Extended Interview and Slideshow
1a. Please begin with a brief history of your artistic path. How did your introduction to clothing and fashion begin?
As a child, I remember admiring the colored spools of thread arranged by my mother for quilting and sewing. She was a teacher and quilter and by far one of the most organized people I know. The spools were arranged by color and I could stare at those colors for hours - the silk covered cotton threads I continue to use today. As far back as I can remember, I was sewing and creating. First, stuffed animals, then pillows and quilts, then clothing as a teenager. I poured over fashion magazines looking for inspiration. I sketched designs. I remember staying up late to finish sewing outfits for special occasions at school – mostly dresses and accessories. My family was not a wealthy one, but we were comfortable. If I wanted new clothing and special clothing, it was going to be made. My parents instilled a strong work ethic in me from a young age. I began a part-time job in high school and worked my way through college.
Culture has always been a part of my life. My parents and my siblings introduced me to fine arts, museums, performances, music, dance. We went into NYC often. I realize today the importance of how this shaped me. I went on to obtain a degree in studio art from the College of Charleston, SC with minor in art history and theatre. After school, I worked as the Costume Shop Supervisor at the College of Charleston and then began freelancing - creating fashion designs and sewing for clients. I worked in music stores and art stores to supplement freelance work. Some highlights of my sewing business included creating the stage set from spandex for the 25th International Emmy Award Ceremony in New York City, a fashion show of the decades, and the times I collaborated with Mary Edna Fraser - reknowned batik artist. I stitched dresses from her hand-dyed fabric for her two children. We worked on several projects, during which time Mary Edna saw my paintings and suggested that the design would translate well to fabric. I am ever so grateful for her encouragement. So I began to dabble in silk painting – I had access to supplies at the art store where I worked - gutta and liquid dyes. I fell in love. I began to explore other dyeing techniques and when I moved to NYC shortly after, I continued my dyeing on cloth. I worked during the day at New York University’s Department of Design for Stage and Film where I was inspired by the creative surroundings and costume designers including Chair, Susan Hilferty. It is a graduate program focused on scenery, costume, lighting and production design. I would occasionally sit in on some of the costume classes and spend time in the costume shop. I knew I didn’t want to be a designer, it was always the technical aspect of costume design that interested me – the craft.
In 2004, I attended Penland School of Crafts through a scholarship award, and studied with Yoshiko Wada and Joy Boutrup. That was an important time in which my shibori continued to develop and I was exposed to many different aspects of the chemistry of dyeing. I’ve continued my studies with Jason Pollen, former Surface Design Association president; Akemi Cohn, Katazome master; and most currently, Kiranada Sterling Benjamin, Rozome master.
1b. What impact did your studies in studio art and art history have in becoming a wearable artist?
Curiosity is important. Reading books is essential. I was raised with limited access to a television and so I was always turning to books, crafts or sewing. It was with these underlying interests that my focus on wearable art began to develop. Studio art studies were essential to the development of understanding line, color, composition, design. Working with different materials in sculpture helped me to open my mind to the sense of texture now seen in my cloth. I was really immersed in my college work – even in little class projects. I’m a perfectionist and I loved creating beautiful work. Which simple materials could be transformed into astounding beauty? I was often leaning towards the “craft” in my art classes. I created a great deal of functional work in my later years of school – furniture, etc. The College of Charleston did not have a focus on textiles. This was an outside interest of mine that was always present, yet separate. My theatre work seemed so different from the studio art side. There was more collaboration and less independence. I delved into patterning and different fabric techniques from a wide variety of historical periods in the theatre world. The work was very technical. It was my collaboration with Mary Edna Fraser after college, that allowed for both worlds to come together seamlessly.
Art history was essential to my development as an artist in understanding the vocabulary of the art world, composition of work and general history. I was always drawn to the contemporary artists but it was just as important to understand the Spanish Baroque period, for instance. My architecture class was also a favorite…I was drawn to texture, and line certainly has an influence in my current work.
1c. What drew you to Japanese dyeing techniques like shibori, and where did you learn?
