Caryn Friedlander was born in New York City in 1955. She lived on the east coast until, on a whim, she travelled to the Pacific Northwest in her early twenties. She has lived in Seattle, the Aleutian Islands, and in Japan as a Monbusho Fellow while working on her Master’s thesis, before settling in Bellingham, Washington, where she thrives with her husband, two cats, a (big) dog, and ten chickens. She has traveled extensively, and continues to do so, particularly in Asia and Europe.
Friedlander earned a Masters degree in East Asian art history (University of Washington, 1987), and a Masters of Fine Arts degree in painting and drawing (University of Washington, 1991). She is currently represented by Art Xchange Gallery in Seattle, and Smith & Vallee Gallery in Edison, Washington. Prior to that she was represented by Francine Seders Gallery, from 1996 until Seders retired in 2013. Friedlander’s work is included in a number of private and public collections, including The New York Public Library, Swedish Hospital, Washington State University, Vulcan Foundation, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Friedlander’s art is informed by the natural world (particularly her ongoing fascination with water), her extensive garden, and the materials themselves.
There are two kinds of artists: those who arrive at the studio with an image in mind, ready to make it physical, and those who find their images through the work. I am of the latter variety. I make marks and respond to them with more marks, building and deconstructing layers. I get into trouble and work my way through it. At some point things start to make sense. The alchemy that happens when line, color, and space coalesce into a meaningful whole is deeply compelling. Any other approach would not hold my attention for very long. While nature has long been my thematic background, my work is really about the materials and a search for visual integrity. The potential of paint and, more recently, natural dyes and silk thread, provides endless possibilities.
For the most part, my discipline is painting and drawing. In 2016 I retired from teaching to focus fully in the studio. The gift of consistent, uninterrupted time gave me the opportunity to explore textiles as a medium, and to literally bring my environment into my work. I currently use dye plants, and the tannins in certain plants common to my region, to impart color and form to cloth and paper. This provides a foundation of marks and colors on cloth that I piece together and then stitch into by hand.
This adventure has forced me to become something of a chemist, in order to work effectively with natural dyes. It has deepened my appreciation of nature and slowed me down. Dyeing cloth with natural materials is more time-consuming than mixing paint from a tube. But discovering what is hidden in nature is powerful. Likewise, hand-stitching is ludicrously slow; a line that I could draw in a few seconds takes several minutes to stitch. Mind you, my stitching is nothing elaborate; in fact, it is quite simple. But many stitches add up to more than the individual marks. The process is contemplative. My paint box contains leaves, ground bark, and skeins of silk thread, and my curiosity deepens as this new work evolves.
Part of my process includes contact printing with plant matter (sometimes called “eco-printing”), a process using natural tannins and dyes from plants to create contact prints on paper or textiles. When you see the imprints on a sidewalk left by fallen leaves, you are seeing the natural tannins in the leaves staining the concrete. The addition of a mordant such as iron allows the tannins to bond strongly with the fabric.
To dye fabric, I arrange plant matter (leaves, seeds, flower petals, etc.,) on fabric. The material and plants are rolled tightly together around a dowel (a sturdy branch pruned from my fig tree serves this purpose), and the resulting bundle is tied firmly so there is direct contact between leaves and material. The rolls are immersed in boiling water. Unraveling bundles is an activity full of anticipation, akin to opening a long-awaited letter. The results can be unpredictable and often astonishing.
One day I unraveled a long, narrow piece of silk I had just taken from the dye bath. I laughed, because the resulting image of maple and smoke bush leaves resembled a Japanese painting, reminding me of the deep ties to, and love I have for, Asian art. At that moment, the question of presentation was solved – I had to “mount” them like a kakejiku, or hanging scroll. This has become an integral part of my image making. I also use hand scroll and sewn accordion book formats, with cloth and paper, natural dyes and paint.