How Ice Dye Is Like Life
If you’ve ever heard the expression “life imitates art,” then you’ll probably understand what I mean when I say sometimes the things we do as makers drive us more toward introspection and self-expression than we realize. Making can give us brain space and change the channel, so to speak, to a place of sensory energy and spirit. One of my favorite things to do is stand at my kitchen sink and stare out the window at the trees, birds and squirrels while I rinse an ice dye. What I have discovered in this process is that ice dye is much like life in many ways. It requires patience, it rarely turns out the way I think it will, it frequently results in something beautiful and surprising, and I notice something different every time I look at it.
Patient. It’s the antithesis of how I typically feel. I can be infinitely patient with a human or an animal, especially when I’m teaching, but when it comes to waiting on things—shipments, traffic, doctor’s appointments, grocery store lines, microwave meals—I get a little more than antsy. Sometimes it seems as if everyone else is moving in a slower gear than I am. (Shift, people. Shift!)
I’m not exaggerating when I say ice dye is one of the few things, possibly the only thing, that forces me to slow down, to wait. I have no choice because there is no way to hurry it up. It’s a chemical process that requires time and trying to speed it up only results in half-done dye. Ask me how I know! Setting an ice dye can take as little or as much time as I want it to take, but once it’s set, it must be left alone for several hours. This isn’t like waiting for a turkey to roast. This is more like firing pottery, which can take up to 24 hours. I set it and then I wait. And wait. And then I stare at it and wait some more. The good news is that it’s a little like putting laundry into the washing machine or dryer—I can go do something else while I wait.
Ice dye, by its own nature, is unpredictable.
It never turns out exactly the way I think it will, even if I plan. I can manipulate the fabric and place the dye very carefully, but then the ice and time do the rest. This is not to say I’ve ever been unhappy with the results. The point is this particular art form is further proof (like I needed any more), for starters, that I have zero control over anything but my own reactions to the world around me, and second, that this is okay. It’s exhausting trying to exert control where we have none and never will. What’s so wrong with only sort of knowing what will happen when I set orange, purple and aqua dye together? Absolutely nothing. I know how the colors will mix, but I don’t necessarily know how they’ll break or how saturated they’ll be or exactly where they’ll end up on the fabric. I can only predict, and frankly, they always turn out better than they would have if I’d controlled those things. The same is true for so many other moments in life.
Considering the control thing, you’ve probably figured out that I’m not really one for surprises. But I’ll admit sometimes surprises are nice, and ice dye is consistently one of these surprises. I’ve dyed hundreds of pieces, and every single one of them has been beautiful and unexpected. What comes up in my hands through that ugly, black rinse water is vibrant, fresh, and sometimes even stunning (in the best way). Fractured edges, bloom-like shapes, streaks, swirls, and pools of color play together to make unimaginable patterns—unimaginable in the sense that my mind could ever conjure up such things on its own. It’s like a sliver of Monet mixed with something magical. If I think about all the things that have happened during this half-century of being me, there have been at least a couple of times when something turned out to be extraordinary and I felt I’d accidentally captured part of a rainbow. The most recent example of this was getting laid off in early 2021. Yes, it was shocking and scary, but it turned out to be the very reason I can now make art and connect with all of you this way.
Ice dye is, of course, more permanent than a rainbow, which is wonderful because I see something different every time I look at it.
It’s a bit like lying outside and watching the clouds shift shapes to look like mythical creatures, sailboats, cartoon characters, and rocket ships. If I stare into an ice dye, I can always see some kind of animal, and I often see landscapes or everyday objects, as well. If I turn it upside down or sideways or flip it to the back side, I see different things. When I walk away from it for a few days and look at it again, I see something entirely new. This reminds me that we can often alter the way we see things in life if we look at them from a different perspective or step away for a moment and come back. I think this ability to change perspectives and see something different may be one of the best ways life can imitate art because it’s essentially a second chance, another run at it. (And if you want to read more about do-overs, check out my previous post, Unstitching.)
You can probably understand why I’m so taken with ice dye, and maybe you are now, too. If ice dye isn’t quite your thing, I’m certain there’s something else in your creative life that can or does fill that space. I’d love to hear about it! No matter what it is, though, I hope it helps you slow down a bit and see new things about yourself and this world.