Does it Matter? Process and Product in Contemporary Natural Dye Practices

6.3 / Dimensions: Expanded Measures of Textiles

Does it Matter? Process and Product in Contemporary Natural Dye Practices

By Carissa Carman, Rowland Ricketts February 26, 2015

Carissa Carman and Rowland Ricketts have employed natural dyes in their teaching and studio practices and reached similar conclusions from different starting points. Carman approaches her work as a means of taking art out of the studio and into the streets, each time learning skills applicable to life while changing the understood rules of the profession. Ricketts is invested in historical dyeing through his training in traditional indigo farming and dyeing in Japan. The following is a conversation between Carman and Ricketts on the questions that challenge them as artists in relation to their work with natural dyes.


Carissa Carman (CC): We both have an interest in natural dyes and their range—how they’re used in contemporary art in different ways. You have a lifetime of technical skills, and I gained knowledge from an intensive project based on natural dyes. Our approaches are really different, as are our long-term and short-term investments, the sources of our information, and how we apply it to our work, as process or product. What do we question about the use of natural dyes? And what are our impulses for choosing particular routes?

Rowland Ricketts (RR): The other day, we had been talking about the reception of your project Color Rhythm at the Textile Society of America (TSA) symposium in 2012—how some people were very excited by the work and others were more challenged by it…

CC: …about what happens in an academic environment, where the best people in the field gather around a single table, and there’s new blood …

RR: …or a new approach or perspective.

CC: You mean, when the process is used as a motivator, when work engages process over product?

RR: Exactly. What happens when the process is the motivator instead of the product?

The Color Collective. Color Rhythm, 2012; 3-Channel sound and video installation; Installation view at the Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto, ON. Courtesy of the Artists. 

CC: For those who don’t know, Color Rhythm is a three-screen video installation based on the process of growing the sources of colors. The work was driven by an investigation of process, and video seemed to be the best way to create a portable and immersive sensation of color. The Color Collective, my collaboration with Sarah Gotowka and Johanna Autin, not only grew plants for natural dyeing but also took on investigations of color through performed actions, temporary architecture, and customized tools.

RR: Some of the misplaced criticisms of Color Rhythm at TSA seemed to be, “Yeah, but they haven’t dyed anything,” or, “Where’s the dyed cloth?”

CC: It’s true. Color Rhythm was only a two-year project. We sought to be part of the community at TSA to expand our knowledge of dyes and share our discovery of cultivating colors in a new way. There is so much labor in the production of color; we thought that this was an art itself. In relation to the Wanderlust show at the Textile Museum of Canada, I thought, “A textile museum is deciding to have this work in it—wow! This is so exciting! How did the curator choose us?” We weren’t included because we were a legacy. We were included because Karie Liao, the curator, felt we were part of a collection of artists creating “dynamic work that combines new media and popular culture with inherited textile traditions”; she was trying to highlight artists with “unique cultural histories and places through their own nomadic experiences.” We blurred the lines between art and life in the search for knowledge about our creative impulses and how color can be grown and felt.

The Color Collective projects not only included the search for traditional techniques in dyeing but also combined them more broadly with site specificity and overall collaboration. We were interested in the historical knowledge of a tradition as a catalyst for understanding the stages of dye production, but it was only one step of a larger process. 

The Color Collective. RE: Spec-trum, 2012; Natural pigments, colored pencils, chalk, mail art, pins, paper, graphite, rice paper; Installation view at the Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto, ON. Courtesy of the Artist. 

RR: I would like to break apart the concept of tradition in dye production. Certainly I was trained in one, but it’s not part of my cultural heritage. I was initially drawn to working with indigo in Japan because [the tradition embodied] everything that I didn’t have, growing up in suburban America. I’ll never forget my initial joy, living in rural Japan after college—“Wow, you can get color from plants?”—and my excitement of realizing that knowledge of those processes was still alive in that culture. Now, with historical knowledge, I strongly believe that for a dyeing tradition to remain relevant, each generation has to apply those skills in a way that is relevant to its day and age. Today that may mean installation or video work, not just dyed cloth. New means of presentation can help evolve our contemporary understanding of the historical knowledge. I found the criticism of the Color Collective’s work to be misplaced because [the project] looks at natural dyes in a way that allows others to see them anew.

CC: In your practice, you follow an impulse to invest deeply in the knowledge inherent in a specific tradition. What lured you in?

