After he earned a fine arts degree at Pratt and studied traditional block printing in China, John "I-Caught-the-Asia-Bug" Robshaw journeyed to India to find natural indigo dye for his paintings. Instead, he fell in love with the local artisans fabric-making traditions. The hands-on immediacy and vitality of textiles dyed, printed, woven, stitched, and worn piqued what was to become a lifelong fascination.
"It's so simple and natural. You touch a woodblock to wet clay and then to the fabric. After the clay dries, you dip the cloth into the indigo vat and the clay stays on. One dip gives the fabric a sky-blue color, two dips and it deepens to cobalt, three dips and its a saturated midnight blue. Then the fabric is laid out to dry in the sun and later the clay is washed off. The dyer says the indigo vats are like a mistress because they need constant attention. I was completely fascinated by the dyeing and printing processes, as well as how the finished product is used. Textiles become intimate companions in daily life, whether as a pillow, bedcover or sarong."
John's forays in Asia have taken him to the villages of Gujarat and Rajasthan to work alongside artisans and study their traditional printing methods; he has made court batiks in Yogakarta, Indonesia; block printed sarongs alongside a family who has been printing for four generations; he has vegetable-dyed ikats in Thailand. In India, John found that he could apply a painterly aesthetic to the traditional method of block-printing by mixing up patterns and overlapping them in a more formally artistic way. There, his signature dynamic look was crafted: an updated spin on the exotic, handmade object; a vibrant mix of sophistication and romantic allure. "I want all the colors, processes and designs from each culture to blend. I redesign them and mix up the processes in ways no one has ever done before. I try to edit them, learn from them, make them my own but retain their essence. In piggybacking these designs and techniques with each other or with my own ideas, what emerges is new and fresh, and yet retains that sense of tradition, of the handmade. When I need to hire someone to help, I pick the old printers. Their hands are shaky and their eyesight is poor, so the pattern comes out slightly off. I want to feel that human touch," says John.
Now John works with various workshops in India, where he travels several months out of the year to oversee production, experiment with new dyeing and printing techniques, and to work alongside the artisans creating the fabrics. He takes care to cultivate and preserve their traditional techniques, but not only in India. As a consultant for Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating economic opportunities for craftspeople in developing nations, John has traveled to Vietnam, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and most recently, Bolivia, in support of the textile artisans there.
"By producing my textiles abroad, I get to become a minor character in the lives of the people I work with, and I can take inspiration from what I see and do there. I go to their weddings, celebrate their festivals, I get sick with them, I develop relationships with the people who are teaching me. When you look at my textiles, its like you've been on the world tour along with me."