Interpreting cultural sources, Stage 2 – Developing source material

October- November 2015

The aim of this first assignment is to research a textile or textile design from a particular culture. This will be used as the basis of design work and sampling. The research doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to textile sources and could be inspired by other related visual material such as tiles or basketwork.

Having decided on the culture of Native North Americans, I assembled a large A3 book of visual material. Most of my images came from referenced textbooks, but I also used the Internet and magazines. I looked at both historical pieces and the way contemporary artists interpreted traditional designs.

Some comments on the visual references assembled:

  1. There is a strong reliance on the use of natural materials. Bone, leather, porcupine quills, feathers, wood, woven cloth for wool and other fibre. Later, after introduction from Europeans, glass beads, silk ribbon.
  2. Colour: natural pigments – hide, red, yellow, white, black, blue and turquoise (beads).
  3. Fringes and tassels feature prominently: the movement and sound of these were believed to scare off evil spirits.
  4. Bold, geometric repeating patterns feature prominently.
  5. It is common for art to be extremely constrained by convention. Images are follow a consistent pattern of stylisation and composition.
Art was seen as “intrinsic”. There is no native American word for “art” because beauty was seem as an essential part of every functional everyday item.
Some themes which I worked on and developed:

Feather theme

I started by sketching some feathers which edged a “harness with mirrors” (Blackfoot 1880s)
I made a tonal drawing, concentrating on texture and movement. From this original, I cropped enlarged a small area on the computer using “Photoshop Elements”. 
I tiled this image and explored changes in colour and exposure using the programme “Procreate”.
Finally, I used added colour effects:
Although this image is more “leaf-like” than feathers, it emphasised the edges and both positive and negative space are represented. There is a colour theme recurring throughout the pattern.
I also looked at the effect of superimposing the feather image onto different backgrounds and changing the contrast. Below is one example.
I looked at how the feather shapes could be simplified to make a stencil and I used the stencils to make screen prints.
I also looked at mono-printing from acetate to create the feather texture. This wasn’t very successful, so and I tried printing directly from feathers which gave surprisingly good results (below)
There are lots more examples in my design development book.
Sioux breastplate theme

The sioux breastplate is a garment made from sections of bone arranged similar to ribs. The starting point for my development work was to make an analogy of this with water soluble graphite. I was interested in particular in the curvature of the bone segments and the negative space created between them.
I made a block print of the negative image from funky foam and experimented with printing the negative image. I got some very interesting marks
I then made an analogy in paper (similar to bead making), by wrapping strips of paper around a wooden dowel. I strung them together with string, then took prints and rubbings.
I liked this photograph so much that I tried cropping it then manipulating it in different ways to make patterns. Here are some examples – there are more in my development book.

Feather and Sioux breastplate themes combined

My feather stencil cut-out happened to be laying on top of the Sioux breastplate block print. The results were interesting!
This gave me the idea of making a print using the stencil and the block-prints as a background. I took a photo of the stencil positive image on the black background. I digitally inverted it to give the opposite.
Blackfoot dress theme

The blackfoot dress was a bold red colour with a sinusoid of brass beads running from the sleeves and across the shoulders. The bead pattern was simple, yet interesting. I made two prints with acrylic paint, one using the opening of a beer bottle (coarse), on with the opening of a glue dispenser (fine).
I then took my preferred image (the coarse print) and digitally manipulated it, “cutting it out” and colouring it, and making repeating patterns. My investigations extended to an experiment where I added layers, shading and cross-hatching to give a 3D effect (below). The result was a wonderfully organic image which would be suitable to develop as a 3D textile art installation, using fabric, paint effects and stitching.
Geometric designs inspired by Arapaho dress

I copied some simple shapes from a Arapaho dress. I only made initial sketches. My thoughts were that they could be developed with paper/collage and fabric piecing.

Navajo Yei bi chai

The Yei bi chai is a type of healing ritual in which participants wear strange masks and dance and chant during nightly recitals. I was interested in the characteristic shapes of the masks, their colours and decorations. I made several analogies. First I reproduced the main shapes and recreated a textural piece of the leathers used in the masks creation.
I then made a pattern using design elements from the mask and other sources.
I learnt that to make a repeating pattern which is not disjoint, it is necessary for the design to not come right up to the edge of the page, so that when cut out and re-arranged, their will be no non-matching pattern edges!
I then made a collage of paper cutouts using the shapes in the masks. I also looked at a simple related zig-zag design. For this, I made analogies in paper/paint and digitally. I wasn’t quite able to recreate the subtlety and delicacy of the paint and stencil brush with software!

Ribbon appliqué

Traditional native American ribbon appliqué designs use thin strips of cut-out and folded silk ribbon to create mirror images in contrasting colours. I made analogies in coloured card, using my own shapes.
I wasn’t too inspired by the plain card, so I tried substituting patterned newsprint (bottom left) which gave a much more pleasing result. The shapes reminded me of the roofline of mosques, and in particular a photo which I had saved. To the right is my analogy of strips of ribbon sewn onto leather, as is also sometimes seen in native American clothing.
I got very excited about the mosque design idea and the possibility of investigating the colour palette in my photo and/or the outlines/profiles of the buildings (below)
However, I decided that I was deviating too far from the initial theme, so I parked my ideas (maybe for use in a later project?)

Designs inspired by bead patterns

There are so many wonderful and tribally distinctive bead designs in native American culture. They were used on bags, moccasins, boots, shirts and dresses and leggings.
I took some of the patterns which I particularly liked and made analogies with paper and paint and a stamp made from a cut out eraser. I took these images and digitally manipulated them to examine different pattern arrangements and proportions.
Above is an example. There are several more in my design development book.
Snoshone Lake theme

I came across a particularly inspiring photograph of Snoshone lake in one of my reference book. I was immediately drawn to the complementary colours (blue and orange) and the variation of textures. There seemed to be a lot of potential for development.
I started by making lots of analogies in different media (soft pastel, water colour, oil pastel, acrylic) which helped my understand the range of shades and textures.
I also made investigations with crocheting and knotting yarns, and I made a colour card.
Finally a looked at sectioning the image, duplicating, rearranging and modifying it’s composition. Below are some examples.
There are more in my design development book.
Tassels and fringes
I never really got into the idea of tassel and fringes (I only made a single drawing). It represents some ermine fur which was hanging from a feather bonnet.
In this initial development work I tried to focus on design work. I concentrated on making my own analogies, using different materials to vary and explore texture. I then developed these analogies by changing scale, colour and proportion.
At this stage I hadn’t given any thought to specified outcomes, nor had I considered colour trends and fashion in clothing or interiors. I thought of this stage as a mark-making and pattern-development exercise and tried not to limit my possibilities too early. 


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