Recently completed an internship at the KU Dye Gardens
By Kaitlyn Resline
Tucked in the corner of the north side of KU’s campus is the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center. In the center of the three small buildings is a fenced-off garden, with its wilting flora obscured by a banner advertising the Heemet Fescht. However, in the warmer months it was a blooming garden of yellow sunflowers, golden coreopsis, and sunset orange calendula. This garden is where senior Hannah Westerman spent her summer.
“It’s like a little hidden gem,” she said.
Over the summer, Westerman interned at the KU Dye Gardens project as a recipient of the Bears Grant under the instruction of Professor Gwendolyn Yoppolo. She helped to maintain the garden by the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center and started an additional garden outside the Art Education wing of the Sharadin Art Building.
The mission of these gardens was simple: to encourage research with natural dye plants while practicing sustainability. Westerman explained that textile waste has become a more prominent problem, with chemical dyes being found in water streams.
“Overall, I try to stay away from that because I don’t want to contribute to it,” she said.
However, her journey to using natural dyes did not start with a concern for ethical and responsible art, even though she remains mindful of the natural resources used in her art. Originally a studio art major focusing on photography, Westerman decided to take an introduction course to textiles and weaving to fulfill her degree requirements.
“I like things where my hands are going and more 3D,” she explained while conveying her thoughts with a sweeping gesture.
This class was the gateway to her love of textiles. Unfortunately, when the Spring 2022 semester ended, Westerman found herself without the chemical dyes and safe studio environment of her classroom.
“I went home over the summer to my dad’s house, and I just didn’t have [the right materials], and I was upset. So that was when I started doing natural dyes,” she said. “It was just a lot more accessible to me at the time.”
At this point, two years into her college career, Westerman felt like an imposter during her foray into heavy art experiences. In the beginning, Westerman experimented with natural dyes and textiles to have fun despite not knowing a lot about the art process.
One of her first major projects was a patchwork bucket hat made from fabric scraps using the natural dye techniques she played with that summer. The piece is eye-catching, with overlapping light pastel scraps of pink, lavender, olive, yellow, and sky blue. Still, the colors look dull and tired, like they had been sitting in the sun, and the exhaustion had seeped in.
“I honestly had no idea what I was doing,” she laughed, reflecting on the piece.
In one corner of the dye garden is a row of miscellaneous flowers, some still in bloom despite the recent temperature drop that accompanies autumn weather. This is Westerman’s hospital. During the summer, some of the plants began to die, and Professor Yoppolo was ready to scrap them.
“I said no. I’m gonna save them,” Westerman said. Her head jerked up from gazing at the plants while her eyes widened. “At one point, they were all like, really, unfortunately dead. But I planted them.”
At the dye garden outside Sharadin, Westerman wandered along the plants, occasionally reaching her hand over the small chicken wire fence to rub the plant petals. She looked at a chart on her phone, as well as her project journal, noting the different colors that yielded from the plants. She stopped at the madder, a small shrub supported between two wooden stakes. She plucked a black berry from its heart, squishing it between her fingers, and leaving behind a dark streak.
“I’m gonna dye with that,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re supposed to, but I’m gonna try it.”
While explaining every plant, its growing conditions, and looking at her fabric samples, Westerman emphasized that she is still learning the process. Her previous favorite plant to dye with was the butterfly bush she said, showing a sample of a rich, olive green.
“Now it’s giving me more yellow,” she said with a small sigh. “So it’s just so confusing.”
But she’s found a new love with the scabiosa, a little purple flower that makes a deep green or blue color. Despite her insistence that she still has much to learn, the student is becoming the teacher. As part of her internship, she helped Professor Yoppolo run an art education graduate workshop using the plants from the garden. When the school year started, as president of the KU Textiles and Weaving Club, Westerman ran a demo showcasing the knowledge she had gained from the internship.
Now, Westerman’s work has grown with her new knowledge. She recently finished a quilt using natural dye swatches. To make a design in the quilt, she taped paper cutouts over the brightly colored blocks, leaving them in the sun to fade. The silhouettes left behind are bold and strong, like flowers punching through the subdued, sub-bleached earth.
A deep crimson pops beside a burnt orange and across from a frosty periwinkle. The quilt does more than catch eyes; it has the intensity to whip heads around. It is more experimental and intricate than her previous work, and it demands attention.
Looking to the future, Westerman is preparing to apply for graduate programs. The University of Michigan is among her top choices, for they have their own dye garden that would allow her to continue her research.
“I’m a person that likes to experiment with plants. It doesn’t really matter if it’s known or researched,” she said. “I just want to see what it does.”