A Conversation with Virginia Griswold: Connecting through Dyeing
In Spring 2021, Virginia Griswold, an Associate Professor of Sculpture and 3D Foundations at Austin Peay State University, participated in WDWDN.art's Collect-i-Vision roundtable event. During our discussion that day, Virginia mentioned her students did a project exploring natural dyeing. While they worked at home, students checked in on each other and shared their results with great success. If you know me at all, you know my interest was piqued, so I reached out to Virginia to learn more about their adventures with eco-dyeing.
Naomi Falk: How has working at home and teaching online affected the projects you and your students have done this year? Even before the pandemic, my students sometimes commented about wanting more projects that, frankly, didn’t end up in the dumpster. And while there is value in getting students out of their comfort zones by making large-scale work, as 3D people, we know the real-world difficulty of what in the world to do with the big things we make. Where do we put it all? One solution I employ is to make temporary, ephemeral work and reclaim and recycle materials. Another solution, and a shift I made teaching fully online this year, is to work on a much smaller scale. Especially for students working at home with limited space and materials, this helped, even in a psychological way- the work wasn’t monumental or overwhelming during this pandemic year.
Virginia Griswold: I taught 100% virtually this year, too, and I found myself tailoring content to the individual student more than ever before because everyone’s circumstances were so unique. For specific projects, that meant allowing a healthy measure of grace and flexibility around any given problem and/or proposed solution. A welcome consequence of this was that I was able to broaden the scope of my assessment strategies in interesting ways. I expect that this new perspective will carry-over into my post-pandemic teaching practice.
NF: I appreciate how you phrased this. Approaching projects with grace and flexibility while sparking interest in step-by-step processes can be challenging, but can also build confidence and autonomy. It's often a dance between giving enough instruction to help students get started while finding supportive ways to check in. You had some fruitful adventures this spring! Tell me about your recent dyeing project with your students.
VG: This project taught students about the eco-printing or natural dyeing process. This is a subject I have been incorporating into my art practice for several years. The circumstances of the pandemic offered an exceptional opportunity to turn it into an (accessible, small scale, and relatively inexpensive) assignment. When designing curriculum for sculpture or 3D Foundations courses, I like to incorporate a project with a specific focus on process. The Eco Printing project asks students to work with chance, experimentation, and strategy in ways that encourage risk-taking. Not unlike math class, it also asked them to “show the work!” through a methodical documentation of both their process and product.
Eco printing, or natural dyeing, is the process of imparting color onto fabric using
natural materials. Historically, the color of cloth has served as a way to mark place, ritual, or social standing – and it remains politically and culturally significant. For example, indigo is a plant typically associated with Asia. As a part of this project students were introduced to the work of Baltimore-based costume designer Kibibi Ajanku, whose research into West African textiles illuminates the ways in which traditional indigo was sourced and propagated from Africa into the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade. When introducing this content, my hope was to dismantle preconceived notions around textile work which can be dismissed as purely decorative. For the critique, I asked students to consider questions such as “In what ways did your process inform content (the meaning of the work)?” and “What does it mean to practice traditional modes of production when contemporary alternatives exist?”
Naomi, I expect I am describing ideas and approaches you already know quite well from your own work with textiles. I would love to sit down with you sometime to discuss the parallels between our two practices. I get the feeling we have a lot in common.
NF: I’d love to talk more about what we both do. We definitely have crossovers, and I appreciate the research and questions you ask students to consider. Exploring historical contexts shows the continuing impact of what happened before us (socially, colonially, environmentally…) and the continuing relevance of connections between the past and our current lives. For instance, thinking of textiles and clothing, whether we consciously think about it or not, meaning is embedded in what we wear, and when and where we choose to wear it. (Try saying that last bit five times fast!) But, in all seriousness, our clothes signify a lot about who we are.
Thinking about making connections, something else you mentioned in our Collect-a-Vision group discussion in March was how much students collaborated and checked in with each other during the project. Building community with students has not been easy this year. Tell me more about some of the successes you had with your students.
VG: Yes, building community amongst students was so hard this year. I relished the moments when connection happened and tried several strategies to facilitate it, but ultimately what worked felt like blind luck.
The scope of the Eco Printing project included a discussion board where students shared images of their projects in progress, which included failures. I was pleasantly surprised at how generous the students were when sharing experiences with each other, especially when things were not going well. It is difficult to surmise why they reached out to each other on this project, much more than others in the same course. I wondered if perhaps they were seeking comfort in knowing that others were also struggling with this unfamiliar process? Or, maybe they were emboldened because expectations of risk-taking, trial-and-error, and failure were built into the project’s parameters? I wish that I had a more concrete answer to this question. I plan to re-create the project again when teaching face-to-face this Fall. I will report back with any revelations!
NF: The mystery continues, then! Thank you, Virginia, for taking the time to talk with me today, and I look forward to talking with you again. May we all have a relaxing and much needed break this summer.
VG: Thank you, Naomi! It was great to connect with you.
Coming Up: Virginia Griswold's Eco-Printing project will soon be available on our Projects page!