A unique legacy in books

By Tamie Meck

A unique  legacy in books | Back Page

Photos by Tamie Meck Katherine Colwell's book, "Red White and Blue in Utah 1988," measures almost 22 feet in length and includes her photographs, embroidery, sketches and text. Some details of her work are so intricate that they are best studied under a

To say that Katherine Colwell has authored many books is a misnomer.

To explain her numerous works, including her showpiece, "Red White and Blue in Utah 1988," forget that books are made of pages, bound between two covers, read left to right, front to back.

Forget that books are categorized as fiction and non-fiction.

Now, imagine a book that, when open, stretches out to almost 22 feet in length. It is divided into four chapters, and weighs 3.5 pounds. To read it, your eyes feast upon words, photographs, embroidered images, sketches in graphite and colored pencil. A magnifying glass helps reveal the complex details of the story.

A rare, original book -- a legacy, unlike any other.

People may not understand it, "but that's ok," said Katherine.

Katherine originally envisioned "RWBinU88" in 2006. The time spent in Utah, surrounded by clouds, sky, rock, "It just felt like red, white and blue." After years of figuring out how it all fits together, and once it was proofread, she and husband Joe, an author of nature books, introduced it to the public at "Nature in Art and Word," an open house and arts reception at their home, Colwell Cedars Retreat, on Redlands Mesa.

Guests stayed for a long time, said Colwell. "We didn't even have wine."

Contained in the pages of "RWBinU88" are 38 plein air drawings of some of Utah's most spectacular and remote scenery, embroidery replicas of those drawings, and photographs taken by Katherine. Its four chapters are measured in thickness when folded, and divided by years. A selection of drawings is meticulously stitched in detail into fabric, collected from sewing clubs. Bead spacers are sewn carefully in place to prevent pages from rubbing on one another when the book is closed.

Books are an important part of Joe and Katherine's lives.

Katherine, whose artistic career spans more than 37 years, has exhibited her works locally and nationwide. She earned a bachelor's degree in fine art from the University of Northern Colorado in 1978 and earned her teacher's certification in surface stitchery from the Council of American Embroiderers in 1989 and a K-12 art specialist teacher certification from Black Hills State University in South Dakota in 1994. Her works combine studies in apparel design and construction, fine hand sewing, fine art, and poetry. The books were originally inspired by a book on making books. "I thought it would be different," said Katherine.

She began with small practice books -- with pages only an inch or two in size -- using etchings, embroidery and wood cuts. She eventually scaled up in size, and now has numerous books in various sizes, shapes and dimensions. The panels of her largest book to date, RWBinU88, are 12 inches high and 13 inches wide.

Joe has a bachelor's degree in wildlife management from the University of Idaho in Moscow, and worked 27 years with the U.S. Forest Service. His legacy is in printed word. He has authored three books, including "Canyon Breezes: Exploring Magical Places in Nature," based on his 45 years of work in the West, from the north coast of California to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Colorado Rockies. Katherine is his photographer.

Joe's books are available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble and locally at book stores and museums. He has given many readings, including at the July open house and last week at the Paonia Library.

The whole publishing experience has been interesting, said Joe, who thanked designer Constance King for her help in the process. He dreaded it for years, "but the experience has been not all bad."

While they traveled extensively in their early years together, today they find much of their inspiration at home at Colwell Cedars Retreat.

Both are trained environmental education facilitators. They offer workshops, art assessments and mentoring in drawing, design, technique and more. They challenge their students to use art in unique ways, and their retreat offers a safe place for creativity and contemplation.

The Colwells purchased the 40-acre property in 1990, finding it by chance after reading about Paonia in the High Country News. They decided to look at the property, and agreed not to make any hasty decisions. But the land, the views of Grand Mesa, the canyons of the Gunnison River and beyond spoke to them, and by the end of the day they were under contract. They retired to the property in 1998, and held their first retreat that year.

"There is a special feeling about this place," said Joe. It's mostly high desert with sage and cedar, but a year-round spring creates habitat for vegetation and wildlife. There are bunnies (this year's wet weather brought lots of bunnies), deer and birds, including three pair of nesting lazuli bunting.

The property holds remnants of a homestead occupied for 30 years by Hazel Short, also known as Hazel the Hermit. Starting in the 1930s she cast all of her junk into the gully. While most of it was hauled off, the more interesting pieces were left in place, and "Junk Trail," one of many named trails at the retreat, was created around it. "It's part of the spirit of the place," said Joe, who is penning Hazel the Hermit's story for publication on their website.

The retreat offers lodging with full kitchen space and handicap accessibility, and can accommodate meetings, workshops and retreats.

"It's just a nice getaway," said Joe. Visitors are invited to sign a guest book, and a U.S. map is dotted with pins marking their home towns.

At the July open house, an exhibit of watercolors by local artist Susan Blackstock marked the first time they have used their classroom as a gallery. They also collected a $3 suggested donation and gave the money to Carrie Yantzer, principal at Hotchkiss K-8 school, for mural projects to be painted by students inside the school. While it's a modest donation, said Katherine, "it can go a long way toward purchase of paints."

Carrie said she and her students and the school's cooking instructors prepared and served food, and helped with signage. They were honored to be a part of it and attend the book reading. Partnering with the Colwells and other area organizations fits well with the school's mission statement "to produce productive citizens through G.R.I.T -- Growth, Resiliency, Inte-GRITy and Tenacity."

While Joe is contemplating another book and penning essays for their website, Katherine is using her time stitching to contemplate and explore new ideas. Her studio is a display case of unique books, each representing countless hours of creativity and history.

"My Women" is a crazy-quilted-pieced book. Katherine is a descendent of the Smiths who arrived on the ship Mayflower. The book reflects 14 generations of women in her family. It contains hand-dyed silk fabrics, hand and machine embroidery, and hand quilting. The fabric backing is all made from hankies once owned by Joe's mother.

The book evolved out of the "My Family Heritage" challenge put forth by the S&B Quilting Club in Hotchkiss, said Katherine.

"Collecting trees" is based on trees in the North Park area. It includes embroidery, silk on linen, sumi painting, monotype, reverse felting, turkey bleach resistant dye process, handmade felt, silk painting with wax resist, etchings, etching with chine-collé print, white ink printing on black silk, and sun printing.

It's interesting to watch the evolution of the books, said Joe. "Very original. I've never seen anything like it."

Katherine said one of the challenges of her creations is in packing and shipping. She found a local solution after read a local story on a custom shipping company in Cedaredge. For the final process, she plans to have custom shipping boxes made.

She hopes to one day see her books in a rare books library, where they can be both protected and accessible to the public, and is already planning on creative ways to use sketches from 2001 in a design for another one-of-a-kind book. It will be different, she said.

And if her previous works are any indication, it will be rare and wonderful.