natural world

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.

The 100 Drawings Project: February Update

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.

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.

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.

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

One 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.

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.

Natural Dyeing on the Prairie: Botanical Colors + Scattergood School


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?

St John's Wort blossoms from the Scattergood prairie tractKathy 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.


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.


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!

 St John's Wort, from plant to dye pot, makes a deep, satisfying yellow. Kathy Hattori, of Botanical Colors, workshop teacher Picking plant materials on Scattergood's prairie Preparing indigo for vats, adding calc and fructose 

Golden rod burls, full of tannin, are cut apart Coreopsis blossoms, which will make a wonderful orange.


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.


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 follow up 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!

Bird talk…

Friday during a conference call, heard a fuss on the back porch, –looked out and saw a hawk clawing the screen to get out. Tried to shoo her to the door- she got sidetracked behind a table area. Me, afraid of big talons and unknown “Hawkish” behavior. Downy feathers swirling. Called my buddy Will, the Bird Man. Came over and carefully approached the bird, clucking, a Coopers’ Hawk, caught her. Held her for a bit, then thrust her to freedom. She flew to a branch on the dogwood, looked back a bit, then flew on to the high trees. Quite an experience. Meanwhile the conference call continued on speaker phone, unaware…

Flatlanders and Sandhill Cranes

I’ll get to something arty soon, but here are two things that captivated me. As a sequel to my last Chilean post, check out my son Colin’s thoughtful blog post, Flatland Reflections on a Chilean Quake. In it, you’ll find some interesting bits that we don’t hear about here in our own media.

And SPECTACULAR is the only word I can use to describe the experience I had today.

digital camera set on zoom, one tiny bit…

I went outside about 1:45pm and saw thousands and thousands of sandhill cranes flying WAY up high. Two eagles flying below them looked puny and were flying only half as high. Undulating patterns as if liquid, all over the sky, flying west, for about 20 minutes. Lots of squawking, even at that distance. I’ve never seen this before in my 32 years here. It was unforgettable.

I poked around online and found that the Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Nebraska has a “crane cam” that’s focused on the birds during arrival and nesting, from March 6 – April 10, 2010. It’s dark now as I write, though you can hear the birds. I look forward to checking it out during daylight hours.