Author Archives: Astrid Bennett

Oaxaca Tales: The Textile Museum, Weaving with Duck Down and other textile tales

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More textile discoveries at the 10th International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca, Mexico. Several exhibitions of historical and indigenous textiles were featured at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, with spillover exhibition areas in the San Pablo Cultural Center.

Perhaps the most intriguing exhibit centered around a mystery textile discovered by at a flea market in the 1980s. Entitled The Plumed Weavings, its centerpiece is, quoting the Textile Museum signage,  “the ‘tlamachtentli de Madeline’, thus named in honor of Madeline Humm de Mollet, as it was she that discovered it in a Puebla flea market towards the end of the 1980s. The tlamachtentli is only a fragment of what must have been a most extraordinary huipil; notwithstanding, among its threads we were able to discern the technical sophistication and the aesthetics of indigenous art from over 300 years ago. Only five other textiles with similar characteristics as this weaving have been documented; three of them are located in Mexico, one in Rome and another in New York. All six are Mexican… and share a very special peculiarity; each one has different varieties of cotton thread that have been twisted or spun with duck down.

…While it is possible to find the use of feathers in other regions of the world (like the Andes, the Amazon, the islands of the Pacific and even in western USA) all indications are that plumed threads are exclusive to Mesoamerican culture, and in particular, to the cultures that established themselves in what we now know as Mexico.”

The research into these textiles was then shared with current day weavers from Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca. The exhibition displays examples of modern-day pieces resurrecting these almost long lost techniques. An excellent set of videos documented the process.

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The work of two master weavers were the most impressive to me. They are Roman Gutierrez, from Teotilan des Valle in Oaxaca, and Noe Pinzon and Alexandro de Avila, from Oaxaca. This cape is by one of these artists. Note the duck down yarn in the border elements here and in the opening photo.

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The work of two master weavers were the most impressive to me. They are Roman Gutierrez, from Teotilan des Valle in Oaxaca, and Noe Pinzon and Alexandro de Avila, from Oaxaca. This cape is by one of these artists. See detail below.

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Interesting to see both sides of this textile.

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A textile made of duck quills, amazing.

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San Pablo Cultural Center, Oaxaca

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After looking at textiles in the Cultural Center, it’s easy to “read” this wall of cactus as yet another textile example.

Additional exhibits focused on the use of resist dye techniques globally. Here are a few favorite pictures. Many other pieces were just as sublime.

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A map showing the stunning variety of indigenous traditions within Oaxaca.

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The region’s variety in indigenous dress

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Beautiful example of indigo-dyed, Meso-American shibori, or resist dyeing. Very finely woven and large.

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weft brocade

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A perfect example of one of the large-scale ikats from Central Asia, ones that first inspired me to explore resist dyeing.

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Above (front) and below (reverse side.) These remarkable cloths were made by Justina Oviedo Rangel, born in 1938, San Mateo. She mastered traditional techniques and forms, then expanded to use the reverse side to create another design- by the use of complex double weave. Ingenious! Difficult!

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historic Shibori (resist-dyed textiles) shown in teh Cultural Center, which was restored to retain earlier frescos, shown here.

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Wonderful roof-level installation of “Bandhani Flags,” at the Cultural Center in Oaxaca. According to the flyer associated with the exhibit, “in 2003, dosa collaborated with artisans in Kutch and the National Institute of Design in Ahmedebad to employ women who were displaced by the 2001 earthquake, utilizing their traditional techniques”

Oaxaca Tales: Chavez Santiago Family Weavers & Galerie Fe y Lola

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As part of the 10th International Shibori Symposium, we took a day-long tour of the area and visited  with the Chavez Santiago family in the local weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle. Federico (Fe) Chavez Sosa is a master weaver who has been weaving for generations, adapting traditional designs with his own color combinations and patterns. Son Omar spoke gave us an introduction in English, and then we were shown quite a big selection of rugs of all sizes.

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Dolores

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Like many of the 2000 weavers in the area, he had been using aniline dyes in his spacious studio attached to his home. But since the processing of these dyes was in tandem with a home and living environment, he decided to return to natural dyes used by his ancestors, including his grandfather. Federico’s wife Dolores (Lola) also weaves, as do other family members, including son Omar, Janet and Eric.

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Examples of natural dye colors derived from cochineal, indigo, marigold and more.

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Pericon, a local variation of Marigold, is an excellent dye source.

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Looms are built locally, with carved wood ratchet and wheel (wow- contemporary looms elsewhere use metal for these critical parts) and take about a month to complete.

The family also operates Galeria Fe y Lola, a small, well displayed shop at 5 de Mayo 408, Centro, Oaxaca. It’s located behind a storefront with other shops, as is often found in Oaxaca. Well worth a visit as these are excellent works using natural dyes only.

