Over the summer and through last semester, associate professor of art at Slippery Rock University Barbara Westman spent her sabbatical learning about natural dyes and creating artwork centered around the colors produced by the environment around us. On Monday, she will open her exhibition in Martha Gault Art Gallery titled “Colors,” which will feature 18 of her favorite creations using natural dyes.
Westman was interested in learning about natural dyes and how to make and use them in her art, so she connected with four other educators and traveled to Poland, Westman’s home country, over the summer to start researching. She worked with Polish artists Anna Goebel, Dorota Taranek, Dorota Tarnowska-Urbanik and Agata Zielińska-Głowacka.
“We spent two weeks working in a studio and just learning, going through a lot of articles and books, and trying to figure it out,” Westman said. “Most dyes that I used come from plants: different parts of plants, roots, leaves or petals. Some come from bugs. It’s all natural and it’s just really amazing how rich the colors can be.”
The artists spent their time experimenting, reading different literature on natural dyes, and even reading blogs on the subject. Westman noted that many people are interested in learning more about natural dyes, and everyone doing research has something new to offer and share with those interested.
One of the most interesting sources of color, Westman said, was the cochineal, a bug found on cacti in the southern parts of North America and the northern parts of South America.
“What you buy is just a bag of dried bugs,” Westman said, laughing. “Then you have to crush them and powder them, and then it turns into extremely vibrant scarlet and fuschia colors, which is something that I really didn’t expect because you don’t see that color when you buy the bag. It looks kind of blackish-greyish until you powder them.”
Her favorite part of her sabbatical, along with experimenting with the colors, trying out new things and simply learning, is knowing that she produced all of the dyed fabric and knowing the history and where it all came from. She’s also excited to see the other artists’ work come together and be exhibited.
Because these dyes are natural, non-toxic and sustainable, Westman recently received a Green Fund Grant to produce a dye garden at the Robert A. Macoskey Center. Different plants grown in this garden, when harvested, will be used for creating natural dyes. In the future, she plans to hold workshops for students and community members at the Macoskey Center.
“I didn’t learn it all just to keep it to myself; I’m very happy to share it with my students and the community,” Westman said. She teaches fiber art and printmaking classes here at SRU.
Once the weather warms up, Westman hopes to start planting so the plants can be harvested in the summer and fall of 2019. Until then, she’s purchased powdered natural dyes for her students to use.
Westman hopes that “Colors” will emphasize the fact that the colors used were all produced by the environment around us, and that two, three hundred years ago, natural colors were the only possibilities. Sharing these ideas and encouraging those who see this exhibit to use these methods again is one of her goals in showcasing her work.
“These things didn’t just disappear, and I’m not discovering anything new here,” Westman said. “We should start paying attention again to what’s available all around us.”
“Colors” will open at the Martha Gault Art Gallery on Monday, Jan. 28 during a reception from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The exhibition will run through Thursday, Feb. 21. The gallery is open Mondays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.