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A Vermont sheep farmer provides wool fiber for Guggenheim climate crisis performance

Long red streams of fiber hang down from the top of several floors, each curving and with white, hip-height walls. The effect is a little like white and red plaid.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Pieces of fabric, made at Wing & A Prayer Farm in Shaftsbury, hang from the fifth floor of the Guggenheim Museum rotunda on Aug. 30.

When you visit Wing & A Prayer Farm, in Shaftsbury, farm owner Tammy White is happy to introduce you to the animals that live here.

“Oh, that’s Amber. She’s a having a tough time. She has pretty bad arthritis,” White says one recent morning, bowing down to stroke the animal’s back. “And this is Jody, and that’s Diana. And here comes Dandelion.  So everyone has a name.”

For White, farming is an act of resistance and social action against the climate crisis facing our planet.

Her sheep are partners in her business, each one with a name, and she says they take care of her fields better than any diesel-powered tractor.

She uses only natural materials; flowers, bark and berries, to dye the yarn she makes. And as much as possible, she tries to limit her use of fossil fuels.

“I’m 58, and as long as I can remember, I’ve been concerned about the greenness of the earth,” she says. “I hate the idea of all of the, you know, waste of the industrial age, and how we’ve expedited the climate change to the point of floods, and fires, and all of that, so, I don’t want to be a part of that.”

Tammy White, the owner of Wing and a Prayer Farm, sits with some of her sheep. She's sitting piled in with them, leaning up against a red wood paneled wall.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Tammy White says the fashion industry is contributing to global climate change, and supporting natural fiber is one way for people to take meaningful action against the crisis.

Like any small agricultural business owner, White keeps a lot of balls in the air at one time.

Her animals keep her busy on the farm, and she sells her yarn at craft shows and online. She makes pies, has an AirBnB, and teaches homesteading and natural yarn dyeing techniques all over the Northeast.

And all of it, she says, is done to help herself, and her customers, tread a little more lightly on the planet.

“I think small is mighty, you know, I don’t have to be a big corporation to make a difference,” White says. “And that fuels me for what I do every day too, sort of believing that it is important.”

“I think small is mighty, you know, I don’t have to be a big corporation to make a difference. And that fuels me for what I do every day too, sort of believing that it is important.”
Tammy White, Wing & A Prayer Farm

As the climate crisis intensifies, people are thinking more and more about how they get around, how they heat their homes, and where their food comes from.

White says it’s beyond time to also think about the clothes we wear, and consider how they’re produced, and just how much more of it we really need to purchase and stuff into our closets and drawers.

“Try not to support the fast fashion industry that’s employing unethically, and leaving a trail of waste, and killing the earth with the volume of clothing that doesn’t need to be produced,” White says. “So for me it’s really a natural evolution of how I think about the environment, and connect it to fast fashion, and want to change that. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”

So for as long as she’s been in business, White has been doing that work: talking with her customers about natural fiber, and fighting global warming one skein of wool at a time.

A woman holds up yarn next to large pots in the shade of a tree in a grassy backyard outside a yellow house
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Tammy White uses flowers, tree bark and roots to dye her yarn. She works in her backyard on her farm in Shaftsbury.

She’s not one to write to her Congresspeople or state legislators, or march in a political action against climate change.

But then one day this spring, she got a call from the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

An artist was planning a performance inside the rotunda of the Guggenheim to bring attention to the climate crisis. The museum needed long pieces of naturally dyed fabric that could hang down five stories, from the top floor of the iconic building.

It was lambing season when she got the call, and White was out in her barn, where cell service is spotty, surrounded by baby lambs and pregnant ewes.

“I don’t always grab the phone when it rings, but I grabbed it, and I couldn’t really decipher what she was saying, but I did hear the word, like some keywords — I heard, 'wool,' and I heard 'Guggenheim.'"

A friend of White’s daughter, who works at the Guggenheim, recommended that they call the Vermont sheep farmer for the performance art piece.

