Spinning gold: World is Slezak's loom

Suzanne Zito Slezak is not the Brothers Grimm image that one imagines when they think of the traditional art of spinning– a wrinkled old woman bent over a wheel churning out thread from flax. She is, in fact, a recent graduate of Wellesley College where she spent four years studying anthropology. But this 21-year-old wants to see the world, and her hobby is her ticket.

Slezak was one of 48 national candidates to receive a $22,000 grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation that enables graduating college seniors to spend a year traveling the world pursuing a personal interest.

"They want it to be about the experience, not about the product," she says. "They just want you to follow a dream."

To qualify for this dream, young scholars spend the better part of a year developing and defending a proposal for their project anything from studying roller coaster design around the world to recording the stories of women in prison in Columbia and Bolivia.

Slezak will work with women in six countries learning local hand-spinning techniques for different natural fibers. She'll study cotton in Guatemala and India, wool in New Zealand, silk in Thailand and Laos, and flax (linen) in Ireland.

Art teacher Pru Huddleston was not surprised to hear that her student had won this prestigious honor. "She's an incredible kid," Huddleston says.

It was Huddleston's class at Tandem School– which Slezak attended from eighth to twelfth grade– that inspired the young artist's interest in spinning and weaving.

"Suzanne caught on to [spinning] right away," Huddleston recalls. "She was always really good at it because she's so patient."

Home-schooled (along with two brothers) by her father until she was 12, Slezak discovered early that learning doesn't take place only at a desk.

"We live on a small farm in Free Union with a few cows and chickens and occasionally a pig or a donkey or goats," she says. "The [school] day was very flexible and would be created by whoever came along or whatever was going on in our life."

Her year abroad starts in early August and will also give Slezak the chance to explore ideas that may come in handy when she returns. Together with college chum Gwenevere Higgins, she plans to create a farm school south of town. The program they envision will offer high school kids the chance to live on a working farm and produce their own food while they also work on the three Rs.

It's an ambitious plan for this young adventurer who knows that happily ever after may still be full of twists and turns.

"I have this huge experience ahead of me that could take me in any direction," she says. "It could change everything. I know I'll be very different. But I feel incredibly, incredibly fortunate."