Make the rainbow

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The fruit of white walnut trees, commonly known as butternuts, have been used to make dye for hundreds of years. The butternut was used to make the dark gray color used in the uniforms of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The dye is the reason Confederate soldiers were sometimes called “butternuts.”
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Ingenuity, green fund plant seed for UNT dye garden

Editor’s note: This is the first in a planned series about a visual arts project at the University of North Texas College of Visual Arts and Design. The natural dye garden is the result of a student-supported fund and the imagination of fine arts students.

 

If the sun shines, if there are favorable rain and soil conditions in the new school year, college art students will make a rainbow of dyes.

The University of North Texas plans to open a natural dye garden in October.

After the garden opens, art students will use the plants to make organic dye. Then, they’ll use the dye to color fabric, or to print designs and patterns on fabric.

“The proposal came out of a workshop,” said Lesli Robertson, a senior lecturer in the fibers division in the College of Visual Arts and Design.

Artist Sasha Duerr visited the campus last year to lead a natural dye workshop.

“There was so much excitement on the part of the students during that workshop,” Robertson said. “They were excited to learn this new process, and they were excited about its sustainability.”

Someone brought up the university’s recently established We Mean Green Fund, and students decided to draw up a proposal for the dye garden.

“They were gung-ho,” Robertson said.

A small group of students — Analise Minjarez, Morgan Kuster, Abby Sherrill and Sarah Westrup — researched the project and first pitched a dye garden and a rain catchment system.

The fund is administered by the UNT Office of Sustainability, established in 2009 after UNT signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. The sustainability office hopes to be a leader in environmental, economic and social sustainability.

Lauren Helixon, assistant director of campus sustainability, said the office serves its mission through research, outreach, operations and teaching. It works with faculty and staff, students and the community.

The We Mean Green Fund fund collects $5 from each student during the fall and spring semester. The office started administering funds in 2011.

“We prefer to use the money for projects spearheaded by faculty or students,” Helixon said. “We ask that the students or faculty do some research. We want the proposals to come through, and we like for them to be more developed.”

The dye garden fit the bill. The students proposed to put the garden between the UNT Coliseum and Bain Hall. Robertson said the students plan to pass what they learn down to younger students in the college.

“We really talked about the fact that they have to work on this and think about how the dye garden will keep going,” she said. “It's their responsibility to find people who will work in the garden next. They’re talking about starting classes that will teach students how to keep up the dye garden.

“Giving them responsibility and letting them know that this isn’t a project that lasts for just four weeks or a semester has been a big part of the discussion.”

Robertson said the dye garden is bigger than its alignment with the university’s devotion to sustainability.

“We’re trying to make what we’re doing in the fibers program relevant to what is going on in the art world,” she said. “That’s not to say that everyone in the art world or everyone in the fibers world is doing this. But there is a movement of artists who are interested in using organic methods for a number of reasons.”

Robertson said an engaged teacher notices when students are enthusiastic.

“This is partly about getting students excited about artwork and excited about discovery. And this ties into current trends in textiles, and into trial and error,” she said.

Helixon said the young fund has strengthened the network between participating staff, faculty and students. The projects require a project manager, and most have needed help from the university’s facilities department. The dye garden will require art students and faculty to work with the facilities department to keep up the garden.

Helixon said the We Mean Green Fund has granted about $25,000 to open the garden. Robertson said the initial proposal included a rain catchment system to water the plants, but said they changed the project to concentrate on the garden first. Initially, the garden and catchment project came with a $60,000 price tag.

Helixon said the fund can open a lot of doors all over campus to test ideas and realize those that work.

“That’s a neat component about the green fund,” she said. “It can fund ideas that might never go anywhere, because there might never be money for them [otherwise]. The power of these projects is that they lead to innovation. We think there is endless opportunity for innovation.”

The dye garden is scheduled to open at 6 p.m. Oct 9. Greenmeme, an artist collective that installs site-specific public art that reflects its community and environment, will attend the event for an artist talk about a group-designed installation in the garden.

 

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.


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