Silk is a blank canvas at USI
- By Amelia Chong, Special to The Courier & Press
PHOTO BY AMELIA CHONG, © 2013 EVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS
photographs by AMELIA CHONG | SPECIAL TO COURIER & PRESS Instructor Evi Slaby uses a hair dryer to quicken the drying process of participant Mary Jane Humphrey’s silk canvas, as Humphrey starts on her second scarf in the background during an introductory silk-scarf-painting workshop at the Evansville Museum. Each participant painted two scarves — the first for a cancer patient, and the second for themselves. Slaby said participants usually learn a lot from painting their first scarf, and are better able to let go and follow the dyes’ flow with the second one.
EVANSVILLE — When it comes to painting on silk, the biggest rule is letting go.
Three women gathered for an introductory workshop on silk scarf painting Aug. 10 at the Evansville Museum.
In the quiet room lined with easels and paint-splattered furniture, instructor Evi Slaby drew sweeping arcs and dabbed inky blots onto a silk canvas stretched across a frame made from PVC pipes.
“This will be a lesson of letting go and relaxing,” Slaby, 52, said, turning to the two women after her demonstration. “Let the silk guide and surprise you.”
It was a sentiment oft-repeated during the workshop — the trick of the craft is to lose control of the brush and one’s own plans for the piece. The painter needs to be completely at ease.
This attitude is usually manifested in loose and broad brush strokes. The painter gains inspiration as he or she moves along, spurred on by the flow of the dyes.
The workshop was part of the museum’s summer adult-education program.
“The museum is always looking for new educational and creative opportunities to offer the community,” said Amanda Groff, former Ruby C. Strickland Curator of Education at the museum. “It is always looking for artists who offer new and unique artistic styles.”
Each participant paid $75 or $60, depending on membership, for the one-day introductory workshop and was provided with two silk canvasses, a set of brushes and a selection of dyes, in addition to instruction.
For two hours, participants were given the space to step away from the hustle and bustle of life and zoom in on their art. They were given the freedom to push the boundaries of their creativity and experiment with various colored dyes — the way they interact with the silk canvas and with one another.
Beginning Sept. 4, Slaby will teach a 12-week silk scarf-painting intensive course at the museum.
While the summer workshop introduced participants to a basic technique of scarf painting, the fall sessions will teach them how to stretch silk, layer dyes and experiment with more advance techniques.
“The class is an excellent way for artists and aspiring artists of all levels to participate in a creative activity that not only allows for artistic expression, but also has a positive impact on the community,” said Groff. “Through the donation of the finished scarves to local cancer patients.”
For the workshop, each participant created two scarves — the first, a square, for a cancer patient, and the second, a narrower, longer piece, for herself.
This was the business model Slaby set up when she opened her silk scarf-painting business in Pittsburgh in 2008.
In Evansville, the square-shaped scarves are given to Newburgh-based nonprofit organization Chemo Buddies, which works with cancer patients through Oncology Hematology Associates of Southwestern Indiana.
“When we provide patients with gifts made for them, it’s just remarkable what you see in their eyes,” said Mike Russ, a longtime Chemo Buddies volunteer. “‘Someone did this for me,’ is what they’re saying.
“People like Slaby, who donate different things, an artistic piece that’s handmade by someone can just lift spirits of the people who receive those gifts. The gift really just brightens their day, touches them really deeply. You can tell.”
‘Remarkable young lady’
In 2004, Slaby started volunteering at her son’s school. Three years later, as a volunteer at the school’s library, she met an eighth-grade student, Katie McElearney, who spent time at the library for study hall sessions or just to help out with library duties.
The two became fast friends.
But the following year, McElearney’s cancer recurred. She died in November 2008.
On her Angelsilks website, Slaby describes McElearney as “a remarkable young lady who had an incredible faith and trust in God.”
“She was just one of those people you meet and there’s something special about them,” said Slaby. “She kept sticking with me in my mind and it was unusual. I just kept thinking about her a lot.”
At the time of McElearney’s death, Slaby won $500 in a contest.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” said Slaby. “I wanted to do something special with it, kind of pay it forward.”
Slaby found a story online about a woman in California who painted for cancer patients. The process was described as relaxing and therapeutic. That was the moment Slaby knew how she was going to use her prize money.
She woke up the next morning with the business plan of classes where participants paint two different scarves — one for a cancer patient.
This would fulfill two purposes: lift someone’s spirits, as well as paying for the materials to keep going forward with the business model.
“This might sound weird,” Slaby said, referring to another dream she had. “But I saw Katie standing there and she told me, ‘what took you so long? Angelsilks, you need to call it Angelsilks.’ From that time on, I haven’t had to advertise at all. This has been a total walk of faith.”
Having faith, Slaby said, is closely tied with silk scarf painting. In fact, one could say that the former informs the latter.
“You can’t let go if you don’t have faith,” she said.
Slaby said experienced workshop participants who have painted with oils and acrylics start out having a hard time, because the silk wouldn’t heed their expectations.
“But if they can let go, boy, do they create gorgeous stuff,” she said.
Slaby, who has been silk scarf-painting for 25 years, first picked up the craft during her summer travels to her native Germany.
One of her main goals teaching classes in the U.S. is to prove people wrong. Everyone is an artist, but also his or her own worst critic, she said. As a teacher, she wants to help her students find their inner child.
“When we started painting and scribbling we didn’t care what anybody thought about it,” said Slaby. “We thought it was great. So it’s not so much what others think about it. It’s whether whatever you do brings a smile to your face.”
The museum has a focus on adult education because it helps enhance the overall quality of life and encourages continuing education and growth, said Groff.
It helps that Slaby, who moved to Evansville with her family in July 2011, has a calm and patient demeanor.
“The museum has these classes for busy people who want a little introductory knowledge,” said Mary Jane Humphrey, 59, one of the students at the introductory workshop in August.
“So you need somebody that’s positive, who takes it very seriously and explains it well. Slaby was perfect for that.”
Humphrey, an amateur watercolorist who has taken many workshops at the museum, described how each experience has given her enrichment and value because she was able to stand in the shoes of the artists.
“Art is like reading a good book, like doing something well,” said Humphrey. “The point is it takes concentration to doing it at all — that itself can be relaxing.
“It’s like going on vacation — the world is behind you. The focus that it needs really clears your mind.”
Slaby said silk scarf painting also teaches one self-confidence.
“It really gives you a lot of life lessons,” she said. “And through that you also learn how to break things down in small steps to get ahead.”