Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Q&A, Part 1: Material Culture

with Patricia Miranda

By Nancy Natale

Doilies in a variety of colors, dyed with many different natural products, in Patricia Miranda's installation, Laced, at I-ParkEast Haddam, Connecticut, October 2016

Patricia Miranda extends the definition of “practicing artist” by engaging in interdisciplinary roles and projects that bring together art, science, history, and culture. She is an artist who is also a curator; she is an educator who supports and assists artists in developing and empowering their vision and artistic expression. I had heard about her work with artists from several friends who had attended her professional critique classes, but I was largely unaware of the art she makes herself. Her work is a revelation to me since I also work from a basis in materiality.

Patricia’s emphasis on materials begins with the inks, dyes, and paints that she uses to create her work. Those products are not just colorants or the means to an end, but connect her own work to the history and culture of materials that have preceded her. With her art-making, Patricia seeks to poetically translate materials in ways that allow viewers to comprehend meaning in a new and deeper way.

Nancy Natale: I am fascinated by your production of the materials you use to make your work. How did you begin making your own paints, dyes, and inks?

Patricia Miranda: I began working with natural dyes and pigments many years ago through a deep study of the history of art technologies, something I teach about regularly. My research began specifically with medieval panel painting and illuminated manuscripts, still a love for me today, and eventually expanded to a much wider study of art history in both time period and culture. This research was focused on the making or craft side of these works as well as the symbolic meaning attached to the processes by different cultural practices.

Raw materials ready to be prepared into natural dyes and paints. 

My process was to research a painting genre and technique and then replicate it according to the original practice, as a way to get inside the process, the history, and the material. This study gave me extensive experiential knowledge of materials and a deep understanding and intimacy with the language of materials, how they function, feel, look, and express themselves in unique ways. It was a way to get inside the process, the history, and the material, to know it in my body. I think all artists have this relationship to their materials in some way.

It also taught me how paintings were constructed and used historically and the ways in which people utilized indigenous resources alongside imported materials. Because of this lifelong pursuit, you might even call it a love affair, today I can answer almost any question on how paintings or books were made, in just about any time period or place, as well as other genres of artwork such as sculpture, although painting is my main focus. This includes encaustic, for example, and its use in painting going back to Egyptian Fayum portraits. 

NN: How did this study connect you to the history of materials you use?

PM: Throughout the world in every culture, artforms had a common thread in materials used to make them. This seems obvious to me now, that the earth is our common home and resource. Where else would we get materials? And this is true of everything we use, from food to architecture to weapons to art materials. The earth is the only place we can draw from; and everywhere people had stones, bugs, flowers, and clay. There were variations in what was indigenous, imported, traded, and acquired through conquest in distant places. 

Images from the installation Red is the Color of Mourning at MAPSpace featuring interactive preparation of natural red dyes

At the time of my research, the material culture link struck me as a way to form connections between seemingly disparate cultures, time periods, and ideas. It was a way to tell a story of history through the use and movement of materials. This was not to flatten out or make equivalent the ways in which people used these materials or to ignore the inequality of distribution of materials and the conflicts over resources. Rather, it offered a way to explore cultural material as storyteller, as witness to both difference and commonality across the world. I can tell a complex story about both materials and human history through the exploration of cochineal, for example, a scale insect native to Meso-America that traveled the world transforming the dye trade, playing a crucial role in the Spanish invasion and conquest of the Americas.

NN: How do materials influence the content of artworks? 

PM: One aspect that is related to my studio work, and which I consider crucial in teaching art, is how an artwork is enacted through its material language. Each material has its own syntax, its own grammar, its own history, which accompany it when we artists use it as a means to communicate. From my perspective, content is born out of material, not imposed upon it. Every artist finds materials that speak to them, develops a fluency in those materials, and collaborates with them to communicate their vision. Kyna Leski’s book, The Storm of Creativity, talks about the fluency and language of materials in this way, which I found particularly poetic. This includes the physical language of the materials, as well as the cultural, historical, and artistic use.

As an educator, I work with artists to grasp this symbiotic relationship, to explore the inherent content of their material, to speak through the language of that material, or to find material more congruent to their ideas. Artists are meaning-makers; whether working with physical, ephemeral, or conceptual works, material gives us a voice as artists.