When I was working at NYU’s Department of Design for Stage and Film, I noticed that the Chair, Susan Hilferty was often wearing Issey Miyake pieces. I loved seeing these pieces. Hilferty has an amazing style about her and she had a great costume library. One day, I found the book on Itchiku Kubota and his symphony of light kimonos. I couldn’t get his work out of my mind. His work is extraordinary and extremely labor intensive. I started to research shibori further. I had dabbled in some of the dyeing techniques over the years, but this inspiration was what I needed to head in the next direction. While doing all the research, I learned the class at Penland was being offered by Yoshiko Wada, President of the World Shibori Network. Yoshiko’s class was conceptual. She pushed you to think about what this “force and resist” really can be. For example, I remember a story she told about trees in Japan which are wrapped and when unwrapped the growth of the bark is a type of shibori. Footsteps embedded in fresh sand is a type of shibori. I have always been drawn to opposites. Somehow, force vs. resist added to my exploration of ancient vs. contemporary, light vs. dark, form vs. space. This, combined with Joy Boutrup’s exceptional knowledge of chemistry and dyes, allowed me to truly open my mind to the possibilities. I continue to explore other styles of Japanese dyework, but shibori has such a deep place in my heart because it was the first technique in which I really immersed myself. Shibori involves aspects of both planned manipulation and unknown nature, again, opposites.
2. What was your early work like?
How did you arrive at this style, and what influenced you? My early work was very simple and there was a lot of color. Too much color. I remember one piece that had every color of the rainbow in it. It was beautiful but crowded. You could see the definite outlines of the gutta and then it was about coloring in between those lines. The work was not developed. But it was the beginning. I also played with Aljo dye thickeners and direct painting. This was an easy transition from my fine art painting, though it was more like working in watercolor than acrylics or oils. My beginning shibori was arashi shibori and it was fairly simple. I was no longer working with gutta but rather the manipulation of cloth. It was when I began to explore combinations of color, distorting the fabric, the subtleties of it all, that I began to grow. For example, I would wrap a pole and keep track of direction - the fabric was wrapped counterclockwise and the thread clockwise, etc. I would keep track of how each pattern arrived. Part of what influenced me was the actual process and fairly meticulous record keeping. There is a time of discovery that exists before you begin to make a technique your own. Early inspiration came from the galleries and streets of New York City, the East Asian Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tisch Design Department, the aesthetics of Takashimaya (one of the first places in NYC where I sold my textiles), the texture of Issey Miyake, the colors of Missoni, the designs of Yeohlee, and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.
The other aspect of my work, aside from the surface design, was the stitch. My early work involved a great deal of piecing because it’s what I had available to me. Now I deliberately do it because it can be aesthetically pleasing. I’ve nurtured and developed my stitching through the years. I used to be terrified of bias. Now, I can just sort of “feel” what the fabric wants to do. I love what bias can do.
3. Can you walk us through the process of how you make three different designs in your newest series? (Such as your different layered silk chiffon, wool and linen shibori kimono styles and silk chiffon shibori stitched scarf)
People wonder why I would rip and cut perfectly dyed cloth. It is this second layer that is so important to my work. It’s part of what differentiates my shibori. Deconstructing the cloth allows me to push further. It allows for beautiful dimension and an interplay between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality.
*layered method - I first hand-dye itajame shibori on silk chiffon. The surface is then deconstructed by hand-cutting thin strips. I layer and piece these lines, deliberately designing the surface. I am creating a textured fabric from a single piece of flat silk chiffon. This cloth then is cut, edged, finished and stitched to complete a garment.
*stitched method – This is my signature work. I hand-dye itajame shibori on paper-like silk organza or silk chiffon. Sometimes the cloth will be pieced. Folding and stitching complete the design. The stitching is such an important element as it adds weight to create the drape of the cloth I’m seeking. I have the control to create the size and shape of the piece I want to end up with. The dyework must be perfect. I don’t like to work with distorted shapes and so I will save those pieces for other work.
*heavy texturing method - I first hand-dye itajame shibori on linen or wool. Again, the surface design work must be impeccable. Each fold or pleat is calculated to create a desired effect. The wool and linen are hardest to work with because of the weight of the fabric, particularly the weight of the wet fabric. I like to add dimension through the stitch. Deliberate deconstruction and piecing complete the textured fabric and I then cut, piece, and stitch the final design. Each garment comes from an enormous amount of cloth. Getting the design where I want it – whether symmetrical or asymmetrical - uses more cloth than most would think! I dye as many as six to twelve yards for a single garment.
