ornaments of a minnesota growing season

This March marks the anniversary of a year-long pursuit of creating art with natural colors made from plant materials in collaboration with local gardeners.  It's been an honor to be a recipient of a 2015 Minnesota State Arts Board Artists Initiative Grant. As I look through my journal, notes and collections of photographs, I see how my knowledge of plants, color and natural dyes has grown. I've also learned a little more about myself and my practice as an artist.  
The year flew by so quickly!  I found that from September on, I was running around the Twin Cities gathering material from many generous growers.  I boiled dye material like mad and as time was of the essence- I filled my freezer with frozen dye to use during winter.  
Here's an ongoing recap of my year and the results of Ornaments of a Minnesota Growing Season:

Emily Donovan
mordant winter

It's officially the dark days of winter - but a great time to experiment more with mordants and the excessive amounts of amaranth I acquired early this fall.  I was and am determined that this plant in all its abundance will produce a red.  I try and try and try again. 

Emily Donovan
hibiscus and science

I've changed my route in search of gardeners and go in the opposite direction and find gardens still blooming and wild masses of plants.  My neighbor, Sheri is a scientist at the U of M - her expertise in agronomy and plant genetics.  You can tell by simply looking at her yard. She calls is messy.  I find it wonderful.  Sheri cultivates plants that interests her for her work and for her family, making sweet wines from her fruit trees and harvesting vegetables. 
Sheri asks me about my art and I tell her about my interests in working with natural materials and what plants have been successful so far, and challenges, like the maggot infestation that occurred on my porch from donated acorns.  Her tip- put the acorns in the freezer for a day to kill the larvae-  this is what she does in her lab.  She has a lot of valuable information to share!   She points out many things, what I can take and what I cannot- as some plants she is using in her work.   Rose hips are up for grabs- as she doesn't like the jelly you can make.  Sheri introduces me to hibiscus.   From the malvaceae family it is native to warm climates, and her plant is from a coworker that she planted in her front yard. With bright showy white flowers, the stalks and buds are a great contrast with dark shades of plums and purples.   Hibiscus is also related to hollyhocks- which is on my list. The initial results are the most vibrant colors yet.
Like hollyhocks, some hibiscus has multiple pigments within the same plant and each plant can produce many different colors.  Its difficult to pinpoint exactly which pigment will form a bond with the fibers in the paper- there is a chemical reaction or bond that needs to be further investigated- hopefully next summer as it seems i am running out of time as winter approaches.

Emily Donovan
Garden Club - University Row

The article in the Park Bugle has reached a fabulous group in St Paul, the St Anthony Park Gardener's Club and i have been invited to give a talk about natural dyes.  Excited and a little anxious (here I get to meet the experts) I immediately set up a time to speak with Cynthia who is in charge of setting up guest speakers.  I find out quickly that the talk will be scheduled for Fall 2016.  In the meantime, I am connected with a group who loves to learn and create beautiful gardens in this historic neighborhood.
Cynthia invites me to her home that is located on the North end of St Paul next to the U of M campus and also sends me over to her friend and neighbor, Helen.  This is a new neighborhood for me, that is a mix of mid-century homes many of which belong to professors at the U of M.  
Cynthia's garden as at the end of the season, but I gather her salvia and Joe Pye Weed and Cynthia tells me about her yard, her home and what she likes about gardening.  I am so excited to learn more from her next year.  Helen's home is kitty corner across the street and this too, is at the end of it's season but I learn that Helen and her late husband Fred, were Art History faculty at my alma mater.  And to make the world even a little smaller, Helen's area of expertise includes the history of dress, in early america's south- a time period when handmade dyes were used exclusively.  
Helen told me that she was so happy that I was taking on this project.  This day was incredibly rich and rewarding!  

Emily Donovan
Supplementing - Ole Mexico

Over Memorial Day weekend, a friend, Jill who works at Chipotle said she was making things from avocado skins and pits from work.  ‘They were to great to throw away.’ she said. 
Hmmmm… I read about avocado as I dye but it never occurred to me to approach a restaurant. I called Ole Mexico- our neighborhood restaurant and left a message.  Within 20 minutes the manager called me back and said he had two bags waiting for me to pick up!   Tom and I ran there immediately.  We recognized the manager as this was a place we frequented when we were first dating.  Smiling, we told him ‘No tequila, thanks.”  This was serious business:).

Emily Donovan
art-a-whirl @ Vesper Studios and Open Studio

Some plants produce colors that you would expect- and others are magical, changing right before your eyes as chemistry plays its part.  The lovely purple of lilac flowers actually becomes a springy yellow green when boiled down. 
Vesper Atelier- asked me to take part in their eco-art a whirl event
here’s finished lilac series...and on to Art A Whirl!

A flurry of friends, family and new guests come to open studio and with the opportunity to discuss my process and make contacts with people who want to contribute!
Many asked about the process of making dye- here's some info I gave them:

"Making dyes begins with gathering the materials and prepping them; breaking them up, stripping them, chopping them and finally soaking them in water. I then boil the materials.  Time may vary and the heat and water break down the materials and allows for the natural pigments to infuse into the solution.  A lot of what I use are foraged materials and once you start, you cannot help but wonder what else is out there that you can use!"

Emily Donovan

Here's my postcard that I put together about the project.  I plan on dropping these in the mailboxes of gardens that I notice.  I want to collaborate with gardeners is because of the wonderful knowledge they have about plants and how they create ‘art’ in another way.  So far, I’ve had great conversations with people who grow things.  The time and efforts gardeners put into plants gives them an innate sense about the qualities or behaviors of these living things and as related to dye materials- the colors they may create.  

Most recently, I was contacted by a mother who said her daughter loves to collect dandelions.  What great imagery!  Although we never connected- the offers for dandelions was abundant! (silly me!)

Emily Donovan
making dyes 2015

Above:  dye process and pictures of gathering pinecones, bark, and making dyes from the grocery store.
We are almost there (Spring) and things are beginning to grow!  I am looking for bark/tree-based options, as it seems the earth is littered with materials.  As I look around my yard and neighborhood, I find several things that are naturally available.  Our plants (or trees in this instance) wake from the long winter and shrug off lose bark and seeds for the next growing season.  These ‘cast offs’ are abundant from the giant pines, birches and spruces in my yard.  With a little research (and the help of Tom)- I identify these trees and what I've gathered.

Sasha Duerr wrote a beautiful book called Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes where she expresses her interests in eco-literacy and the language of nature. She writes about connecting with the simple rhythms of nature and plant cycles.  Have I found this rhythm? And, can these dyes be a continuation of a cycle of growing and giving back?  I like this idea and the experimentation of finding new colors!….and the smell from the gifts from these trees is amazing!

Emily Donovan