If the world is your classroom, then moments of learning and education can blithely appear anywhere. For fabric artist Joy Setton, circumnavigation of the globe after her father sold his French company and took the family on a two-year cruise was the foundation for lifelong learning.
Back on land, Joy studied journalism and film at NYU and embarked on a career as a filmmaker. Several PBS documentaries, notably some of the programs featuring great folk music performers (Peter, Paul and Mary, Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger) found her production credits included. “Everyone needs music,” she’s quick to point out, and the programs produced continue to be “chestnuts” in the PBS archives, trotted out annually to support giving drives.
It was an admixture of her visual sense coupled with her inquisitive nature that had attracted her attention in a Japanese museum, emboldened by discovering how garments were dyed in India that drew her to the adventure she now continues in Cornwall, CT.
“We were pandemic refugees,” offers Joy with a smile. She and her husband and their three children had a weekend home in the Litchfield Hills, a respite from their Red Hook (Brooklyn) home. When COVID-19 changed the world and how people navigated through the pandemic, Joy and her husband decided to leave the city behind.
Joy Setton’s center of operations is now a second-floor studio and gallery located in Warren Town Center. The bright space serves three purposes. Her husband has an office from which he pursues his career, comfortably remote. Joy’s space is occupied by a great working table on which she hand silk screens fabric bearing her own whimsical designs. Finally, the entry portion of her studio is her shop, a colorful amalgam of blouses, scarves and wraps all fashioned in New York’s garment district utilizing the unique fabric she creates.
There are other bits and pieces in her shop, as well. These are items that Joy calls “curiosities,” items that one might not find in other local shops but that entice and reward. Art supplies, bits of ephemera that add a moment of joy to a day as a gift or an indulgence. There may even be an antique item that catches the eye … and will add just the right touch to a room. Items offered in the shop belie the artist’s eye.
Sketchbook as starting point
“I always drew as a child. When we traveled, I would sketch the unique people, places, and things we saw.” From that childhood pursuit came a passion for design, prompted by the great traditions of textile art displayed in the Tokyo National Museum.
“I began sketching patterns, recognizing that the great fabric traditions of the world utilized natural dyes to create the deeply rich colors.” Moving full time to Northwestern Connecticut, Joy has pursued her discovery of the natural elements that can be used to create dyes for her fabric.
“Just a simple walk in the woods can yield so many plants that can be used to make my dues. Barberry, birch leaves, alder leaves, acorns … they all yield different intensities and hues.”
Without question, the hand drawn patterns that Joy creates support the underlying sense of humor that is very much a part of her nature. Nestled in the various designs can be a word or two, a whimsical figure, an object that evokes a smile like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Her hand silk screening yields admittedly small batches of cloth to be sent with her patterns to be made into unique pieces. “Pattern making is alike a Bach partita,” she adds, blending a love for music with the world of fabric art and uniquely made clothing.
Artist as activist
Not only is Joy Setton an artist, she has evolved into an eloquent activist, turning her love for natural dyes and fabrics into a voluble plea for her customers to understand the importance, the nuance of materialism … and consumption.
Trained as a journalist, Joy has found ways to incorporate her passions into editorials that are available for the asking in her Warren studio/shop or free to download on her website. These are not angry screeds, but passionate, often lyrical statements.
“I deal in materials. I am a true materialist – an idolater of the matter that I hold between my fingers. For hours every day, I handle silk and cotton, wet it and watch the darkness spread as the water is absorbed; wring it between my fingers and marvel and the thinness of the silk or at how very heavy wet cotton suddenly is.”
The use of natural dyes has become a passion for Setton and she is quick to address the great differences between the cocktails of deadly chemicals that are used to create synthetic dyes for mass consumer garments and the entirely natural, sustainable resources that she uses in her work.
“Durability is often invoked in the defense of synthetic dyes, and pointed out as a weakness of the natural ones. Well, we have Tutankhamen’s belt, died madder red five thousand years ago, still red at the Cairo Museum. We have Mayan cloaks dyed indigo blue on the coast of Peru three thousand years ago, still blue at the Lima, Peru Amano Museum.”
And, Joy Setton knows of what she speaks. She has celebrated having the world as her classroom, of having seen, first hand the wonders of ancient civilizations that used the natural fibers and dyes around them to create enduring masterpieces. Her work reflects both the education and the creative imagination it has inspired.
To view Joy Setton’s work, visit her website at settonj.com or stop by Setton J Textiles on the second floor of Warren Town Center, 4 Cornwall Road, Warren, CT.
Are you an artist and interested in being featured in Main Street Magazine? Send a brief bio, artist’s statement, and a link to your work through the arts form on our “arts” page on our website.