Hearing the Closet: Archival Interventions with Costume + Textiles Collections – Holly Gaboriault, MA Global Arts + Cultures 2021
Central to understanding identities of people, their behaviors, and lived experiences are the material objects created and consumed. Long after they are placed upon a hanger or shelf, objects, clothing, and textiles continue to operate as expressions and historical markers exploring the power of place through cultural production, civic actions, communities, and their landscapes. In the discourse of looking and making, the politics of accumulated differences, disjunctions and dislocations centralize objects in social, cultural, economic, nationalistic, and historical entanglements.
In the past decade, the field of material history has emerged as one of the most urgent areas of research and pedagogy in the art and design world. Related to my previous studies and research of global history, culture, and design influence, the themes and subjects I examine are viewed through the lens of history, geography, and textural social integration seeking better practices for connecting concepts and critical thinking. My recent investigations surround methodology for object-based textile references used by both historical and contemporary textile and apparel designers exploring the boundaries of translation, cultural oversights, and historical misappropriation.
Material histories serve as dynamic vehicles to activate systems, values, cultural identities, and the dialectical relationship between the maker and the medium. During Winter 2020, I conducted a case study of the biennial juried exhibition projects Designing Traditions: Student Explorations in the Asian Textile Collection 2008-2018 within the Costume and Textiles Collections at the RISD Museum of Art. I hoped to continue this research working in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Textile Collection putting aesthetic qualities of an object in dialogue with the colonial, racial, and environmental histories surrounding it.
Prior to COVID-19, my initial concept for this fellowship coincided with the women’s suffrage centennial, to work with the Rhode Island Historical Society researching their multimedia archive, including film, documents, and textiles to connect diverse stories of women who pioneered civic and cultural leadership in early Rhode Island history. This project extended that directive by composing a unique narrative using research and film to write and produce an original work for Rhode Islanders and beyond featuring the legacy of women who dedicated themselves to the fight for women’s equality and independence. Combined with scholarship and historical backstory, I intended to learn how people can better connect and engage with Rhode Island stories on a national and global level to produce a multi-phonic platform illustrating how people contribute to a place and how they shape it.
When I realized gaining access would be an unknown factor of proportions I could not have anticipated, I pivoted with a second idea to create a series of vignettes highlighting selections from RIHS collection of textiles, objects, and furniture exploring a profusion of multiple narratives existent within a singular object. By implementing an integrative framework for questioning interdisciplinary experts, scholars, and researchers, each theme is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather as capsules of curiosity providing opportunity for beginning future research and unpacking its history from different perspectives. Aligning with RIHS’s mission to teach people how to think historically, my intentions were for this project to give voice to objects, their hidden lives, and the lives of those who made them and used them. However, operating in and around this pandemic would NOT be easy.
The RIHS does not collect items, but rather “actively acquires” in a considered fashion. These collections include some 25,000 objects, 5,000 manuscripts, 100,000 books and printed items, 400,000 photographs and maps, and 9 million feet of motion-picture film. Approximately 7,800 objects reside in the RIHS Textiles collection, spanning the 1670’s through 2005, encapsulating domestic: including samplers, carpets, quilts; costumes worn on the human body and accessories: including fans, purses, hair combs, jewelry. Using material culture, object-based research provides opportunity to examine complex and shifting historical relationships with objects and how they transform over time, readdress exclusions, and allow a diversity of ethical perspectives to perform a reparative intervention. But what is evidence – or perhaps – what is a life lived for an object or textile? Frayed edges, the worn wood from human touch, a party stain from a drink spilled on a dress, sweat stains on the interior lining of a suit, the scent that lingers on fabric from a person or place, repeated mendings of the well-worn, and hasty repairs done by the novice hand – each ascribing social information to their individual narratives.
Many, if not all, of the subjects and items I searched for on the RIHS NETworked Online Public catalog (its NETOP database) did not have photographs – an obstacle I first encountered researching the RIHS material histories in attempts to select items to film for the project. As a design researcher, you HAVE to be able to see objects to find visual clues. I proceeded to initiate concurrent dialogues with C. Morgan Grefe, Executive Director, and Dana Signe K. Munroe, Registrar and residing digital overseer for the RI COVID-19 Archive. Her knowledge of the RIHS costume and textiles collection was unparalleled as a result of her long tenure at RIHS, coupled by her knowledge of textile conservation and passion for making. Dana and I set out on a journey to try to explore what we could within extremely tight time and COVID-19 restrictions. I was unable to enter RIHS property and continued to conduct extensive research through books and databases, including the Guide to Manuscripts at the Rhode Island Historical Society Relating to People of Color and possible inter-institutional knowledge from the RISD Museum online collection.
ABSENCE motivates my research. Reframing concepts of inclusion and absence, diversity and the tangible manifestations of the presence of women, especially within diverse communities and public life, sharpen my curiosity for such interdisciplinary connections. The mission of the RIHS is to tell compelling stories about the events and people of Rhode Island within their museums, programming, and archives. And the importance for featuring the stories of women from migrant and marginalized communities will testify to moments that resonate today. Aligning with RIHS’s desire to create tools aligned with their mission and ongoing dialogical interpretation, I was focused on a different way of viewing Rhode Island history and teasing out potential narrative ‘threads’ hidden within a textile or object, primarily examining the people and moments that shaped these items and their context.
