Saturday, August 4, 2018

Rocks Rock! Experiments with local Pigment Colours

Rocks are so cool. In case you hadn't noticed.
More on that later! First, a bit of background...

When I was in Japan studying katazome, I was introduced to dyeing paper (and sometimes fabric) using 'ganryo' pigments.

"Ganryo" just means colourant, it is the colour in powdered form without any binder. (Though it can be sold in the form of paint-pans or solid sticks). It can be a naturally occuring colourant, like yellow ocher (ohdo) calcium carbonate (gohfun), cinnabar (ginshu which is natural but ironically, toxic!) indigo (ai), ultramarine (gunjoh) or iron oxide (bengara) etc etc. They can also be chemically altered versions of these (to produce whitened tones etc) or just straight up synthetic pigments (basically a chalk substrate dyed different, sometimes nasty colours)

A small portion of my collection of commercially available Ganryo pigments. The ones in stick form are already mixed with a binder.

Pigments are also used in Nihonga (Japanese-style Painting) but they are slightly more complicated - see my older post all about it, and painting broccoli, here.

That one time, when I spent 5 days painting a broccoli portrait in Japanese pigments...

As I was saying, pigments are also used in combination with the katazome technique. Most famously, rich pigment colours are used in the Okinawan Bingata technique (similar to katazome - see more here) and I suspect that's why they are in the katazome repertoire in the first place. In both cases, the powdered pigment is mixed with a binder - soymilk - to create a thick paint-like liquid. These can then be applied to the fabric or washi being dyed in the same manner as dyes (with a stiff bristled brush, from the front side).

Mixing commercial pigments with soymilk to a painty consistency.
Some bits and pieces I dyed on washi (kozo paper) using commercial pigments and the katazome technique. 

Just to point out that pigments have different characteristics to dyes, it might be important to remember:
A DYE is colourant dissolved in liquid which grabs onto a fibre - it really gets into the fabric and you faciliate a chemical reaction (with steam or an alkali etc to ensure that it links sucessfully and stays on that fibre).
A PIGMENT, on the other hand, is insoluble and the particles sit on the fabric, rather than seep into the fibres. They are matte finish and can appear to look more like paint.
Bingata technique utilises this unique difference by dyeing colours first (transparent colours, which grip the fibres) then adding details on top in pigment colours (matte colours that sit on top of the fibres. This step is called "kuma-doi" lit. adding shadows). This creates a sense of depth which can't be achieved by using only layers of dye.

a detail of a bingata pattern on cotton cloth from the 19th Century. You might be able to see the heavy red pigments in the centre of the petals creating depth, versus the translucent blue dye of the background.


Having known that pigments can be used with the katazome technique and having played around with them in a short Nihonga course, I wondered if I could make my own, Australian pigment colours. Canberra is well known for "Canberra Red Bricks", churned out here from 1913 to the 1970's, so I knew that at the very least there would be a clay around here that I could use for pigment.

Rewind a bit to last September.

sketching with dirt and a lump of charcoal,
September 2017
As one of four artists chosen to take part in Craft ACT's inaugural 'Spring Tidbinbilla Residency", I spent time out at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, sketching, hiking and photographing. During a hike back down from Gibraltar Peak, I stopped to sketch the view of the mountains. I had found a pinch of some clay-ish dirt up the track and little and wanted to try using it as paint. Nearby where I'd sat to draw I also found some burnt tree stump and it worked perfectly as a charcoal.
This simple drawing sparked an obsession.

Fast forward and I've collected 100 Natural Pigments and counting.

a growing collection of local pigment colours.

Since February this year, I have been keeping my eyes on the ground. In non-descript walking paths and parks, along rivers, on the tops of hills and some trips to beaches, I've found colours in rocks, dirt, shells, ash and charcoal.

Mostly, I've smashed, sifted, ground, re-sifted and re-ground rocks to get these colours. Some rocks give themselves up easily, crumbling after one strike. Others are like trying to shatter steel.

smashing up rocks - this one gave itself up easily.
after sifting and grinding.