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Federico shows us beautiful examples of rugs he and Delores have woven. Color is derived only from natural dyes or the natural wool color. Dolores tends to all the fringes, tucking them in, braiding them, and more.

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Omar Chavez with his mother Dolores and sister Janet in their shop, Galerie Re y Lola in Oaxaca Centro.

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The rug I purchased.

The beautiful rug I purchased. I love the variations of the central figures. The colors here do not do this rug justice.

Oaxaca Tales: Printmaking Collectives & Museums


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One of the unexpected surprises of the International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca was the exciting proliferation of small printmaking collectives. Most of them are focused on large scale wood- and lino- cuts, often in political themes. I visited many of the ones located in Oaxaca centro. For this, I used a “Pasaporte Grafico” walking tour guide containing a map, something about each of the ten venues, plus an opportunity to receive a “stamp” at each venue visited. Passports are available at each venue.  The entire walking tour was easy to accomplish and inspiring in its discoveries.

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The Pasaporte Grafico walking tour map

The Instituto de Artes Graficas was founded by famed Mexican artist Francisco Toledo, who also played a hand in many other Oaxaca cultural institutions, like the Ethnobotanical Garden. The Instituto has an exhibition space, gathering spot, library, shop and more. Taller Oaxaca Grafico is located near the Instituto de Artes Graficas and focuses on showcasing prints by founding members Edith Chavez, Dario Castillejos, MK Kabrito, Alberto Cruz and Ivan Bautista.

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the gate at the Instituto de Artes Graficos

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at the Instituto de Artes Graficos

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Courtyard connecting exhibition space, gallery, work space and libraries at the Instito de Artes Graficos

 Espacio Zapata “arte popular” is awesome and exciting for those of us who have done printmaking and screen printing. It has mutiple rooms and includes a small restaurant. On the walls are wood or linocuts used for printing, some nearly 2 meters long. It seems more a working space; the “sales” area is smaller by comparison and has a T-shirt shop feel. Its mission is “a political graphics production workshop for artists who consider and utilize art as a tool to support the struggle of our people.”

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Espacio Zapata “arte popular”

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restaurant at Espacio Zapata “arte popular”

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Large scale woodcut substrate mounted on the wall at Espacio Zapata “arte popular”

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silkscreens ready to use at Espacio Zapata “arte popular”

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The scale of these woodcuts is awesome, at Espacio Zapata “arte popular”

At Estampa, I spoke with with H.L. Santiago Martinez, a painter. Estampa was once home to multiple artists, now just two and is evolving into more of a community arts space where conversations about graphic and visual arts promote national and international artists. It has a coffee shop. Later this month, it will host a book arts event.

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At Estampa, painter H. L. Santiago Martinez

Gabinete Grafico has a wide range of work displayed in a way that is easily accessible for viewing and sold.  A very small space with one press and one work table, it makes excellent use of walls and loft to display an exciting array of work. When I was there, one of the artists, Celi Irving Herrera, was working on cutting a woodcut. Visit them on Facebook.

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At Gabinete Grafico

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At Gabinete Grafico, Celi Irving Herrera cuts a new woodcut

I also visited Oaxaca Subsuelo, which exhibits and sells local Oaxaca art work, and Taller Siqueiros Gallery, mentioned as a space “dedicated to spreading Oaxaca and international street art.”

Not on the passport, but noteworthy is the current exhibition at Oaxaca’s cultural museum, the  Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, located in the converted Dominican Abbey next to Santa Domingo and the Ethnobotanical Garden. It featured a huge show of graphic art by Leopoldo Mendez.

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In addition to hundreds of prints, we also got to see Leopold Mendez’ original linocuts, tools and letters.

Oaxaca Tales: Jacobo Mendoza, Natural Dyeing on Wool

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Jacobo Mendoza

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Various ingredients used for natural dyeing, including dye plants (Black Zapote, center; marigold, left), mordanting agents (sea salt, baking powder, powdering lime, lemon, pomegranate) and fixing/soaping agents (Amote root at bottom)

 

One of the highlights of the 10th International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca, Mexico, was Traditions from Teotitlan: Optimizing Natural Dyes on Wool, a short, intense presentation by the Jacobo Mendoza family, who have been weaving rugs for generations. The Symposium program describes the presentation in this way: ” Jacobo Mendoza is a longtime dyer and weaver who runs his own weaving studio in the famed Teotitlan del Valle, known for its natural dyes and intricate wool tapestries. Jacob has previously studied under Michel Garcia and has applied a scientific approach to his inherited knowledge of dyeing. Combined with his comprehensive understanding of local natural dyestuffs, Jacob’s weavings exemplify how natural dye on wool can achieve great color fastness and a wide ranged of colors within his own unique bright palette.”  A disclaimer here: any technical information included in this post is based on my notes about the presentation, through translation. Please use it to do your own further investigations rather than as a completely accurate source all on its own.

