Interviewsand Articles


Interview: Lucy Traber: Coming to One's Senses

by Richard Whittaker, Jul 6, 2006



In the middle of a busy art opening it’s always a challenge talking with an artist one’s never met, but I persisted. There are always multiple demands on the artist’s attention. I liked Traber’s elegant woven pieces on exhibit at the Berkeley Art Center and was curious to meet her, especially when I learned that her baskets and sculptural forms were made from kelp. Having spent many days on Southern California beaches, I was familiar with kelp, but the idea of its use for making baskets had never crossed my mind. Competing with others crowding around the quiet, gray-haired woman, on a whim, I asked her if she had ever surfed.
     “I still do,” she replied with a hint of relish. It was the kind of shock that delights, as it turns one’s stereotypical assumptions upside down. A surfing grandmother!  

    Immediately I wanted to talk with Traber at more length. Would she be willing to meet sometime later on? She would. So one afternoon at the art center we got together. I started with the kelp…

Richard Whittaker:  I’m curious to know how you came to be working with kelp. What are the beginnings of that?

Lucy Traber:  I have to go way back to my childhood. My family was very much into nature. My parents were biologists. We’d go on lots of camping trips. I remember as a kid just picking up sticks and stones, building little houses, digging clay from the riverbank and making little pots—just working with natural material. My love of nature has continued all through my life, but I didn’t think of making forms out of fibers until my youngest child was in school.

RW:  How old were you when you began making things from sticks and clay?

LT:  I was about five. I also remember jumping in the ocean and not wanting to come out at all. I was just entranced with the ocean. My whole childhood was spent up in trees and in lakes and rivers and the ocean, the woods. I was out there.

RW:  So you didn’t want to leave the ocean.

LT:  No. I love water. I jump into it every chance I get, and I’m still jumping in it here. It’s very cold.

RW:  Do you go in without a wet suit?

LT:  It depends on the season. In September, Stinson Beach is warm enough without a wetsuit, but I do have a wetsuit and I like to boogie-board. I try to find people to go with me, but they’re few and far between.

RW:  Where do you boogie-board?

LT:  Stinson Beach. It’s the best boogie-boarding beach that I’ve ever encountered. The surf is always great. In the fall, the water isn’t too cold, but a couple of weeks ago I went and I needed my wetsuit. This time of year, it’s very cold.

RW:  I’m tempted to join you, but let’s go back to where you were telling me about the little things you built.

LT:  We’d camp by a stream and we’d build little harbors…

RW:  We? That would be…

LT:  Two brothers and a sister and myself.

RW:  You all loved doing this…

LT:  Yes. We’d build these little stick houses, little log cabins, and put moss roofs on them. Just loved doing that!

RW:  There’s something about that, isn’t there? As a kid I built little roads and tunnels, roadscapes, and you’d get 100% absorbed in that.

LT:  Oh, yes! And also, when we were back home, and not out in the woods—our family didn’t have a whole lot of money, so we didn’t buy things—we just made things out of whatever we found around the house, what my father called a “goop-twiddle-box.” [laughs] Just contraptions. We were always inventing things.

RW:  Your father was supportive of that.

LT:  Oh yes.

RW:  And your mother, too?

LT:  Yes. My younger brother, David Harper, has become a sculptor, too. He also works with materials from nature, but he’ll use a hammer and nails, sometimes. He does very big, outdoor work.

RW:  So this is all part of your background that came before your discovery of kelp.

LT:  Of course, I didn’t know about kelp in those days because I lived back east. But when I married, we moved out to Berkeley and I began to notice kelp. But I had four young kids, and I had to get through all that. When the youngest was in kindergarten this urge just came over me to make forms out of plant fibers. I don’t know where it came from. It just surfaced! Then I had the time. I was a stay-at-home mom, and all those years I’d been totally busy.

RW:  So before the impulse to make these forms, had you been doing artwork before then?

LT:  Nothing serious. A little drawing. A little writing. Well, I went to college for a while and dropped out. Then I hitchhiked around Europe for a couple of years.

RW:  By yourself?

LT:  By myself. I went all over the place. I met a Swiss guy, but then I came back to this country. I had an involvement with another man who took me skin diving in Southern California. He took me to the kelp forests down there. That’s when I first started wearing a wetsuit and a snorkel and facemask. No scuba tank.