I've been sort of playing at faux-Geologist. Mostly I've been smashing and seeing what happens. I've also been trying to understand which rocks are found where by using these visually stunning but scientifically overwhelming Geological maps.

beautiful but cryptic Geological Map from Geosicence Australia

WOOO! Rocks!

The most exciting part of this whole experiment has been to do what I first intended - use these colours I've collected as pigments for katazome. The chance for this arose when an exhibition was borne of Craft ACT Spring Residency at Tidbinilla last September. The show wrapped up this past weekend at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in Canberra. The work all came together beautifully, without intending to, all four of us artists used complementary textures, colours, as well as references to stones and foliage. Narelle Phillips at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre did an excellent job of curation and organising everything.

Traversing Tidbinbilla, Tuggeranong Arts Centre July 6-28, 2018. To the right is work by fellow artist Sally Mumford.

Here are a few close ups of the work I exhibited. You'll see works on paper - these are all made with my pigments mixed with soymilk, applied to kozo washi. I also tried the pigments on different weights of silk, in an installation piece depicting Eucalyptus Cinerea foliage. Finally, I wanted to display my vials of pigment in the manner of a old fashioned museum, you can see this in the wooden box in the pictures.

Foliage Series, 2018. Katazome on washi using local pigments. 38 x 40cm
Left to Right, 'Welcome Swallow', 'Eastern Yellow Robin' & 'Grey Shrike-thrush' 2018. Katazome on washi using local pigments. each 25 x 31cm
Flame Robin (Male) 2018

In all these works on paper, I selected ground pigments from what I had collected, mixing them with soymilk in small mortars. I didn't really mix different colours together, just used what I had as is or layering one colour over another. Charcoal from found burnt logs was good for giving strong blacks. The hardest colours to represent were a vivid yellow and red for the Flame robin and the Eastern Yellow Robin. In real life, the breast feathers of these birds are nearly fluorescent. I had to settle for earthier versions.

Cinerea Breeze. 2018. Katazome and earth pigments on silk. The cottage we stayed at out at Tidbinbilla during the residency is called Cinerea Cottage, so this piece has extra meaning :)
Floaty detail of Cinerea Breeze. The foliage is dyed using pigments and the background beige and orange tones were dyed in a natural dye bath of Eucalyptus Cinerea leaves. 

Lastly, here's my (Tiny) Museum of Natural Pigments. I love that colours which seemed so ordinary and similar when I spotted them, appear completely different when crushed and lined up next to each other. Many of these were successful as pigments to dye paper but a lot of them were too gritty or crystal-y to be an effective colourant. Still, they are pretty as a powder amongst their fellows.

*I'd like to make clear that I have only taken small amounts of colour from locations that aren't national park or designated nature reserves. I definitely didn't take from spots where it would damage the area. I know there will be some people who will take issue with me having done this. I have tried to honour the spirit of nature and her beauty through these works. If I'm found to have done something wrong, I'm sure I will hear about it...*

In an exciting development, this exhibition will now travel to be exhibited in the gallery at the Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre, from Friday August 3rd until the 14th of October 2018! It will be great to see the works so close to the location that inspired them and I hope lots of interstate and international visitors get to see them too.

The next step in this Pigment adventure is looking further afield for different colours that aren't present in the ACT and also, trying to make pigment colours from natural dye baths - as 'lake pigments'. This a science-y process that I haven't had much luck with yet (though admittedly, I haven't tried very hard yet!). Watch this space!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Weeds - Beautiful but Complicated

For about two years now, I have been making artworks that focus on the subject of "Beautiful Weeds". Taking those plants we know as roadside pests, garden over-growers or paddock infiltrators and making 'portraits' of them.

First "Beautiful Weeds" series, 2016. Blackberries and Sedges on silk. Shown at solo exhibition at the Japan Foundation Gallery, Sydney. Photo by Document Photography.

