Colors of Crooked Tree - Joann Condino
I’ve been hooked on the Colors of Crooked Tree Yarn ever since I first spotted it at Three Pines Studio in Cross Village, Michigan. I’ve always preferred to use hand-dyed artisan yarns to knit shawls, scarves, wraps, and cowls, because the colors are more rich and vibrant. And this yarn is as rich and vibrant as they come.
Most yarns these days are created overseas, so the fact that this is made just one state away from rare local wool – only traveling about 100 miles from the sheep, to spun yarn, to the studio where it’s hand-painted – makes Colors of Crooked Tree Yarn even more special, exclusive, and unique (not to mention sustainable).
To learn the fascinating story behind this beautiful yarn and what makes it so special, we interviewed Joann Condino, the owner of Three Pines Studio and the fiber artist behind the Colors of Crooked Tree Yarn.
The start of an art career
Joann has been playing with color since she was a young kid, growing up next door to the bar and restaurant that her parents owned after emigrating from Italy.
“My mother was the cook, and she provided me with what she called ‘colored waters,’ which were, in effect, dyes,” Condino says. “Boiled beets gave me magenta. She used onion skin to give me sienna. She boiled greens to give me green water. My father made wine, and in those times, grapes for wine-making were delivered in pine boxes, and I began painting by using the colored waters on that unfinished wood. It taught me how to blend colors, and it made me fall in love with color.”
Her mother also taught her how to crochet at a very young age. “I’m convinced that the early tactile connection between yarn and making art was laid then, followed by the incredible experience of playing with color,” Joann says. “It created who I am”
Joann went on to achieve “a typical academic career,” earning her undergraduate degree in philosophy with an emphasis in anthropology, completing Master’s work in adult learning at Wayne State University, and then gaining post-degree
experience in marketing at a Harvard University Executive Institute. Meanwhile, she continued making art.
One of her students “outed” her as an artist when, without her knowledge, they submitted her silk paintings to the Detroit Festival of the Arts. As director of marketing at Wayne State, Joann helped coordinate the festival, but because she painted under her Italian name, Giovanna Condino, the committee didn’t recognize the name.
Much to her chagrin, her artwork was accepted and even won one of the festival awards. That led to Joann showing her art at the Detroit Artists Market gallery. But she still didn’t consider art a career, until a famous acquaintance pushed her into it.
Because of her marketing connections to the Orchestra Hall in Detroit, Joann met Mitch Miller – a classically trained musician and recording artist, known for his 1960s television show, “Sing Along with Mitch,”
Joann and Mitch became very good friends, and she decided to make a hand-painted silk scarf as a gift for him. Soon after he received it, Mitch called her and asked if she was still painting. She said, “No, it’s too expensive.” The next day, she received a package containing a bolt of silk with a note from Mitch that said, ‘Now what’s your excuse?’
Joann painted several more silk scarves for Mitch over the next year. Then one day he invited her to watch him conduct the Windsor Symphony, and backstage he asked her again: “Are you still painting?” He knew she was, because he was still getting scarves from her, but he had a bigger project in mind. Mitch offered Joann a $2,000 check to commission 10 silks for several of his musicians.
“He forced me into a body of work and made me photograph them, which of course gave me a portfolio,” Joann says. “And he gave them to such strategic people that I began
receiving more commission requests.”
Space to create
Joann (and her husband, Gene Reck, who taught chemistry at Wayne State) retired from the university in 2000 and moved to Cross Village, on the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Her husband wanted to build her a small 10x10 studio to “get the stuff out of the house,” she says. “It gave me the ability to be messy and experiment.”
Soon, the 10x10 concept space became 40x40 in reality, and then kept growing as they invited more artists to join them at Three Pines Studio. “The guy who worked on our heating system was a watercolorist. The guy that lived next door was a woodworker,” Joann says. “We kept running into people who were artists, but were making their living in another way because they felt that there wasn’t a venue for them to show what they were making.”
Three Pines Studio has since expanded into a gallery showcasing as many as 40 local artists, who work in all mediums – including painting, sculpture, woodworking, metal, glass, and fiber arts. The gallery space has two working studios; one for Joann and one for her husband, a ceramicist. They have exhibits every two weeks in the summer, and teach about 120 workshops between May and October.
