Batik Unique 

The fiber art of Linda Rasmussen

If personalities were colors, Linda Rasmussen's would be light sage or robin's egg blue. She speaks softly, moves gently and exudes calmness and grace, the impression strengthened by her willowy frame and hip-length silver mane of hair. But when it comes to her artwork, she favors shades of bright purple, hot pink and electric blue.

Rasmussen doesn't succumb to my amateur attempts at analysis. She merely laughs when questioned about her penchant for bright colors, and confirms that purples are her favorites.

During our interview, she's working in her home studio--tucked among the evergreens partway up Moscow Mountain, on the beginnings of a batik silk scarf. Rasmussen also creates batik silk kimonos and wall hangings, and lately has been putting more energy into oil painting. Propped on an easel at one end of the room is an oil painting in progress: a close-up, lush white flower accented with fuchsia and yellow, divided into blocks. The effect is of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting cut into pieces and put back together out of order.

Rasmussen loves having a home studio to work in but struggles to stay focused.

"I'm not a multi-tasking kind of person--I like to work on something and not be interrupted--and sometimes I can get pretty distracted by walking the dog or cleaning the house or quilting. So the time I spend on art can be sporadic."

Still, she manages to work and talk with me at the same time. The design on the silk scarf is one of her favorite subjects: a mountain landscape.

"I mostly draw from nature," Rasmussen said. "I like to do landscapes, flowers, feathers, different things like that. Once in a while I'll go off into geometric designs, just to play with the color."

When traveling, Rasmussen frequently sketches landscapes, which she'll use as the basis for some wearable artwork.

"I used to worry that people would only want scenes from the mountains around here, not from other places," Rasmussen said. "But often they're excited about a particular scene because they've been there themselves, or know someone who lives there, and buy it for that reason."

For her Renaissance Fair kimono, Rasmussen took photos of people dancing and playing music, using them as inspiration for the various images on the complex and richly colored garment. She herself is an experienced contra dancer and a longtime attendee at Moscow's annual springtime Renaissance Fair.

Rasmussen buys plain white silk scarves, or yardage if she's making a kimono, then dyes it the desired base color. Then she outlines her design before going over it in wax, using an electric kistka needle.

"The kistka, designed for making Ukrainian eggs, is a finer needle than the tjanting needle usually used for batik," she said. "I'm kind of taking a technique used mostly with a paste resist, where you squeeze paste out of a tube onto the fabric before coloring it. I like wax better than paste, as I can get more detail and more control. The electric kistka makes it handy."

Rasmussen usually draws with fine wax lines, and then paints with Procion liquid dyes using Chinese sumi brushes.

"The dye is what any tie dyer would use, except I paint it on. I can blend the colors, kind of like doing a water color painting," Rasmussen said. "The brush is long and thick; it's normally used for Chinese calligraphy. I can load it with a lot of color but still get a fine line."

She occasionally applies wax before dyeing the fabric, to create white areas. As she continues to work on the fabric, adding more wax and more dyes, the previously waxed areas remain white.

When making a garment instead of a scarf, Rasmussen does all the batik and painting work first, then sews it together at the end. She's an accomplished sewer now, but remembers being less than enthusiastic about it back in her younger days.

"I got so I liked sewing, but in the beginning, it was frustrating. I would much rather have been outside," she recalled.

Rasmussen's work is often so detailed it's hard to imagine that she doesn't control all the minutiae, but in fact, there's an element of chance in almost everything she does.

"When you're working with dark colors, it all looks black when it's wet. I'm experienced enough to predict what will happen but there are always some unknowns," Rasmussen said.

Sometimes Rasmussen will sprinkle salt on the wet dye, which "pushes the color away" with unpredictable results. It's all part of the learning process for Rasmussen, who isn't afraid of figuring out things on her own. She had only one fiber class in college and has been teaching herself batik methods for 18 years.

Rasmussen took art classes during her school years in Rapid City, South Dakota, and throughout college, even while working on other majors. Eventually she decided to major in art education, graduating from South Dakota State University in Brookings in 1979. She taught middle school and high school art in Brookings public schools for four years.

At the beginning of her first year of teaching, she met Bob Johnson, another new teacher, and they married in 1981. Looking for a little more geographic relief in their life, they landed teaching jobs in Potlatch, Idaho, and moved there in 1983. Rasmussen taught for a few more years and then quit to work on her art full time. In 1988 she began work as a library assistant at the Moscow Public Library, where she worked on and off until 2003, when she quit to focus full-time on her art once again.

In 1996, she and her husband moved to their current home, just a few miles outside of Moscow.

Rasmussen hasn't completely given up teaching art; she occasionally offers workshops through the University of Idaho's Community Enrichment program, demonstrates at clubs and art classes, and has taught at Moscow and Potlatch's Young People's Art Festival. Her most recent community workshop this winter concentrated on shibori techniques.

"With shibori, you wrap the fabric around a pole, scrunch it down and then dye it," Rasmussen said. "It's a resist method, just a sophisticated kind of tie dye."

As a school teacher, Rasmussen made a special effort to promote her students' art by displaying their projects in the school and community, and by entering their work in national and local contests. She's done the same for herself, marketing her work at juried art shows such as Artwear in Motion (Minneapolis); Fiber, Form and Function (Ft. Collins); Fiber Celebrated (Albuquerque and Logan); Uncommon Threads (Oak Brook); and ArtWear (Ft. Collins). One of her kimonos was chosen as the poster art for ArtWear 2002.

"I've liked participating in 'art-to-wear' shows, where you send several garments in for a juried competition, and they're worn for a runway fashion show. It's a little different from an arts and crafts fair, and I don't have to travel all over," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen's batik garments were exhibited during Moscow's Art Walk program in 2004 and 2005, and they are available at the Artistic Touch Gallery in Whitefish, Montana; The Entrée Gallery in Nordman, Idaho, and the Bank Left Gallery in Palouse, Washington, 15 miles north of Pullman. She's a member of the Women's Caucus for Art, which recently had a show at Above the Rim Gallery in Moscow.

Rasmussen is the featured artist at the Bank Left Gallery in April 2006, with an opening reception scheduled for April 8, from 1 to 5 p.m. She will have oil paintings as well as batiks for sale. Rasmussen's batik scarves usually cost around $40 to $50; kimonos cost around $400 to $500, but can cost up to $900 for more involved designs.

Rasmussen hopes to spend more time working on oil paintings in the future, but she's been distracted--yet again--this winter by their upcoming move to Europe. Rasmussen's husband, a school counselor, recently obtained a position at the American School in the Hague.

"I did my student teaching at the American School in London, so we're excited to go back, to spend more time in Europe," Rasmussen said. "As an art student from South Dakota, it was great to get all that exposure to the art museums there." She's still interested in visiting scores of art museums, but now she'll do so as an experienced artist and teacher.

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