By Gina Malone
Often, practicality acts as the catalyst for what becomes a lifelong love of artistry. It was so with Diane Kuehn. “I learned to sew in high school as a means to get more clothes since my parents had a budget,” she says. “My friends sewed also; it was something fun we helped each other with. From that time forward, I’ve gotten great satisfaction from making things with my own hands.”
Once past a long and demanding career in banking, Diane turned her focus back to her art, joining the Blue Ridge Polymer Clay Guild and taking fiber classes. “I would do it all if I could,” she says, “but I narrowed it down to honing my expertise in the cloth dyeing and polymer clay jewelry areas.”
Plants had always been a part of her growing-up years in ND, whether collecting wildflowers on hillsides or helping tend the family garden. From her father, she acquired a love of houseplants and gardening that she fed with completion of a Master Gardening course after her retirement. “When I learned you could dye cloth with leaves and plants, I became very excited to join two loves: textiles and plants.” This year, she planted her own indigo plants and hopes to continue expanding her dye garden.
Botanical printing, or eco-printing, is one of the techniques she uses. “After collecting many of the leaves in my own garden, the pigments in the plants are transferred to fabric with direct contact and heat,” she says. “Colors and effects vary based on many variables, including the stage of the leaf growth and how the fabric is prepared.” Working with natural dyes is an experimental process, she says. “Some days I feel like the mad scientist when I have all of my dye pots and massive collected leaves and flowers piled high. It’s fascinating. The unpredictable nature of eco-printing can be frustrating at times, but the more I’ve worked with it, the more I know the best combinations for success. Sometimes multiple processes are applied. Two never turn out alike, making each creation truly an original.”
Last year, Diane traveled with other fiber artists to Japan to further her knowledge of shibori, the ancient art of shaping cloth to create resists before dyeing. “My modern and traditional shibori patterns are created by hand stitching, folding or binding the fabric after it has been prepared to dye,” she says. In Japan, she studied for ten days with a Japanese artist at his home “converted from an old barn on the steep mountain slopes where every bit of land was used to grow tea, indigo or other crops.” She also spent a day with a sixth-generation master Katazomi craftsman more than 80 years old. “It was really something seeing him squatting next to his large in-ground, traditional indigo vats and his ease of matching up the register points as he brushed on soy paste to act as a resist when put into an indigo vat. Most of our time was spent stitching shibori patterns and with our hands in an indigo vat. After ten separate dips in the indigo, we would head to the river to beat the cloth on a rock to remove excess indigo.”
A piece using a stitched mokume shibori technique serves as a fond memory of her trip and friends she made along the way. The stitching alone of the 2’ x 7’ cloth, she estimates, took hundreds of hours to complete. Once in Japan, rows of stitching were pulled up to secure the cloth tightly before the multiple-dip dyeing process. Removing the stitching then revealed her design.
While creating beautifully dyed cloths, Diane has also delved into the versatility of clay, creating magnetic scarf brooches and other jewelry to accent her wearable fibers. “While I don’t consciously decide to make jewelry that goes with my scarves or shawls, I find that they all tend to work well with one another,” she says. She began making brooches because she disliked the bulkiness of tied scarves.
“Cloth has historical roots and ethnic flavors that excite me,” Diane says. “My lifelong appreciation and love of handmade textiles motivated me to explore historical and contemporary methods for embellishing cloth. For as long as humans have worn cloth, we have looked for ways to make it aesthetically beautiful.”
To learn more about Diane Kuehn’s Birdsong Designs, visit MyBirdsongDesigns.com or find on Facebook and Instagram @mybirdsongdesigns. Her work is available at The Lucy Clark Gallery and Studio at 51 West Main Street in Brevard and at The Gallery at Flat Rock, 2702A Greenville Highway in Flat Rock.