Written by Sasha Wirth and photographed by Paige Green
Bark, seaweed, and dried artichokes might not seem like typical materials to pair with soft tufts of wool, but in the hands of designer Keyaira Marie Terry, they become transformed, coming together naturally in her modern fiber art and woven goods.
“My pieces are tactile. They have texture and dimension. Those are the details that tell a story,” she says, running her hand over a tapestry in progress. A jagged piece of eucalyptus bark floats through its center buoyed by bubbles of grey wool above and below.
“Each piece carries an emotion, a memory. I’m trying to understand a story I can’t quite describe. It’s what my whole life has been about,” she smiles gently, letting her fingers fall away and readjusting her tortoiseshell glasses. “Holding onto the history of something. And transforming it in the process.”
This drive to create, share and uphold stories infuses her entire home-based studio. From the houseplant in her kitchen (passed down — and impressively kept alive — from her great-great-grandmother) to the old canning jars displaying her signature brass and gold hardware (dug up in the ‘Boneyard’ of her in-law’s ranch, where items have been lost and found spanning generations), Terry chooses the meaningful over the easily-accessible; the vintage over the mass-produced. This attitude carries over into her process as much as her design work, where no detail is too small or insignificant.
Whether it’s designing and special ordering the exact needle, comb or tool she needs for her weaving classes, constructing looms her students will use or having every dowel custom-milled locally to her specifications by Beam and Branch Co., Terry, understands what she needs to work – and what works best. Which is why she also makes each large loom on display in her studio and for her installation pieces.
“With a floor loom, you’re stuck to a pattern or a direction. Tapestry looms free your creativity. You can start anywhere, work in any direction. And I’m able to make them exactly the way I need them to be,” she explains. Her shoulders straighten, and she gives a satisfactory nod.
“I believe in being self-sufficient and working around problems. I’ll find or make what I need. There is no other way.”
Her work with nails and needles, however, didn’t begin with tapestries. It was while she was working as a phlebotomist that her current creative journey began. During the day she focused on blood work, but at night she sewed her own scrubs and started testing prototypes for an old-style doctor’s bag. She used the skills she inherited from her grandmother, who taught her to sew as a child, to make a carpet bag that became a hit with co-workers and patients.
“It was essentially a Mary Poppins bag,” she laughs, her thick bangs falling across her forehead. “A bag big enough to hold everything I needed for work. Everyone who saw it wanted one. They began placing orders, and before I knew it, the bags were being sold locally and flying off the shelves.”
Terry opened an Etsy shop under a modified version of her own name (Keyaiira) and began to explore what other artisans were doing. “Tapestries. I just kept coming across them! And I loved the idea of artwork made from fiber, but the execution wasn’t speaking to me. I wasn’t seeing what I wanted,” she says. “Traditional weaving tends to focus on pictorials and scenes. But I’m drawn to the abstract. To lots of patterns and textures. And definitely geometric shapes.” She gestures to her gold rhombus earrings and grins.
There was no choice, therefore, but to make her own tapestry. Her husband gifted her a loom, and when Terry sat down to weave her first piece, she knew she’d found a new passion.
“There is such a unique element to weaving. You have to move your body with the fiber as you create. There’s a unity. A visual accomplishment as you proceed in your work. Everything happens organically,” she shares. “And the tactile experience is engaging – how the wool hangs, how it feels. It can be like butter through your hands. Or it can be exfoliating. The final effect is incredibly varied.”
Appreciating these nuances is what led Terry to source a portion of her materials from local producers, including Northern California Fibershed members.
“Aren’t these lovely?” she exclaims, opening the door to a secondhand hutch. It’s painted a cheery mustard color and is filled with large skeins of yarn. There’s hand-felted fiber from Mendocino Wool & Fiber Inc and cumulus clouds of natural white roving by Lani Estill, owner of Lani’s Lana. They represent a few of the Northern California producers who will be featured in Terry’s solo show opening March 7 at Gallery 212 at The Sonoma Community Center.
The theme is ‘NEST – Leather + Fiber: a love story.’ The show will merge Terry’s fiber art with her leather work, which in recent years has become its own bestselling product line along with her tapestries, woven home goods and commissioned pieces.
Following the lead of a magpie or sparrow, she plans to forage for natural materials to incorporate into her pieces. From pumice grass to eucalyptus bark, she’ll keep an eye out as she heads to her husband’s family homestead up north. It’s her happy place. The spot where she can relax and allow inspiration to take its hold.
“At the ranch, it’s still and quiet. The air is clean, and you can breathe. See all the stars. Just be. One of the few pieces I actually haven’t been able to part with is a scene from up there.”
She points to a small tapestry hanging by her front door, woven in earthy and cloudy shades, and begins to describe the thick line of fog that descends upon the land. How it cuts a distinct line and is reflected in the sky above and the pond below. And there it appears, in the stitches and roving – the exact scene she is describing.
It’s this abstract yet grounded essence that makes her pieces one-of-a-kind. The mixing of soft and rough; leather and wool; flora and fauna. It’ll be on full display at her gallery show, where she expects to showcase chunky crocheted baskets with leather detailing, tapestries with big ethereal bubbles, and airy hammocks. Terry is also enlisting the help and skills of fellow local dye artists. Indigo farmer Craig Wilkinson will provide his unique composted indigo dyes, and Alisha Reyes at Fiber Circle Studio will be using avocado to create unusual hues.
Terry heads to her home office. It’s a bright, modern space full of open shelving. From the wrap-around desk to the large pegboard wall, almost everything has been made or designed by Terry and her husband.
“Down to the walnut dowels on the pegboard,” she laughs. “What else would you expect?”
There is a place for everything and a story behind each item. There are the jars from the aforementioned Boneyard and an imprinting machine that belonged to her mother when she made custom magnets decades ago. There are strips of leather and sample leather hanging files that she’s considering for her home goods line.
Yet what quietly stands out is a print hanging on the wall. It reads: I still remember the days I prayed for the things I have now. Those words sum up Terry’s outlook – on life and her design work – perfectly. For her, the hustle is real, but so is the gratitude and excitement for what she creates. There may be a lot to do before the show, but she’s ready for it.
Like the promise of a visit from Mary Poppins and her carpet bag, one is left anticipating what Terry will pull out next – whether for her show, her product line, or a commissioned piece. Because whatever it is, it will be very much of her own signature making.
‘NEST – Leather + Fiber: a love story’ opens Thursday, March 7 at Gallery 212 at The Sonoma Community Center, 276 E Napa St, Sonoma, CA 95476. Opening night hours are 5:30-7:30 pm. The show runs from March 7th through March 30th.