Autumn Leaves

Cassandra Tondro's Ecoprints

As a child, I lived in a rural area just outside the city with vacant lots and open fields. There were farm animals in the neighborhood as well as indigenous creatures, and I developed a deep respect for nature and a passion for its preservation.

Fiber art was my first love. My mother taught me to sew and crochet at an early age, and I loved making things with my hands. Later I learned to quilt and weave, and I became interested in natural dyes. When gathering plant material for the dyes, I noticed that certain leaves stain the sidewalk with their imprint. I did some experiments with these leaves, printing them onto fabric, and the results were less than stellar. Then it occurred to me to try printing the leaves onto paper, and these first ecoprints were stunning.

Because of my love of nature and my concern about the environment, I have been exploring the use of natural and recycled materials in my art for many years. My abstract paintings are created using leftover house paint that would otherwise go to waste, and the ecoprints are made by steaming leaves against paper. No inks, dyes or paints are used -- just the colors from the plants themselves.

Morning walks through my neighborhood provide the inspiration and materials for my ecoprints. It's surprising that there are always leaves to work with, year round. Sometimes it's trimmings from neighbors' trees, and other times it's small branches that marauding squirrels have brought down. In autumn there's a bounty of fallen leaves, but even in spring and summer, many of the trees shed some leaves.

Not all leaves print well, and it takes experimentation to find the ones that do. The trees that grow in my area and that work best for me include Bauhania, Birch, Elm, Eucalyptus, Fig, Flowering Plum, Ironwood, Jacaranda, Liquidambar, London Plane, Loquat, Maple, Mulberry, Oak and Sycamore. Fresh leaves work better than dried leaves, with the exception of Eucalyptus, which work well fresh or dried.

The leaves get flattened under heavy books for a day or two, because it's important to have good contact between the paper and the leaves.

I use 140 lb. cold pressed watercolor paper for my ecoprints, with a 100% cotton rag fiber content. My favorite brands are Arches Natural White,  Fabriano Artistico and a handmade paper from India. Different papers produce different colors, because of the sizing used in the papermaking process. Arches paper gives yellow hues, Fabriano gives rusts, and the India paper yields greens.

The paper is made in large sheets, and I hand-tear it to size to maintain the deckle-edge look. I soak the torn sheets in water for about an hour before using them for printing. Adding a little white vinegar to the soaking water gives prints with brighter colors.  

I arrange the flattened leaves on each sheet of paper, creating a stack of paper and leaves. I cut two pieces of cardboard slightly larger than the paper, use these on the outside of the stack, and secure the bundle with string.

The bundle of paper and leaves is placed on a rack in a covered pan big enough to accommodate the paper. For large pieces, I use a big commercial roasting pan. Smaller pieces can be steamed in an inexpensive turkey roaster using a vegetable steaming basket to keep the bundle suspended above the water. I place bricks on top of the bundle to weight it, for good contact between the paper and the leaves, and steam it for about two hours over boiling water.

I let the bundle cool in the pan overnight, then I separate the paper from the plant material. The ecoprints are laid out flat to dry, and the leftover plant material goes into the compost bin.

The ecoprint process is fascinating because I never know exactly what to expect. The prints are affected by many factors, including the type of paper used, the pH of the soaking water, and the other plant material in the bundle. Sometimes the results are amazing, and other times disappointing, and that’s what keeps it interesting to me.

The ecoprints have an ethereal feel. They beckon us to slow down, quiet our minds, take a closer look, and appreciate the spirit of the trees. The colors of the prints are a whisper of reality, their patterns a pale and delicate gift at the end of the leaves' brief lives.

For more information about Cassandra Tondro's ecoprints please visit www.tondro.com.

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