Sandoval Signpost
An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Featured Artist

Artist Mary Steigerwald

Fall silks

Chestnut detail on charmeuse

Signpost featured artist

Nature’s art: Dyeing with plants, soul, spirit, and water

~Oli Robbins

Hanging inside the Anasazi Fields Winery during the Placitas Holiday Sale were Mary Steigerwald’s extraordinary plant-dyed fabrics. Her cozy booth was bustling for the duration of the sale, and by the end of day one, all but four of her items had sold. Shoppers were instantly charmed by the scarves, runners, and hangings, their natural beauty impossible to ignore.

When Mary began experimenting with plant dyeing just two years ago, she became a “madwoman,” totally obsessed with, and undeniably fulfilled by, her new medium. “To me,” says Mary, “this magical process embodies all that is sacred and precious in our natural world, and I see over and over again that people actually feel a sort of energy from these prints, and it satisfies a hunger for nature.” Indeed, I too witnessed the lure firsthand. Mary’s scarves make the spirit of nature palpable, enabling the wearer to (quite literally) feel nature’s bounty and splendor.

Says Mary of her process, “By laying various leaves and flowers and other botanicals onto natural fabrics and processing by way of wood fire, water, and steam, I assist nature in creating amazing and magical scarves, table runners, wall hangings, and other items.” Mary here implies that she is the apprentice, an assistant to nature. This perspective is integral to her artistic practice and relationship with her works. She doesn’t consider herself the mastermind behind the art, but rather a grateful participant in a larger experience.

“The most important thing to me is that I’m not really doing it. I’m doing the mechanics but this is Mother Nature… My job is to stand back as much as I can and let it happen.” Unlike most other prints, each piece is absolutely one-of-a-kind and cannot be replicated. The dyed fabrics are reflections of nature’s vastness—its limitless ability to create. Says Mary, “No inks or dyes are used. All images and colors come from the plants themselves. No two are ever alike. Each one is a unique expression of the alchemy of the botanicals, the water, nature, and the moment.”

After arranging the leaves on the fabric (usually silk or wool, both of which are protein fibers and therefore quite receptive to the plant dye), she rolls the fabric onto a rusty rod. She then steams it over water for about 1.5 hours—just like you would a vegetable, except instead of steaming over a traditional stove, Mary builds her own fire, riverside. An iron water mordant, made with a rusty horseshoe, is required to “help fix the pigments of the leaves to the fabric.” The metal component to the water is essential, and always present in varying strengths. The water itself is also important, because the amount of iron naturally in the water will affect the dyeing process. “I feel like it’s sacred. To me it’s the soul and spirit of the work—where they’re made and the water.”

Says Mary, “I’ve had the honor and blessing to have lived for nearly 45 years in wild and beautiful places—from the Redwoods in California to the foothills of the Sandias to the high aspen forests of northern New Mexico.” She has been living “off grid” for almost forty years, and currently lives on the edge of the Truchas River, in a “very wild” environment. Even before she began plant dyeing, she spent much of her time at the river, warming herself by a fire and exploring—so her current process was an obvious addition to her lifestyle.

Mary’s winter studio is a straw-bale house in the “piñon, juniper, ponderosa, willow foothills” and in the other seasons, she works riverside in a forest with a bevy of aspen and mixed conifer leaves surrounding her. Her mini donkey companions generally accompany her to the river, and even help by carrying the completed scarves back to the house. “I’m crawling around in green beds, getting under trees. That’s my life.” If she spots a beautiful leaf floating downriver, she’ll pluck it out and use it. Most leaves can only produce a vibrant dye once, so the finished piece as well as every element in it is original.

Mary was an early resident of Placitas, living in an adobe house on Las Huertas Creek nearby the Tawapa community in the Seventies and Eighties. Her three daughters were born in her Placitas home, and for many years she spent her time mothering and felting. For thirty or so years, Mary fashioned hats and other felt wearables that were well-loved and sold quickly. It was only a couple of years ago, while rummaging around online, reading up on felting, that she discovered the work of an Australian Eco Dyer. Evidently, the Australian woman had stumbled upon the method when her chickens decided to lay their eggs on a pile of wet eucalyptus leaves (eucalyptus produces such a stunning orange that it continues to be one of Mary’s favorite and most utilized plants).

After introducing herself to Eco Dyeing, Mary thought: “There goes my life!” because she knew it would begin to consume her while bringing everything in her world full circle. Mary professes to having experimented with the technique for hundreds upon hundreds of hours. She remembers, “The first time it really worked and I got something more than a smear, I was beside myself with happiness and have been hopelessly addicted every since.”

Mary’s lovely art and wearable art will soon be available at Placitas’s Hoot Art Gallery. She can be contacted by visiting her website or her Facebook page, She would be happy to send images of available pieces.

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