Through a mixture of Zoom meetings and emails with Dana and Morgan from mid to late summer, my list narrowed to a selection of possibilities to explore: independent dressmakers and female entrepreneurship through tailoring; black seamstresses, tailors, millinery, haberdashery businesses; industrial objects designed by women; objects belonging to female athletes and/or athletic objects/garments made by women; objects / garments attributed to female writers/journalists; and items displaying cultural appropriation and/or cultural attribution from global trade (such as the Orientalist influence from the late 19th and items obtained from the China Trade). Eventually, with health safety regulations permitting, I was finally able to schedule a handful of visits over the course of late-July and August to see these items housed at the John Brown House Museum. Once I curated a small selection of objects and textiles, I could then begin to craft individualized narratives and plan filming.
For those unfamiliar with Rhode Island, its prosperity and commerce comprised of waterways and ports which proliferated the Industrial Revolution, global trade, and transatlantic slavery. Wealth and privilege was predominantly white, as were ideals and Westernized concepts of preservation and historical importance. This becomes a tricky proposition in the historical paradox of which objects and stories get saved, and those that do not. Located at 52 Power Street, on the edges of Brown University, just a few blocks from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the John Brown House Museum is noted as the first mansion constructed in Providence, Rhode Island circa 1786-88. John Brown, its original owner, was an early benefactor of Brown University, a merchant, statesman, and slave trader. Consequences such as these tangle the fibers of what manufactured America into a leading world figure and expansive agent of power. And yet aside from these truths of affluence families of industry, the RIHS staff works continuously to tell the stories of those who overcame enslavement, prejudice, exploitation, including women who exceeded the limitations of their gender and predetermined expectations. My hope was to find more of these women’s stories and interconnect them.
On a staff-guided walk-through, I make note of objects that seem both domestic and curiously designed. When I walk into the textile storage, the rooms are darkened by dark-colored shutters and the light cast shadows from two mannequins dressed in widow’s mourning outfits. Stacked on one side are flat file drawers, garments peak out from tightly packed closets and archival boxes tower up to the ceiling. Not sure of what era or even what I am looking at, I catch glimpses of faded, the tattered hems, ruffles of brown velvet, slices of bright purple satin, tassels, white feathers, woolen weaves, printed cotton patterns, and yes – more ruffles. It is a balance of asking to see what immediately catches my eye and viewing what Dana produces from our research conversations. Some items have little information attached to them; some are a complete mystery. Several items will come as a surprise; most will be just the beginning of a much larger story to tell.
One of the major issues that I kept gravitating towards, this summer was the ugly situation of the trucking industry in India. Most truckers are men with little or no education- they can barely read signs in their own language, and often think of bribes as just a way of life. This is an incredibly complex issue that ought to be addressed from multiple perspectives. It is an issue that concerns a small group that is treated wrong, but it contributes to general public health issues. Truckers operate with very little and entirely too uncomfortable sleep- as they are perpetually under the danger of being robbed. If robbed, their employers blame them for any lost goods. They have neither respect nor dignity in their jobs which take up most of their life. My work in the future will be looking to address this.
As of my fellowship, it was interesting space of in betweens. I was both a part of the team, yet not. Being a designer in the NGO with 2 main teams- 1. Policy and Research and 2. Training, was mildly confusing for me at times. It was sometimes hard to keep track of my own work. I certainly developed a language for communicating with non-design persona. Besides that I gained a realistic understanding of what policy work involves in India. There is a lot at stake for everyone involved and everybody has their own agendas- even amongst the groups with the same goals, their approaches and philosophies create clashes that create negative work. Working in the policy arena is an interesting, yet complex experience. I had my first taste and now I look forward to delving in further in the future, with more experience in the design field too.
Road safety isn’t an issue that people are overly concerned with. To remain optimistic, we choose to believe the bad things don’t happen to us. It is better that way to an extent. We do not want ourselves to be overly paranoid and avoid ever driving et cetera. When one thinks of the lack of road safety in India, gruesome details of hurt people on the road and burnt broken vehicles on the road come to mind. India as a country isn’t censored in the morbid or the gruesome. We see our chickens skinned and hung up outside butcher stores in plain view. We have all seen the gruesome remains of accidents too. Most of us have in some way been touched by these accidents- either by being hurt ourselves, or having our loved ones in close encounters with death and worse.
The biggest challenge that road safety spearheaders in policy face is one of public solidarity. How does one appeal to a crowd for support, when the said crowd would rather not dwell on what isn’t working? As an artist and a designer, I choose to work with narratives. But how does one create a narrative about something naturally pain inducing, and somehow induce hope in the audience? If the end result of the narrative isn’t some sort of hope, there is no real way to lull people into action.
Politicians are seriously daunted by the case that any action taken can make for or against their positions in each situation. When most of your voters aren’t interested in road safety, they won’t be very understanding if you take it up as your main fighting point in the parliament.
More than anything, this fellowship lead me to more informed questions on how to influence policy. The people I worked with this summer, are in a constant flux of gathering information, analysing it and representing it in ways that make their cause seem important to different power players. They are trying to make road safety seem like a non-politiciized issue- as politics in India are heavily leaning towards being identity politics and if a public safety issue like road safety got caught in it, we would never move forward. It has to somehow carry appeal as a nationally unified problem.
I was rather deeply hurt by one of the recent incidents. One of India’s retired famous actor-turned politician, got into a road traffic accident. It was the fault of her driver and herself, but they were well protected in their luxury car with airbags et cetera. She was nicked on her entertainment system due to her neglect in wearing a seatbelt. The flip-side of this was another not so luxurious car that got caught in this accident. The family in the car lost a child due to sheer neglect. The actor got all the care she needed and more- a lot of pity from the media and love from her fans. The girl did not get checked on by the said actor or the police officer that was more inclined on lending a shoulder to lean to the actor. The country is entrenched with ideas of of one life being more important than another. It has been rather hard to remain optimistic and I admire this organisation for keeping on with the cause despite receiving heartbreaking news everyday. I hope to start making short illustrations of hope in the world of road safety to join them.
