Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Beth Kalinsky

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating eight local woman artists who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

Meet Beth Kalinsky

Beth Kalinsky
Beth Kalinsky (provided)

Beth Kalinsky is a textile artist, designer and botanical dye maker. Her hand-made dyes, made with all natural materials from her garden, possess an elegant and peaceful quality. She finds creative inspiration from hiking, growing flowers, and learning more about plant life every day.

The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.

Great Parks: What, in life, brought you to working with and making natural dyes?

Beth Kalinsky: I graduated with a fine arts degree, focusing on textiles and graphics and, didn’t start off with natural dye — it was called acid dyes, and I would hand paint murals and [paint] on materials while I was in school. After I graduated school, I moved to Chicago for about 10 years, and there I had a teacher from Japan. I mentored underneath her. I got to be her assistant in some of her teaching. And she taught me shibori techniques, the indigo process, and all about natural dyes. Not all about it—there’s more I’m still learning. Then, when I moved to Cincinnati seven years ago, my partner, he’s an arborist, and he said, “You should grow what you’re dying with.” In Chicago, I was buying what I was dying with, and in Cincinnati I grow or gather. He gives me what he gathers from his job. Now, in Cincinnati, I’ve been very inspired here and I’m a full-on natural dyer. Before I was purchasing the plant matter, but now I feel more a part of the whole process.

GP: Tell me about your garden.

BK: It’s growing. Every year. It’s clay bound — Cincinnati is very clay bound. So, for the past five years we have been playing with the soil by putting wood chips down to mix the dirt up a little bit. For three years, I’ve been growing indigo and tons of flowers. I’m a seasonal dyer, so whatever’s in season is what I gather. In the winter, it’s pinecones and acorns or berries that are dried off trees. In the summer, it’s a fantastic time because that’s when I can really use my garden. The indigo is processed in the fall. So, the garden can be used throughout the season in many different ways. I used a lot of cosmos at the end of the summer. I love cosmos. There’s my favorite plant to dye with. Green and yellow is goldenrod. The reds are sumac berries. And with sumac you can use the leaves and bark. Hibiscus, I use a lot of. I’m continuously using my garden. And this year, hopefully, the indigo will be a lot bigger, and I can play more and experiment with it.

GP: I’ve heard you mention indigo a couple times. Can you tell me more about indigo dye? 

BK: Akimi – the teacher in Chicago – she’s from Japan, which is known for indigo and shibori technique. With shibori techniques, you fold your materials to make a pattern, so the images have different patterns, and they are very interesting. Back to indigo, that process is a long process. And now, with growing, it’s another long process. There are so many different ways to pull the color from the plant and it’s very interesting to me. Even after I’ve been dying for 15 years, I’m still learning from the plant itself.

GP: And indigo has a very rich color.

BK: It does. It’s blue. Indigo is a green plant but there is a blue hue to it, and in one process you take up all the leaves and put them in a blender with cold water and salt. The salt is the activator of the plant. You blend it and then filter, and the color comes through. You agitate it to get the colors around the material. With indigo, it has to breathe, and the oxygen activates the indigo to sink into the material. You dip it many times, so it’s a long process. It’s so surprising, the natural color. Indigo is very special because you have to excise it — take it out so it can breathe — whereas other plants are more heat based. The color extracts due to the heat, and the plants sit in the bath for a very long time. So, a plant like Osage — the tree — I use the bark. I grind the bark up. That’s where my partner comes in. He will give me the sawdust and it will sit in a bath for so long.

GP: And it would otherwise go to waste?

BK: Exactly.

GP: And sawdust alone makes a bright yellow dye?

BK: Yes. It’s amazing.

A scarf dyed using botanical dyes, created by Beth Kalinsky.
Provided by Beth Kalinsky

GP: What do you do with the dyes you create?

BK: I dye accessories. I’ll use clothing, home goods. I’ll play with going to thrift stores so I can reuse [clothes]. So that is a big part of that process too — being able to recycle things. I make [things] and then I sell or I give away what I make. I want to explore. It’s a business, but I’m playing. I’m seeing what plants I can use and learning from different plants. And the past three years have been a big growth period for me. I’m very much into experimenting with new products too. Berets and bucket hats this year. And now I’m working on teaching, and I think that will be one of my next phases. Last year I did a couple of big workshops. I’ve been doing it over zoom during the pandemic just to learn and get that knowledge out there.

GP: Something I really like about the natural dye is that it’s not all one solid color. There’s almost a watercolor effect.

BK: It’s not perfect — well, not saying it’s not perfect. But it’s part of the dying process. You have to agitate your bath to get the water moving so it attaches to the material. So, there’s a lot of things that could go “wrong” in that bath, but [that’s what] makes it beautiful. And each one’s very different. Even when I fold [the fabric], I never know what I’m going to get. I can never get the same color again, but I find the beauty in that. With marigolds, if I use less it has a different shade than using a lot of marigolds. It is very experimental and very loose. And you’re not always going to get awesome colors from a plant. There are certain plants I can’t dye with. Take beets – you’d think you’d get a beautiful red, but I still can’t get a beautiful red.

GP: How do you find yourself living in harmony with nature as a part of your artistic practice?

BK: Plants are amazing. I learn about the plant and see if it’s medicinal in a certain way. Elderberries … I can dye with the whole plant. It’s a toxic stem. You can dye with the leaves and the berries. But the berries are so medicinal that I don’t even dye with the berries anymore. I use them medicinally. Whenever I hone in on the plant I try to learn all about the plant and see what the value is and what I can use.

I find that, when I go on a hunt for elder for example, my partner will come with me and we’ll gather the plant and see where else we can find it, because you don’t want to take it all from one spot. It’s more about preserving our nature, using our nature, being involved in it.*

GP: Not everybody is a nature lover. Why are you?

BK: I grew up on Lake Erie. We were always on the lake. My dad had a small fisherman boat, nothing too big, and we would go waterskiing or tubing. We would always be outside, out on hikes. Then I moved to Chicago, but it’s not the same. And I worked on a computer all day.

I’m so happy I moved to Cincinnati. I can’t believe the nature here. There’s so much exploring around here. When you’re working a 9–5 job it’s so different than when you’re outside. Outside, you can really breathe. I’m always returning to the same parks. I have my favorite parks. And my favorite trees. Burnet Woods I walk almost every day. It’s small but I love it. I’m continuously learning. And exploring and hope to continue!

*Remember to always ask permission before foraging in any public park.

Beth Kalinsky is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 31 and April 1, 2023 at Fernbank Park.

Megan Hague
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest