Silk art demands attention

Textile artist Joanna Staniszkis doesn't do things by halves. When she started working with silk about four years ago, her aim was “to go deep, deep into the fabric” ””to its genesis, in fact, with Staniszkis raising silkworms right through their life cycle in an old greenhouse. Just as she incorporated flax seeds into her linen venture (her multifaceted Linen Project lasted six years), she integrates actual silkworms into her current art. In one instance, cocoons and a dust-coloured moth are tonally in sync with the vintage silk shoe they adorn. The shoe, along with oversize cocoons of PVC mesh, is displayed against the grey-green walls of her year-old boutique, the Silk Project, an Aladdin's cave of saturated colour that showcases her art and the dramatic clothing she makes. Fusing the two, Staniszkis screens photographs of cocoons onto the skirt of a dress dyed shades of purple; its top features the puckered design of Indian bandni work. (The Silk Project, 1541 West 6th Avenue, is open Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.)

Some of the silk she works with comes prewoven from China. Other yardage, as with the silkworms, she is involved with from the beginning, travelling to tiny villages in India to work directly with weavers on fabrics such as a double-woven wild silk, its warp left loose in places so that it resembles a checkerboard with alternate openwork squares. Destined to become elegant shawls, this blank canvas (which, like most of her fabrics, is pure white to start) is tinted in shades of, to pick random examples, a palette of deep greens, or saffron shading to lavender. The latter is stiffened with acrylic medium so that, as the artist demonstrates, it falls into sculptural folds when wrapped around the shoulders. (See examples of her work at

Another fabric that Staniszkis developed is double woven, one side silk dyed olive green, the other a pashmina-and-wool blend she cuts into strips so that when she immerses it in a golden-brown dye bath, it felts into fuzzy-edged stripes. The weft of yet another silk is overtwisted so that, during the dyeing process, it crinkles into permanent pleats. She also works with jacquard weaves, stitching one into a deeply cuffed jacket, first dyed olive and purple then screen-printed in black. To create a more contemporary look, she tones traditional brocades down with screenprint that dapples antique rust-and-gold fabric with pungent-green patterning.

To make slinky body-clinging silk clothing is not her goal. Rather, she aims to fashion pieces that float about the body like mist around a hilltop. Utilizing as much of the material as possible, Staniszkis cuts the fabric first, either from her own pattern or freehand, then applies colour and design. A complex, bias-cut garment like a fantastic tailcoat is first dyed shades of violet, then screen-printed with black leaves. Finally, the pieces are seamed together on the outside so that the black stitching underscores cut and colour.

Crumpled silk like some exotic mineral, intricate pleating, materials that shimmer and glow””these fabrics cry out to be touched. A boiled-mohair jacket is in emerald, lime, aqua, and turquoise, the colours flowing into one another, then hand-printed in black. It's a stunning way to ward off autumn chills. Images are hinted at rather than overt. Only when you see the photograph behind it (which she uses as her screensaver) can you identify the Romanesque church printed on a sheer bronze-black tunic. Dramatic clothes demand large-scale jewellery, she feels, so she strings necklaces of amber from her native Poland together with beads collected on her global travels, or turns chunky semiprecious stones into warrior-queen bracelets. Real cocoons are dyed black, trimmed with gold, then strung on elastic.

Jacket or jewellery, Staniszkis' work is for women unafraid of being looked at. (One recent customer, in for the day from Santa Fe just to stock up, recently nabbed an armload.) Over simple black outfits, Staniszkis' creations could swan into the poshest of venues, or, funked up with denim and boots, hit the streets. Prices start at $400 for the one-of-a-kind wearable art; this is real investment dressing, pieces you'll still have 10 or 20 years from now if you take care of them. (They may be wearable art, but most pieces are hand-wash-only.)

A second studio is in the works, she says, this time in France, where she will continue her silk explorations in Provence. Even now, many of her hues have the sun-drenched intensity of a Vincent van Gogh or Paul Cézanne. “Silk dyes so graciously,”  says the artist whose studio””with its racks of golds, reds, saffrons, aqueous blues, greens, and mauves””could be the wardrobe department for a Renaissance play. “Whatever you see here,”  she says, “you have not seen anywhere else.” 