In memory of a child lost to neglect.
I must first and foremost apologize for how long it has been since our last post! It has been a little over a month since Lyza and I have returned from our summer abroad in the Philippines, and I have finally been able to process all that we’ve seen and done this summer!
Our final few weeks in the Philippines were, as expected, rather emotional. In between our monofilament woven fabric not being sewable, flash storms dictating our work schedules, and emotional goodbyes, our final weeks felt like they were moving far more rapidly than those prior.
To quickly sum up what happened those final weeks, it must be known that thick monofilament and raffia woven fabrics will not sew!! Our initial plans to work with this fabric, to create a textile directly reflective of the community’s marine-based economic past and raffia-based current situation, proved futile when our handiwork began to fall apart in our hands as we tried to sew this fabric.
Very quickly we had to make decisions and begin new operations. These fabrics would have to remain as purely decorative; they would become scarecrows or wall-hangings. We then decided to collaborate with a local crab trap weaver to develop crab trap and fishing net bags. What began as a few rough sketches to Pandan’s local crap trap maker, Dodong, eventually became a system. We would talk to Dodong about our ideas for the bags, and he would be ready with them the next day. Particularly exciting was when Dodong began presenting us with his own designs, or with bags embellished with coconut husk beads his wife had made. To see this creative spark in him, that in itself was encouragement enough.
All the while during this emotional time, Lyza and I were scrambling to get our diary entries sorted in time to print the book we were working on, “Dye Trying”.
An excerpt from the book:
“wed aug 12 emotional goodbyes
It is our last day in Bohol and we are leaving the loom weavers the same way we came, with meryenda; we are having pancit.
The first goodbye we had to say was to our island staff and boat crew. With a heavy heart we said goodbye to Neneng, Rose, Genaro, Ompong, Botyok, and Metring, and boarded the boat to head toward to Tubigon for the last time.
Upon arriving at the loomweavers co-op where we were greeted by Trina and presented a card of thanks from the co-op. We had our pancit and had to say goodbye to the co-op and those such as Victor, Peter, Ronillo, Stephen, Don-Don, Misael, Amay, Ruth, Carmel, Erning, and Fidel, who had helped us so much.”
Our nine weeks were not nearly enough time. Although our initial plan went awry, it was our second plan, of working with Dodong, that made our initial goals, of connecting with both the fishing community and weaving community a success.
We leave the loomweavers co-op with 10 scarecrows, two wall hangings, 7 backpack prototypes, and the hope that they will continue to explore the ideas we have only begun to explore.
We are not sure whether or not the co-op will decide to further pursue the idea of the fishing net and raffia bags, but we can only plant the seed and hope that it the preparation that went into it will be enough for it to germinate and grow.
The talented and sharp minded people we were fortunate enough to work with in Pandan and Tubigon have us leaving feeling positive. We hope to return to Pandan in a year or so and seeing the fishing net bags worn by the community.
Since returning to the states, Lyza and I have exhibited a book featuring dye recipes, diary entires, and observations published by Hardworking Goodlooking, and exhibited at the New York Art Book Fair at MOMA PS1.
I think I’ve reached a point where it’s going to be hard to tear myself away from my work here. I’ve fallen head over heels for this valley, from peak to plover. However some of my efforts have fallen short of my own expectations. That’s okay though, I don’t necessarily want to be finished here. I’ve found that during the busiest season for the park, it’s extremely difficult to network effectively with the workload the Park rangers have been experiencing. While searching for solutions and testing ideas within the park boundaries, beyond the boundaries are natural systems and cultures that have really baffled me in ways I hadn’t quite expected. I found myself working independently as it seems as though there has been a significant rise in the number of people who came to visit the park this year and the park staff has been scrambling to accommodate everybody. It seems most folks have been limited to the small radius surrounding the Dune access parking lot for a day visit and will see little else. I think that’s too bad because there’s so much beautiful land here hiding in plain sight. One challenge that has even proved difficult for me to overcome had been making in to the trailhead to access Medano Lake, which, as I see it is one of the most important features of the park. The trouble was that about halfway up the road to get there, you have next to no chance of making it without a high clearance vehicle. To make matters more difficult, due to all the rain this year, much of the higher portions of the road had been washed out so even rangers were hesitant to head up there. The only people who ventured up there this season was anyone willing to embark on an 18 mile round trip hike or anyone with an absurdly large jeep. However, even taking the time to hike a little ways off trail often times leads you towards otherwise hidden discoveries. I myself found a total of 6 Mountain Lion caches, most of which I found far off trail. Some discoveries had been hiding in plain sight. Miner’s cabins and homesteads are not an uncommon sight in the park. Many have been washed away in years past but there are still a few like the Wellington Homestead, as well as a Cabin perched up near Ptarmigan peak, a false summit just up the mountain from the Visitor’s center. Rangers, often won’t tell you about these locations as it can be dangerous to enter these structures, and the fewer people that go there, the fewer that will be compelled to have a look inside. I attempted scans of one of these locations and found that there need to be extremely predictable conditions to take the scans so many attempts were unsuccessful. However, after reviewing the scans with the Park staff learned of some mapping projects that had taken place at another location in the area using LiDar technology.
