Teacher Talk: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Years of canoeing and walking in the woods have taught me that some of the best sightings come when you stop to look back. New Year’s is a good time to look back as well as forward. And since this is the kind of reflection that often happens in the teacher’s cottage at Sievers, here’s a picture I took there last fall.

Deer browsing outside the teachers cottage at Sievers.

Sometimes things that seem elusive stick around a long time when you stay still.

One of the core elements of my classes is working to engage observation skills. I feel that helps students focus. When they’re focused, they’re less distracted by the inner voices telling them they don’t know what to do. Mindful observation is a huge step toward distilling a universe of possibilities (and where do I start?) into action. Instead of A-then-B-then-C, I want students to leave confident that on their own they’ll be able to observe the variables they encounter in materials’ characteristics and distill their body of knowledge into a starting point for them to keep working on their own.

I’m a huge believer that most people’s observation skills benefit from photography. The challenge of digital cameras, though, is that they record everything — everything. So in classes like Local Color, my job is to help students find ways to distill that information and concentrate on one element of a story at a time. For example, I usually have them sketch as well as photograph on field trips. Even when they say they can’t draw, sketching requires that they look closely at the subject. Stencil and screen printing is another great technique for helping people learn to distill what they’re seeing into essential elements.

Sievers Local Color class.
I’ve made some changes in the way I’ll teach Local Color at Sievers in 2014. The goal will still be to engage those observation skills and distill what students see into elements they can use to tell their story. But for the first time, I’ll be able to let them use their tablets and smart phones as well as digital cameras. In short, this class will be a mash-up of Natural Dyeing with Local Color field trips and photography a dash of Digital Fabric.


For example, as we gather material for eco dyeing, students will photograph where we’re gathering, then photograph the plant in great detail, then sketch the plant. As those materials are cooking in their eco dyed scarves, we’ll work with their photographs and sketches and with some utilities that help them alter, simplify and resize images. And from that unit, they may end up with a naturally dyed silk scarf, photographs of that naturally dyed silk fabric, images they can print directly onto inkjet fabric, and images they’ve manipulated or images taken from sketches that become Thermofax screens. We’ll be printing with those screens using thickened walnut dye concentrate, so that might be added to their eco-dyed silk scarves.

Thickened walnut dye screen printed on silk scarf by Donna Kallner.
And they’ll learn to print their images on inkjet heat transfer film. Resizing images to print at that scale is one of the things students are always eager to learn about. They really need the whole observation/distillation process, though, to work on the small canvas of jewelry.

Washington Island photos transformed into Local Color To Wear by Donna Kallner.
This class won’t teach them how to make the seamless repeat patterns for printing yardage like I taught in the Digital Fabric class. But so many people want to know how to work from their iPads and iPhones, and this will help them. It will give them less autonomy in their printing, though, since we won’t have a wireless router in the studio. But they’ll be able to send their images to me during the class, and print through my laptop. That, too, will encourage some distillation and editing in their design process.

2013 ends tonight with me looking back at all I’ve learned from my students over the years, looking forward to the next iteration of classes I love to teach, and knee-deep in production for a new online course. I’ll have a bit more information about the Freeform & Textural Looping eCourse soon. But for now, I’ll leave you with a wish for a healthy, happy and creative New Year.

Happy New Year 2014 from Donna Kallner.

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Donna Kallner

fiber artist, teacher and explorer, inspired by ancient fiber techniques and all the ways contemporary fiber artists give old ideas a new spin