Saturday, May 15, 2010

The empirical artist

This was an exciting week of experimentation. I stepped out of my comfort zone of weaving and representational art to focus on some new abstract pieces. I generally don’t do abstract pieces, and not all my early abstract weavings came out as well as I’d hoped. It was too much to develop both the weaving style I wanted and the piece composition. Because I’ve done so much lately with ornaments and scarves over the past two years I’ve had a chance to develop both needle and wet felting techniques, and I’ve had a chance to play with some basic designs and patterns. I’ve been eager to take those ideas and really focus on composition of pieces. My plan was to use the soft-frame technique I developed for the ‘Shhhh, the Trees are Sleeping’ series on a wet felted canvas. That would be my blank slate to start developing some pieces. I started out by looking at lot of images on the web to decide on the kinds of things I liked and what I might be able to create. I settled on a color palate that was warm and earthy, which dovetailed nicely with my latest attempts at dyeing with natural materials. In the newest pieces I’ve been playing with repeating colors in different parts of the piece. It’s one of my strategies to tie the zones and design elements of the pieces together. I found that I can get really nice harmonies by layering a second dyed fleece on top of the repeated color so the repeats aren’t exact. I also like creating gradients with a color to extend and blend zones. I think that strategy really helps unify the pieces, and I’m quite proud of my first attempts!

One of the things that makes my latest project especially rewarding is that I get to play with some new dyeing techniques. One of my big successes from last year was the soft yellow I got from dandelion heads I collected with my boys at Bryan Park. Somehow collecting things with my family is a big part of the success of the process. When we were in Michigan last weekend, Tommie and I collected a huge bag full of bright red sumac heads, so this week I got out the dye pots and got to work. I was about to launch into my standard approach to getting colors of out of natural materials, best summarized by my late father-in-law as: “cook ‘em like kidneys”. That translates into boiling them hard for an hour. However, I recently read a great book about dyeing with natural materials (Eco colour - Botanical dyes for beautiful textiles by India Flint) that says that the type of pot (aluminum vs. enamel) and the time of heating could make a big difference in the intensity and exact color. That’s about when I thought: heeyyyy, I love to do experiments! So I clipped the berries from the stems and divided them into small, equal samples, in equal volumes. I boiled some for 15 minutes and others for an hour, and I did it in either aluminum or enamel dye pots. It turns out that with red sumac it just doesn’t matter—you get the same color every time. What I did learn, though, was that including the stems has a big effect on the overall color. Boiling stems and berries leads to a much browner color, but boiling the stems and leaf parts together gave me a wonderful soft yellow green. The berries themselves didn’t give the intense red color I had originally hoped, but they did give a seductive earthy red. I just know both colors are going to find their way into my next piece! I guess the lesson of the story this week is that you can take the scientist out of the lab, but you can take the scientist out of the artist.

Until next week…

Martina Celerin

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