Inspired by nature and a passion for recycling, Rebecca Wachtman combines the luxury of silk with upcycled materials. The result is an imaginative approach that produces silk paintings, felted work, jewelry and sculpture.
Tell us a little about what you do.
I consider myself a Fiber Artist. I have always been into craft-making but mainly just dabbled in anything and everything I could. And I tried to include recycling/upcycling where I could. My first love is still silk painting, but I have really enjoyed working with other fiber arts (felting in particular) over the last year or so.
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How did you find your creative niche?
About 6 years ago I went on an art retreat and was introduced to Silk Painting. I LOVED it!! It was one of those surreal/ah-ha moments – I found it came naturally to me and I often painted things and then would look at them and wonder how I did it. lol
As I stepped further into Silk Painting, I discovered I could combine my love of Silk Painting with recycling – by choosing to use silk resourced from non-traditional sources (such as remnants, cast-off clothes and house goods, and art rummage or thrift sales).
I joined Fiber 19 art group (a lovely group of artists that had allowed me to join them on my first, fateful retreat where I discovered Silk Painting). As I continued to meet with the Fiber 19 artists both in regular, monthly meetings and at semi-annual retreats… I started to absorb (and be inspired by) the art they were working on. Weaving, felting, sewing, quilting, etc. Over time, I began to play in those mediums as well.
How has your work changed over time?
One new addition to my repertoire is Re-FEM sculptures. In trying to use all my silk scraps up (because I hate to see good fiber go to waste!), I did some experimenting with silk and resin.
Originally my intent was to use small pieces of hand-painted silk in bezels and fill them with resin, but while testing different ways of applying the resin, I discovered that I could create glass-like sculptures out of silk. It is a rather painstaking method where layer upon layer of resin is applied to the silk by hand-painting the resin onto the silk, but I do love the results!
What inspires you?
My biggest inspiration and love – is always nature. The flora and fauna that surrounds us. I have a biology degree and the Pacific Northwest has been my home most of my life (my family moved to Dallas for 2.5 years when I was a kid, but we moved back asap), and I absolutely love everything about this region!
My other inspiration is probably recycling. I am always trying to find ways to use my art supplies up so I throw very little out. Example, when I buy a silk shirt (at a thrift store of course!), I will cut it up into the biggest, usable chunks possible for painting (the front and back of the shirt are usually nice, big pieces, but also the sleeves can provide a good amount of usable material). But I often have seams, collars, cuffs, pockets, and odd-shaped bits of silk left over. I often use those pieces to clean my brushes upon – and to pour left-over dyes into so I don’t pour them down the drain!
I have use those bits and pieces to make cards and bookmarks, jewelry, weavings, felted pieces, resin sculptures, and if I have too many left over bits, I will give them to fellow fiber artists. Not only do I source my silk from recycled venues, but I am able to use as much up as possible with very little waste!
What do you learn about who you are through your creative endeavors?
As I mentioned, I have been a crafter for a long time. In fact, before I started silk painting, I had been making a variety of recycled pieces to sell at craft fairs and was having some success. But what I found as I started to work on silk painting, while trying to continue my craft business, was that I REALLY enjoy the creative process and I don’t particularly care for the process of reproducing the same item over and over.
Creating individual art pieces is MUCH more satisfying to me!! I have also discovered that I find true joy in learning new things. One of the reasons why I now work in so many fiber-based mediums. My fellow artists are happy to share what they know and I love learning from them (did I mention that fiber arts is somewhat addicting??)
Is there an element of your art you enjoy working with most? Why?
I guess there are several things I love working with the most (it’s really hard to narrow it down to one).
I do love color! In fact, that is what drew me into silk painting at first…was watching the color of the dyes move and play on the silk. It is quite seductive! Plus I tend to be tactile (I love the feel of the different textures, silk in various forms, rough and smooth wools, all of the different fabrics), and working with fibers allows me to indulge that side of me. In art, there always seems to be something new to try and that too, is so much fun!
Do you plan your work out all ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
I wish I was a planner. I am trying to change to be more of a planner. But I tend to be a “dive in and do it” person rather than a “planner” type when it comes to art (which is funny because in the rest of my life, I tend to be a serious plan everything out person!). I think part of the reason I don’t plan my art out is because I often just start playing with something and what started out as play turns into an art piece/project.
How do you get unstuck creatively?
I don’t usually lack inspiration for art. So I can honestly say I’ve never had that feeling of “I don’t have anything I want to do” art-wise.
I have the opposite problem actually… I have SO many things I want to do, that it is sometimes really hard to pick out one and just do it. Or worse, I get started and then I have what my family refers to as a “shine-y thing” attack (in other words, I am easily side tracked by other fun activities). The side-track problem is not just an art thing, but happens in all areas of my life as evidenced by all the unfinished projects sitting around my home and yard. Sigh.
Truly, one of my biggest issues is time. I have a full-time job (I am currently a Vocational Specialist for the Issaquah School District), plus I am a mom to a silly tripod dog and a lovely teenager who is about to start driving (eek). I am also married to a very nice man who puts up with a lot more than he should probably have to! So my time for art is most often in the evenings after I finish work, make dinner, help with homework, and doing chores etc. In other words, not a lot of time.
