Creative Fusion: Three Banners, Four Artists, One River on Fire


Tony Williams | Cleveland

Rowland Ricketts | Indiana

Eduardo Portillo | Venezuela

MariЗ Eugenia DЗvila | Venezuela


Praxis Fiber Workshop


Half a century ago, on June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Environmental contamination played a significant role in that event. Now people are determined not to forget so history will not repeat itself. As a reminder, three banners naturally dyed will hang from the Detroit – Superior Bridge this summer.

Artists Tony Williams from Cleveland, Rowland Ricketts from Indiana, and Eduardo Portillo and Mariá Eugenia Dávila from Venezuela are combining their talents via Praxis Fiber Workshop to dye the 60-foot banners. The artists have created their patterns. Tony Williams’ inspiration came from African motifs, and he has already led some workshops with members of the community. At least 500 people have participated in these workshops in which each person dyed two square pieces of fabric: one to become part of the banner, and the other to take home. There are four more workshops to complete before the banners will be ready to hang.

The Indianan and Venezuelan artists will arrive in June for the festivities. Ricketts, Portillo and Dávila are not able to participate in the workshops but sent their designs. In the case of Ricketts, he asks participants to respond to the prompt, “How close are you to the river?” People dip their squares in indigo dye more or fewer times in proportion to the distance they live from the river. The Venezuelan artists have proposed geometric designs.

During the workshops, participants engage not only in creating the banners by dying the fabric but also by waxing, engraving the designs, and drying it. Every step is carefully explained by members of the project who emphasize the importance of using natural products to protect the environment and to avoid disasters like the fire from fifty years ago. Although participation does not take more than ten to twenty minutes, each workshop becomes an opportunity to socialize, have fun and learn, and to give back to the community by being part of an important public art piece.

According to Jessica Pinsky, director and founder of the Praxis Fiber Workshop, they have been working since last year with Rowland Ricketts, an Associate Professor in the School of Art, Architecture and Design at Indiana University, who has training in indigo farming and dyeing in Japan. He has mentored the Praxis Fiber Workshop as they began their own indigo garden. “We originally got our indigo seeds in March 2018 from Rowland. Then we grew a quarter acre of indigo last year on two city land bank lots in North Collinwood and that is the indigo we are using for the banner projects,” explains Pinsky.

Participants in a workshop hosted by Praxis at moCa Cleveland learned about natural indigo and dyed swatches of fabric that will become part of the banners.

“Because of our climate, the variety of indigo seeds that has to be used is Japanese, and that is why Praxis is following Japanese techniques to dye the fabric,” says Pinsky.

Indigo is also related to American history. Besides being one of the most permanent and long-lasting natural dyes, it came to America through slavery, and that was the motivation of artist Tony Williams to use African motifs for his patterns.

More importantly, there is another educational component behind the project: Natural indigo has been replaced with a synthetic version that is harmful for the environment. Creating an indigo crop will teach local communities about natural dyeing practices while providing alternatives to clothing companies looking to leave a smaller carbon footprint.

These initiatives are supported by the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion: Waterways to Waterways Edition that brings together a group of international and local artists to focus on projects that connect the regenerative efforts for the Cuyahoga to global waterways.