Last Spring, I received a National Endowment for the Arts grant through The Deering Estate at Cutler under the leadership of assistant director Jennifer Tisthammer, exhibit specialist Kim Yantis and environmental mentor artist Lucinda Linderman. Through the grant I was offered an artist residency, studio space and access to the grounds filled with native trees, plants and flowers. My residency was not to continue the environmental artwork I was creating, but to observe the Estate, the grounds, Biscayne Bay, be inspired and come up with something new.
When I started my residency, I participate in all that I could at The Deering Estate from walking tours to kayaking to taking an acting class. Yes, I was very inspired and there were so many ways I could make art from what I experienced, but the one thing that I connected with most was the question I had for myself… If I lived in the time of the Tequesta Indians would I create art? If so, how would I create art and with what?
On one of the guided nature walks I took, the naturalist pointed out a tree on our walk. He said, "This is a Wild Lime Tree of which you can eat the pea sized limes. The Tequesta Indians used the Wild Lime Tree to make yellow dye." When I asked the naturalist how they made the dye, he didn't know. This began my search for how to make dye from native plants and started my project for my residency.
To begin I decided to test Wild Lime. My first hurdle was to get samples of the tree. I was not able to cut a branch off the Wild Lime that was on the nature walk because the land at Deering is protected. However, the naturalists at Deering were fabulous! I had full access to them and their knowledge. We got around the preservation issue by searching through the grounds for a fallen branch. Off we went on a wild golf cart ride searching through the Pinelands. Determined and with a bit of luck, we found one downed branch and got a sample! A bit old, but still worth trying.
Without any knowledge of how to make a dye trying to approach the project like a Tequesta Indian. I was so excited as I boiled the cut up branch. After soaking white cotton in the water for 30 minutes, unfortunatley yellow was not found in my dye bath. Instead, I got a light warm grey.
After my unsuccessful first attempt at dyeing, I went back to the naturalists. The naturalists at Deering have a classroom at The Deering Estate which keeps them really busy. They teach homeschool students science and they have groups of students that come for field trips almost every weekday. The naturalists take them out in the bay with nets where they scoop up sea life and discuss their findings and then release them back into the bay. The naturalist told me that they had worked with rouge berry successfully as a dye with the students and they showed me where I could pick a few to try.
Rouge Berries were a huge success! I tried boiling the berries and simply pressing the berries into fabric. After successfully pressing the berries into fabric producing a bright red-orange pigment, I then tried pressing different berries and flowers in fabric and paper to see what colors I could get.
While at my residency at The Deering Estate I was invited by curator, Lucinda Linderman to be part of an eco art exhibit with Sustainatopia at The Miami Beach Botanical Gardens with Cindy Brown, Executive Director. While exhibiting there, I noticed the staff trimming trees and plants often to keep the small property from getting too overgrown. Benoit Jonckeere, Horticulturist at The Miami Beach Botanical Gardens was extremely helpful and interested in my project. When I told him my unsuccessful story of not producing yellow from Wild Lime, he told be that it made sense that it would make yellow because the inside of the bark is yellow. WHAT??? I didn't know the inside was yellow because I was not permitted to cut a live green tree at Deering. Benoit, happily cut fresh branches from their Wild Lime Tree in their native section and gave them to me to test. Any yes, it makes a beautiful yellow dye, not a bright sun yellow that I was envisioning, but an ocher yellow.
My residency at The Deering Estate gave me a chance to explore plants for their artistic expression in color and as a fiber material for making rope and baskets. I learned that even though we see a specific color in a flower, leaf or bark it doesn't mean that it will produce the same color dye or that it will be colorfast. For example: I recently used Royal Poinciana Tree flowers (although non-native of which I have in abundance right now) and instead of producing a bright red the dye it turned into a beautiful taupe.
Even though my residency is finished at The Deering Estate, there is still so many plants I want to test for dyes. However, you can still see me at The Deering Estate for some events where I do workshops with guests of the Estate. Recently, I conducted a workshop on plant pigments and guests were invited to create seed bags by expressing flower pigments onto silk. They were then given Gaillardia seeds from my garden to take home and plant in theirs.
If you are interested in learning more about native plant dyes, please send me your email and I will keep you updated as to where and when I will have another workshop.