I’ve found sort of an observation post in my hourly position at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis that I’ve taken in exchange for a free campsite and supplies in a project that I had expected to be largely solitary outside the Park Visitor’s Center. In the few hours that I work, I meet people visiting, and people who have lived in the Valley their whole life. Some of the most interesting people I’ve met call the Valley their home. Firstly, Patti the owner of the Oasis, is quite possibly one of the most welcoming people I’ve met since being here. In many ways she’s treated me the way a concerned mother might treat a stubborn runaway mutt. That is with patience, employee priced un-canned food, and a lovely clearing in the mountain piñons to pee all over. Though I might find that the actual store mutt Bella, the half-husky half-coyote pup who has been playing the role of greeter outside the store for almost 15 years now, views Patti’s kindness as just part of her regular rhythms. As far as I understand it Bella started showing up 15 years ago, and after some conversely purebred suspicion, eventually she let Patti rub her belly and has showed up at 7:00 AM every morning since. No-one is quite sure what she does at night, but she’s always ready for work in the morning.
My internship supervisor Ranger Chavez, has been welcoming but also honest. He told me that this year has been as busy as the park has every been, it has been as wet as it has every been and staff has been stretched as thin as it has ever been. Ranger Chavez has a warmth and has a balanced level of confidence that I admire in another person. He’s humble enough to be personable, but confident enough to draw the lines that need to be drawn in his line of work. Ranger Chavez is a law enforcement officer. One day I said something related to how some designers say that Architects know nothing about everything, and engineers know everything about nothing. He chuckled, and said,” You know I can relate to that, Park Rangers do a lot of different things, without getting really good at one thing in particular” Some mornings, Ranger Chavez would be down at the Dune Access lot directing traffic. Other days you might find him in the stables tending to the Horses. One day in particular, as I was meeting with him, he got a call over the radio that someone’s father had fainted back at the Sand Dunes Oasis, but their family had been dropped off at the dunes, and I guess we were a little outside of Uber’s jurisdiction or so to speak. Ranger Chavez looked over at me and said, “Okay, let’s take this discussion to the truck.” After locating the family, they hopped in his truck and were there in less than three minutes. I’d driven that stretch many times and had seen my fair share of mule deer crossings, so I was a bit jittery as the needle of his speedometer started flirting with one hundred miles per hour. Upon our arrival, Patti was rather surprised to see me stepping out of the truck as the ambulances and Sheriff’s Deputies started to pull up. After dropping off the family, Ranger Chavez and I continued our discussion as he patrolled the camp grounds. He told me that my work had gotten the attention of the leadership team and that they wanted to hear what I had to say. In the end unfortunately, it seems that the leadership team was extremely busy, however I have been given the opportunity to write a report regarding my work here, my intensions, and in service of stating the case for 3D scanning in the National Parks.
In the park if a visitor finds something unusual that they think the park officials should know about, they’re encouraged to report it to the interpretive staff who will then submit the reports to Resource management. These inquiries are then given to the park Biologist who looks through and evaluates them and tries to find cases that might be of interest or concern. For instance there has been a disease moving through some of the elk herds in the valley and If I had come across elk fresh elk remains, they might be able to sample the remains and determine whether it had been killed by a predator or by the disease. If I could take an accurate scan of a site that might be of interest or concern and be able to show in more detail what it was that I saw, it might be easier for the biologist to evaluate whether or not they needed to investigate further.
Even now, Colorado State has been using LiDar scanners to be able to map the interiors or historical buildings in the valley among other places. Though these serve as digital maps, for me the interesting part comes when you think of it a machinable model and the implications for sculptural thinking regarding found objects. How do found objects function when direct historical and cultural references are a click away. Better yet, what happens when sculptures can be editioned, economically, conceptually, and technically? What if we got high resolution LiDar rigs in the hands of artists armed with point cloud protocols that would enable them to model anything? Artists could find themselves in direct conversation with a wide array experts at the top of their fields.
I was able to experiment in the field with my scanners. One site of interest to me was the Wellington Homestead. For starters it was accessible so it allowed me to time my visits precisely as weather moved in quickly and unexpectedly to be able to minimize the risk of damaging my most vital equipment. Some sites that I had visited were at a much higher elevation, and posed larger risks to my equipment. It also allowed me to visit more frequently. However I had to really avoid entering the structure, as upon my first attempt to scan the interior I found that I could cause damage to the floor of the structure. Another was an area of the park known as Indian Grove. This is where Native Americans would peel the bark off of the Ponderosa Pines to use as medicine and food. I was unsuccessful in most attempts to create complete scans of the trees as lighting and scale proved to be extremely difficult obstacles to overcome using scanners that primarily used light and color to create form. However, my preliminary models were really exciting to see, though they require some repairs to be made.
