As I enter Frank Connet's studio in Oak Park, I notice an entire wall filled with cascading dyed wool in various hues (apparently to be used to repair old oriental rugs piled on the floor); an African beaded head with missing beads sits forlornly on a small table; small cubby holes filled with folded dyed fabric appear neat and disheveled at the same time; and yet another wall serves as a work space with pinned-up fabric in unusual puzzle pieces; and a busy back area for dyeing and rinsing fabric exudes indigo at every stage. As a textile restorer, fabricator, and innovator, Connet relishes the time he spends creating unique textile designs using ancient Japanese dyeing techniques (Shibori).
Ground Sulfur. Courtesy of the artist.
I started with this purple area (on the left). I had been watching ripening eggplants, thinking about the color transitions that happen in nature — in this case, the movement of red to purple. I wanted this shape to have an open, expansive feeling. The wool is Shibori sewn, died, and opened up. You can see the hand stitching on the fabric.
ArtStyle: What were the influences for your wool series (Ground Sulfur)?
Frank Connet (FC): These pieces, like most of my pieces, are influenced by nature. I'm moved by natural phenomena, for example, my favorite time of day which is sunset. It's interesting to observe what the fading light does to objects and to colors, and to notice how things that were very obvious, slowly become intangible. Everything is continually shifting and changing. The cleanest white left out slowly becomes darker. A newly exposed black rock, just dug out of the earth, gets lighter with time, as it dries, or becomes covered with lichen or moss.
ArtStyle: Before you work on a piece, how do you select the fabric, and how do you know what dyes to use?
FC: I don't know what dyes I'm going to use ahead of time. I have a huge stock pile of dyed fabric, and I also dye for specific projects. For instance, several of the elements for Ground Sulfur were dyed a few years ago. There are other elements in this piece that were done as I created the piece.
ArtStyle: How do you select what you use from your inventory?
FC: Unexpected things happen in the dye bath. A piece of fabric may stand out, for example, something that resonates with a particular emotion or a particular feeling. It's an organic process that happens automatically, working day to day. I'm always looking at textiles, buying fabrics, and experimenting with them. I became stuck on this wool fabric because it's extremely responsive. I select whatever I need at the moment.
Spiral Square 6″. Courtesy of the artist.
ArtStyle: You mentioned using Shibori on your fabrics (Spiral Square). How does it work?
FC: You sew the fabric in folds and then you pull the threads very tightly, and it creates a resist so that the dye only hits the edge. When you open up the fabric, you get various shapes. Sometimes I use a clamp resist. I'll fold the fabric and clamp it with long pieces of wood and then dye the whole thing. With the clamp, you get large white areas. And then I'll do sewing over that for a secondary pattern.
ArtStyle: How do you know how many times to dye the fabric?
FC: I dye it until it's done. Knowing when to stop is one of the hardest things to do. On average, I dye an individual piece maybe 20 to 30 times.
Datura. Courtesy of the artist.
I was watching a Datura plant that the neighbor was growing. It has a large white blossom. These look nothing like the flowers. I was just watching them grow and die, and they kind of hung down in these wonderful shapes. I was interested in the way the buds are emerging, expanding, breaking and collapsing and the old ones are becoming angular and going into themselves.
Untitled. Courtesy of the artist.
ArtStyle: This other piece in your wool series looks kind of Native American, with the shape of the feathers and the colors (Untitled). What do the shapes symbolize for you?
FC: This piece is from a large group of pieces that are all based on this lenticular form called a vesica piscis, which is Latin for fish bladder. It's the shape created when two circles overlap, and it symbolizes balance. I'm always thinking of all sorts of balance in my own life.
I was thinking about how balance is such a tenuous thing. When you throw a pot, for example, and you try to center it, it’s a difficult process, and everybody thinks centering is a stable thing. Well it's not. It's centered but it's always going off center, and you continually bring it back to center. And with these pieces, I'm still working in this vein — the idea that things are balanced temporarily, and they get out of balance and then come back again.
ArtStyle: You mentioned you were working with a hemp piece on the wall. How does it differ from the wool?
FC: Every type of work is a response to the materials. Because wool is so responsive to color, it tends to be brighter, and it's lighter in weight and much more sensitive, so you can get beautiful lines. Shapes would be very hard to achieve in a coarser fabric. The hemp is very coarse, but it's very appropriate for pieces more about texture and fields of color. It's wonderful material, but it's extremely difficult to dye. This piece is part of a group inspired by Lake Michigan in winter. I put it up on the wall and each piece is part of a grid so I can see what it looks like put together.
Lake Michigan. Courtesy of the artist.
ArtStyle: If you over dye something, can you take the dye out to lighten it?
FC: No. Once it's done, it's done. The way I try to work is that instead of fighting technique, I work with what happens. My attitude is that if I dye something and it's wrong for the project I'm dyeing it for, I'll fold it up and eventually I'll use it for something else. I'll find a place for it. So I try not to have preconceived notions of what it should be.
ArtStyle: After you put together your piece, how do you finalize it?
FC: I'll sew the individual pieces together like a quilt, although technically it may not be a quilt. A quilt is three pieces sewn together, and sometimes I use only two (fabric on a linen backing). I put it on the quilting frame and hand quilt it. And then it will either be mounted free hanging with Velcro or mounted on a stretcher like a painting.
ArtStyle: Right now, you have three pieces going on at the same time. Do you focus on one piece or go back and forth?
FC: I go back and forth. When I got this building, I thought, I have all this space, it's going to be great. I'm going to be able to work on five pieces all at once. Look at it; it's crammed full already. Ideally, I would have much more wall space to work on my pieces.
Courtesy of the artist
ArtStyle: How do you see your work changing?
FC: I will continue to work in the same vein and use similar elements and not change radically. I will probably use less of the Shibori elements and use more pure color — just simplifying. I see my work slowly evolving with new elements introduced, dropped, and refined. My work is a continuous process, and I never know what direction it’s going in.