Screenprinting and the dance of improvisation

Screenprints & monoprints
Two screens over monoprinted, handpainted fabrics. Fiber reactive dyes. Created by Astrid Hilger Bennett

Recently, I was invited to contribute images to a updated revision of Jane Dunnewold’s book, Improvisational Screenprinting, currently underway. Jane is a well known teacher and artist who has found ways to explore approaches to creativity and playing as a way of developing as an artist. I looked through my image files and found these samples, which all include a mixed technique approach to making fabrics. You’ll see registered screen printing in regularized patterns, and multiple screen overlays used for generating texture and layering in conjunction with monoprinting. Also included are screen prints over vintage and repurposed linens.

Tools screen on monoprinted fabrics
“Tools” screenprint over monoprinted, handpainted fabrics. Fiber reactive dyes. Created by Astrid Hilger Bennett
“Tools” screenprint over handpainted fabrics using leftover fiber reactive dyes. Created by Astrid Hilger Bennett

Screenprinting has always been exciting and inspiring to me. Now, with photo emulsion techniques, we can translate drawings to screens in ways that were not possible in the 1970s and 1980s. In those days, really toxic chemicals were used to adhere screens. I gave it up for a couple of decades. Now, I choose from more than 40 screens in my studio, and I’m always adding more. I use them for creating richly texture fabrics, and also simple functional textiles for the artful home.

screenprints, monoprints
Two screens over monoprinted, handpainted fabrics. Fiber reactive dyes. Created by Astrid Hilger Bennett
“Artists’ Hands” screenprint and one more, with monoprinting and handpainting, fiber reactive dyes, by Astrid Bennett
Leaf screenprint plus handpainting and monoprinting.
Empty screens overprinted using fiber reactive dyes, by Astrid Bennett
vintage linens
Screenprinting using ProFab textile inks on vintage and repurposed linens, by Astrid Hilger Bennett
vintage linens
Screenprinting using ProFab textile inks on vintage and repurposed linens, by Astrid Hilger Bennett

art + business: giving back

Recently, I met Clara Nartey online after contacting her about an article about her art marketing  business that I read about in Studio Art Quilt Associates’ (SAQA) quarterly journal. Having managed and co-owned a gallery for many years, I was impressed by her website and, in a good way, how marketing-focused it is. That’s not a common approach used by many artists. She asked me to contribute a piece on the business of textile art from my perspective as a gallery owner. I also bring to the table my observations from serving as President of Surface Design Association and from my own studio work. I share that knowledge in the first of two blog posts on her website. Lots of pictures, too!

So, enjoy this first post and look for the second on May 3, 2018. There’s even a video!




Two Weeks in March, Two Weeks in April

Two Weeks in March, Two Weeks in April

Two Weeks in March, Two Weeks in April

Last year at this time, I was channeling worry and frustration about our political scene into my artwork, a thematic departure from my usual work. An avid consumer of print and digital news in the form of the Sunday New York Times and other media, I found myself cleaning ink brushes on home page sections and suddenly, a new idea took root. Using ink and brush work on important stories in the first section of the newspaper, I accumulated papers from two weeks in March and two weeks in April, generating the name for this piece.

These were mounted on white or my own patterned fabric using polymer medium, then stitched. Because I wanted to be able to ship these large scale works to an exhibition, I made sure they folded in accordion style. Back and front are reversible. The whole project was cathartic.

Two Weeks in March, Two Weeks in April, Detail

Two Weeks in March and April is three reversible sections. Each section measures 84”h x 23”. They may be hung against a wall, or from the ceiling in center of room

My artist statement submitted to International Fiber Arts VIII, Sebastopol Center for the Arts, Summer 2017, to which the piece was accepted, says the following: As artists, many of us are asking the question, how can I continue doing creative work with the upheaval of the latest election cycle? Normally, my own work is not narrative, but on Inauguration Day, I tempered my nervousness with painting, with flinging dye paint at the fabric. I incorporated the most iconic New York Times pages from two weeks in March and April into altered, stitched works. Then I did my usual “thing”, altering the surfaces by painting, monoprinting and more. Creating while monitoring, acknowledging, celebrating when we can- this is the mindful creative life.