Recently I was able to produce my first 3D print for the park staff, via Shapeways. For me this was a big victory. I was able to hold a series of informal critiques with staff members to criticize the form that I produced from a functional standpoint. I had created a track swatch, similar to the track casts that the interpretive staff often times will have ordered in. I was able to scan every track that they had in the park and scan a number of ground surfaces which means it’s easy to create an impression in pretty much any scannable surface in the park and print it out as though it had been casted that way. The sample I had sent out was a Mountain Lion Print placed on a gravel surface. I was really happy with the detail retention from the file to the print. Things I didn’t expect, like the flexibility of the plastic in some thin areas, the slightly overpowering bleached color of the plastic, and the subtle appearance of the National Parks badge on the back, were quickly pointed out to me by the Rangers. The swatch was designed to be sturdy, and light weight so that it could be packed away without having to be concerned about damage. The next iteration, to be printed in a full series of tracks will be sleeker, and more rigid. In the mean time, this version demonstrated the ability to print offsite, which one ranger pointed out was very much like the way the National Parks sign makers shops service national park region. Great Sand Dunes is a part of the Rocky Mountain Region, and their sign shop is near Rocky Mountain National Park. They can put in requests there for signs to standardize their signage. My thinking is perhaps to approach the Rocky Mountain Region much the way that RISD has approached the development of the Co-Works lab, in making it a collaborative space for all the parks in the Rocky Mountain Region to be able to experiment with 3D media to be able to more effectively speak to the public. What if the National Parks could take on the responsibilities of constantly reinventing their visitors center messages to fit the realities faced by their resource managers on a season to season basis?
The Parks I’ve learned, take great care in crafting their image relative to their visitors expectations and safety. For instance, I took pictures in the Nature Conservancy land waiting to be absorbed into the park of the large bison herds there. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the bison there have a small percentage of cattle genes in them, so by the resource management team, technically they are a non-native species, which poses problems in terms of deciding wether or not they would stay in the park once its absorbed. Consequently, even when the rangers go out into the nature conservancy, any pictures of the bison may not be used to represent the park online until they finalize a conservation plan to keep visitors from expecting the park to hold bison. As it was explained to me, with any animal reintroductions have to be pursued carefully. Park officials have to make sure that there is a healthy predator prey relationship. Introducing too many predators before a certain population of prey is ready to support itself and handle any losses there may be can cause imbalances to delicate park ecosystems that would be hard to recover from. Additionally, visitors may be compelled to visit the Bison on their own terms, which is a risky bit of business to say the least.
National Parks find themselves managing their individual images on a national scale, as public institutions very carefully. Conversely, the Oasis, the James Mason Hutchings “Hutchings’ House” of the Sand Dunes, has the ability to be an eclectic collection of rural visual culture aesthetics. Hand stenciled fonts, shellacked pine, sun darkened lumber, landscape imagery, and collective sensibilities put fourth by graphics from the 1950’s and 60’s all make up a seemingly organic approach to accumulating imagery. I had a chance to offer my abilities as I noticed the map of the campgrounds that they hand out to visitors was hand drawn, and photocopied.
For me it was interesting to work in conversation with the constraints demanded by the park, and then in conversation with the very loose aesthetic constraints allotted by the Oasis. I designed a map for the Oasis that could be photocopied and printed endlessly and efficiently, and Patti said that she liked it and would use it moving forward to hand out to guests. For me it the design was fairly intuitive to come up with as during my days behind the counter I would frequently use that maps to direct visitors and knew what it lacked, such as a description of tree cover to be able to show guests where might be best for them to set up camp.
Once I started staying up in the campgrounds, I quickly learned that I was not the only Oasis employee staying in the campgrounds. I’d started to notice a lifted white Chevy around the grounds. At first I assumed it was just a regular visitor staying at the campground. I would come to learn that it was Dan, Patti’s nephew who’s avante garde approach to bear encounters, guided by his description of Black Bears as ‘sissies’, entailed a swift, emergency punch to the nose. “Have you ever been punched in the nose?” he asked with wide pale blue eyes, before going on to explain how much it makes you not want to maul somebody. Dan is in charge of doing any kind of repairs or maintenance, and builds furniture from wood he’ll mill, dry, and plane himself (almost exclusively with a chainsaw). Dan recently reached the pinnacle of bad-assery as one morning he found himself waking up to three growling coyotes outside his tent. He proceeded to get up, grab a shovel ,and fend off three Coy-dogs which confronted him until they realized that shovels can hurt when wielded by an angry half-awake leathery man with a ‘punch-first’ approach to black bears. Dan explained how he makes part of his living collecting elk and deer sheds, which he is then able to sell by the pound for hundreds of dollars per pair. He said sometimes he likes to use them for furniture and when he finds a particularly nice set, he’ll keep them. What I found particularly interesting about Dan was the way that he approaches making. To him it’s necessary, and it’s as much about finding as it is about creation. It seems as likely to him that a piece of wood has already decided what it will be before he can even think about ripping the starter-pulley on his chainsaw.
Outside of the campgrounds Patti rents out a little house to a man named Juan. Juan is in his sixties, and is extremely friendly. Juan invited me to go out with him fishing one weekend in some of the reservoirs to the south. I had chatted with Juan a few times before, he’s a Vietnam War Veteran, and as our discussions started to move towards Vietnam, I told him that my father was drafted in Vietnam, but never spoke too much about it outside of his distain for Jane Fonda. Juan explained to me how he felt when he and other veterans returned from over-seas. He said they were called baby-killers, and had excrement thrown at them. He told me that out here he’s made friends with a few other Vietnam veterans who live in the valley but they’ve become reclusive and withdrawn from society out of the rejection they felt from their own peers. Ten years ago, Juan lived out in L.A. until he decided he couldn’t handle the city anymore. He got a job working for a solar electric company, that keeps him on the road during the week but he tells me that he’s in love with this valley, the empty spaces and the people as much as those things might seem in conflict with one another. The days he and I fished together, he proudly showed me the two pieces of land he had bought upon his arrival. One was at the base of Blanca Peak, he hadn’t lived there for a while, but his RV was still parked there, with a chain-link fence surrounding it, with a pile of rocks he had collected from old gold mine outcroppings that had little bright orange crystals. He took great satisfaction in the idea that one day he would pass this land on to his Grandchildren.
