Summit Artist in Residence
This summer, Souther and I were invited to participate in the Artist in Residence program at the Summit Institute in Eden, Utah. The director of the program, Marshall Birnbaum, hosted us for three weeks and gave us free reign of Powder Mountain where the Institute is based. We climbed trees, wandered around trails, played on art installations, picked plants, and did lots of research about the area and its unique environment.
Powder Mountain gets incredible amounts of snow every year and is a big destination for skiers and snowboarders. The snow is slow to melt and when we visited in early June, parts of the mountain were still covered in patches. We had a week of 90 degree days and then a storm came in for a day and dumped about 10" of snow on the mountain. Snow in June! What a crazy thing to experience.
Simultaneously, the alpine wildflowers were beginning to bloom on the mountain and seeing the various flowers and plants sprouting up out of the ground piqued my interest to experiment with them as dye materials.
I started by bundle-dyeing with different plant matter I found around Eden to see which ones would give off color. I made one with plants found in the fiends, one from the mountain, and one with vetch flowers growing by our housing. Such interesting results! Some plants would release color with bundle-dyeing, but not in a dye pot. Others only would give color through hapazome method: by pounding the pigment right out of them.
Each step of the way I tried to focus on the process and by learning through looking, feeling, and testing things out instead of working with results in mind. It was both a challenging and exciting way to approach the residency. Who knew if I would have anything to show for it at the end?
In my research about local dye plants, I learned about "dyers woad", a plant that was first introduced to America in the early 1900s by European immigrants as a dye plant. When processed, woad produces a shade of blue dye called indigo. With the introduction of true indigo (which creates a much stronger, darker blue pigment) and synthetic dyes, woad fell out of favor as a dye plant and soon overgrew in gardens and began spreading invasively.
Woad thrives in the arid desert environment of Utah, but because it is no longer used for its original purpose, not a food source for local fauna, and each plant produces thousands of seeds at maturity, the plant has spread across Utah and is now one of the top three noxious weeds in the state. Its deep roots take up much more water than the grasses it replaces, causing desertification. It's such a menace, there are even local programs that paid schoolchildren to pick and dispose of thousands of bags of woad to try and get it under control. Since it was so prevalent in the landscape, I thought I'd try some known processing methods to see if I could get indigo dye out of the woad growing around Eden.
Here's a quick breakdown of the steps in my process:
1. Collect woad leaves, discard stems, wash thoroughly.
2. Cut woad leaves into smaller pieces
3. Bring a pot of water to 90 degrees C and add leaves, steep for 10 minutes at 90 C
4. Cool pot in ice water to bring temperature to 50 C, stirring to cool
5. Strain through colander, reserving liquid and discarding leaves. Return liquid to pot.
6. Dissolve soda ash into liquid. Aerate mixture with electric mixer for 10 minutes - the mixture turns from green to blue! (Pigment can be filtered out for later use at this point)
7. Sprinkle thiourea dioxide on the surface of the mixture, do not mix! Bring liquid back to 50 C and leave at 50 C for an hour.
8. Introduce prepared fabric into stockpot, steep for 10 minutes, expose the fabric to the air and watch it turn from neon yellow to green to blue from oxidizing!
I was so excited by my experiments from dyeing with the woad that I wanted to try as many techniques and materials as I could find.
There were so many resources at my feet! Charcoal from the fire pit, dandelions popping up around me, red earth on the sides of exposed hills, alpine wildflowers, mysterious seed pods rattling in the wind, and purple flowers growing by ponds playing host to happy bumblebees... even the avocado pits and skins from our lunch. From my first bundle-dyeing experiments, I was able to make a list of plants that seemed to yield color and try them as dye pots.
I discovered that pennycress, a beautiful seed pod found in the fields, would give off an almost neon yellow color that rinsed out into a butter yellow. When I searched for further information about using them as dye, I couldn't find any information. Experimenting is so rewarding!
To the left is a sample of some dye results on 100% cotton. The leaf shaped prints are from hapazome - a process that uses blunt objects to literally pound the pigment out of plant matter. I also tried some traditional hand-sewn shibori techniques with varying results. Next time I will use synthetic threads to better resist the dye. Not shown is the lovely light gray I got from steeping cotton in a mixture of charcoal dust and water.