Kayla Powers Weaves Sensory Maps of Detroit

DETROIT — The foundation of fiber artist Kayla Powers’s practice is literally rooted in the ground that surrounds her home and studio.

“All the plant colors that I create are from plants that grow in this soil,” she told Hyperallergic during an interview at her home studio, a bright room predominantly housing a Norwood floor loom, surrounded on all sides by hanging works-in-progress. “It feels important that it’s from this place, and I was surprised by how much color comes from the plants in this landscape.”

Powers’s art seeks to gently showcase the bounty of the Detroit landscape, a mindset inspired by the plants that proliferate across the open spaces of the city. The artist forages willow bark, Alder cones, Crabapple blossoms, Sunflower seeds, Coreopsis (Tickseed), Rudbeckia, Madder root, Marigolds, Oak galls, Black Walnut, Sumac, and more to this end, but also to form a sensory map of the places that she observes through the seasons on long, meditative walks.

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Kayla Powers, “Natural Dyes of Detroit” (2020), linen, wool, locally foraged and grown natural dyes, plants, 24 x 24 inches

“Walking is a huge part of my practice,” Powers explained. “Just being present on the land in the neighborhood, and being so familiar with a place, is a part of what I’m doing.” The literal grid of Detroit’s hardscape abstracts into pieces resembling quilts, consequently evoking the feeling of viewing an agrarian landscape from above: Compositions of rectangles in different textures and finishes, all washed in a muted rainbow of natural hues or embellished with painted-on dyes, are punctuated by snatches of cutouts or transparencies. Powers’s work is delicate, harmonious, and conscientiously approachable — the latter being a quality that she cultivates just as carefully as the backyard garden that provides her with source material.

“Fiber is such a relatable material,” Powers said. “From the moment you’re born you’re swaddled in cloth. Every day we wear clothing, we sleep in bedsheets, etc. I really like that we’re able to communicate big ideas in a more digestible, accessible way, because of the material.”

Under the purview of accessibility, she considers not only what makes her art approachable, but also who has access to land, what privileges enable her to feel safe foraging in unclaimed areas of Detroit that might legally be private property, and how to expand the availability of her own knowledge of natural plant dyes. In 2020, as one of her first major public projects in Detroit, Powers installed Local Color along the Dequindre Cut, a heavily trafficked foot and bike path. The project presented 12 dyed and woven tapestries hanging from a series of standing wooden frames that could be handled by anyone who encountered them.

During her research, Powers shared resources and information extensively through her Instagram, but she found it to be an unsustainable way to interact with people who wanted to learn more about her process. Currently, she teaches workshops at Cedar North farm that carry a hefty price tag of nearly $300, but reserves need-based scholarship spots in each cohort. In an upcoming event at the Detroit Institute of Arts on April 20 and 21, Powers will facilitate two free daylong drop-in workshops, during which she will conduct demonstrations and facilitate a community art project in which participants will create three large-scaled paintings with plants to be exhibited on the building’s exterior.

Though Powers spent her first 10 years in Texas, her family history in Detroit and the wider region of Michigan traces back several generations.

“My great-grandfather moved here from the South during the Great Migration to work in the factories, and had a house over on West Grand Boulevard,” said Powers, gesturing in the direction of one of the city’s arterial thoroughfares, just a short distance from where she now lives. “That was my family’s start in this city, and members of my family and different generations have lived here off and on since then.”

Powers’s homecoming to Detroit and the urban-agrarian lifestyle she is developing here reflect a broader relationship between this decidedly urban environment and a centuries-long agricultural movement. The legacy of ribbon farms of the 1700s was carried on in the backyards of many transplant Southerners, who brought their local tradition of home gardening for sustenance to Detroit as they migrated in the first half of the 20th century. According to statistics tracked by Keep Growing Detroit, which networks and supports independent urban growers in the city, there are some 1,400 farms and gardens operating within city limits today.

“There is scientific evidence that when our hands are in soil, it activates the same chemicals in our brain as when we hug our loved ones,” said Powers. “So it’s like, being with plants and gardening are biologically what we want to do.”

In each new body of work, Powers begins by amassing a sampling of smaller works, each capturing a glimpse of her environment: grids of windows, leaves, and fronds captured in dye or cyanotype; rows of painted lines that resemble plowed fields, stitching, or morse code. Powers’s current work-in-progress contains beautiful purple hues sourced from acorns, particularly prolific as the past season was a mast year. This gentle, nature-sourced palette fades or darkens over time, as these dyes continue on in their ever-changing life cycles.

“Let’s just say also, this is a hard place to live,” said Powers. “There’s mismanagement of land all over the place, there are highways that destroyed neighborhoods — it’s hard on an emotional, spiritual level, as a sensitive person, to exist in the city. One way that I cope with it is by finding the beauty in it, obsessing over it, and celebrating it.”

She paused.

“And cultivating more of it.”

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