Ironically, this approach led me to an entirely new body of work, my Tarp series that had components in the making for several years. Sometimes discomfort leads to creativity and movement.

Teaching: Anilinas Montblanc, Santiago

Recently, I was honored to be invited to teach a two day workshop at Anilinas Montblanc, the almost 70 year old Chilean Dye Company that supplies not only industry but also artists working with wool and felt. They also have an awesome program, Colorearte, to support art education in Chilean schools the length of the country. I first learned about Colorearte in a presentation by the company’s owner, Patricia Reutter, at the World Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca, Mexico, in November, 2016. When I returned to visit family in Chile in March 2017, I visited Patricia, and we made plans for this workshop.

left to right: Astrid, with Patricia Reutter and Tomas Clemmons in front of Anilines Montblanc’s sales area for artists. Shown: roving for felting in a luscious array of colors.

The reason for the workshop was to introduce the local textile community to surface design techniques using fiber reactive dyes. In February, I learned that these are Remazol dyes (not Procion MX, which I use). Mont Blanc imports Remazol dyes to industry but they are not well known in the local artist community, which is more accustomed to felting and immersion dyeing of wool. The workshop was set for March 7 & 8, 2018. It would be conducted in English, and although most understood some English, would require some translation.

I had a wonderful class of 10 participants including professional artists, teachers, studio owners, textile lab managers and two clothing designers. They include Ximena Bravo-Cuadra, a studio artist and workshop teacher who has also studied shibori with Karrin Brito in the US; Rocio Gomez Zalazar, a felter who also teaches at Anilinas Mont Blanc; designer Carolina Raggio; screenprinter and designer Patricio’s Sago Estudio; Paulina Figueroa Dumay, an artist with the Chilean arts and crafts store Manos del Alma and others whose contact information I didn’t receive. Media represented include shibori, felting, screenprinting, clothing design, immersion dyeing and stamping. These were good, intense workshop days. Working in 2 languages with translations going on plus materials I didn’t know fully, those were challenges. But the group was great and the facilities ample and well supported. Students dove in to play, to try mixing dyes, activator, to work on steamer prep, rinse and washout, and every other aspect of this. I could not have asked for a better group.

Carolina Raggio, with her own handmade wooden stamps.
Carolina and Patricio discussing their separate clothing lines. Here: Patrico’s from Sago Estudio.

Carolina Raggio, with her own stencils and stamps




Remazol Dyes

With my dye suppliers in the US, these are the liquid fiber reactive (Remazol) dyes and are no longer sold. Here in Chile, Remazol dyes are in powdered form and are imported by Anilines Montblanc for the textile industry. Uses by artists for surface design painting, printing, etc, are relatively unknown. When I consulted in the US on dye procedures for Remazol, I was told that they do need steam for setting, and that baking soda alone can be used as the activator. Downloadable instructions included being able to store activated dye for up to two months (ie with baking soda added.)

Here, at Montblanc, an outside Sales Representative told me they should be treated just like Procion MX dyes. My real experience was that they seem more intense than Procion MX. So, my usual “medium” range color amounts of dye, actually resulted in “dark.” (The approach is to mix stock solutions and then dilute according to hue and depth desired, adding activator.) Since color preference is so personal, I counseled using less dye in those stock solutions.

Another interesting finding is that when we went to pre-rinse after steaming, there was only mild color loss in the water, which seemed remarkable. I wasn’t sure if this was also due a different sodium alginate, or is somehow the alginate got “trapped.” Subsequent hot wash and rinse in pH neutral soap left no unwanted extra alginate thickener, except at times in the silk samples. If this mild color loss is the pattern, this is good news for Chile, which is a very dry country with more limited water reserves.

