The first time I saw images of an indigo vat was in the late 1980s at a lecture about textiles in New York. I learned there about the magical transformation that occurs when fibers emerge from a vat into the air and are transformed from a dull green to a celestial blue. I was hooked and I knew that someday I would make a documentary about indigo.
That film, BLUE ALCHEMY: STORIES OF INDIGO, is a feature-length documentary about indigo, a blue dye that has captured the human imagination for millennia. It is also about remarkable people around the globe who are reviving indigo in projects that are intended to improve life in their communities, preserve cultural integrity, and bring beauty to the world. The stories are told against an historical background along with explanations of what indigo is and how it works.
In 2005, we began shooting in December in Japan. Hiroyuki Shindo is a contemporary Japanese textile artist and indigo master who agreed to appear in the documentary. Shindo maintains a 1,000 year-old of dyeing in fermentation vats that is disappearing in Japan. That October, he told me that we should shoot by mid-December at the latest so we could capture the process of making sukumo, the indigo compost that is the basis for the Japanese indigo vat. Like all indigo dye production, it is seasonal work.
In Shindo-san’s studio in Miyama, we videotaped the entire process of making the vat. At the time, he was working on a project of producing 100 pole-wrapped shibori yukata, and we were able to shoot some of that process. A few days later, we traveled with him to Nishiwaki, where we met Hiroaki Murai, a young indigo farmer. In his barn was an amazing sight: a perfectly shaped mound of sukumo, indigo compost. Murai-san then turned the pile and watered it, releasing clouds of steam that appeared blue in the late afternoon light. These were the first of many scenes that can only be described as magical.
Another unforgettable experience was shooting in Hueyapan, Mexico, during the fiesta of Santa Filomena, and finding out that the saint’s identity evolved from that of an ancient Aztec woman who is believed to have taught indigo dyeing and other textile arts to the women there. The village is home to dyers Manuela Cecilia Lino and her daughter Cecilia, indigenous Nahua women who are carrying on an indigo dyeing tradition and use an indigo “starter” handed from mother to daughter that is unique to their village in Mexico.
In all the places we videotaped, people had an affection, even a reverence for indigo. I hope that comes across in the documentary.
Grant-funded documentaries usually take a long time to complete and this one was no exception. I am deeply grateful to the major funders, Patricia McFate, Avenir Foundation, and The Coby Foundation, and to the many other people and organizations that donated the funding for BLUE ALCHEMY.
Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo premiers at The Lensic presented by Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, Wednesday, July 6, 2011 7:00 PM. $15/20/75 STUDENTS $10. The $75 ticket includes an invitation to a pre-screening party at the Coyota Cantina, 5:30 - 6:30 PM, as well as preferred seating at the Lensic. The Coyote Cantina is located at 132 West Water Street. The Lensic is located at 211 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe, NM. 3 Easy Ways to Buy Tickets Call (505) 988-1234; Stop By The Lensic; Buy Online at TicketsSantaFe.org.
Mary Lance is an award-winning filmmaker with over thirty years’ experience in documentary production. “Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo” is her most recent project. Other documentaries include “Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World“ (2002), “Diego Rivera: I Paint What I See” (1989). Lance began her career as an independent filmmaker with “Artists at Work: A Film on the New Deal Art Projects” (1981) ,a survey of the 1930s New Deal art projects, which received a Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival, A CINE Golden Eagle, and numerous other awards. In additional to grant-funded documentaries, she has produced a number of films and videotapes for museums and non-profit organizations including the Smithsonian, the Public Art Fund, and the Henry Ford Museum. Lance resides in New Mexico, where she also works as a freelance field producer for television.