World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigment
Whenever I think about color, I’m reminded of my mother and childhood in Mallorca. I close my eyes and see the bougainvillae in vivid reds, purples, and fuschias; the rocky calas speckled with deep greens of foliage; the various shades of blues and turqouise of the sea, and the savory saffron of a fragrant paella. I’m also reminded of my mother’s much loved flag of the Second Spanish Republic—the bands of red, deep yellow and purple, as well as an off-color joke (no pun intended) she’d tell of Satan failing to collect a soul.
I’m not alone in my childhood memories of color. Keith Recker, HAND/EYE Magazine founder, publisher and editor, describes his fascination in his new book, True Colors: World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigment. It all started with a box of crayons where he experiences synesthesia. He writes in his introduction, “Chrome yellows burst forward like a trumpet call, with brassy notes of optimism and (over)confidence. You danced to their tune at some peril. Dark forest greens sounded like oboes, wise but rather shy as they quietly revealed what was hiding in the shadows. You could trust them, but you had to listen very closely. Chartreuse tasted sharp, like an exotic citrus, and talked fast with the trickster voice of the violin’s uppermost notes. Blood reds were salty and metallic like blood itself, intoning sensuality and warning in the inexorable voice of the piano’s lowest octave—a motif throbbing constantly in the background like a living pulse.”
Color and pigment play an important role in Recker’s career from retail merchandising to artisan business development, as well as color forecaster for US-based Pantone and UK-based WGSN, and, of course, HAND/EYE Magazine. True Colors isn’t a memoir of Recker’s forays into hues, shades, and tones but a salute to the masters of natural dyes who are able to coax pigment out of mud, plants, flowers, snails, insects, fungi, and even avocado pits. Many of those master dyers and artisans have graced the pages of HAND/EYE Magazine in either our discontinued print issues or online.
There’s much to rhapsodize about True Colors that I’m afraid it would be another book. As I leafed through the pages, I was first drawn to the many stories and shades of indigo—the creamy white with a mere hint of blue to the ultramarine blue of my childhood in Mallorca. Recker takes the reader to West Africa, China, Bangladesh, Northern California, and the United Kingdom. Each inky chapter highlights the history and meaning of blue for that region, but more importantly the innovations of each artisan. For Mary Hark it’s paper combined with indigo. She explained to Recker, “I quickly learned that I could approach the blue dye like a painter, building up color, spraying it away. And with paper, the intense color was only skin deep. I could peel away the top layer of the sheet, revealing undyed material…I could use a handwoven textile as a resist material over paper and end up with beautifully dyed cloth and corresponding papers that carried the marks of interlacement. I could embed the cloth in the paper, and overdye with indigo, then peel areas back to reveal all kinds of lovely complexities—sometimes astoundingly beautiful, sometimes earthbound, like rich, muddy dark soil.”
As fond as I am of blue, I turn the pages to my first love: Red. Skipping past the spectacular Tixinda purples derived from the purpura pansa, a snail that excretes a neurotoxin that paralyzes the fish they consume, I make my way to Oaxaca to read about Juana and Porfirio’s Gutiérrez’s weaving workshop. Juana has a dye vocabulary of 200 colors. Within that lexicon is her favorite color—deep burgundy—that’s derived from the carminic acid from Dactylopius coccus, the cochineal insect. Juana also feels the colors, but it is faith-based. “Long ago in church I saw the red blood of Jesus, and cochineal brings me back to the fact that He died for us. It’s emotional. It’s powerful. It’s alive…I feel its magic.”
Red, for me, is emotional. It takes me back in time when my mother would share her stories of the Spanish Civil War. “Asturias was the zona roja—red zone— we were treated worse than dogs.” For my mother red represented a different “faith”. Apart from the politics of the past, when I envision red, I’m reminded of the various carpets in Faisal’s tent in Lawrence of Arabia and that’s what I see in Fatillo Kendajaev’s magical carpets. Kendajaev is an alchemist. His scarlets, burgundies, russets are created from Peruvian cochineal and madder root; deep browns from walnut hulls, yellow from onion skins, pomegranate skins create a bronze green. The richness of the color in each of his carpets sweeps you away to a time when Bukhara reigned as a trading center in luxury goods.
The artisans and the colors represented throughout the book are also well-known to those who have attended the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. Batches of marigolds yield a dazzling variety yellows for Rupa Trivedi’s classic scarves and garments. Non-profit weaving cooperative El Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco (CTTC) founded by Nilda Callañaupa show the versatility of chillca—black on dark gray wool or a light green on white wool.
Suffice it to say, Recker takes his love and fascination with color and imbues each artisan chapter with not only breathtaking and eye popping images, but a profound respect for the talent behind the work.