Thursday, 21 April 2011

On Provenance

i'll be pootling around the whirled a bit for a few weeks
no idea whether there'll be any dancing with the interpixies
in case there isn't
here are rather a lot of words for those who feel the 

On Provenance

an article first published in Embellish magazine [2010]

Let me introduce myself, a textile artisan working with plant dyes, stitch, cloth and hand-formed felt.  I make a living from teaching, writing, exhibiting and the occasional costume commission. Like the poultry-fanciers of the world I find it advantageous to distribute my eggs over a number of baskets. I acquired many of my skills from my mother and grandmother, others by studying architecture [a good liberal arts education], pattern cutting and dance.  I have worked at plant nurseries, in fashion stores and in the theatre, learning as I went.  I have also attended interesting workshops and am able to thank [for example] Mollie Littlejohn for introducing me to wool sliver in the early ‘90s [I had been using raw wool from my sheep], Nalda Searles for teaching me how to make string [2004] and Kedi Kyle for publishing the technique for folding her wonderful ‘blizzard book’ to which I was introduced by a New Zealand student [2008].

In 1998 and 2000 I acted as class assistant to Karen Diadick Casselman, world authority on lichen dyes, author of ‘Craft of the Dyer’ and also the person who coined the catchphrase ‘eco-dye’.  Though our dye practices share common ground in the plant world they are fundamentally different. I respect her knowledge of lichen dyes [even though I am cautious about endorsing their use] and make a point of not using the phrase eco-dye to describe what I do. Eco Colour might be a fine distinction but there is a difference nonetheless. That others sometimes describe me as an eco-dyer is a matter beyond my control [I prefer the more romantic Botanical Alchemist]. For me the term ecoprint describes the process of printing the colour contained within a plant directly onto a piece of cloth using steam as the transfer medium, but I’ve now seen that term spread virus-like around the world as a descriptor for all sorts of industrial printing techniques as well.

People often ask me why I teach and publish my dye techniques when clearly [if I had any business sense at all] I could make much more money by ecoprinting a snazzy range of silk pyjamas. The answer is that by publishing I have established the provenance of the ecoprint [discovered during the research that led to my MA] and that by teaching ecologically sustainable dye practices I’m doing what I can to make the world a better place. Lest that sound horribly prissy, let me tell you that while not affiliated with any particular religious group I very much like the Buddhist principle of doing least harm. So my philosophy is that if folks are dyeing their textiles with plants and applying those dyes without toxic adjunct mordants they are not only being kinder to the planet, they are also being kinder to their own bodies [and the other bodies that share their households]. This is a Good Thing.

I love my work. I enjoy teaching and am a passionate traveller, a textbook Sagittarius. Try to fence me in and I won’t even call you from the airport. At the same time I can think of nothing more satisfying than being at home in my cottage studio, stitching contentedly on a piece of cloth, delving in the earth of my garden, rolling a felt or making a piece of string from fabric scraps ready to tie up the next bundle for the dye pot. I take great pleasure in what is now fashionably referred to as “slowness”[i]; in the rituals of collecting windfall leaves for my dyes, in unpicking pre-loved garments and opening out seams so that the cloth can be re-used. I like quiet hours spent hand-picking fresh fleeces, pulling out the seeds so that I can use the raw wool in my felting. I am also a keen walker and enjoy the freedom of wandering the farm paddocks as much as the random traveller’s trick of hopping on whatever public transport passes by the door of the hotel, riding to the end of the line and then walking back, stopping to draw and write and take pictures, picking up leaves, the odd button and rusty metal fragments along the way. Last year I was very lucky and managed to slip a few whole days in between engagements to drift along in this way.

My favourite dye process is one that involves what I call a ‘mindful windfall walk’ and I practice it wherever I wander in the world as well as at home. My students seem to enjoy it too. Before I start walking I choose an arbitrary stopping point, so that I don’t actively search for leaves but can take an interest in my surroundings instead [useful when in unfamiliar places so that one can navigate back to one’s digs!]. This might involve reciting a poem or singing aloud and stopping at the end of each verse to bend down and pick up whatever leaf is closest to my feet, or counting in patterns or something as simple as tooting horns or barking dogs.  The singing option is my favourite as passersby simply think I’m mad and it’s quite funny to watch them cross to the other side of the street to avoid the crazy lady.  I fill my pockets with leaves and then back at the studio [or the hotel] wrap them into a bundle of silk or wool cloth, cook them a little while and then turn off the heat. The next morning I have a lovely present to open, making for a splendid beginning to the day. I’ve learned to position my little travelling dye pot near open windows or directly under bathroom fans so as not to set off fire alarms [that’s a bad look]. These windfall samples tell me so much about the flora and the water quality when I’m in a new place and are also precious mementos.

