India Flint is a ‘botanical alchemist’, a ‘maker of marks’ and a woman with a deep love for the land. Her 470-acre outdoor studio is where she works, experiments and creates using natural dyes. It’s also where she connects.
“Please spell it right,” says India Flint. “Others have written ‘India Flint has been dying for years’ – well, haven’t we all?”
She’s right, in both philosophy and spelling. Her business is dyeing in the colourful, rather than terminal sense. Put simply, Flint uses plants to dye fabrics, but the reality is more complicated than that. On her website she describes herself as a ‘maker of marks, forest wanderer and tumbleweed, stargazer and stitcher, botanical alchemist and string twiner, working traveller, dreamer, writer and the original discoverer of the eucalyptus ecoprint’.
It’s an intriguing job description that has taken her around the world, but it’s her Mount Pleasant home that provides much of her inspiration.
The 470-acre farm is home to three generations of Flint’s family, along with sheep, a few cattle, some retired horses and a dog or two. The two farmhouses are ringed by sheds, vehicles and farm equipment, but lately farming is taking a back seat.
“One thing I find myself liking less and less about farming is that you send your friends’ children off to market,” Flint says. The family still runs some stock, but these days the main product of this land is something beyond meat or wool.
“Every day begins with a walk up here,” says Flint, setting out on a tour of the property.
She climbs a fence and heads towards a small dam surrounded by trees. “My father planted this park in 1997 – natives on the north side and exotics on the south. It’s a place I love to come and work. With my job, pretty much anything I do can be classed as work. Sometimes I collect foliage, sometimes I just think and write.”
Flint stops at a lemon-scented gum. “This is one of my favourite trees,” she says. “Peel a piece of bark off and you can see the bright blue markings underneath, and these gorgeous wrinkles look almost like human skin. When I dye with this plant, if the fabric becomes damp – even after years – you can smell the leaves of home. That’s pretty darn good.”
She continues through a rusty iron gate and starts walking through long grass towards the top of Moon Hill. From here the whole property can be seen. A former dairy farm, it was owned in the 70s by a businessman who set it up to breed racehorses. “He had no idea,” says Flint. “He built stables that were dark and enclosed – horses don’t like dark, enclosed spaces. Then they built a racecourse on the hill over there that went up and down, the corners all had the wrong camber.”
Flint’s parents bought the block in the early 1990s and her mother still lives in one of the farmhouses. “I live here by grace and favour,” Flint says. “I became a sole parent in 1991, with two children and one on the way. My parents were going to buy a house in Mount Pleasant that I could rent from them but they ended up ‘buying dirt’ instead. It’s a beautiful spot and my children all very happily grew up here.”
As she walks she points out plants that she uses in her work – dock, blue devil, hawthorn, bluegum – reeling off their scientific names and the effects each can create. “If you’ve got a grip on the nomenclature, it gives you an idea of what you can use and what to avoid,” she says. “Some names will tell you a plant is toxic, while if something is called tinctoria it tells you it was traditionally used as a dye. The names can give you a lot of information.”
Flint has spent a lifetime learning about plants. “When I was 14 I knocked on the door of David Thomson’s nursery at Summertown, looking for a Sunday job,” she says. “He taught me so much about propagating, plant names and so on, I really should’ve paid him.”
That knowledge proved invaluable when Flint and her young family moved to the farm. “I was unemployable, so I had to create a demand for my own services,” she says. “I started making felt from the wool on the farm, but when I looked at the dyes, it was scary what was in them, so I went back to what my grandmother used to do.”
She explains an old Latvian tradition of decorating eggs for Easter by wrapping them with clover, sage and mint in onion skins, tying them with string and boiling them for 10 minutes. This hard-boils the egg and transfers the colour and pattern of the herbs onto the shell.
“I started using felt instead of onion skins and it got me thinking,” Flint says. “I began experimenting with eucalyptus to make dyes.”
Twenty years later her experiment is still running, although at first glance it more closely resembles witchcraft than science. A cauldron bubbles away over the huge open fire in her workroom – an old blacksmith’s building filled with her tools of trade, accumulated farmyard relics and a heady scent. A tightly wrapped cylindrical bundle has been removed from the cauldron and left to cool; she removes the silk ribbon binding it together to reveal a dress wrapped around a rusty iron pipe. Within the folds of the fabric (a blend of silk and merino wool), are a few twigs of eucalyptus leaves. It doesn’t look like much until the dress is shaken out flat, revealing bright orange, black and olive green marks in a striking pattern.
The orange and green come from the eucalyptus leaves and the black is caused by the iron pipe. The acidic environment created by the eucalyptus means the iron forms ferrous oxide as it’s boiled, rather than the more familiar orange ferric oxide, better known as rust.
Flint’s approach to dressmaking is as unusual as her dyeing technique. “I don’t use patterns,” she says. “I studied architecture at university and, besides learning about art, science and maths, I gained a good understanding of three-dimensional shapes. A dress is just a piece of cloth until you put a body in it.”
Many of the bodies that wind up in Flint’s creations are dancers. She’s created costumes for the West Australian Ballet and toured with Leigh Warren and Dancers to Scotland and Japan. While in Japan, her experiments yielded a new method. “Four days before opening night I was asked to make a cloth, six metres by six metres, to represent the forest floor,” she says. “That’s a lot of cloth, and there was no pot big enough so I tried hammering leaves into the cloth. I spent three days walking around Yamaguchi collecting leaves and hammering them.”
The new technique was christened hapa-zome, from the Japanese words for leaf and dye. “I’ve since seen academic references to ‘the ancient Japanese art of hapa-zome’, which gives me a laugh.”
Late in 2013 Flint spent six weeks as artist-in-residence at the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland. “They gave me a lovely two-storey house on campus,” she says. “It was the first time since 1985 I’ve lived by myself and I loved every minute of it. I worked seven days a week. I did a lot of experiments and worked quite a lot with the ceramics department.”
Much of Flint’s travel revolves around passing her skills on to others. “I’ll go anywhere I like the look of,” she says. “I don’t carry any dyes with me, I use what’s available locally. When I’m in a foreign country I always get the local weed list. You don’t want to use any protected or taboo plants. I mostly use windfalls so I don’t get in trouble.”
This year is shaping up to be a busy one, with teaching jobs in Melbourne, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and Scotland, exhibitions in New Orleans, Minneapolis, Portugal, and the Murray Bridge and Barossa regional galleries.
It’s a lot of time to spend away from her home, but Flint is driven by curiosity. She quotes the famous Scottish naturalist John Muir. “The world is big and I want to have a good look before it gets dark.”