RR: I realized while working in Japan that there are things that really fascinate me in the process of Japanese indigo, cultural things that, as an American, I never had: a connection to making from within the immediate environment and a connection to greater human traditions of making. I feel that I can explore these connections through engaging directly in the labor of planting indigo seeds, raising the plants, processing them, and dyeing to better understand the bigger, humanist question: “Who are we?”

CC: The decisions we made in using natural dyes came from a similar impulse, in this idea of the connection to the environment. The Color Collective evolved from a thirst for breaking out of the studio and exploring the city of Montreal and its ecological/botanical culture—sinking our teeth into cross-disciplinary collaboration by working with biologists, farmers, and scientists. As textile artists, we saw that exploring natural dyes was a path that left room for our personal investigations of color. The decision to create Color Rhythm evolved from a collective interest in using video to explore color while looking at how sound could draw the viewer into an immersive viewing space.

Rowland Ricketts, III. Fields of Indigo, 2012; Dried and fresh indigo plants, indigo dyed ramie, indigo dyed silk, video projection, six-channel interactive sound by Norbert Herber; Installation view at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, IL. Courtesy of the Artist.

RR: In our respective work, we have a pretty strong overlap at the point of arrival. But the point of departure…

CC: where they differ? 

RR: I don’t know. On some level, it comes down to our original question: What are the impulses/questions for those who engage in dyeing as part of a broader practice versus those who immerse themselves deeply in the specificities of dyeing as a practice itself?

CC: And what are the questions that we are asking ourselves within our work?

RR: My questions have really shifted, and I’m now much more interested in how I can share with a greater audience all that this process embodies. Initially for me that sharing was through dyed textiles. That evolved into installations, community engagement, and a social practice of sorts, in which people work with the process and experience it firsthand. Now I’m coming full circle and reinventing the production-dyeing side of my practice in a way that works with a much broader community, to get this process into the lives of others through the work of farming indigo and dyeing textiles. It’s about taking this historical knowledge and performing it as action in the world. 

CC: As an artist using natural dyes on a project-to-project basis, I have a different sense of the end goal. I want to discover something about the process that is new, unpredictable, and sensorially captivating. I want to focus on expanding my artistic license. I am still invested in craftsmanship but more in terms of the process, the seeking, the figuring out how to allow a breakthrough, a surprising vision, a spirit of color or juxtaposition of pattern that makes me explode with new ideas or new places to harvest. So these are my questions: How can natural dyes bring me into a world that leads me to the unknown? How can such a historical process still be so new?

Rowland Ricketts, III. I am Ai, We are Ai – warehouse installation, 2012; Indigo dyed ramie; Installation view at the 2012 National Cultural Festival, Tokushima, Japan. Courtesy of the Artist.

RR: It’s new because we’ve lost this knowledge within our culture by moving beyond it: who needs to grow indigo when you can make a synthetic version for much less from petroleum? But the fact that we’ve moved beyond this historical knowledge allows us to see it anew. When it’s all you have, it’s taken for granted, but when something else comes along, you’ve got an Other with which to compare it. Natural dyes in America today are an Other, and engaging with them can be powerful and empowering.  

CC: It is powerful because of the deep commitment to understanding them as a complex  natural material and the temporal shifts of each location.  That is why we focused on the intensive aspect of propagation. It is also why we could never quite figure out the fermented indigo vat! [Laughs]. At the time there was little to no indigo dying resources online or in books. The exchange of material knowledge—so exciting yet ever seeking! It is not just about the book knowledge but also about the person-to-person knowledge; it is like foraging.

Even though our recipes never became a true science, the seeking of color did. This is what sustained our interest. I know that I’m interested in the sensibility of color. When I start thinking about natural dyes, I am attentive to them in the world. I’m sure that’s probably a similar vein that you’re coming from, and it goes back to this idea about sensibility. How do natural dyes change your sensibility? Even though you can go into it for a long or short term, there’s an attention to materials. Your sources become really different; you go to a field instead of the supermarket. The sensibility for seeking the answers becomes your drawing. I feel that is a place where textiles allow you to go, into the natural world. You can go to the farm, the sheep, flax plants, the abaca, the iris… All of these natural materials are providing the fodder, and the techniques then help you apply them. For me, that’s where textiles as a whole bring me in, and then the natural dyes bring me into the color.

