A Conversation With Ramona Downey

Oakland-based artist Ramona Downey shares the inspiration behind her large-scale weavings and her journey into the world of textiles and Ikat. 

1. What are you thinking about when you decide to make a weaving?  Do you have the design completely planned out before you start creating?  

I usually have several ideas of images that I want to explore bouncing around in my brain.  I pencil them in a sketch book or do a small watercolor of the design. Sometimes, a new image emerges from the last piece I’ve taken off the loom. Once I decide to go forward with a specific design, I draw the image to scale on paper dividing it in 1” sections.  If the weaving is going to be 48” across and 56” long, the grid on paper will reflect those measurements.  

Next, I lay the undyed yarn over the grid and tie off the sections of the design that will be wrapped to resist the dye.  Depending on the complexity of the design, this is the most time consuming part of the process.  Because I dye all my own yarn, color is always the most essential part of my creative process.  I put the sample colors beside each other until I know the specific colors that I’m going to use in a piece. 

2.  It can be so difficult to take a traditional and historical technique like Ikat and make it look contemporary, but you manage to do so in a very cool way.  Is there a reference or a point of inspiration that you start with on these particular pieces?

Sometimes the creative process is abstract.  I have always been a huge fan of Mark Rothko.  Inspired by his paintings of color fields, I recently decided to try to reflect that style in a contemporary way with yarn.  I wanted to create two color fields and gradations of color within a frame, and I used bright pinks and turquoise in a deep plum frame for my piece titled Rothko

I saw my first hand dyed Ikat cloth in 1985.  It was a gift from a friend who had just returned from Bali, and I was so intrigued by the design and motifs.  I could see how much time it took to complete. During this period, while I was still very new to the weaving process, I stumbled upon the book The Dyers Art: Ikat, Batik, Plangi that has been at the core of everything I do with textiles.  I already knew that dyeing would be fundamental in my practice and this particular title was deeply inspirational.  I remember thinking that, if in my lifetime I could make just one weaving that would be as beautiful as the work in this book, I would have succeeded as an artist.  It was after this discovery that I decided to use the ancient technique of Ikat with colors and shapes that reflect the brilliance of the world around me. I wanted to incorporate the figure in some of the work and traditional patterns in other pieces.  

For most of my life, I have lived in warehouses with large, open space and very high ceilings. This scale is reflected in my work.   

3. What are some of the dyes, both natural and synthetic, that are used in your weavings?

For natural dyes, I use the flowers of the Weld plant that is grown in my garden, to achieve a golden color like you see in Double Frame.  I also use Kamala, a seed from the Mallotus tree that is native to the Philippines, and cochineal that is sourced from Oaxaca, which can yield peach, pink, purple, and bright magenta.  Looking at the raw material of cochineal, you would never think that such a rich color would come from the gray and black bodies of the parasitic insect that preys on the nopal cactus.  I also incorporate madder, indigo, cutch, and logwood extract.  For synthetic dyes, I source them from Dharma Trading, an incredible local business in San Rafael, CA, that has been around since 1969.

4. What made you start experimenting with sequins?  

I really don’t remember where I found my first cone of sequin yarn.  I’ve experimented with a variety of materials on my loom such as copper wire, fish line, cellophane film, and fabric strips.  I think I was looking for metallic yarn and stumbled on the sequin yarn, and went from there.

5. What does weaving mean to you?  

Creativity and experimentation has always been part of my life.  After I took my first weaving class, I quickly bought a loom realizing that there is an infinite world of expression at my fingertips. Weaving is a tactile process.  Every inch of the yarn is touched by my hands multiple times.  There’s so much more that I want to explore in my practice.