*quilting and piecing are other important aspects of the stitch work. I grew up quilting so it is second nature to me. My work is all about the layers. First the surface design, then the texturing, stitching, quilting, cutting, layering before a piece even gets to be considered as a garment. Piecing takes shibori to the next level – I’m able to create bold and graphic patterning depending on how the deconstructed surface design is pieced.
4a. Do you have a goal or vision directing your art?
For now, my vision is to continue to create beautiful wearable art - to push in the directions of surface design, form and fabric creation. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a woman (or man) giddy from stepping out of their normal attire. This adds such beauty to the world – the expression of oneself.
I’d like to explore some work with recycled pieces. This may not involve dyework, or it may. I always have small projects that I like to work on to challenge myself…this is one for a few years down the road.
I’m interested in showing more of my textiles by way of installations; particularly for a healing center. Tactile art reaches us in ways that can’t be described. I’d utilize my exploration with color and my understanding of how the human mind reacts to it. A recent exhibit by Motoi Yamamoto, Saltworks: Return to the Sea, featured at the Halsey Gallery at the College of Charleston, inspired me greatly. It helped me see a direction of my own current work in larger scale.
These are some of my goals and visions. They change over time but these have been written for some time now on a list that is very important to me. There are personal goals on this list as well, and the reason they are all listed together is because I consider my textiles a part of my life, a part of who I am. What doesn’t change is the most important thread through all of this - creating a sustainable textile business through which I am educating, collaborating and eventually teaching, all while working in the studio on my own textile creations. I feel a responsibility to continue and grow Craft in my community. I feel it’s important to keep future generations making and collecting textiles. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, gives us a sense of how important cloth is to society. Clothing made locally, with great care and the attention on the sourcing of materials should be of utmost importance in our society. Made-by-hand items, requiring years of studying and refinement of craft, should be collected, treasured, and pursued. I’d like to have an apprentice, or even a few people working with me – a small-scale model of historical Japanese textile production. Currently, I work long hours with my husband helping part-time, plus one assistant who works part-time. But, it takes time to grow ideas and I’ve found that I’m careful and deliberate about doing things. I like operating under a smaller-scale business model and I like being able to do all the work in my studio. My current situation will grow as time and finances allow. Even if I have another person helping, I know I will always work intensively in my studio. I enjoy it a great deal.
4b. You recently explained to me the importance of flow in your work; does this mean the spontaneous is more important for your artistic direction than any intellectual idea or goal?
Spontaneity is important. I’m such a perfectionist that sometimes it’s hard for me to let go. I would say that my goal of creating beautiful textiles, of creating beautiful garments, of creating healing textiles and of always pursuing the next technique and pattern and design, allows my thought-pattern to be very ordered, so to speak. I work fairly methodically, but it is often the times that I let go that the really great ideas are spurred. Flow can be associated with either spontaneity or a specific artistic direction, but I believe it is that place where mind and body are perfectly aligned while creating. This complete immersion allows creativity to flow.
5a. How has your dyeing process evolved over time?
My focus now is on shibori, rozome and katazome. I intend to use these techniques interchangeably in the future and several techniques may show up in one piece. These three techniques allow for vast experimentation. I find it is important for my focus to be expansive at times. My katazome and rozome work has not been shown yet except for in some process photos. I have been developing it over time and will not show this work publicly until I feel it is headed in a decisive direction. A regular practice of these different types of dyeing cloth helps to keep my current shibori fresh, and keeps me working ahead so I don’t feel stagnant. Yet, there is still so much to explore with shibori – different styles, fabrics, dyes - a real depth of mark-making and patterning. Shibori is its own expansive process on which I have layered my voice with stitch and dimensional character. Working with other techniques like rozome allow me to express my inner-self. I find deeper freedom of expression (like a painter) in the brushstrokes of both the wax and the dyes.
A major evolution of my work over time can be seen in my use of color. In my initial dyework, I used every single color of the rainbow in each piece. Now, I refine the way the colors work together; two to three colors in a piece, with tones or ranges, can be more beautiful than every color at once. Color is very important but it must be used in the appropriate place. I’d say the more I handle different classes of dyes, the more I experiment with color, the more expansive my work becomes.
5b. What have you learned since the first few years you were involved in making your own clothing?
