Blue and Gold

Posted On March 13, 2017

Caroline Harper has a blue thumb. She earned it by perpetuating centuries-old practices for extracting enviable shades of blue from an ordinary looking plant called indigo.

By Rachel Haynie  >>  Photos by Caroline Harper

The artist found her way to this universally revered color during a personal blue period. 

“When my mother, Mireille, passed away, I felt I’d lost my moorings. My sense of loss was even greater because I had been working in unfulfilling jobs and knew I couldn’t continue that way. I found myself searching.”

Looming over this blue period, adding pressure for Harper to figure out what fate had in store was lore her mother had repeated often. “A spiritual healer told her I would be successful, that I would make gold with my hands.”

Harper, a trained and intuitive artist and a talented graphic designer, began to reconsider art as the route back to the woman she wanted to be again, perhaps even a path to the gold the healer had presaged. 

“One day at a restaurant where I was working, an attractive, petite lady I’d never seen before came into my office and said, ‘I’ve been watching you take pictures of the food here, and I like the way you work, I like your creative energy. Why don’t you come work for me at Finleaf Gallery. I’d like you to help with our marketing.’” 

Harper attributes that encounter with Peg Averyt as life changing. Being in Finleaf Gallery’s environment, surrounded by works of creative individuals, was immediately fulfilling. “There I began to sense what I wanted to do with my life.” 

Indigo came up in her life explorations, more and more often. ““I had always been intrigued by Japanese culture, especially art. I kept stumbling upon references to Shibori.” Harper explained that Shibori is an ancient Asian artisan tradition usually associated with wrapping yardage of cotton or silk tightly around a bamboo pole and tying the folds with linen cord in such a way that dye – in this case, indigo – can make its way through the pleats and wraps to form intricate patterns.

Her delving compelled Harper to learn this ancient technique. “That the Shibori tradition involved indigo seemed especially right because of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and the plant’s place in South Carolina history.” 

“My research led me to an artisan master who had a silk farm in a small town outside Tokyo. Somehow, I felt if I could meet him, I could figure out what I was supposed to be doing.” The Japanese master wrote courteously that his next workshop was already full. “Then someone dropped out and there was a place for me. As soon as a Kick-Starter campaign generated enough funds, I bought my plane ticket and registered.” 

Time and learnings in Japan were healing and directional to Harper. When she returned home, she set up her studio for the creation of original designs and began following the time-honored methods of imbuing cotton or silk with the blue of indigo. 

As she worked on creating scarves and ties, table and housewares, she found she wanted to get closer to the roots of indigo. “I read and attended workshops to learn all I could about the history of the plant and stages of production.” Her dip into the history of the plant, an international history whose chapters are set not only in Japan but also in India, Africa, island nations and her beloved France, cultivated within her a growing knowledge of indigo’s botany and agriculture.

Finleaf Gallery afforded her a boutique setting in which to showcase and market these works; she drew upon her background in art and commercial design to keep her website, chidesigngraphics.com, updated with images of her creations and announcements of her events. 

About indigo and all its facets, Harper was a fast learner. “Before long, I was being asked to lead workshops myself.” Harper longed to complete the entire process, from dirt to shirt, right here in South Carolina.

“I knew indigo had been grown successfully as far inland as Kingstree, and was so fortunate to meet Kathy and Bill McCullough. Bill is an incredible artist and Kathy has grown heirloom vegetables for some of the lowcountry’s top restaurants, although these days she invests most of her energy in her students.”

Soon the McCulloughs and Harper reached an agreement. “They would grow indigo on their farm and we would harvest together in early fall and process the indigo on site.” What Harper brought back to her Columbia studio would have looked like ordinary mud to the uninitiated. “Once the mud is thoroughly dry, I turn it into powder which then goes back into liquid, infusing the dye with a rich blue, the blue royalty set a premium on centuries ago.”

Part of her research revealed that indigo had been known, during the Colonial period, as blue gold. “This must have been what the spiritual healer meant when she told my mother I would make gold with my hands.”

With spring at hand, it is time for Harper’s gold thumb to press into rooting medium the seeds held back from the fall 2016 indigo crop, harvested only one week before Hurricane Matthew struck. “By June the seedlings will be up and can be planted in the McCullough’s rich soil, then we will wait out summer for another harvest, late next September or early October.”

 “When we are sweating out the success of our crop, I know just what Eliza went through those three years before she succeeded with indigo in 1744.”

Channeling Eliza Lucas Pinckney

Indigo’s importance to this state’s Colonial economy can be traced back to Eliza Lucas (Pinckney) who persevered through three growing cycles before she produced, in 1744, a successful crop from seeds her father sent from Antigua where he was stationed in a high military post. From the first successful harvest, the teen saved seeds to share with neighbors and plant for the following year. By 1748, indigo’s value as a crop was second only to rice.