Red, White and Indigo Blue: Sustainable Art in America

R Ricketts fabric show.

R3Story by UW-Madison student Danielle Syse, member of T3 team

It’s a distinctive aroma, fresh and fermenting. Its ripeness describes a life becoming more rich in potentiality as the indigo slowly and naturally processes into a wood-lash lye, a strong alkaline solution from residue powder left after the burning of wood. Finalizing into an indigo blue, the vat materializes into the dye to be dipped and decorated into beautifully designed textiles.

Indigo is a rare form of art; one that has recently received national recognition due to artists like Rowland Ricketts who take power in using more sustainable processes. Attending the School of Human Ecology in February for the 2016 Ruth Ketterer Harris Lecture, many students will be lucky to learn how artistry can severely impact your environment and learn ways to promote one’s art positively.

As a school with LEED Gold Certification, promoting renewable, clean energy, it is our goal to provide our human ecologists with affirmative action towards understanding humans and their relationship to the environment. It’s rare to find solidified artists that prefer this natural method; a Japanese tradition over centuries old, which harvests, dries and composts to create a slower development of indigo. However, through Rowland Rickett’s textile processes, he defines what it means to be a human ecologist by creating sustainability of Earth’s resources and providing a positive impact for the American economy.

R2After spending a fair amount of his time in Japan teaching English, Ricketts noticed how his small actions could make a larger impact on the environment around him. Although he was passionate for photography, he recognized his implications after accidentally disposing chemicals into a local stream. Asking around, he quickly learned that there was no primary water treatment where he was living, so all the chemicals from the darkroom were going straight into the river.

“I was horrified,” Ricketts said.“But it really opened my eyes to the impact of the way making art had on my immediate environment.”

This is what drove Ricketts to find a more adaptable and eco-friendly way to develop art. With his desire to create, he was introduced into the traditional process of using plants as dye, which allowed the ecological friendly development of indigo as an alternative parallel to his photography.

Rowland Ricketts is an accomplished artist with over sixty exhibits in just 15 years. His utilitarian masterpieces include scarves, bags, table runners, towels, and coasters that showcase the indigo dye. After graduating from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2005, he continues his work with his wife, Chinami, in partnership of developing textiles. Together they are able to construct their art with integrity and authenticity, allowing customers to acknowledge that their organic pieces are conservative for the environment. This combination of craft and concern has garnered national attention.

Ricketts was recognized in 2014 for his talent in Martha Stewart Living by being awarded the “American Made” Crafts Winner. With over three thousand applications submitted annually, American Made celebrates talents that handcraft artwork in food, crafts, style and design based on presence, workmanship and originality. These awards spotlight local entrepreneurs in our communities offering alternatives to the way we live our daily lives such as shopping, eating and working.

We, as a global economy, have minimal information on the labor conditions and environmental impact of the products we purchase and enjoy when they’re developed overseas. However, American-made materials like Ricketts’s allow sustainability through oversight of the process. Artwork created more organically in America gives more information for the consumer, allowing them to match their morals with the goods they’re buying.

Jerry O’Brien, the director of the Kohl’s Center for Retailing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison explains the value of consumers acknowledging the types of goods their buying when trying to protect the environment as well as personal living conditions.


“It’s important for us to build on trends that help keep awareness for consumers,” Jerry O’Brien states. “If people choose to buy less sustainably made pieces and more fast fashion, then this will be a continuing domino effect. If we want to minimize our impact on the environment, we need to reward businesses that get in line with our values and not spend money on those that don’t. We need to demand higher quality goods.”

This type of support feeds into the way we live and progress our lives. After developing a definition for what a true human ecologist is, one can discern what is important when implicating themselves and their actions onto the world.

Ricketts stated, “A human ecologist is the nexus of who we are and how we engage with each other and the world around us.”

Overall, he’s able to build a strong connection with those around him based on the history he echoes through his traditional Japanese farming practices. He’s also able to connect with the environment whose seasons dictate the work he does and the life he leads.

R4So whether or not you’re an artist, it’s important to recognize how you are perceived by the world. Your actions can echo onto others through the processes in which you buy or create merchandise. If you support local, American made businesses that are more conservative of the environment, the more those businesses will succeed to end all damaging and negatively impactful processes. We, as consumers and innovators, do have control.

It’s a common ideal that the change you want to see in the world starts with you. But is this true? Do we, as individuals, truly make a significant impact on the world? With the population soaring over seven billion, we’re not as insignificant as we deem to believe. With each step we take, our footprints are eternally embedded into the sticky soil beneath our feet. Every action we make as a human being, whether it’s our purchases, recycling, or actions such as art development, echoes through the wind to be reproduced into the world.

As a school focusing on what makes a good human ecologist, we’re blessed with the opportunity to hear from Martha Stewart Living‘s 2014 “American Made” Crafts Winner, but most importantly, an eco-friendly artist that aspires to make a positive impact on the world through his design strategies and expertise. To learn more about Rowland Ricketts and the work he does, mark your calendar for February 24th for the Ruth Ketterer Harris Lecture at the School of Human Ecology.



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