Friday, March 2, 2012

Gawd (s)he copied ME. In Part 2 The Provenance of the eucalyptus leaf print

Once upon a time we had the guild system where your parent would secure you an apprenticeship with a master if you showed an aptitude for art.  If apprenticed to a painter you’d learn the skills of grinding pigments, mixing grounds, as well, drawing, painting, design, were part of your training.  Once you were proficient you could be found working on the master’s commissions and he (invariably he) would sign his name to it.  If you had any spunk and ambition, you’d break out on your own and attempt to build your reputation.  Sometimes during your apprenticeship, you might even outstrip the master, as did Leonardo with Verrocchio; and sometimes you might find yourself like Govert Flinck, stuck with the master's style and signature long after he has moved on with other explorations.  Those days are long gone and may as well have been legend or fairy tale.

These days, artists and artisans offer workshops; they write books or publish blogs and thus make a living – and their ‘customers’ pay for the privilege of attending workshops but the attitude towards apprentices has changed.  Recently I travelled almost 10,000 miles to the Creative Felt Gathering in Michigan for a workshop with Elis Vermeulen to be told ‘go figure it out for your self' (after I'd forked out several hundred dollars and the airfare).  I found myself calling on several other participants to help me through figuring it out for myself. I also listened rather nonchalantly as Elis recounted the story of a woman who had written to her expressing a desire to learn everything she (the master) knew.  The master laughed – no way was she going to show everything she knew.  What makes that so? What makes us so petty, so bitchy, so guarded, with our knowledge and expertise? Could it be that - we are women?

And then – there’s India Flint eco-dyer extraordinaire, who with scientific precision has opened up the secret world of plants and natural dyes. She will teach you how to extract dye from the eucalyptus leaf but you’re not allowed to reproduce what she teaches because it’s a signature of her ‘Prophet of Bloom’ label.  She has assumed the provenance of the eucalyptus leaf or at least, its print upon fabric.

A couple of days ago I saw on Facebook, a stunning felt coat printed with eucalyptus leaves and I instantly knew whose work it was – Irit Dulman, who achieves bold vivid colours and uses an all over individual leaf motif to stunning effect.  I’d forgotten about India Flint, until Irit reminded me of her when I asked her when she was coming ‘down under’ to teach.  Irit said, ‘India Flint would kill me’.  Why is that? Why should it matter to India Flint if Irit Dulman came this way?

It seems a lot of fibre artists interested in printing with eucalyptus leaves are afraid of India Flint.

India has written: ‘People often ask me why I teach and publish my dye techniques when clearly (if I had any business sense at all) I could make much more money by ecoprinting a snazzy range of silk pyjamas.  The answer is that by publishing I have established the provenance of the ecoprint (discovered during research for my MA) and that by teaching ecologically sustainable dye practices I’m doing what I can to make the world a better place’ ((in Felt Issue 4, p5).

Well, you don’t make the world a better place when you publicly vilify others for using the ecoprint. It's not good Buddhist practice (towards which India is inclined because of its principle of doing least harm) because you are harming that person.  More a grumpy prophet of doom and gloom than bloom, India would have been better off launching that snazzy range of silk PJs – or perhaps not teaching and publishing at all.  She could have saved herself the heartburn. Once you release the work it's out there and in this digital age it reaches people like wildfire.  The ecoprint has caught on as its methods yield fantastically beautiful prints, as well as, being ecologically friendly because you can use it on wool and silk without the addition of toxic mordants. 

Provenance (from the French provenir meaning ‘to come from’) used to refer to the chronology of ‘ownership’ for art objects to authenticate the work, though these days it’s used in a variety of disciplines, including science.  In most fields, the primary purpose of provenance is to establish or gather evidence of the object’s passage in time and space, and the person responsible for its creation or discovery.

