This project weekend was a wonderful way to see the potential that these workshop events at the Smiths Storefront can have. We began the first day by diving directly into the process of indigo dying. The vat of indigo was prepared ahead of time and was waiting, warm and alive with a dark, dense, oily surface. The dying process is one that cannot be rushed, and life of the vat and quality of the dye benefits from cooperation. The oily film needs to be parted, exposing a surprising nuclear green liquid below. Once the item is fully submerged, great care is taken to ensure little or no air bubbles escape into the indigo. Indigo, unlike synthetic dyes, is done through a natural fermentation process, this process relies on a form of “reduction” meaning it is necessary not to introduce oxygen into the process until it is removed from the vat. The Item is “massaged” underneath the surface of the indigo ensuring that the entire surface has been in sufficient contact with the live agents of the indigo. A few minutes was enough time to allow the indigo to penetrate the fibers of the fabric, although in a workshop vat like the one that we were using, all of us beginners, it was inevitable that some air was introduced therefore lowering the potency and hence requiring some more time in the vat. Again, care was taken to part the oily surface on the removal of the item being dyed. This is the real magical moment of indigo dying. The item emerges from the vat a bright neon green color, and as it has been “reducing” in the vat, the exposure to air quickly “oxidizes” with exposure to the air in the room. This oxidation takes only a minute or so and we were able to see the fruits of our effort and care. The room quickly filled with items of all sorts, from shirts to books and all fibrous materials in between, all a beautiful rich indigo color.
With the room filled with shades of indigo clothing drying on lines, and our noses burning with the urine smell that powers the vat, we sat and together and talked about the process. For many of us, this was the first time we had experienced indigo dying and therefore we were drawing comparisons with other processes. For me, the process of reduction and oxidation provided a link to the ceramic process. Removing the item from the vat and seeing the result felt as familiar as opening a kiln after a firing.
On the second day of the workshop we opened the doors to the public. This day was the most inspiring. After the potential of the dye had been revealed to us, the potential of using indigo to create community became apparent. We, after only one day of instruction and participation, were now teaching the public how to use and carefully maintain the vat. We witnessed not only the strength of the indigo in its ability to breath new life into fabric, but its strength in bringing people together around a craft.
This weekend provided an amazing look into the life and work of artist Mark Thompson. Now a 40 year beekeeper, Mark’s practice has involved bees throughout in some very interesting and inspiring ways. Together in conversation with J. Morgan Puett he discussed his various projects with an honesty and candidness that demonstrated his love and respect for the life of the honeybee. The guests to the storefront were then treated to the west coast premiere of his 30 minute film “Immersion” in which Thompson’s head is entirely covered with bees. The discussion following was dynamic and by request of the artist critiqued both the physical and social aspects of the work.
The letterpress event found us at M&H Foundry and Arion Press. The foundry, located in the Preisidio in San Francisco, is the oldest and largest type foundry in the United States. This is really a remarkable place! To enter the foundry you must first walk down a long hallway lined with shelves filled top to bottom with boxes of type in stock or ready to be shipped out. This gave us a sense of the production scale of this place. the foundry itself consisted of about 12 or so stations and although none of the stations were running, a worker ran us through the process. After a tour of the press itself and the bookmaking department, we moved on to the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley where artist and fellow CCA graduate student Nicholas Hurd guided us through setting our own type for a broadside to be used at the storefront. We comprised a list of makers; shopkeeper, tailor, homemaker etc, and then began to set the type. Nicholas helped us place the type on the press and prepare the ink and the paper. Once everything was set up, the printing went quite quickly on the Vandercook Press. For those of us who have never used a press like this, the experience was very satisfying.
For this response, I would like to offer a brief description of my work which was included in the exhibition “Super Pop-Up Shop” at the Alameda Towne Centere which along with a tour of Heath Ceramics was part of our workshop weekend. I slip-cast over 500 porcelain cups made from a mold of an aluminum can of food. These cups were lined up in 16 rows of 32 on a freestanding wall in the gallery space. Visitors were asked to bring in a can of food to donate and in return were presented with a gift of one of the cups. All of the food generated was donated to the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland. Cans donated by the public replaced one of the ceramic cups on the wall, allowing the visual component of the work to evolve over the course of the exhibition, and I spoke to each and every participant asking them to use the cup as a reminder of this act of generosity on both of our parts. This work encourages us to look upon each and every member of our community as someone with whom which we have an opportunity to interact openly and honestly. I have made a concerted effort to use generosity to locate this interaction.