The second tract, was up on a small plateau near one of his fishing spots. It seems he has no intensions to build anything on the land. He said that he was more satisfied by the idea that somewhere in the world there was a place that was all his, a place to belong. Juan shared with me his love for collecting rocks, and showed me a petrified log that had been in his family for an undetermined amount of time along with some rocks that contained pockets of orange crystals, and green turquoise. Juan is extremely generous. After we returned from fishing, we had both caught one Rainbow Trout each, and he insisted that I take his as he already had dinner planned for himself. “Fajitas.” he said. It probably the best dinner I’ve had since being here. He was also shocked that I had never eaten Elk meat and proceeded to insist that I take a hunk of elk that his close friend had shot this year. He says it’s better than venison, and I am pleased to report that this is true.
I’ve found that a great way to talk to and get to know some of the local characters is to do what they all seem to do regularly. That is, search for and find objects of interest. They have their own kind of a material culture that is refreshing to me, it’s not a throw away culture, its a culture of finding, and looking. The most valuable things that many of these people have couldn’t be bought in a store, the core essence of the value that they apply to their objects of value is in the finding, and the searching. Without either of these things their items are merely tourist trinkets. Dan said something to me that came to mind the more I thought about these ideas. We were jawing back and fourth about our cars. He had offered to let me use his welding equipment so I could fix my exhaust pipe as it had broken into two separate pieces while I was out galavanting on a primitive road with my outback. He said,”The good thing about replacing your exhaust is that next time something breaks you’ll know that ain’t it.”. He then chuckled a bit to himself and then pointed over at his chevy and said,”They say it takes about six err-seven years for your bodies cells to completely replace themselves, and I had that truck darn near 15 years, so you do the math.”
There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to ride that truck until there was nothing left to fix. He wasn’t concerned about what it was going to be worth upon resale, only if it would survive it’s next trip up to Blanca Peak. Value to him is relative to whether or not he can get to where he wants to go, rather than some abstract concept of material worth. For people like Dan, it seems that life is measured and cadenced by the landscape.
Patti often times had a very motherly quality to her. During lunch breaks often times she would see me with my gigantic water bottle, and a plate of fish from the kitchen and would smile warmly and remark, “you’re eating fish, that’s good for you AND you’re drinking water. Good boy.” Which at first threw me through a loop a little because I hadn’t been referred to as a ‘boy’ since the sixth grade, as I my head poked up above six feet, but I found some humor in it. Patti seemed to think of her staff as a family in the most literal terms imaginable. One of the last weeks of my project, I was eating breakfast in the restaurant and she sat down and asked if I had heard the ‘frog story’. I said no. She explained that the Native Americans that lived in the Valley for centuries had legends passed on from their ancestors who lived through the period in the Valley where the Valley floor was wet. As they saw it dry up, they said that it left behind thousands of frog spirits. The spirits would sometimes follow visitors to the valley and compel them to come back. Later, she would give me a small statuette that she sells in the store. It’s a frog carved from Green Turquoise. She said it would follow me around until I came back.
Since our last post Emilie and I have finished the first portion of our fellowship in Manila, and have flown to Bohol where we’ve begun the second leg of our research with the Tubigon Loom Weavers Co-op. These past few weeks have been very busy finishing our research in Manila, and acclimating in Tubigon, Bohol. Aside from the sand flies and mosquitos, we have been really enjoying the island life and being apart of the loom weavers community.
During our final week in Manila we encountered some obstacles and set backs. Due to scheduling conflicts we were unable to do our 4-day long natural dye workshop with Nina and Patis Tesoro. We were also unable to begin conducting natural dye experiments at PTRI as quickly as we had intended. However, being flexible and open to readjusting our plans we spent the remainder of our time in Manila doing the following:
1.Foraging plants for our natural dye experiments. Using the natural dye book published by PTRI, we were able to identify and forage three local plants growing in our surrounding neighborhood. These three plants were talisay, bulago, and flame tree. During our foraging adventure we used our hunter-gatherer skills to collect three kilos of Talisay leaves, one sack of bulago nuts, and one sack of flame tree bark. Unfortunately, the flame tree bark and bulago nuts grew mold before we could use them but we successfully extracted dye from the talisay leaves.
2.Working closely with the incredibly knowledgeable natural dyers, Rudy Fenoy and Lucy Barrion, at PTRI. Although we were unable to use their dye facility as quickly as we hoped to, we were able to fit a two day training and two day open lab into our schedules. During those four days Rudy and Lucy taught us how to scour, bleach, mordant, and extract dye from talisay, atsuete, indigo, turmeric, sapang, and mahogany. At the end of our two day training, Rudy and Lucy awarded us with very fancy certificates from PTRI.
Using fermented talisay leaves, mixed with copper sulfate and ferrous sulfate, we were able to dye shades of rich black, grey, and yellow-green. The talisay dyed the raffia and abaca fibers very quickly and the results were incredible. Talisay is a very viable plant to use for natural dye because it grows wildly around the Philippines and can grow very easily in a variety of soils
Using the atsuete we bought from Divisoria we dyed the raffia and abaca a vibrant shade of orange. Although the color appears very strong, atsuete is not colorfast, which makes it a more difficult dye to work with.
Indigo powder from NTFP, Non Timber Forest Products, was combined with sodium hydrosulfite and sodium hydroxide to get shades of blue. We were able to get a darker shade of blue by dipping the fibers into the dye bath multiple times before it oxidized. Indigo is also a viable natural dye because it does’t require any mordant prior to dyeing, and is very colorfast.