To start the presentation, Jacobo gave a short traditional greeting in Zapotec, then explained that his family continues to further the skills that “our ancestors gave us.” A skilled presenter, Jacobo engineered a one and one half hour presentation which included spinning wool and using four different natural dyes with overdye variations. Mendoza is an award-winning weaver. He concluded his presentation by showing us a rug for which he recently received the top award among 900 entries.

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Maria Luisa Mendoza carding, then spinning the wool.

All are dyes that have traditionally been used in Mexico before aniline dyes were introduced. Most of the many Oaxacan weavers use aniline dyes. A number of families have researched and reinstated natural dyes in their practices, and some never abandoned them. This makes their work particularly valuable and noteworthy.

The presentation started with Jacobo’s wife carding wool, obtained locally from sheep, llama and some silk, depending on use. This roll of carded wool was then spun using a large spinning wheel, resulting in skeins of natural colored wool.

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Maria Luisa Mendoza spinning wool after carding.

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Preparing the dye baths.

Dyes used were cochineal (red), indigo (blue), Mexican marigolds (with a more local version in the Pericon family that yields an even more intense color) and the fruit of the Black Zapote (brown). All wools but the ones destined for the indigo bath were first steeped in a mordant solution, usually included various combinations of alum, lemon juice, sea salt and ground lime. The percentage of mordant used is the key to the color combination. In addition, a local root from the Amote plant is used as a natural soap, to clean, fix and preserve the dye color. (Amote is also used for human hair washing and other uses.)

 

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Maria Luisa Mendoza grinding cochineal into powder usable for dyeing.

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Different mordants create different variations in cochineal depending on basic or acid makeup. From top to bottom: lemon juice for more orange color; ordinary color; baking soda (burgundy) and ground lime (violet).

Cochineal is a small insect that attaches itself to a particular kind of cactus. In the days before aniline dyes, it was a big part of the reason for the importance of Mexico to Europe, as its intense, permanent red was the stuff of royalty and aristocracy. Mendoza purchases cochineal in its dried form; it is then ground into a powder and used for dyeing.

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Jacobo Mendoza doing a second dyeing in cochineal, possibly over marigold dyed yellow.

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Mendoza showing us the Cochineal insects attached to cactus. Each white mound is one insect. We learn later at the Cochineal farm, how incredibly many insects are required to create a kilo of cochineal for sale, and that one obstacle is ease of harvesting due to cactus thorns. But it is being “farmed.”

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Chunks of locally grown indigo.

Mendoza says that indigo is too expensive and labor intensive to grow and process themselves. A ton of indigo plants yield about 15 kilos of indigo chunks for dyeing. Their indigo comes from a village near the southern coast, where it is grown and harvested in August/September. After harvesting, the indigo is processed in concrete pools over a number of days. On Day 1, Indigo is cut and bundled. On Day 2, these bundles are placed in concrete pools, to which water is added. Weight is added to settle the indigo to the bottom and start the process of fermentation. On the next day, the plants are withdrawn; the “oil” remains. Then, finally, the liquid is beaten for two days until the froth comes to the top. It is left to rest for two days until the froth settles to the bottom as sediment. The substance is strained in muslin cloth. The sediment that stays in the cloth is dough-like and is put out to dry for 15-20 days.

The Mendozas buy the chunks of indigo. In a method that is not traditional, but faster, they dissolve the indigo in water with chunks of mango peelings or pineapple, cooked for two hours.

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Maria Luisa Mendoza, also from a family of weavers, grinding locally grown indigo. Chunks shown as well.

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Jacobo Mendoza overdyeing cochineal with indigo

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Jacobo Mendoza overdyeing Mexican marigolds in indigo

The Black Zapote is widely used as an edible fruit, with a black flesh when ripe. For dyeing, it is used in a more immature form. There are many variations of the Zapote plant. Black Zapote is the one that works. No mordant is needed. If the wool is mordanted, the color will be different and less intense.

For its weavings, Mendoza  usually creates wool colors in 14 variations of each of the four basic dyes. The weavings below show the incredible range of color Mendoza and his family are able to achieve with their work.

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Award-winning rug by Jacobo Mendez

 

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Woven by Mendoza’s wife, Maria Luisa, also from a family of Zapotec weavers

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Rugs woven by the Mendoza children, Jacobito and Sylvia

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Another rug by Jacobo Mendoza, showing the range of color possible with natural dyes.

The 100 Drawings Project: February Update

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Box turtle shell found in a creek bed 35 years ago. Interesting to examine and understand the structure of its skeleton through drawing.

My busy life involves balancing studio work with arts administration and advocacy for other artists. Pursuing drawing in a regularized way has always been an unrealized goal. That’s because drawing requires making time to stop, listen and be present in the moment. My ticker is set to always being on the move.

