ARLEE – When Bonnie Tarses was 18 years old, a wrong turn on the way to a lunch date forever changed her life.

Tarses was a new student at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she enrolled to study fashion design, but when she got lost en route to a meeting with a friend she wound up in a roomful of looms.

“I was so struck, I went and changed my major on the spot,” Tarses says.

That was more than half a century ago, back in 1960, and the 70-year-old Tarses has been weaving ever since.

It’s not hard, she says.

“If you can count to four and your feet can reach the pedals, I can teach you to weave in three minutes,” says Tarses, who lives in Missoula. “I think there’s a great healing power in weaving – it’s really a healing art.”

On Saturday, the Missoula artist headlines a new show opening at Hangin Art Gallery in Arlee.

Rest assured that, with 52 years of weaving under her belt, Tarses does a bit more than count to four.

***

The title of her Hangin Art show, “Talking Threads and Woven Words,” is spot-on.

“I’ve developed a system where I assign a color and number to go with every letter of the alphabet,” says Tarses, who usually works on a commission basis and collaborates with her buyers to create unique designs.

The colors can vary with each piece, but the code stays the same: The letter “A” is 1, “B” is 2, “C” is 3 and so on down to “Z,” which is 26.

Using the code, Tarses can then weave words into her works. If you know the code, you can read them.

To spell “peace,” for instance, she would use 16 threads of one color for the “P,” five of another color for the “E,” one of another color for the “A,” three of another color for the “C” and, again, five of the same color “E” already got.

This is good to know, because this summer Tarses will work as an artist in residence at the Hangin Art Gallery to weave banners for the local Garden of One Thousand Buddhas’ annual Peace Festival, scheduled for Sept. 8 this year.

“I’ll be setting up my loom at the Garden and weaving for a month,” Tarses says. “I’m inviting everyone who wants to weave to join me.”

She’ll be weaving the word “peace” a lot, in the English, Tibetan and Salish languages, for display during the Peace Festival.

***

Tarses returned to Missoula two years ago after more than 30 years in Seattle, but the story of how the Baltimore native first arrived in Montana goes back much further.

“I originally came to Missoula in 1966 as the wife of a graduate student,” Tarses says. “The marriage did not take, but Montana did.”

Tarses says she “did the ’70s” in Missoula, including a year when she owned her own yarn store called the Cat’s Cradle, before moving to Seattle in 1979.

“During the late ’70s I searched to create a product that I would know exactly how much it would cost to make, how much time it would take to weave, and how much I could charge my client,” she says. “I also wanted each weaving to be different, so I would never get bored weaving the same thing over and over again. I wanted this product to be too individual to be mass-produced.”

The result: something Tarses calls “color horoscope weaving.”

She developed a method of translating a person’s horoscope into color using a system wherein she superimposes a color wheel over the horoscope.

“There are 360 degrees in a circle, 360 degrees in a horoscope, and 360 threads in each weaving,” she says. “I use 12 colors to represent each sign, house and planet, and these colors combine to create over 5 billion color possibilities.”

They make for unique scarves and blankets.

Her “words in color” technique, explained earlier, is another way Tarses weaves one-of-a-kind products.

***

It was the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas that brought Tarses back to Montana in 2010, when she was celebrating her 50th year in weaving.

“After I reached the age of 65, I decided I was not knocking on doors any longer, I was going to wait for doors to open,” Tarses says, and that’s what happened.

A friend in Polson called to tell her that the Dalai Lama had agreed to consecrate the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas when it was completed.

“I thought, ‘Gee, I spent a lot of time in Arlee when I lived in Montana,’ ” Tarses says. “ ‘Maybe I’ll do a weaving to give to the Ewam Center for a fundraiser.’ ”

One thing led to another, and Tarses decided to do her weaving at the garden. Only problem was, she quit driving back in 1979.

“I travel by loom,” Tarses says. “Which is not to be confused with ‘broom.’”

She could get herself to Arlee, by bus if nothing else, but what about “Grace,” the name she gave the smaller of her two looms?

The friend offered to drive to Seattle and pick up both of them.

Once back in Montana – and after meeting people connected with both the garden, and the Killdeer Artisans Guild – Tarses decided to stay.

She’s a member of the 40-person guild now, too, and one of about 25 who will be showing works at the Hangin Art Gallery through Aug. 17.

Others, according to fellow member and photographer Marti de Alva, will include painters Jeneese Hilton, Karl Stein, Linda Johnston, Joan Mason and sculptors Danny Kraus and Lila Fayler.

“We never know exactly what will come in,” de Alva says, “but it’s always diverse, always interesting.”

When they were done hanging and displaying the new exhibit, they had one good-sized wall space left. De Alva called Tarses and asked if she had anything that might fit it.

So the show will debut a 40-inch-tall by 126-inch-long interactive piece that Tarses wove for herself – a “poetry wall” that a dozen friends collaborated on for her.

The process behind the creation of the poetry wall, never before displayed in public, is a tad complicated to explain. It’s probably best if you just see it for yourself.

Which is what the Killdeer Artisans Guild hopes will happen, of course.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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