Being involved in the theatre and working with different bodies and different period styles was an excellent base from which to grow. Understanding how clothing is put together is crucial to the design background. I initially learned flat-patterning when I began to make corsets for the theatre, but have dabbled in draping as well. I enjoy researching historical clothing and costume but I also like a real modern edge. I strive to have both come through in my shapes. My good friend, Ellen Jaegersen, Costume Technology Professor at Rutgers, is my sounding board. We’ve collaborated together, Ellen has designed a couple of original pieces for me and she helps with some of the grading and sizing. I do spend a good deal of time experimenting with pattern and shape in search of the perfect garment.
Learning how fabrics are constructed and how they drape is also important in creating the garment. I’m always looking to make fabric that has the perfect hand – quite often it means I’m layering and stitching fabrics together to utilize the properties of these fabrics in combination. I enjoy working with silks and polyester and have recently begun work in wool and linen. It is surprising to me how a simple shape in my mind may take more time to develop. Sometimes it is just a single line in a pattern (or in a piece of art) that, in the end, makes all the difference in the world.
There are so many layers to who I am, so many layers to my work. It’s valuable to look sometimes from the inside out. The inside of my garments are just as beautiful as the outside (sometimes even more so). It is these inner workings that are so important in the making of clothing and the more I create, the more ideas I have for how to work from the inside out. Sometimes linings are wonderful, but the exposure of the seams and the inside construction can be quite beautiful as well.
6. Shibori dyeing is fairly physically demanding process. How much does the tactile nature of your art factor into your lifestyle?
I’d say it all is physically demanding. Standing for hours, sitting for hours, repetitive motions. I do yoga daily and have a meditation practice. I put in long hours – easily 14 hour days – so I have to be aware of my body as I work. I see the importance of bringing healing into my own art, and art, in general. I’ve learned this from the health of those around me, as well as my own. We can push ourselves but we must also know our limits. Growing up with juvenile type 1 diabetes has taught me to honor my body and my health. I notice that when I’m physically feeling my best, I’m able to create my strongest work. Similarly, I’ve learned not to work on a piece when I’m angry or upset – inevitably, something will go terribly wrong with the cloth. Instead, I go for a walk, or find another way to clear my mind. I believe the mind has to be still and at peace when creating.
7. How difficult was it to learn shibori and other dyeing techniques, like rozome and katazome?
What helped you “get it”? I wouldn’t even say that I “get it” now. Outside viewers may think so, but if I were to believe that, my exploration in that area is over. Like closing a book. I have to be open to exploration. And time. And practice. I know that when working with wax, for example, I must do so in silence. Chatter and noise distract me too much. I have to be present when working with any of these techniques. I think when we do too many things at once, something is lost. I love listening to all kinds of music in the studio, particularly when I’m doing something repetitive, but sometimes beautiful silence is golden. All of these techniques can be difficult to learn. I have a great deal of patience, which is certainly helpful, but I would definitely say that time, daily practice, seeking advice of peers, and taking classes are all important aspects of growth. I try to refresh myself with a different view and perspective by taking intensive classes at least every few years. I also have some wonderful mentors.
8a. Where do you get the inspiration for your craft?
Everywhere and anywhere. I always carry a sketchbook with me or a camera. It’s surprising what jumps out at you…it could be the way someone is wearing a garment or the pattern a tire makes.
Being very general, I’d say nature and architecture are up there on my list. The colors in nature are extraordinary, particularly the way in which these colors work together. Proportion and repetition are used a great deal in my own work. I admire the lines of architecture, old and new, and the particular dimension and texture seen in Gehry’s and Gaudi’s work.
I’ve always had a love for Asian aesthetic and am strongly influenced by Japanese textiles in terms of my development and approach to contemporary shibori. I recently went to see a wonderful exhibit in NYC, Fiber Futures:Japan’s Textile Pioneers, at the Japan Society. The Nuno Corporation, based in Japan, has also created large bodies of fascinating and innovative fiber structures. I draw inspiration from fashion designers such as Issey Miyake, Yoshiki Hishinuma, Akihiro Izikura, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo. Alexander McQueen’s posthumous exhibit at the Met was one of the most well-curated exhibits I’ve seen. His work was extraordinary and I took notice of the subtle aspects, such as how the tartans matched perfectly. It’s so hard to list only a few; Vionnet’s bias, Dior’s details, Yeohlee’s minimalism, Worth’s silk draping, Delaunay’s geometry…they all inspire me in different ways. And, I’ve always liked seeing and having a little bit of an edge in my own design.