At first, this was a kind of straight-up visual fascination. Plants which I hadn't considered drawing before, let alone dyeing, were suddenly everywhere I looked. Actually, that was the clincher - realising that in trying to depict a realistic and natural Australian landscape, I was editing out many plants in order to represent just the natives - the Eucalypts and the Wattles. When I looked at the natural environment most familiar to me though, (the nature reserve at the back of our suburb), it was quickly evident that trying to depict the area without weeds would mean some serious editing. A vast majority of the intriguing plants up on that hill ARE weeds (according to lists and information compiled by our local government).

my 2017 edition of "The Beautiful Weeds of Canberra" shown in solo exhibitions in Canberra and Kyoto, October 2017. Series including Blackberry, Fennel, Yellow-Flag Iris, Salvation Jane....

Scarlet robins love sitting on these Greater Mullein stalks.
It's a Weed. Just saying.

Blackberries, sedges, "rosehips", cootamundra wattles, plantation pines, purple-top, mullein, salvation jane...all of these co-exist on the hill with Silver wattles, Eucalypts, Native Bluebells. Not to mention Crimson Rosellas, Black Cockatoos, Scarlet Robins, Superb Fairy Wrens, Golden Whistlers...(some of which, by the way, FAVOUR perching and feeding on the plantation pine trees, cootamundra wattles and greater Mulleins...but anyway, I digress)

So this whole "Beautiful Weeds" obsession that I've had going for 2 years or more began as an attempt to render a realistic depiction of the landscape before me; a more faithful conglomerate of present species than if I were to edit the 'weeds' out and leave only the 'natives'.

Since diving into this topic, it turns out - as it always does when you dig a little deeper into anything - that I'm not the first to think weeds could actually be beautiful.
Like, I'm about 500 years late to the party.

'Large Piece of Turf' 1503 by Albrecht Dürer

Here's a beautiful close up of some ordinary grasses by Albrecht Dürer from 1503. Even in 1503, artists were recognizing the beauty of the ordinary plants at our feet.

Albrecht Dürer, 'Large Piece of Turf' 1503 (detail)

It's also been interesting to find other people out there doing cool things to do with weeds. Here's just a couple.

  • Spontaneous Urban Plants, is a research project based in New York with a website and instagram account that aims to spur discussions about the place of weeds in an urban environment and the cultural perceptions we attach to them.  
  • Diego Bonetto based in Sydney calls himself "The Weedy One" and is leading a revival of foraging and edible weeds education. His website includes a link to this great "Wild food Map" sharing information about locations of different edible species. He is also an artist and has some wonderful prints of common weed species here.

Now don't get me wrong.
This isn't to say that weeds are all great and that they don't come with a whole load of emotional and political baggage. Because they do. I acknowledge that but I am merely acting as observer, depicting the environment as I see it.

"Narrabundah Hill", katazome and yuzen on silk, 2017. On show at Solo Exhibition at Galerie h2o, Kyoto October 2017. This piece was an ode to my "local hill" with it's co-existing Cootamundra wattles, Mulleins, Blackberries, Scarlet Robins and native grasses.

Slowly, I am reading opinions of scientists and researchers who know far more than I do and learning from them.

One book I eventually made it through was "Beyond the War On Invasive Species", by Tao Orion. Whilst her book was written more for those working in environmental restoration, she had some really poignant things to say about the role of weeds and our interactions with them.

"Invasions are happening faster now than at any point in recent history, a fact that leads to a great deal of concern since invasive species appear to disrupt the "fragile balance" of nature...however, evolution is at work even in these scenarios...." pg 91
Tao notes that even though weeds can be unpredictable in a new environment, they are often favoured by local birds and insects for food or nesting habitat.

