UNT dye garden’s first harvest yields early success

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David Minton/DRC
“Notty Nest,” a sculpture at the University of North Texas natural dye garden, uses pieces recycled from a previous installation by Greenmeme, a California-based group of artists.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second story 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 at the university and the imagination of fine arts students. The Aug. 20 story, “Make the Rainbow,” is online at http://bit.ly/13i5ye5.

It looked simple enough. Visitors and students dipped a folded bundle of fabric into a white bucket of deep blue dye.

With each dip, the college students who started a natural dye garden on campus saw their project come closer to fruition.

The University of North Texas College of Visual Arts and Design students — all of them studying fiber arts — cultivated plants in a modest plot of soil to the west of Bain Hall this fall. The plants were the first part of what students say they hope will be years of homegrown art.

The natural dye garden was started by student artists who found support through a university fund that specifically serves “green” initiatives. The projects are designed to promote material and environmental sustainability.

Art students Sarah Westrup, a graduate student, and Morgan Kuster, a senior, are two of the students who have been part of the garden since its conception.

Kuster was introduced to natural dye in a workshop taught by Sasha Duerr, a San Francisco fiber artist and the founder of the Permacouture Institute.

“I was completely enthralled with the process,” Kuster said. “We picked dandelion heads to create our own dye. We walked around campus and brought things to the workshop to use.

“The simplicity of getting pigments from things I had in my kitchen, like avocado pits and cinnamon, was like opening up a whole new creative world for me.”

Westrup joined the project last summer before starting her graduate degree. She helped to dye color swatches for the garden’s “dye map” and helped create color signs for the garden and the groundbreaking ceremony demonstrations — such as the dye-dipping buckets.

“Many people have forgotten that the earth provides pigments and dyes naturally, and do not realize that it is a very resourceful way to obtain color on cloth,” Westrup said. “You can use many plants from your garden, grocery store or compost bin to dye with.”

Kuster said a UNT degree in fiber arts is “process-oriented,” meaning that students are as intentional about how they create art as they are about why they make art.

“All of the plants — and there are black-eyed Susan, bluebonnets and other plants — are plants that are native or that do well in Texas,” Kuster said. “The idea for this project is that it is a sustainable one. We don’t want to bring in plants that will take all kinds of work and resources to keep alive. I mean, this is going to be trial and error to some extent with the plants. We’ll find out what grows well and what we should avoid planting in the garden.”

Westrup said sustainability has an indirect relationship with her art.

“My work is about the concept of place and culture rather than about sustainability,” she said. “I am most interested in natural dyes’ conceptual relationship to the plant and the form they originate from.”

Westrup said that in past work, she’s used natural materials native to South Texas, where her family is from. Black beans, avocado pits, prickly pear cactus and hibiscus flowers have inspired her color palette.

Now, Westrup said, she’s exploring dyes artists have used for centuries because of their beauty and their resistance to fading. She’s using red dyes from insects that feed on cacti, indigo and yellows from weld plants.

“I’m starting a weaving that is completely hand-dyed with natural dyes,” Westrup said. “The piece is dyed with turmeric and Osage orange wood chips, and will be an experiment measuring the lightfastness of the dyes.”

The more lightfast a dye is, the longer it will keep its color even in direct light — especially sunlight. Turmeric dyes fade faster than Osage orange, Westrup said.

“The piece is very process-oriented and is very much focused on the concept of time and deterioration,” she said.

Duerr, the artist who inspired the founders of the campus garden, said she was drawn to natural dyes because of the beauty of the colors.

“Plant-based dyes offer colors that are unusual, varied and vibrant,” Duerr said. “Natural dyes harmonize with each other in a way that only botanical colors can. For example, a natural red dye will include hints of blue and yellow, whereas a chemically produced red dye contains only a single red pigment, making the color less complex.”

Put practically, Duerr means that natural dyes can help fiber artists use color in a more painterly way.

To be an artist is also to be an amateur sociologist.

“As an artist first, I am always drawn to experimenting with new nontoxic plant-based colors,” Duerr said. “Nurturing a creative connection between nature and culture is just as important as using healthier, more renewable resources.”

That’s not to say that plant-based dyes are all “safe.” Duerr has learned that a lot of natural dyes have harmful or toxic ingredients in them. Part of her teaching includes training new natural dye users to choose and cultivate plants carefully.

Lesli Robertson, a fiber artist and lecturer in the UNT studio program, said the opening ceremony for the dye garden was a chance to collaborate with Greenmeme, a collective of artists who make sustainable, ecologically focused art that ranges in scale and usually responds to or elaborates on the environments where the art is installed.

Greenmeme, anchored by artists Freya Bardell and Brian Howe, took pieces from an installation they were taking down in Long Beach, Calif., and integrated them into art that would be in the Denton dye garden.

“They had part of that piece that looks like lace or netting, and they thought they could use the lace in this piece,” Robertson said. “They worked to reconceive it in the garden.”

Greenmeme wasn’t the only nationally known art group that got involved, either. Make Art with Purpose, called MAP for short, joined the project.

Founder Janeil Englestad, the founding director of Make Art with Purpose, brainstormed how UNT student and faculty artists could get involved with the drive to make art that invites community involvement and art that reflects community values.

By the time the garden hosted its opening reception, Greenmeme and Make Art with Purpose had worked with the UNT students to create interactive forms and seating areas in the garden.

“It wasn’t finished when the garden opened,” Robertson said. “But when we sat down and talked, we decided that the pieces Greenmeme brought would be used in our ‘Topics in Fibers’ class next year. The students will finish these out.”

The plans for the garden haven’t included direct community involvement yet, but Robertson said the founders of the garden are already teaching natural dye workshops for younger students.

“This is their project,” she said. “The students are going to see to it that future students will keep the garden going. That’s actually one of the reasons I thought the idea was worthwhile.”

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


A small group of students — Analise Minjarez, Morgan Kuster, Abby Sherrill and Sarah Westrup — researched the project that became the University of North Texas Natural Dye Garden. The group first pitched the idea of a dye garden and rain catchment system to the We Mean Green Fund, which granted $25,000 to open the garden on campus. (The rain catchment project was later dropped from the proposal.)

The We Mean Green fund is administered by the UNT Office of Sustainability and was established in 2009. The fund collects $5 from each student during the fall and spring semesters. The sustainability office started funding projects in 2011.

— Lucinda Breeding

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