It’s often been said that curiosity can change the world. Ching-Lin Chen, a celebrated dye and fabric artist from Taiwan, certainly demonstrated this when he investigated hundreds upon hundreds of colours derived from plants and trees.
Through his extensive research expeditions and landmark books on natural dyes, Chen has dramatically elevated designers’ understanding of this artform. In the process, he has stimulated a wave of sustainable fashion and contemporary art in his country and abroad.
Chen recently spoke to Pancouver in Mandarin—translated by associate editor becky tu—at Ocean Artworks on Granville Island. It’s the site of the Colours of Formosa exhibition, which he’s curating.
“In university, I learned painting,” Chen says. “This is what they usually teach in art school—watercolour and oil painting.”
But after obtaining employment as a high school teacher, he was eager to expand his knowledge about natural dyeing and weaving. Moreover, Chen hoped to integrate natural dyes into his painting practice.
“There felt like there was a separation between them because for crafts, there’s a functionality attached,” Chen says. “Painting emphasizes originality and creativity. So, in the beginning, putting them together was very difficult.”
His goal was to convert a traditional craft into a contemporary artform. On a grand scale, he hoped to cultivate widespread appreciation for natural dyes rather than only viewing them as compounds to colour functional objects.
“Contemporary art is always about innovation,” Chen says. “The more you innovate, the higher the value.”
Chen resurrects an ancient tradition
His curiosity led him on an astounding odyssey through Southwest China, Japan, and across Taiwan, cataloguing natural dyes and the plants that produced them. In Taiwan alone, he and his wife, designer Yu-Hsui Ma, discovered more than 300 natural dye ingredients.
“Taiwan has so many minority groups, including the Indigenous peoples, and they all have their own natural dye and fabric culture,” Chen says.
He points out that in his country, the Atayal, Paiwan, and Bunun tribes have been most successful in preserving the art of using natural dyes.
In addition, Taiwan is home to people who trace their heritage to communities across mainland China, where natural dyes have been used for centuries. Chen says that the Miao people in Southwest China, in particular, are among the most imaginative and skilled in creating traditional clothing and handicrafts in this way.
As part of Chen’s effort to resurrect their use in Taiwan, he spent 10 years studying and cataloguing natural dyes in Yunnan, a province of China that borders Myanmar. He ventured to neighbouring southwest Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi to expand his knowledge.
That’s not all. He also travelled to Japan—mostly to Kyoto, Tokyo, and the Osaka region—to continue this investigation. The master points out that Japan has a rich history of using natural dyes. And this culture seeped into Taiwan over a 50-year period, from 1895 to 1945, when the island nation was a Japanese colony.
“In Osaka, indigo dyeing was preserved and more popular,” Chen says. “Kyoto has more weaving arts and Tokyo has more advanced dyeing arts. But it’s not always in cities. It’s also in the surrounding areas.”
Paintings, dresses, and crafts at Ocean Artworks
When asked about how he feels creating a painting with natural dyes, Chen replies that he has witnessed much of the environment either destroyed or in the process of being destroyed.
“Sometimes, I get a more melancholic inspiration from that,” he reveals. “But also, it has to do with my feelings toward the land that I live in—the land that humans live in, especially in Taiwan. I want to emphasize and show the natural scenery of Taiwan.”
Several of Chen’s paintings with dyes from indigo plants are on display at Colours of Formosa. One is based on a famous 1,100-year-old painting, Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, by Song Dynasty landscape artist Fan Kuan. The original two-metre scroll is in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Based on that same painting, Chen also created the artwork with natural indigo dyes for a suit by Justin Chou. It was unveiled at Paris Fashion Week in 2018.
The Colours of Formosa exhibition includes naturally dyed dresses and crafts by several Taiwanese designers. One of those dresses was created by his wife, Yu-Hsiu Ma, who emphasizes that the couple works with a wide variety of colours from natural dyes.
Ma adds that she and her husband love showing traditional, naturally dyed colours in a contemporary way, including in fashion but also in other products as well as paintings.
Natural dyes are ecologically responsible
Chen and Ma created the Nantou-based Tennii Natural Dyeing Co. Ltd. more than 30 years ago. According to its brochure, Tennii is a “research-focused teaching and product design institute that promotes eco-friendly and sustainable natural dyeing and weaving techniques”.
The brochure also explains that the studio was founded on six artistic qualities and guiding principles to achieve sustainable and long-term results: beauty of shape; elegance of colour; excellence of quality; refinement of skills; appropriateness of application; and artistic and historical contribution. Chen and Ma’s books on systematic natural dyeing are used in universities and communities.
He and his wife maintain that creating fabrics and artworks with dyes from plants is the ecologically responsible thing to do.
As the interview nears the end, Chen shares a story about a French designer, Sandrine Rozier, who spent a decade visiting more than 10 countries to research the art of natural dyeing. After arriving in Taiwan, she bought Chen’s books, reading through them within a couple of weeks.
“She realized that she didn’t need to spend all that time searching the world,” Chen says with a smile. “She could have just gone to Taiwan.”
This summer, Rozier will spend two months in Taiwan learning more about natural dyes from Chen and Ma at the Tennii Natural Dyeing Co.
“We want to continue these traditions and pass them along to the next generation,” Ma says.
LunarFest Vancouver is presenting Colours of Formosa in partnership with the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. The exhibition continues at Ocean Artworks on Granville Island until February 20. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.