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Dohrn Zachai mastered the cartwheel in her late 70s. It was not a surprising accomplishment. After she left her career as a fiber artist in Manhattan, the earth and her body guided her: painting in the sun, living in unheated barns, harvesting food decades before self-sufficient gardening was in vogue. In life and art, she was deliberately fundamental and physical.
Dohrn’s dear friend Laura first met her in a New Hampshire consciousness-raising group. The other women were chewing over their definitions of freedom.
"At one point Dohrn just was sitting there, we were outside, she ripped off her shirt and she said, 'This is liberation,' and she challenged all of us to do the same," Laura remembers. "And we did. And it was very liberating."
In her Manhattan days, Dohrn created textural tapestries 10 to 15 feet across. She wove on an enormous loom, with dyed yarns hanging from her studio ceiling like stalactites. Acclaim followed: museums sought her work, art schools sought her teaching. But success became too commercial, too compromising. And so, she abandoned it.
She moved to New England and lived alone, painting landscapes. Dohrn had the rare capacity to dwell in true solitude; held up by the arms of nature, instead of people.
"And she did her gardening and her birding and her yoga and her sky-gazing -- she was very, very much in touch with the sky and the stars and the constellations," Laura recalls.
But solitude often vied with loneliness. It was the cost she paid for her uncompromising life.
"I just loved her freedom from pleasing people and from feeling she had to fit in, but because of our intimacy I knew the cost very clearly," remembers Laura.
Cartwheeling near the end of her life was a last form of hard-won freedom.
"She spent months trying to do it, and she would do it kinda across her studio floor," Laura remembers. "Isn’t that great? Because as much as she was weighted down, she had a capacity for ecstasy."
Some of Dohrn’s tapestries are still in museums across the country. Others were stored in a basement. Over the years, mice worked on them and nature wore at them, until at last, eaten away, they returned to the earth.
Dohrn Zachai died last January in Vermont. She was 82 years old.
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