The Art of Creating Color from Nature's Dyes
By Annie Jackson
Hello, my name is Annie Jackson, and I am a natural dyer. A few years ago I started my own company, This is Brennan, so that I could share my love of turning plant materials into beautiful colors. In my work I explore pigments found in many unexpected places and celebrate a traditional craft that has been practiced all over the world for thousands of years.
Although I have now dedicated my artistic practice solely to the art of natural dyeing, it took me many years to discover that this was my calling. For my undergrad, I studied Interdisciplinary Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. As a sculpture major I was using the wood shop, the metal shop, the ceramic studio, the fibers studio and more. I was working in all kinds of media although I was always drawn to materials that came from nature, like wood, clay and often beeswax. After four years of rigorous creating, I felt burnt out and confused about why I was making art, so after I graduated I decided to move to London to pursue a Master's degree in Curating Contemporary Art from Christie's Auction House in London.
In London I was exposed to the art world from a different perspective. I wasn't making art: I was observing art. Curating allowed me to contextualize artwork and draw connections between makers of the past and the world we live in today. I fell in love with London's multiculturalism and with the effortless exposure to incredible art that living in the city allows. I also fell in love with the man I would later marry, and after completing my dissertation, my future husband and I decided to drop everything and travel the world together. I wan't even able to attend my graduation ceremony because we had already moved to China. We found positions as English teachers in Guangzhou and spent a year traveling and teaching before finally ending up in Taipei, Taiwan. We stayed in Taiwan for the next two years, and it was here that natural dyes became the center of my creative work.
In Taipei I was granted an artist visa through my work at a private art collection, which was gracefully situated on top of a mountain and surrounded by a stunning garden. It felt like paradise. Here I pushed myself to recognize what it meant to make work that was meaningful to me. Having spent several years traveling, I had gained such an appreciation for the world we live in. I love learning about other cultures, celebrating our differences and also acknowledging our similarities, and I realized I want to make work that connects us to the past and to one another.
After a lot of research and discussion, something that clicked with me was Taiwan's history of indigo dyeing, which was introduced to the country when under Japanese rule. A mentor told me about a small studio located in a rural area outside of Taipei that aimed to preserve the traditional Taiwanese art of indigo dyeing which had been brought to the area during that period.
I took the bus out to the dye studio and met with an artisan who taught me a few of the local techniques used to create intricate and beautiful designs with indigo. First she showed me some of the indigo plants which were growing in the area. It is a very inconspicuous leafy green plant, which would never look like it could create a deep blue hue. Then she showed us the vats of fermenting indigo that they had prepared, which contained a malodorous green gloop.
Under her guidance, I folded a piece of linen fabric that I had brought with me. We sandwiched it between two pieces of wood and dip-dyed it in the vats of indigo. When we pulled the linen out, the green gloop quickly oxidized and revealed the most beautiful shade of blue. We unfolded the fabric to reveal a simple yet elegant diamond pattern of blue and white, and I was hooked.
I began to do as much research on the topic as I could and soon realized I could make dyes from some of the common foods that I use in the kitchen daily. I began keeping my onion skins, avocado pits, pomegranate skins, carrot tops and other dye sources that I would have previously regarded as trash. I invested in a few large stainless steel pots from a local kitchen supplies store and started to experiment. It was in this little kitchen in Taipei that I developed This is Brennan's signature colors like Avocado Pit Pink, Onion Skin Gold, and Rosemary Green.
Although it felt like I had discovered a whole new world, there is absolutely nothing new about natural dyes. Synthetic dyes, which are most commonly used today, were only invented in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1856, William Perkins was trying to find a cure for malaria and accidentally created a purple dye instead. Before this, every dye used throughout history and around the globe was made from natural sources. From the gowns of kings and queens, and the red coats of the British Army to the intricate and colorful kimonos in Japan, everything was naturally dyed. It was an artistic craft of the highest skill, but today the art of natural dyeing has nearly died out. Its disappearance is more than the loss of an art form: the introduction of synthetic dyes and fibers in the past hundred and sixty some years has led to devastating environmental repercussions around the world.
We can each do our part to keep toxins out of rivers and synthetic non-biodegradable fiber out of landfills by educating ourselves on the production of materials and dyes. We often take our surroundings for granted. We don't know where the materials we interact with on a daily basis come from, how they are made, or what their impact on the environment is. It's easy to lose touch with the gifts that the Earth provides us, but they are plentiful. They have been available to us for centuries, utilized by the generations before us, and they will continue to be available to us, if we let them.