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Top: ink on paper. Bottom: ink on dyed fabric.

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Last fall, before I accepted the position of President of the Surface Design Association, I had a serious talk with myself. I’d need to make a serious commitment to work-life balance or be swallowed up by administration and regret. But SDA is my homebody group and helping it develop and thrive in the future is important to me. So, just in the way that I took on careful planning for SDA and Iowa Artisans Gallery,  for which I work part time and am a co-owner, I decided to plan my studio life. In addition to creating works for the wall, I’d start a drawing series. I’d do it during the week, on several of my admin days. And so I have.  Today’s blog post is an update on that process, with 21 drawings into the collection.

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Drawings of a handmade sugar bowl on various substrates, including fabric.

Drawing has curious consequences. It teaches me to be more fearless. Taking risks is required, yet not risky. It doesn’t really matter. Drawing rests and re-sets the rational brain. This is helpful in the life of an administrator.

Some days, nothing gels. On those, it’s important to make the habit, to just keep going. I’ll work in my sketchbook, on paper, on fabric with matte medium, or on canvas with gesso, using pencil, brush and ink, watercolors, sticks, and acrylic paints. How about cut-up blue jeans or other clothing? That’s next. Sometimes attempt #8 leads me in a new direction. If nothing else, I can always tear up your paper and try again.

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What’s in the fridge? mushrooms will do when the garden is fallow.

hibiscus_2-2016_webOne other curious consequence: drawing allows me to acquire experience rather than always holding on to objects. Best to surround one’s self with the objects that hold meaning. The others? Draw them, commit them to deep, multi-sensory memory, and pass them along.

Stay tuned- more to come.

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Drawing is also a good way to connect with a profound memory, in this case, the loss of a dear artist friend, Tom McAnulty, hit in January by a speeding motorcycle in New York City while crossing in the crosswalk. This is a sculpture he gave to me early in life.

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These examples on my own dyed fabrics show what can happen when you push through something that doesn’t seem to work and end up with something new.

Tom, the sculptor

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Today is Tom day. Inhabiting the memory of this dear friend after learning he was killed last week  as a pedestrian in New York City, hit by a speeding motorcycle. He was only a few blocks from home. His many friends, family members, former students and fans are bereft.

I knew Tom McAnulty as a student at Indiana University. He was a grad student in sculpture and ten years older, carving limestone from the local quarries while studying with sculptor Jean Paul Darriau. I was a printmaking undergrad. We met, oddly enough, in the gym. Then as now, Tom loved to talk and tell stories in his Philly accent. People gravitated towards him.

Later we met again when we worked together on a CETA arts project in Bloomington in 1978, designed to provide employment to local artists and study the economic development potential of arts in southern Indiana. A Practical Graduate School for me.  Four of us were in charge of developing arts workshops for non-traditional settings. We had a mandate but no guidance. Mostly, it was about sitting around and talking philosophy while hyper-caffeinated in the Chinese restaurant across the street, which served hot flaky Hoosier biscuits and honey in the morning. Later, we did teach those workshops- at a UAW labor union in Indy. Tom taught drawing, showed up in his Datsun pickup and quickly caught grief for his choice of car. I taught macrame. While we were there, one of our fellow coworkers, a photographer named Kathleen, took this picture of Tom, myself and one other co-worker. She had an uncanny ability to create a mug shot view in every portrait she took, and this one is no exception. Three funny, sunny people looking like we’re up against a wall. Seeing this photo today, despite what seemed to be it’s irrelevance to the tenor of our lives, there’s the youthful beauty long transformed.

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As the youngest child, he was designated to become the Jesuit priest in his family of about 10 siblings. He told me that he discovered art while in the military, where he worked producing molds for teeth, then studied drawing at night while working. Went to Philadelphia College of Art, the first in his family. Later as a beloved professor at Adelphi University, Tom taught many students who were also the first in their families to go to college.

My last visit with Tom and Mary in Bloomington was in 1979, where we talked the wonders of family life, me with an infant, Tom with his daughter Kathleen and older son who was six at the time.

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Above and below, Mary and Tom McAnulty at my wedding, 1978

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Visiting Tom, Kathleen and Stephen, with my own infant son

Tom was not a great correspondent, but every once in a while I’d get a postcard from his latest show, or the opening for the Altar at St Meinrad’s. By then I was working in textiles: weaving, printing, taking my printmaker-ly instincts to a fabric substrate. I tried to plan a trip to NY to see the Frank Stella show at MOMA, but demands of life with three children complicated things. John, my late husband, stayed with Tom and Mary while attending a conference, bringing back more stories and a framed drawing.