RW:  Where are these kelp forests?

LT:  There’s a whole forest off Catalina. The water there is crystal clear and the leaves of kelp are beaded with all these little bubbles. It’s just like a Persian fairy tale with fish, instead of birds, flying through it. And there were seals circling around us slowly who were very curious about us creatures. [laughs]

RW:  Free-diving. You’re a good swimmer, I take it.

LT:  Yes. Then I went back to Switzerland and married this fellow. Then we came to Berkeley. Then we started having children. We’d take them to the beach quite frequently.
So, for years, I didn’t have time to think about being creative, other than having children. But when I got a little free time, this just came over me. I wanted to make forms, three- dimensional. They had to be three- dimensional.

RW:  What do you remember about your first encounters with kelp.

LT:  Well, you walk along the beach. We started making trumpets out of kelp. You can make sounds out of these wonderful shapes.

RW:  How do you do that?

LT:  You cut off two ends and then you blow through it. And you get these convoluted horns and then you have a little concert on the beach.

RW:  Wow. I’ve never even seen anyone do that. How did you…

LT:  It just sort of evolved. We went to visit an artist once before going to the beach, and he was making horns out of clay, ceramic horns. So when we got to the beach, we wondered, “Hmmm, I wonder if this would work?” And it did!

RW:  That’s very creative. I’ve seen kelp on the beach and I’ve picked it up, because it’s fascinating to look at. Sometimes it’s slimy.

LT:  Well, it depends. There are mounds of kelp, and they don’t smell too good. They’re decomposing. But if you have a single piece, which is separated from the bunch, it will dry very quickly. I pick up the dry piece and it has all these colors and patterns. That’s what I take home, the dry kelp. Then I soak it in my bathtub until it’s pliable. It only takes a few minutes in hot water. Then I work with it. I let the finished piece dry again. It lasts indefinitely.

RW:  So you were saying this impulse just came over you when your youngest went off to kindergarten. You wanted to make three-dimensional forms.

LT:  First I thought I’d like to do some weaving, so I took a class in Navajo loom, which I thought was pretty primitive. We carded our wool. We spun it. We dyed it. We made our looms. We made our shuttles, and we wove little things. I thought, “This is really complicated! This isn’t primitive! This is pretty sophisticated!” But what I wanted was something more primitive. So I thought, “What could that be?” And I thought, “Baskets!” I don’t need all these tools, just my hands and some fiber. Let’s see what I can do! So I began exploring local fields and gardens and woods and beaches. I discovered how to weave materials I found using ancient techniques. I felt I was reliving prehistory, but putting a contemporary spin on it.

RW:  What do you think is the source of that call toward the more primitive?

LT:  Again, my early upbringing, and nature. It’s all one thing.

RW:  A call back toward that.

LT:  Yes, to where we came from. Now this was in about 1970. As you undoubtedly know, in the seventies, we had this fiber revolution in Berkeley.

RW:  I know a little about it.

LT:  Well, there was a whole bunch of people who got interested in fiber arts. Some are very well known now, and a lot of them were into making baskets. It came over all of us. It hit us! We don’t know where it came from, it just came! We got together. We collaborated. We shared knowledge. We did shows. We got written up in books. We taught classes. It was fun!
     There was a lot of experimentation with all kinds of materials, not just natural fibers, but plastics and wire and so on. There were new forms, sculptural rather than functional baskets. Some huge things. Barbara Shawcroft made huge things that hang in the BART station. There was Gyongy Laky. She ran a fiber art school. Anyway, there were a lot of us.
     Then 1980 came and I couldn’t make anything anymore. I looked around and a number of my colleagues were having the same experience! The whole thing sort of died down. It came and it went. A few of us hung on and kept doing it, but it wasn’t the main focus anymore. It was an odd phenomenon. 
     The economy changed in 1980 with the Reagan administration. That was part of it. Suddenly, we couldn’t devote so much time to art. We had to get out there and get real jobs. I think that may have been the main reason it changed so suddenly.

RW:  It’s interesting how these things come and go in art, isn’t it? And when it goes, it seems to affect everybody.

