Good Heart and Sweet Life: An interview with plant alchemist, Noon Tran

Posted by Ariel Katz on

Noon Tran created five unique colors entirely from plant waste for EVERYBODY.WORLD's new natural dye Trash Collection. The project was a labor of love that begun from her home in Pasadena (where she had previously tended to a living indigo bath for our Material Harmony collaboration and Abbe's Day to Night Shorts) and grew into a much larger production within an industrial setting. 

Creating dye from scratch is an extremely dedicated and physical process. Roses and irises amassed from the Flower Mart transform into a spectrum that moves from sage greens to grays, osage sawdust becomes brilliant golden yellows, and avocado pits and their skins change to light pinks. But there are many steps needed for botanical debris to achieve those colors; it's a life-affirming practice for Noon and one that has strengthened her relationship to the fibers she wears.

Noon practices this work behind an animist ideology, viewing natural dyeing as a spiritual medium and focusing on how these garments are made in a harmonious relationship with nature. We spoke to her to about the complexity of her chosen slow craft and the philosophies and diasporic trajectories that have influenced her artistic practice.

How's your day going? What's making you happy today?

Woke up and met some friends for Sunday breakfast congee, spent time in my indigo and strawberry patches, and tended to my native plants. Such a blissful day today.

What three words would you use to describe yourself?

Devoted Dye Daddy! Okay, I’m way over three words but also: passionate, sass, and animal/plant daddy. 

Noon Tran

What initiated your fascination with natural dyes?

I’ve always been interested in natural phenomena, obsessed with color, historical archives, and diasporic trajectories and timelines, so the practice of natural dyes encapsulates all of these interests. The earliest, original mummy wrappings from Egypt were dyed naturally. More recently, a femme collective in Cao Bằng has been growing indigo and magenta plants producing rich, traditional pigments close to where my family is from, Hue, Việt Nam. There are 54 ethnic groups each with their own distinct traditions relating to natural dyeing in Việt Nam. They farm rice, corn and raise water buffalo, but formed groups specializing in natural dyeing, silk production, and fabric weaving. The same magenta plant that the femmes in Cao Bằng use to dye textiles is the exact plant I grew up consuming and using to cook rice and so the color has literally sustained me. I love that you can cook, dye textiles, make paint pigments as well as feed the soil with the very same plant. Visually, what I remember most about Việt Nam is so rich in color and the impression of these colors is felt everywhere from cities to rural villages—everything from the topography to architecture, art and design, food and textiles.

Noon Tran

Dyeing is a very complex slow craft, what is it about the process that speaks to you?

Dyeing is an extremely dedicated and physical process. It’s far from just add boiling water to one single dyestuff and mix. When you’re creating a dye from scratch it strengthens your relationship with the fibers you wear and consequently your indexical relationship to your body. Sometimes, I'll approach a dye project with the intent of utilizing a particular plant or dyestuff because of its specific medicinal purpose. I started growing and dyeing with dye plants since moving to Pasadena this year and seeing the evolution of seed to plant to its afterlife as dye is incredible. In order to make dyes wash/light/life fast, I fix most dye plants with a tannin and fixant bath. I love working with plants and botanical debris and seeing it through a carousel of stages from dry plant matter, extraction, modification, fixant and then color. When I started growing and dyeing from my garden, it completely changed my relationship to fibers which then helped me to understand and treat them with much more respect and care.

Noon Tran

How did you get into dyeing and when did you start doing it as your primary work?

I studied natural dye in school but have been way more interested in the cultural diaspora and animism behind it and as a way of reclaiming histories, both as personal connections and connections to nature.

Did you have any mentors along the way?

I was fortunate to have studied with a natural dye researcher but my friends and peers have been my mentors mostly! I'm constantly influenced and challenged by color. While I'm compelled to look at colors in nature, a lot of artworks by my peers are influential as well. I love works by Narumi Nekpenekpen, Lyric Chen, Alake Shilling, Dee Alvarado, Gabriela Forgo, Cherisse Gray, Sam Lui (especially Sam’s soy sauce residency), Diane Nguyen, and Karla Ekatherine Canseco.

Can you tell me more about your dye philosophy?

Every day, I try to spend as much time as possible outdoors. I check in with all of the trees, dye plants and my California native garden in my yard. It’s less about a formal, specific religious practice, more deeply rooted in focusing on the awareness and an appreciation for our nuclear relationships and a deeper recognition for what we already have. Through my role at EVERYBODY.WORLD, I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to apply techniques and practices that maximize the life cycle of compost to preserve biodiversity through Native tending processes that mimic and enhance the effects of naturally occurring phenomena; fire, wind and herbivorous animal life. Natural dyeing honors the material culture that so closely relies on naturally occurring cycles that are vital to the Earth’s ecosystem.

Justin Cole Smith

What does a day in your home studio look like? 

Establishing relationships with other dyers and farmers, gathering dyestuff solutions, and researching new techniques for producing the quality of each garment is a round-the-clock operation involving many processes each day. It’s easy to assume that natural dye is a 1-2-3 just add boiling water process but rigorous, meticulous preparation and many processes are applied in making the textiles and garments light/wash/life ready alongside a naturally sourced touch feel that will not compromise the richness in each natural color. On a typical day, I will be processing the dyestuff by hand so that it is perfectly ready for dyeing. It's actually one of the more tedious processes. Prior to natural dyeing, I made large scale textile based sculptures and the connection these processes share is the level of detail to ensure that in an industrial setting each textile accepts the handcrafted dyes evenly.

Can you walk me through your process from waste to color?