Then, thirty five years later, I finally spent an afternoon with Tom, meandering through Central Park, sitting on the bench in tribute to Jean Paul Darriau. Looking at art at MOMA. Nothing had changed except the color of his hair. Our meander was a tune played by artists, inhabiting the small details of what we saw, both old and new. Seeing the MOMA sculpture garden, then Tom explaining all the provenance of carved stone features in Central Park. It was spring, a treasured memory.

Tom on Jean Paul Darriau’s bench in Central Park.

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Decided to draw Tom’s relief bronze given to me in the 1980s today. A vital part of my 100 Drawings of Objects.

Although we didn’t have proximity in life, the connection was there always, always holding a promise of return. Thinking of you and your family. Love the picture of you with your grandsons sitting on the bench in the Museum. Miss you, friend.

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Tom loved Giacometti, here in the Sculpture Garden at MOMA

The Studio Day: Creativity & the Great Balancing Act

Last September, I engaged in a much-needed weekend in my studio. Looking upon my upcoming role as Surface Design Association President, I knew I MUST prioritize making time for balance and creative work, so critical to making the rest of  life function well. In that,  I am just like 99.9% of our SDA members and all my other colleagues I know outside of SDA. All ages, all stages.

Suddenly I had an idea: talk about the importance of a studio day.  A day later, I read that I’m not alone in my thinking. Here’s the piece in the New York Times.

What follows are the closing comments I made at SDA’s Made/Aware: Socially-Engaged Practices Intensive at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. (Read a wonderful summary of this event, written by Tamryn McDermott for SDA’s NewsBlog.) I appeared in my studio garb, my SDA “uniform” —apron, t-shirt and torn jeans, rubber gloves in my pockets. I spoke to this gathering of artists, educators, students, makers, who among them have amassed an impressive list of accomplishments and inquiry, with dedication and enthusiasm.

This is what I said, illustrated here with photos from my past:

We are first and foremost, a community of makers. Many of us working in textile and new media do this as a tactile antidote to our increasingly digital world. In whatever stages of life you find yourself—longtime artist, recent college grad, juggling paid employment, or retired but wanting to rekindle a longtime interest —creative work is never an easy fit into a busy life. The quest for work-life balance challenges all of us and increasingly is part of a national conversation, as recent media articles have pointed out.

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Anna Carlson (left) and I have been roommates at SDA conferences for years. This photo is from one held in Kansas City about 15 years ago.

SDA helps us to promote connections with our fellow makers. Our group of largely textile-centric makers is the most diverse of any national textile organizations available to us. The SDA Journal, NewsBlog and our members show us a broader way of thinking about what we do, as do SDA’s tools such as exhibitions, grants and fellow aficionados to talk shop with.

How do YOU make time for creativity? No one path fits all. Creative success is rarely about being secluded and monastic, — it’s about living fully within our lives, a frame of mind. Often, it’s about enjoying the ride, the process rather than the final outcome.

My own life confirms this. I joined SDA as a recent college grad and worked in my studio in addition to jobs and new motherhood. I always referred to my studio work as my fourth child. If I didn’t pay attention, it screamed and hollered. There was a time when my creative moment coincided with Mr Rogers Neighborhood on Public Television.

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When my children were young, I was a weaver creating tapestries , resist-dyed pieces and collage. Looms are endlessly fascinating to children of all ages and quickly become staging grounds for imagined events in the theatre of play.

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The best place to piece was on the floor, also the best place for kid and cat play. Ikats, above and below.

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When my youngest of three children entered kindergarten, I took on an interim teaching position at the University of Iowa, with classes in weaving and printed and dyed textiles. Here I test out clamp resist by first experimenting with folded Japanese paper. The kids help.

Later, I saw firsthand how the kind of creative thinking that artists employ brought new ideas to the table in our  Downtown District, where I worked as a long time manager for Iowa Artisans Gallery, a 4000 square foot business with 200 artists, and served on committees for community initiatives. And it wasn’t just me. For a time, the interim head of the local Area Chamber of Commerce was a graphic designer who injected new life into the organization. As a business manager/owner, I hired artists with both retail and creative abilities, or others who simply wanted to be creative, encouraging them to pursue and fulfill their own personal life destinies as artists of all stripes.

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Iowa Artisans Gallery window, plus a Gallery Walk reception at 14 local venues. I am the coordinator and PR maven.

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Part of the staff and group of owners at Iowa Artisans Gallery, specializing in contemporary American craft and works for the wall.

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Throughout this time, I always tried to guard my studio day on Fridays.  Make no mistake: work-life balance is an issue for everyone I know.

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I invite you to join me in making time for creativity during a weekly Studio Day, whether it’s by learning/contemplation only, or by active doing, —for an hour a day, a day a week, or many days every month, whatever fits. And wouldn’t it be great if SDA, as an organization, took a “studio day.” (Mind you, I’m not saying we should shut down our website  for a day a week, just that our Board, staff and members can commune together in that great notion.) We share the importance of creativity to the structure and balance of our lives.  Let the community of SDA members inspire us to be more than who we are working alone. It is not selfish. It is about good self-management practices that make us more meaningfully productive in all of life.

