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Field Notes – Anna Lukala

I grew up on Kimito Island in the Finnish archipelago before coming to the UK to study a Bachelor’s degree in Wolverhampton. After graduation and moving between the UK and Finland for a few years, I eventually settled in Southend-on-Sea in Essex, where I still live today with my artist husband and dog.

I worked many years as a photojournalist before eventually going freelance five years ago. I now work with brands, charities, educational establishments, galleries and artists and others on various commissions, mainly creating lifestyle content for marketing campaigns, annual reports, prospectuses, and advertising.

Due to my editorial background, the narrative and documentary style is still a strong influence and is fundamental to my style in both commercial and personal work.

I’m very much influenced by my Nordic heritage and my formative years growing up in the middle of nowhere by a lake surrounded by nature and the sea. In this kind of place, you grow up respecting the environment and having a natural curiosity for the land that surrounds you, foraging and growing your own.

As a child you could safely leave home in the morning and not return until sunset. It still is a community where mostly everyone knows each other. I believe this lends to my fascination with our interconnectedness with each other and nature, which is a theme that often appears in my work.

Tell us a bit about the slow movement, what is it and what does it mean to you?

In recent years I have become more and more concerned about industrial farming, animal welfare, how our waterways are used as dumping grounds and how mass manufacturing has made us single-use consumers in a throw-away culture. 

The slow movement for me is all about connection. Connecting with nature, connecting to where my food comes from, how my clothes are made, my lifestyle choices as well as connecting to others. Educating myself and, where possible, making choices to support organic farming methods, eating a plant-based diet, buying less but well-made clothing for example. 

Small ripples, big waves.

We’re so interested in the natural processes you use in your work. How did you come to be interested in making your own inks and dyes?

Last year, after reading about the historical use of oak galls, I  became fascinated by the process. Oak galls are made when parasitic wasps – and there’s over seventy different types of oak gall wasps – lays its egg  on the oak leaf or branch. The oak reacts by creating a hard wooden casing around the larvae to protect itself. The larva will feed on the gall from inside and eventually, when it becomes a fully-formed wasp, it burrows a hole and flies out. 

And so oak galls contain lots of natural tannin which can be used as a mordant or a modifier when making natural dyes for fabrics, as well as being used to make ink. I started experimenting out of curiosity, and became completely hooked.

In medieval times, it was the go-to ink. For example, the Magna Carta was written with oak gall ink, Da Vinci’s drawings were made with it, as well as Bach’s music sheets etc. This in turn made me begin researching other plant-based inks and dyes. To understand the process I began my own experiments, trying simple methods using nettle, gorse flowers, wild grapevine and so on. 

I also read about the effects of industrial dyes. The industrial dyes which are used are fairly poisonous, and they end up in our water supply through washing. Aside from this, the working conditions of  the people who work dying fabrics in the first place is also a huge issue. How can this poisonous waste water from these factories go straight out into rivers, with unprecedented consequences, including the wasteful usage of tons of water?

By dying my own fabrics, although time-consuming, it is energy and water efficient. But, I understand that people can’t  start dying their own clothes in the modern world. I don’t expect that, but it would be great to encourage more conversation about it. In fact a Finnish university research-led project started earlier this year called BioColour, which is looking into ways to start using plant pigments for mass-industrial use, so there are exciting times ahead.

My research also made me consider the traditional ways of crafting, how humans at large have lost the connection to nature and how some of these cultural material traditions are endangered. I wanted to understand the process of naturally-dyed fabrics and started to harvest and forage plant materials and collect kitchen waste I could experiment with. Eventually, during the lockdown and with more time on my hands than expected, I took it a step further by  planting a dye garden, sowing plants and flowers from seeds known for their good non-fugitive pigment qualities – they won’t fade or wash out. 

I have only a small garden so I was kindly  allowed to take some of the extra planters to The Old Waterworks (TOW), a local arts project space that have been very supportive of me, with artist studios and a garden where my plants are still kept. Some plants failed, some grew well, some exceeded my expectations. I still have few  Coreopsis plants in full bloom. The flower heads are continuously harvested and either dried for future use or are used fresh. Now I am allowing them to go to seed so I can harvest the  seeds for next year’s plants.

Your images are from separate projects but are all connected. What is the work you make about? What is your motivation behind making this kind of work?

I connected with an amazingly knowledgeable community on Instagram, and it has been  brilliant for meaningful feedback, advice and encouragement. At the end of lockdown I started to try and meet up with some of the community, to photograph them and their practice whilst sharing ideas and notes.

It has been wonderful to discover that this group of people are keeping some of these traditions alive, not just with pigments, but with other traditional crafts like sewing, basket-weaving, making handmade wallpapers and much more. Here are some people who make or use their own artist materials I would recommend to follow:  

@kathryn.john / @londonpigment / @lou.lou.loves.this / @foundandground / @theworkshopn4

The oak gall ink has a special place in my heart due to it being my first inspiration and opened me up to this fantastic world of colours. But recently I’ve fallen completely in love with a lilac ink I got from wild grapes that I found, to my amazement, locally growing wild. This seems to happen every time when I was experimenting with a new plant though – it always ends up being my new favourite. I also really enjoy using clay collected from the  estuary, but I definitely need to brush up on my chemistry as I need to get a better understanding of how the source material behaves and how to analyse it. In the next few months I’ll start to experiment by combining some of my pigment-making explorations with darkroom printing.

Finally, recommend us something. 

There’s so much I have been reading and researching lately.

I’m currently reading two books, Max Adams’ ‘Wisdom of Trees and Mervin Sheldrake’s ‘Entangled Life’ which I can wholeheartedly recommend if you are at all interested in  understanding the magical connected world of trees and fungi and we humans. It’s truly mind-blowing.

I also recently bought the beautiful exhibition catalogue for the ‘Modern Nature’ exhibition which I sadly missed, that showed last year at the Drawing Room in London. The work is so inspiring and comes with a  beautiful essay written by Katharine Stout. 

At the moment I’m enrolled in the Work Show Grow school (a project run by Natasha Caruana, which is brilliant, supportive and has amazing peer-to-peer support, crit sessions, mentoring etc), and I’ve met so many inspiring people through that. Too many to mention but a couple of people who I’ve been really inspired by in the last few weeks are Liz Harrington, who does work with analogue and alternative photo processes, and Maren Kring’s long term work on hemp and sustainability.

To get my head around some basics in dyeing and ink-making, I have loved the book  ‘Botanical Inks’ by Babs Behan, a Bristol-based artist with very similar values to myself. This book  was like a bible for me when I started dying fabrics. 

Jason Logan’s (of Toronto Ink  Company) ‘Make Ink’ book is also a good start on ink-making. I have a fantastic old book ‘Wildflowers of Britain’ by Roger Philips that I found for pennies years ago in a charity shop that has been a brilliant resource for me.

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