Artist focuses on ancestral communications

Michael Vince Snyder Dubose
Posted 8/4/23

In her attic studio, lined with bundles of willow, Mo Walrath builds “soul boats.” 

They’re long caskets, vessels to hold loved ones. For this weaver, making them is an …

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Artist focuses on ancestral communications


In her attic studio, lined with bundles of willow, Mo Walrath builds “soul boats.” 

They’re long caskets, vessels to hold loved ones. For this weaver, making them is an art practice, a ritual, an offering.

Originally from Chicago, Walrath lives with her partner and young son on a small farm in Port Townsend. She grows her willow in a designated plot in the Chimacum Valley, hand-harvesting and then replanting it each year. Now Walrath is one of three artists exhibiting their work in The Fiber of Our Being, the new show also featuring weaver Tininha Silva and nontraditional quilter Andrea Alonge, at Northwind Art’s Grover Gallery downtown. The exhibition begins Thursday, Aug. 3, and runs through Sept. 24, with a reception this Saturday during Art Walk from 5 p.m. till 8 p.m. 

Walrath hand-weaves baskets, cradles and caskets for children and adults in response to all kinds of personal circumstances. A member of Port Townsend’s Dying Matters Guild and of the Natural Funerary Artisans Collective, Walrath describes herself as a student of birth, death and burial, a threshold worker who wants people to know they have choices when they bury their deceased beloved. 

“People find me, and they reach out to me,” said Walrath, “I don’t do small business marketing necessarily,” she said. Walrath wants to set an example for her son of “living in the world as an actual human being, and not a machine,” by caring for her body and nurturing human relationships.

After weaving a vessel for someone, “the response I get back from the people, from the families, is just heart-exploding," Walrath said.

"They are so grateful. It matters to them the way their people are held.” 

Walrath also makes winged shrouds of raw silk; these she dyes with alder leaves, madder root and indigo. One of them, featuring the words “Earth Sea Sky,” will be seen in The Fiber of Our Being at Grover Gallery. There will also be a set of five ink and gouache images titled “Whales at Our Backs: Making the Soul Boat,” and as a zine she’s written for the show.  

She views this work as a kind of ancestral communication. In Walrath’s case, the ancestors are Celtic people, and to enrich these connections, she studied weaving and ancient cultures in Ireland. 

As well as being a writer, Walrath is a painter, and for this exhibition she has created portraits of her three grandmothers, who “are particularly present,” she said, “they guide and inspire a lot of what I do.”

There is Carola, her father’s German birth mother; Kay, her maternal grandmother, of Irish heritage; and Rita, her father’s adoptive mother, also Irish. She didn’t get to know any of them in life, and the portraits are a way of weaving strands of the past into relationships in the present. 

Walrath worked from photographs to draw her grandmothers’ faces. A bear, a gull, and a sprig of mugwort are present as symbols in these iconically stylized portraits.

Weaving, ancestors and connection will mesh in Walrath’s Aug. 29 lecture at Grover Gallery.