Artist who uses clay to dye fabric makes Smithsonian's permanent collection


Jean Schulman has made it into the permanent collection at the Smithsonian by painting with vivid colors from the earth.

For more than 40 years, she has used clay dug from the soil of Alabama and elsewhere as a dye for fabric in her batik paintings. Alabama is known for its deep red clay soil, but Schulman's batiks include shades of red, yellow, brown and even pink, purple, gray and green. At one site, she was able to find about 25 colors in an area the size of a football field.

Schulman, 80, first tried using clay as a dye more than 40 years ago when she visited a friend's classroom to give a batik demonstration and saw little jars of clay. She dipped a brush in the jars, painted on her fabric and was instantly won over.

"It absolutely wiped me out," she recalled. "You really can't imagine until you see a synthetic dye next to a clay dye and one of them just looks like it's alive."

As she began using clay dyes in her paintings and traveled to dig up new samples, Schulman began doing research and interviewing experts on both natural dyes and primitive arts. Mud has been used on boards, metal and found materials by folk artists such as Jimmie Lee Sudduth, who died last year at 97. But clay as a dye on cloth for a batik?

"I don't think anything is new, but I haven't really found anyone who was actually doing art pieces using clay dyes on fabric," Schulman said.

The technique has earned a spot for five of her pieces in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Katherine Dirks, associate curator of the museum's textile division, said the museum was interested in Schulman's works because of the unusual technique.

Schulman, who is also listed in the Washington-based Database of Women Artists at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, has made a life's work of studying the use of clay, though she acknowledges there are still a lot of things she doesn't quite understand. An art teacher who retired in 1986 after 20 years in the Muscle Shoals school system, she still can't explain why the colors don't mix to make new colors the way other dyes do.

"If you put yellow clay and red clay together, you don't get orange, you just get mud," she said. "I don't know why. I just know that's what happens."

Another characteristic of clay dyes is that they don't seem to fade. Schulman said she looks back now at the first pieces she did using clay dyes, some of which have been hanging framed for about 40 years, and the colors are just as vibrant as when she painted them.

Likewise, the clay paints themselves can't be damaged. In her home studio, jars of old baby food, mayonnaise, pickle and salad dressing hold dried, cracked clay and are grouped on wooden shelves by source. Schulman said all she has to do to make the clay usable is add water.

As canvases for her batik painting, Schulman mostly uses antique linens &

sheets, handkerchiefs, table cloths, doilies &

that she finds at yard sales or gets from friends. She uses the old cloth in part because she said it's hard to find new fabrics that aren't treated with permanent press chemicals or synthetic dyes but also because they add character to the finished work.

"You can see it's torn in places," she said, holding up what looks like a small round table cloth with scalloped edges and flowers painted in shades of pink and purple Georgia clay. "I wouldn't think of sewing them up. I love that."

The subjects of Schulman's paintings include flowers, musical instruments, animals, landscapes, people and abstract designs. Often, she said, she doesn't set out with a specific image in mind but just starts putting down colors and waits to see if anything jumps out at her.

Sometimes she sees a person or object emerging in the abstract forms of a batik or other painting. When that happens, she draws directly on the piece with black ink, filling in the details of a face or the petals of a flower. She says she is "liberating" the people or objects from the painting.

Though modern methods vary, batik is a centuries-old process using wax and dyes to produce designs on fabric. Schulman starts by painting a design on fabric with melted wax. That keeps dye from penetrating those areas, which remain the color of the fabric.

Next, she paints the fabric between the wax with the lightest color clay dye she plans to use. She then puts more wax over the areas where she wants to keep that lightest color to prevent darker dyes from tainting them.

She repeats the process over and over, then puts wax over any areas of fabric that are still exposed. When the wax has dried, she bends the fabric to crack the wax. Then she puts a dark color dye over the whole piece, allowing it to soak into the cracks, while the wax protects the rest. Though Schulman doesn't always include this last step, it is traditional in batik and gives the paintings an interesting added effect with dark lines appearing in a crackled pattern.

The final step is layering the fabric between sheets of newspaper with plain white paper towels right next to the fabric. Then she irons the sandwich of paper and fabric on very high heat, which draws the wax out of the fabric and into paper &

similar to a common household fix for getting candle drippings out of a table cloth.

The finished product is stiff but pliable, saturated with color and has a design that can be seen on both sides of the fabric.

"When I did the first batik, I loved it," Schulman said. "And you would have to love it to do it because of the time it takes and the mess it makes."

Schulman's works have been featured in shows all over the country, and she has received recognition both for her art and her teaching. She is to receive the 2008 National Retired Art Educator of the Year Award from the National Art Education Association at its annual convention in New Orleans this month.

"She's just so positive and excited about what she does," said Debbie Bradford, director of the Muscle Shoals Education Foundation. "Even though she's been retired for more than 20 years, her love of art and her pride in her former students shows every time you talk to her."

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