German native Ulrike Beck remembers the sadness she felt when she had to leave school at the age of 16 after World War II. But she said it was actually how she found her way to learn the craft of weaving that she has carried with her across countries and still continues to teach today.
Beck resides with her husband in Harlem in their home they built in 1993, and she continues to weave today while teaching classes as a member of the Harlem Arts Council.
Born in 1931, Beck learned to weave alongside her sister as an apprentice in postwar Germany.
Beck was the second oldest of four children and recalls times were hard after the war ended and she was forced to leave school two years shy of getting her degree.
“High school cost money, not much, but my father was a colonel in the Luftwaffe and he didn’t earn anything,” Beck said. “It was years later until he really got his pension. We were four children and my mother said we had to leave the school.
“I was the saddest person you can imagine.”
Beck followed in the footsteps of her elder sister and got an apprenticeship with two master weavers.
“These two master weavers got to know me through small groups of celebrations and said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be our apprentice as well?’ ” Beck recalled.
At first she was hesitant because she wanted to do pottery but her mother encouraged her to take the opportunity.
“My mother said it’s a hint from God, you might as well, and I really loved it,” Beck said.
It was a three-year apprenticeship followed by five years of journeyman work.
During her journeyman years, Beck worked at different workshops.
“I went to several different businesses, I didn’t really like it but I learned. The last one I really liked,” Beck said.
Eventually, Beck got a job in a toweling factory as a drafter, drawing the designs for the weaving looms.
At the age of 27, Beck took an opportunity to travel to Australia with a friend to work and teach at a craft shop 80 miles south of Sydney.
At the craft shop, Beck and her friend taught woodworking, pottery and weaving to the children and even adults of the village. It was here Beck also learned to speak what she called “pretty English” from the British headmistress of the shop.
Beck moved to the U.S. to be with her soon-to-be husband, who she met before moving to Australia.
Beck spent three years in Australia working with her friend Elizabeth and was not excited about having to leave the craft shop.
“It was a tough decision, but I thought I better go,” Beck said.
At the age of 30, Beck migrated to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1961. Here Beck and her husband lived on an island, where at the time they had one car and no bus connections. Her husband owned a gas station and fixed cars.
It wasn’t until 1963 that she got a job at a YWCA.
“I was teaching mainly enameling,” Beck recalled. “I would have much rather done weaving but I liked that too.”
After she had her two sons, Thomas and Marcus, she could no longer work at the center.
After her husband retired in 1992, the couple moved to Harlem to get away from the cold weather and high taxes.
It didn’t take Beck long before she got back into teaching, this time at the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art.
At the time, Beck said she found out the institute was interested in holding a weaving class, but was having difficulty finding an instructor.
“I said, ‘You might as well consider you have one’ and told her about what I have done,” Beck said. “They gave me money to order some looms. They had two old looms someone had given to them. We got a few table looms and I started teaching on table looms. It’s not my first choice but then someone came and fixed one of those looms, then we got bigger looms.
“Eventually we got an education director and she came from weaving. She then entered the weaving room and put her own looms and whatever was necessary. It was wonderful.”
In 2014 the Harlem Arts Council was started and Beck said she read about it in the newspaper and decided to go to a meeting. After one visit she said it was “the place for us.”
Through the Arts Council, Beck holds classes teaching a Japanese braiding technique. She also teaches children weaving in the summer programs of Friends of the Symphony and Boys and Girls Club in Augusta.
In her spare time, Beck still continues weaving today, but said she never puts a time on how long it takes to make a piece. Though weaving is a very physical craft, the 87-year-old is working on her loom she has had for some 40 years to create a roll of fabric to make dish towels for friends.
Morgan Richards is a senior at Harlem High School, working to complete her Capstone Project in Journalism. Morgan is planning to attend the University of Florida, where she will pursue a communications/journalism degree.