Turmeric gives vibrant yellow shades, but is not very colorfast.
The hardwood from sapang, also known as sibukow, was boiled to extract red dye. Depending on the mordant you use sapang can give red or purples shades. Sapang also dyes vibrant shades but is not colorfast. It is also a difficult dye to harvest because only the hardwood is used for the dye extraction.
Using Mahogany bark we were able to dye rusty brown shades. The mahogany bark is Rudy’s favorite plant to dye with, however he explained that it is not as color fast as talisay and indigo.
While we left PTRI with a lot of new natural dye knowledge, we also left feeling a bit confused on how we would be able replicate our results in Bohol. A majority of the natural dye recipes involved chemicals and minerals such as acedic acid, sodium chloride, soda ash, copper sulfate, and ferrous sulfate to fix the dye to the fiber and make the colors brighter. Not only were we unsure we would be able to find these chemicals on Bohol, but we also questioned how “natural” this process was becoming.
4. Bought indigo powder produced by NTFP, Non Timber Forest Products in Quezon City. During our collaboration with the Tubigon Loom Weavers, we plan on teaching them how to use the Indigo powder. Indigo is a viable dye because the indigo bath can keep up to 1 year, requires no mordant, and gives a wide variety of blue shades.
3. Attended the opening event of FITE, The International Festival of Extraordinary Textiles. The opening was a lively event with a fashion show, exhibition of traditional textiles and contemporary creations, and some fancy hors d’oeuvres. During the week long festival we attended a bamboo weaving workshop given by master weaver Ueno Masao, and a lecture by Anna Paini, Professor of Cultural Anthropology – University of Verona, on the re-appropriation of mission dresses by Kanak women.
4. Packed our suitcases with our natural dye experiments, two kilos of Indigo powder, measuring tools, and small bags of chemicals curtesy of PTRI, and flew to Bohol, an island south of Manila!
For the second portion of our fellowship we are living on a small island 15 minutes from the Pandan port in Tubigon, Bohol and working with the Tubigon Multi Purpose Loom Weavers Cooperative. Tubigon is a small fishing town on the northern coast of Bohol. The Tubigon Loom Weavers Cooperative was established in 1993 by the Department of Trade and Industry to provide wives of fisherman, who would normally wait for their husbands to come home from sea, a steady source of work and income. Now due to overfishing and the destruction of coral reefs from the earthquake in 2013 this alternate income is vital for these families.
Our journey traveling to co-op is always an adventure. We begin the journey by waking up early in the morning and taking a 10 minute boat ride to the Port of Pandan. From the port we walk 15 minutes through the Pandan Barangay (neighborhood, pronouced ba-rahn-guy), often welcomed by the excited children of the neighborhood. Once we get to the main road we take a tricycle (the local taxi, a motorcycle with adjoined metal seating enough for four people) to the Loom Weavers and start our day of weaving and dyeing. Each day at the co-op is full of new and exciting surprises.
Since our arrival in Tubigon we have:
1.Met with Trina, the manager of the Tubigon Loom Weavers coop, to see what the weaving and dye facility look like and discuss our schedule for our five week collaboration. Trina welcomed us with great enthusiasm and eagerness to begin the collaboration. During the next five weeks we plan on working with the cooperative’s dyers (husband and wife duo) and teach them how to dye raffia with atsuete, talisay, young coconut husks, yellow ginger, mahogany, and sapang. We will also be teaching weavers various techniques on the four harness looms such as twill, repp weave, inlay, fringe,and herringbone. Our hope is to put these fabrics into application as tote bags. However, our main goal is that by the end of our stay in Tubigon the weavers will be empowered to incorporate new techniques into their weaves and continue to explore the potential of natural dye.
2.Went to the Tubigon market in search of weaving, dyeing, and foraging supplies. During our shopping excursion we bought two large knives, a wooden chopping board, and fishing nylon (monofilament thread). We plan to use the fishing nylon as our warp thread to incorporate materials familiar to the fisherman and community in Tubigon. Although the fishing nylon is not “organic” it is a material that is readily available in the fishing town of Tubigon.
3. Presented our student portfolio to the weavers at the cooperative so they could see the various textiles we’ve created at RISD. We felt this was an important exercise in building relationships and sparking new ideas among the weavers. Although the language barrier created some complications, it was also a good exercise for Emilie and I to present our work using non “art school lingo”.
4. Set up three four-harness looms with fishing nylon warps from the local fishing store in town. These looms will be used to demonstrate various four harness weaving techniques using the raffia that we naturally dye. The warp set up became an exciting communal event when the weavers and fisherman on the island both got involved. The fishing nylon we bought did not come pre-wound on spools so we had to hand wind the nylon onto handmade bamboo bobbins made by carpenters at the weaving coop.
With help from the fisherman they devised a more efficient process of hand spooling, which involved putting the skein of fishing nylon around the back of a chair, and looping it over a ceiling beam. One of the fisherman became very interested in what we were doing and visited us at the weaving co-op to help with winding warps. With his and the weavers expertise, they invented an ingenious system of feeding the handspun spools to Emilie while she wound the warp. Using fishing nylon as warp material became a direct way to link the fisherman to weaving and get them interested and involved in the weaving process. It was really exciting to see the men show interest in a craft which is normally dominated by females!
-The second edition of winding spools and warp making, instrumented by the fisherman. With their help we were able to wind a warp in half of the time it took us the first time!