"..All organisms, including invasive species, require the participation of other organisms to ensure their survival - plants depend on pollination and seed dispersal to survive and spread, and animals need adequate food and habitat. If invasive species are spreading and thriving, then they benefit from, and are benefiting, such ecological assiciations...even the world's "worst" invasive species are being used by other organisms in their new habitats." pg 94.
This observation is seconded by Australian biologist and author Tim Low in "New Nature". Low lists different relationships between Australian native animals and foreign weeds: Lantana provides protection for fairy-wrens, bandicoots and reptiles. Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos feed on the seeds of weed 'Spiny Emex'. Muir's Corellas, a rare member of the Cockatoo family, eat another weed, Guildford grass. Low goes as far as to say "Many species now rely largely on alien tucker. If Australia's foreign contingent vanished overnight, many eco-systems would be kicked into chaos." pg 93

Low also points out that the birds or animals themselves are simply being opportunistic in their use of foreign weeds as food or habitat. " law of nature forces native animals to prefer their natural foods, or even to recognise them." pg 104.

I call these next images "Native Birds happily tucking into Alien Tucker"
Satin Bowerbird raiding berries off next door's ivy vine. They don't see a foreign plant, they see food! 
Crimson Rosella eating pansies outside the Legislative Assembly (silly parrot)
Sulphur Crested Cockatoos destroying, I mean eating, Cherry Blossoms in the Canberra-Nara Peace Park. 

Admittedly, the birds above aren't eating weeds exactly, they're eating non-native plants. Still, the sentiment is the same: non-native plants can serve a purpose in an eco-system too.

Back to Tao Orion, she brings the subject of weeds back to the bigger picture of how the environment is shifting, and will continue to change.
"we will not achieve continuing to eradicate these novel organisms in the vain hope that the ecosystems where they live will be the same as they were at some idealized time in the past. We are here now, on the cusp of the sixth great planetary extinction, with climate change intensifying, and the ways that we relate to the land that sustains us will become ever more central to designing our way through the challenges to come."
It reminds me of the problems faced by traditional crafts and this attempt to stem alterations to the long-held traditions when change is the only certaintyWhen we can step back from our own points of view and ego for a moment, we see that our worldviews are based on our human expectations of how something should be in order to benefit us. Not everything exists in the way that humans would like. Nature is a far more complicated and interconnected system than we can hope to exert control over.

This has become a long and winding, probably flawed, musing on weeds. I am still focusing on them in my work. I plan to expand my "Beautiful Weeds of Canberra" series into next year. You can see more on my homepage here, too.

Beautiful Weeds works on my website
I want to finish with a snatch from "The Book of Thistles" by Noelle Janaczewska. I loved this book, it's part poetry, part musings on the nature of the weed and the thistle in social history.

 "Australia's relationship with hardhead thistles digs into a series of deeper, thornier questions. About what we believe counts as responsible citizenship. About evolving notions of national identity, the siting of frontiers, and how we relate to each other across our differences. About deserving and undeserving nature. All those shades of green - Legal. Scientific. Romantic. Tragic."

Monday, December 11, 2017

2017 - a hectic year of TRYING

Wow, how is it already December!?

Apologies to my sadly neglected blog but this year has been a heck of a ride.

In looking back over all the things I've done and struggled with this year, I suddenly had a (mildly incensed) urge to write it all down and make sense of it before another year rolls around.

Let me paint a picture of the hectic year just gone.

→ I dyed a commissioned noren (split curtain) for an Australian Tea-master who lives up in Newcastle with his own tatami-floored tea-room. It's a homage to spring with magpies, which also happen to be the emblem of the area where he studied Tea.

privately commissioned Noren featuring Australian magpies

→ I started making textile jewellery that I've called tameshi, using trial dye samples and un-used edges from dyed works. These have been proving popular and I feel good about the fact that they are mini artworks in themselves and re-use fabrics that I would have thrown away or put in a box somewhere.

Tameshi jewellery - tameshi means sample or test. Available through stockists in Canberra and on my etsy store

→ I sent work to a group show by dyeing artists in New York. As the only artist out of the group who wasn't Japanese, apparently people said mine looked the most Japanese! With all the deadlines for later in the year, I didn't manage to get to go the US to see the show but still, it felt like an achievement.

My series of 6 yuzen/katazome dyed works on display as part of "Wafting II" at Medialia Gallery in New York, June-July 2017

→ I participated in a four-day residency out at Tidbinbilla nature reserve thanks to Craft ACT. Four of us selected artists got to stay in a newly renovated cottage inside the reserve and spent four lovely sunny days at the tail-end of winter hiking in the bush, sketching, writing and sharing tales over cheese and wine.

