art, yoga, connection to life

These fall days as I walk and look at the sidewalks printed with the tannic stains of fallen leaves, I think back to a very special place; Lauris, France.  It was there at Couleur Garance, in 2012 that catalyzed my understanding of the numerous possibilities in working with plants, to create inks and dyes.

I first wrote about my experience there and inspirations using leaf tannins in my 2013 leaf prints musings post.

The most accessible combination is that of tannins with iron.  Methodology, ingredient lists and recipes can vary but fundamentally, a leaf containing tannin, combined with iron will give you colour. A simple test of the tannic content is to tamp a leaf on fibre with a mallet to release the tannins then swoosh it around in some iron water and, if tannin is present you will see your chlorophyll /almost invisible mark magically re-appear in a purplish-grey.

During my exhibition and residency at Couleurs Garance and its Le Jardin des Plantes Tinctoriales in Lauris, I became somewhat obsessed with this simple technique moving from little samples to large scale pieces on antique hand woven linen.  The subject and materials came straight from the garden.  Leaves picked, hammered, bathed in iron water, and hung to dry.

It became for me, a visual language to express a synthesis of inspiration from leaf strewn walkways, ephemeral shadows and sense of place; the gardens, the nightly flight of hirondelles passing across my window view and the surrounding warm-toned stone buildings. Everything was tactilely alive.

The following year in 2013, I had the opportunity to return and attend the Forum International de la Couleur Végétale, which gathered together artists and researchers from the field of plant based colours to present papers, ateliers and works for exhibition.

The series, “beginning again, again”, created during this period explores the interface of markings between the botanical tannic print and hand drawn lines with inks on kozo paper and reflects my contemplation on the commingling of humans and nature.  I later showed this work at the Textile Arts Center in NYC.  View more from this collection here.

The garden was founded by Michel Garcia in 1998 and has been a source of learning and inspiration for the community and the world at large. I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent time in this garden, digging in the soil, weeding, chatting with colleagues, plucking leaves and experimenting with plant based colour.

Located on the edge of a falaise on the terraced grounds beside Chateau Lauris, it houses over 250 botanical specimens that can be used for dyes and inks.  Since 2019 the garden has been community maintained but is now at risk of disappearing.  There is an initiative to enlarge awareness of the garden and its needs. You can read more and add your voice here.  Might you have some ideas of associations that can help support them?

Gardens are such a powerful way to explore our ever evolving relationship with nature.  Both habitat and sanctuary, they nourish all sorts of lives and expressions of life.

Drawing and painting, for me, IS a process of intimate observation and presence.

As I observe and draw the lines of a stem, a branch, a root form, I simultaneously learn to know these forms and the sinews, viens, spinal column and life force living within me.

Botanicals in portraits, still life, dried and silhouetted or tumbling, shadowy, overgrown, rooting and budding are the different ways I’ve been looking for an expression that reflects the life cycle and our larger interdependent relationship with/in nature.

It’s harvest season again!

At this time of the year I gather different plants to dry for use throughout the winter.  Sumac, both the leaves and the berries are amongst my favourite of plants for natural dyes.  Its natural abundance in southern Ontario makes sumac perfect for local foraging expeditions.  You’ll often find it in areas of disturbed land like forest clearings or along side rail tracks and as a rapid grower, sumac is key in succession growth.  Whenever foraging it’s important not to disrupt the area and over harvest.  Ample berries, leaves and flowers should remain of whatever you are harvesting to support the natural eco-system – a place for bees, birds, insects and for the plant itself to regenerate.

Sumac offers many gifts.  You can read more about its polyvalence and my recipe for preparing sumac-ade, a tangy cooling drink rich in vitamin C,  here.

Its naturally occurring tannins that bond the colour to the fibre without the need for additional steps make it a wonderful plant source of natural dyes.  The resulting colours can also be modified with benign mordants like alum and iron to draw out a range from neutral beige to neon yellow, lavender and grey from the leaves and blush to purple/grey from the berries.

In preparation for a fun family backyard project my niece joined me to gather sumac. We kept things simple and made a sumac berry dye vat and a concoction of rusty nails and vinegar as the ferrous, modifying post-mordant.

Making a dye vat is akin to making a very strong tea.  Basically we’re aiming to draw out the tannins and colourants through a long steep.  The process begins by mixing the berries (or leaves) with water in a non-reactive pot and heating to just below simmer.  They should remain for at least 45 min to extract the colour however you can also leave them much longer.  I often will let the berries sit in room temperature tap water over night, then heat the mix the next day to develop the intensity of the dye vat.

Once the colourants have been extracted from the plant, the next step is to strain the liquid from the solids.  At this point, I often do a second infusion and repeat the first step in the process to be sure I have fully extracted the remaining colourants from the plant.

To create pattern we played with some easy tie dye methods using elastic and string.  My niece wrapped elastic in single rings that created a circle shape on her t-shirt.

My nephew experimented with a spiral method.

Working with sumac berries alone gives lovely pink blush tones and with the additional step of an iron post-mordant the colour can be modified to tones of lavender/ purple/ grey depending on how much iron is used.

An iron mordant can be purchased as ferrous sulfate or you can make your own blend by combining nails and vinegar and let sit to further oxidize the metal.  The liquid will be a rusty colour.  There are different ways you can use iron to change the colour or add a design element.  In this case we had a bucket of hot water and mixed in a small portion of the rust liquid then dipped a few of the t-shirts in this post-mordant bath.  (I find that using a designated iron bucket is best. It ‘s also wise to keep your dye pots separate from your kitchen pots)



My niece and nephew had fun results and it brought back the memories of my first ventures into dyeing, tie-dye and batik at my aunt’s studio along with cousins and my sister when I was about their age.

Some experiences just stay with you and take new forms.