Hidden behind a large door in Paris’s 20th arrondissement is a courtyard housing a tiny garden and a tall narrow building where Betty De Paris, a Shibori and natural dye craftswoman and artist lives and works. The area is where, forty years ago, artists took over old abandoned artisans workshops. Juliet Bawden meets her…
Did you go to art school originally and if so where and what did you study?
I didn’t go to art school, as 50 odd years ago in 1968 there was a student revolution in France. I was part of that revolution. A University was started that was open to all. I attended there. It was called Vincennes. I studied Urban Planning, anthropology and development of the city.
How long was the university open?
It was open for 10 years as the land was rented from the military. Once the lease ran out, it was returned to the military and all the buildings were totally destroyed.
How and when did you start to use natural dye?
This was the time of the hippies. I had friends who were making tie dye tee shirts and I started doing it too. Once I started I was fascinated by the technique and so I wanted to know more and I visited the extensive Paris Textile library to find out more about it.
What made your work take the direction it has.
I started working for someone in their lino printing works. This meant that I learnt a new technique and could earn some money whilst I continued with my own work.
I understand you teach workshops how did you get into that?
At a time when old people were being moved out of their homes in central Paris for development reasons, and put into residential homes, I was asked to teach natural dying to them. I was only 23 at the time and hadn’t really come into contact with old people before. Because I wore big baggy trousers and loose tops they thought I was a boy. I was amazed and delighted with what they could do and their skills.
That was at the start of my career. Now I am an accredited professional trainer I get asked to train individuals and small groups. I teach them about an ecological sustainable way of working that does not pollute the planet. Recent clients include a theatrical costumier, a small enterprise wanting to dye on hemp and an artist who dyes paper.
How come you speak Japanese and have you visited there?
In 1978 there was an exhibition of katazome printing in the Grand Palais.It was amazing and I was so enthralled I wanted to go to Japan to learn the technique. In preparation, I attended Japanese classes for a year.
I visited Japan in 1981 and lived there for two and a half years.
When you were there how did you support yourself?
I worked in a Kimono painting workshop with ten other people. It is very skilled work but not what I was particularly interested in. I was doing my own work as well. I went to Kyoto the capital of dyeing in Japan.
One of the reasons I am interviewing successful established women is that they have often had to take a career break, or slow down to deal with childcare and or aged parents. Have you had to deal with of these issues and did it impact on your creative life or business?
When I had my son I slowed down and changed the way that I worked. For seven years and I worked as a guide in Paris for Japanese tourists.
What is the best part of your work and what is the worst part?
There is no typical day and the success of the dyeing is very much weather dependent. Both the light and the heat affect the indigo.
Do you exhibit your work?
Oh yes. I get asked to exhibit all the time and I show at ‘Open house’.
Are you working on anything new?
I have been working using Xyyleme it is the substance between the bark and the branch of a tree, it its half alive and half dead. You could liken it to the pith you find in an orange. It looks quite broken up and lacy.
What is next for your work?
To make my own dye, I have been buying indigo compost from Japan for the last 20 years. I decided that I would like to produce my own in France. I found an English organic gardener in the south west of France close to Limoges and we have collaborated on producing our own compost. It has to be produced inside. We have had our first crop and it is looking very promising. As there are no other European producers I am going to sell it to those wishing to do indigo dyeing. I shall produce and exhibit my own work and continue teaching.
Many thanks Juliet De Londres