Nan Rohan’s passion for the age-old art of soaking and plaiting wheat into handsome designs runs deep into the soil of her Berkeley garden which produced successful wheat crops both this year and last.
Beginning Aug. 30 the artist’s work will be on display for two months when her Spirit of the Grain wheat weaving exhibit opens at the Berkeley Travel Company opposite the Monterey Market at 1301 California St.
Much like Rumpelstiltskin, who spun straw into gold in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Rohan, who works as a graphic designer by day, magically transforms wheat stems into flaxen love knots, beads, horseshoes, harps, and treble clefs by night. It’s almost as if the practice has plaited a charmed strand into her life creating an added sense of purpose – increasing her inner harmony and even giving her the opportunity to communicate with Irish Poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
Rohan contacted Heaney earlier this year after she picked one of his poetry collections while dusting and the pages opened at “The Harvest Bow,” his poem about a straw plaiter or wheat weaver. Interested in relaying the incident to him and curious to know the identity of the weaver, she wrote Heaney.
Soon he replied with a handwritten note expressing his pleasure at having a wheat weaver read his poem. He told her that the straw plaiter in the poem was his father.
The note has now been filed away in the modest north Berkeley home she shares with her husband Pat Rohan, where the artist’s love for the grain, first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent, is evident even from the street. Two golden swans crafted from wheat dangle from inside the living room window and a welcoming wreath of wheat heads and acorns decorates the brick-red front door.
Seated inside at the dining room table, the silver-haired mother of three grown children wears Celtic knot earrings fashioned from braided wheat and a matching pin in her lapel. High on the wall behind her a collection of her weavings including a Mexican Corazon de Trigo (Heart of Wheat), a Welsh Fan, and a Mariee de Moisson (bride of the harvest) showcase spectacular wheat heads and form a fitting backdrop for a conversation about wheat weaving.
To set her work in context, Rohan explains that for centuries grain-growing cultures around the world have woven wheat to preserve seed from the previous harvest so that it could be ploughed under in the spring of the following year. “The spirit of the wheat was thought to have been kept alive by saving the last wheat of the harvest and hanging the resulting plaited design in the house over the winter,” said the two-term past president of the California Wheat Weavers Guild.
Seeds for her own backyard harvests came courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture which maintains a seed bank of older wheat varieties not commonly grown in California today. Rohan remembers hearing of this program, which furnishes free seed in return for information on the harvest, from fellow wheat weaving enthusiast Monica Spiller, whose interest lies in preserving wheat strains suitable for bread making. “The continuance of this program depends on feedback. If the USDA knows people are availing of the program, they will continue it,” said Rohan.
Her drive to cultivate a personal stash of wheat for weaving has advantages. “Wheat weaving needs long stems. Modern wheat has been hybridized. Growers have bred out the longer stems because short wheat is easier for the farmer in that it withstands inclement and windy weather better,” she said.
This reality makes her backyard harvest of French Chiddam, Pacific Bluestem, Sonora and Blue Beard wheat special indeed. When the crop ripened she carefully dried the wheat on the deck, tied the varieties together, stored them in plastic containers, and then used most of last year’s harvest to give weaving demonstrations at the California State Fair. “I was thrilled to be able to tell people who usually buy wheat from Kansas, North Dakota, Idaho, and Illinois that the wheat was grown in California,” said Rohan.
With her first solo exhibit at the Berkeley Travel Company Rohan realizes a personal goal of bringing wheat weaving to the Berkeley public. The viewing hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.
“The point of the exhibit is to let people know about the pleasures of weaving,” she said.