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.