Elin de Jong (photo via cdispatch.com)
‘Making pretty colors’: Textiles artist from the Netherlands finds power in tranquility, dirt and the ‘un-pretty’ of nature at Noxubee Refuge
By Jan Swoope | The Columbus Dispatch
The tranquility of northeast Mississippi’s Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge is a far cry from the bustle of Amsterdam. That Dutch capital is the most populous city of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Yet, the quiet woods and waters of the Refuge are exactly where contemporary textile and crafts artist Elin de Jong of Amsterdam passed the month of April, and happily so.
In her first visit to the United States, de Jong spent four weeks as an explorer, an artist-in-residence in Oktibbeha County. The 27-year-old documented colors native to the Refuge landscape by collecting plant materials and using them to brew and apply natural dyes to a variety of fabrics using sustainable techniques, some dating as far back as the Middle Ages.
The artist-in-residence program is a collaborative effort of the Refuge and its Friends organization, and the Mississippi State University art department, along with the Starkville Area Arts Council. Previous artists have included painters, a printmaker, a ceramicist, a mural artist/illustrator and a fine arts/sculpture graduate.
“Elin, and any of the other artists, provide a different perspective on why lands like the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge are important,” said Refuge Manager Steve Reagan. “So often we talk in biological and scientific terms, but they have a different language. A different segment of the public can relate to what an artist is saying. They’re helping us tell the story of the Refuge.”
A better way
For de Jong, the experience on Mississippi soil deepened her own awareness of her work and goals.
“I take away a lot of new friends, inspiration and more clarity about what I want my work to say,” said de Jong, who is intrigued by the history and stories about the meaning of colors and cloth.
“Textiles has always been an attractive medium to me; it can be all sorts of things,” she said. “It’s almost personal.”
In her early work with fabrics and her research into how they are made, the University of Amsterdam graduate became concerned about the environmental impact of bleaches, dyes and some manufacturing processes.
“I found out that the fashion industry is so very, very harmful for the world,” she said.
As an alternative, de Jong set out to find more natural and eco-friendly methods. She started a natural dye garden in Amsterdam in 2014, experimenting with plants to produce textiles and colors both delicate and vibrant.
Through her online presence as Elin Wanderlust, she reveals that she is unafraid to get her hands dirty, to dig up roots, plant seeds, collect bark and shear sheep.
“I can now, through making beautiful colors and soft textiles, address a hard message — a message of taking it slow, wanting less, doing more with your environment and your own abilities to create,” she said.
At the Refuge, de Jong discovered plants she had never used before. Mulberries were a first for the artist, as were pine, lichen and osage orange (bois de’arc, often called “bodock” regionally). Natural dyes of bright yellow from the Osage, orangey reds from bloodroot and pinks from the mulberries were exciting to create, she said. Symplocos tinctoria (common sweetleaf) was also found at the Refuge.
“It can be used as a mordant,” de Jong explained. “A mordant is used to help set the dye, as a translator between the dye in the plant and the textile.”
The artist employed multiple dyeing techniques and shared some of them in workshops during April. Some methods took hours and even days to make each unique color derived entirely from plants, roots, bark, wood, flowers and leaves.
Her produced work was displayed April 30 in a Mississippi State University art gallery. One signature piece was a quilt titled “Misha Sipi” — the old place. Mulberry dye baths were used on the fabric, most of it donated by residents of Noxubee and Oktibbeha Counties. Some of the material belonged to parents or grandparents who once lived on the land that is now the Refuge. MSU Art Galleries Director Lori Neuenfeldt helped piece the quilt together, as did volunteers from the Golden Triangle Quilters Guild and MSU Fiber Arts Club.
“The use of mulberries to dye the fabric gently references the Choctaw people who were native to the land and would use the berry to give color to their baskets,” de Jong explained.
Other exhibit pieces were bundle dyed: Bundles of fabric wrapped tightly together with plants are steamed for 30 minutes to two hours. Still others demonstrated a printing technique that calls for flowers to be hammered, rubbed or pressed on fabric.
Starkville resident Diana Lyon was a workshop participant.
“The technique I liked best was to take some petals and actually use a rock and tap it on the fabric. It was amazing,” Lyon said. “I’m very concerned about the fate of our environment. I never had really thought that much about how dyes and fabrics can be harmful. Natural dyes are not so polluting to the earth.”
On Tuesday, de Jong boarded a plane to return to Amsterdam, where she will pursue creation of a silk undergarment and sleepwear collection using natural dyes. However, she won’t soon forget her first exposure to America or her time in the Deep South. In addition to the plants and projects, the people had an impact.
“All the stories that people have shared with me about the land of the Refuge and the work the Refuge does for wildlife has made a big impression on me,” she said. “And the kindness and openness of the community has truly been inspiring. I want to spend more time in nature and take more time to listen to people’s stories.”
Her hope is that she planted seeds of interest here in slowing down and looking closely.
“We need to stand still, take our time and have a second look before we think of something as ‘dirty’ or useless,” she said. “In nature’s tranquility we can find color, excitement and endless possibility. And isn’t that all we really need?”