Rowland Ricketts, III. I am Ai, We are Ai – installation recording, 2012; Sound by Norbert Herber. Courtesy of the Artist. 

RR: I think the materiality of the dyes brings a lot to that. To me, this transformative activity and what it embodies is really fascinating. I guess I’m pursuing a minute aspect of that in depth, in the hope that by doing so I can come to understand something greater about who we are. I’d also like to talk about something that’s really important to my practice: the embodiment of knowledge. 

CC: Describe it a little more.

RR: In Japan, there are two common terms for experience. Directly translated, one roughly means “effect over time“ and the other “effect on the body.” The first one’s more [cognitive], like when you understand how to do something in your head. The other is a more physical knowledge—one that’s more in our bodies than in our heads—that comes through working with something for a long time. It’s not just knowledge of how to do something; it’s also action in the world; it’s work.

CC: I think there’s a similar sense of art and life that I investigate in other aspects of my work. I love the idea you state, about making and place: the idea that your sense of materiality is you going outside and your homework is to forage, to take walks. And so, when you’re thinking about this…and I don’t know if it goes in combination with the resurgence of social practice…

RR: Certainly. I also think it’s partly a response to the immateriality of the virtual, of the screen. Color from plants opens up a whole world and exposes the wonderful duality of color both as material and immaterial. And that is the wonderful thing about color. It’s immaterial. It’s just the reflected wavelength of light. It’s this beautiful metaphor, right?

Rowland Ricketts, III. Some of Its Parts, 2014; Indigo plants, sukumo, indigo dyed cotton, sound by Norbert Herber; Installation view at the Zuckerman Museum of Art, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA. Courtesy of Zuckerman Museum of Art, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA, and the Artist. 

CC: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, you pull up a plant that’s green, and then it generates this beautiful red…

RR: Or vice versa, right? You pull up a plant that’s purple, and it makes a beautiful green, and you’re thinking, “What?”

CC: That sort of mystery is so alluring and a constant discovery. You were talking about indigo continually being able to provide you with the unknown; I feel that natural dyes inherently have that allure.

RR: Yeah.

CC: But then it all really comes back to the process of natural dyeing as a concept.

RR: Right. And all that it allows for—experiential teaching and knowledge sharing—make it a nice fit for social practice and a move beyond focusing on the product.

The Color Collective. RE: Spec-trum (detail), 2012; Natural pigments, colored pencils, chalk, mail art, pins, paper, graphite, rice paper; Installation view at the Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto, ON. Courtesy of the Artist. 

CC: …or to possibly including products like video and sound that extend the textile medium. But we’ve not touched upon what we disagree about. [Laughs] We recently screened Color Rhythm in a program that Anthea Black curated called “Pleasure Craft,” and I was reminded of the institutional frameworks that can determine a work’s context. 

You have the natural-dye community, you have the craft community, and then there’s the current trend of textile-related art in major museums. The location and titles of the places where these works are shown builds the framework in which they’re being talked about. This forms and builds the audience. Color Rhythm being screened in a film series called “Pleasure Craft” is very different than posting it on YouTube as a natural-dye instructional video. In the film-program context, the laborious act becomes almost fantastical.

RR: What’s surprising to me is the limited communication and collaboration between the various communities you outlined. Recent exhibitions make it pretty clear that craft is a big deal at the moment, especially craft done by artists largely trained outside of craft traditions, conversations, and knowledge. But it’s not unlike the resurgence of science-art exhibitions. Scientists must see what artists are doing in this context as pseudo-science; they probably roll their eyes.

Rowland Ricketts, III. Immanent Blue, 2013; Dried indigo plants, indigo dyed hemp kibira, indigo dyed karakul wool; Installation view at the University of Louisville, Louisville, KY. Courtesy of the Artist. 

CC: Those who have invested knowledge and experience have the ability to say, “Hey, I understand this on a much different level,” because it’s new to an artist but it’s old to a scientist, right? And so they’re thinking, “Oh, you’ve only explored a little bit, but I’m pulling it apart, dedicating my life to it.”

RR: Yeah, but the artist is able to translate or represent information to the world in a different way.

CC: So, they need to coexist. Because if they don’t, the conversation becomes mundane. It needs to be challenged.

RR: Exactly.

CC: And art should challenge.

RR: That’s a great last line! [Laughs] 

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