On The Importance of Care: Birthwork, Weaving Textiles, Teaching Art, and Telling Stories — with Zaria Poem and Calvin Stalvig

Published in
7 min readApr 10, 2020


Since this 2017 interview, Disclaimer Gallery, which Zaria Poem co-founded, no longer has its physical space — and neither does Silent Barn, which had hosted their gallery project. Emily Andersen has beautifully documented our conversation in this article. They are an artist, writer, burrito enthusiast and also run The Illuminator — an art-activist collective based in NYC.

94% of American drinking water contains microscopic plastic fiber. Our clothing is so synthetic, every time you wash your laundry the microfibers get washed into the water. We have more plastic in our drinking water than any other nation in the world.

Calvin Stalvig is well aware of this data, and is a huge proponent of natural fibers as a result. He works as a textile artist and a director of teen programming at BEAM Center in Red Hook, Brooklyn. BEAM is a makerspace— Calvin teaches children, teenagers, and teachers how to incorporate skills such as physical computing and digital fabrication into their lives. For this conversation, he was joined by Zaria Poem, a co-founder and co-curator of Disclaimer Gallery. Zaria also works assisting new mothers as a doula, and as a teaching artist in schools throughout the city.

Zaria had recently returned from the Volta region of Ghana, where she tracked down some weavers she had found on Instagram months prior. Her interest in folk art comes from her parents, who would make tie-dye and batik work when she was growing up. The two spoke about their connection with textile work, the meanings of various stitches and the geography of materials: stitches with silk in Africa, wool as a reminder of wintry Scandinavia, and the ties of cotton in the South United States to slavery. Calvin recently passed through the South, and drove through cotton fields while thinking about being a black person in America, and the deep connection he felt to that history in spite of never picking cotton himself. A tall black man who grew up in Northern Wisconsin, Calvin got into knitting as a way to connect with his Scandinavian heritage, and found himself at first surprising, then eventually swapping tips with the short old white women so common to yarn stores.

Last year, Zaria had just gotten back from Ghana where she met traditional Kente weavers in the Kumasi region on the Eastern side of the country. One of the weavers, who she got to know through being a fan of theirs on Instagram, is bigdreadkente.

“The storytelling has been such an important part of my experience getting into textiles. I would travel to other parts of the country, and when I would go into the knitting store, they would always look at me like I’m crazy, and like I’m misplaced, and then it would be this really lovely experience of getting to know a community, and allowing textiles to be an entry point into a community. That’s where stories are told — you sit, you’re knitting, you’re weaving, and you have a lot of time.” — Calvin Stalvig

Knitting a sweater takes about 60 hours, according to Calvin. Within that, each stitch takes a thought. A sweater can end up looking different because of the environment in which it was created — stress makes for tight stitches. Is it so different for the body? Calvin recounted the feelings of scraping by when he first came to New York, counting pennies for coffee, and how his body was greatly affected by a month, or even a week, of that sense of poverty.

Is infant mortality tied to poverty, and the depression that the body experiences with it?

Zaria feels her work in the doula sphere is helping with that healing work, and has strong misgivings about the healthcare system in New York. People of color in NYC are 12 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white people. It’s a shocking number that shows the bias of the healthcare system, and the lack of care given specifically to Black and Latina mothers. That number remains as high as 4 times as likely nationwide. What it comes down to is a lack of care from a system that routinely discriminates, with devastating consequences.

“When you are discriminated against in so many ways, in a system of discrimination — inadequate healthcare, no housing, jobs — that is going to affect the literal fiber of your body, and how you’re able to move and go about as a person in this world.” — Zaria Poem

“Holding space” and “showing up” are important terms in the birth field. Calvin spoke about witnessing the birth of his nephew, and another birth in the family that ended in a hard decision. In both cases, when he found himself at a loss for words, he was struck by the power that came from simply being in the same room as the women in his family during this time. He realized that simply being present with someone, for someone, will often stick with a person for the rest of their lives.

The importance of simply showing up cannot be stressed enough. Beyond the initial care of a child and the family after the birth, Zaria and Calvin have both been struck by the failings of the school system in New York City to provide quality care for kids who need it.

In New York City, an oversight committee requires after-school programs to have 90 minutes of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) education, as well as 90 minutes of exercise in order to be eligible for funding, among other requirements. While it is important to give students the chance to work on their homework in a setting conducive for learning, Calvin argues that an after-school program should enrich a child’s life in a broader sense, rather than functioning as a continuation of the school day. There are schools in New York City, and no doubt elsewhere, that haven’t had a dedicated art or music teacher for years. It’s always the first thing to get cut.

Zaria recalls showing up at a school and being greeted with the announcement that they hadn’t had an art teacher in six years. One of the programs Zaria teaches is an English learner program, and she has found that children who are less verbal due to the language barrier show an incredible capacity for communicating via art and craft.

“The best thing you can offer a child is a strong and caring connection with an adult. That can totally change their lives. If we really want to change and support our community, we need to look at volunteering at schools. Go in there, and whatever you can offer — shibori tie-dying, hand-stitching — they are absolutely desperate for programming. They need it, and people who care about it. It’s about support.” — Calvin Stalvig

In a system where children are being underserved, they both agreed that showing up and sharing a skill at one of these after-school programs would have a positive impact, even if it’s as simple as playing a board game with a kid. It seems more painfully clear than ever that showing up in person has a tremendous effect on the human psyche. Now that New York City has become empty canyons of shuttered storefronts and flickering windows lit with the cold blue of another video call, it becomes clear that community, and the space for it, is what makes this city come alive. Silent Barn has permanently shut, Disclaimer Gallery no longer has a physical location, and BEAM, like so many other education centers, is looking towards a difficult future. When we lose these spaces, we lose the spaces that allow for an easy exchange of ideas, talents, and feelings. We have to make sure these places open again, and when they do, we need to jump on board however we can.

There are things we can do to make a difference:

Follow schools and community centers around you — mailing lists, social media, etc. They often put out calls for volunteers and events that might be able to use your help.

Volunteer your time — offer to help tutor kids in your free time at an after-school program. If you have skills you can share, any teacher would welcome a moment of fresh programming.

Have your child attend a school close to home, and then invest in that school. Private schools can range up to $32,000 — $50,000 a year. Giving $5,000, or even $1,000, to the public school in your community can drastically change the resources that school has to offer the children it serves, and the entire community improves as a result.

We have to learn to take care — from the clothes that we wear to the underlying social fabric that binds us. The United States in particular has always struggled with discrimination and inequality, meaning we can’t rely on any system to make the change. Even in a large city, there’s a huge amount of power even one individual has to shape another person’s life. Care given leads to care received, and makes everyone stronger for it.




Fei, human of the mid '80s. Designer, artist, writer, cultural activist. http://trytobegood.com