A couple of months ago my good friend Imari suggested I check out the work of Brett Day Windham, an artist based in Rhode Island who creates truly gorgeous cyanotypes using found elements in nature. Brett and I connected virtually and we talked about her process while she showed me some of her new work, and I immediately knew that I wanted to showcase it at Kneeland Co. Rarities. I wasn’t completely familiar with how cyanotypes were made, and I just learned how that electric shade of blue is created (hence the word “cyan”, meaning blue). The steps taken to achieve these ethereal and magnetic works of art is incredibly fascinating, and Brett took some time to share both her process and inspiration for Kneeland Co. Voyages. Visit the shop in-person to purchase, or view her work on Rarities and email for pricing and additional information.
1. You started creating your cyanotypes in 2017, gathering flora and fauna found on your walks. Did the idea for cyanotypes come to you before or after you had been gathering and building a collection of these found treasures?
It was kind of a perfect storm. Collecting found objects is the foundation of my practice. Whether those objects are turned into an installation, a wall hanging, series of drawings, or a zine, they inform everything I do. Similarly, I’ve been making cyanotypes since I was a little girl and my mom gave me a sun print kit. I would go out on our porch and make prints of little objects from my father's collections. In 2016, cyanotype started to feel like an amazing way to synchronize the 2-D and 3-D parts of my practice, and a way to have an object-free record of my collections.
2. I know that color plays an important role in your work, and that you are highly influenced by Sonia Delaunay’s color theory. When I first saw your work on Instagram, I was immediately drawn to the vibrancy of the blue background. Something about choosing that color seems so perfect for the subjects in the cyanotypes. What made you decide to choose blue, and to have that be consistent throughout the series?
Well I absolutely love blue, and luckily cyanotype chemistry creates that rich blue tone - it is even in the name: cyan is a type of blue. Cyanotype is an early photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. The process uses two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. There are ways of tinting the blue to navy, yellow, sepia or brown, but for my purposes there was no need.
3. I really love and appreciate the timelessness of each work. They remind me of a vintage or antique botanical print, but the radiant color really gives them a contemporary feeling. One of the qualities I admire in an artist’s work is their ability to create something that doesn’t have that obvious stamp of a date. Was that something you thought about or did it come naturally?
Both! I’m so glad the work reads that way to you. I absolutely love Matisse, Sonia Delaunay, Klee, and Bonnard, and wanted to bring an exuberant color sensibility to contemporary work. There is also that moment in the studio when work is going well, and you aren’t thinking about anything. You let go, and things just begin to happen. All the planning and studying goes to the subconscious and the act of making takes over. I hope these paintings will look fresh in a hundred years.
4. What is it about the natural world that you are most attracted to?
Everything everything everything.
5. Can you walk us through your process of creating a cyanotype?
Sure! I collect specimens that are exciting to me, and if they are botanical I press them for a few weeks until they are dry and stiff (pressing allows me to get amazing detail from the specimen, because they lay flat against the paper). Next, I might lay them on a blank sheet of paper to approximate the composition. To prepare for the print, I paint cyanotype chemistry onto a similar sized sheet of paper and hang it to dry overnight. The next sunny (and hopefully windless) day I lay the coated paper out in the sun with the objects placed on top, as close to high noon as possible so that there are fewer shadows. The chemistry is photo sensitive, so it exposes in the sun. Once it has exposed (between 5-20 minutes depending on multiple factors) I immediately rinse the paper in cold water to fix the chemistry, and hang it in the dark to dry. If the paper is really big, I will even rinse it in a baby pool, which is a really delicate goofy performance. Getting huge sheets of paper in and out of a pool, heavy and soaking, without tearing or damaging the surface is quite hard! For every perfect print there are a few that don’t make it. Once the paper is dry, I apply watercolor and pen, and the press the paper a final time.
View the collection on Kneeland Co. Rarities