The delights of early spring at Tidbinbilla - Gibraltar Peak, Early Nancy, Flame Robin.

→ I travelled to Japan and held a solo exhibition in Galerie H20 in Kyoto. My first solo show there in 4 and a half years, always a joy to be there and to catch up with so many friends and new connections.

entryway and Japanese garden at Galerie H20 in downtown Kyoto

view of solo show at Galerie h20, October 2017

→ Whilst in Japan I made time to visit and interview a bunch of great humans, friends new and old who are doing innovative and interesting dye-work. The plan is to write up a series of interviews from all the meetings and I've created a new project Somé 20:20 to house them and to move forward with. It's a reference to being able to see clearly - without acknowledging tradition how do we move forward? and how will dyeing art survive into the future, 2020 is just around the corner. A work in progress, my new website for the project is over at

the wonderful people who agreed to be interviewed for my Somé 20:20 project.

→ I came back and setup another solo show at ANCA gallery in Canberra! The theme of my works this year have been "beautiful weeds", and I managed to create some new works that are really where I've been wanting to head for a while now; layered and sheer works that are a new form of collaged landscape.

Solo Exhibition "Naturescapes" at ANCA Gallery & Studios, Canberra, Oct-Nov 2017

detail of "The Beautiful Weeds of Canberra" series, on show at ANCA Gallery, Canberra

→ I ran workshops and demonstrations in dyeing at the 2017 Canberra-Nara Candle Festival. For the demonstrations, I dyed a massive 9 metre length of resist-printed cotton in one go while a crowd watched and revealed pattern and birds and text as I went. The workshops saw nearly 100 people dye their own kata-yuzen bookmark using pigments and stencils.

Kata-yuzen workshops and Hikizome demonstration at the Canberra Nara Candle Festival, October 28, 2017

→ I ran another afternoon of workshops on the last day of my exhibition, dyeing katazome postcards. Participants could dye pre-printed washi and wash away the paste to reveal the patterns. We had great warm weather and it was a lovely bunch of enthusiastic people who came along.

wonderful postcards dyed by participants, drying on the outside windows at ANCA

→ I even had an article published in the Kyoto Journal, on katagami stencils.

Kyoto Journal, a volunteer-run publication, making a return to print from this issue.
It's great! you can get your hands on a copy here


What this run-sheet doesn't show is the sleep-deprivation, self-doubt, expenses, rejection letters, missed deadlines, extensive preparations, hours spent at a day-job and the constant juggle.

On paper, (or in digital text, I suppose) this looks like a hugely successful year. In a sense it was.
But it was also really, really hard.
I don't think this level of productivity is sustainable, or even very enjoyable.
I also didn't really sell much art. Not through exhibitions.
Where I really made progress and, to some extent, a profit, was through connecting with like-minded people, through making custom pieces, through sharing affordable things, and through trying to promote the unique genre of Somé.
Which has me re-thinking my approach to all of this.

Given that my work places me in a sort of odd position in between ART, CRAFT & RESEARCH, (odd in the sense that I don't fall neatly into funding categories or job titles) I'm thinking that instead of struggling against that and trying to slot myself into prescribed categories, why not embrace it?

Can I be a CRAFTIST?

I'm tired of feeling like my specialties (being able to dye pictorial textiles, being interested in craft, being knowledgeable about tradition, having Japanese abilities -though not bilingual by any means, being interested in smaller, affordable art) are a liability, or something I need to adjust so I can be in the same game as everyone else. And of feeling like my particular set of skills don't add up to anything. When in fact they do! and they are a killer combination despite what the grants categories, arts bodies, or professional membership organisations would have me think.

So consider this my personal passion project for 2018; finding a way to be my own kind of craftisan, pursuing research and researching through making.

Thank you for putting up with the silence on this blog but do feel free to check in over at my website and project site to see what things I get up to in 2018.