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‘A community resource’

Photo by Allayana Darrow Farrah Southam reupholsters furniture at her Fiber Arts Collective work space Jan. 5.
Fiber Arts Collective weaves community into business

ASHLAND — One of Farrah Southam’s favorite upholstery projects was ostensibly nothing special: a set of waiting room chairs.

Yet the chairs were the very same ones that Southam’s husband-and-wife clients were sitting in when they met, salvaged from the business when it closed. Instead of furniture quality, the gem uncovered through the project was a love story, she said.

Southam, fabricsmith and owner of Re-Covery Upholstery Shop, operates a working studio at the Fiber Arts Collective in downtown Ashland, where fiber artists described a successful first year-plus testing a business model, forming bonds with the community and diving deeper into their creative outlets.

The Fiber Arts Collective opened in October 2020 after founding members generated interest through pop-up fabric sales in the summer, said owner Tanya Bemis.

“The idea was really to experiment with a model that was a hybrid of a co-op and private business,” Bemis said. “We think that collaboration is the only way forward for us individually and collectively on the planet. … This is our experiment at doing that locally.”

Bemis reflected on the first year as “pleasant and successful” as far as forming community connections and drawing in artists with remaking talents.

The umbrella of fiber arts is intentionally broad at the Collective, Bemis said, highlighting the range of artists from one selling cards made with costume scraps to another who works with rusty bits mounted on canvas.

The collective promotes upcycling, recycling and reuse to keep items out of the waste stream, Bemis said. Creators focus on repairing, remaking or mending rather than buying new. The Collective includes a gallery, fabric and leather inventory for sale, library, dye studio and work spaces.

Plans for the coming year include adding an artist work space and classes in the spring, pandemic permitting, Bemis said.

The Fiber Arts Collective is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Other days of the week, working studios are still active.

Jzionna Hubbard Gonzalez, tailor and owner of The Hemming Edge, said the Collective’s shared overhead makes the space affordable, and the environment keeps “creative circulation going.”

She makes a living performing alterations and offers a springtime line of girls’ dresses. This spring, planned projects include camisoles made with eco-printed silk fabrics.

“It confirms that creativity that’s buzzing around and stimulates us all,” Hubbard Gonzalez said of the Collective.

Textile artist Jenet Johnsen found her way back to the loom after a hiatus from a 1973-1993 professional weaving and crafting career in New York City, where she exhibited work at the World Trade Center and galleries.

A photograph of one piece, completed in 1975, rests next to her loom in the open, center room studio at the Fiber Arts Collective. The original woven art burned in the Almeda fire, along with her home and loom in the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park.

Johnsen taught weaving and crafts through the 1980s and witnessed the rise and fall of textile popularity, back to this moment in time when embroidery and textile creations reemerged, she said.

“I just didn’t feel finished with it artistically,” Johnsen said of her motivation to weave again. “Now that I don’t have a house — actually I’m not going back, at 76 I don’t need a house and yard — I’d rather spend my time and energy here with this.”

After the fire, Johnsen found someone selling a loom through Sew Creative. She placed it at the Collective, within walking distance of her new, shared, 300-square-foot home — in the process, reconnecting with a part of herself long dormant.

“Without having the space, I couldn’t work,” Johnsen said. “Everybody here knows about textiles, so we share information, and if we hit a problem, there’s somebody to go talk to about it.”

At the Collective, new designers can sort through the $3 box, bring in sewing questions, test out the market for their crafts and soak up the interactive space, she said.

“This is a community resource,” Johnsen said.

Southam moved to Southern Oregon to work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a craft artisan — a job at the intersection of costumes and props, where she honed skills with various fibers, fabrics and puzzle-solving techniques. With the pandemic and OSF’s temporary closure, she studied under an upholsterer friend in Portland, who pointed out transferable skills based on experience with the tools and materials.

Southam returned to Talent and began collecting furniture from roadsides and free online listings, constantly on the lookout for projects to fix up in her garage or outside under a canopy, starting with a basic tool set: a hand stapler and pliers.

Much of the first furniture Southam repaired went to families rebuilding their homes after the fall fires of 2020. The more worn-out the item, the more satisfying the outcome, she said.

Bemis suggested Southam rent work space, and with a friend’s assurance she had reached a sufficient level of professionalism with upholstery, and the offer of a few paid jobs, she secured her spot in the Collective’s back corner in October 2020. Business has been steady ever since — nearly all via word of mouth — and projects are scheduled out through July, Southam said.

“Because it’s a little bit more focused, it brings in a certain type of people and a certain artist community, which is really fun to see because everyone likes to collaborate,” Southam said of the Collective. “That excitement that bubbles up in artists when they’re doing something — it’s infectious and it brings in other people even if it’s not your particular skill set.”

From the perspective of many upholsterers and the interior design community, Southam said, the pandemic ramped up business, with people sitting at home and the need for change staring back from their living rooms.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.