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“ Color is magic. It’s forever fascinating to see how a color changes when you place a different color next to it,” muses fiber artist Leigh Herndon in a posting on her website.
Her passion for color is immediately visible on a recent visit to her Naples home and studio. In the living room, Herndon, a petite, soft-spoken woman, has set up a rack of garments she calls “ruanas.” Ruana is a Spanish term she’s adopted to describe the loose silk jackets she dyes in a palette of luscious, confectionary hues, ranging from tangerine to turquoise, lavender and rich emerald green.
Silk, which Herndon uses exclusively, accepts the colored dyes brilliantly, the artist notes. It also has a soft, fluid drape that enhances her flowing designs of leaves, flowers and stylized birds, inspired by the tropical landscape around her.
She makes wax-resist textiles, known to most people as batiks. However, as Herndon carefully explains, although she uses batik tools and techniques in her work, she specializes in “rozome,” a series of Japanese methods for coloring and patterning fabric that differ from Indonesian traditions.
“I know about 13 of them, perhaps there are more,” she said of rozome practices. “Japanese techniques are more painterly. There’s more shading and you can achieve gradations of color. The brushes are the most important tools. With the brushes, you can vary the lines, making them thick or thin, according to the pressure of your hand.”
Japanese textile artists prefer silk, while Indonesians use cotton fabrics. And Indonesian batiks are made using a tool called a “tjanting” — pronounced “jon-ting” — that creates lines and dots conducive to decorative patterns. This tool is somewhat like an old-fashioned fountain pen with an open well for melted wax. It funnels down to a fine point from which the wax flows onto the fabric. Herndon uses a tjanting to sign her name on her creations.
Common to both traditions is the use of wax to block out areas of fabric that will “resist” dyes as a piece of cloth is repeatedly bathed in vats of different colors.
Typically, Herndon begins her process with a piece of white silk that will eventually become a scarf, sarong or jacket. She draws a design on it in pencil. Then, the fabric is stretched and she applies hot wax to the areas she wants to keep white.
Next, she selects her first color, normally the lightest, and immerses the cloth in dye for 20 to 30 minutes. When she pulls it out, the fabric is carefully rinsed and allowed to dry for 24 hours.
Then, Herndon applies another coating of wax to preserve areas of her first color, and she slips the fabric into a second container of dye. The parts of the fabric without wax will turn a new color as the dyes interact. The entire process is repeated multiple times until the artist is satisfied with the results.
At that point, the fabric is almost completely covered with wax. Herndon used to remove the waxy build-up by laboriously ironing the cloth between sheets of paper. Recently, however, she discovered a dry cleaner who will take care of the job for a reasonable price. “It was, like, the happiest day of my life,” she said with a smile.
Computers to clothes
Herndon and her husband, Mark Cyr, became full-time residents of Naples more than eight years ago, after lengthy careers in the computer industry. He still works at home on mobile phone applications and services.
Meanwhile, she’s become the sole proprietor of Leigh Designs, marketing her hand-dyed creations to women’s clothing boutiques and wearable art outlets.
Locally, her clothing items can be found at Kari’s Kreations on Neapolitan Way and Fifth Avenue South. They range in price from $68 for a scarf to $148 for a ruana.
“I’m always trying new shades, new designs, new combinations of techniques. I don’t want to be too commercial. Each garment is unique,” Herndon says.
Her leap from computers to cloth wasn’t an arbitrary move. Herndon had been interested in fiber ever since she taught herself batik as a college student at the University of Montana. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art. But there weren’t many teaching jobs available when she finished school in the 1970s, and plenty of opportunity existed in the burgeoning computer business instead.
So when that industry took a downturn in the late 1990s, she jumped and didn’t look back.
“I saw layoff after layoff around me,” she says. “I took a job at the Exeter Fine Crafts Gallery in Exeter, New Hampshire. I decided it was time to do something I really loved.”
At the gallery, she encountered an influential teacher, Betsy Sterling Benjamin, an authority on Japanese wax-resist textiles. Herndon took only one course with Benjamin, “but it started me in a whole new direction,” she says.
In addition to the rozome processes Herndon learned from Benjamin, she sometimes employs “shibori” techniques to achieve certain effects. Developed over hundreds of years in Japan, shibori methods involve pleating, tying, twisting and stitching cloth before it is dyed. Similar to tie-dye, sections of fabric are gathered and compressed so they remain untouched by colored dye, creating abstract shapes and repeated patterns.
In her studio, Herndon teaches a handful of private students, including a 13-year-old neighbor, Lavinia Carr. An eighth grader at First Baptist Academy, Carr is a budding artist who loves all things Japanese.
The two connected at a reception this spring for Keep Collier Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that sponsors an annual art contest for students in grades one to 12. Students from schools all over the county compete to have an artwork included in the organization’s calendar, and Carr was the seventh-grade winner.
They chatted at the reception, and Herndon later invited Carr and her mother to a party at her home, where they visited the studio. There, the young girl was enthralled by the artist’s tools and billowing, multicolored fabrics. Herndon offered to begin showing Carr how to make batiks, and the two have been working together since then.
“I enjoy the process of working with the wax,” Carr said, patiently daubing dye into a stencil as she worked on a brightly colored length of cloth in Herndon’s garage on a recent Saturday morning. “I like dying and seeing the changes in the fabric. And I like how it all comes together in a finished piece.”
That day, Carr created her first “wax snowstorm” by loading a brush with wax and then tapping the handle with another brush to achieve a spattered effect.
“What I love about cloth is that it’s a totally flexible medium,” added Herndon. “You can go in any direction with design and color. It can be traditional, contemporary, simple or complex in style. Everyone can express themselves in their own way with fabric. It can be very individual. I love that flexibility about it.”