Japanese dyeing technique creates unusual patterns
Quilt-maker Jan Myers-Newbury has long been intrigued by the possibilities of using color to create a sense of luminosity and the illusion of depth in her work. And her latest series of abstract quilts on display at James Gallery in her solo exhibit “Unwrapped” prove that she has taken this fascination to new heights.
“All of my work is in the form of pieced quilts, constructed from cotton fabrics that I have dyed,” Myers-Newbury says.
The dyeing technique she employs is called shibori. It is a Japanese term for dyeing fabric using various methods to create unusual patterns, such as wrapping the cloth on a pole, twisting, compressing, stitching, folding or even clamping it before dyeing.
Myers-Newbury, who lives in Point Breeze, began dyeing fabric to make quilts in 1976. Since 1988, she has been experimenting with various fabric manipulations prior to dyeing.
But for the past two decades, she has worked almost entirely with the arashi shibori, or pole-wrap dyeing technique.
“The fluid quality of the shibori lines creates lyrical, often nature-referent work,” Myers-Newbury says. “I use somewhat-cavalier methods, often layering color with two or three subsequent dyeings, or by applying dye to the fabric before it is wrapped and manipulated on the pole.”
Most recently, Myers-Newbury has been exploring design in her completed quilts in a more graphic nature — that is, by repeating patterns created through various clamp methods.
For example, in pieces like “Ten Squared” and “Wind Shear,” Myers-Newbury has successfully manipulated the dyes to form organic, almost leaf-like patterns, pieced together in patchwork that underscore notions of symmetry in nature.
“What I love about dye applied to cloth is the evocative and sumptuous nature of the resultant fabrics,” Myers-Newbury says. “Color is in the fabric, not on it.”
As for the overall design of her quilts, Myers-Newbury says, “design is a process of finding relationships among fabrics.”
“I rarely have a pre-conceived notion of how a finished work will look,” she says. “And while I feel that I have a certain amount of control over what goes on in the dyebath, there are always surprises, and that is what I love about it. I could have more control if I wanted to, but I don't want to. The lack of control is what has kept the work exciting for me.”
Myers-Newbury says it takes from 60 to 120 hours to complete one of her quilts. “Many hours go into dyeing the fabrics,” she says, usually in several sessions as the piece begins to take shape. “I almost always need to return to the dye studio two to three times to create more of what I need.”
Then, on top of that, many hours go into placing fabrics — cutting them, moving them, looking at them, studying them and pinning them to a wall covered with white flannel in her third-floor studio overlooking Frick Park to decide which direction each quilt will take.
The actual piecing or joining of the fabrics takes the least time, she says. “Quilting involves several steps: stretching, pinning the three layers together, then basting them, then time at the sewing machine doing the actual quilting.” This can take from 10 to 25 hours to complete.
For Myers-Newbury, it's the process of experimentation that excites her.
“This ongoing exploration is what quiltmaking has always been about for me — color, luminosity, transparency, movement — all very formal terms that attempt to put into words what is beyond words for me. Every color I dye is in relation to what is already dyed. Every fabric I place on the surface is there in relation to what is already there. It is all one long continuum.”
To that end, Myers-Newbury says each piece has its challenges, and no piece is without them.
“There is no one piece that I can single out as being more challenging than the others,” she says. “The challenge for each piece is generally the same: to bring order to the distribution of colors, lights and darks, visual emphasis ... yet, at the same time, to hopefully subvert boredom with the visual impression that is created.
“I long ago realized that, for me, a successful work of art is one that has a balance between order and chaos,” Myers-Newbury says. “Perhaps I could be justly accused of leaning on the side of order, but I am who I am.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.