LT:  It’s curious. A few of us did persist, but it has never been the big thing the way it was in the seventies.

RW:  So you’re one of those who has persisted?

LT:  Yes. But from 1980 to 1990 I was blocked. I kept experimenting. I was working with palm and willow and reeds and bark, all kinds of things, not just with kelp. But they just weren’t working. I didn’t like them. I just threw away my experiments. But eventually I decided that kelp was what I wanted to use. It was the most versatile, most delightful of materials. So I’m just using kelp now.

RW:  And when did you come to that decision?

LT:  Well, it was about 1990 that the forms started working again, and it was then, I think, that I was into kelp completely. I’ve been working ever since, and it’s gotten better and better.

RW:  So over a period of time you must accumulate a lot of pieces. What do you do with them?

LT:  Well the early ones, I got rid of. You outgrow them. And some I sold; some I gave away, and some I’d just toss. I keep this collection now, but it’s getting to be a little big for the room it’s in. If I ever do another show, I’m going to have to sell some stuff.

RW:  So how do you feel about selling your work?

LT:  I tried it for a while in the seventies and I didn’t like it. I sold easily, but I couldn’t keep up with the demand. I don’t like to work under pressure. I have to have open-ended time in which to work, to let things happen, to let pieces evolve the way they want.

I don’t like meeting deadlines. I’m not prolific. I might do three to six successful pieces a year, and the supply of kelp comes in abundantly only once a year.

RW:  It working on a piece like a meditative process?

LT:  I guess you could say that.

RW:  If you spend several weeks on a piece, there must be a lot of time spent just looking at it and checking in with yourself.

LT:  It’s a very sensual experience. I love the feel of kelp, the smell of kelp, the texture, the colors. I can’t say why, I just do. It’s not an intellectual thing. It’s not a philosophical—well, it is philosophical…  Let’s put it this way, I don’t have a big message. I just enjoy it.

RW:  So would you say that you’re following something that’s coming to you through the sensual?

LT:  Yes.

RW:  So that’s something you follow through your hands—and your eyes, too. But the hands… Tell me about that, following something through your hands.

LT:  I really should have a piece of kelp here for you to feel. It’s leathery. It’s elastic. I don’t know how to explain it. I do a lot of the forming of the sculpture when I’m sitting on my bed. I put a sheet over the bed. And there I am, covered with kelp, entangled.[laughs] It takes hours and hours and hours. Sometimes I put on a little music, but usually it’s just silence, because I like silence. It’s not intellectual.

RW:  Right. It’s sensual.

LT:  It’s a sensual, enjoyable experience.

RW:  Do we fail to honor the sensual side? And I’m not talking about titillation here. This is something else here.

LT:  Possibly. One thing is that we’ve become such a high-tech world, so computerized. I really need to keep in touch with the earth and its products. This is always a renewal. It’s a good balance. It’s centering, nurturing. Well, kelp, for instance, there’s no straight line in these sculptures. They’re irregular. They’re organic. They’re unpredictable. I never know exactly the way it’s going to turn out. It’s not cut and measured; it’s a happening. And yes, I have learned how to run a computer, but it’s not a great experience compared to working with these materials.
     I think the world has become way too computerized! I guess we needed it, because I don’t know how we could function without it now. But I think people are losing touch with their senses.
     For instance, have you noticed how many artificial fragrances there are in products now, like in detergents? It’s just a sickening, powerful, artificial scent that comes of people’s washing machines and dryers. I can’t smell the flowers anymore!
     And those people are very happy with all this. But they have lost touch with real smells. And of course, with their cell phones, they’re not listening to the birds. They’re just on their cell phones all the time. So anyway, for myself, I need to stay grounded and rooted with these materials.

RW:  So this is some of the philosophical part, then?

LT:  Yes. This is part of it.

RW:  Are there other parts?

