There are little glimpses of gold throughout Marian Vavra’s Rose Hill home: golden angels, golden airplanes, golden bouquets and an entire wall of golden crosses.
The designs are intricate and elegant, yet crafted out of simple wheat.
Vavra says it has always been difficult to find the right words to talk about her Christian faith. Now, she realizes that she expresses her spiritual thoughts through weaving wheat into the form of crosses.
“When I create straw art, from the simplest of tied crosses to exquisite masterpieces, I express my pure joy of being a precious child of God,” she writes in the introduction to her book.
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Vavra is a Kansas wheat weaver — also known as a straw artist — who has been plaiting, spinning and gluing wheat into elaborate pieces of art since she bought a kit in the 1980s at a craft store in Iowa.
Later, when she and her husband moved to Kansas, she found herself “right smack dab in the middle of wheat fields.”
She bought a book, asked a neighbor for permission to cut some wheat from his field, and started teaching herself the folk art that dates back to Europe in the 1500s.
It was about seven years before she met another wheat weaver. Now, she knows weavers around the state and the world through organizations of straw artists. She estimates that there are about 20 other wheat weavers in Kansas.
While Vavra does a variety of projects with wheat, she specializes in sacred crosses. Every year she creates a different one: the Cross of Renewal, the Radiant Love Cross, the In Adoration Cross and more. About a dozen are mounted beside each other on her wall.
Before starting a new cross, she says a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to work through her during the creative process.
“Very seldom do I have a complete picture when I start of what a cross is going to look like,” Vavra said. “All of these, I would have never guessed that how they ended up is not how I thought they were going to be.”
Straw is sometimes referred to as “poor man’s gold,” Vavra says. It starts out fairly light and cream colored, then changes into a deeper gold with time.
Every cross in Vavra’s collection has a story, several of which she has written in her book “Celebrating the Cross.” The book can be purchased at Watermark Books, on Amazon or directly from Vavra.
The Unity Cross, for example, started with heart motifs on each corner. The wheat harvest that year had unusually long straw that Vavra couldn’t bear to cut, so she added another heart motif on top of the others. The design starts in the four corners, then carries in to appliqué work in the center, which Vavra created by opening up the straw so it becomes ribbon-like and can be glued to paper or wood in shapes.
Her book also includes a prayer with each cross. The prayer for the Unity Cross reads, “Holy Spirit, people have gathered from the north and south, from the east and west for generations. We continue to gather in your name to celebrate your unifying love. Our hearts are filled, Lord, and we thank you. Amen.”
A smaller cross decorated with a dyed red heart is called “A Pure Heart for Poland.” About two years ago she taught people how to make the cross at an international straw festival in Poland.
Afterward, a woman asked how much the cross would cost. The woman told Vavra that her brother and his wife had just lost a baby to a heart condition.
“I want this cross to help them with the pain of losing (a baby) and yet knowing there’s hope for them and hope for the baby and a healing,” Vavra recalls the woman telling her.
By the end of the conference, the woman hadn’t managed to get the money to purchase the cross, so Vavra left it behind with instructions that it be given to her for free.
She had known she was making the cross for someone, Vavra said, but didn’t know who until she heard the story. She later made the second one to hang in her home.
Like the woman in Poland, others have sometimes been affected spiritually by her designs, Vavra said. Some of her crosses have been used in church sanctuaries.
Over time, Vavra has learned many different techniques with straw. First it must be soaked, making it easier to bend and fold. She can braid it in different ways, use a clothespin and a rock to spin the straw into thread, or create intricate flowers with appliqué work. The straw keeps its shape after drying. The golden sheen is natural and Vavra doesn’t add any varnish or lacquer, although she does sometimes dye the straw.
Working with the wheat reminds Vavra of growing up on a farm, where she played with corn husks and braided pieces of twine. Wheat is a part of the cycle of planting, harvesting and resting, she said.
“I just like the fact that it is something that’s very pleasing to my hands,” Vavra said.