A long metal-topped table set against a wall of colorful tiles with natural light coming in front the windows above

Creating Color

Creating Color

For the last two years, native grasses, flowers, shrubs and other plants have taken root outside the Spencer Studio Art Building. Designed by Pallavi Sen, assistant professor of art, the space began as a refuge for animals and insects—and for the humans who pass by.

Sen also saw the meadow’s flora as a source for the natural dyes found in printmaking and textile work. Now, thanks to a new studio just steps away, inside Spencer, Sen has a space to create those natural dyes—and to share her expertise with students at Williams.

As an artist, Sen integrates printmaking, sculpture, textiles and Instagram videos, while her teaching ranges from printmaking and quilting to drawing from imagination. Her Colour Function class, in particular, explores the relationship between pigment and medium and gives students an opportunity to develop their own dyes and inks.

A lab with a long metal table, two big lantern lights, a colorful tile wall and a metal vat on the floor A wall of brightly colored tiles, all with colorful geometric shapes

Sen first had the idea for a natural dye lab four years ago, when she arrived at Williams. She quickly realized there wasn’t a functional space in Spencer where she could harvest local plants and fruits and create the dyes. So, she submitted a proposal to build the studio. After a conversation with Julie Sniezek, a project manager with facilities, and Guy Hedreen, chair of studio art, they recognized the potential to bring a new educational offering to students.

While the project came to a halt during the Covid-19 pandemic, Sen and Sniezek revisited the idea in the spring of 2021. Sniezek also saw an opportunity to bring in one more team member: architect Tessa Kelly ’07.

Kelly, who majored in art history and English at Williams before studying architecture at Harvard, co-founded the firm Group AU in Pittsfield, Mass., with her husband, Chris Parkinson. They design public and municipal projects and are known for constructing The Mastheads, a public arts and humanities program focused on the literary heritage of Pittsfield. Kelly also served as visiting lecturer in art at Williams and taught Introduction to Architectural Design last semester.

“I like to think about architecture as an interplay between solving real problems while being an artistic expression,” Kelly says. “It really excites me when those two things come together.”

Adds Sen: “Julie knew Tessa would be just the person who could understand what we were doing and how we wanted the space to be playful.”

The group started in the printmaking studio in Spencer, where they hoped to adjust the overall functionality in order to carve out a space for the dye studio. Then, in one corner, they found a former, unused darkroom and an adjacent storage room for flat files.

“It occurred to us that rather than dabbling throughout the larger studio,” Kelly says, “we could make one more holistic transformation.”

Doors and walls were removed to create a unified but separate workspace with sinks and tables. They also removed an 8-foot drop ceiling to discover a structural ceiling height of 16 feet and access to natural light. They planned to add a functional backsplash to absorb the inevitable splashes and spills, but, over time, the wall evolved to feature 660 hand-painted tiles. While the tiles are designed by Sen, she sees the final project as a communal effort. A teaching assistant and friends painted some of them, and the arrangement shifted as the tiles were installed. Over time, dye splatters will add further layers to the painted tiles.

Close-up of a tile with several people's names painted in a spiral
One of the 600 tiles painted by Pallavi Sen in the new Spencer Dye Lab.

“There’s going to be a dialogue with the spillage and splashing,” Sen says. “It’s different from making a painting or sculpture that’s my own.”

The dye studio opened this summer, just as the nearby meadow exploded in full bloom. While some trees and plants will need up to six years to establish and bear fruit, Sen sees natural dye sources across the Williams campus. Walnut trees make a rich brown, while acorn trees produce a soft gray and sumac trees create a warm pink.

Sen plans to develop a dye curriculum that doesn’t just capture the spectrum of colors available across the world but investigates local and seasonal harvest possibilities.

“It will be nice to have a reminder of where you are and what you’re engaging with when you’re making or using materials,” she says. “To have that constant reminder that your life and your work are not contained within buildings.”

—Kim Catley is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va.