AIR Interview: Jamie Israelow

Jamie Israelow, one of our AIR Cycle 7 residents, has a knack for bringing out the most beautiful qualities in her materials. A weaver and designer, she makes woven items for the home for her product line, Hart Made. Jamie infuses her designs simultaneously with a feeling of luxury and of the natural world from which her wools and natural dyes came. Jamie and I sat down and talked about her transition from photojournalism to weaving, making art as a new mother, and running a business built on handmade, one-of-a-kind items.

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Photo by Jamie Israelow

On her artistic background: “I studied photography, critical theory and studio art, and I started working in photography a couple years after college. I got into photojournalism, and I was working towards magazines. I moved to New York to pursue that, and ended up working as a photo editor. With photography, I had started out falling in love with it in the darkroom, you know, using my hands. It was a very hands-on art, and where I ended up, I was sitting in front of a computer clicking on things. It was a very different experience.

When I lived in the country I did ceramics, and when I moved to the city I found it really difficult to continue doing that because of the time and space needed for it, but I had this feeling that if I could weave, maybe I could continue that kind of mindful experience where you use your body and your mind at the same time, creating art. I had this feeling like if I didn’t weave I was going to explode. So I got myself a little peg loom. Weaving on it took forever, and I’m not really interested in tapestry, so I bought a cricket loom – a little rigid heddle loom – at the Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck. And at that same festival that year I tried a Saori loom. It’s a simple two harness floor loom, and Saori’s whole thing is kind of weaving without intention. You don’t have to take a ton of classes and learn from a master and try to make something that looks absolutely perfect. Instead, you can just sit down and make something. That was kind of a similar approach to how I did ceramics. With ceramics I would just sit down, and I would have an idea like, ‘I wanna make a bowl,’ and then I would spend several months just trying to make a bowl. And I would work on it and work on it and work on it. I like approaching weaving with a similar attitude. As I went, I would come up with things that I wanted to learn about and then I would investigate those things. Self-directed learning, basically. My husband, who’s a furniture maker, knew how much I was in love with weaving and I’d been researching looms – but they’re all really expensive. On my birthday the next year I woke up and I went into the living room and there was a loom! A loom sitting there for me. And he said, ‘This is a big gift, but it’s not just a birthday gift. You’re clearly really happy doing this and pretty unhappy in what you’re doing professionally, so here’s a vote for you to move in this direction and pursue what makes you happy.’ So I started taking more freelance work and doing less full-time work and slowly stopped doing photography altogether.”

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Photo by Jamie Israelow

On running a weaving business: “I have experience being in business for myself as a photographer, so I’ve used a lot of those same skills in design, and I think that that’s really helped. I know how to communicate with clients, I know how to create promotional materials and things like that. But it’s a hard area, making work that’s one of a kind that I can also sell. Because it’s not the art market, and it’s not the West Elm market. And finding people who are interested in buying expensive goods for their home, it’s a very small group of people. But people who are interested, it’s like a little love-fest. They’ll email and say, you know, I really like this pillow, and I’ll work with them to make something that’s really special for them. I like being able to make things that are one of a kind for people who appreciate them. I know that I’m making things that are going to sit in people’s houses for a long time, that are not just gonna fade out with the next fad of design fashion. They’re going to hold on to them for a long time, especially since a lot of it is custom.”

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Photo by Jamie Israelow

On side projects: “I started working with ceramics when I was a photographer, and I got my first full-time job. Ceramics was something I didn’t have to be good at at all, it was something I did in my spare time. During the day, I had to be good at photography and at editing. I had to know stuff. And then I could just go and be bad at something at night, and it was really freeing. And with weaving being my primary occupation right now, I like having the knitting machine be something where I don’t really know what I’m doing and I get to learn. I’m generally happy as long as I’m learning how to do something. So I’m always trying to find new things and new ways to weave that make it more interesting, and the knitting machine has just been a great place to mess around and try to figure out what I’m doing, and it’s fun!”

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On her use of materials: “I’m interested in and excited about where things come from. I’ve done some work with yarns that are from the Hudson Valley and I spend a lot of time up there. The stuff I get from up there is sheep’s wool that’s undyed. There are just these really beautifully colored sheep, and I’m able to create really geometric patterns using this amazing chocolate brown and oatmeal colored yarn that’s just natural from the animal. Because my designs are actually pretty simple, so much of what I’m doing is really about the materials, and I’m interested in how materials speak to each other. I’ll look for a lot of contrast in texture and not just in color. When you learn photography, you learn to photograph in black and white, and then you learn color, and I’ve approached weaving in a similar way. When most people learn weaving they learn pattern structures and how to make perfect selvedges. I didn’t learn that. I learned to get to know the materials, and touch them, and see how they interact with each other, and then work with that to create interesting texture. And now I’m trying to bring more weave structures and patterns into what I’m doing.”

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On working as a new mother: “I had a baby in the middle of this residency, and I think it would’ve been a lot harder to get back to making stuff so quickly if not for the structure of the program. I felt super inspired and creative, but to have this avenue where I felt responsible for making things has been good. It’s also been hard. It’s been really hard! I mean, I took a solid month and half off, but I did come to a critique three weeks after having a baby. I wouldn’t recommend that, hormonally. Three weeks postpartum is not a great time to receive criticism about one’s work and process.  If I weren’t pregnant and I weren’t having a baby at the same time, I would just have been here doing the residency all the time. But then again, I don’t know if there’s ever any good time to have a baby, it’s just, you are where you are when it happens, and everyone’s been really understanding. At least being here, I live a few blocks away, and I get to take care of my baby and also do my work. And I moved a knitting machine into the nursery!”

Check out more of Jamie’s work on her website, and follow her on Instagram!

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