Dorothy Caldwell — making art of place (by Kathleen Loomis)

My local fiber and textile art group was privileged to have the internationally known fiber artist Dorothy Caldwell spend a week with us earlier this month teaching workshops.  She also gave a lecture on her activities in the “outback” of two countries, Australia and Canada. These activities have culminated in a show that has just closed in Peterborough, Ontario, and will soon travel to two other venues in Canada.

She points out that Australia and Canada are similar nations in many ways:  They’re both huge countries with the great majority of the population clustered on the edges, with vast expanses of sparsely settled, ecologically fragile territory that few people ever get to see.  They were both British colonies, with substantial numbers of people who were transported there as punishment.  Both are rich in resources.

Dorothy has been traveling to Australia for 20 years on a variety of travel, teaching, study and artist residence programs.  Recently she received a grant from the Canadian government to conduct two parallel art projects on the two continents; in both places she would go to a remote location for several weeks, getting to know it, collecting both natural and manmade artifacts, and dyeing paper and fabric with indigenous plant and earth materials.  Then she made a new set of works reflecting her experiences.

In Australia, she visited a sheep station in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, north of Adelaide.  In Canada, she went to Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, 1600 miles north of Toronto, close to Greenland.

“My work is about being in a particular place and using what’s there,” she said.  “I want to get out into the landscape, experience the land, get to know a place by handling the materials.”  For instance, she hiked barefoot on the delicate tundra to get a feel for the tiny, stunted vegetation.

On both these visits she brought Japanese handmade paper, tough enough to hold up in a dye pot, and colored them with natural pigments from plants and earth.  She also collected things like rusty nails and broken tools from the sheep shearers, which came home to become part of the “museum” section of her show.

“Collecting has always been an important part of what I do, since I was a little kid,” Dorothy said.  “My way of journaling is collecting.”

After she came home from her trips, she made some of her characteristically huge fiber pieces to reflect her travels and learnings.  Here’s one inspired by the Arctic summer, with 24-hour daylight that often leads people to stay up all night in euphoria.  Dorothy asked one of the locals how they dealt with not being able to distinguish between “day” and “night” and was both chagrined and charmed at the response:  “When we’re tired we go to sleep.”

Dorothy Caldwell, How Do We Know It’s Night, 120 x 114″

Here’s a piece about the fjord on which Pangnirtung is built.

Dorothy Caldwell, Fjord, 120 x 114″ 

I was delighted to observe how she continues her practice of collection and documentation even if she’s not in an exotic place, but somewhere as unspecial as Louisville.

On a day off between workshops we walked over the new pedestrian bridge that spans the Ohio River.  When we got to the Indiana side, Dorothy pulled a plastic bag out of her purse and proceeded to collect stuff to memorialize this place.  She found some mud to daub on a card, writing the date and place on the back, and then dunked some silk into muddy water to dye it.  She repeated the process on the Kentucky side (even though to my eye mud on one side of the river is fairly indistinguishable from mud on the other).

On the Kentucky side we found some deep footprints in the sand at the edge of the river, partially filled with water that had seeped in.  Dorothy looked around, found a root, and used it to stir up the water into an opaque dye-like solution to color her cards and silk.

Here’s the root, the silk, and the card, out to dry in the sun (and the footprint/dye pot).  She took the root home too as a souvenir.

By the end of the week she had assembled a “museum” in her room of her trip to Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.  There’s the root on the right and the cards in the middle; the silk has been partially twisted into string, and she also collected some bits of rusty metal to round out the display.




6 Responses to “Dorothy Caldwell — making art of place (by Kathleen Loomis)”

  1. 1 olganorris June 26, 2014 at 3:31 am

    I have been thinking about what you say about bringing a sense of place into the urban landscape. Did Dorothy Caldwell collect or make intervention with any of the urban aspects of the place? I was thinking about how one would do that with her methods: such as leaving pieces of paper on the ground to be walked on or driven over. Or picking up bits of pavement trash – or noting them in some more passive way like Alice Fox’s Gifts from the Pavement project:

    I’d be interested to know if Dorothy Caldwell concentrates on the natural (in so far as anything can be called natural!) rather than the man made as her starting point in any place.

    • 2 kathleenloomis June 26, 2014 at 4:13 am

      If I can presume to speak for Dorothy, based on what I know of her practice, she does collect and use some manmade artifacts but her main focus is on natural landscapes and materials. If you’re going to work in the Australian outback or the Canadian Arctic you’re by definition going to be focusing on the landscape; and insofar as you look at human traces you would probably be seeing them in light of how the land influenced the people.

      If you’re going to work in Chicago I suspect your focus would be different. In fact, the biggest insight I got from spending a week as Dorothy’s hostess was the realization that I could use her modus operandi in understanding my own urban landscape (and in fact I am using some of her methods already, but I had not defined my work in that way). Isn’t that one of the joys of art, when you suddenly see things in a different and exciting way?

      • 3 olganorris June 26, 2014 at 5:59 am

        Thanks for your reply – and I so absolutely agree with that last sentence, Kathleen!

  2. 4 kathleenloomis June 23, 2014 at 9:52 am

    Not only did her collecting here give insight into her process in Australia and the Arctic, it made me think about how artists can bring a sense of place into the urban landscape as well as the natural one.

  3. 5 olganorris June 23, 2014 at 7:24 am

    It is fascinating to see what kind of initial work goes into the making of Dorothy Caldwell’s large pieces, thank you. It must have been exciting to be there to observe her process and to be able to discuss it all with her.

    Decades of interest in ecology and concern about what humans are doing to the earth seems increasingly to have led several artists to this kind of close attention to natural dyeing and mark making with found objects. I admire the further development that Caldwell does in processing this already extensive input work further to make pieces which are so very much her own.

  1. 1 Kantha stitching with Dorothy Caldwell (by Kathleen Loomis) | Ragged Cloth Cafe, serving Art and Textiles Trackback on August 3, 2014 at 7:00 pm
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