A! Magazine for the Arts

Carol LeBaron at work in her studio in Stoney Creek. (Photo by Lee Talbert|Johnson City Press)

Carol LeBaron at work in her studio in Stoney Creek. (Photo by Lee Talbert|Johnson City Press)

Salvage as Art

October 19, 2009

*** Published in Johnson City Press on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009. ***

JOHNSON CITY, TN -- Textile artist and jacquard weaver Carol LeBaron of Elizabethton is one of several Tennessee artists selected by Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte to make art for the Tennessee Executive Residence in Nashville.

The works were made from materials removed from the interior and exterior of the mansion during renovation begun in 2003 when Conte's husband, Gov. Phil Bredesen, took office.

Other artists reused mansion stone and wood to make sculptures and fabric to make quilts. Structural components that couldn't be salvaged were remade with historical accuracy. Years of neglect were undone and handicapped accessibility and green-energy efficiency made possible.

LeBaron rescued faded pink curtains of rayon and cotton. Others couldn't see their potential, but she was inspired by the textures and flora and fauna pattern and transformed them into a glistening wall hanging ] [entitled"Rock Gnome." Her project proposal suggested she would mix remnants of her collection of fabrics with the curtains, but it wasn't necessary.

"I did not end up adding in other materials from my studio," she said. "I thought I would, but I had no idea the fabric itself would be so beautiful. It did not need any further addition, and its character came out best of itself."

LeBaron made it with her unique clamp-resist dye technique and named it after the rare lichen found on Roan Mountain. It's part of her ongoing "Endangered Species" series and incorporates local color, indigenous plants and vivid colors observed from above the Earth of acid rain and drought. Man's impact upon nature is a favorite theme.

She is surrounded at her rural studio by fabric samples of red, purple, yellow, blue and orange used to test dyes for the mansion project and other works in progress. Plant drawings are taken from photographs on site and pinned to the wall for study. They become patterns for the wooden blocks she designs and cuts from property wood to create pattern in her work and block color.

Her dyeing technique is a unique adaptation of a 7,000-year-old Japanese technique, shibori, in which folded fabric is clamped between two shaped wood blocks and only the edges are dipped into the dye. She used synthetic Pro MX Fiber Reactive Dyes for the project, which don't cause chemical change to the fiber, have a baking soda for the alkaline and dye at a pH of 8.

LeBaron bathes the entire piece. Her clamped images between the woodblocks "resist" certain colors, while the rest of the exposed fabric absorbs the dye. Once the fabric is dry, an outline is drawn on the wall and the fabric placed within it for the final design. Each is a layered and luminous contrast of shape, subdued and bold color.

There is plenty of disturbing art to make us face our ecological impact on the world, LeBaron said, but her methods are different.

"I would much rather make something beautiful that engages the viewer, and then they want to think about these things because then they want to keep looking at it," she said.

LeBaron was suggested to Conte for the Tennessee Residence project by a curator at the Tennessee Arts Commission who had shown LeBaron's work and knew that her recycling and conservation themes and the residence project would mesh.

"My process is very much about a green process and green art work," LeBaron said. "And all the dyes I use exhaust completely, and you can put it all into the soil, and I re-use my water and use solar power as much as I can and all this stuff. So, she immediately thought that my philosophy about this would probably be along the lines of what the first lady was looking at doing, and even though I mostly work in wool, she thought that I would like a shot at these fabrics."

Conte realized artists see potential in objects the rest of us do not, and worked with the TAC to locate some of the most diverse artists for the project. Each made something that reflected his or her unique talents, Conte said in a phone interview from Nashville.

If she's proud of what she's done, you wouldn't know. Neither she nor Bredesen thinks in terms of legacy, only what the need is and what they can accomplish, she said. If others are inspired to find another use for something rather than discard it, that will be a good thing, Conte said.

"Sometimes doing things like this does start seeds of ideas," she said. "I would think that would happen."

The three-story, 10-acre, 16-room home was built for businessman William Ridley Wills, founder of National Life and Accident Insurance Co., and completed in 1931. It became Tennessee's official governor's home when the state purchased it after Wills' death in 1949 and was in near uninhabitable condition by 2002. Conte and Bredesen own a home in Nashville and have never occupied the mansion, which provided opportunity to complete the needed renovations.

Conte announced the comprehensive preservation and restoration initiative in 2003, which preserved the mansion's historical integrity and also added space for an underground Conservation Hall for state functions. The residence was stripped of toxic lead paint, hazardous electrical wiring replaced, masonry and limestone repaired, art and furnishings restored, steel doors and energy efficient windows reproduced and reinstalled.

A new slate roof was put on, the foundation reinforced and an energy-efficient geothermal heating and cooling system were installed, along with ramps and elevators that accommodate those with disabilities.

Conte's expecting those who govern the state next will care about this jewel as much as she.

"This is the kind of thing that the mantle of stewardship will pass to the next governor, whoever he or she is," Conte said. "The only thing I hope would happen is there'd be a continued respect for the property."

Editor's Note: LeBaron was also featured in the February 2007 edition of A! Magazine for the Arts: