The Sustainable Approach: An Artist's Showcase
The lacy edge of the cotton handkerchief looks like something from another era. So does the phrase “Bless her heart” embroidered in the center of the fabric. But its bright red color is a sign that Governors State University Art Professor Jane Hudak has transformed the hankie she tatted at the age of 14 into a piece of artwork that challenges our throwaway society.
One of 50 pieces in the show, “Moments: Mixed Media Textile Works by Jane Rhoades Hudak” at the Gretchen Charlton Art Gallery in Kankakee, her work gives new life to cast-off objects that she has found or foraged from nature. Raised in southern Ohio in a family of thrifty and creative women, Hudak creates fiber art that is firmly rooted in the earliest lessons of her childhood, the Appalachian adage, “make do and mend.”
“My mother and my six grandmothers were all seamstresses and quilt makers. They were such frugal women, with all the wars they lived through. I was raised in a modest environment and heavily influenced by them. Everything in my house is recycled,” she said.
It took Hudak a year and a half to create 100 pieces. Grateful to receive a sabbatical from GSU in the fall of 2019, she was able to refine her fabric dyeing technique in France with noted artist India Flint. She also visited Slovakia, where she delved deeply into the traditional “blueprint” dyeing processes, an experience that she said had a direct impact on her indigo-dyed artwork.
Hudak’s own life experience inspired her art. Many of the handkerchiefs depict Appalachian expressions she heard growing up, like “Yer gettin' too big for your britches, Missy.”
Other pieces are deeply serious. One work points to a poignant moment after Apartheid ended when Hudak took a group of students to South Africa. They visited a black university. “I met a student and we shook hands. He looked like he was going to burst into tears. I asked him if he was alright. He started sobbing and said, ‘You are the first white person who has ever touched me,’” Hudak wrote in a description of the work for the gallery. She said the piece is a combination of items people gave to her. “My friend and former dean Karen D’Arcy gave me one of her aunt’s tablecloths and a pair of black evening gloves, and I had a pair of my granny’s white evening gloves. From that, I created a new artwork,” she said.
Hudak, who first arrived at GSU as Provost in 2008, has had a rich life. “I’ve been to over 100 countries. I’ve spent 10 years with Women at Risk, an organization that helps women who have been involved in sex trafficking. I’ve been a dean and an art therapist. But teaching is my passion, both studio classes and arts education classes,” she said.
This fall, she will teach GSU’s first-ever fiber arts course. Part of it will include guiding students as they forage for plants and other materials useful for making natural dyes and creating artwork. “The fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, particularly with the dyes they use, and people are waking up to that,” she said. “In the course I’m teaching, all the materials we use will be sustainable, which allows students to create art in this innovative way.”
Teaching the course at GSU will enable Hudak to fulfill a lifelong dream. “For me, it’s coming back full circle to my art, which has been so invigorating and so transformative for me,” she said.
The exhibition “Moments: Mixed Media Textile Works by Jane Rhoades Hudak” at the Gretchen Charlton Art Gallery runs through July 1. Because of social distancing measures to control the coronavirus pandemic, Hudak's show is available on the gallery’s Facebook page.