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Sarah Grace Dye: International experiments in making paper

Our patrons community has helped us to give a grant to visual artist, curator, collector, story teller and educator, Sarah Grace Dye. Sarah approached us with an incredibly unique project: in partnership with carpet makers in Uzbekistan, she’s developed a technique for making paper from scraps of silk; we’re funding her journey there to teach the methodology to the workshop owners themselves.

Cross-cultural, environmental, creative projects like this – infused with the uniqueness of Sarah’s own material-making practice – don’t just pop up everyday. Join our Patrons scheme for as little as £5 / month – and we can keep supporting great artists like Sarah take experimental leaps into life. Find out more here.

Hi Sarah. Who are you and what do you do?

I am a visual artist, curator, collector, story teller and educator from Sheffield, now living in Frankfurt. I make artists’ books, make paper and draw. I love paper. 

After University, I found my home teaching on an extended diploma course in Art and Design (amongst other things) at the Arts University Bournemouth. I think my 12 years there were actually my training ground for what I do, and who I am now, artistically. It was such a vast and varied course—I taught all sorts of things, and was able to sneak into sessions taught by others to learn new techniques and processes.

That is where I was introduced to paper-making and some forms of book binding, all of which are key to my practice now. Working with some wonderful students and staff over those years was a privilege and an enormous source of inspiration. I think I learnt more than I taught! I still teach now (mostly via zoom) but it is in smaller groups or one on one with tailored sessions for each group/person.

Your artistic practice has all sorts of different facets – from drawing, to curating collections, to making paper. How did you find your way into these specific disciplines? Do you see your practice further evolving into different areas in the future?

My practice is all about re-using the resources we have around us in our homes. I make paper from household waste, as well as making inks and dyes. I love to draw, and have a regular drawing and mark-making practice as part of a couple of Zoom drawing groups with other fascinating women from around the world.

I have always been fascinated by books in a kind of love-hate relationship. My parents were collectors (or hoarders!) and had a huge library of books. They both were theological scholars and so had many very old fascinating books in English, Latin and Greek. I was mesmerised by these books. I loved the smell, the touch and the patterns the words made on the page and often there would be etchings of diagrams and pictures.

I have to confess to never reading any of them! I was not a fan of reading. I am dyslexic and reading was a struggle so not enjoyable whereas drawing was completely consuming for me and took me to my happy place. I still have a very old complete set of the greek new testament and a 150 + year old copy of Josephus ‘The Life of Christ’ for example that fascinate me. As a child my parents kept a cupboard of packaging, paper, plastic bottles glue and scissors that were accessible at all times, we were always encouraged to create and express ourselves.

I am always excited to learn new techniques and processes, especially in the current climate as we learn so much more about how we can help sustain our planet through our use of its resources. My practice is always evolving, often in response to a circumstance. I got stuck in Frankfurt in March 2020 for five months with no materials and no money to buy anything. That was when paper-making came into its own, and I researched and gleaned information about making natural ink and dyes to provide something interesting to draw with. I collected tea bags and packaging from around the house to use that paper for book making and to draw on.

Curating was a natural step for me. I am an inherent organiser. I am interested in the detail of things and how one thing reacts to another. Even as a teenager my bedroom walls were covered in pictures carefully placed to make a pleasing whole. I have always collected things. My parents had many friends living abroad, who would come and visit and bring me amazing little gifts, many of which I still have.

As well as being an accomplished artist, you also have experience of working with artists as a university tutor and community builder. What lessons have you learnt about nurturing and encouraging creative gifts in others?

I am a firm believer that everyone has the ability to create, regardless of what they might think! I love the challenge of presenting an opportunity and then teasing out whatever creativity is lurking dormant. Encouragement and enthusiasm are the most important aspects of teaching. 

Firstly: nothing is wrong. The worst mistake you can make will always teach you something, even if that is to never do that thing again! I would also encourage students to never throw work away. I can’t tell you how many times a student has hated something they have created, only to love it several weeks later after it has been put away in a draw.

Secondly: we are all unique. You will never create like me, or me like you; we have our own marks and style. It is simply a case of uncovering what is already there, and developing that uniqueness. Yes, it is important to glean knowledge from others, and be inspired; but then make it your own.

Thirdly: having space without pressure is also a key to creativity. It can be difficult to find that in our busy lives, but in my experience finding that space can enrich the rest of your day/week no end. For me just making some marks with ink or a pencil, never mind what it looks like, is a tonic in any situation. It is the doing and connection to the creativity inside of us that is important. 

When I moved back to Sheffield, I had a small self-contained flat in the attic of where I lived. I started a residency program for people to come and spend between one week to a month free of charge in that space to focus on whatever creative project they had bubbling up. I worked closely with Bank Street Arts in Sheffield, and often the residency would end up with an exhibition in that space. I would try my best to support whatever the project was in whatever way they needed while they were there. It has always been completely delightful to see people blossom and fill up with joy being given that space to explore what they love. Thats what it’s all about for me.

I think the key to building community and support is simply to really listen. What does the community need? Then you can act upon it in whatever small way you can. We each have to recognise how important we are as part of the whole and not wait for someone else to start.

Through our patrons scheme, we are helping to fund a fascinating project you are working on. Can you bring us all up to speed on what you’re doing?

I am currently experimenting with using little scraps of silk threads mixed with egg boxes to make paper. I have a dear friend who moved to Uzbekistan many years ago and set up a carpet workshop. He researched the process and designs and then taught the locals their own traditional skills in natural silk dying and weaving to create the most beautiful carpets. This knowledge had been lost during the Soviet era where traditional crafts were not allowed. You can read his story in the book A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road by Chris Aslan Alexander. Today, it is a thriving workshop that employs many.

I mentioned to him that I use the fluff from the dryer to make my paper soft and strong, and he asked if maybe I could try to make paper with the silk scraps that are left on the floor after a carpet is finished. These scraps are currently discarded as rubbish. This prospect just ignited an excitement in me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. So a parcel arrived from Uzbekistan with little bags of coordinated silk scraps for me to play with.

Technically you are not supposed to use animal fibres for the paper making process, just plant fibres, but I never take no for an answer and love a problem to solve! I have successfully made paper and am now exploring both felt-making from the scraps and also a line of products that can be made with the paper/felt to sell at the carpet workshop. I am travelling to the workshop at Easter to share my methods and show them the products with the hope that they will generate a new line of income from their own waste materials.

I am so grateful for the money I was granted as it paid my bills for a month so I could concentrate on my experimentation without worry. It basically offered me the space I mentioned earlier! There is much more experimentation to come before I travel there, but that only fills me with joy and excitement at what might be discovered next.

Follow Sarah Grace Dye on Instagram, or see her website.