Local photographer Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss weaves art and activism
Brightly colored strands of cotton slant taut into the hands of an indigenous Guatemalan woman weaver, wearing an intricately patterned skirt. Similarly elaborate shawls and scarves hang in the background and hint at the handiwork the woman is about to create. The scene is captured in a photograph taken by local photographer/painter Kalish (Kalie) Ilana Cassel-Feiss, as part of a series entitled “Weaving Women Guatemala.”
Cassel-Feiss explains that the woman in the photograph is weaving with thread made of cotton flowers, which the women in an indigenous Mayan village spun and colored by hand with dyes from local plants.
“I really love the photographs of the weavers in Guatemala, and just of women,” says Cassel-Feiss. “Something I want to get into more is the beauty of the designs on women because I feel like in our culture we are lacking the strong beautiful feminine portrait.”
Cassel-Feiss is an entirely self-taught photographer, and her love affair with the art form began when she picked up a disposable camera at age 8. Her work focuses mainly on artisans, farmers, and activist movements, and she is motivated by what she calls a “passion for sustainability and craftsmanship.”
Past participation in social work, especially teaching photography to homeless children at the New Horizon School, inspired Cassel-Feiss to dedicate her photography to shedding light on significant people and causes.
“I hope to inspire people through sharing beauty,” she says.
In addition to documentary photo work, Cassel-Feiss’ website features some of her event, portrait and wedding stills, some of which viewers have mistaken for paintings on more than one occasion. Cassel-Feiss chalks this up to painting classes she took at UC Santa Cruz.
“I did a lot of painting and it helped me learn about composition and color, and light and shadow,” she says. “[Photography] allows me to directly experience and live in the moment. I can be fully present and also capture a glimpse of something that can evoke emotion and share a story later.”
Alongside her photography, Cassel-Feiss founded the organization Weaving Women in partnership with indigenous Mayan women. Its mission is to preserve the traditional, sustainable weaving arts of Guatemala. Via Weaving Women, Cassel-Feiss features the shawls, scarves and medicine blankets woven by a small collective of indigenous Guatemalan weavers she met last year by a twist of fate.
“I had a really strong intuition,” she says. “I was like, ‘I just have to get to this place in Guatemala.’” The journey even haunted her dreams.
“I finally got there and fell in love with this place,” she continues. “It felt like home, and I met this small collective of weavers. … I thought, ‘Oh—this is why I’m here.’”
Cassel-Feiss was so touched by the women weavers that she decided to use her photography to help them sustain themselves.
“It’s just beautiful work, such an ancient technology,” she says. “It was so inspiring to me to see these women making all of their clothes with so much intention. It just felt so rich and I wanted to help them. I thought, ‘Maybe I can bring these back and sell them for you.’”
In the past year Cassel-Feiss has sold more than 100 woven items via Weaving Women. She returned to Guatemala recently to document the women weavers for two months and eventually create an educational, photo-filled book about the plants and colorful plant dyes the women use in their projects.
Cassel-Feiss says part of her admiration for the women stems from a deeper appreciation for the art of creating things by hand.
“Our culture is coming from the industrial revolution and everything is mass produced—we’re lacking the handmade craft,” she says. “You get back to the creativity, dignity, and spirit of the work when you make something by hand.”
She adds that her last photography show in September 2011 featured an artisan bread baker who uses a wood fire and all natural ingredients, “the old school way.” Nature and natural patterns are present in nearly all of Cassel-Feiss’ photographs, and she says the “colors and shapes in nature” are her greatest muse.
“I’m always photographing when I’m in a beautiful place,” she says. “I love capturing the spirit of people and different types of people. I hope to be of service to artisans, farmers, activist movements, and people, or businesses, or causes that would like to show their story in a beautiful way. … There’s a tremendous power in the still image. When it’s done right, [photography] can really make a difference.”