The word “artist” doesn’t sit comfortably with Pepa Martin and Karen Davis, which is interesting because evidence of their artistry is all around their textile agency Shibori, located in a former garage space in Stanmore, in Sydney’s inner west.
Metres of indigo- and white-dyed fabric billow along the length of the ceiling and over work tables. Buckets, wooden paddles and wide plastic pipes are splattered in dark blue. There are cushion covers, fabrics and leathers dyed in marbled blue or ghostly, shadowy shapes, or layered shades of indigo that look like broad strokes of oil on canvas.
There are also samples of sculptural, heat-set pieces: pleated, bubbled and twisted fabrics – some framed, some sitting on tabletops – inviting you to stretch and flatten them and watch as the fabric springs back into shape. The pungent scent of indigo dye hangs in the air.
Martin and Davis met nearly 20 years ago at design school East Sydney Technical College. “We both had the same problem,” says Martin. “We weren’t like everyone else. We were drawn to dyeing because it was imperfect. You could be yourself.”
Obsessed with studying resist-dyeing techniques from around the world, the pair went to Japan to learn shibori – an ancient Japanese form of indigo resist-dyeing that dates to at least the eighth century. While there are myriad ways to create shibori, the techniques are usually grouped into three categories: kokechi (binding the fabric), rokechi (waxing the fabric) and kyokechi (folding and clamping the fabric with wood blocks). Patterns can be geometric or seemingly random, but the process is highly controlled.
In Japan, you wouldn’t do a weekend class to learn shibori, says Martin. “You’re dedicating years of your life to mastering just one thing.”
“The Japanese style is very controlled. We tried for years to be that, then we realised you can only be yourself, and that’s when our style came about,” says Davis.
You can see Shibori’s works all over the world: at Nobu Hotel in Barcelona, on the leather headboards at Elements of Byron in Byron Bay, at Long Chim in Sydney and on McTavish surfboards and on a costume for a yet-to-be-announced show (Davis and Martin can’t reveal more at this stage).
The pair hand dyes natural fibres such as linen and silk. They also digital-print on wood and they developed a dye that would resist on leather, with help from a local chemist.
Davis and Martin also teach workshops in the inner-west suburb of Stanmore, encouraging others to get creative. They say they find adults who come with a project or outcome in mind have a harder time surrendering themselves to the process.
“Sometimes people are too afraid to ruin something. They have an idea, they bring pictures they want to create, but sometimes you have to let that go and just try,” says Davis. “Indigo is such a beautiful dye. It’s going to be amazing, no matter what. You can’t go wrong. We encourage adults to just begin; don’t overthink it.”
Unlike their beginners, Davis and Martin have transcended the state of not knowing what will happen with the dye. “You can control the bleeding, and I know how things are going to react,” says Davis. “But the beautiful thing about these pieces is they’re not mass produced. Every one is an original. There are no copies.”
Though they anticipate how a fibre will react to the dye, even Davis and Martin still sense they’re conduits for how the fabric and dye want to interact. That’s partly why they resist the term “artist”.
“We’re not playing the role of the artist,” says Davis as she fidgets with a heat-set sculpture that looks like clusters of seaweed bubbles. Often her hands are deep indigo, but today they’re blue-tinged around the cuticles. “The fabric is the artist,” says Martin. “You can keep playing and playing, but when it’s done, we let it be.”
Surrendering themselves to creating is a big part of why, after 20 years, Shibori still feels new and exciting. As they describe the process of going from idea to artwork, the two friends and business partners begin to talk over each other.
“We both get so emotional,” says Martin. “The creating part starts like this: we’ll talk about an idea, it turns into an itch and we’ve got to do it. Karen will start folding a tissue or a small bit of cloth, and we start imagining what the final piece will be.”
“We get so excited we can’t sit still,” says Davis. “That’s the good thing about partnership, having other people who can help you achieve your ideas.”