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Culture of the Craft: New Zealand artist leads a weaving class at Watermark Art Center

Karl Rangikawhiti Leonard works with participants of a weaving class on Thursday at the Watermark Art Center. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 4
Karl Rangikawhiti Leonard brought multiple examples of his work to a weaving class at the Watermark Art Center. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 4
Karl Rangikawhiti Leonard scrapes the fiber out of a flax leaf during a class at the Watermark Art Center on Tuesday. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 3 / 4
Karl Rangikawhiti Leonard shows a traditional garment he weaved during a Tuesday class at the Watermark Art Center. In addition to the process of weaving, Leonard explained some of the history and culture behind the craft. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 4 / 4

BEMIDJI—For three days, Karl Rangikawhiti Leonard brought his native Maori culture from New Zealand to the Minnesota Northwoods.

Leonard taught a weaving course at Watermark Art Center from May 1-3. But while the act of weaving may have been the focus of the event, it incorporated much of Maori culture and concepts. In starting the class, he spoke of his family, his home, his heritage and the weaving that has come to define much of his career.

Intertwining cultural aspects with the making of art itself has been part of the goal for the local art center. Karen Goulet, who helped organize the class, said they try to have opportunities to learn about one another's cultures through the undertaking of art practices at the center.

"We're looking at trying to connect people to each other through the arts," Goulet said. "We're trying to have an intercultural dialogue that can be really beneficial to everyone who participates."

With Polynesian music playing in the background, Leonard opened his program with a greeting in Maori. In doing so, Leonard set the stage for introducing not only the art of weaving but much of the culture that goes along with it.

"(I was) greeting you as the living face of all those of your family and friends who have passed on," Leonard said. "We believe that when we meet people, we don't just meet two physically. It's their meeting as well. It's like you and your entourage are meeting me and my entourage."

That philosophy came through during the class, as he revealed the legacy that has brought him to be an internationally known weaver. A part of that legacy began with his grandmother who was weaving almost until her last days at the age of 112.

Today, Leonard works as a weaver full time, creating clothing for native Maori dancers.

"Some projects you'll do in between other projects," Leonard said. "Whatever we're weaving starts to build up its own narrative because it's actually a reflection also of what was going on at the time—the people you were with, the atmosphere that was going on... it gathers a story."

Much of the work he does relies on intense, labor-intensive processes.

A large portion of the work comes in the project's preparation. When working on his own projects, he makes his fiber strands from flax leaves. That alone can take weeks, depending on the size of the project. He demonstrated the process in class on Tuesday, using a mussel shell to weed out the fiber strands from the plant leaf.

He says creating his own fiber threads, harvested from the long plants, also forces him to be more creative in the dyes and patterns of his projects.

While the small class began the process of making a weaving project over the three-day period, Leonard's own projects are not always so simple. His longest project, a cloak is only now nearing completion after more than 30 years in the works.

In spite of the effort that goes into the work, it's a way to preserve the history and culture of the craft that has been part of the Maori culture for so long.

"The purpose of continuing these practices is—if you don't, you lose little bits of the technique that are difficult to pick up again," Leonard said "It's not saying that you can't innovate and you can't change. You can. But it's about maintaining the integrity and the practice of something."

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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