Creating art hasn’t made Debbie Cooter rich, but she said she has no regrets about a life lived weaving together creativity, marriage, home and business — figuratively and literally.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” she said.
She has been handweaving for more than 40 years and has built a home and career based around fiber arts. She and her husband, potter Dick Cooter, built their Two Harbors home in 1983, and they created her personal studio on the property in 2003. Within her home studio, she creates rugs, mittens, blankets and scarves, and is experimenting with other clothing. She said she enjoys having her own work space.
“It's really nice because I can be in there at any time of day or night, depending on what I do, and Dick can’t hear me,” she said. “I just feel really strongly that everybody needs their own space.”
Cooter first learned her craft from a Two Harbors friend whose family immigrated from Finland, bringing along the knowledge of how to build the looms. Cooter said there were many looms in the area when she started, 50 by her recollection, owned by women and men.
“It was a Finnish and Scandinavian culture, and people brought that culture with,” she said.
The looms are a simple machine that people would build from wood, string and a few metal parts.
“They really are beautiful pieces of furniture,” Cooter said.
Over the years, Cooter strengthened her weaving skills by going to “show and tells,” about twice a year with other weavers, where the learning is hands-on. She can differentiate local weavers’ work by the stylistic choices they make. The fibers drawn horizontally through a piece, the weft, are most prominent. But variations in design can be created by varying the color of the warp, too, the fibers running up and down a piece that are fixed to the loom. It used to be that weavers would use only white warp because it was cheaper, Cooter said. Work being created nowadays can have black or colored warps. Cooter recalled a friend who dyes her warp to create rainbow effects.
Even more variations can be created by the type of “harness” weavers use to adjust the warp fibers. When using a “two harness,” the pattern can be only plain weave, Cooter said. “But if you have four harnesses, you can start to make patterns. You can start to make geometrics.”
Fabric choices also distinguish weavers’ work. “One woman just uses corduroy. Another uses little strips of paper. Some people only use wool,” Cooter said.
The color choices made by weavers are another way to identify their work. Cooter uses many primary colors and recycled materials, primarily working with cotton and wool she dyed herself.
In the past, Cooter has used some toxic chemicals for dyeing, but now chooses natural resources found near her home. She dyes fibers in the summer to take advantage of rainwater, which doesn’t have the minerals that her well water has. From her home garden, tomato plants and rhubarb leaves can provide colors. Nearby fields yield tansy and goldenrod. In Mexico, Cooter has purchased cochineal, an insect that provides red colors.
“By collecting things that are in the woods and in the fields, I can have a whole palette of colors,” she said.
Cooter said she has gotten accustomed to working alone in her studio on the woods.
“The process of figuring out the design for the rugs takes time to think about,” she said. “You just can’t beat working for yourself. Just being able to immerse yourself in a place that's totally your own is really, really grounding. I feel really, really lucky to have my own work space.”
In her studio, Cooter has four looms. One is for scarves, one for blankets. One is five feet wide, another is smaller. Some projects take a lot of heavy lifting, and “some days I go in there and think, ‘I just don’t have the strength for that today,’” she said. Having multiple looms allows Cooter to switch between projects and focus on what type of work she has the most energy for each day. Involved in all steps of her artistic process, she switches between dyeing, cutting, sewing, weaving, preparing the warp, collecting ingredients and creating yarn with her spinning wheel.
“And I’m really proud of this: after a couple of years, all of my bobbins are full,” she said.
In the past, Cooter would take commissions, but now mostly chooses to start and finish the projects she most desires.
“I think it’s wonderful to work with color,” she said. “Like in the fall for instance, people would want pastels, like baby blues and stuff like that. And that’s not what I want to work with in the fall. I want to work with rust.” When working with other people’s color choices, she said, “it is really taxing to try to make what they think they want.”
Working with fiber has given Cooter a two-dimensional mind, she said. “I can’t think in 3-D. Dick makes pots, and I can’t do that. It’s very different. Some people are really well-rounded that way.”
While she does not help with the design elements with her husband’s pottery, she does help with the firing process, which takes place three to four times a year. The couple uses a wood fire and takes shifts on the 36-hour process to complete the ceramics in the kiln.
At times, Cooter has taken on part-time work to sustain her artistic endeavors. Ultimately though, she said, “If a young person has a desire to pursue a career in art, they should do it.”
One of her past jobs was to work as a school-bus driver, where she’d hear parents and others telling children they’ll “never make any money” as an artist.
“I think that’s a terrible thing,” she said. “I think a lot of workplaces completely eliminate the creativity of their work. And I don’t know how people do it. You know, we just don’t have forever to do something. I think people are crazy to not pursue what they really want to do, no matter what it is.”
Art tour and sale
This fall, the Cooters will host an art sale alongside other artists selling products such as jewelry, leather, clothing and other functional handmade art pieces.
What: “Cooter Tonder & Friends Art Tour”
When: Oct. 4-6 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: 2046 Fors Road, Two Harbors
Jessica Morgan is a Duluth freelance writer and musician. ARTIST SPACES is a series featuring artists and where they live or work. If you are an artist or know an artist with a great space, send your info to firstname.lastname@example.org.