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Sustainable Artist Nicole Young Uses Nature as Medium

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Nicole Young is a sustainable artist who seeks to create work that co-exists in harmony with the cyclical nature of life on this planet. Not only does she make her own inks for painting and dyes for fabric from used or foraged plants, she also recycles much of her own materials, making her a fascinating study on sustainability in art. Read on to hear about how she found formulas based on trial and error, how she finds spirituality in nature, and even a DIY recipe for making your very own copper oxide ink, a gorgeous blue-green color. 
 
sustainable artist
Nicole Young began her journey as a sustainable artist by swapping her acrylic paints for natural dyes and pigments.
 

How did you get started as a sustainable artist?

I’ve always been happiest when I’m making things. Growing up, I made a lot of different things — books and magazines, drawings, home decor, jewelry, and clothing. I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to spend my time making and working with art. I studied visual arts and art history in university and have worked in several public art galleries and art institutions throughout British Columbia.
 
I dabbled a little bit in sculpture and drawing during my undergrad, but painting has always been a steady staple in my creative pursuits. I was really lucky to have a few curators take an interest in my work early on and was offered some great exhibition opportunities. That motivated me to work not only on my own art practice but also in a role in which I can support other artists as well.
 
Outside of my own work, I also curate exhibitions, work as an art consultant, and mentor other artists. I made the switch from working in acrylics to working with natural dyes and pigments about three years ago, and it’s been an incredibly successful shift in my work that I’m really enjoying. 
 

There are many political causes and sources of inspiration for artists.  Why does the environment resonate as particularly important for you?  Why is it important to find sustainability in art?

I believe that climate change is one of the most urgent topics of our time. We all live on the earth, and we all need it to survive, so what happens to the environment is and should be a concern for all of us. And there are so many different ways you can approach the topic through the lens of art.
 
The environment feels like a subject that I could continue to expand on in my practice for the rest of my life and not run out of material. Conceptually, I’m interested in the idea of working with the land rather than against it. I see the cycles of the work I’m making following the cycles of the plants throughout the seasons, and it feels really natural and sustainable and enhances the joy I feel when I get into the flow state with my paintings. 
 

Describe your process of creating and using foraged and sustainable art pigments. 

Something I really enjoy about the process of creating and using natural pigments is how cyclical it is and how much it changes based on the seasons. Sometimes it involves going out into nature and finding walnut shells and Oregon grapes. In the fall and winter, I tend to work more often with onion skins because I’m cooking so much with them.
 
A big pot of French onion soup is usually followed by bundle dyeing with the onion skins. And then, at certain times of the year, if I can’t source the natural pigments I need myself, I’ll visit my favorite local dye shop Maiwa to fill in the gaps. It really varies depending on what kind of pigment I’m using, but it’s typically a process of extracting the color through water and a heat source.
 

You mention that your work is as much a science project as it is art.  To me, that says there must have been a lot of trial and error! Is this true?  

There is definitely a lot of trial and error — so many things can affect the color, like the pH of the water or using iron to shift the hue from bright to dark. You also have to treat the fabric before dyeing through a process called “mordanting,” which helps the color bind to the fabric. For one of the first pieces I dyed, I had read online that you could mordant fabric using soy milk, and for some reason, I didn’t do any further research and just went to the grocery store and bought a tetra pack of soy milk and tried to mordant the fabric using that.
 
It turns out that you’re actually supposed to use real soybeans and process them yourself, so the color didn’t take to the fabric very well. I also did something similar, trying to make copper oxide ink. For that process, you allow copper pieces to oxidize in vinegar and salt for a number of weeks, and it makes a gorgeous blue-green color. I tried to oxidize a jar of pennies, only to discover that Canada stopped using real copper in their pennies in 1996. Needless to say, the color did not change and it kind of solidified into a crystal rock — still kind of cool, but not what I was looking for.
 
I’ve also had to unlearn the classic color mixing theories because they don’t apply to natural inks — for example, when I combine purple made from Scabiosa flowers with copper oxide blue, it makes a bright kelly green due to the chemical reaction between the two.
 
Patience is hard for me, which I think is why there was more error when I first started learning about natural pigments and dyes. There is a lot of waiting involved in the process. But it’s also incredibly satisfying when you get it right and you see the colors shifting and changing into these beautiful, subtle tones.
 
What’s gotten me to where I am now with my work is realizing that these processes take a lot more time and research and that I need to be patient and diligent in order to be successful in my practice. And it feels really cool to be so involved in every single step of the creation process. 
 

I notice that there are a lot of powders you work with. Are those made differently from liquid dyes?

The powders are a more concentrated form of some of the dyes that I make. Typically when you’re working with natural dyes, in order to achieve a solid color, you need the dye stuff you’re using to be the same weight as the fabric you’re going to dye. Depending on what you’re using for your dye stuffs, it can be much more practical to use a concentrated form.
 
For example, if I had a lot of fabric that I wanted to dye with pomegranate skins, I would need to eat a lot of pomegranates to get enough skins to use for dyeing. I’m not really big into pomegranates, but getting to make a huge batch of guacamole when I want to dye with avocado pits is a win-win. 
 
