Melinda Heal spent four years immersing herself in Japanese culture through the traditional textile resist-dyeing techniques of katazome and yuzen. Her recent exhibition The Traces Between brought the resulting works to Canberra. I caught up with her to find out more about her work and inspirations.
Tell us a bit about your journey as an artist – how did you first come to textiles as a medium?
I grew up sewing, knitting and just being creative in general but was introduced to textiles as an artform in my final year of high school. My year 12 art teacher was a secret advocate of textiles and set me on a path of research and discovery which led me to study in the Textiles department at the ANU School of Art.
When I went on exchange to Japan later on during my ANU degree in 2008, I experienced another side of textiles: traditional Japanese resist-dyeing. This has ultimately become my passion and focus.
The Traces Between comes from your years researching Japanese textile traditions – can you tell us a bit about how that process worked, and your methods?
Sure. I’m using two traditional Japanese dyeing techniques in my current work: Yuzen and Katazome. They are both resist dyeing techniques that were once used in the Kimono industry in Japan. Nowadays the world of kimono production has changed and many companies have simply shut down. The hand-dyeing skills that were so prolific in the Edo and Meiji periods have consequently suffered. However, they are still taught in some Japanese universities and in recent years it’s really interesting and exciting to see them being utilised in a contemporary art context.
The two techniques are based upon the same concept: a sticky paste made from rice bran and rice flour is applied to fabric in a pattern (in one case, by squeezing it onto the fabric in a cake-decorating style manner, and in the other by stencilling it on). This paste dries firm and becomes a resist, protecting those areas of fabric from the dye which is brushed on next. After the dye is applied, the dyes are set under heat. The fabric is washed and the protective resist layer can be washed off in water. The areas that were protected are now revealed as clean and white. These lines and shapes help form the pattern.
I choose to stay fairly close to the traditional processes and materials when using these techniques, but I am utilising them in more contemporary ways. For example, dyeing sheer fabrics and layering them, using sponges and nail brushes to create different effects with the resist paste and not merely drawing fine lines with the resist paste but writing English text etc. I feel that as an “outsider”, my Australian background gives me a different wealth of influences and imagery to draw upon that Japanese artists or craftsmen would never have explored.
Birds are also a motif throughout your work – why do they capture your imagination?
Birds are a part of the larger natural world around us but they are very close in our daily lives. Especially in Australia and in particular in Canberra, birds are all around us in our everyday lives. I love that they are colourful, noisy and free. As well as being beautiful to look at, they also really interesting in terms of things like their habits, names and history.
What’s something you hope to communicate through your work?
That the natural world, our birdlife and flora, is quietly beautiful and worth protecting.
What’s in the works for the rest of the year?
I haven’t made plans for exhibiting again yet but I’m heading out to see more of Australia, including Central Australia and will surely get inspired for new artworks. I’m excited to do some more experimentation with natural dyes too.
Anything else to add?
Anyone who’s interested can check out my blog, where I write and occasionally, rant, about things related to Art and Textiles and creativity at so-meru.blogspot.com. I also post new events and things on my homepage www.so-meru.com.