The studio sits on two and a half acres in a region that the native Anishinaabe Indians called “The Land of the Crooked Tree” because, as Joann explains, “The north-prevailing wind on Lake Michigan makes most of our pine trees lean north.” Joann’s studio is surrounded by windows on two sides, giving her an expansive view of the scenery that inspires her work. She looks out over a colorful perennial garden, a peaceful meditation garden, and plenty of leaning pines dotting the property. She can even catch a glimpse of Lake Michigan during certain seasons.
“I’m always observing what’s going on outside,” she says. “I watch the seasons. I see the colors that are brought by the wind and the snow and the sunsets, and the color of the lake changes by the season. All of those colors affect me.”
About 13 years ago, Joann noticed that a family nearby began raising a critically rare breed of sheep called Leichester Longwool. She was intrigued, and wanted to support the Loubert family farm.
So, every spring, Joann buys the wool shorn from these sheep, which is acclaimed for its luster and shine. She has it spun into yarn at Stone Hedge Fiber Mill in East Jordan, about an hour and a half away. Then the yarn comes back to Joann’s studio where she hand-applies uniquely formulated dyes to create a nature-inspired spectrum of shades.
“Designers have fallen in love with the luster of our yarn, because it has such great lanolin, softness and light, so the colors bounce and look alive, much like the colors bounce off the lake,” Joann says.
The Colors of Crooked Tree Yarn is aptly named for the regional landscape that inspires its hues. Joann introduces new color series every year that celebrate the shades of the Great Lakes region, and also pay homage to her Italian roots, while staying in tune with the latest international color trends.
Of course, there’s Lake Blue, Sturgeon Bay Green and Beach Glass, on the blue end of the spectrum, along with grays named Turbulence and Fog. Joann’s collection also includes wine-imbued hues like Marsala, Beaujolais, and Winemakers Blend; and café-inspired shades like Chai, Latte, and Espresso. There are also bright spicy colors named for Cayenne and Paprika, and soft multicolored skeins like Lavender Fields and Gelato.
Joann is often inspired by Pantone’s color of the year, which for 2018, is ultra violet. She calls her version Florentine Violet (which her scientist friends appreciate, since technically, ultraviolet light is not visible to the human eye.) In fact, she’s working on a subset of Italian colors now, influenced by the reds and violets of Florence and the blues of Venice.
She also pays attention to international trends, like the color of the year from AkzoNobel, which is the European color institute. Its 2018 Color of the Year is a warm wood tone called Heart Wood, that also inspires Joann’s palette. “Because I’ve collaborated with a woodcarver in Florence for my wood blocks, I’ve been affected by the colors of Florence and Venice, and the colors of the wood,” Joann says.
Great Lakes exclusive
Joann starts mixing colors in December, then dyes the wool between January and March, so the yarn is ready for market it May. Joann sells her yarn at Three Pines Studio, and at the local farmer’s market two days a week from May to October. She’s had customers from as far as New York, Boston, Colorado, Texas, California and Oregon. One woman from Spain comes skiing in Michigan every year, and purchases Colors of Crooked Tree Yarn to take back to Spain for her knitting.
Once the wool from that year’s spring clip is gone, it’s gone…until the sheep are shorn again next year. Each clip might produce between 50 to 80 pounds, Joann says, depending on the animals and the weather that year. This rarity and exclusivity make the Colors of Crooked Tree Yarn incredibly unique. When combined with Joann’s master palette of gorgeous shades, every skein of yarn tells a story.
“There’s charm in it; there’s a story,” Joann says. “I’m not just driven to dye yarn; I’m driven to dye local yarn because it’s cyclical, like the seasons. If anything, I’m a colorist. I love color, I love making color, I love to see what happens when you mix colors, I love to see what the world does with color.”
At Fra Angelica, we continue Joann’s story by hand-knitting her gorgeous Colors of Crooked Tree Yarn into wearable garments like shawls, scarves, wraps, skirts and cowls – made entirely in the Great Lakes region. Stop by the store and discover what stories you can tell when you wear one of our hand-knitted items home.
Fra Angelica Studio proudly carries a diverse collection of art-to-wear. If you're looking for a unique gift idea for someone special or bold and beautiful designs for yourself, stop on by to try some on, or have a look.