Sodium Alginate / Print Paste

This centerpiece supply is critical to the concept of using fiber reactive dyes in multiple applications. Local Chilean sources came up with highly processed sodium alginate in fine powder form, not the more granular, less processed form I am accustomed to. On the day that I worked on setting up the workshop and testing unfamiliar materials, managing the sodium alginate was by far the most challenging and worrisome. Would I get it to be the right consistency (thinner for painting, thicker screen printing, and even more for monoprinting?) Would it be easy enough for students to manage?

This form jelled very quickly, more so overnight. It had to be thinned down and remixed for a painting consistency. And yet, it was lumpy for screen printing. Cooling the temperature and letting it sit overnight helped.

In the process, one student and seasoned workshop teacher, Ximena, introduced her electronic stirring tool, which makes use of a magnetized “stone” in the bottom of the solution placed in a glass container on top of a hotplate. The stone starts to percolate and mix the solution, breaking apart any clumps of dye or alginate (the yellow is particularly hard to make smooth.) We were all fascinated and coveting it. We tried using it with sodium alginate dye solutions.

Patricio, one of the students who screen prints a clothing line, was very concerned about having additional water change the consistency of the thick alginate. He tried mixing the baking soda directly into alginate thickener, and this worked well. He also had successful results mixing the dye powder with alginate solution using the electronic mixer.

My assessment at the end is that we made the sodium alginate work, but that it is more difficult to manage than the sodium alginate or print paste available to textile artists in the US. (To clarify: print paste is sodium alginate, with the addition of urea and ludigol, which mitigates hard water.) And it is only one type of consistency. In the US, you can also purchase print paste or sodium alginate specifically for silk (lower viscosity, higher solids) that gives finer edge detail on silk and, in my opinion, washes out better on that fiber. If the sodium alginate or  print paste for cotton and for silk were available in Chile, it would be preferable to the sodium alginate we received.


Montblanc assembled a great steamer from existing equipment using very simple plans I sent them. A larger than average pot with a custom-made rack accommodated two rolls of fabric rolled in pelon for steaming. We also cut rounds of paper to deflect dripping water, and rounds of old towels. The customary bottled gas was used, first with two burners, and later, we decided to use only one. The “vapor” was intense enough that 22 minutes did the trick. Even if a little earlier than I usually do it, unbundling was not a problem in results.


The company also had its in-house industrial soap, pH neutral, but not called Synthrapol. Since we just had a small quantity, I put it in the pre-rinse water, especially since there were many fabrics with white or light backgrounds that could backstain. For washing out we used a local commercially available soap, “Popeye,” that is used for children’s items and is pH neutral. I think it is also used for washing wool. Both of these, including the Popeye, were successful. The only exception were some forms of thin silk, which did backstain a little. Perhaps they needed a more acid bath.

Washing Machine 

Also new to me is a “spinner”- a small unit just used for spinning out handwashed items so they can dry with less moisture. Of course at home, I use my washing machine for this, but in situations without a washing machine, it would be great.

We did our pre-rinse, which really only required 2-3 water baths, if that. Then we washed in very hot water with Popeye. We rinsed by hand after that, and I could tell there were felters among us! Their water bath fabric processing techniques were awesome. Spinning in the spinner, then the pieces were hung to dry. In this dry summer climate, they were dry in no time.

A “spinner” used to extract excess water from rinsed or washed fabrics before drying.


After two days, everyone was had really explored and enjoyed themselves. It was an awesome experience for me as well!

Snow Tarp

Unlike last year, cold temperatures and snow have been the story for this winter. Always interesting to see how snow changes the balance of color, of white to black, of light. Here is Undercurrents 4, from my Tarp Series,  in a temporary immersion.

Undercurrents 4, Tarp Series, Handpainted, monoprinted cotton fabric with mixed media and last year’s coreopsis.

Pentaculum 2018: Post #2

Pentaculum 2018 Participants: Fibers area. Left to right, back row: Jennifer Davies, Astrid Bennett, Erin Castellan, Kelly Kye. Front row: Jennifer Cooke, Alicia Scardetta, Kim Mirus, Sara Bakken, Catherine Reinhart, Kerri Cushman, and Danielle Gori-Montanelli. Photo courtesy of Suzi Banks-Baum.

