TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Weaver in New Harmony: Laura Foster Nicholson

A couple of years ago, Lou Hong, a Chicago friend, connected me to Laura Foster Nicholson on Facebook, "You just have to meet her!"   The quilt show was about to happen in Paducah and Laura was going to have a booth here.  We met, chatted, hit it off, and when I launched TAFA last year, she was one of the first people to sign on.  Laura lives in New, Harmony, Indiana- a two hour drive from Paducah.  Another friend, John Jeffery, also lives there.  (See my past post about his wife, Claudia)  Repeatedly, she has said, "You've got to come and see this place!"  Last week, I did.

Laura Foster Nicholson, Weaver and Designer

Life is full of serendipity and pleasant surprises.  Two new people in my life:  Brother Gregory Waldrop and weaver Ann Fraley.  Both are active at the Fountain Avenue United Methodist Church just a block from my house.  He preaches and she is one of the top lay leaders.  I've become a wayward Lutheran and started attending this church some time back.  Gregory grew up in this area and connects the dots:  art, economic development, spirituality, lay leadership, community involvement all mesh into what he sees as the core values behind his ministry.  He has welcomed artists into his church, along with other misfits.  Ann, a weaver, also completed seminary.  Although she did not choose ordination, she aptly calls herself "Woman of the Cloth".  Her weaving studio now sits in the church's annex.

Somehow, New Harmony comes up in one of our conversations and it turns out to be a favorite destination of Gregory's.  I tell them about Laura and John and we decide to all go.  Why does Gregory like this place so much?  Because New Harmony has a fascinating story.  This post going to be long enough without me going into the whole history, but basically it's a story about utopian dreams that failed yet kept coming back in various transformations.  It's a tiny little place, just a few blocks, really.  Residents can even legally run around the streets in golf carts!  But, there are a bunch of artists there, wonderful historic buildings, lots of sculptures, a couple of cool labyrinths, trees, trails, and awful bridge you have to cross right before entering the town.  This video is a bit dark, but it's a nice overview of what happened there.  (It also has a hysterical ending.)

Good old Wikipedia has more information on the Harmonists (kind of like Shakers) and others who settled and influenced the town.

So, off we went!  We had to cross four rivers to get there.  One was done by barge!  (When's the last time you were on one?)

Ann and Gregory in the car.

On the way to New Harmony, by barge...

We met Laura and John at The Red Geranium, a lovely restaurant.  (That link also has a bunch of info on the town).  Another couple, friends of Laura, also joined us, both artists.  Rita also sells vintage quilt tops and other cool stuff and will have a booth here in Paducah during the quilt show.  Unfortunately she does not have a website, but when the time gets close, we can leave the info of where she will be if you are interested in her wares.  (Leave a comment and sign up for email updates to get the info.)

Time to walk around!  Most of the buildings are old Shaker style houses which have been restored to their original specs.  A block away from the restaurant we got to see the "Roofless Church", a beautiful but strange structure, built by architect Philip Johnson.  Getting married?  This is a favorite place to tie that knot!

John Jeffery at the Roofless Church

Inside of the structure

Laura Foster Nicholson talking about New Harmony

Laura of LFN Textiles

More walking, seeing a couple of Laura's friends who have shops in town, and then, of course, the highlight of seeing her studio.  Laura is an incredibly talented weaver.  Her work often refers to bees (which she has- I bought some of her delicious honey!), stones, barns, vegetable gardens and other images from nature.  I have been looking at images of her work for these two years and was shocked at how different they look in real life.  There is no sense of scale in the images and I imagined the weavings to be thick and weighty.  Instead, many of the ones I was familiar with were light and airy.  She also incorporates threads that cast a metallic sheen which I never noticed in the images.  For example, barn roofs are done in a silver thread, capturing the effect of sun hitting tin.  See Laura's member profile on TAFA to find her web links.

Laura Foster Nicholson in her weaving studio.

Brother Gregory Waldrop enjoying the insider's view of New Harmony.

Ann Fraley and John Jeffery.

Rachel Biel and Laura Foster Nicholson.

Just some cool weaving images:

I have a lot of patience, but the idea of threading a loom is beyond the pale, in my book.  I know I would just make a huge mess of it all, like a kitten with a ball of yarn.  I was heartened, however, by Laura's design space, about as messy as my own!

I always feel kind of ashamed of all my "stuff".  Fabric, threads, beads...  drawers of them, bins stacked high, tin containers filled.  Then, when I go into another creative space like this, I see that I am all right.  It's OK.  Really.

Laura actually has two businesses: one as a working artist and another as a designer of ribbons and home accents.  Crate and Barrel has carried many of her products.  She gets to keep some of the samples, like this gorgeous curtain:

From there, we went on to her home, a traditional Harmonite structure that has been restored.  Wonderful wood everywhere, big windows, lots of natural light, a gorgeous back yard....  The only two things that I didn't like were the stairs going up to the second floor and the kitchen.  The stairs were those narrow wooden ones, which always make me feel like I am going to slip and fall (I had a bad fall on stairs when I was a teenager).  The kitchen is just tiny.  I like big ones where you can sit around and talk as the cooking happens.  But, the Harmonites were utilitarian and their buildings and furniture were made for function and longevity.  The house has a wonderful fireplace, thick insulated walls (with some horsehair and clay mixture) and will probably last another one hundred years.

I also wanted to see John's farm.  We jumped into the cars, drove the two blocks out of town, went a little bit further and there it was.  (If you read the post on Claudia, there is a video there that shows the inside of the house).  The thing I will remember about all of these places in New harmony are the windows and natural light pouring in, looking out on peaceful scenes that nourish the soul.  John's house was also like that, a place where the muse could just take over.

John Jeffery, Laura Foster Nicholson, Gregory Waldrop, Ann Fraley

Each of us had plenty of stories to share.  As I reflect back on what we saw and heard, I think that what will stick with me is this desire we have had over time to find our own utopias.  New Harmony had several visionary people who left their mark there.  Some failed, other succeeded.  But, there does not seem to be a true formula for harmonious co-existence.  We certainly have not evolved in that direction as a society!  The chaos and hatefulness we have today among both our leaders and in our citizenry just shows how impossible it seems to build a heaven on earth.  Yet, there are pockets of peace and those places are precious.  In the end, the harmony that is found within is the one that makes a safe haven.
I was told that there are cheap cabins there that can be rented (someday? ahhhh....).  If you need a place of retreat, I point you in that direction.  As for us, the day flew by quickly and we had to head on home.  The sky blessed us in all of its glory.  A day well spent.



  1. thanks, Rachel. for these photos and memories of your visit here last week. What a lovely day!

  2. "In the end, the harmony that is found within is the one that makes a safe haven."----Rachel Biel

    Well said Rachel. And well written. I finally got to read it since I was having problems with my modem and connection for sometime.

    Good to see you more fully with your environment, Laura---

  3. Thanks, Lou! And, thanks for introducing me to Laura. She is great!


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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