Jane Dunnewold Part 2: Scavenger hunt
Jane Dunnewold is a professional artist, teacher, and author of Art Cloth: A Guide to Surface Design on Fabric (Interweave 2010) and several other self-published books. She teaches and lectures internationally, and maintains Jane Dunnewold Studios in San Antonio, Texas. Her breathtaking designs have been exhibited worldwide.
In part one of this 3-part interview, Jane told us about how her early life had influenced her creative journey. In this, the second part, she moves on to talk to us about her chosen techniques and her process from conception to conclusion.
A wise woman knows her limitations
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
Many textile enthusiasts dip into everything – it’s all so gorgeous and exciting. I realized I needed to be GOOD at something, rather than a Jane of All Trades. I’ve never gotten any better at sewing than I was in Michael James’ class – in fact I avoid sewing when I can. It’s a wise woman who knows her limitations. What I found I loved was surface design – screen printing, dyeing, textile paints, lamination – all of it exciting and useful. My chosen techniques have been gathered, refined, and are now a full toolbox I can call on at will.
How do you use these techniques in conjunction with cloth?
While I have a large respect for the cloth, I am also interested in challenging the notion of what it can do. My older work focussed on the concept that woke me up one night in 1994 – that of complex cloth – layering processes that had, up to that point as far as I knew, been used in isolation from the others. Stamping was one process, dyeing another, stenciling, screening, etc – Why couldn’t they be combined on one surface – to expand the potential for what cloth could be? I was aware of block printing, and weaving programs at places like Black Mountain and Penland. But I wasn’t aware of anyone producing cloth that didn’t need to be functional. Cloth that could represent (and present) a series of complex visual relationships. That could actually be Art Cloth – cloth created as art work in its own right.
And, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by Art Cloth?
Complex Cloth captured my imagination, entertained and satisfied me. The book had many enthusiasts, as did the concept. It was exciting to see what I could do with the materials and processes. It was equally exciting to see what others could do. I’ve produced at least 1000 lengths over the course of my career and learned an incredible amount about color and composition and tools, by working with multiples layers on the surface of the cloth.
But two odd things happened. First, everyone began to associate this style with me and I felt trapped by it. Maybe I didn’t want to be relegated to printing cloth lengths the rest of my life. Maybe I wanted to jump ship.
And another odd phenomenon occurred. People seemed to think there was only one way to make complex cloth – my way. Funny that as humans, we have this need to relate what we do so specifically to others. The last thing I wanted, as an ethical, engaged teacher, was to produce a lot of copycat students!
My friend, Marie-Therese Wisniowski, sorted it for me during a teaching trip to Australia. She pointed out that there were many forms of textiles/art that could be called Art Cloth. This term not only transcended the simpler term, complex cloth, it embraced the range of what artists were seeking to do with their textiles. So it was really she who coined the term. I picked up on it because it was definitely broader, and allowed students and other artist colleagues to have some breathing space beyond the narrow term borrowed from my book.
Bringing down the barricades
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I have mixed feelings about some of the contemporary art being created, (Don’t we all have opinions?) but I am certainly not traditional, so I guess “contemporary” is a term that works.
I am mindful of not wanting to inhabit a “fiber ghetto” – which is a mindset, as much as is the reality of being pitched to the curb by the larger art world. There’s progress being made in this area – fueled by exciting younger artists who aren’t snots about materials used. They choose materials based on what they need. It’s all about the end goal. It’s very refreshing and hopeful.
I refer to myself as a mixed media/textile artist and I make it a point to enter mixed media exhibitions in addition to the textile exhibitions where my work is shown. Part of the intention of this is probably related to the role I play as an educator and guide for others. The sooner some of the barricades come down, the better.
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I’m not a sketcher, but I do use writing to help organize my thoughts. I think of it cross training – not unlike what athletes do. First they work on aerobic exercise and then they work on strength training. As an artist I have benefited greatly from using writing to figure out ideas, harness free association thoughts and plan how a series will evolve. I encourage students to use writing this way, and everyone who tries it, benefits.
We have an ingrained fear of writing, I think. Perhaps because too many teenage journals were read without permission, so we connect writing with being exposed or even ridiculed. But if we can get past that fear and realise this isn’t necessarily emotional stuff we’re writing about, and see it instead as a strategy that can greatly assist the creative process, then it’s possible to gain a great deal from going back and forth from making to writing; writing to making etc. I highly recommend it.
Writing to release
Tell us about your process from conception to conclusion.
I begin by noticing something that intrigues or engages me. It might be something as simple as noticing that when birds sit on telephone lines, they automatically reposition into equal distances from each other when a new bird lands on the line. Noticing this led to wondering about how humans handle boundaries, as opposed to how boundaries exist in the natural world.
When I get an idea, I write about it – sometimes in paragraph style but more often by using written free association to uncover other, related ideas (content) and imagery. Some words in an exercise like this are automatically visual – others require more thought.
Both lead me to seek images and then to analyze symbolic color – a scavenger hunt, if you will – looking for additional elements that might somehow work themselves into the series I am planning.
Eventually it’s tool making time, and because I am a surface designer I use screens, hand painting, needle felting, dyes, embroidery, paper lamination – usually a combination of numerous processes – each added or driven by the role it can play in moving my visual story forward.
I proceed in what is ideally a dance – adding imagery or color, evaluating, stepping back and waiting until I am sure of the next addition. Sometimes I know and often I don’t. If I’ve learned anything in my life as an artist it’s not to rush through. Wait patiently until the most elegant solution presents itself. Then there is no regret.
What environment do you like to work in?
I love my home studio, where I teach several times a year, but where I can be completely alone, quiet and focussed, when classes are not in session.
Have you ever used writing in preparation for visual work? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you!