NN: What is the significance to your work of the pigments and dyes you make?

PM: At this time in my work, natural pigments and dyes communicate in a language that feels compatible with my ideas, and within which I can continually investigate and expand my grammar of communication. I don’t use a material because it has some imagined purity or is easily beautiful or has historical significance. A material on its own does not make it art. New meaning needs to be created through an interaction, an intervention, a transformation, or a juxtaposition. We need to interrogate our materials, figure out their limitations and expansions, see how they align with our content, how they inform and differ, and test them into new meaning. However, the work has to be free to become autonomous—collaborating with materials without a preconceived end allows that to happen and helps prevent the work from being over-determined or didactic.

NN: I think it’s important to note that your work has many more layers of meaning to which your mediums add and support. Would you speak about the derivation and history of oak gall ink, for example, as a major material reference?

PM: Oak galls are the source for one of history's most common inks, from ancient times up to the 20th century. Oak gall ink was used for the Dead Sea Scrolls, for all European manuscripts before the printing press, for historic documents such as the Declaration of Independence, and for Hebrew Torah, which is still written with oak gall ink. It was also used as dye for cloth and carpets.

Oak gall and leaf
Image from the Internet

Found wherever oak trees grow, the oak gall is caused by an infestation from the oak wasp, which deposits its eggs on the branches and leaves of oak trees. The tree reacts by forming a gall around the eggs; the wasp gestates and then bores a hole in the gall to escape. Oak galls are high in tannins and gallic acid, and make a beautiful iron-gallic dye. In fact the word “ink” comes from the Latin word encaustum which means to burn in (also the root for encaustic), because iron-gallic dye is caustic and eats away at any surface. You can see this in illuminated manuscripts, where the text seems to be eating into the parchment. A palimpsest, for example, is something that was made possible because of iron-gallic ink, as pages written with this ink on animal skin parchment were often scraped and written over. Since the ink “bites” into the surface, scientists can x-ray the pages to read the earlier scraped-away text beneath. This ink was also used as a dye for cloth and carpets; its caustic effects can help authenticate ancient carpets because of the way it wears away the fibers. Oak gall ink was used all over the world and in the west until the 20th century.

A shelf of oak galls and a wall of drawings in Witness, Elegy of Forgetting 

NN: Your installation, Witness, Elegy of Forgetting, brings alive the cultural significance of oak gall ink in a dramatic and evocative way. Would you tell us about it?

PM: This project was exciting, as I was able to explore in a deeper way the idea of material as witness. Witness, Elegy of Forgetting, posits the oak gall as silent witness and participant in the writing and recording of history. It is my way of exploring the ongoing destruction of libraries in war and conflict. Since I was creating an artwork that used historical narratives but was not a historical document, it was important to find poetic ways to make visible the links between history being recorded, then obliterated, and of new histories being written. As artists, we create the circumstance for the encounter so that the viewer may find their own way to meaning. 

Two views of Witness, Elegy of Forgetting, 2014, mixed media installation

In the Witness installation, a sixteen-foot scroll catalogued my research of every library recorded as being destroyed or severely damaged in human conflict, going back to the Library of Alexandria and continuing to early 2014, when I exhibited the project. (Libraries are still being destroyed, sometimes as collateral damage, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to rupture a culture.) Over the scroll hung a glass separatory funnel filled with ink made from oak galls, which dripped from the funnel onto the scroll, "re-writing" a new history. Drawings on calfskin vellum prepared for Torah explored the oak gall, its scientific properties, and the recipe for ink. Small magnifiers on one wall depicted photographic images of actual library destruction from the 20th century, including from World Wars I and II, as well as Sarejevo and Kuwait. On another wall was a shelf displaying oak galls in their natural state.

Three views of magnifiers from the Witness installation showing destroyed libraries

With the Witness project, I used the humble oak gall as a metaphorical lens through which to consider this history, utilizing the effect of this odd, parasitical insect that doesn’t make its own nest but causes the tree to make it. That nest, or gall, has been transformed into ink and used to record human history for more than two thousand years, up to the 20th century. I am interested in an expanded project that uses materiality as a way to view larger stories, and to reveal how we are not separate from nature, culture, and history, but embedded actively and continually within it.