Australian Aborigines have over 40,000 years of experience with plants, including their use as medicine and of extracting dyes for their fibre art of weaving and basketry. They don’t seem however, to have made use of the eucalyptus leaf to make a print or to extract dye, perhaps because traditionally they wore possum skins with their individual stories burned into the skin, rather than cotton or wool. (We could note that contemporary Aboriginal artists are undertaking apprenticeships with elders to learn traditional methods before these pass along with them in death.)  India Flint may indeed have discovered the ‘ecoprint’ and documented it in her thesis.  We can thus applaud her for showing us in her publications and workshops how to extract colour from the eucalyptus leaf but what we do with our extractions of colour is up to us – whether we print on paper, fabric or felt, our own artistry and aesthetic sensibilities are also at play.  India Flint doesn’t own what others make with the eucalyptus leaf print.  When we look at the history of art we see that other artists and other art have tended to inspire artists – some like Velasquez went so far as to ‘document’ his sources in his great self-portrait at court Las Meninas. He was paying outright homage to those that had inspired.  Likewise, each person who makes a eucalyptus leaf print is also paying homage to India Flint, because without her research and teaching it wouldn't be possible.  She has passed on the knowledge and you'd think she'd be pleased that there are those who can shine, as well as outshine her, with the practice. I heard an architect express those sentiments in relation to an environmentally sustainable building he'd designed.  'I hope that this building becomes outdated and that others go on to do more with some of these principles...'  An endorsement to extend on what has been given through what's been created or discovered - his 'provenance'.  Such an attitude underpins all strivings to be creative.  

We can also consider the Romantic concept of art filtered through a temperament.  Artists such as Gauguin and Van Gogh may sit side-by-side painting the same scene with very different results. There could be thousands of us working with eucalyptus leaves and producing very different ‘products’ because we are all different personalities, with different inclinations.  It's a lost cause to huff and puff on about being copied.  I find those who whine boring.  Is your own practice so stymied that you have to hang on to the provenance of a eucalyptus print or the shape of a hat or scarf? Imagine Polly Stirling claiming the provenance of Nuno felt (and there's no dispute that along with Sachiko Kotaka they discovered the properties of Nuno) and grumbling every time another fibre artist produced a piece of Nuno.  There'd be no end to Polly's grumblings. Incidentally last time I ran into Polly at a workshop, she'd been extracting colour from plants... 

My experimental piece that I keep overdyeing
I have also extracted colour from the eucalyptus leaf because it is all around me. I live under the eucalypts – what came to be called Mountain Ash Gothick in 19th century Antipodes.  These are our cathedrals, as we don’t have the great stone masterpieces of Europe.  Our cathedrals are not only fragrant, but leave me with lots of debris, which I either sweep up for the mulcher or dump in the rubbish.  I swept up a heap of leaves and bark strippings last week, which left outside the front porch has become my puppy’s toilet area when I take her out at 2 or 3 in the morning (Maudie’s urine is possibly adding a wonderful mordant to the heap but I don’t know and don't care to explore).  When I went to the Creative Felt Gathering last year I wanted to take as gifts, pieces of my backyard, so I wrapped up several Nuno felt shawls that I’d made with eucalyptus leaves, bark and some rusty bits and pieces that I’d also found in the garden. I don’t use a dye bath but usually steam my bundles and my backyard leaves are not the Argyle Apple (eucalyptus cinerea) which give that wonderful orange tone that I love.  Oh how I envy Irit her deeply coloured leaf prints.  I don’t claim to be a master or any sort of expert.  The leaves and bark strips are around and I make use of them; but I admire those who like Irit Dulman and Fabienne Dorsman-Rey are real masters at extracting the colour from the plant - and who have made the technique uniquely their own through their individual 'expression'. That does not mean to say that the provenance of the ecoprint belongs any less to India Flint. But what stops her from saying 'I hope others go on to do more with what I've discovered'?


  1. Ouch! And Brava! I thought I was the only one who found that particular workshop had attitude. I teach and students learn and copy techniques and often try out ideas that originate with me. That's the first stage of learning for all of us. I also learn from them. It's the sharing that leads to growth. I find that, by and large, I work with women who show a mutual respect for one another and find the balance between emulating versus outright plagiarism. Every once in a while someone trespasses on someone else's creativity in an inappropriate way and fairly shortly, they come to a screeching halt for lack of original ideas and experimentation. It's discouraging to work with artists who have a superior and proprietary air. Thanks for this post.

    1. Vicki, I thought as you were in the second group you got to experience the more contrite Elis. She got a hard time from one particular member of our group and her attitude definitely changed after the first day. It was too late for me as I already felt disabled. I must say there were members of my group who gave me support as I struggled with working with resists and raw fleece for the first time. I was so thankful to Eugenia Maas for her olive lavender soap whose aroma kept wafting over to fill my nostrils and which I found calming. Eugenia allowed me to use her soap but I bet she regretted it, as she found I had usurped it and she was having to wander over to my table to ask me if she could use her own soap.

