By Gina Malone
When you’re born into a family of makers and growers, you can’t help but become a part of it all. “I was inspired by my family,” says fiber artist Teresa Hays, “and I happily created side by side with them as a child. I learned to sew at a very young age. I made my first dress when I was five. It was for a doll, but it counts!” she adds.
Hays grew up on the Mississippi River in northern Illinois. The remote rural area where she roamed in her young years is now part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. “My childhood was a quiet one in a small river town, with plenty of time spent in the outdoors and by myself,” she says. “Most of my aunts, my mother and my grandmother practiced traditional textile arts, and my grandfather spent his retirement crafting and selling birdhouses and whirligigs.”
At five years old, Hays also had her own garden. She grew marigolds, a natural dye plant. “Now I use plants that I grow and that are available on our property (in Tennessee) and on roadsides to make nontraditional prints on fabrics,” she says.
She obtained college degrees in education, instructing first in traditional classroom settings and, later, teaching independently with the regional Girl Scout council and in local art museums. “For many years, teaching workshops to children was my primary income,” says Hays. “In 1990, I began selling marbled fabrics at craft fairs in Nashville and was soon traveling throughout the Southeast and Midwest attending craft fairs with marbled accessories and clothes. I maintained a production marbling studio for almost 25 years.”
Today, she uses silkscreens and thickened dyes in nontraditional ways to make prints on fabrics—mostly silks, but, lately, cotton and linen also. “The process involves making a rubbing with thickened dyes on silkscreens,” Hays says. “I use plant materials against varying textures to create the images on the silkscreen. I allow the silkscreen to dye and then I use more thickened dye to push the dried image off the screen. I have always loved exploring color and this process gives me the opportunity to play with a color in a very exciting way.” She then prints and paints with dye over and around the silkscreens until she considers the yardage finished.
She sometimes employs a technique called discharge or reverse dyeing, bringing in elements of Japanese shibori to create patterning. With the finished fabric, she creates women’s clothing and accessories, often revisiting and reworking past designs to play with variations. Customer requests often inspire new lines. “I consider myself a visual omnivore,” Hays says, “constantly taking in colors, patterns and designs.”
Increasingly concerned with textile waste, Hays says her designs tend to be simple shapes, “comfortable and easy to wear.” They are clothes that “would look good on anyone,” says Millie Davis, Southern Highland Craft Guild’s director of marketing. “I love the boxy shapes, the bright colors, the way her pieces hang like an abstract painting,” Davis adds.
When the pandemic kept people in their homes, Hays was ready to adapt. “I quickly realized that people staying at home did not need as much clothing and I channeled my energies into making masks,” she says. She lost count after hitting 700 masks. “I do know that making masks grounded me and kept me calm during the depths of this last year.”
She made use, also, of time for contemplation, deciding what her creative path forward would look like and making some plans to strengthen her online and social media presence.
“As I slowly emerge alongside the rest of the world, I am finding my way back to my studio and back to creating,” says Hays. “I work intuitively for the most part, and I intend to simply start creating with the first new silkscreen and to see where the work will take me.”
Teresa Hays’ work is available at Shimai, Gallery of Contemporary Craft, in Nashville, TN and at Southern Highland Craft Guild’s online shop (SouthernHighlandGuild.org/product-category/apparel.) Hays has been named Southern Highland Craft Guild’s 2021 Artist of the Year and will participate in the Guild’s virtual summer fair July 15–18, as well as the show in October. Her work will be a part of the Guild group exhibition Sparkle, on view from August 7 through November 9 in the Focus Gallery at the Folk Art Center. Learn more at TeresaHaysTextileStudio.com and on Facebook @TeresaHaysTextiles or Instagram @haystee.