By Susan Gallacher-Turner
Below, Nanette Davis working on a basket; on the wall is a sculpture by Nanette.
When Nanette was a young girl, she loved making things from unusual materials. At her granny’s, she used crayons on old matchbook covers to create mini scratchboard pictures. At home, she stitched doll clothes with green thread and left-over orange fabric.
Today, she weaves together hand dyed silk fabric with aluminum foil and acetate or screening to create her unique sculptural baskets and wall hangings. Her journey and her process have been full of experimentation and surprises.
An important part of Nanette’s process involves shibori, a Japanese term for many different tie-dying techniques. Nanette explains, “Every time the process is different. That’s the fun thing about shibori. Sometimes you get surprises and you’ll go, oh, I wasn’t expecting that.“
Out on her porch, she wraps white silk fabric around large plastic tubes securing it with string; then she paints on the colored dyes and lets it dry. She explains, “Where the string is wrapped, it will be white, but most of the time, I paint that too.” Another method she uses involves stitching rows and rows of thread by hand, then pulling it together, like smocking, before applying the dye. According to Nanette, it’s important to do this by hand, “You have to do it by hand to really get the effect of the wood grain, when I finally finish, I’ll pull it all together and have this narrow piece of fabric.“
Below, Nanette demonstrating the shibori process.
Once the fabric is ready, Nanette bonds it to a base to give it the support needed to shape into one of her unique three dimensional forms.
She explains, “If I want to make a wall hanging, then I bond the silk to wire screen. Then I turn the ends under and pleat them, and form them. After I get a whole bunch made, I start clipping them together to make my design. Then I stitch them together. At the very end, I sometimes add paint to the ridges, or raw screen like pleated step.“
If Nanette’s making one of her newer basket forms, she bonds the silk to aluminum foil or clear acetate and then cuts it up with her rotary cutter into long, thin strips. The bonding materials add another layer of texture to her sculpture, she says, “The nice thing about the foil is that the silk has a translucent quality to it and you can see the shine from the foil come through the silk. I only bond the acetate on one side. It looks kind of like glass.“
No matter which technique she uses, there is always that element of the unexpected. Nanette explains, “When I discovered that I could make my work three dimensional with plaiting…so I really think of them as sculptures, but I’ve really gone back to my baskets. But I’m always pushing the edge.“
Putting these materials together took a lot of experimentation on Nanette’s part, but that’s always been important part of her life as an artist. After graduating from San Diego State University, she studied basketry on a Navajo reservation and then decided to go back for a graduate degree in three dimensional forms using the loom, basketry, wire and paper. After graduate school, she drove across country to New York and created one of her first wall pieces as a tribute to the Niagara River.
“I did an art residency in Art Park by the Niagara River. When I was there it was very polluted. I did a very large piece, I infused it with healing energy and the whole idea was that not only would it be healing for the person who bought it but for the river too, sending healing energy,” says Nannette.
Making art for Nanette is like meditation. The repetitive nature of plaiting baskets helps her weave her art and life together through all the changes that time brings.
“After I make it I’ll sit down with it and let it talk to me. Things don’t always turn out the way you plan, so sometimes your materials take you for a trip, and you’re just following and doing what it tells you to do, and if you’re lucky, it’ll tell you what’s on its mind.” Nannette adds, “Shifting corners, making changes in your life is always hard and it’s hard in basketry, too.“
You can watch Nanette work, tour her studio and sign up for her studio workshops October 11 and 12 as part of the Portland Open Studios Tour. You can buy Tour Guides at New Seasons, Art Media or here online.