Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Shadows and Shibori: Marie-Helen Guelton


Shadows and Shibori: the peaceful patterns of Marie-Helen Guelton

Guelton’s sophisticated and considered works are examples of a self-taught technique informed by a solid background in weaving. Guelton first learnt to weave at a workshop in southern France in the mid-1970s. A degree in visual arts from the Sorbonne awarded in 1979 was followed by numerous research trips overseas including four years in Morocco as well as time in Algeria, India, Japan, the United States and Thailand. In 1983 Guelton began experimenting with self-taught resist dying techniques that have evolved into a personal but technically precise style that is now the main focus of her design work.

Numerous exhibitions at galleries such as Marine Biras in Paris, Joss Graham in London and the recent “Silk Dichotomies” exhibition held in conjunction with the Surface Design Association’s conference in Kansas City as well as participation in the International Shibori Symposium in Gujarat, India and more recently in Harrogate are testament to Guelton’s positive reception worldwide.

Guelton is currently employed as a technical analyst at the Musee des Tissus and teaches at the Centre International pour l’Etude de Textiles Anciens in Lyon. Prior to this, Guelton was the assistant curator and director of technical research at the Association for the Study and Documentation of Asian Textiles in Paris. Restrained in palette and pattern, while technically sophisticated, the delicate creations of Guelton’s dye lab remind one of the old textile fragments whose muted palettes and simple designs only enhance their value and have clearly derived considerable influence from her historical research of textiles. Working with a palette of limited, often earthy, colours on is reminded of natural dyes even when they are more often than not, synthetic.

While dying rather than weaving is now Guelton’s main focus, a solid understanding of woven structures has allowed her to develop stitch resist techniques on commercial cloth that make delicate use of the inherent qualities of the woven structure. The pleated sewn resist that has become Guelton’s hallmark often runs along the weft of the fabric creating channels saturated by dye. Focusing on the possibilities of free from stitching and folding as well as arashi shibori (where the cloth is pleated and wrapped around a cylinder or pole to create a distinctive streaking reminiscent of ripples on the surface of water) has allowed Guelton to explore some of the countless possibilities available to shaped resist dying. Silk remains her staple, although explorations of alternative materials such as goat hair and abaca have recently appeared in her work.

The late Japanese novelist Jun’ichir Tanizaki in his essay “In Praise of Shadows” laments the increasing insensitivity to the pleasure that can be found in the play of natural light and shadows in architecture. Tanizaki explains, “Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” The incredible sense of restraint that runs through Guelton’s work seems to have responded to Tanizaki’s call for a celebration of the shadow. In Guelton’s work colour and materials are paired to a minimum, creating marks that evoke a flickering, luminous light to which the viewer’s eyes must slowly adjust. Like shadows, the sophisticated patterns emerge rather than leap into view. Guelton’s confident hand allows the natural patterns of the process to come to the forefront, often creating asymmetrical compositions that look more like calligraphic marks than textiles set to the rhythms of a mechanical repeat.

Tanizaki concludes, “I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are loosing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.” It seems Guelton has created her own retreat from brash colour and unnecessary pattern, her patterns of glowing forms and shadows would surely put Tanizaki’s mind at rest.

Selvedge magazine (issue 00, May/June 2004: 66-69)