Art cloth uncovers complex designs, reveals inner self

Jane Dunnewold is a woman of the cloth — art cloth, that is.

When this San Antonio resident creates art, she combines her complex personality with the age-old techniques of printing and dyeing fabric.

Dunnewold’s result is a contemporary cloth surface full of richness and visual depth. Each one-of-a-kind length of cloth is meant to be admired in its own right.

Dunnewold owns Art Cloth Studios in San Antonio where she works and teaches.

She says art cloth tells stories, challenges perceptions and invites contemplation. It might be suspended from a ceiling, hung over a rod on the wall, draped inside a lighted box or draped against a wooden screen. It also can be transformed into home furnishings or individual garments.

In addition to conducting workshops in her private studio, Dunnewold travels extensively to teach her techniques.

Most recently, she taught at Quilting by the Lake in Syracuse, N.Y.

She’s headed to Colorado next month, where she’ll teach Sept. 7–11 at the Weehawken Center for the Arts in Ouray. “Complex Cloth” is the title of her upcoming workshop.

“Students will begin with dyeing fabric,” she says, then be introduced to discharging, which is the removal of color. She’ll instruct them on adding textile paints and foils with hand-carved stamps, stencils and silk screens.

One process she teaches applies flour paste to the back of a screen with a squeegee.

When it dries, lines can be scraped into the surface to give the finished product a special design. Hot wax is another option.

Her students will produce about a dozen samples, some that become small projects and some that are inspiration for larger lengths of fabric, Dunnewold explains.

She herself has printed, dyed and layered more than 1,000 lengths of cloth, testimony to why she is revered among fiber artists and art quilters.

In 2001, Dunnewold left the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, where she had taught for 10 years, so she could pursue her ideas for producing this “complex cloth.”

A book she’s writing is scheduled for publication in January from Interweave Press; it’s titled “Art Cloth: A Guide to Surface Design on Fabric.” The book will offer a comprehensive look at techniques similar to those Dunnewold will teach in Ouray. 

“Most of my students are interested in wet techniques, those involving dyeing, discharge and printing processes that are at the heart of art cloth,” she says.

Dunnewold prefers to work with silk because of its sheen and the way it interacts with dye, but she also uses cottons, rayons and linens to produce mostly abstract imagery on the cloth.

She seeks high contrast, such as sharp shapes against soft-edged ones, complimentary colors playing against each other in vivid combinations or shining foil impressions against a matte background.

“Planning the contrast is one of the most entertaining and challenging parts of creating art cloth,” Dunnewold says.

Her cloth may be enhanced with hand or machine stitching and sometimes needle felting.

Another class Dunnewold teaches, “Archetypes as Artistic Expression,” is geared to artists who have the technical ability to produce art cloth yet want to find deeper meaning in their work.

An archetype, according to the writings of Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung, refers to an innate pattern in the psyche expressed in dreams or art as certain basic symbols or images.

“It’s one of my favorite classes,” she says, explaining how she guides students in developing a “personal visual vocabulary” by thinking about their character traits and organizing their ideas.

The process of “making” is powerful, and using the tools of surface design is one way an artist can explore both inner and outer worlds, Dunnewold says.

It’s an approach to art that she greatly enjoys, having created a series based on her personal archetypes. One piece, for instance, is titled “Guide ” and features smoke rings as a symbol.

Through a written journal, list making, drawing and cutting paper shapes, Dunnewold adapted the American Indian symbol of the scout who rode out to survey the countryside, then sent smoke signals back to his tribe to let them know what direction to travel.

She compares this process to that of a writer combing through background materials for a novel.

“The research is as rewarding as the art making process,” Dunnewold says.

Another series of Dunnewold’s art cloth is based on the judge archetype and, in that case, she discovered that the kingfisher bird is a symbol of wisdom in many cultures. So the bird appears in her work.

“I also refer to the kingfisher as my familiar,” she says.

That terminology comes from folklore as a spirit that is constantly with a person and typically dwells within an animal, or bird in this case.

As you can tell, the language Dunnewold speaks in her personal visual vocabulary is a complex one.

It seems to dovetail perfectly with her vision and techniques for creating her life’s work — complex cloth.

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