*Featured photo: Monumental Schists(single detail), 2020. Indigo dyed, layered, salvaged textiles. 14cm (w) x 4cm (d) x 16cm (h), ph. cr. and copyright Rachael Wellisch
Interview with Rachael Wellisch
Salvaged fabrics hand-dyed in natural indigo hues and overlaid in repeated layers, scraps of old T-shirts cut into thin strips and then knotted into works such as Knot Work or transformed into paper pulp like in Tomes. From these materials stem the totemic works, installations and sculptures by Rachael Wellisch, an Australian artist with a degree in Fine Arts from Griffith University in Brisbane (Queensland) and a doctorate at the same university. The themes of ecology, sustainability, environmental activism and the preservation of human cultural heritage are at the core of her work, bestowed with numerous awards and recognitions.
In this interview, Wellisch gives us an overview of her research path and interdisciplinary practice that embraces sculpture, painting and textile art.
How did you approach art, and what was the path that contributed to your artistic education?
Art and crafts have been hobbies since I was a child; however, after having my daughter, I finally decided to learn more intensively and see if it was something I could do full time. I began with evening classes in sculpture, ceramics and photography and commenced a Bachelor of Fine Art in 2011. I just kept at it and am now nearing completion of a practice-led Doctorate in Visual Arts. Most of my textile skills are self-taught through trial and error. I went through art school as a painting major, but I am one of those naughty contemporary painters who doesn’t actually use traditional paint. I consider the majority of my work as falling under the umbrella of ‘expanded painting’, as I often think of works in painting terms, consider dyeing as painting into the fabric and have been recently ‘pulp-painting’ to make hand-made paper from textiles.
What is the cultural or multicultural heritage that inspires your work and informs your practice?
Travelling to, and living in different countries, has definitely been formative in what and how I make. Born on unceded Aboriginal land in Australia, my family background is a mix of nationalities (including Hungarian, Lebanese, Irish, and German), my Irish/Dutch husband is now an Australian citizen, and my daughter was born whilst we were living in Dubai at the peak of the Global Financial Crisis. These potentially destabilising elements have actually influenced my sense of connection as a global citizen, and I have various ancestral threads I draw from. I think it is important to consider the chain of production for the materials I choose to work with, as well as how this relates to themes in my work. What is the social and environmental impact of the materials? As artists, we feel compelled to make, but who made the chosen materials, where they are made, and under what conditions are important considerations.
Indigo is the colour you use exclusively to create your works. Can you explain the reasons for this choice and the symbolic value this colour, with its different shades, takes on in your work?
I cultivate and dye with natural Indigo because its’ rich, global history and processes reflect themes of transformation, connection, consumption, and colonisation, making it a potent motif when considering ecological themes. The alchemy of green leaves fermenting to form a copper-sheened liquid, transforming fibres to yellow/green, then oxidises to the beautiful range of indigo blues, is just intoxicating. The process is so magical! Therefore, the gradations of colour in my work are both substance and action. The darkest shades of blue require repeated dips into the dye with time for oxidation in between, so I build up the intensity of colour in the cloth over several days. This visualises the passing of time and the changing shifts in colour values, echoing the thresholds and tipping points in both climate change and our perception of it.
One of the elements that, together with the colour indigo, characterises your sculptures is the presence of endless layers and thin layers of material that you superimpose until you create the finished work. Apart from the technical aspect, do repetition and layering have a specific meaning in your work? Can you talk about it?
Cycles, continuity, and connection are recurring themes, and I express this using the circle motif or through building up layers. Approaching ecological issues is certainly a very a complex and layered conversation, it is important to me that I am sensitive to this. In this way the layering is symbolic, but also I aim to transform materials as an alchemical intervention. No longer soft, flexible and lightweight discarded fabric, the sculptures become rigid, dense and heavy monuments to our relationship between materials, consumption and waste. The cloth is not simply a substrate for another medium, they are plant fibers reconstructed, and then rendered distinctly different from their original form. Repetition of colour and layers, as well as creating monuments is a way of remembering, recalling, and renewing connections.
Can you tell us about the More Monuments series, inspired by henges? How did it come about, and what does it tell us?
These sculptures use household textile waste, for example, collected or donated old bedsheets, clothes and table cloths, where the fabric is first hand-dyed with Indigo, layered up one piece at a time, then cut and shaped by hand. Motivated by the scale of textile waste going into landfill, these works employ this layering of cloth, which coincidentally gave an appearance of rock strata, such as within extracted earth core samples. I then form them into various monuments. Neolithical earthworks known as henges (such as Stonehenge) are believed to be sites for sharing the vast encyclopaedic knowledge that was critical for human survival in pre-literate times. Conceptually I use monuments and ideas around mnemonics to reflect a recalling and relocating of our place within and care for the natural world.
What are the most challenging aspects you deal with when creating a work?
One of the fun challenges is in using salvaged textiles. I have boxes of donated post-consumer waste, fashion industry offcuts, or damaged items I find in thrift shops. Diverting used, damaged and waste objects from landfill is, of course, great, but sometimes I have a material that is really lovely to work with, and I only have so much of it on hand, so I have to sit with it for a while and wait for the perfect project. However, by using waste and natural materials, I can often turn something into something else if I can’t quite resolve it first go. Most of the work I make is pretty laborious, so I always have multiple works on the go at any time. This functions as a kind of productive procrastination because if I get stuck on one thing I can just move to another until I work out what I need to do next.
Your work speaks of environmental activism, ecology, and the preservation of human cultural heritage. What attracted you to these themes?
Despite decades of activism protesting environmental damage, motivating real cultural change still seems to be difficult. The current acceleration of impacts means it is something that I feel must continue to be re-framed and re-shared. My work, however, is not intended as a climate crisis scolding, or even an overt call to action, but rather a layered contribution to the conversation around being mindful of what we have, and how humans and the natural environment are deeply connected. The arts help to process information and emotions, particularly in times of crisis, playing an important part of a diverse approach toward sustainability. The transformation of waste into something of value through slow, deliberate and careful endeavour challenges the pace of consumerism.
It also offers a sense of hope by emphasising potential, rather than despair, a critical element in an age of frustration, fear and exhaustion that exists when faced with climate anxiety.
Current and future projects?
Polymorphic Magic is a solo exhibition of recent works, showing now at Redland Art Gallery in Cleveland, on Quandamooka Country, Queensland, Australia.
I have work in the Petite exhibit of miniature textile works, showing at Wangaratta, in Victoria, Australia.
Some pieces are in a touring exhibition, Textile Art of Today 6, currently in the Moravian Museum, Uherské Hradište, Czech Republic, which in October goes on to the Museum Historyczne, Bielsko-Biala, Poland.
Also coming up later in the year in Poland I have work in the Baltic Mini Textiles, Muzeum Miasta Gdyni, Gdynia, Poland, opening in December 2022, running until June 2023.