And then again life unfolds by happenstance. When you wanted to spend the summer in Germany, as a junior in high school, but you did not get selected to go on that program. Right next door there was a beginning Japanese class, and you would get to go to Japan for a few weeks over summer break if you took that class. So you dropped the German class, enrolled in the Japanese class and there were three life-changing weeks in Japan. You would not get over that time in Japan, and by the time you went off to college, you ended up studying, well, Japanese … and then after college you went to live in Japan for what should have been a year or two teaching English … but what turned into ten years … and in those ten years in Japan you got introduced to indigo making and, well, there was no turning back now.
This is what happened with Rowland Ricketts.
Environmentally Friendly Art-Making
Ricketts was teaching a course in photography in Japan when he had a light-bulb moment. One day he started wondering where all the chemicals he was using in his photography class was ending up, and the answer — that it ended up in a river — bothered him so much that he started seeking out more sustainable ways of doing art. More ways that were in tune with the environment. Eventually he found a group collecting plants to make natural dyes, and, before long, he got hooked on making dyes as well, from plants — indigo, in particular. Eventually he would go on to master indigo making. Says Ricketts, “I love the great human tradition of making indigo. I really love the fact that indigo making evolves by each generation taking the skills and applying it to their day and age. There is something very ancient but, as well, strikingly contemporary in indigo making.”
When I challenged him about appropriating the indigenous knowledge of indigo making from Japan and taking it to the United States, Ricketts did not shy away from this discussion. “I don’t have a surface relationship with either Japan or indigo making,” Ricketts explained. ”I lived in Japan for more than a decade. I speak the language. The work I have done is recognized in Japan. The Japanese government, for example, has invited me to have a national exhibition in Japan, so I see what I do as being so much more than appropriating traditional Japanese knowledge. And I always make it very clear, almost painfully clear, to anyone who asks, that I am building upon the knowledge of the Japanese.”
Indigo-Making in Japan
Part of the reason that Ricketts chose to study indigo making in Japan was that the climate was similar to the one in the United States. “Indigo is made in different ways around the world. There is a really rich indigo-making tradition in various countries. The form of indigo making that occurs in Japan is one that is best suited to a temperate climate, similar to the climate in the Midwest where I live. I knew that eventually I would move back to live in the United States, and so I wanted to learn how to make indigo in a place where I could replicate it in the United States.”
Today, from his home in Bloomington, Indiana, Ricketts grows, harvests and composts the plant that he uses to make his indigo. There is something about engaging in the entire process of making indigo — the cumulative knowledge, and the ways that Ricketts himself adds to the process — that is very meaningful to the artist. In fact, this work of growing and harvesting plants and working with natural plants particularly appeals to someone who did not have this awareness while growing up in the United States. ”Growing up in the United States,” Ricketts told me, “there was no making of anything from the raw, from scratch. Anything we wanted, we got from the store. There was no using of plants in one’s immediate environment. For me, in growing up, plants were weeds and to be gotten rid of. When I lived in Japan I lived in the rural area in a very old house. In this house that I was slowly fixing up, I came to have a different relationship with the natural world around me.”
Ricketts’s work is gorgeous. The dye and textile works that he produces often make me think of a sea of unfolding blue when I look at them. What I find particularly exciting about the work that Rowland Ricketts does is how easily he moves between the categories of fine and functional art. He makes a line of table runners that is particularly gorgeous. In recognition of his work Ricketts was recently awarded the American Made Award given by none other than Ms. Martha Stewart herself. “This is so exciting!” Ricketts said to me, barely able to contain his joy the day I spoke to him. “It is exciting and unexpected and it is a tremendous recognition of the work that I do!”
An Indigo-Making Revival in the United States and Beyond
Building on the attention that he has gotten because of the American Made Award, Ricketts has allowed himself to dream big dreams. “Getting this award is so much bigger than just me. It is a recognition of the indigo process. Indigo making entails minimum income for maximum labor. Yet it is all worth it! What I want to do is make more people aware of indigo making and the rich history that goes with this. There is now in the United States a local movement aimed at bringing back small-scale manufacturing of textiles and natural dyes. I am very much a part of this movement and my hope is that growing indigo can become a means to economically support small-scale farmers in my community — and beyond.”
Listening to him speak I found myself dreaming right along with Rowland Ricketts.
But more than that, I felt I was in the presence of someone who could fully realize his blue-upon-blue indigo dreams.
Contact Rowland Ricketts through his website here: http://www.rickettsindigo.com
Until next time.
All images in this article are copyrighted to Rowland Ricketts and used with permission.