for every order she received, it meant that she’d have to spend more time alone at home, trapped in a little box to create.

She was isolated, feeling disconnected, living like a hermit.

“I didn’t feel a connection to my community or what I was doing for this world,” Nellie said. She had no connection to her customers. She didn’t hear how one of her scarves made someone feel. Or got to see a woman’s reaction when she ran her hand across a row of Nellie’s soft, silk scarves hanging in a shop.

Nellie started getting in her car and driving to Thomas, a lot, craving what she lacked at home – peers, conversation, community. Her catalyst for change, she’ll tell you, is when she received an invitation to show her work at ArtSpring, a spring art festival held throughout Tucker County.

“I had always approached Thomas as this dreamy outsider,” Nellie said. “… I remember getting ready for the show and getting really excited to actually meet folks that live up here.”

One of the people Nellie met was Morgan Smith, who was reimagining Lamplight Gallery, an art gallery on Front Street in Thomas that had opened in 2014, but closed shortly after. Within a year, Morgan, proprietor and curator at Lamplight, reopened the gallery in 2015. Nellie joined as an artist collaborator, giving her textiles a new home. She spent three months commuting to Thomas to work at Lamplight before moving full-time to the little mountain town.

Now, when you enter Lamplight, Nellie’s work greets you at the door. There’s myriad of colorful shibori scarves mixed with new items she’s added over the years, like hand-painted raw silk dresses and shirts. And if you’re lucky, you might catch the energetic creator on her way to TipTop for a lavender latte.

She’s still working from home, listening to podcasts as she mixes dye or sews a dress in her large studio apartment overlooking Front Street. She’s still shipping her wares to larger markets. Last year, she was even able to save enough to pay off her student debt in full — all with her artwork.

But now, finally, her work means something more. She’s a merchant, contributing local taxes. She’s a greeter, meeting people that walk into Lamplight. She’s a shibori ambassador. And she’s a social conductor, able to witness first-hand how her handmade material things are contributing to something much greater than the material world.

To see more of Nellie’s work, check out her website or follow her on Instagram.

Anna Patrick is a proud member of the UpThink team. A journalist by trade, she is currently based in Canaan Valley writing for a handful of magazines and helping nonprofits, like Generation WV, tell their stories. When she isn’t hunched over a keyboard pecking away, she’s probably hunched over her puzzle table trying to find that next piece.

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