Olivia Hochstadt ’21 began seeing herself as an artist during the month she spent in Chile in 2022 as a Colby Global Fellow. She lived with an Indigenous woman who was an expert in Mapuche weaving and natural dying, and she later described her time there “as the most enriching month of my life.”
But it was just one of three life-changing experiences of her fellowship. Her time in southern Chile, which she spent foraging for plants, fruits, and nuts to dye with wool, was preceded by month-long experiences at the Faroe Islands in Denmark and Shetland, Scotland.
In Denmark, she learned weaving techniques passed down by the Vikings and stayed with a woman who lived on a sheep farm that had been in her family for four centuries. In Scotland, she lived with a woman who makes socks by hand and worked at a sheep farm that produces hand-dyed and hand-spun wool.
Now living in Portland, Maine, Hochstadt, who majored in art history and Spanish, supports herself by working as a studio assistant for another artist while creating her own body of fiber work, inspired by her global experiences, to show and sell. Her artistic vision includes opening a gallery space that features her own work as well as the work of artists she met during her travels.
This past academic year, she shared her global experiences with Colby students in Lesley Fowler’s Art of the Spinning Wheel Jan Plan course. Taking the course as a student, Hochstadt said, “changed my life. I would have had such a different life if I did not take this class,” she said. “I feel very young, and I feel that there are so many possibilities for me right now. I feel like I am ready to take advantage of all my experiences.”
Hoschstadt recently spoke and exchanged emails about her experiences. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Your first classroom experience on campus at Colby was a Jan Plan with Lesley Fowler. What prompted you to take the class? What influence has that class had on you as a scholar and artist?
Immediately upon seeing the Jan Plan course listing, I knew I had to take the class because I was a lifelong knitter. But, I didn’t know how to use a spinning wheel or how to dye yarn, so that more in-depth process really intrigued me. To me, it says something about Colby as a school, and Maine as a community, for a yarn-spinning class to be repeatedly offered to students.
This class has had a major influence on me as a scholar and artist. I owe my entire Colby Global Fellowship to this class and Lesley’s thoughtful and thorough instruction. The class taught me how to spin on a spinning wheel and a drop spindle, how to use different fibers, and dye yarn. The course also provided me with materials (Schatzy drop spindle, fiber, and portfolio) to continue making after the class was over. I knit my first sweater during the class, which was the beginning of the sweater-knitting process that I love to this day. Currently, I maintain a practice of foraging for native plants and mushrooms in my area and dye yarn, garments, and fabric. Taking the class thrust me into the fiber community of Colby and Maine. I became really close with Lesley and another Colby professor named Laurie Osborne (Professor of English and Zacamy Chair in English, Emerita), who have loaned me their spinning wheels, fiber, fiber and dye studios, knitting and spinning books, and great company for years. I eventually got my own spinning wheel as a graduation present in 2021.
The class encouraged me to teach myself how to do macramé and embroidery in 2019, and learn how to sew in 2022.
All throughout my Colby career, I took more art-related classes and decided to major in art history. Even aside from my art history courses, I spent research projects focused on creativity, even with a research project centered on Quechua garment weaving for my Spanish Senior Seminar.
Based on your experience as a Colby Global Fellow, how has your vision of yourself as an artist changed and evolved since your return?
Since my fellowship, I now see myself and identify as an artist. Before then, I really struggled with identifying as one, especially since most of my creating was on the side of my studies. But now, I have committed to developing myself as an artist. I seek and have garnered commissions, I build an online portfolio through my instagram K.O.Knits, I seek to collaborate with other artists, which I do with Maine College of Art + Design and artists incarcerated in Maine. I work with knitters and crocheters to establish exhibitions of fiber art, and I was scheduled to teach a knitting and crochet class in the Maine prison system. My fellowship taught me that I can make a living and spread my knowledge as a teacher of knitting, spinning, and dyeing. For example, Lesley inviting me back to lead two workshops at her Jan Plan.
Now, I recognize that I have serious creative talents that not everyone has, and I am considering pursuing a graduate degree in textile arts.
You had three very distinct global experiences. How will the month that you spent in each location influence how you see the world and how you live in the world?
I now see the world as a much more real and accessible place. Even though towns and continents are very far away from each other, they all exist on this planet and are connected. And, people inhabiting those disparate places can stay connected through social media and online messaging such as WhatsApp. I am now part of many communities across Denmark, Scotland, and Chile. In many ways, they were and are my home. I now know I have places to land and visit when I need to and people around the world who support, nurture, and validate me. I found my wool-obsessed community while abroad.
Hand-making textiles and working with wool connects so much of the world, across language and physical barriers. I take my three-month experience with me, and it lives inside me and in the garments I make and show to people. Every time I present my hand-dyed weavings or homespun Faroese yarn to people, my experiences come alive and inspire me again and again. Back in the States, I forage for plants to dye wool with in the Mapuche style, I blend layers of wool to spin like the Faroese, I sew unused knit panels from the Jamieson’s of Shetland mill. My fellowship made my own world a whole lot bigger and fuller, with people, places, and lots of wool.
You came to Maine for the first time to attend Colby, and now you have decided to stay. What prompted you to stay in Maine and what do you like about living in Portland?
Since coming to Maine to go to Colby, I completely fell in love with the state. As a Midwesterner, I knew I wanted to move to a new place that I loved and that represented who I was as an independent person. In Portland, I love being surrounded by nature, the ocean and in a cozy, New England feel. I love being in a community of people who love the outdoors, who have a real passion for creativity, and who are really kind. Portland is a very loving and down-to-earth place, which I really enjoy. I also have many connections around Maine. I love that I can drive an hour north and be with old friends or be in the woods.
You talked about your desire to open a shop featuring hand-knit items made by artists you met during your travels. Expand on that, please—both your vision and why it’s appealing, and what needs to happen for your vision to become reality?
To make this happen, I first need more financial stability. I won’t be able to rent a storefront to house this vision without the financial means to do so. I need to find the right town to establish this business, ideally Portland. But, I need to find and cultivate an audience, which I would like to do through the online platform of social media and through developing my own career in the arts. I also need to connect with the artists I met abroad and source their opinions on this idea and work with them on methods of compensation. Some artists, designers, weavers, and dyers I hope to include are Signabogardur, Kristianna a Tugvu, Shisa Brand, Elizabeth Johnson, Silly Sheep Fiber Co, Alana McGuinness, Julia Downing of JuST Shetland, Wooly Wyvern, Paty Ayelef from Taller Witral, and the Mapuche Women’s Weaving Group in Southern Chile.
I also want this place to feature other knitwear designers, especially young ones like me, here in the States. It’s important for me to foster and create a platform for fiber artists to share their work because I haven’t seen this type of space in our country yet. In countries such as Denmark, Scotland, and Chile it is very normalized to have collectives where knitters sell their handknits, dyed wool, and handspun yarn. I want the public to see and appreciate handknit items because they are all around us, in our families, in our homes, and deserve to be celebrated.
What are you working on now?
In terms of my own art, I am really developing my own sense of style as a creator. I just finished knitting a pair of sleeves, also called a shrug, with different types of textural scrap yarn. The piece incorporated lots of color and free-form design, which really represent my personal sense of style. I have also been spinning yarn in which I leave raw, curly locks of wool hanging out of the yarn to then knit into free-form dresses and sweaters. Currently, I’m very interested in combining yarns of different textures and thicknesses as well as my own handspun to make experimental garments. I am also throwing and glazing pots in a Boston pottery studio and making a collection of beaded rings.
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