Many artists, upon reflection, discover a through line in their work. There are themes, techniques or material around which they continue to spiral, discovering varied processes, new meanings and an evolving path. For local fiber artist Suzanne Teune, that frequently revisited idea was about the use of natural dyes in her portraits. She presents the exhibition Paintings by Suzanne Joy Teune at Odds Café, with an opening on Saturday, Aug. 5.
While studying at Burren College of Art in western Ireland, “I knew I wanted to use plant dyes, so I started foraging from the local landscape,” she says. Mainly what Teune found were blackberries, discovered when a classmate crushed a handful into a white T-shirt. Teune also used seawater, rainwater, moss and seaweed for dyes, completing an exhibition of paintings on fabric for her final project.
An Illinois native, Teune — who relocated to Asheville in 2008 — studied at Wheaton College as an undergrad. There, while working on an early portrait series on fabric, she favored Rit fabric dye until a friend questioned that choice. “I’d never thought much about it,” Teune admits. “Several years later, I made a series of paintings for the Wild Goose Festival. … They were huge banners, and I used fabric dye for that, as well, because it was a bit of a last-minute thing, [but] I knew I wanted to be doing it in black walnut ink.”
In between portrait series and programs of study, Teune worked in fashion, creating dresses and skirts at a studio in the West Asheville Drygoods Shop. The owner of the studios and storefront gave Teune a bottle of black walnut dye: It was as if the universe was nudging her away from the Rit and toward the wilderness.
Before her time in Ireland, Teune took a class in encaustic painting at Penland School of Crafts. Ironically, she’d planned to attend a workshop on natural dyeing — which she hoped to apply to the dressmaking she was doing at the time — at the craft school but received a scholarship to the encaustic class. While there, “something really clicked for me, and I realized I’m a fine artist, not a fashion designer,” she says. “I want to use mixed-media textiles in my paintings — that’s why I want to use fabric. It’s not to make garments.”
Having made a definitive shift from fashion to fine art, Teune began to experiment with her materials. In Ireland, she hoped to find a veteran craftsperson or homesteader who could impart knowledge of what native plants made the best dyes. And, “I was hoping to find someone who could help me spin wool,” she says. After a long search, she finally located handspun wool skeins in a craft shop, only to discover they came from a maker who had moved to Ireland from North Carolina.
“I just had to figure it out myself,” says Teune, who combined online research with trial-and-error. The blackberry dye, she learned, is faded by ultraviolet rays (applying her encaustic training, she’s attempting to preserve those works with a layer of wax). “It’s an ongoing experiment,” she says.
Now based out of the Phil Mechanic Studios, Teune’s current works are painted on cotton with dyes from native black walnut, pokeberry and sumac. In her explorations, she found that bloodroot, though a popular local dye plant — and one she initially used — has been over-harvested.
While wool proved a difficult fiber to work with, “I might use silk. I have a lot of leftover fabric from my fashion-design days,” Teune says. She has been working with vintage and textured fabrics, and “I’ve been exploring with different textiles — I’m doing embroidery. I’ve already embroidered into some of the paintings.”
What else could change is Teune’s approach to capturing images for her work. Her current series is based on photography shoots, but her early work came from live-drawing sessions. To return to that method would change the whole process, including how Teune stretches fabric for painting. But creative adventure — from forays into the woods to forage, to experimenting with texture and image — is as important to Teune as her end result.
“This is a whole world I’m just learning about,” she says. “I’m willing to do that: I’m willing to explore rather than stick to the tried and true.”
WHAT: Paintings by Suzanne Joy Teune, suzannejoyteune.com
WHERE: Odds Café, 800 Haywood Road
WHEN: Opening Saturday, Aug. 5, 7-9 p.m. Show remains on view throughout August