Fiber and Natural Dye Artist Kelsey Brown
By Ashley Wahl • Photographs by Bert VanderVeen
On a rainy evening in late October, tropical storm Zeta steadily gaining momentum in a quiet neighborhood in Winston-Salem, fiber artist Kelsey Brown, 31, is sitting on her covered porch, cradling a mug of hot tea with both hands. She looks bohemian yet casual — stylish round glasses, no makeup, long brown hair in a messy top knot. Even her clothing is unassuming until you realize that the T-shirt she is wearing didn’t come from Target. She made it herself — silk noil hand-dyed golden-yellow with osage shavings she got from a local woodworker.
Since discovering weaving at Warren Wilson College in 2009, Brown has explored many ways to create beautiful and functional art using natural, sustainable and recycled materials. It’s the stories behind her creations that most inspire her. Was the fabric salvaged or locally sourced? And how was the dye made? With goldenrod from a sunny hillside? Indigo from the garden? Black walnuts from a neighbor’s backyard?
Everything Brown makes is infused with her loving intention. And while her demeanor is gentle and nonchalant, a short conversation reveals something about Brown that then seems obvious. This artist is not separate from her craft — she lives and breathes it. And, naturally, her passion for connecting with the fibers and pigments she uses weaves into almost every aspect of her life.
“Part of the beauty of handmade things and textiles is that they might change over time,” says Brown, pausing to take a thoughtful sip of tea. “Will you hang this in the sun? Will you wash it? The purpose affects the intention.”
Brown grew up in Kentucky. Her mother, who was always making a quilt “for me or one of my one million cousins,” taught Kelsey to sew well before middle school. In vivid detail, she recalls making “little stuffed cats” and dreaming of someday being an artist. At Warren Wilson, a private liberal arts college near Asheville that focuses on work-learning, Brown enrolled in several art classes — drawing, painting and ceramics — but she didn’t see her first loom until her sophomore year, when the college revived its Fiber Arts Crew, defunct since 1969.
“What is that?” Brown exclaimed, eying the wooden apparatus as if it were some kind of time machine. “That is amazing!”
And, she realized: It was some kind of time machine.
Brown became utterly fascinated with learning the ancient craft of making functional things that were also beautiful. Not unlike her mother, she realized. But much more rebellious.
“I like to break rules,” she admits.
She also likes to make what she needs, when she needs it, commenting on how wasteful and environmentally toxic the fashion and textile industries have become.
Earlier this year, for instance, Brown made her own wedding dress, sourcing her materials as ethically and consciously as possible.
“I’ve never been a very fashionable person, but our clothes say a lot about us.”
After college, Brown was hired as a fiber fellow at WWC, where she ran the studio and brought in renowned fiber artists to facilitate workshops. Then she worked with a weaving co-op in Guatemala, where she also learned to make shoes using handwoven fabrics. In 2015, she moved to Winston-Salem to work with the nonprofit Arts for Life NC.
“It’s a great job,” says Brown, who teaches visual arts to children and families in the pediatric cancer center at Brenner Children’s Hospital — now through Zoom.
Due to the time-consuming nature of most fiber arts projects, they rarely appear in her lesson plans. But volunteer work through the Garden Club at the Ken Carlson Boys & Girls Club and the Crossnore School & Children’s Home has allowed her to share her love of growing and using natural dye plants with children. She’s also a fiber instructor at Sawtooth School for Visual Art.
“I’d like to see the ‘knowing-where-your-clothes-come-from’ movement really take off,” says Brown, adding that her vision of the future includes a large homestead with fiber animals, a textile studio and a farm — perhaps a place she can lead community building projects on a larger scale.
“I’m not necessarily doing anything brand new,” says the artist.
On the other hand, her passion is a breath of fresh air. h
Learn more about Kelsey Brown and her artwork at kelseybrownart.com.