Lastly if you believe in SDA and its community, here are a few easy things you can do to help strengthen this organization. First, invite a friend to join the SDA community. Our membership numbers are crucial to publishing our robust, quarterly Journal. And there’s more, but that’s for a future discussion. Second, thank our advertising partners and suggest new ones. (I’ll do it here for the ones I have used for years in my own work: shout-outs and thanks to ProChemical & Dye, Testfabrics, Dharma Trading.) They wonder if their ads are unseen, down some big black hole. WE NOTICE!

So, I’ve come to the end of this little talk, and on behalf of the SDA Board, Staff and all of our volunteers, I wish you a safe and inspired journey home, to the heart of your creative work and life and your very own SDA uniform! Ciao!

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Teaching others has been important- whether customers at the store, staff members whom I invite to an annual painting party (above), students at the local Home Ec Workshop, at Guild meetings, or at major teaching venues.

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Penland School of Crafts, teaching “Screen Printing for the Home Studio” in 1997

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Cat learns screenprinting at Home Ec Workshop.

Natural Dyeing on the Prairie: Botanical Colors + Scattergood School

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Goldenrod whorls (front) and cochineal/hibiscus mix (back)

This weekend I was in my “happy place,” attending a two day natural dye workshop conducted by Kathy Hattori of Botanical Colors and held at Scattergood Friends (Quaker) School in West Branch, Iowa, a 20 minute drive from my home. Scattergood is a Quaker Boarding School in which students learn life lessons in sustainability on its a working organic farm and 27 acre prairie. Having just celebrated its 125th Anniversary, Scattergood is known locally as a place on the underground railway and as a sanctuary for victims in World War II. During summer, the students are home, the labs and classrooms are empty, and we fourteen students could accompany Kathy and Amy Weber, who’s associated with Scattergood but is a natural dyer herself, on a 45 minute walk in the prairie, gathering plants materials for our experiments. And process them in a place with outstanding history and provenance. What could be better?

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St John’s Wort blossoms from the Scattergood prairie tract

Kathy introduced herself saying that her primary activities lie in working on sustainable practices for the clothing industry, a hot-button topic in that the textile clothing industry is the second biggest polluter, just behind petrochemical industry. Cotton as it is raised today, uses vast amounts of pesticide and water.

Kathy mentioned that some change is happening. Companies such as Eileen Fisher have not only cleaned up their supply chain from a sustainability standpoint but are now accepting “gently used” EF garments for resale at a third of the original cost. The higher cost of their products reflect this sustainable model. Patagonia will mend its clothing and also has a gently used clothing site. Nordstroms has a limited “take back” program. But just “giving away” used clothing doesn’t always mean it ends up in users’ hands. Most is not used in the US. Some is sent abroad to be burned.

This leads us to corporate dye practices. Last week, it was announced that General Mills would no longer use artificial colors in their ready-made products. Cochineal, an insect long used for its red dye, is now harvested sustainably in Peru, and extracts, called Carminic Acid, or Carmine, are now used in foodstuffs and cosmetics where red color is required. As Kathy says, “baby steps” are being taken, but there are no 100% solutions.

My own odyssey with natural dyeing started in the 1970s when I was a weaver learn to dye. I purchased a book, The Weavers Garden and proceeded to plant plants that could be used for dyeing. Some are still established. But I soon was discouraged by the mordants suggested in the 1970s: Chrome, Iron, Tin, Chromium, all metals that are not safe. Natural dyes with unsafe mordants? Something was wrong there. So I abandoned my interest and moved on.

Fast forward to 2015. Safer mordants are being used, and best practices are more known. This actually applies to much of the small studio dyeing practices that many of us have. Seeing the workshops taught by Michel Garcia, of France, and what my friends have accomplished and learned, has intrigued me enough to try my hand again. Plus, it joins two distinct passions of mine: plants and art.

First, our class proceed to explore the importance of mordanting process. Mordants are the catalysts that make natural dyes “take” to fabric. We added several fabric types to the mordant baths (aluminum sulfate and tara powder) to soak for a couple of hours, or longer if desired.

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Then we took our prairie hike. We looked for  individual plants to be used for “eco-printing” (like what I was so completely blown away by in India Flint’s work when I saw it in 2011), where one wraps leaves/sticks/botanical items in mordanted cloth, ties it with string into bundles, and steams or immersion dyes it. We also collected plants of this early season: Coreopsis flowers, sumac leaves and stems, walnut leaves, St John’s Wort flowers, Goldenrod “galls”, which are full of tannin and therefore good for dyeing, and more.

