“Foraged” Uses Local Plants to Dye Gorgeous Works of Art

A textile artist and a painter show Minnesota’s natural colors in an exhibit at Gamut Gallery
Foraged jewelweed by Hejny and Sardelis
Annie Hejny (left) and Annabella Sardelis foraging jewelweed

Marko Zitzer

During the first week of September, as Annabella Sardelis was driving off of Interstate 35, she saw the motherlode: a 10-foot tall, 25-foot wide, and 12-foot deep elderberry bush. She immediately sent the location to Annie Hejny, fellow artist and studio neighbor at the Casket Arts Building. Despite the elation, she and Hejny wouldn’t be picking all of the berries. They took 10 percent in order to leave more than enough for other foragers and to keep the plant healthy. The berries would be added to the collection they had, helping it reach their 6.5-pound total.

Six and a half pounds might not sound like a lot, but considering they followed the 10 percent rule in all of their foraging, that meant finding many elderberry sites in the late summer months the berries were maturing. That’s what happens when you try to gather natural dye sources organically, and it’s also part of what makes the exhibit “Foraged | Local Color,” at Gamut Gallery October 24 through November 22, so special in its limitedness. 

In the Now

“Foraged” explores what Minnesota looks like through the natural colors its flora produces. Hejny and Sardelis chose eight plants to study, in part because of the palette but also because of the harvesting seasons and prolificity. To help document the process, the pair also worked with Marko Production Co. and its founder Marko Zitzer, who photographed foraging expeditions, the hours standing over the 40-gallon dye vat at the Textile Center, and the creation of their final products—wearable fabric pieces for Sardelis and painted canvases by Hejny.

“This could only really happen on a special occasion, a once-in-a-lifetime project,” Sardelis says, reflecting on the immense amount of work and foraging that has to go into each small amount of dye. “It’s so easy, especially in our modern time, to be ultimately distracted. But with this, you have such a strong connection with places. … You have to be very present.” If you’re not, you’ll miss the plant you’re looking for, your dye won’t be precise. You won’t be able to extract as much as the addicting, intangible benefit of art from the piece.

The artists already had experience working with nature. Sardelis had learned how to forage for food ingredients during her childhood and has integrated the knowledge here or there in the projects for her textile studio, Indigo & Snow. Hejny respectfully takes water and sand from local sources and makes them the base component of beautiful, abstract paintings. With this project, though, they discovered new colors together.

Foraged Buckthorn

Marko Zitzer

Of the Earth

When I visited Sardelis’ studio, clotheslines zigzagged across the room, making you weave through them to get anywhere. Drying pieces of fabric met you at eye level, their textures and their colors immediate. It made me reminiscent of open sky and gentle winds ruffling the grass, but to Hejny, who had visited earlier, it reminded her (and then Sardelis) of the foraging process. She felt the connection to the materials electrified by how close they were to her, to her face—an echo of how she leaned over the plants as she picked them, how she peered at them and manipulated them with her hands. 

“The point she was making was that everything about our process is earthy, from when we’re making the vats, we’re bent, and there’s a lot of bending and being close to the earth,” Sardelis says. “Berries are off the tree, but a lot of the process is getting down squatting close to the earth with our pruners and scissors.”

You’ll see some of that process in the look books at the gallery, the signage, and a wall showcasing examples of the native plant specimens they used. As much as this exhibit urges you to stay in the present—to really see the natural colors of Minnesota—don’t forget to envision the journey the plant made from seed to cutting to water to fabric. The real wonder of nature isn’t only what you see; it’s how every day has culminated into this current moment.