Born Dallas, Texas, 1988 / BA, Western Michigan University / Lives in Detroit
“Sometimes I wonder if my work is really about performance,” Kayla Powers confides, offhandedly. It is a strange conjecture from an artist whose primary medium is weaving. Still, it makes sense when you realize how deeply intertwined Powers’s art is with her desire to model a particular type of relationship to the world.
Power’s work is determinedly local. She sources regionally grown fibers, and, crucially, she has developed the knowledge to create natural dyes from plants that she grows and forages in Detroit. Powers has learned these skills through a lengthy process of research and experimentation. Still, she is generous in making them available to others through workshops and how-to articles on her website. As she says, “being a good community member is important to me.”
Powers often weaves the results of her research into simple gridded patterns—seductively minimal experiments in color that are both beautiful objects in themselves and windows into the natural world they reference. Behind every color there is a plant and a story. For example, the gold color shown in the third row of Natural Dyes of Detroit (2020) originates from the bark of a fallen willow tree that Powers had been observing on Belle Isle. The tree has its lifecycle, and now the artwork it partly inspired will have its own physical and social lifecycle; the natural dye is the connection between these two worlds.
Powers’s work embraces the rhythms of natural growth/decay cycles. She is concerned that her work should be seasonal; the fifty-four panels of July and August (2020), for example, are constructed using fifteen unique colors collected during the months of the title. Over time the colors will change—as Powers points out, the golden-yellow of the dye from the willow bark will gradually darken with exposure to sunlight. There is a subtle beauty to recognizing these changes.
Powers’s research into natural dyes builds on an extensive period of experiential learning. A troubled high schooler, she scraped into college at Western Michigan University, bouncing around introductory liberal arts courses before the epiphany of an art history class. After college, she apprenticed for six months at Hawthorne Valley, a biodynamic farm and Waldorf School in New York’s Hudson Valley. Here she had her first experience with weaving, learning how to work the farm’s home-spun yarn into a plain-woven textile. She also internalized biodynamic farming’s holistic approach to the health and spirit of the land.
The following years saw Powers learn more weaving basics, purchase a loom, and travel extensively in Central America and Asia, always exploring the local place-based fiber practices. In 2017, she settled in Detroit, where she established Salt Textile Studios to manufacture, sell, and educate about naturally-dyed, handwoven textiles. The elegant, potentially functional works she creates there reflect the research from her earlier travels. For example, Woven Quilt (2020) and the Belle Isle Blanket series (2017 onwards) are inspired by the traditional Guatemalan process of backstrap weaving, in which the width of the woven cloth is limited by the girth of the weaver’s body.
Undoubtedly, Powers’s most prominent venture to date is Local Color (2020). This large-scale installation in Detroit’s Dequindre Cut, a heavily used pedestrian and bike trail, featured a dozen 72″ by 26″ weavings, each dyed using a different locally sourced natural dye. The weavings were aligned in four banks of three suspended by wooden frames that allowed them to dance freely in the wind.
Publically situated, unashamedly beautiful, craft-based works such as Local Color provide a ready entrance point for people who may otherwise feel excluded from the art world. Once engaged, viewers might learn more about the project’s background and the origin of the natural dyes used in the work from signage and an accompanying catalog. Creating this combination of inclusivity and heightened awareness of nature was central to Powers’s motivation for taking on the two-year project.
Powers is proud that as part of the project, she could fund two CCS students to work as apprentices. In this way, she is perhaps repaying some of the debt that she owes to Hawthorne Farm—for simultaneously introducing her to both the importance of ecocentric living and the magic of weaving.
Steve Panton January 2021