Weaver: Using colors literally sprung from the earth, she trains other hands in a timeless art
by Candice Dyer
Photographs by Jeff Holt
Ideally, Betty Smith likes to start from scratch: with a sheep who is feeling generous or maybe a fluffy Angora rabbit. After the shearing, she spins and dyes the wool before plying the ancient geometry of the warp and weft on her well-used loom. “I like the tactile aspect of weaving, the feel of the thread,” she says. “That’s why I don’t like weaving baskets, because you’re handling hard stuff.”
For fifteen years, Smith, eighty-seven, has kept her fingers and imagination nimble by teaching in the Goodyear Cottage for the Jekyll Island Arts Association, and she is a founding member of the association’s Weaving Guild. She goes to the studio a couple of times a week to work on her own projects, but she especially enjoys mentoring her twenty students.
“This is who I am,” she says. “I really enjoy teaching beginners because I was pretty much on my own when I started. I get a thrill teaching people who have no idea what they’re doing and seeing where their creative nature will take them. I have students who go on to explore tapestry, use colors in inventive ways, make traditional patterns look new, and receive joy in their creations. That, in turn, brings me joy.”
Smith has been weaving since 1968, when she took a class at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. She later moved to Atlanta, where she served as president of the Chattahoochee Handweavers Guild and gave demonstrations at the Tullie Smith House of the Atlanta History Center. She had a day job, teaching high school literature and journalism, but eventually weaving became her full-time obsession.
“I met Betty at a guild meeting in the mid-1970s when I was a newbie,” says Tommye Scanlin, a Dahlonega-based weaver. “She was so welcoming, nurturing, and encouraging to one and all, and her craftsmanship is just impeccable. She always wants to know what you are working on.”
Smith relocated to Jekyll in 2000 with her husband, Claiborne, who repairs looms. There, she met Kate Rumbaugh, another avid weaver. The two began teaching together and eventually started Jekyll’s own guild. “I just happened to have a loom there when she came to town,” says Rumbaugh, ninety-five. “The guild really evolved from her teaching classes and getting people interested. Betty is the stem-winder.”
Since taking up residence on the island, Smith has incorporated the natural environment in her designs. “I use a lot of blues and greens and coastal colors that reflect the landscape,” she says, noting that her classes have concocted dyes from the vegetation at hand: goldenrod, cosmos, and joe-pye weed. “Indigo used to grow on Jekyll, which would’ve been nice to use,” she says wistfully.
She and her students work on sixteen looms at Goodyear, where they also exhibit their work and sell it in the gift shop. “Looms are so bulky that it is unusual to find a space to house so many, so we are fortunate that people can just bike over here to weave,” she says. “We never had studio space this nice in Atlanta.”
What keeps her shuttle moving to its steady, meditative beat? “The sense of surprise,” she says. “You never quite know what will happen when you combine certain fibers, patterns, and colors. You can never learn everything there is to know about weaving.”