Made of the Earth
Neil Goss weaves naturally foraged
and dyed fibers into contemporary textiles
By Kate Mothes
Originally from Kansas, Neil Goss‘s Asheville, North Carolina-based practice blurs the boundary between art, craft, and design. As a teenager, he was fascinated by the tactility of fabrics and spent a lot of time making quilts and clothes, which led to studying textile design as an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas. “I was always painting as well and had a stronger art mindset than a design mindset, but I had decided I wanted to do fashion design in college,” he says. Since the university didn’t offer a fashion program, working with textiles presented the next best thing. “Early in my time there, I took the introduction to weaving class, and I was hooked. It took me back into the art mindset as it unveiled the fiber arts realm of textiles.”
Goss began experimenting with a traditional weaving method performed on a backstrap loom, so named because its simple yet effective technology allows the mobile loom to be strapped around the weaver’s waist and around something like a tree or post to provide tension. Backstrap weaving is one of the oldest known forms of weaving, and evidence of its use can be traced back as far as the Bronze and Iron Ages in Central and South America. Working with this method and acknowledging its ties to Indigenous American cultures, Goss started to examine the world around him more closely and considering how materials and processes could be derived directly from the Earth as they would have been done for thousands of years. “I was learning a lot about plants in regards to being edible, medicinal, or used for fiber and dyeing, and I started riding my bike out into the country and collecting natural materials to use. I began viewing the Earth as an art supply store. I wanted my art to be made of natural materials and be easily biodegradable or decompose if left to the elements.”
“I started riding my bike out into the country and collecting natural materials to use. I began viewing the Earth as an art supply store.”
Environmental sustainability and how materials are made heavily influence Goss’s choice to focus on natural materials. “I was no longer interested in the ease of accessibility and use of contemporary synthetic art materials. I wanted to be closer to my materials and processes,” he says, and shares that he attributes the meditative, methodical practice of weaving to soothing his experiences of obsessive-compulsive disorder. “The number sequences for threading and treadling meshed well with my OCD,” he explains, further sharing that he sees art as a form of therapy, and it never sat right with him that it should then result in “a beautiful piece of toxic trash.” Being able to responsibly forage and prepare materials puts his mind at ease.
Traditionally worked outdoors, backstrap weaving lends itself to working almost anywhere, and Goss feels most connected to his work when he is making it in the open air. “I am drawn to the nature experience because that is where we should truly be: connected to nature, being in nature, and being a part of nature,” he says. While he has been making pieces using larger, static looms in his studio, he itches to get outside. To dye the fiber, he looks for materials that are “on their way out” like food waste or rusted objects, in addition to dry things like barks and nuts that store easily. When selecting living plants, he tries to focus on specimens that are plentiful so that there’s no chance of over-harvesting. “I have really honed my specific colors and largely use the same plants over and over again,” he says. “My favorite dye plant is sumac. It is always in large quantity and is usually easy to find in most places.”
Goss is currently collaborating on an exhibition called Woven Mountain Gallery in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in collaboration with a local collector who offered up a space to showcase work from Goss’s studio, which has amassed throughout his home over time. “For instance, where I should have food in kitchen cupboards, I have rolls and rolls of weavings,” he says. The project will regularly rotate in different work and host monthly events that include opening receptions, weaving and dyeing workshops, live music, and guest cooks.
“I wanted to be closer to my materials and processes.”
All images © Neil Goss. All photographs by the artist, with the exception of the last photograph of the exhibition Biocentric Interconnectedness by Gigi Bio.