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Art on Your Sleeve

Hand-painted silk fashions are too dye for. Some striving for a unique look have them made. Others brush up in classes.


When Laguna Beach artist Olivia Batchelder goes out to dinner wearing one of her hand-painted silk garments, strangers usually stop her to ask where she got her unusual outfit. "You have to plan extra time, because people are going to interrupt you during the meal," she says.

As Batchelder has discovered, people are hungry for one-of-a-kind clothing with a handmade touch; they want an alternative to look-alike fashions.

"Wearable art is very distinctive. It's not mass-produced, so you get a real sense of where the garment came from and who made it, instead of something that's been manufactured overseas," Batchelder says. "As our technology gets more sophisticated, we long for things we can understand at a basic level. There's a desire for things that are well thought-out."

Creative types are pursuing that desire by trying their hands at making wearable art. They're attending workshops and classes to learn techniques such as painting on silk so they can make unique fashions.

Those who'd rather not dabble with a paintbrush are seeking out artists who can make them art to wear.

For two months, Brea artist Linda Vinson has taught "The Art of Silk Painting" as part of Brea Mall's Kids in Residence program. Local elementary and high school students and mwembers of the public who have participated in the workshops at a temporary studio set up in the mall have made hand-painted scarves, ties, sashes, sarongs, shirts and other silk garments. Some creations will be modeled at the mall's Fashionable Art Spring Showcase on April 25.

Vinson's workshops have been filled to capacity, with long waiting lists of people wanting to learn about silk painting.

Interest in wearable art has grown as people become weary of dressing like everyone else, Vinson says.

"People want to be individuals," she says. "They want to express who they are, not be part of a pack. Wearable art allows them a feeling that they're special."

At a recent workshop, senior art students from El Dorado High School gather at the mall's makeshift Artist Studio, designed to look like a SoHo art loft complete with street lamps and trash cans in front of its brick facade. Their assignment: Paint two wide swatches of silk charmeuse that will be turned into sarongs and Hawaiian shirts.

Vinson demonstrates the gutta method of silk painting. Using a small bottle of gutta, a gummy substance similar to rubber cement, the artists draw their designs on the taut cloth. Then they brush in the dyes; gutta keeps colors from running together.

"Did our teacher explain to you we're not good at art?" student Kristy Collins asks Vinson as she nervously approaches the silk canvas. Soon, though, everyone is huddled over the frame, drawing sea horses, shells, fish, beach balls, sand pails--all part of a beach motif they'd chosen for the collection.

"Remember, this is a clothing design. Your fabric's always in motion, so you want your design to flow," Vinson tells the students.

They mix dyes and fill in their drawings with color. Vinson shows them how to sprinkle the canvas with salt to add dimension to the design. "See how it draws up the dye and leaves spots?" she asks.

Drops of alcohol will push dye away and water will blend colors, creating a textured look. Within an hour, they've finished painting two silk murals; they'll be steamed to set the dyes, then dry-cleaned to remove the gutta. Fabrics will be cut and sewn into garments.

For a sleeveless gown and sheer cape adorned with large birds of paradise, Vinson recently received a first-in-show award at the Wearable Expressions international exhibition at Palos Verdes Art Center.

Hand-painted designs can't be duplicated.

"I couldn't repeat something even if I wanted to," she says. "The dyes, the mixing of color, the fabric will all be different. Even the atmosphere can affect it. If it's a dry day, the colors will dry faster and won't mix the same way. Of course, there's the shakiness of your hand and whether the caffeine is affecting you."

At Batchelder's studio, which occupies the artist's home and backyard, Batchelder receives by appointment visitors who want to buy one of her wearable artworks. Her collection includes dresses (cut on the bias to feel more sensuous), wildly colored Hawaiian shirts, scarves, jackets and accessories, with most selling for $200 to $1,000.

"I'm working with dyes and silk, but I handle each piece like it's a watercolor," Batchelder says.

Because she does most of her painting outdoors, Batchelder's garments have themes inspired by nature, including abstract florals and underwater scenes.

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