One of my biggest blessings has really been art retreats. I can get more work done at an art retreat than I can in months and months of trying to work at home. At retreats, not only do I get to spend time with inspiring artists (and altogether really great people), but I can literally spend every waking moment working on art. The other thing that helps is what I refer to as Artist Play-dates. I will occasionally meet with artist friends and we spend a day learning/making art. That is extremely motivational to me – and again, I probably make more art during that time than I do at home trying to do art in the evenings.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I do have a dedicated studio space. I started out having a bay in the garage and used that for about 4 years. As my art projects continued to grow (as did my supplies I was keeping on hand), I decided I needed a bit more space (and I was really tired of my chair rolling down the slope of the garage floor while I tried to paint!).
We happen to have a shop area attached to the garage that was almost it’s own room. So I convinced my husband to help me switch the shop out to the garage and my studio into the shop area. It’s not a huge area, but it is well-lit with windows and a door to the deck. I have managed to squeeze in as much storage and fun furniture as possible. (Probably too much fun furniture and not enough useful storage, but I love it). I am planning to add a sink to the deck so I can have a place to wash my art pieces and clean brushes, etc. Right now I have to tromp everything into the house where I then make a mess out of the downstairs bathroom (much to my husband’s dismay since he tends to be the only one who uses it).
Are there indispensable tools/materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
E6000 glue. I LOVE that stuff. Years ago, I discovered it before it was available everywhere. I am so happy it can be easily obtained! I use it for everything, building things, repairing things, gluing jewelry together. My husband even glued his tennis shoe sole back on with it – so now he loves it too!
Silk, of course. For painting upon, for felting with, for making sculptures.
My hands, which I’m having issues with right now, so I have tended to take them for granted. I am now very aware of just how much I do with them – and how much I can’t do now (arthritis and carpel tunnel among other issues).
Technique(s)? What do you do differently? What is your signature?
Right now I am having a blast working with my Babylock Embellisher. It’s a felting machine. While felting is a pretty hot thing right now, most people hand-needle felt. So what I have been making is definitely different from the norm.
Also, the Re-FEM Sculptures are uniquely my own (fyi, Re-FEM is an abbreviation for Resinous Fibers Emergent Method). As I mentioned, my silk paintings are unique in that they are all painted upon recycled silks.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
A challenging piece… probably my silk painting Troublesome Fungus. I spent many hours on it, and I loved how it looked. I set the dyes as I had numerous times in the past, and then washed the silk as I normally do. When it was done, half of the dyes had washed away. My beautiful painting was ruined. In all the years I had painted upon recycled silk, I had NEVER had that happen before. Even worse, I had used a picture of it to promote an upcoming solo show.
After saying a few naughty words and shedding a couple of tears, I reviewed my processes. I decided I must not have washed the fabric before I painted upon it. Washing used fabrics is extremely important when trying to paint/dye them! I was lucky because I happened to have a retreat happening a few days after the dyes washed out of the painting. Before I went on retreat, I re-washed the fabric again with synthrapol (a professional-grade textile cleaner). Thankfully, it cleaned the fabric but left the shadows of my painting on the fabric.
Then I took the fabric and my painting supplies on retreat. I literally spent 3 days and nights repainting that darned fungus. I try not to see art failures as such… but instead I try to see them as challenges. In fact that brings me to one of my favorite sayings….
“It’s not a mistake, it’s an opportunity to be creative!”
I started saying this when I started working with painting on silk. For the most part, once dye is on silk… you can’t really remove it. You can lighten it, but a lot of times it is realllly hard to completely remove a spot of dye. So if you make a mistake, you either learn to accept it or work with it. The only other option is starting over again on a different piece of silk (and I think that’s a waste).
I tend to be really good at remembering this quote when I am working on art. But I have a harder time remembering it in the rest of my non-artist life.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
There is so much good advice. I have several things I tend to keep in mind. One is something along the lines of “there is a customer for everybody and every piece of art. The trick is being patient and finding them”.
I also love Elie Tahari’s quote from years ago on Project Runway. “Always for love, never for fear” reminds me to make things because I love the act of making things. Don’t worry about what others will think of it once it is made.
Where can people see your work?
I just had a collaborative piece called Schrödinger’s Cat (with artist Virginia Turner) accepted into the Quilt and Fiber Festival. I post artwork on my artist Instagram page (@rebeccawachtman) and Facebook page (@rebeccawachtmanstudio). And I have a blog (www.rebeccawachtman.com), but have been stepping away from that as Instagram has gained in popularity.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I will be teaching a couple of workshops again this fall (October) at the Schack Art Center in Everett. They have a fabulous facility and fantastic gallery! The workshops are: Printing, Stencil, and Image Transfer on December 1st from 11am-4pm (https://www.schack.org/classes/surface-design-printing-stenciling-image-transfer/) and Intro to Silk Painting on October 20th, from 11am-3pm (https://www.schack.org/classes/intro-to-silk-painting/)
Making some decisions about what to concentrate on art-wise will probably be my next big thing. I’ve spent most of this year experimenting and playing with various fiber art techniques (especially felting). I love machine felting and enjoy collaborating with different artists. So I may be doing more of this.
I have temporarily put aside silk painting to work on the other fiber techniques and find myself really missing it. I expect that I will be spending more time on that (I have so many things I want to paint!). Also, I am wrestling with the pro’s and con’s of Re-FEM sculptures. It should be interesting to see where that leads me.
Follow Rebecca Wachtman and her art journey on her website.
Interview published November 2018
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