The Pennsylvania State University

School of Visual Arts

Plant to Print with Christina Roberts

For three weeks this semester, fourteen SoVA students were privileged to take a workshop on natural dyeing methods with master printer and educator Christina Roberts. I was lucky enough to be one of these students and we all had the opportunity to learn multiple methods for dyeing cloth with natural materials, including using screen printing, clay resist, and shibori.  In this intensive workshop, we learned traditional and contemporary methods for the use of indigo, logwood (blue/purple), dyer’s coreopsis, marigold, weld (yellows), and madder (reds) and we produced works of art with these dyes.  The workshop culminated in Plant to Print, an exhibition held in the Borland Gallery. Christina Roberts was a lecturer at Penn State for the fall John M. Anderson Lecture Series. She specializes in textile printing techniques, collaborative experimental processes, and community outreach initiatives. Christina has over twenty years of experience at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) in Philadelphia, and is Head of Education, Master Printer, Project Coordinator, and International Apprentice Training Coordinator.  Christina has lectured, conducted workshops, and juried exhibitions internationally, and she has collaborated with many well-known artists from around the world.  She is also a kind, generous and enthusiastic teacher.  We were very fortunate to have her as a resource on our campus. This past summer, several different dye plants were grown in Penn State greenhouses under Christina’s supervision with the help of greenhouse staff and students.  The plants included dyer’s knotweed and woad, plants from which indigo can be extracted.  The first day’s workshop began with a walk to the greenhouse to harvest these plants, with visiting expert Michel Garcia, founder of Couleur Garance in Lauris, France.  Garcia then demonstrated the full process of natural extraction, preparation, and use of indigo directly from plants, using materials like banana peels, henna, and pickling lime instead of harsh and polluting industrial chemicals.  Also on day one of the workshop, Christina Roberts hosted a symposium in the Borland Gallery with visitors Michel Garcia, Mani Chinnaswamy - a third-generation cotton farmer in Tamil Nadu, India who pioneered the Cotton Contract Farming Model - and Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, an award-winning artist, scholar, and curator, founder of Slow Fibers Studios and president of the World Shibori Network.  Students, faculty and community members who attended learned the cultural, environmental, and economic base of natural dyeing in the present day, as well as some of its history. Each day in the workshop, we learned at least one new step of the process - techniques like scouring the cloth to prepare it for printing, mixing natural mordants for setting the dyes, or the steps involved in boiling or otherwise preparing the dye pots.  No day passed during which we were not using our hands, and a great deal of information was packed into those three weeks.  Personally, the most exciting part was how accessible all of this was - we could learn it quickly enough to use it immediately, and many of us intend to keep using the techniques we learned in our future work.  Christina recommended places online where we could order the materials, and it is even possible to grow some of the plants ourselves. A high point of Plant to Print was a trip to the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia.  We left State College early in the morning to spend all day screen printing on the long padded tables at the Fabric Workshop, with the help of the Workshop’s interns.  We brought our own fabric to add to the fabric Christina provided us, and worked hard to print as much as we could in this ideal work space.  It was an amazing experience, squeegeeing mordant gel through the screens we’d created ourselves, using a giant shower-like apparatus to clean it off in between prints, and setting up the screens to dry in front of huge fans.  At the end of the day, we attended the opening reception of a multi-floor retrospective exhibition, and explored the entire museum.  Many of us were so thrilled to have this time in the workshop and to see the artworks up close that we refused to take the time to leave for dinner in Philadelphia.  It was an intense and satisfying day. Finally, our class set up our finished fabric artworks in the Borland Gallery for the Plant to Print exhibition, opening on October 22 and showing through November 2.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that room look quite so colorful and welcoming, with its softly-colored cloths everywhere in blues, lavenders, reds, browns and yellows.  There was an immense variety of work for such a small class, including documentary photographs printed on silk, wearable sacred geometry and surreal imagery, narratives including an embroidered scene of a unicorn slaughter, and richly layered decorative patterns.  We had a decadent spread of food, and the room was crowded with students, friends, and faculty for the opening.  There was also a slideshow of images related to the natural dying process, including photographs of us all at the Fabric Workshop.  All in all, the experience was a great success. Several students, myself included, are looking forward to using natural dyeing again in our work at Penn State, and teaching it to the students who weren’t able to take the workshop.  Some of the students also expressed an interest in applying for an internship at the Fabric Workshop.  All of us learned about an entire new world of art making, through the diverse, international collection at the Fabric Workshop, and Christina’s experience working with artists from Louise Bourgeois to Jun Kaneko and Virgil Marti.  I am sure that the Plant to Print workshop will continue to have an impact on the Penn State School of Visual Arts and its students in the years to come. by Laura Mecklenburger, MFA Candidate in Ceramics