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Kalispell’s 21st-Century Renaissance Woman: Judie Overbeek
Montana Senior News August/September 2017
Nobody personifies the ideal of a Renaissance man better than Leonardo da Vinci, who excelled at everything from painting, architecture, and sculpture to math and engineering. And that is just his short list. Now fast forward to 21st-century Kalispell and meet a woman who could qualify as one of Leonardo’s modern-day counterparts.

While Judie Overbeek’s pursuits have led her in a more home-based direction than those of the famed Italian, that in no way diminishes her achievements. Aside from singing in choirs and playing the recorder and ukulele,
Judie also weaves, spins, dyes, and sews. And that is just her short list.

“The fact that these arts have evolved and survived into modern times and are practiced today, that stems from home and family,” says Judie. “All that I enjoy doing has a home-centered feel to it.”

Like Leonardo’s life, Judie’s reflects an insatiable curiosity and a sense of unlimited possibilities. Nothing pleases her more than the opportunity to learn another new skill—be it on her own, by receiving help from others, or by attending a workshop. All of which gets reflected in her creations. That explains why you could see Judie wearing a jacket that she has totally fashioned herself. For her, totally means spinning the fleece, dying the yarn before weaving it into cloth, knitting the sleeves, then stitching the pieces into a garment of her own design.

“I’m a process person. I love to take something from absolute scratch and transform it into something beautiful. I find that very satisfying. When I do things by hand, I can make anything I want any way I want. I don’t have to just get what’s in the store,” says Judie, who also makes her own bread, granola, and yogurt, and preserves the harvest from her summer garden.

Although she grew up in New Jersey where she took electricity and indoor plumbing for granted, Judie was unfazed upon realizing her first Montana home, a cabin along the Silver Butte Fisher River near Libby, furnished neither of those amenities. The year was 1972, and she gamely hauled water, figured out how to roast a turkey inside a wood-fired cookstove, and chopped wood to the exact diameter required for sustained cooking.

During her three years living in that cabin with her husband, Ryan, and their two young daughters, Judie taught herself how to weave placemats and runners on a small table loom. She also discovered how to scare off a bear raiding her compost pile—by dumping ashes on the compost. The bear sneezed and never returned.

“It was a formative space in my life, an incubation period when I became a self-sufficient woman. I could even stick my hand in the oven and know how hot the temperature was,” says Judie. “That’s a prehistoric skill I’m sorry I’ve lost.”

After Ryan accepted a teaching job in Australia and the family moved Down Under for two years, Judie acquired another skill she wished to master—how to use a spinning wheel.

“We were living in the country outside of Perth. One day a neighbor poked his head over the fence and asked me what I’d like to learn while I was there,” recalls Judie. “When he heard my answer, he hooked me up with a local spinning guild. They were very welcoming.”

After leaving Australia, the Overbeeks moved to Kalispell, where they have resided for the past four decades. Judie considers her spacious kitchen the center of life in her home. Unsurprisingly, in one corner sits a spinning wheel. Judie describes it affectionately as, “a funky lightweight little thing from New Zealand with many different ratios so you can spin very fine to bulky yarns.”

For Judie, transforming a fleece into yarn is as gratifying as using the results of her efforts. “There’s something endlessly fascinating about watching a handful of fiber turn into yarn as the fibers lock together,” she says. “There is so much tranquility in the process.”

These days, Judie creates distinctive yarns by blending together different fibers to attain more sheen, softness, or body than any single fiber possesses alone. Her yarn repertoire includes familiar cotton, silk, wool, and mohair along with more exotic yak, alpaca, and cashmere.

“Half of the fun is experimenting to see what works. You have all these different fibers and ways to put them together, so many structures you can produce—anchored bumps, bubbles, spirals, and coils. There is an infinite combination of variables,” explains Judie.

The next step in her creative process is dyeing the hand-spun yarns to obtain whatever color she wants. “My thinking about color has changed over the years. I keep wanting to add more color and variety to my work. No matter what medium you’re working with, it’s all about color,” she observes. “It’s the same whether you are creating a pottery mug, a painting, or a piece of cloth.”

A born teacher, Judie shares her expertise with everyone from grade-schoolers to grandparents at fiber festivals and conferences, at county fairs, outdoor concerts, and in classrooms. “Learning to spin and weave is not for everyone. It takes patience,” warns Judie, who advises newbies to join a weaving guild, where they can be mentored. “These groups connect you with a lot of people who know how to do these things. They are willing to help at all skill levels.”

Judie’s passion for creating music matches her feelings about fibers. “I came from an artistic musical family,” she says. “Music and art have always been constants in my life.” Judie began singing publicly in the fourth grade when she joined her church choir. Nowadays, she still sings publicly, lending her lovely alto to the Valley Voices Community Choir. Thanks to a talent scout who discovered them on a YouTube video, the group will travel to New York in November where they will perform Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall.

For about as long as she has sung in choirs, Judie has played the recorder. Some 30 years ago, she placed a newspaper ad looking for other musicians who enjoyed playing instruments and melodies from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Enough people answered the ad to form a sextet. A few faces changed during the first decade, but for the past 20 years the group’s members have remained the same.

“None of us want to be professionals. We just enjoy each other’s company and the music. We might play Bach,” she adds, “or ragtime or something contemporary.” No matter the genre, she loves the sound of recorders in an ensemble.

It seems fitting, given Judie’s sentiments about home arts, that the group always meets at one of their houses and also partakes of a home-cooked dinner. After all, home is her ideal setting for creating something unique from scratch—be it clothing, music, food, or friendship.
 
For information about Montana’s weaving and spinning guilds, visit: www.mawsonline.org