  2. Hello Joni,
    I was directed to this blog by a friend. What a well researched and thoughtful post, it was a delight to read. What it boils down to is process. The process of producing an Eco print is very distinct from the final product. There is no way to protect that process that I am aware of other than perhaps the expensive patent path. Each product of the process is by the very nature of the process unique. No copyright could be argued as people will have endless variations of the process because each piece of plant material is different. I haven't met India yet, hope to in the middle of the year, but I have read and been inspired by her books. She says in her Eco colour book , page 127, "However, I make the technique available to others to use as an ecologically sustainable method of assessing potential colour". All through the book are processes for producing marks on textiles, with no mention of a rider, stating that you can "look, but not touch", so I feel that by publishing, then it's like letting a bird fly free to take it's own path.
    I have tutored regularly over a period of decades, mostly to women. If I teach a technique that is pioneered by another, I acknowledge their hard work and gift verbally and in notes, credit where credit is due, but if we all got precious about our process, then we would all be naked and drawing in the sand.
    I would see the spread of a process across the art world, crossing from textile to printing and back to textile as a huge encouragement. After all most of the processes that India uses (and most other natural dyers), are derived from traditional processes that have been passed down by generations of textile workers and cultures. We are but a single pick in a rich tapestry.

    1. Thanks Heather for your great feedback and comments. Yes I agree that the endless variations is rather prohibitive when arguing ‘copyright’ and that it is the actual process of transfer from leaf to surface that India does have a ‘claim’ to – if at that. As you pointed out to Anton – there is an antecedent for it in surface egg embellishment. But I think we can lose sight of the real issue in getting stuck on who invented what, when. What India makes from the ‘ecoprint’ is different to what Irit Dulman makes from it…India or Fabienne may have shown her how to make her first print, but ultimately it’s her aesthetic judgement and her skill as an artist that makes her work, her own.

      It’s that process too of putting it out there either through publication or teaching that makes India susceptible to whatever happens there after. You can say the work doesn’t belong to you anymore. That is certainly true sometimes of novels and visual works of art if it’s published or on exhibition - the audience, including other artists, makes of it what it will…what do we make of the famous novels that are written from a different character’s point of view, or that has a prequel or sequel written by an independent author? Or the student’s or professional’s ‘copy’ of the great painting which is always different because it has that artist’s own mark in the making? Seen within the wider context of making art, the context of art history, it doesn’t really matter if India invented or discovered the eco-print. It doesn’t stop there as you say so eloquently (‘letting the bird fly free to take its own path'). Degas invented the process of the monotype – it hasn’t stopped other artists from making a monotype. I think the comparison between a monotype and an ecoprint is apt – because each is unique.

  3. I'm an Australian textile artist; here the eucalyptus is called the widow maker because it often drops large branches; talking of copyright & provenance we have a superb tradition of indigenous art, but we are prohibited from interacting with it by law. Restrictions exist everywhere, SIGH. Anton Veenstra.

    1. I didn't know about the label 'widow maker' Anton. Thanks for that contribution. With regards to Indigenous art and culture even within the indigenous community there are strict conditions about ownership of totems and stories and who is able to pass it along through visual art, song and dance, and how that is shared so as not to breach what is sacred, irrespective of how the rest of Australia interacts with it. I guess it comes down to respect - respecting the complexity of kinship laws that regulate indigenous culture, as well as respecting the provenance of any creation. And perhaps we can learn from the indigenous situation by asking permission to use that aspect of story or method before proceeding (this was true when contemporary Aboriginal artists like Vicki Couzens and Treahna Hamm among others re-stored the tradition of making possum skins). I think India gives us permission when she publishes her ‘secret’ knowledge. Within indigenous tradition, only what can be shared will generally be shared. Perhaps like those potters that choose to leave out that secret ingredient in a glaze when they teach or publish, India should have held onto those little bits of information that were priceless.

  4. Hi Anton,
    Yes as an Aussie, I am aware of this as well. It is imperfect legislation to combat exploitation of cultural symbols and iconography, and rubs me up the wrong way as well. However, this process that India has researched and documented so splendidly is an extension of a traditional process of printing eggs, so I really don't understand how the tradition of embellishing further on a process can be stopped,particularly if it's been published and put out there. Apparently there is a lively discussion on Facebook about this as well, as it is a philosophical aspect of our art. Congratulations Joni for getting this out there, it's a discussion that needs to be had. Let's hope that India and others that think like this can begin to have contentment in what they have shared, rather than what people have taken from it.