When sharing my skills I hope that my students will develop ways of using them that are expressive of their own hand rather than simply churning out carbon copies of my work. Many participants simply want to make beautiful things for themselves and that’s just lovely. The difficulties arise when students enter workshop samples in exhibitions as their own; clearly something that has been made under the direction of a tutor is not personal work. Worse still, I have seen work samples [not from my classes] entered into competitions, and this seems pretty cheeky. There are people out there who have done some extraordinary things and while I don't wish to embarrass them publicly by naming them I do think the issues are worth consideration. I withdrew from a textile group in my state after seeing a ‘drawing for the timid’ workshop that I had taught free of charge as a friendly gesture being offered under the same title by one of the participants, but this time for a fee. I haven’t been back. Sometimes friendships suffer when colleagues borrow workshop titles and whole teaching plans without asking. I remember being very startled to see someone who I had considered a friend advertise in a neighbouring state a workshop I had taught at a TAFTA Forum. She hadn’t even participated and yet borrowed each and every exercise I had devised and even the name of the workshop.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a very bitter and twisted old woman but descriptors and acknowledgments are very important. I was once surprised to find a class sample that had been made jointly with a tutor with whom I had co-taught a class being displayed in a substantial retrospective exhibition of her work, no mention at all of the person [me] who had felted and stitched and dyed part of the work during its gestation between our two studios. What irritated me most about this was that while I considered the piece adequate as a teaching sample I really didn’t feel that it stood up as an artwork when taken out of the context of the class.
On another occasion I had been invited to teach at a summer school. One of the organisers of the event had also signed up for the class but due to her commitments was not always present. She asked me to dye some quite large samples for her as a memento of the class. I didn’t expect to see those samples later exhibited internationally as her work. 

An hilarious incident occurred last year where a felt-maker who had attended one of my classes pulled what she thought was an astronomical figure out of the air to quell another attendee at the convergence who was pestering her to sell her garment [made in a ‘Landskin’ felt class]…and then had a resounding yes and was compelled to accept, selling the garment at a price far eclipsing anything I’ve earned for such a piece. But in this instance the student behaved entirely honourably, hadn’t wanted to sell the item at all and followed through very courteously by filling me in on the story.
A less entertaining incident in 2009 was that of another person who had attended a two day workshop with me in the UK and then proceeded to copy huge parts of Eco Colour and present them on the internet as her own worksheets with the footer ‘devised by X ’ as part of an artist-in-residence project. Murdoch Books wrote her a very firm letter and I believe the problem was resolved shortly thereafter.

Then there are little things like finding that someone in your workshop has been filming you while you tell your stories and suddenly there you are on You-tube with your double chin and your slumping skin looking like a complete hag. Seeing myself from that perspective it’s really little wonder I’ve been single for the past 19 years.
With the plethora of fascinating workshops available, new techniques and materials being offered on all sides, boundaries [particularly in the textile world] are becoming increasingly blurred.  As an author I am very conscious of having to be particularly careful to acknowledge my sources, the published book is such a conspicuous glasshouse in which to be flinging stones. It’s all too easy to absorb information, forget whence it came and regurgitate it happily as one’s own.  When as part of a workshop I include a technique I have picked up elsewhere, I name the source and give references to where the original material can be found. It’s simply the done thing.

Over the years I’ve observed people happily copying work, setting themselves up as masters [a title traditionally bestowed rather than assumed] or simply going out and teaching workshops with very little background in a subject. But I’m grieved most when I see friends who have worked dedicatedly for non-profit organisations over decades, being pushed aside by opportunists exploiting inside knowledge to set up private businesses.
There may well be substantial profits from trading on the goodwill that has been generated by years of service from a small group of visionaries nurturing a community through their labours. But there’s a big difference between a non-profit organisation that invests in its demographic through strong pastoral care policies and by offering scholarships to those in need and someone who’s running a business to make money. Those ‘engulf and devour’ tactics might work for a short time but the card-house will inevitably collapse as the audience wises up to the plot.

Just remember, folks, what goes around also comes around. The older I grow the more I realise just how wise my Granny was. She said that what you put into the world comes back threefold. She was right.

But despite all this doom and gloom and grumbling I’m delighted to say that Louis Armstrong was also right - it’s a wonderful world. The people I meet in my travels and the correspondence that I am privileged to receive make my life an absolute joy.  I’ve made so many friends through my work and learned along with my students. I’m thrilled to bits when people send me pictures showing how their work has developed or tell me about their success with a favourite plant and made especially happy when I hear that people are engaging in further study, taking on research projects and chasing knowledge. It makes my inner gardener well content to see so much wonder sprouting in the world. To quote Irish actor Dylan Moran… ‘I’m very glad to be’.

[i] Although I prefer to refer to it as “mindfulness”


  1. Have fun and be safe out there. The whirled is a big place!


  2. I am glad you got to meet

    a Denise,

    I am sure she would have been just as much fun, if not more.

    The goddess did have other plans for me, turns out after saying no to TAFTA, due to the ancient hound, I am in Auckland, supporting a friend whose mother is very ill.

    As far as what you have written, I could cite several from my neck of the woods too.

    Keep on writing about this, as it will raise the bar for ALL workshops, whether a small fill in one for bored scrap bookers looking for something else to the dedicated textile student.