And standing there in her barn, among steaming umbilical cords and placentas, she began negotiating with the museum.

“And the colorway, so to speak, was to be representative of menstrual blood,” White says. “And so I’m in the barn, and I’m like surrounded by bodily fluids, because it’s lambing, and I’m like, ‘So, hey, I’ve got the vision of that. I’m your girl.’ And I got wool, so I think we can do this.”

long pieces of wool are stretched out on grass, all a different shade of red or pink. A red barn is in the background
Tammy White, Courtesy
White worked on the Guggenheim project this summer during some hot days. She used a new technique, where she painted the dye onto the large pieces of fabric. She made 10 pieces, each more than 50 feet long.

White got the gig, and this summer she spent almost three months felting the wool, and using black walnuts, plant roots and tree bark to dye the fabric.

She produced 10 pieces, each about 54-feet long, in four different colors.

The Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña commissioned the Vermont wool for her performance. Her art installations and performances have appeared all over the world, addressing issues of social and environmental justice.

The Guggenheim performance was entitled Ex-termination Living Quipu. It was part of Vicuña’s exhibit at the museum that the artist said was an appeal to humankind to change our destructive ways.

White was invited to participate in the performance, and though she doesn’t like to leave the farm, especially during the busy summer, she drove to New York in late August to take part.

Seven people wearing white standing holding hands in front of rolled-up red pieces of wool in a white space
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
The artist Cecilia Vicuña, at the microphone, leads the performers during her event at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

White was one of 30 performers at the museum, all dressed in white, who stood in a semi-circle on the ground floor of the rotunda, each with a roll of dyed fabric at their feet.

Vicuña led them, chanting, praying, eyes closed and holding hands.

A crowd of about 100 people watched, and then clicked rocks together they were asked to bring to the performance.

The performers then walked up through the spiral levels of the Guggenheim, each holding their roll of fabric, up five floors, to the top level. There they slowly rolled the deep red, pink and brown fabric down over the edge, all the way to the floor, and then let go, as the wool felt floated down to the ground.

The performance was a call to action for everyone to make the changes necessary to save our world.

It was a ceremony for the healing of the earth, a collective gesture of weaving love for land and sea.

People holding long pieces of red wool fiber by carrying it on their shoulders cross a crosswalk with a city building in the background.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Performers and audience members walk Tammy White's fabric across Manhattan toward the East River.

And the plan was to walk the fabric across the city, as part of the performance, to the East River, and then onto a waiting boat, where it would be released as an offering to the planet, which is in crisis.

The performers — along with members of the crowd — organized themselves into long lines, and stretched the fabric along their shoulders and walked it across Manhattan, about a mile down 88th St. towards the water.

I caught up with White while she was waiting for the boat, which would carry the performers and the fabric out towards New York Bay.

And I asked her how it felt to have the wool fabric that was grown and produced out on her farm in Shaftsbury, hanging among the same galleries that hold artworks of Picasso, Kandinsky and Van Gogh.

“Even though, right from the start, I had been told that this would happen, I never could have imagined the energy from that,” she said. “And so, you know, I thought they were beautiful. I was finally admiring my work.”

We all got on the boat. It chugged down the length of Manhattan, underneath the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges, past the Statue of Liberty and out into New York Bay.

Three people hold hands and look out at red wool fabric floating on water, with tall buildings in the distance
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Cecilia Vicuña, in center, watches White's fabric float out into the sea. The performance was a ceremony for the healing of the earth, a collective gesture of weaving love for land and sea.

Vicuña also used felted wool felt from two other farms, in Ohio and New York State, but only White’s was naturally dyed. And so it was only the felt from the Vermont farm that was carried onto to the boat.

When the boat got out near open water, the artist gathered some of the performers, picked up the rolls of felted wool, and slowly released them into the bay.

The sun was setting. The fabric floated on the surface, away from the boat, its natural dyes slowly dissipating into the salty water.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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