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An artist at last: Job loss turns passion into profession

In Tara Melton-Miller’s basement studio, the soft, rhythmic chatter of wood clanking repetitively against wood creates a soothing metronomic singsong on this quiet Friday morning.

Melton-Miller is a weaver at her loom, diligently rearranging the spools of thread dangling from the small, wooden frame into an intricately patterned braid that is emerging from the loom’s center.

What she’s doing is called kumihimo braiding, and it’s been practiced in Japan for centuries. Kumihimo braids once adorned the battle garb of samurai warriors and hung from their battle swords.

Here in Melton-Miller’s Sylva basement, however, the braids are destined for a more artistic life that doesn’t belie their warrior history. Something of a teacher-cum-artist, she puts these braids on collages and magnets and pins to be sold in local shops or at craft fairs in the region.

Though art is her background — she has a bachelor’s in studio art — it has always been her passion rather than her profession.

She chose, she says, to make art strictly on the side for many years to preserve her love of it, instead of making it a job. She has made some cash on the side painting wall murals, but even that wasn’t art simply for the love of it. There is no artistic freedom with a demanding client hovering over every brush stroke.

But when she stumbled across kumihimo, she learned one braid pattern and fell in love.

Melton-Miller used to work at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching, and one of her seminars was on the Japanese braids. But you can’t teach if you don’t know what you’re doing, so she learned her first pattern.

After the seminar, she just kept going, eventually incorporating paper art and collage and tiny clay sculptures into the finished products.

She found that she was spending her extra time working with the braids and collages, and she relished the creative control and artistic license it afforded her. So when she left NCCAT in its latest round of layoffs, Melton-Miller threw herself into the art wholeheartedly.

She sells her pieces at It’s By Nature in Sylva and at various craft shows around the region. They range from larger, portrait-sized pieces to tiny bookmarks, pins and magnets. Though the smaller items are more time consuming and less profitable, Melton-Miller is committed to them because they offer something for every budget.

“I really think everybody deserves to have art in their lives,” she said, “so I try to keep (everything) under $100.”

But even if nothing sells, Melton-Miller says this is art that she would do anyway.

“I just love it,” she says. “I want to do what I want to do with it, and if people like it, they can buy it.”

Just as much as doing it, however, she loves sharing it.

At last year’s Colorfest in Sylva, Melton-Miller set up shop, and though she says she sold hardly anything, she delighted in demonstrating for passersby and getting their very mixed reactions.

“It’s hilarious to watch people watch you do this,” she said, telling of one man who said that, while the loom made a good product, the cadenced clanking made him queasy.

Where her craft is going next, Melton-Miller isn’t sure. The once painter, then teacher of teachers, now collage artist says that the beauty of it is its ever-evolving quality.

And kumihimo has such a long and storied tradition that she could study patterns for years without every fully plumbing the craft’s depths. There are even whole — and very prestigious — schools in Japan devoted to the discipline and its many techniques.

For now, she’s content with making affordable, handmade art, and spending her days clattering away at the maru dai loom suits her just fine.

See more

Tara Melton-Miller will demonstrate kumihimo braiding at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7, at It’s By Nature in Sylva as a part of Art After Dark.

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