Exploring eco dyes through creativity

Mixed media artist Helen Coleman | credit: Beatte Kratt

Mandurah artist Helen Coleman combines her background in botany and chemistry with a passion for art to explore the eco-dye potential of local plant and earth materials.

Her use of natural dyes, inks and paint pigments is also inspired by archival records and stories of the way in which Aboriginal people and early European settlers of the Peel region extracted pigments for artistic and practical purposes.

Dyeing rope with Eucalyptus | credit: Matt Cook

For example, Noongar elder Barb Pickett recounted watching her grandmother dye kangaroo skins with marri bark, which were then used as blankets, while a local fisherman described how generations of his family also used the marri gum to tan fishing nets, protecting the fibres from the harsh estuary environment.

Helen’s scientific approach to her research includes testing the pigments extracted from local native species such as Eucalyptus, Acacia, Haemodorum and Drosera with mordants and pH modifiers, to improve fastness and extend the colour range.

During a two-year residency at Contemporary Art Spaces Mandurah she worked with the Mandurah City Council and local Noongar elders of the Koolbardies Talking Group to develop the Koolbardi Bidi (Magpie Path) garden honouring local Noongar culture. This garden contains 60 species of local native plants that have traditional significance to the Noongar people and contemporary uses as dyes, textiles or bush foods.

Helen will begin a new research project in 2022, to document the historical and contemporary uses of plant pigments in Western Australia’s vast range of native flora.

Meanwhile, she continues to enjoy sharing knowledge of eco-dyes and her two most recent workshops entitled Introduction to Natural Inks were both sold out. Information and booking details for further workshops at Helen’s Dye Pot Studio are at this link.