Sustainable Artist Nicole Young Uses Nature as Medium
Nicole Young “One of These” (2021). The sustainable artist challenges herself to execute her work with materials she has on hand or makes by hand.
 

A large part of your process happens before the art object is created.  What do you hope your audience learns or observes from your actions?  

I appreciate that you took note of that because a lot of the time, I find the process to be so much more interesting than the end result or the actual art object. I make a lot more than I actually end up presenting to the world. Mostly what I hope people observe, learn and take away from my process is that there are ways of making art, and by extension of existing in the world, that aren’t wasteful.
 
It’s not just that I’m saving and reusing all of the items I use in my art practice — it’s also that I’m planning ahead and not buying things on a whim that might not get used. It’s pretty rare these days that I would buy a material just for the sake of experimenting. Some people might find that limiting, but I find it incredibly expansive. I love solving the problem of “How can I create what’s in my head with something that I already have?” 
 

The laborious process of your work strikes me as ritualistic and paying homage to the relatively slow process the Earth takes to produce these items you use for dyes. Do you feel there is a spiritual aspect to your work?

I definitely have a deep respect for nature that I would describe as spiritual. I love rituals, I love being in nature, and creating in the way that I do helps me feel connected to nature, the changing seasons, and the world around me. The process really brings together a lot of things that I love, that are important to me, and that make me feel like myself.
 
When I’m out in nature, and the wind kicks up out of nowhere, that always makes me feel like I’m close to something larger than myself. And often, when I’m painting, I feel like I’m connecting to something larger than myself, so it is pretty cool to bring those elements together in my work. I am paying homage to and celebrating nature and the changing seasons in my work. 
 

How and why did you decide to use textiles in your artwork?  

Using textiles in my work was really born out of necessity. Back in 2013, I was living in LA, studying studio arts and art history at UCLA, and I only had a student visa so I wasn’t allowed to work in the United States. I was on an incredibly limited budget. I wanted to make big big paintings, but I did not have the money for big quantities of paint. I’ve always been a thrifter, and I had a fashion blog at the time, so I was spending a lot of time in thrift shops as well.
 
I eventually made the connection that if I wanted to make a big section of my painting yellow, instead of spending $25 on a tub of yellow paint, I could spend $2 on a big piece of thrifted yellow fabric and cover the surface with it. So that’s what I started doing, using a mix of acrylic and textiles to create compositions. I also loved the textural elements that using fabric added to my work.
 
A big part of the reason I kept going with the textiles once I returned to Canada is that I find fabric to be so closely tied to memory — certain textures and patterns make me think of specific places and times in my life. Some of my favorite commissions are when a collector asks me to use fabric that’s meaningful to them in their painting. 
 
sustainable artist
“Sentences That Pass Through My Mind” (2021) displays the artist’s signature use of textiles like sewn canvas and linen.
 

How do you combat creative blocks?

Usually if I’m feeling a block or things just aren’t working out how I want them to, I’ll switch to a different medium or scale for a little while. I make these little pieces that I call “scrap paintings.” They’re typically around 10″ by 8″ and made out of canvas and textile leftovers from my larger paintings.
 
So if I’m working on a large project and feeling stuck, I’ll take a break from it and just have fun putting these little scrap paintings together. Then once I get bored of those, I’ll go back to the bigger projects. I often find changing things up like that helps to unlock something or leads me to an idea I hadn’t considered for the larger work, and then I can refocus and get back on track. 
 

Sustainable artist Nicole Young shares a natural dye recipe

sustainable artist
Create this blue-green copper oxide ink at home with a few household materials, such as vinegar and salt.
 
  • Gather approximately 1/2 cup of small pieces of copper. Copper scrubber pads work well. I typically use copper pipe that I cut down into small rings with tools. 
  • Put your copper in a large glass jar and cover it with 2 cups of white vinegar. Add one tablespoon of iodized salt.
  • Leave the jar uncovered in a well-ventilated area, away from pets and children. Stir the contents twice a day. The color will change in about 1-3 weeks. If any of the liquid evaporates, add more vinegar throughout that time to keep the copper fully submerged.
  • Once the desired color is achieved, strain out the copper pieces and pour the contents into a clean glass jar. If you want the ink to be very smooth, you can filter it again through a coffee filter after you strain the copper out. Personally, I prefer a little more texture to my ink.
  • Make sure to wear rubber gloves while making and working with this ink, and work in a well-ventilated area. Do not use any kitchen tools (strainer, for example) in the kitchen again after you’ve used them to make ink. You need to keep your dye pots, strainers, etc., separate from your cooking pots. Keep this ink away from children and pets.
Nicole Young is an artist living and working on the traditional, unceded, and occupied territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC.) View her website and follow her on Instagram.
Sustainable Artist Nicole Young Uses Nature as Medium

About the author

Jordan Baker

Jordan Baker (b. 1981) is an artist and curator living and working in the Hudson Valley, New York. Jordan was born on a naval base in Winterpark, Florida. She attended Tufts University, and received a BFA in Art History from Syracuse University, and an MFA in mixed media from SUNY Albany.

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