7. Traveled the Cebu, a neighboring island in search of chemicals, as well as to meet with Kenneth Cobonpue, a Filipino Industrial designer who makes furniture using natural fibers and weaving techniques. Kenneth Cobonpue shared with us his experiences while studying at Pratt, and the obstacles he faces while working in the Philippines. He gave us a tour of his factory, where we were able to see the manufacturing process of his furniture from start to finish. While in Cebu we also visited Interlace, a textiles company that hand weaves high end fabric made with raffia and abaca. The designer Francis Devigny was out of town but we were able to talk with Meme, the manager, and Jon Rae, the head of research and design. Meme and Jon Rae gave us insight into how they organize and create an efficient, healthy and happy working environment. Although we were unable to source any chemicals, we had some really interesting conversations that helped us further understand the challenges and benefits of working in the Philippines.
8. Helped Trina design the TLMPC booth at the Sandugo Trade Fair in Tagbilaran, Bohol. At the trade fair we were able to see other local textiles and craft products made in the Philippines, and talk about our natural dye research to anyone wishing to listen. While we were at the trade show we met a woman who runs an NGO and eco bed and breakfast on Bohol. She was so excited about our natural dye research that we are meeting with her next week to talk about how she can be involved.
In addition… heres a preview for our talk at the MET Manila
Poor WIFI, but good vibes…
Dying to Dye: Introductions and Meetings in the Philippines – Emilie Jehng + Lyza Baum, BFA Textiles, 2016
Our first two weeks in the Philippines have been a confusing-yet-exciting mishmash of business and pleasure. Business meetings with collaborators become intriguing conversations with friends, and fun turns into productive ideas for our project. These two weeks can perhaps only be described through a haze of citronella oil, multiple cups of coffee, pan de sal as merienda, and a long mealtime discussion which we will conveniently be calling a meeting. And while the idea of trying to encompass what we’ve experienced thus far is nearly impossible, we will try our best.
Lyza and I have decided to delegate our blog as such: I (Emilie), will be posting this week about our activities these first two weeks and Lyza will be supplying the photos for this post. In two weeks, when we post again, our roles will reverse. At the end of each blog post we will both be reflecting on our experiences thus far.
Since having landed greeted by ninety-degree weather we have:
1. Traveled to Laguna, a town an hour south of Manila, in the hopes of further understanding local cottage industries in the Philippines. There we visited and toured the home/studio of local ceramic artists.
2. Had a lunchtime meeting at the Patis Tito Garden Cafe with Nina Tesoro to discuss our 4-day long natural dye workshop with her and her mother, Patis Tesoro. Patis Tesoro is considered the “Grand Dame of Philippine Fashion”. Believing that ethnic wear is integral to the Filipino identity, after the Marcos regime Patis decided to revive pina fabric production. Pina fabric, composed of pineapple fiber, is one that is reflective of the Filipino culture and used in special occasion garments such as the barong. Working with pina weavers, Patis began conducting workshops to pass on methods of producing this fabric.
During our four days with the Tesoros, we plan to experiment dyeing abaca, raffia and pina fiber, using fresh tumeric, dried atseute, and talisay.
3. Went to Divisoria, a dizzying labyrinth of stalls with bolts fabric, stacks of kitchen supplies, multi-colored plastic toys, large bags filled with spices, and hangers full of clothing. We were in search of materials for the dye experiments, and we were going to find them here. Three hours later, we left the market exhausted and sweaty, but with fibers to dye, spices/plants to extract dyes from, and our mordants of alum and citric acid.
4. Met with the Philippine Textiles Research Institute. PTRI has been able to identify 100 native dye plants, 30 of which have been successfully been turned into powder, and 6 which have been turned into paste. PTRI holds an entire library of research on native dye plants and they have granted us access to this information. After our meeting PTRI also agreed to allow us to utilize their dye lab. These next few days will be spent conducting dye experiments at PTRI.
-our successes and failures will be closely linked to the relationships we are able to form here. learning how to connect in a culture different than our own will be key to our time in the Philippines
-while PTRI holds a library of info for us to use, perhaps more knowledgable are two people, Rudy and Lucy, currently conducting these experiments for PTRI
-citronella oil is a godsend
Getting acclimated to a foreign country always takes time, but I believe that Emilie and I are beginning to understand the complex culture of the Philippines. Upon our arrival, we were welcomed by our collaborator and mentor Clara Balaguer, head of OCD and Project Coordinator of Class Act. Within the past two weeks she has introduced us to Manila, Filipino culture, and key resources and people for our natural dye research. In just two weeks we have had a handful of adventures that have brought us closer together as collaborators and friends.
Clara, Emilie, and I have begun a nightly ritual of drinking tea after dinner and discussing the agenda for the following day. Often this after-dinner conversation turns into an enlightening and thought provoking dialogue. Through these conversation we have begun to discuss topics such as indigenous appropriation of textiles, the politics of sharing knowledge, the “nothing goes to waste” mentality in the Philippines, and the meaning of community art. These topics will be important elements of our research as we move forward.
The Filipino “nothing goes to waste” mentality is especially important as we begin to think about how natural dye can be a sustainable way to fully utilize natural by-products such as onion skins, mangosteen husks, and coffee grinds.
Although a majority of our time was spent adjusting to the 12 hour time difference, getting stuck in Manila traffic, and meeting with collaborators, I feel positive that we are moving in the right direction. After a successful meeting at PTRI I am excited to have access to a fully equipped dye lab and the opportunity to work alongside people who have an incredible amount of natural dye knowledge. I am looking forward to being fully immersed in our research and seeing where it takes us in the following two weeks.
Lyza + Emilie