The smell of an indigo vat just as it begins fermenting and springs to life is one of ripeness. In this moment of rich potentiality I stand between the history of the materials and processes that enable me to create this dye from a handful of seeds and the promise of all the works that the dye vat is still yet to realize. The labor of small-scale indigo farming, the tasks of resisting and dyeing cloth, and my dyed and other artworks embrace and embody this unmediated state between the past and future, a state of immediacy I sense so strongly in the work of indigo.
I grow and process my own indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) using Japanese methods that are hundreds of years old. The leaves are harvested, dried, and composted by hand to make the traditional Japanese indigo dyestuff called sukumo. The sukumo is in turn fermented in wood-ash lye to reduce the indigo and make dyeing possible. My decision to work this way is one that consciously favors slower, natural processes and materials over quicker, synthetic options. Laboring to harvest and process local raw materials by hand, work once central to all textile production, has largely been eclipsed by the availability of industrially produced dyes.
In this light I see the small-scale, hand production of raw materials with a new criticality in which my labor imbues the materials with the histories of their immediate production as well as their greater historical associations. My own experiences with indigo – first as an apprentice in Japan followed by years of working with and learning from this historical dye – have made me aware of a connection that leads not just from my teachers to me, but one that reaches back to my teacher’s teachers and the people they learned from, back into a past in which the processes I use were developed through the accumulated experiences of all who have ever worked with this unique dye.
Over the past 14 years my use of historical Japanese resist and dyeing techniques has evolved to better give voice to various aspects inherent in my indigo process. Currently, to focus attention on this dye as a material, I use simple geometric shapes to create a contrast between the dyed and undyed areas of the cloth. The resisted shapes and their repetition reference fundamental elements of the natural world without the distraction of literal imagery. At the same time, these resists reveal the cloth that carries the dye and their symbiotic relationship: indigo coats and protects the fiber that carries the dye.
I also engage properties unique to indigo as a dye. Gradation captures the way in which this dye builds up on the fiber’s surface and becomes darker through successive immersions in the vat. Gradation also acts as a metaphor for the time inherent in the process both on an historical and personal level.
The noren partition and its function are also of particular interest to me. While historically and conventionally used in Japan to delineate exterior from interior spaces, I see the partitions I make as mediators of transition on a different level. After the cloth is resisted and prepared for dyeing, it is suspended on a framework above the indigo vats. In that moment before I lower the cloth into the dye, I too feel suspended between the dye’s history and the future life of the work that will be drawn from the vat. To me, my dyed partitions occupy a similar space of transition. While able to function as actual partitions, they are also screens that articulate each specific moment as they capture and filter a space’s shifting light and air, bringing life and movement to the cloth and reflecting in their presence the transitory nature of our experience.
The opacity and transparency created through the resisted and dyed portions of the cloth also function to mediate our visual experience of spatial transition. The resisted areas reflect light back at us, limiting our view of the other side, while the darkly dyed areas actually draw light through the cloth to give us a clear picture of what lies beyond.
I find great value in this connection indigo provides to greater human traditions of living and making. Of equal value to me is the time and energy I invest in the farming, processing, and fermenting of this dye. As a dyer I strive to transfigure all the energy of human endeavor expended on this dye so that its vitality lends its life to and lives on in the dyed cloth.
Rowland Ricketts is an Assistant Professor at Indiana University’s Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Art. He trained in indigo farming and dyeing in Japan and received his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. More of his work can be seen at www.rickettsindigo.com