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  • Writer's pictureBhavana Gesota

ecoArts I - from my kitchen with love

Updated: Oct 24, 2019

Sept 15 2019, Full Moon in Pisces.

Oaxaca, Mexico.

Turmeric dye, Oaxaca 2019


Salasaca, Ecuador, 2000

As I started to trace back my timeline, I realized that my first encounter with natural dyes was indeed in 2000 while on a short backpacking trip to Ecuador. It was in a small Andean village called Salasaca that I met a local weaver named Alonso Pilla, who introduced me to the world of natural pigments and dyes that he made from plants growing in his mother's garden and gave me a demonstration if their very specific weaving technique, that originates in Bolivia, since he and his family were originally from Bolivia, captured by the Incas and brought to Ecuador. He took me to his mother's house on the mountainside where she reared sheep for the wool and showed me the various plants and herbs he used to make dyes which were growing in her garden.  At that time, I was busy with my career in the Tech world and as much as the plants and natural dyes fascinated, I made a mental note to revisit this again at a future date and parked it somewhere in one of my memory lanes. 


My next encounter with natural pigments in powder form arrived in 2008. I was living in one of my favorite small towns on earth - Fairfax, California, waiting for my US passport process to finalize and finish before heading back to Europe. My roommate turned out to be a French artist, in fact a muralist, who had studied the old style of painting frescoes found in the old churches in France. She was now using the same style, adapted by her, to paint on other media. At that time, I had not touched a paintbrush in about 15 years but having all this time on hand waiting for my USA passport process to finish, I got intrigued by her style. She in turn gave me some quick lessons on her adapted style of using natural pigments to paint on sheet rock - which for some reason was available quite freely in our neighborhood. So for the first time in years I picked up my paintbrush and painted the Sri Yantra using all natural pigments as well as experimenting with spices like turmeric. The technique  and the result inspired me and a new desire to experiment with natural pigments in line with my desire to live lighter on the earth and leave a lower ecological footprint, emerged.

Sri Yantra with natural pigments and turmeric on sheet rock, California 2008

Needless to say, I collected a whole bunch of natural pigments from her in little shot glasses that I had collected over the years, bought more and played.

The US passport arrived along with a work contract in Europe and it was time to fly. I left the pigments in my storage space in San Francisco (and they are still there, except now I also have pigments from Peru in my storage space), thinking that I will pick up where I left off when I return. But I did not return for the next 7 years and then only, briefly.


It was not until 2016, while living in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru that the next impulse arrived to use natural pigments. I was taking a summer program at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Cusco, Peru and living in Pisac. In the Sunday market, sit these Andean mountain women (Mamitas as they are fondly called there) selling their natural pigments that they use for dying the wool from which they weave fabulous rugs, tapestries and ponchos. I kept looking at these bright colors and thought to myself that I must get my hands on them. And better still, perhaps spend some time in the mountains in their community to learn how they make them. But I didn't for reasons that might make this into a boring story.

However an inspired Sunday arrived in 2018 when I finally bought them from one of the Mamitas sitting in the Sunday market. Just about every color she had. And started to incorporate those with acrylics in my paintings. I liked the result - the textures, the transparency, the colors I could create with these.

It still intrigued me how they made those pigments and what material they used. I did manage to learn that the red comes from crushing an insect which felt a bit cruel to me. But alas, the opportunity to actually spend time with them to learn how they make them, seemed unavailable.

I did resolve that I would start to use more natural pigments in my art work from here on even if I do not learn how to make them.


It was in July 2019 when due to a dental infection, I had to abandon my plan of going to BC, Canada for an artists residency and instead, head to Mexico. After a few dentist visits and pondering over the best treatment plan, I got my infected tooth pulled in San Miguel de Allende and ended two months of pain and misery. I decided to spend the next few months in Oaxaca, the center of Mexican indigenous culture and arts. The fact that Francisco Toledo lived in Oaxaca and there being an active arts community around him and his institutions was definitely a factor in deciding to spend time in Oaxaca.

Little did I know that Oaxaca will re-open the chapter of making natural pigments from plants, herbs, wood, flowers and so on. So it happened that while visiting the Centro de las Artes San Agustin Etla that I walked into the office there and found out that they offer numerous workshops all year around and just in time for me - or so it seemed - a workshop on making natural pigments was lurking around the corner.

I have to apply, they told me. So I did. I made an application, wrote down a statement of purpose and sent it off on email. It took them two weeks to respond, but they did accept me. And even with my minimal Spanish, it turned out to be ok as the course instructor was a Swiss textile artist whose Spanish was marginally better than mine.

Brazil Wood dye bath, Oaxaca, 2019

So back to the kitchen.

Soya beans, rosemary, bay leaves, turmeric, bejuco, brazil wood....Mordants, Soaking, cutting, cooking, squeezing and hang drying. When I was a little girl, my mother made it a point to get me into the kitchen to teach me how to cook. Being a girl, I must learn how to cook, I was told. I gladly obliged as the kitchen was the place to be if I wanted to hangout with my mother. She always put me to task - be it picking small stones out of rice or churning buttermilk to make butter or grinding spices - to help her in her busy schedule of cooking and caring for a large family. The kitchen was the place to bond with her and so from very early on, I enjoyed being in the kitchen. It is a place where I feel at home.

Little did I know that my kitchen, would also become a place to make natural pigments. I could be cooking food on one stove and cooking a brown dye on another another. The role of my kitchen has expanded. A place to cook food, a place to find spices and herbs for home-made medicines for common maladies and a place to make colors. I am even more in love with my kitchen now then ever before.

Yes, dyes and not pigments in powder form. However, making dyes for dyeing cloth or wool and adapting the same to paint on paper or linen /cotton / canvas is not very vastly different. I used the dyes to experiment on different types of paper and they hold well. I rather like the softness of colors and how they change when they dry. And the natural earthy look.


Next Stop?

Cochineal and Indigo, different shades of reds, greens, blues and yellows.

It took me only 19 years before I could get my hands wet with this. How many more years before I arrive at the next stop.

From my kitchen with love. 

The end result on paper and cotton.

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