LT:  Yes. When I work with the kelp, I have to feel what it wants to do. I have to tune into it. If I try to force it to do something that it doesn’t want to do, it doesn’t look good. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t turn out.
     So I have an idea of the form I want, but I have to listen to the kelp and see what it wants to do. If I do that, well, this sounds— It’s like there’s a spirit in it, that wants to manifest. We have a conversation, a dialogue together. I say, “Let’s try this.” And maybe the kelp will  say, “Okay.” Or it might say, “No way. I’m going to do this!” “Aha! That’s a good idea. Then let’s follow that.” So we work it out together. And the end result is always a surprise to me. It’s never quite what I envisioned. Kelp does it’s own thing and that makes it really great!
     It also does annoying little things. When it’s drying, it will develop warts and dents. It will go like this, [gestures, laughs] and twist like that! Then I say, “No, no, no. Let’s do this again!” There are times where I have re-soaked the sculpture and have redone it. We can do that over and over until we’re both satisfied and happy. [laughs] So we have our little arguments.

RW:  Well, so the philosophy of that…

LT:  … is go with nature. Go with life. Let it evolve. Let it unfold. There’s some control and guidance, but no domination.

RW:  Contact. A sense of relationship.

LT:  A sense of relationship.

RW:  Really to be in relationship, this is a big thing.

LT:  I’ve worked with children a lot teaching ceramics, and it’s the same with kids. This is how you do it. Let them find their own way and they’ll do something that I never even thought of that’s just beautiful! Unfortunately, they have other teachers who tell them, “This is the only way to do it.” It’s got to look like it came out of a factory. Then, if it doesn’t, then the kids think, “Oh, I can’t do anything.” I’m fighting this a lot of the time. So yes, the philosophy carries over into other areas. 

RW:  It’s important what you’re saying. Whenever this subject comes up about a relationship with nature and how we’re having less and less of that, I can’t help thinking of Carl Jung. Do you know his thought at all?

LT:  Yes. Quite well.

RW:  He’s so eloquent about the importance of developing some contact with ancient man, or those parts of us that are fundamental.

LT:  Well, that’s something about basketry. The techniques are very primitive. We’ve had them around for at least twenty thousand years, the same techniques for putting fibers together. You don’t use many tools, a cutting edge, maybe, then just your hands. I thrill to the primitive. I don’t know why. It’s just something I love! I’ve taught primitive art to kids, you know.

RW:  Do they relate to it?

LT:  Oh, they relate to it! We make rattles and we make pots out of clay.

RW:  Do you find yourself sometimes in a museum looking at basketry that’s maybe thousands of years old and feeling some relationship there?

LT:  Well, the very earliest baskets, of course, have decomposed. I think I’m drawn to African art. I think there’s some similarity with the African perspective. I like forms that are distorted and irregular.

RW:  I was talking with an artist, Joyce Hulbert, who does weaving and other things, but she also works as a conservator for archeologists. She repairs ancient weavings. To repair these things, she really has to go into the heart of the thing. She sees how each thread is made. It’s very intimate, and she says she sometimes gets a real feeling for the people who made the piece, even an understanding of them, somehow. It’s like entering their world. She calls this special experience “material knowledge.” Have you ever had a thought along those lines? Do you know what I’m saying?

LT:  Yes. I do. It’s a long story.

RW:  Well, let’s hear it.

LT:  [laughs] I was going to say that I thrill to the cave paintings. I was teaching a class in King Jr. High and we’d gone through the Paleolithic; we’d done our clay pots; we’d done our rattles. We chipped obsidian and made little blades. The kids loved it! These little razor sharp blades— I had band-aids ready. Then I did some research. What turned up was that at the beginning of the Neolithic, archeologists were digging up all these flat clay things, tokens. They didn’t know what they were used for. It was the first accounting system. One mark meant sheep, another cows, another grain, and so on. These little tokens were kept in a central place in open bowls—one for this farmer, another one for that. But these could easily be disturbed, spilled, stolen. So after a couple of thousand years, a genius came up with a new idea. “Let’s encase them in a hollow clay ball so nobody can tamper with them. When it comes time to change something, we’ll just break the boule and count up what’s in it, and then we’ll make a new boule. They would write on the outside what was inside and so on. That went on for another couple of thousand years. Then another genius came along and said, “Let’s stop making these boules. It’s too hard. Let’s make a flat clay tablet and just mark on it. We don’t need these little tokens. So that was the Sumerians with their cuneiforms. That was much easier.
     So I had the kids make these boules. We’d put little things inside and seal them up and decorate them. We also got the reed that was used to make the cuneiforms. It grows all over the world, and I had a bunch in my backyard. When you cut the stem it has a triangular cross section. So I took those to the kids and they were making these little triangular marks. It was so much fun! I loved reliving history and pre-history. I don’t know why.

