One Artist and Five Sinks

15 Mar 2017

Hello friends. I’m Andrea Donnelly, an artist and a weaver.  I make both conceptual artwork created from handwoven cloth, and design-based, functional work in the form of one-of-a-kind, exquisitely handmade scarves.  I moved to Richmond from North Carolina in 2008 for grad school at VCU, and fell in love with the city immediately.  Loved it so much my husband and I decided we would put down roots and make it our home.  I was ready to build my professional studio practice in sweet little RVA, and add my voice to the vibrant creative community here.

The Dancer and the Architect, 2016 84” x 124” x 5” linen, cotton, and copper thread, dye, maple frames: warp-painted and ikat-dyed handwoven cloth

The Dancer and the Architect, 2016
84” x 124” x 5”
linen, cotton, and copper thread, dye, maple frames: warp-painted and ikat-dyed handwoven cloth

Building a professional textile studio requires a lot of equipment, and after school I slowly began to build mine, collecting dye pots and warp winders to complement my prize possession, a large 60-year old floor loom I purchased as a senior in college.  In hunting for studio space, my first question was always about the sink situation.  To add color and imagery to my work, which starts as nothing more than miles of white thread, I need access to hot water and at minimum enough sink space to manipulate a 5-gallon pot full of thread and dye.  Just out of school, I had to take what I could get and the work of dyeing pounds of clean, bright white thread was performed precariously over a rotating cast of stained and rickety work sinks half clogged with gooey paint or bloated cheerios courtesy of my studio mates.  Year to year, things improved from studio to studio: I acquired a second, then a third loom (though I had no place to put it yet).  My communal work sink got bigger and cleaner: it was a repurposed bathtub lifted to sink height, but it drained so slowly that it seemed to always be full of navy or turquoise water as I rinsed dye from my projects for hours.

My studio practice was growing.  I really was becoming a professional: I had some great exhibitions lined up and big plans for my scarves.  The work I dreamed of creating would require more space and better technical facilities.  I needed to set up and use that third loom, and I needed a better, more controlled environment to perform the mixture of chemistry and magic that is dyeing thread and cloth.  Two years ago, I moved into my current studio in Manchester, hidden in a two-story and unassuming brick shoebox with the letters “Ev ns S eci lty C mp ny” on the side (which charmed me immediately).  There I acquired two separate spaces on the second floor: one large room where my three looms and a giant work table make a stately impression, and just a couple steps across the hall you will find what is today a clean, fully equipped dye lab.  This room was the reason I moved in, though when I first saw it there was only a rusty and clay-clogged, horror movie-ready sink in the corner. But all I really noticed was the pipe connecting it to the wall.  Private plumbing!  In this room, with couple pieces of restaurant equipment, I would complete my studio.  One hitch: I had the space, but I didn’t have the funds.  I learned about CultureWorks through the arts community grapevine, and immediately wrote a grant for the dye lab of my dreams.  Joy of joys, they made it a reality!

Dyelab2I transformed that room: Gollum sink OUT, three-belly stainless steel with two side boards and sprayer IN!  Plastic folding tables OUT!  Two castor-footed stainless steel work tables IN!  Storage shelves!  A draft-free safety box for mixing dye powder!  Friends, you may not get excited about sinks and safety boxes, but I hope you can understand my glee.  It was heaven on cleanable surfaces. Immediately, I began making the work that was never possible before, and dreaming of what I would make next, unencumbered by the logistical drain clogs of bad sinks and dirty workspaces.  This is the real value of my shiny sink, and the grant that gave it to me.

DyeLab1Today dye lab is a safe, clean place where I regularly host textile interns, teaching them proper dye lab procedures and practices.  I also have studio visits with classes from VCU, talking with the students about my journey from the same spot they are in now.  I show them the space I have created to make my work possible.  We talk about the barriers they will face, and how I have navigated them, represented in my mind by a progression of sinks and work surfaces that grew from barely usable to science-lab crisp and clean.

A sink and two tables.  Those were the physical objects I acquired and installed thanks to my grant from CultureWorks.  But to me, they represent the limitless potential of my work as I continue to add my voice to Richmond’s art community and beyond.

So thank you, CultureWorks, for my dye lab and all that it means.  And thank you, thank you, thank you, to the individual and corporate sponsors who made my grant possible.

Learn more about Andrea and her work andreadonnelly.com

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