    Meanwhile, the list of workshops i sign up for dwindles...

  3. BRAVO! standing ovation! 'I'm saying what she's saying' (oops no... that would be copying.....)

    I can relate to much of the tale you're telling (both as paddock walker .... and arteest trying to find the balance between sharing freely of what I have/know, earning $$ to take care of my small expenses.... and sometimes sadly being ripped off madly in the process.... sigh) thanks so for saying it all aloud (and proud)

    **continuing applause as you leave for lands far away....

  4. this is so much freedom to teach and learn from one another,and it is such a fine line between using knowledge and using others with no regard... it amazes me that that line, as fine as it is , can be found and crossed so often. i try to blow it off but really...hard to hide the bitterness sometimes. i do believe in balance, as grandma says, patience is what we need i guess.

  5. I love your directness, so refreshing and courageous....and much needed. It is easy to sound petty when expressing these things but one has to be willing to take the risk..thanks for risking

  6. I'm actually very grateful you are raising and documenting these issues India!
    Seeing Grrl referr to the fact she signs up for less and less workshops because there's less substance on offer rings true. I aggree with her comment about 'Raising the bar' by naming these issues.
    Part of the problem I've considered is this era of "everyone's an artist". My mantra sits firmly with "everyone's creative'' - there's a massive distance between being creative and giving oneself to a kind of vocational undertaking - for better or worse- as opposed to the casual creative outlet or even the dubious step-by-step 'art career as business template'.
    Entering the territory of uncertainty that comes with a deeper immersion, feeling compelled to dig in for the long haul... however one speaks to it... the values and principles that are a foundation of this journey may be subtle but they are there for good reason.
    When the business template comes before the vocational immersion watch out! Finding ways to fund one's journey is plain sensible... but find something of one's own for god's sake.
    A personal bugbear is copping attitude and blah for things I might dare to originate, work with and present... then later seeing the familiar turning up in a perhaps more stylised form.. familiar ideas,text, purpose dressed up but not hiidden form view... and not a smidgeon of acknowledgement as having provided a touchstone for the thinking and risking of an idea. The antennas go up now when I start to get the noise...

    Your work is so desirable to others India... but the compliment is not enough.
    I like that you are so level and positive in your remarks... and the fact that this article presents a challenge for all to be more careful, more honouring, open about ideas and ultimately all the more potent a force for having this noble gravity and grace to bring to the journey.

  7. absolutely right on, india. i see this happening in the book, the fiber, the paper, the education worlds. i even found that something i shared in the 80s was published 25 years later by a renown person, whom i contacted. they apologized for not finding me when seeking the source. but they did publish it, with attribution.
    i learn and grow. an ecoprinted fabric i made from my retired pants after reading eco colour (and buying it retail from australia) becomes the lining of a shifu book bound in vellum. it is integrated into other work. the binding was medieval in origin.
    putting a new tol in the toolbox (an india flint dye technique, for example) and attributing it correctly is how it's supposed to work.
    i think. giving credit where credit is due. and not stealing, and profiting from it.

  8. Well said! Acknowledging provenance is not only honourable and respectful but may even bring benefits in the long term.

    I smiled at "Try to fence me in and I won’t even call you from the airport. At the same time I can think of nothing more satisfying than being at home in my cottage studio" as it sounds just like me tho' I'm Pisces and generally swimming in several directions at once :)

    I agree with Sophie about 'everyone's an artist'. I wonder what the reaction would be if we started saying 'everyone is a surgeon? I'd expect to hear some spluttering wouldn't you?!!!

  9. Hear, hear! India, you are our bellwether.

  10. it can hurt so much,

    but using buddist techniques like tonglen makes you soft and able to let it go

    I'm so glad with the knowledge you gave me

  11. hey india

    ur workshops provide so much more than just a bunch of techniques and processes for me. they provided me with space to think, breathe and poodle creatively.

    thankfully, while i raise the kids and my husband works, i am cared for financially so these issues don't touch me in the same way but i too am heartily sick of the plethora of lame workshops that have no depth. i have not been to another since 1998 with u.

    i have chosen to sit at home and try and develop my own voice because it is there, and when i'm around others, its easy to start using theirs or be influenced. i start doing weird things like using yellow when i love black cos it looks good on someone elses work.

    slowly, slowly without contriving anything, patience and a lack of pressure (art school and public opinion) something is emerging. i have faith. i'm happy to wait and make mistakes and play in the interim while i also grow children and live a life.

    have faith. we're not all plonkers. some of us are just plain ignorant to the kaupapa (protocols) while some, i agree should know better. i recognise some of those and it grieves me because i know that their bottom line is ruled by their pride and greed.

    hang in there. the good u continue to do outweighs the crap u encounter even though it must be discouraging and offensive.

    love u long time Indie. x

  12. brilliantly written, and entertaining, also gobsmacked by what people have had the nerve to do !

    it must make you sick . . :-) i know i am , when i see my works blatantly ripped off, for some ad , and i didn't make a penny! heartfelt understanding from my end . x