Expressing themes of rescue and protection calls for an art medium that speaks to healing strength and non-violent commerce. Wool sourced from small American farms and dyed with natural materials answers a human need for something real. Felting is an ancient technique that links us to the beautiful, primitive attributes natural to raw wool.
Felted wool is rich with symbolism. It is soft enough for a baby's blanket and tough enough to be one of the world's earliest forms of armor. The sheep has powerful spiritual connotations and is historically a metaphor for deep transformation. In his dissertation, The Word Became Flesh: An Exploratory Essay on Jesus’s Particularity and Nonhuman Animals, Andy Alexis-Baker points out that in Christian theology the Gospel of John states “The Word became flesh,” not “the Word became human.” Citing John 1:15 that all flesh, not just human flesh, was transformed with the birth of Jesus, is arguably a different and deeper incarnation in which all fleshy creatures emerge forever changed. This interpretation is heightened with the New Testament’s correspondence with Jesus as the “lamb of God” and simultaneously a shepherd, and his people as his “sheep” and “flock.” If we human "sheep" are transformed by this passage into the furry family of this celestial avatar, is it any wonder that felted wool has found its way into the world's great museums?
This ancient and transformative charism of sheep to be both protector and prey brings felted wool to my studio as a comparable medium for The Help Code.
Sustainable and natural dyes used in this work are from logwood, iron, cochineal, indigo and onion skins. Natural dyeing is a complex science and much of what we know today comes from ancient Central and South American traditions. One can understand why the Inca chose to hide their textiles and not their gold from the Spanish Conquistadors. Studying the Paracas Textiles, still as vivid today as they were 2500 years ago, questions much of what we know about the fugitive colors of natural dyes. Clues may be found in their bonding agents (called mordants) which are different from what we use today. As museums and conservators study these artistic wonders our curatorial preservation of naturally dyed artworks will increase.
It is important to realize that “natural” does not mean “safe” when it comes to mordants. While the natural dyes used today may not be toxic, the mordants often are. Alum, copper sulfate, cream of tartar, soda ash and iron are mordants carefully stored and used only with gloves and a mask. Although mordants come from soil they are very costly, and there is little waste. An experienced natural dyer knows how to exhaust the dye bath with minimal disposal of mordants. If all dye is absorbed into the fabric, there is little to pour directly onto the earth and never down the drain.