Art you can touch: Durham’s Elizabeth Chabot weaves themes of loss and loyalty

Detail of "Penelope's Room" by artist Elizabeth Chabot at 21c Museum Hotel in Durham.Courtesy of Elizabeth Chabot

Durham textile artist Elizabeth Chabot’s latest piece, “Penelope’s Room,” is like a great big hug in fabric form.

It’s on view at Durham’s 21c Museum Hotel until December. Chabot has never done anything like “Penelope’s Room” before – she enveloped an entire room in 21c in merino wool roving (like giant yarn) and invites visitors to touch, look and think.

After the exhibition, the piece will be deconstructed and panels of it will be available for purchase by contacting the artist at

So who is the namesake of “Penelope’s Room?” Chabot was inspired by the wife of Greek hero Odysseus, of epic poem “The Odyssey” fame.

“With her husband presumed dead after a 20-year absence, Penelope promises to remarry only once she finishes weaving a burial shroud,” Chabot explained. “Instead, every night she picks apart her work, secretly destroying her progress in order to postpone marrying any of the suitors.”

The artist used roving, fabric scraps and items that spoke to her in the piece. But “Penelope’s Room” isn’t all fluff – metal features like the remnants of a bank vault (part of 21c Durham used to be a bank!) contrast with the cloud-like merino.

It was created for The Carrack’s annual fundraiser the Muse Masquerade, also held at 21c earlier this year. 21c (which is a chain that includes locations in Nashville, Tennessee, and Cincinatti, Ohio) decided it wanted “Penelope’s Room” to stick around for more than one night.

“The transformative power of art is a key component of 21c’s mission,” said Alice Gray Stites, 21c’s chief curator. “We were very excited about the opportunity to collaborate with The Carrack and invite Elizabeth Chabot to create an immersive experience for our visitors.”

Chabot, who grew up riding horses in a Virginia mountain town called Nellysford, has made Durham her home for the past three and a half years. She makes wall hangings, blankets and even necklaces with her weaving skills, but after she conceived the idea of an entire room enveloped in the soft roving she is partial to, she couldn’t get it out of her head.

“I was really cold one night and weaving a custom wall panel for a client entirely out of wool roving,” Chabot said. “It’s the lovely, fluffy, unspun fiber that much of ‘Penelope’s Room’ is made of. I had this idea that being in a room made out of roving would be the most calming and lovely experience.”

But she soon had more ideas for the piece that expanded beyond a theme of comfort and warmth – the character of faithful Penelope became another thread she wove into her artwork.

“It tied together a lot of meaningful ends for me and my work — its progression over the years and how my art has enabled me to explore and process some of the loss and love in my life,” Chabot said.

So what’s next for the artist? She wants to continue to push the limits of her medium.

“I’m always thinking of ways to stretch fiber art to a larger scale,” Chabot said. “Fiber and textiles are one of the earliest mediums of human expression. And it is a medium that unites the divide between practicality, the need to cover oneself from the elements, and performance — fashion, decoration, individual expression, art. I felt an immediate draw to it, and I can’t explain it much beyond that.”

You can see “Penelope’s Room” for free (21c’s museum is open to the public 365 days a year) at the hotel, which is located at 111 N. Corcoran Street, Durham. A closing reception for the room is scheduled for Dec. 1 from 6 to 8 p.m.

2016 Throwback: Meet Durham weaver Liza Chabot


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