I start by scouring, then following that, there’s an acceptance of many moments where extracting, processing, and testing each of the colors we are launching ultimately, will result in each batch of dyestuff achieving its own unique range of hues. Most of the colors we're launching in October at EVERYBODY.WORLD involve compounded processing because we're adding tannins and overdyeing with other natural dye stuffs so the result in-person is drastically different and exciting in comparison to direct, synthetic chemical dyes. An example of the basic breakdown:

  1. Pre-wash/scouring
  2. Plant tannin bath
  3. Pre-mordant or pre-fixing bath using metal salts and minerals to help the dye bind to the fiber
  4. Dye bath (also sometimes an additional modifier)
  5. Fixant after bath
  6. Washing
  7. Finishing (drying, re-dipping or reapplication of compounded color; sometimes repeating steps 1-6, vegetable gylerin based fabric softening)

What are some examples of plants or foods that you currently use, and what kinds of colors do they achieve?

I am constantly using flower waste or compost from Willie Sanchez from the LA Flower Mart. Roses and irises produce a range of sage greens to grays. I use osage sawdust, which gives the most brilliant golden sun yellow with hints of oranges. Indigo for a range of blues. I am still inspired by the colors used in Vietnamese traditional dye methods in the mountains near Cao Bằng. Natural, sustainable materials such as yam root, stone, bamboo, coal, seeds, and bone are some of the dyestuffs used there. Yam root grows wild on large tree vines in remote forest areas. The root bark is dark brown, rough to touch and gnarly in shape. The interior of the tuber is as hard as the bark but like a tree root it has a beautiful burnt ochre color. This yam root was traditionally used to dye cotton peasant clothes throughout regions in the Red River and Mekong delta up until the mid-twentieth century. Due to their high tannin content, the yam tubers are traditionally used for preserving nets and leather but they are also used to color fabric in shades of pink rose, fired adobe brick, clay soil, and dark chocolate.

Noon Tran

In that tradition of palettes, my diaspora traditions and spiritual practices live through my dye work here in Los Angeles. I use cochineal from the cactus trees in my neighborhood for pinks and logwood from Mexico for purples. Avocado skins and pits from my dye house co-worker's yard for a variety of pinks and light marigold. There’s a misconception that natural colors are limited to strictly earthy hues only but the color actually is so vibrant, not flat and far more interesting to experience but even archiving and seeing it on film is so satisfying!

Noon Tran

To you, what are the advantages of using natural dyes?

There are so many obvious benefits to natural dyes, but I think that one of the most important relates to the health and wellbeing of our earth and the dye house workforce who are risking their health for the production of chemically produced garments. Health and wellness culture have had deep roots in Los Angeles and the Ayurvedic qualities are most beneficial and inherent in natural dyes; for example, indigo protects your skin from the sun and acts as a natural mosquito repellent. Natural indigo dye is also sustainable because after the pigment has been extracted all the water used in the process can be used to irrigate crops, and fertilizer can be created from the leaves after the dye has been extracted and after it is composted. Many of the ecologically sound dyestuffs we used for this collection, such as logwood, have been used medicinally throughout history and support femme co-ops throughout the world (El Salvador, Pakistan, India, and Peru) growing the dyestuffs we use. Most synthetic colors that surround us everyday are actually toxic. The smell and ocular experience of natural dye fortifies the earth and acts as medicinal remedies, as well as food and artisan by-products. For example, the osage orange that we used for dyeing Trash Tees and Crewnecks, is derived as sawdust from producing wooden art and functional objects. We then process the sawdust waste from artisans making osage instruments or bowls into a highly potent dye medium. The colors achieved from the dyes we're using represent one of the greatest gifts directly from the earth. It's a truly life-affirming practice where using one of the most altruistic gifts from nature ultimately protects and supports our health and wellness.

Noon Tran

What are you up to when you're not working?

I got introduced to natural dyeing while I was working on my art practice. I love gardening, working with clay and making sound. Before this, I made speakers and recreated a ceramic piece so that the clay vessel became the resonant part of the speaker and the sound piece playing from the speaker with re-digitized field recordings utilizing granular synthesis. I think the connection with natural phenomena and grains of sounds is a lifelong process that I will want to explore for some time. Granular synthesis or the creation of sound is similar to the act of planting a variety of seeds, observing their growth and evolution, and iteratively pruning the results into a one of many potential forms. The act of listening generates and evolves new sounds.

Occasionally, I also collaborate with non profit gallery in LA called Murmurs doing tea and food performances. Another less composted project that I've been involved with is a literary arts collective led by artists Diamond Stingily and Bri Williams called Sparkle Nation which launched me into my own literary projects. Earlier in the summer, I participated in another book project, an interactive book on ecology and collaborative survival alongside other artists, environmentalists, and farmers, edited by Grace Denis and prefaced by Anna Tsing. The book includes edible and non edible recipes and proposes a range of activities involving fermentation, walks, and embodied pedagogies.

Lastly, who would be your dream dinner party guests and what would you serve them?

Obviously my friends, but Audre Lorde, Aya Takano, Prince, Aaliyah, Missy Elliot, Faye Wong, Kodwo Eshun, Vivienne Westwood, and Mariko Mori if we’re dream living. Magenta sticky rice with coconut and jackfruit in a coconut shell or sticky rice with plantains and tapioca wrapped in banana leaves, because sticky rice symbolizes luck and happiness. Pineapple soup or a curry with baguette and herbs with green beans to symbolize abundance as well. I rarely ever serve anything without tea and fruit so depending on the month, there would be peaches, persimmons, pineapples, papayas, and red or yellow watermelons next to lime or chili peppers. A still life with five types of fruits often represents five basic elements: metal, water, wood, fire and earth which also signifies five well wishes: prosperity, preciousness, longevity, strength/health, and stability. Finally, mochi or peach shaped buns with lotus seed or red bean filling in the middle as a reminder to keep a conflict-free, good heart and sweet life!