Elaine ‘23 developed a love of plants in high school. Unfortunately, her suburban Alabama neighborhood didn’t have a lot of biodiversity.
“We have two trees in our whole yard,” she related. “Everything else is just grass. And that was really sad for me. I would sit under this one tree because I was like, ‘This is the best I got. I have this one tree I can sit under and feel close to nature.’”
The biodiversity of Berea College’s 9,000-acre forest was a welcome change for the biology major and forestry minor, who could now enjoy nature near campus. She took a job in woodcraft, making baskets from wood harvested from the region and designed in collaboration with Stephen Burks, an American designer and a professor of architecture at Columbia University. The process of making awakened an appreciation for how things are made.
“Most people don’t have that knowledge of where things come from, how they’re made,” Elaine said. “When I can see the whole process, I know how it gets from point A to point B, then I have more of a connection to it, and it means more to me.”
Then, last summer, Elaine deepened her appreciation for how things are made by taking an internship in Student Craft’s dye garden at the Berea College Farm. She liked to get up early and bike over to the horticulture garden when no one else was there. She would harvest Hopi sunflower, marigolds, safflower and Navajo tea in the cool of the morning as the sun rose over the dewy plants and the bees slept peacefully. The flowers she collected were used to dye some of the limited-edition placemats and coasters produced by Weaving and the broomcorn in Broomcraft.
“I knew that I wanted to do some sort of work with plants,” she said. “I knew I already enjoyed crafts because I worked in the woodshop. So, when I heard there was an internship opportunity [with Director of Weaving Erin Miller in Student Craft], and I hadn’t really had any plans for the summer, I was like ‘that suits me perfectly.’ It’s bringing together two things that I really like—the crafts and then working with plants.”
She found certain classes helped her in her tasks with the dye garden. Botany helped her to distinguish between plants. Reading books about dyeing brought back memories of chemistry class. Elaine was forging connections that again moved her to appreciate the art of making.
“I started paying more attention to little things. So now when I look at wood, I can look at the grain pattern and see how beautiful it is. And in weaving, working with dyeing, it was the same thing. Where before I just saw cloth, and it wasn’t very interesting or important to me, but now when I see it, I see all these colors that are really interesting, and I think about how it was made. My clothes mean more to me now than they did before because now I can see the work that was put into them.”
Every piece tells a story
When you purchase a handmade Berea College Student Craft product, you are buying much more than a placemat or a basket. Each piece is imprinted with the identity and heart of the student who made it.