Artist Profile: Susan Barrett-Merrill

Susan Barrett-Merrill returns to Fiber College this year! This amazing artist has an impressive background and she continues to find intriguing ways to help diverse populations through her fiber arts instruction. She has quite a following at Fiber College and she’ll be teaching two classes on Saturday afternoon: Spinning in the Grease from 12 to 1 PM, and then Woven Altars from 1:30 to 4:30. Here’s Susan.

Fiber sculptor, author and teacher Susan Barrett Merrill attended Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studied art at the Aegean School of Fine Arts in Greece, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in education and art from Goddard College in Vermont, and received a graduate degree from New Experimental College in Jutland, Denmark.


Susan and her friends create an Earth Loom.

Susan has been spinning and weaving since her early 20s. She is a self-taught weaver. She taught weaving and spinning at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts.

Susan’s Saturday afternoon students will create woven altars.

She has taught weaving at the Alcyon Center for Spiritual Studies, at retreats for cancer survivors, and has taught a special weaving program to therapists who work with wounded warriors and trauma survivors. She has been artist in residence for two months at the Carriage House Gallery and for six weeks in 2015 at the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast.


Susan loves to spin in the grease.

The unique mask weaving technique Susan uses came to her in a dream. She was shown how to weave faces, and when she awoke, she tried it on her loom. (Ed. note: You can read more about Susan’s mask-making below.)

Susan's Mother Earth Mask.

Susan’s Mother Earth Mask.

Susan’s fiber sculptures have been in two exhibitions at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine (home of the Wyeth collection); at the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME. She has had solo exhibitions at the Wenham Museum, Wenham, MA, and the White Gallery, Husson University, Bangor, ME.

Susan reflects on her fiber art at a showing at the Maine Fiber Arts Gallery.

Susan reflects on her fiber art at a showing at the Maine Fiber Arts Gallery.

Susan’s masks were featured a dance performance tour in Sarajevo and the Republic of Georgia. A pair of masks titled Singing Into The Wind, were exhibited in the invitational International Fiber Biennale in Chieri, Italy, and are now in the permanent collection of the Chieri Museum. Chieri is an ancient weaving city, the source of the original blue denim.

Susan’s smile is so memorable!

Susan’s articles on weaving and personal discovery, either as author or co-author with her husband, have appeared in Voices, the Journal of the American Academy of Psychotherapy; Handwoven, the foremost magazine for hand weavers, and Living Crafts magazine. She is a pioneer in the field of fiber arts education for people with disabilities, and has represented the United States at symposia on arts and disabilities in Kobe, Japan and Washington, D.C.

You can still sign up for one or both of Susan’s classes at this year’s Fiber College. You are guaranteed to experience fiber in thrilling, new ways.

Susan tells us a bit more about her mask-making:

Why I Make Mask Sculptures

The technique for weaving a mask (which I have at times called Zati masks) came to me in a dream on August 13, 1989. In the dream, I was living near Barcelona, Spain attending a university. Walking in the woods, I came to an old road, where a single bullock cart with large hand-made wooden wheels stood unhitched and filled with extraordinary woven masks. I had never seen anything like them before. Each one was like a jewel, woven and felted and embellished with its own headdress. I was curious to see how they were made.

At that moment I saw a group of women on the far side of the wagon wearing long red skirts with aprons. One came to me with a mask in her hands. “This one is for you,” she said. She invited me to come and share food with them. I asked, “How do you make these?” And the woman who had given me the mask explained in detail how she had woven mine. She said, “This mask will teach you something very important about yourself. When you find out what that is, share it with others.” That was the gift of the mask.

When I awoke, I immediately wove the face of the mask on a warp that was already on the loom. Since then I have created well over one hundred masks.

The Latin persona means mask. Historically, masks played the role of shifting our point of view from logical to symbolic thinking. Masks act as gatekeepers for the opening between the world of objects and the mystery.

Anyone who has donned a mask and thought about the experience realizes that the mask, in concealing the face, which is the prime expression of the personality, frees something inside. The mask allows us to express other parts of ourselves with a feeling of freedom from our ordinary existence.

So in concealing, the mask paradoxically reveals. The use of masks in evoking spiritual presence is proof of the process. Both the mask-wearer and the viewers of the ritual participate in this joining of their inner selves with a spiritual presence.

Masks reveal the many disguises of the creator’s spirit just as our own faces do. Myths and stories begin with concrete experience and evolve into cultural symbols which connect our human lives with the life of the spirit we all recognize. Symbols are able to convey a deeper meaning than literal stories. The mask, when approached with respect for ourselves, can show us our inherent powers of vision and the greater patterns of meaning in our lives.

The spirit of the mask represents a concentration of one’s own psychic energy, offering a dialogue between the ego and other aspects of our persona. The mask you make yourself contains power for you because it manifests in concrete form some part of yourself that would like to speak to you. A series of your own masks can reveal to you an entire personal mythology.

Making a mask initiates us into the possibility of identifying with the enlivening force just behind the face we wear every day.


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