Foraging Ahead: A Collaborative Journey Through Nature and Colour

1 June 2022
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Ad for the book Gathering Colour, featuring the book cover and the words, "Use natural pigments to make dyes, inks & paints from the world around you." A button at the bottom says, "Buy now."

We connected with fibre artists and natural dyers Rita Kompst and Zoe McDonell to talk about their collaborative workshops that combine Rita’s knowledge of Indigenous methods and traditions with Zoe’s scientific training.

Learn more about the in-person workshops Zoe and Rita offer together at www.historysciencefiber.com.

Find videos on foraging and using natural dyes on YouTube at History Science Fiber.

Digits & Threads: Tell us about your artistic journey.

Rita Kompst: I am an artist from xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam). As an Artist, I embrace the teachings of my ancestors and the traditional aspects that go along with that. In the work that I do, I always go back to our “old ways,” the ways that my Ancestors practiced their chosen craft. It was not until I became the matriarch of my family that the teachings from my parents became clear. My artistic journey started as one of healing, after experiencing several personal losses in my immediate family, and it evolved from there. I currently teach workshops on cedar weaving and natural dyeing with mushrooms, lichens, and plants. I dabble in knitting when time permits.

Zoe McDonell: I am a weaver drawn to the construction of fabrics and woven designs. In other aspects of my life, I enjoy exploring history and biology. These interests had always remained apart until I realized that they naturally intersect. I now go to the forest to enrich my being with nature, forage for dyes, and then return home to create pieces that weave together all aspects of my life. I met Rita a few years ago and we connected through a shared love of the process of creating colour from the forest and grounding our arts in nature and our communities.

image description: small skeins of different coloured yarn, arranged on a table to form a circle

Yarn dyed with all local materials.

What do you do together, and why does it work?

RK: Zoe and I both have a passion to share our combined knowledge of the science of natural dyeing. Together with my passion to share the knowledge of pre-colonization dyeing methods, we teach our participants that most of the items we use are located right in our backyards.

ZM: We both approach textile arts with a shared excitement about the processes of connecting the natural world with teaching and art. Together we conduct natural dye workshops that strive to teach students about nature, textiles, foraging for and using natural dyes, all through a different lens. We combine a scientific approach to identifying plants, mushrooms, and lichens, and the chemistry of dyeing, with Rita’s traditional knowledge, teachings, and perspectives. By approaching textiles in our different ways, we invite participants to come away with an enriched foundation for how nature can be included in their own creativity. I’m proud that participants come from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds.

image description: an Indigenous woman stands in front of a pot, holding a stick, from which is hanging some strands of freshly dyed yarn
image description: a white woman stands in front of a pot, holding a stick, from which is hanging some strands of freshly dyed yarn

Rita (left) and Zoe (right) at the dyepots during a workshop. 

Does Reconciliation play a role in your collaboration?

RK: Absolutely. Reconciliation does play a role, even more so today than ever before! Zoe and I show that by working together, each displaying our own strengths in a respectful way, establishing a connection and sharing our knowledge of the many possibilities of natural dyeing ahead. There are many protocols involved in our cultural practices. These protocols are deeply embedded in us and are what tie us to the land. When we follow our cultural protocols and share some of this knowledge with others, we all gain a deeper respect and understanding of how we can be great stewards of the land.

ZM: I’ve never consciously thought about incorporating reconciliation through our work together, but in other ways, as I teach alongside Rita, I do. I try to be conscious about how much speaking time I take up, and whether we’ve set up the workshops in ways that hopefully allow her and the Indigenous participants to feel comfortable and share her knowledge.

image description: nine people standing in front of a log cabin building; the sign above them reads "Tl'aktaxen Lam Longhouse"; they are dressed for winter, and there is some snow on the ground, two of the people at the front are holding a small branch from which some strands of different coloured yarns hang
What advice would you give to other textile artists wanting to collaborate?

RK: Zoe and I first met at a social event through a mutual friend. I knew instantly that I liked Zoe and that we would be friends. We then met again at a dye workshop in my Community of Musqueam where Zoe then invited me to work on a film project with her. I was so enthusiastic at the prospect that I arrived early to help set up and stayed to help pack up. Zoe makes the science part easy to understand. Our approach is hands-on, making our workshops interactive for our participants. Everyone has a role to play and they keep active throughout our workshops. I feel that Zoe and I feed off each other’s ideas as we work together to bring them to fruition. I am so glad to have met someone who has become a dear friend and colleague.

ZM: My advice for non-Indigenous folks who want to collaborate with Indigenous artists would be to stay genuine and upfront about who you are and your motivations. You have to be willing to put the work in to learn about Indigenous history.

I struggled for years with what it meant to be white and of settler descent in Canada. I’ve come to understand that identifying as white helps me to understand my inherent privileges and responsibilities as well as the barriers others may face. As a non-Indigenous Canadian with Highland roots, I recognize and embrace being of Scottish descent, which helps connect me with my ancestors and ancestral textile traditions and understand the importance of these connections. Ultimately, we should strive to centre and elevate voices from targeted communities and help promote opportunities, while knowing that to learn more you may also need to lean in and speak up. It can be difficult to build friendships across cultural barriers unless you’re willing to reach out and connect, even when doing so feels uncertain. If you’re committed to these kinds of collaborations, things can line up. I truly hope you can find opportunities to grow and collaborate artistically with a friend like Rita.

image description: two women standing in front of a log cabin building; the sign above them reads "Tl'aktaxen Lam Longhouse"; they are dressed for winter, and there is some snow on the ground

June is Indigenous History Month

We have removed the paywall on all articles featuring Indigenous artists or writers. Our members make it possible for Digits & Threads to commission these works and to ensure they reach as many readers as possible. Please consider joining today.

To directly support Indigenous people and to help address the many harms created by colonization and perpetuated by residential “schools” and systemic anti-Indigenous racism, we will highlight a different organization each week. Please consider supporting the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.

From their website: “IRSSS provides essential services to Residential School Survivors, their families, and those dealing with Intergenerational traumas. These impacts affect every family and every community across B.C. and Canada. This fact is most evident in the Corrections Canada Services-the numbers of First Nations people incarcerated, Child and Family Services child apprehensions, the high number of people on social assistance, unemployment and underemployed, lower levels of education, the lowest number within an ethnic minority of “determinants of health”, the list of impacts is extremely high while the services available to effectively assist impacts of Residential Schools remain quite low.”

Copyright © Zoe McDonell except as indicated.

About Zoe McDonell

Zoe McDonell, MSc, RPBio, is a Vancouver-based textile artist and ecologist of settler-descent specializing in dyeing with plants, windfall lichens and mushrooms. She has been teaching workshops, lectures and demonstrations on natural dye techniques and other fiber arts since 2003. She studies how forest communities can be managed for conservation.

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