A love of cranes has helped Judith Roderick take flight. (above)
Two cranes on a silk canvas. (left)
Nature and art have woven the fabric of her life
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
If Judith Roderick’s life had shape, color, and texture, it would be very much like her paintings on silk: brilliant but subtle, deep and translucent, folding and fluttering in the breeze.
She presents herself as a quiet librarian, with a chuckle like a grandma, but when her story unfolds it’s like yards of brightly dyed fabric, a wonder to behold. These days, Roderick’s passion is cranes. She left off exhibiting her art and had mostly retired from a long career as clothing designer and fiber artist. But silk painting, she never seemed to be able to leave. And the only venue that attracted her anymore was the Festival of Cranes at the Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge, where she would spend hours sketching.
Things unrolled from there, as they always seem to do for Roderick. She wrote and illustrated two books of poetry on the cranes, traveled to the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin and to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Texas. Her house is actually full of crane banners, quilts, and paintings.
Whatever her passion, Roderick takes flight—so it’s no wonder that she settled on the avian aspect of a lifetime love of nature. A “skinny, gawky kid who could hide behind art,” Roderick was chosen to receive free art classes at the Carnegie Museum. A teacher who recognized her talent later convinced her to apply for a scholarship at what is now Carnegie Mellon University. There, she studied painting and design, the first in her steelworker family to go to college, and in defiance of her parents’ wishes that she prepare to be a good wife and mother.
Roderick did end up marrying and having children, and supported her husband’s science and military career for nearly half a century. But she certainly was no housewife. Her early passion for art and nature stayed with her always, leading (as they tend to do in women) toward pursuits increasingly commercial, then ultimately spiritual.
Of the art skills she learned in school, a brief stint with batik captured her imagination, and she found herself practicing the little-known wax-resist dye technique at their home in Alamogordo in the early 1960s. She made batiks in the kitchen and hung them in the yard, larger and larger, especially once pregnancy prohibited oil painting. A prize she won at the county fair was for a piece that measured four by eight feet.
At the same time, she started looking into how to spin, dye, and weave—skills she would end up teaching for decades to come. But it was batik that kept her sane once they left sunny Alamogordo for Ann Arbor, Michigan, the most dismal period of her life. She made batiks with her young daughter when they moved back West, to Colorado. And she was still making batik when they moved to Albuquerque in 1975.
The craft and folk craze were in full swing, and “people were just starting to realize that human beings could make things,” Roderick says. She started sewing clothes out of her batik prints using patterns from the Folkwear pattern company, and the Mariposa Gallery downtown began carrying her work in its two galleries of “wearable art.”
It was the start of a twenty-year run for Roderick as a pioneer of dyeing and silk painting in New Mexico. She discovered Tinfix silk dyes from France and fell in love with the brilliant colors. With Victoria Rabinow of the Santa Fe Weaving Center, they introduced the medium locally.
She still uses those dyes. “I love the way these colors flow,” Roderick says as she touches a brush to a translucent silk scarf stretched on a frame, sending a burst of color bleeding up to lines drawn with a rubber cement-like resist.
In the early 1980s, Roderick became a co-owner of Village Wools, as her hand-painted silk clothing made the leap from local craft fairs to high-end galleries. The wearable art craze was in full swing; at one point she employed three seamstresses at her large studio near Old Town, stitching up her gorgeous hand-sewn, hand-painted silk coats.
By the early 1990s, Roderick’s success presented her with a moral dilemma. She balked at taking the leap into cut-rate, large-scale production, and she felt qualms about producing luxurious products that no one she knew could afford. She started taking pilgrimages with her sister—first to Machu Picchu, a kind of conversion experience, then to “every sacred site in Mexico.”
Roderick sold Village Wools in 1992. She was done with being the fiber doyenne. “I was more interested in sitting at a pyramid than in teaching people to knit,” she quips. Ever in sync with the times, she started studying shamanism, practiced soul retrievals, and initiated a full moon drum circle for women at the dawning of the New Age.
Still, the silk painting continued. She would paint “power animals” for clients, or a Virgen de Guadalupe, or a Kuan Yin on silk. It had become the fabric of her daily life.
One day in the mid-1990s, Roderick woke up with the conviction that she had to move to the country. Much to her husband’s consternation, she bought a plot of land in Placitas to go and sit on. Before long, they moved there.
At that point, Roderick said, she stopped doing anything. For two years she would just meditate, walk around, watch the birds. “I learned to just be, which was weird for me. It was a useful time,” she adds. “I felt like I cleared a lot of karma. I figured out what was me and what was other.”
When the time came to step out, she volunteered at the Nature Center—and ended up painting silk scarves again for their shop. She marvels that she has come full circle, back to painting silk in her kitchen and fixing dyes in the basement, now that the children are both gone.
Her family appears only briefly in the story of her artistic journey, which apparently has much less to do with who she was outside than how a timid soul took flight. Externally, Roderick is a long resume of artistic achievements, a good wife and grandmother; inside, a timeless story unfolding across miles of silk:
“Our winged migration
Is integral to
The fabric of life on Earth.
We have danced this dance with Her