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On the Map 2022, #7 Iris Sullivan from Dream Bird Studio in Astoria, Oregon

Happy April,

Our newest indigo story of April is from Iris Sullivan who is an Oregon-based textile artist and grower. I hope you enjoy the introduction part of her story as well as her indigo journey in the Pacific Northwest region.

My first meeting with natural indigo happened while attending the University of Oregon.

Because I had learned to weave as a child, I ended up with a work study job as a teaching

assistant in the weaving department, even though I was studying biology at the time. The magic of indigo transported me, and contributed to the choice to reorient my studies away from biology, towards fiber arts, finishing with a BFA focused on natural dyes.

Soon after graduation, my husband Joe and I relocated to Astoria, Oregon so that I could teach at Clatsop Community College. I taught weaving, dyeing, and book arts there for 8 years. We have two sons, now in college, whom we homeschooled.

In 2005 I traveled to Laos to visit indigo dyers and weavers, with my mentor Michelle

Wipplinger. This experience, being with the Laotian weavers and dyers, was incredibly

impactful. The genuine sharing and connection across barriers of language and culture that

happened gives me hope for the world to this day. As an artist my goal is to create installation spaces that help people connect more deeply to themselves, and to the natural world. I often include indigo in my work, as I believe natural indigo contributes to the mending of our hearts, and has the capacity to bring us together across our differences.

Starting to grow indigo was a watershed event. I met Persicaria tinctoria through Brittany Boles, when she gifted some plants to our mutual friend Kestrel Gates in 2017. Britt and I hit it off, and started our joint venture, Indigofest, in 2018 as a community gathering to celebrate and learn with this marvelous plant. (We are happy to be hosting the retreat again for 2022 after a 2 year pandemic hiatus.)

In addition to Indigofest I teach workshops on natural dye and indigo regionally, and

occasionally in other parts of country. There is so much mystery and beauty in the process of

working with indigo, that as a dyer, the vat, and the indigo plant itself, will continue to be my

teachers for the rest of my life.

1. Location & Environment

All photos were submitted by Iris Sullivan

Dream Bird Studio is tucked into a forest of Sitka spruce, western red cedar, red alder, and

maple trees on a north facing hillside overlooking the Columbia River estuary in Astoria,

Oregon. The USDA growing zone designation for the North Oregon Coast is 8B. This is a

temperate rainforest, receiving over 2 meters of rain each year. The historic temperature range

is cool and mild year round, 40-65 °F, (4-18 °C) with only occasional freezing temperatures, and rarely hot. The Coast Range mountains hug the Pacific Ocean, gathering moisture. Forests here have been extensively cut over the last 100 years. Intact old growth forests are now rare sacred places of wonder and deep beauty.

2. Indigo plants & practices

I first began growing Persicaria tinctoria indigo in 2017. That first year we tried fresh leaf dyeing, and fermented the leaves, going straight to a vat using fructose and lime. In 2018 I purchased seeds and planted indigo at our house, gave away some starts to neighbors, and began growing additional plants off site at a friend’s farm.

The growing site at our place is a deck on the south side of our woodland house. It receives about 5 hours of direct sun during summer months. There is enough room for about 100 plants in large pots. I have noticed a wide assortment of native pollinators hanging out with the indigo. A few of my kind neighbors also grow dye plants for me in their sunnier gardens. These plants grown close to home are what I tend use for fresh leaf processing, and sharing with classes.

Farmer John Huelman, a friend who grows three to four 50’ rows of Persicaria plants for me, lives in Knappa, Oregon, 12 miles further inland. His site receives full sun, and is about 10 ℉ warmer in the summer. The plants get somewhat larger on the farm, and also seem to have a

higher pigment yield, which I assume relates to his more optimal site. These plants get turned into pigment, using the water extraction method.

For pigment extraction the first few years I used multiple buckets, and garbage cans, and now use an 85 gallon stock tank. I have found that aerating in the stock tank with a good sized stick is a more pleasant experience for me than either the paint stirrer drill attachment, or the immersion blender I used prior.

I have dried some leaves each year, enjoying it as tea. Last year I dried 15 pounds (7 kg) of leaves, and participated in an online small scale sukumo making class, with Debra Ketchum Jircik. The class was guided by the book The Way of Indigo by her teacher, Takayuki Ishii. I am very much looking forward to making my first sukumo style vat later this spring with the results. Drying even at this scale is challenging due to the high humidity here on the coast.

I usually store pigment wet so that it is in a good state for creating vats, or printing with. I have been experimenting with both minimizing the lime I use for extraction, and washing the pigment with vinegar to remove lime in an attempt to increase the purity of the pigment. Some pigment is used for other art processes, including paints, inks, paste paper, and to color handmade soap.