I felt so fortunate to be invited to participate in Pentaculum 2018 at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. This weeklong experience was attended by 80 artists and writers, all making or doing their own work in 6 shared studio locations: Fiber, Ceramics, Metal, 2-D, Wood, and Writing. It reminded me of being back in school, but in the very best ways. Here are general photos from the facilities and studios. My personal piece was discussed in a previous blog post.

Ceramics building at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
Ceramics studio at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
Andrea Keys Connell, at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
Textiles studio at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
in progress, textiles studio at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
Buy a hotdog

Ceramics studio at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
Elyse-Krista Mische, one of several artists in residence at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
Writers getting into the act. Painting mugs for the dining hall, at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
Snow, and cold, but beautiful.

Along the walking trail to the Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Still reminders of the devastating fires in 2016. But Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts is moving forward with exciting progress on the new dormitory and entrance road.
Pentaculum 2018 participants, colorful (and cold)! Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts

Art Partners: Brushes, and December tomatoes

Every drawing session reminds me of the importance of brushes. Depending on the surface used- fabric, slick paper, toothy paper or fabrics — different brushes perform differently and are a simple yet vital  part of the toolkit. And of course, those luscious orange colors of late Roma tomatoes from the garden, picked green and ripening slowly indoors. Handbuilt ceramic bowl by Eric Jensen.

Different brushes for different drawing tasks: line work, wash using Sumi ink brushes, and my portable watercolor brush.

Pentaculum 2018: Red, for Sorrow and Renewal

In November 2016, Gatlinburg, Tennessee suffered a devastating fire that destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and tree-covered acreage.  As news broke on social media, we watched the unfolding story as it related to Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, a beloved crafts school with a network of artists, fans, and workshop attendees spread across the globe. The stories of escape from quickly advancing flames were horrific. We were frightened for Arrowmont’s staff and families, and we worried that nothing would remain of the school. When morning came, the dormitory I’d stayed in just one year earlier while attending a Surface Design Association conference, was one of two buildings destroyed in the fire, but the rest of the campus had mercifully been spared.

So, when I was invited to attend Arrowmont’s Pentaculum 2018, a gathering of 80 artists and writers working in clay, metal, fiber, 2-d, and wood, I felt both delight and reverence. I wanted not only to inhabit this loss but pay homage to renewal. I’d make a piece in my Tarp Series, in which I position my expressive textile paintings as metaphorical tarps. I see tarps as protective, versatile and adaptive. I’d start with drawings on campus, translating them to cloth, then photograph the piece outdoors in select settings.

Upon arrival, inevitably I recalled a much earlier connection to the Great Smoky Mountains. During very formative years as a 19 year old, I spent two months at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, then known as the Maryville College Environmental Education Center. It was 1973, and I leaned into the wildness, leading school children on hikes, learning about material culture, foodways, harp singing, launching myself into the art making and community arts career that has been a part of me ever since.

At Pentaculum 2018, we did not anticipate the very unusual cold weather, which made outdoor drawing impossible and photography challenging. But I let my eye be “open,” with doodles and observations on walks and out the studio windows.

The imagery in the resulting piece, Sorrow and Renewal, is more representational than is usual for me.  Colors are black, grey, —and red. Red for pent-up passions, energy, sorrow, fire, joy and heat. But it is in the context of the forest, streams, rocks, gnarled trees, that this red makes the most sense and feels right.

Scouting photography locations in 13 degree weather, I explored the woodpile of huge downed trees, there perhaps not from the fire but adjacent to the hill where remains of the fire are visible. And also there, grapefruit sized piles of bear scat from visits to nearby dumpsters. But it was a place along the river that truly allowed this piece to find its singing voice. Renewal is apparent, gratifying, and not to be taken for granted.  Pentaculum 2018 was a wonderful experience. And Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts continues to be a magical place.