RW:  That was a way not only for you, but the whole class to enter into ancient practice.

LT:  Yes. And then we had an exhibit here. I also had them making baskets with willow and New Zealand flax. They made wonderful baskets, just for weeks and weeks and weeks. They stuck to that. It’s very soothing.

RW:  They lucked out to get your class! So this was at Martin Luther King Jr. High?

LT:  Yes, for one year. Before that I was teaching at East Campus, at the Berkeley alternative high school—severely disturbed kids. It was a small program of twenty or fewer kids that I was lucky enough to find my way into, because I love working with disturbed kids. I love that which is a little distorted, a little irregular, a little strange. That attracts me.

RW:  What is it about that? There’s something there.

LT:  I like foreigners because they’re a little different. I’ve always been attracted to them. Well, it’s because I grew up feeling a little strange myself, and alienated. So I’m drawn to others who feel that way.

RW:  Why do you think you felt strange?

LT:  Because our family was strange. We didn’t do things the way the rest of the town did. Eccentric.

RW:  Just didn’t fit the conventional mold?

LT:  No. My parents emphasized that. They said, “Don’t follow the crowd. Be yourself!” Don’t worry about what other people think.

RW:  So it’s good on the one hand, but you pay a price.

LT:  You pay a price. But it’s been a great life.

RW:  How long have you been here in Berkeley?

LT:  We came here in 1958. We spent a few years in Europe. A year in LA. A couple of years in Mendocino. 

RW:  Here’s something. Recently I was doing a little stone carving. A friend of mine, Jane Rosen, got me down to her studio and gave me a nice piece of limestone. She has these hammers, mallets—they have a nice feel in one’s hand—and different steel chisels. You chip away. Turn the stone. Brush the chips off. Pick it up and turn it over, chip away. Turn it around, run your hand across it, look at it.
     Well, after awhile, I realized that the real pleasure of it was just the feel of the stone and the tools in the hands and just the standing there. That all felt like some kind of food.

LT:  Yes! Even if the sculpture doesn’t turn out, I feel like I have not wasted my time. I’ve had a good time. It’s a good way of putting it.
     There’s one other thing about kelp that I didn’t say. Aside from its delicious feel, it’s very long. Most plant fibers are very short and stiff. You always have to be joining them together to make something. But with kelp, you have these long, elastic pieces. It’s just easier to work with, in that sense.

RW:  The ideal fiber for you.

LT:  Yes. I wanted to work large and I was frustrated by these short fibers. It takes forever to make something really big, but with kelp I could make big things relatively quickly.

RW:  So working with kelp is something that you came to on your own?

LT:  Actually I believe I introduced it into the art world back in the 1970s. It was a new thing in the galleries.

RW:  Now tell me a little about your surfing.

LT:  Well, I’ve body surfed all my life.

RW:  When did you learn to swim?

LT:  I was eight. We dammed up a little stream, and all of a sudden I found I could swim in it.

RW:  On you own?

LT:  Yes. It was just very natural. I found I could paddle.

RW:  No fear?

LT:  Well, I had a few moments when I first started going out in deeper waters. I watched my grandson up in Mendocino when he was about this high. The beach had this big tidal pool in it. He was running in there and getting a bucket of water and running out and dumping it on the sand. Every time he went in, he’d go in a little further, a little deeper. I knew what was going to happen. All of a sudden the water is up to his nose. He says, “Help, grandma!” [laughs] “Help!” [more laughing]

I said, “Turn around slowly and walk out.” Which he did. I was ready to jump in if I had to, of course. But the panic: “Oh, my God!” Over my head! 

RW:  So the surfing. You learned to swim on your own.

LT:  Well, we’d go to the beach. My dad taught me body surfing. He’d take me out. We’d go over a wave and he’d still be holding my hand and we’d be under water, and then he’d let go. I’m in panic. He let go of me! What’s going to happen now? But the wave would always carry me up on the sand, and I’d be perfectly all right. I don’t know if he consciously was teaching me this, but I learned to trust the ocean. 

More on Traber's kelp sculpture...  


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine 


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