Artists I’m inspired by include Andy Goldsworthy, Naum Gabo, Constantin Brancusi, Isama Noguchi, and Georgia O’Keefe. I’m generally drawn to Twentieth Century artists, particularly sculptors. Those close to me know I like to both admire and create origami; it gets me thinking outside the box. It’s important to look at things in different ways.
8b. Who have been some mentors to you, and what have been some influences on your work?
I have been so grateful for my connections in the art world. Mary Edna Fraser introduced me to the world of dyework. Yoshiko Wada introduced me to thinking outside of the box in terms of textiles. Joy Boutrup instilled in me the need for safety when working with dyes. Jason Pollen’s best advice was to carve out a small bit of time each day to experiment with no outcome in mind. This has helped me to see failures as part of the process – a big help in the process of creating. Juanita Girardin, Kay Riley and Betsy Giberson took me under their wings as I began to participate in craft shows. Kiranada Sterling Benjamin has showed me how to pull from within when creating. I believe that I met each of these people at the right time in my life, when I could most benefit from their instruction or advice. The nice thing is that I’ve continued some wonderful relationships which have since developed into good friendships. We inspire each other, teach each other, and learn from each other. It’s all of these experiences and layers that have helped me as I develop my own vision and style as an artist.
It is not just the artists, though. I’d say that I learn a great deal from my collectors as well as boutique and gallery owners. They’ve inspired me a great deal and have given me different advice and perspectives on life, art, and work. Even thinking way back, my first mentors were probably my parents. Certainly, my mother deserves great credit for teaching me to sew and first understand color. And my father instilled in me a deep sense of curiosity and an interest in humanity. He was the first to introduce me to Buddhism and zen thinking which would become an integral part of my life years later, when I married my husband, Ky.
9. Your coats and scarves have a lot of texture and dimensionality to them, and the cut and layering of the clothes stands out from other art-to-wear garments. How do you experiment with clothing’s form?
Sculpture class first comes to mind. Having the ability to think in three-dimensional form, and having first explored this practice long ago is helpful in how I envision shapes for the human body. Knowledge of patternmaking allows me to transform shape. I consider a kimono a blank canvas, but then I think, “What can I do with that?” A pleat here, an addition there, all of this makes it more contemporary. While there are some basic and classic shapes that I certainly draw from, I like to be forward-thinking with these. I experiment not only with flat-patterning and draping, but also with the fabric itself. I can take a beautifully dyed silk chiffon and make it into a kimono, but if I stitch it to lightwool wool, then I can use that cloth in a more constructed piece.
10. What do you have in mind for the future?
Educating the public about textile crafts in the United States is a high level priority of mine. Reflecting about what's going on in the artisan crafted and local foods movements, I believe that understanding what we put on our bodies should be just as important as understanding what we put in our bodies. For instance, where does the fabric come from and what is its content? Who’s hands have worked on it? Who has dyed it and how do they work with dyes? Who has created the garment? I've made the personal decision to put extensive work into the surface design aspect of my clothing, and yet I know the importance of having my hands in the entire process from start to finish. And, in an effort to more fully understand the structure of the fibers I work with, I even have a loom in my studio that I’ll play with from time to time.
I really believe small artists, like myself, are invaluable not only to the future of textiles, but to the future of community in this country. I am beginning to see more and more that the “slow textile” movement is imperative to our society’s survival. Fast is not always better. By endeavoring to hand-make what we produce as local small business owners, we are able to positively impact our communities in sincere and personal ways. People connect with one another in a more meaningful way, are more present with each other, and inevitably this leads to a deeper sense of respect and appreciation. It's my experience that local artisan businesses, when appreciated and supported by their local customer base, are able to not only keep their art alive, but to truly thrive and support the livelihoods of the local design and artisan workforce in their own community.
But I’m really only at the beginning of my career. I try to stay grounded in what I do to reach my goals and vision. I continue daily with what seems to flow. Shibori emphasizes mark-making, and I hope someday that I’ll leave a mark here.
Amy Nguyen Slideshow
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