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The dye pot was filled halfway with coreopsis flowers, a wonderful sight! Water was added and brought to a slow “poach.” Mordanted fabric was added, and the brew was cooked for 45 minutes. The colors were stunning! We also did a cochineal/hibiscus vat from materials she brought.

We also created indigo baths using Kathy’s “1-2-3” method of 1 part indigo, 3 parts fructose and 2 parts calcium Hydroxide, or calc. Fructose is the anti-oxidant here. She also supplied cochineal, hibiscus and a few more pre-packaged dyestuffs from her artist supply site at Botanical Colors.

As in the most successful workshops, it’s best not to worry about perfection, but rather to try new things. Kathy Hattori was really good about striking that balance between good information and not inhibiting our process of exploration. Ready for more!

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Kathy Hattori, of Botanical Colors, workshop teacher

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Picking plant materials on Scattergood’s prairie

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St John’s Wort, from plant to dye pot, makes a deep, satisfying yellow.

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Golden rod burls, full of tannin, are cut apart

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Preparing indigo for vats, adding calc and fructose

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Coreopsis blossoms, which will make a wonderful orange.

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Eco-printing, shown above, where one wraps found materials in fabric, binds with stitching or rubber bands, and steams or puts in an immersion bath. (Also shown, workshop host Amy Weber, with her hand painted piece using natural dyes.) I am intrigued by this process, which I first saw in the sensational work of India Flint, but I found my own results disappointing and not even good spontaneous design at this point. The pieces placed in the communal dye bath did not hold local plant color and absorbed the dye pot’s hue. In fact, of those four bundles, the steamed sumac twigs were most interesting to me.

I took three bundles home to steam. They worked better but were still not there. Could be we need leaves that are not young. I’ll keep trying. I am really most interest in the immersion dyeing and solid colors. And I want to try mordant printing

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Immersion dye pot colors: Coreopsis (orange), sumac and goldenrod burls (yellows) and cochineal plus hibiscus (pinkish-lavender.) Blue shown here is indigo on wool/hemp mix. The hemp did not dye with this technique. More information on Prairie Plants in this database from the University of Kansas, classified by use and medicinal qualities.

I’ll get to followup with this topic at the Surface Design Association’s Made/Aware: Socially Engaged Practices Intensive at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, this October. Can’t wait!

Helix Center Biotech Incubator Commission

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Dark Summer Sky: Mica, Stars & Fireflies, Astrid Hilger Bennett, 175 x 42″. Handpainted, handprinted, stitched fabrics. Photo courtesy of POE, Professional Office Environments.

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Photo courtesy of POE, Professional Office Environments.

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Photo courtesy of POE, Professional Office Environments.

This fall I completed a large commission entitled Dark Summer Sky: Mica, Stars & Fireflies  for permanent installation in the Helix Center Biotech Incubator  in St Louis, MO. This innovative facility created by the St Louis Economic Development Partnership, bills itself as a place for “startup bioscience, technology or plant and life science businesses,” with wet and dry labs, office space, mentoring and more. Currently, I’m told there are close to 40 tenants, and an expansion is planned. A perfect concept that matches my own interests in science and entrepreneurship.

My connection to this project started two years ago. I was contacted by Faith Berger, 652 Moderne Art Consultants about supplying a large textile piece for a shared meeting space. Berger found my work through the Fiber Art Collective website , which led her to my own website. (Ironically, the piece that caught her eye was Two Weeks in Autumn,  a large, 10′ triptych from a commission made for a client who found my work on the Surface Design Association website.)  At first the project was for a 10′ x 6′ piece. Faith particularly liked some of my works, like Pods 1. I supplied some ideas and sent some actual pieces to demonstrate potential textures and colors. I was told that earthy colors (mossy green, dusty rose red, browns) would be a good color palette, and that the piece would be hanging against a wood paneled wall with modernist furniture, necessitating a ceiling hanging device.

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Two Weeks in Autumn, Astrid Hilger Bennett, 2005, 10′

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Pods 1, Astrid Hilger Bennett, 2012

Accommodating a wooden wall as background meant that if I decided to do my usual triptych for this large size format, the wood grain and color would have to figure into the design of the piece. That was not a good fit; I felt the grain would interfere with rather than support the idea. Therefore, I designed this as one long piece.

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Mica 2, Astrid Hilger Bennett

The project went on hiatus for a while, only to be rekindled with a different concept in summer 2014. Project designer/architect Stacey Hudson, Professional Office Environments (POE), liked what she saw in my art quilt, Mica 2, above, taking the project into quite a different direction. This was a piece made in response to an experience I had while teaching at Penland School of Crafts. While walking back to my quarters on a dark summer night, the mica in the ground sparkled, forming one continuum with the stars in the sky and fireflies. Very powerful.