NN: I am interested in the way you transform found or repurposed artifacts such as books and doilies by placing them in different contexts. Would you speak about your installation of doilies during your residency at I-Park as well as the way you were able to gather and employ natural ingredients on site for your color?

Paths through the woods of I-Park traced with cochineal-dyed doilies in the installation, Invasive

PM: I was so fortunate to be awarded the residency at I-Park in East Haddam, Connecticut, last October. What an amazing place run by the most generous and supportive people on the most beautiful piece of land. I can’t recommend it enough! 

Dyed doilies bound to trees with oak gall-dyed twine in the I-Park installation, Tethered 

My doily project was in some ways a big surprise for me. I had brought a number of different projects to explore while there, not expecting the doily one to become important or even thinking at all about putting them outside, although in hindsight this seems an obvious idea.

I had a whole group of family linens and lace, some possibly going back to Italy from my grandmother, and others I’d been given, collected, or bought. I wanted to do something with them but wasn’t sure what. Doilies seemed such an incongruent language for me at the time, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. I started dying them with cochineal, indigo, turmeric, and brazilwood, to see what might emerge. On many walks around the land at I-Park, as the seasons were changing and the colorful landscape was fading to grey, I felt that the doilies began to demand that I take them out into the landscape.

I did several different projects: one called Invasive with many small, circular doilies, all dyed crimson with cochineal, laid throughout pathways on the land. Another, Tethered, used triangular doilies sewn together and tied to large trees, totem-like, with twine dyed with oak gall dye from galls I collected on the property. The third, Laced, was a whole group of doilies of different shapes—square, circular, triangular— dyed in many colors from cochineal, indigo, brazilwood and turmeric, that I strung taut between a series of trees. The trees by that time were grey and leafless; so these projects punctuated the landscape in an interesting way. It was a fruitful beginning and I plan to explore and push this idea further in the future.

Detail from Miranda’s installation, Laced, at I-Park

In the next issue of ProWax Journal, the Q&A with Patricia Miranda will continue. In Part 2 of our conversation, Artist-Run Culture, she will speak about other influences on her work and about the ways that artists can shape their goals and lives.

Patricia Miranda is an artist, educator, and curator using interdisciplinary projects to make connections between art, science, history and culture. She is founder of MAPSpace, a project space in Port Chester, NY, where she founded a Collaborative Workspace Residency Program. Patricia has been Visiting Artist at Vermont Studio Center, the Heckscher Museum, University of Utah, Purchase College SUNY, and has been awarded residency fellowships at I-Park, Weir Farm, and Vermont Studio Center. She received a grant from ArtsWestchester/New York State Council on the Arts, and was part of a year-long NEA grant working with homeless youth. Patricia is Practitioner-in-Residence in the BFA program at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts of the University of New Haven, and is leading Lyme’s inaugural study abroad program in Prato, Italy, for Spring 2017.

Patricia is faculty in the MFA program at New Hampshire Institute of Art, and teaches curatorial studies in the MFA program at Western Colorado State University. She served as director and curator of the gallery at Concordia College - New York from 2008-12. Patricia also develops education programs for K-12, museums, and institutions, including Franklin Furnace, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution. She has exhibited at Wave Hill, Bronx, New York; Castle Hill Center for the Arts, Truro, Massachusetts; Cape Cod Museum of Fine Art, Dennis, Massachusetts; the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, Austria; Metaphor Contemporary Art, Brooklyn, New York; and Kenise Barnes Fine Art, Larchmont, New York.

Patricia will be the juror for the 11th International Conference exhibition, Sense of Place, at Castle Hill Center for the Arts. At the Conference she will present an interactive talk on Professional Practice and will critique work for a limited number of artists. Patricia will also teach a week-long workshop, Paint Explorations with Natural Dyes & Pigments, at Castle Hill in July. Consult the conference schedule on the Castle Hill website for times and availability. 


  1. Wonderful interview! Fascinating and informative exploration of materials and how they form our language. Thank you, just ordered my copy of The Storm of Creativity. This was particularly timely as I am writing responses to an interview with Artist's & Climate Change. https://artistsandclimatechange.com

  2. This was a great article. Fascinating work!