For fiber artist Bella Erakko, the craft of weaving altar cloths is a vehicle for sending well-wishes into the world. With each order for a commissioned piece, she asks three questions: What do you want to wrap yourself in—peace, courage, love?

“Weaving is about 200 little steps, each of no consequence. But when you put them all together, you get something beautiful,” Bella Errako says.
Photo courtesy of Ashley Szatala

By Ashley Szatala

Bella Erakko has a rare, unobstructed view in Hannibal, Missouri, of the city’s downtown, the Mississippi River, and the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse. Her one-story house sits near the base of the lighthouse. The Maryland native found her way to Mark Twain’s hometown by accident almost 15 years ago.

While en route to the state of Washington after selling her East Coast home, Bella made a navigational error and pulled off the highway into Hannibal. While stretching her legs, Bella saw the house on Cardiff Hill for sale and made the decision to end her westward trek.

She bought the house, which belonged to an artist, and set up her studio in the same room as the previous owner. She discovered a Native American portrait painted on a wall in the bedroom, and she added to the house’s character by having an artist friend paint in the living room a mural of three women in various scenes, including a gathering around a heavenly light.

The house itself is a complement to Bella’s personality—spiritual and creative. It is where she stays busy weaving shawls and scarves, beading jewelry, and writing nonfiction. Her life is far removed from where she was, decades ago, working as an information systems designer in Washington, DC, where Bella never imagined calling herself an artist or author.

“I was really awful at just about every hand art known to women,” she says. “I tried them all, and I was terrible at all of them.”

About 25 years ago, Bella saw a shop advertising weaving courses and signed up.

“For some reason I had time on my hands and wanted to try something new. Weaving was my last option,” she says. “I was the worst student in the class. They were constantly waiting for me.”

With practice, she improved.

In 2000, as her mother entered the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Bella went on a Native American vision quest for spiritual guidance and life direction. After four nights and five days on the quest, participants discerned what their “medicine name,” or name of deep meaning, might be, such as Wounded Bird or Rainbow Walker. After the experience, Bella wove altar cloths for each participant based on the name they chose and the colors they attributed to themselves. 

The altar cloths fill a special purpose, she explains. “Sometimes we create a special place in our house. It is kind of a sacred place; it calms and centers us. Some people call this an altar. It may have a cross or a photo or a little statue or special stones, whatever connects you to your inner self. I make this particular cloth the same size as a scarf, so it also can be worn.”

The reactions to the cloths were positive, and Bella enjoyed the experience. The process for those first creations evolved into what Bella now calls “weaving with meaning.”

Orange is Bella’s least-requested color, but she wanted an orange shawl for herself.
Photo courtesy of Bella Errako

With each order for a commissioned piece, she asks her customer three questions: What do you want to wrap yourself in—peace, courage, love? What colors embody this attribute? What simple words, such as a prayer or Bible verse, should Bella say as she weaves?

“As I weave, I carry the words of prayer into the fabric itself,” she says. “I pray each line as I throw the shuttle back and forth. It’s my belief that the final woven piece carries living prayer in its very fiber.”

She attaches to each shawl or scarf a letter about the process of creating the piece, such as what days Bella worked on it, what the weather was like outside, and how the thread was behaving. Several customers have been moved by what Bella has written in the letters.

“I remember my first show was a Catholic/Christian conference, and I brought my 20-some shawls,” Bella recalls. “This woman walks straight to one shawl, and she said, ‘I have to have this.’ I had attached the prayer; she reads the prayer, and she bursts into sobs. She said, ‘The time and day you were weaving this, I was in the ICU fighting for my life. The prayer that you prayed into it was the prayer I was saying.’ ”

Bella has published five books, yet the one that carries the most meaning for her is her 2013 work, Elsie at Ebb Tide: Emerging from the Undertow of Alzheimer’s, which tells the life story of Bella’s mother, Elsie Nurmi, a former US protocol officer for three presidential administrations. Bella writes of Elsie’s transcendent journey from occupying the physical world while battling Alzheimer’s to occupying the spiritual world while in the disease’s advanced stages.

Bella served as her mother’s caretaker for 13 years. “It’s a terrible disease, but it was like watching a metamorphosis, going from body to spirit,” she says, noting how her mother, who was often incoherent, once clearly spoke of her brother’s death before the family even knew he had died. “I started looking at other moments we had, how much joy there was, and how much more playful I became because she was playful.”

Today, Bella continues weaving commissioned pieces and those she sells through the local Alliance Art Gallery. She’s also working on her new book, Requiem: A Love Letter to Planet Earth, in which Bella hopes to inspire people to engage in sustainability practices.

“When that woman came up to me and told me about being in the ICU, I thought, ‘Maybe there is something to this [art form],’ ” she says. “If it weren’t for her all those years ago, I might not have continued down this path.”

Featured image courtesy of Bella Erakko.

Article originally published in the March/April 2019 issue of Missouri Life