I went back to the drawing board, reworking the concept as well as the size to 15′ x 4′ based on the room elevations. I then submitted several ideas. Mica 2 worked well in the smaller scale in which it was made, but it wasn’t a design layout that lent itself to a larger format, so I had to rethink that. I divided the piece diagonally to provide forward movement and added a complementary color way. Mica 2 is a pleasing, “quiet” piece, nothing too visually challenging. It plays a supporting role to the ambience of the place.

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Approved “sketch” for the new concept, based on Mica 2.

This new design was approved in early August, 2014, for completion around the end of October. I quickly went to work creating fabrics using hand painting and mono printing techniques, always making more than I thought I would need.

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All of my work involves fabrics I paint, monoprint, screen print or dye myself. All start out as white fabric.

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For the Helix Commission, I created all the fabrics in advance, and more than I needed. I started with basic monoprinted shapes, adding hand painting, then more monoprinting. Dyes are Procion MX Fiber reactive dyes (Prochemical & Dye).

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I use paper “stencils” to preserve areas over which I do not want to print.

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A finished fabric before steaming, rinsing and washing.

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Although abstract, many of my pieces are reinforced by drawing from the natural world.

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Rocks from the Great Lakes served as a pattern impetus for the border fabrics. I started with ink drawings, then thickened black dye on fabric, then handpainting and monoprinting.

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The last batch of fabrics before monoprinting.

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Although I have made large pieces before, this was the largest to date and it was not a triptych. Simply creating the design and hanging the final product in one piece was challenging but one I knew I could handle. To assemble the piece, I used both the floor plus a large, end-to-end wall in my 100-year old house. Designing was done on the horizontal wall. When I was satisfied with the layout, I stitched it together. Then I took it apart to create three separate pieces for stitching/quilting. These were laid out on my 10 foot printing table to make the “quilt sandwich”, i.e. with backing and needle punched batting, then pinned. Stitching took place on an ordinary sewing machine, which I always use.

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After steaming and washing the fabrics, time to piece. Just playing on my pin-up wall here.

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Once the designed, I took the fabrics apart to make three distinct pieces for stitching. This was necessary because a 15′ length of fabric would be impossible to manage with an ordinary sewing machine. The trick lay in re-assembling them after stitching, which sometimes shrinks the piece. Here I assemble and pin the layers of the piece, with batting and backing fabrics.

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In progress

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Detail view of Dark Summer Sky: Mica, Stars & Fireflies, by Astrid Hilger Bennett. Photo courtesy of POE, Professional Office Environments.

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Another detail view. Photo courtesy of POE, Professional Office Environments.

When I finished quilting/stitching the three separate pieces, I re-stitched them together. This diagonal seam was a little tricky in that the quilting had shifted and tightened up the fabrics. I had to make sure that the seams were correct, or else the piece would not be square.

During this time, I researched hanging rods. Because of the wood wall, I could not use my usual solution. Since my original intention was to ship the piece, the rods needed to be no longer than six feet. I settled on 3/4 aluminum tubing, which is hollow for added strength. A short length of dowel joined two of the tubes in two places, creating one long hanging device.

My last step was add top and bottom casings and bindings. My original intention was not to use a binding, but simply to finish the edges as they were. With the large size, this was not possible, because the piece needed to be squared up. In its finished form, it measures 175 x 42.”

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The back side. Adding casings.

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In the end, I delivered the piece in person, driving the four hours through autumnal landscapes, wary of the deer in rutting season in early November. Northeastern Missouri, near the Mississippi River, is quite beautiful, and the thinning of vegetation meant that old Prairie family graveyards, ancient trees and southern-style architecture were all in view. Delivery was well worth the drive. It was rewarding to see the piece installed and meet the people involved with this project. And it is a treat to be associated with this facility, the Helix Center, as well as with Faith Berger and 652 Moderne.

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Travel Chile: ceramics at Tallervillaseca, Santiago

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One of the joys of traveling is discovering local contemporary artists in the neighborhood. In this case, it was a pottery class attended by an overseas family member that brought me to Tallervillaseca in Santiago. Taller (“Studio” in English) is operated by four artists: two potters, one jeweler and one sculptor, all of whom have workshops in this former home, now studio.

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Tallervillaseca specializes in classes, supplies, finished goods with a small retail sales area. Santiago is a high desert type of climate, a place where year round cactus gardens are possible, and in this space, the addition of cactus/pottery installations is charming, like a living art installation. The small goldfish ponds is an immediate kid-draw. Tallervillaseca is located on the street called Dr. Pedro Lautaro Ferrer 2586, in Providencia, Chile. 

 

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Bisque firing is done electrically; glaze firing by gas, at Tallervillaseca.

 

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The inside cactus garden at Tallervillaseca.

 

 

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Pottery at Tallervillaseca includes press-molded sets of shakers on serving trays. As seen elsewhere in Chile, style is European-influenced.

 

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Wrapping purchases at Tallervillaseca.