OAC to feature multi-talented artist this month in gallery

The artwork of Judy Saye-Willis, who works in various media — from jewelry and natural dyes to fiber, book, and installation art — will be featured this month inside the Owatonna Arts Center gallery.

The title of the exhibition, “Art with a Gentle Footprint,” reflects her focus on “sustainability,” a “three-legged stool” comprised of the “environmental, social, and economic,” she said. “I’m a big advocate that we can all be aware and make one small step, because, as artists and consumers, if we all take one small step, the whole will be greater.”

“We’re all becoming much more aware of our environment,” said Silvan Durben, creative director of the arts center. “We want to be more respectful of how we function in society and leave it for the next generation.”

Her use of natural dyes is one step toward sustainability, as she was “disturbed” by the amount of waste with chemical dyes, Saye-Willis said. Not only do natural dyes allow for reuse, “I can source a lot of them locally.”

“I’m fascinated by her exploration of natural dying, which is kind of a lost art form,” Durben said. “We use so many chemicals these days to dye fabrics, and not all of our fabrics are natural anymore, either.”

Of course, chemical dyes are a relatively new resource, Saye-Willis said. For centuries, only natural dyes were available — the old masters had to get their colors from nature — and she utilizes sources ranging from rhubarb root and sumac to avocado pit and pomegranate skin.

“It’s hard to find information, books, or knowledge on these natural dying processes, which have been passed down for centuries,” and Saye-Willis achieves “a wide rainbow of colors, not just earth tones,” Durben said. “There’s a warm glow to them — vibrant and vivid.”

Colors do “tend to blend with natural dyes,” as opposed to with chemical dyes, where “some (colors) compete with others,” so “it’s all a learning experience,” Saye-Willis said. Fortunately, “I have a natural intellectual curiosity,” often waking up in the morning and wondering “what would happen if I tried this?”

Her mediums tend to “feed off one another,” and her art “seems to have a mind of its own,” she said. “It’s not predictable.”

She derives “a great deal of satisfaction from jewelry,” “I absolutely love the book art,” “I like installation art because you can develop this whole feeling” around it, her fiber art includes wearables, wall hangings, and commercial pieces, and the natural dyes span the course of history, but there are “only 24 hours in a day,” she said. “It’s a lot of experimentation.”

In the 60s and 70s, she worked regularly with textiles and taught a lots of classes, but she and her husband started their own business, in which she concentrated in marketing and finance, she said. Their sons now run the business, while she and her husband concentrate on their art.

“My husband is a potter, and we each have our own studios,” she said. They reside in Rice County, just south of Northfield.

Saye-Willis will lead a workshop on Shibori, a Japanese manual resist dyeing technique, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the OAC January 19, Durben said. The fee for the class is $55, but that includes materials and instruction.

Students are asked to register by Jan. 11, he said. Individuals can do so by calling the Owatonna Arts Center or Saye-Willis (507-838-5133).

There will be a reception at the OAC for Saye-Willis from 1:30-5 p.m. following the workshop, he said. Her exhibition opens this Sunday and runs through Jan. 27.

“I hope (this show) raises environmental curiosity,” Saye-Willis said. “Let’s take a look at the whole picture.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.