Last night the scanner was once again humming away to itself as some hand dyed silk fabrics and a silk scarf from June Underwood of Southeast Main arrived yesterday.
“I’m sending six pieces of various sizes, dye lots, and colors, plus a scarf. They are all silk, mostly habotai but some charmeuse and one dupioni.
What to say about them? Well, first of all, I haven’t the foggiest idea when I dyed them or for what project, if any, or whether it was early in my dyeing career or late –
When I dye fabric, particularly if I do it in large lots, I lose myself. I rush through breakfast and head for the wet studio (fancy name for my basement and garden room and garage). I wash out whatever was left from yesterday’s dye batch, admire it, hang it up, and make plans for today’s work. I read what notes I took in the prior days of dyeing and off I go. I get so immersed and absorbed that I can only generally remember either the process or the results. Luckily, the processes are ones which are recorded as instructions elsewhere and the results are in my (and now your)
Dyeing is about as hard-working zen as I ever get. I emerge from the basement to eat and go to the bathroom, I finish up late in the evening and fall into bed, to leap out the next day and back into the process.
Because it’s cool most of the year here in Portland, and the MX dyes I use like temperatures between 75 and 90 degrees F, summer is the best time to immerse myself. So you must picture a slightly plump, gray haired ex-hippie, in shorts and a spattered t-shirt, respirator around her neck, moving from basement to garden room to garage (where the discharge and air brushing
happens), dripping with sweat and dye drops and lining up chemicals in yogurt containers and generally mixing and matching and absorbed and content. Sometimes the radio is blaring the news; sometimes it’s playing Mozart or Bob Dylan.
I dye cotton, rayon, and silk, mostly with MX dyes but sometimes with acid silk dyes. I almost never stop with the first immersion — I overdye, discharge, overdye again. I crumple, pleat, tie, layer, and use the traditional shibori techniques to achieve results I like. If I don’t like the results, the pieces get sent back to the pile of to-be-dyed fabrics.
This isn’t a story, of course, but if you knew me, you would possibly understand that this process is emblematic of what is best and worst about me (my virtues are my vices, as we are want to say). I have the kind of temperament that loves projects, that loves total immersion into those projects, and that has an enthusiasm that drives other people crazy. I could say that I dye fabric the way I read Doris Lessing (everything she wrote in
six weeks) or Charles Dickens. I dye the way I ran two marathons –training, eating, sleeping, training. I dye the way I do art work – zoning out until I can’t stand up or keep my eyes open, a bit of sleep, and back again.
So in some sense, the varied nature of the pieces I”m sending you are emblems of how my life goes. It’s colorful enough (I love telling stories and laughing loud and moving emphatically); sometimes my life is but more often joyous but slightly chaotic (the biggest pieces of silk are like that).
Why silk? Because it quiets the chaos — it smoothes the tempestuousness, it cools my frantic temperament. Particularly the habotai and charmeuse silks, which are beautiful and colorful, but in their smooth way, also slightly aloof. There is a part of me that is aloof from all my frantic dithering, my joyous bouncing around, and total absorption in the project. The aloofness serves as a foundation for the rest.
OK, all that’s very nice but not a story. Here’s a story. Once there was a Good Person who had done OK in life. She was a teacher and liked to bounce around reciting poetry. She told funny stories about herself and her family to her students, who often showed up on her doorstep when they were in trouble. Then, this bouncy creature met with a health disaster.
Our Good Person turned a bit bitter. She spent a number of years,
housebound, miserable, depressed, feeling inadequate. Her loving family tried their best, but no one could alleviate the miseries her body inflicted. After a particularly severe crisis, her husband found a doctor in another city, they moved to be near him, the doctor noted a treatment in an obscure journal, and after surgery and some months recovery, our Good Person sat up, made an appointment to get her teeth cleaned, and rejoined life.
She still wasn’t all that healthy, but by comparison, she felt herself to be a bundle of energy. She could visit with friends for more than half an hour. She could work by herself for a couple of hours at a stretch. She could get by with a nap or two during the day and didn’t have to go to bed until 9 or 10. And she found the visual arts, a field in which she had no obvious talent, no background, no academic training, and experience.
Out of that find came quilting, art quilts, and art. And along the way, as part of the gathering of tools, she learned to dye fabric, which is both an artist’s tool and an artist’s product.
And that’s my story.”