Iowa artist creates hues from Hartman Reserve foliage

August 19, 2018

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — A watched pot never boils, goes the saying.

It’s a lesson in patience — one of many, for Angela Waseskuk. She is the artist-in-residence at Hartman Reserve Nature Center, and her project has been learning about plants and other materials for making natural dyes.

“This has forced me to slow down and fully experience what I’m doing. I’ve done lots of research and educating myself, including getting to know what plants live here at Hartman,” she said.

“Plus you have to wait for when it’s the best time to harvest the plant, whether flowers or leaves or seed pods, and then there’s the process of extracting color from the natural materials and which ones are good for what colors. It’s all taught me patience.”

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reports that Waseskuk is an instructor in the University of Northern Iowa art department. After taking a brief respite from personal artistic pursuits, she was inspired to dip a toe into natural dying after a slow textiles retreat with Sasha Duerr, author of “The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes,” last year at Three Pine Farms in Cedar Falls.

“She talked about connecting to the places we are through natural color. I knew I wanted to delve more deeply into it. I wanted to connect more deeply with the place I live in through plants,” Waseskuk said.

Another practice the artist has begun is keeping a dye journal with notes and text swatches. In addition, the artist has made small watercolor paintings of plants.

“It’s very delicate, and it takes me a while to paint a watercolor. I haven’t done it since high school, so I had to re-familiarize myself with the process.”

Making textile dyes is as old as civilization. Plants that contain enough tannins can be used to dye fabrics naturally and without additives. An additive or mordant combines with the dye to fix it in a textile. Natural mordants include vinegar, lemon juice and pomegranate rinds. Books on natural dyeing from the 1970s and 1980s often suggested using chrome and copper, but experts today warn against using such toxic substances for personal safety and environmental reasons. Some plants can be toxic or the dyes harmful to water supplies when the dye bath is poured down the drain.

Waseskuk describes the natural dye-making process as similar to steeping tea. Leaves, flowers, bark, seed pods and other materials are chopped, ground or mashed, then placed in a pot of water. The water is brought to a boil, then the heat is turned off and the pot sits overnight. The next day, solids are strained off, the pot is brought up to a simmer and the dye process begins.

The artist does her work at the dye barn at Three Pines farm.

“Owner Kara Grupp graciously set me up in a dying studio, and that’s where I do all my work. It’s been fun to get back into a studio practice,” Waseskuk said.

She has been surprised, pleased and admittedly a little stumped by some of the colors she’s extracted. Silk is her textile of choice for dyeing because it readily and evenly absorbs color.

“Red is the hardest color to achieve, and I still haven’t found one. Acorns create a rose-pink shade, and I’ve done some over-dyeing with other colors. My favorite is the elder flower — such a vibrant, beautiful yellow. I anticipate that the elder berries will be purple. Stinging nettles make a sage green. Catalpa pods make taupe and skin tones. With bachelor buttons, you get yellow.”

Coreopsis flowers yield bittersweet orange the artist has over-dyed with elderberry for a deeper color. She’s also ground up whole walnuts to make an espresso brown.

Her goal is to use the larger color swatches to make a flag.

Waseskuk taught a group of teen girls how to imprint botanical materials on fabric using natural dyes in Hartman’s Spirited Girls overnight summer camp.


Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, http://www.wcfcourier.com

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