She doesn’t say she’s an artist; rather, she thinks of herself as a catalyst for nature. “The nature does the design,” she tells us, “I don’t create it.”
Collaborating with Nature
Mathilde welcomes us into her home on a piece of land bordering the Barade Forest, outside of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac. Her work—table runners, t-shirts, jackets, and linens printed with the shapes of ferns and other forest leaves—hangs on a clothesline across the fireplace.
Her home, which Mathilde shares with her partner, belongs to his family; she is originally from nearby Limeuil. We cross the yard, past rose bushes, two friendly dogs behind a gated enclosure, a barn, chickens, and a garden, toward her work studio, a rustic two-room stone building that was the first structure on the property, built by her partner’s great-great-grandfather for his family. Her workspace goes back five generations; her muse—the forest itself—goes even further back in Dordogne history.
Buckets of natural liquid dyes line the walls inside and outside of Mathilde’s work studio. This is where she dyes the natural fabric used for her art.
Mathilde grabs a wicker basket and we embark on her daily walk into the forest, as she narrates her process of foraging for inspiration. Mathilde points to the purple-pink dahlias growing in her yard as we pass by. “The dahlias,” she says, “will make yellow-colored dye.” A pile of dewy dahlia petals lie on the grass, a reminder that everything in Mathilde’s line of work is fleeting, and it is that beauty she aims to capture.
We follow Mathilde up a gravel road carpeted with lime-green moss, acorns shorn of their caps, hazelnuts, and the spikey fuzz of hazelnut seed pods. Mushrooms sprout at the base of tree stumps. Time spent in the forests of the Dordogne reminds us to reconnect with nature, to notice the tiniest details, to forgo the endless connections and distractions of modern life.
Mathilde is looking for the perfect fern. “She has to find a leaf with all green. No discoloration,” Aimee translates. The two search together through thickets of fern beside the road, snipping ferns and sprigs of leaves with pruning shears. “Ah, une petite pause,” Mathilde says, looking at a possible fern. Yes, it will do fine. The fern is snipped, and placed gingerly in the wicker basket.
We stand in a sea of brown and green ferns taller than our heads, red stems unfurling in the mid-morning light. Moss-dappled tree trunks pepper the landscape. Ferns crunch underfoot as we wade deeper into the forest. Aimee and Mathilde clip leaves from an oak tree, bending the branch toward their faces.
We wander further, along a trampled path beside a meadow, where delicate silvery spiderwebs are threaded between tall stalks of weeds. Mathilde searches for flowers rich in tannins, repeating the delicate gestures of cutting only what she needs and placing it in her basket.
Mathilde learns by experimentation and testing. Her parents were botanists who taught her this reverence for nature. She doesn’t say she’s an artist; rather, she thinks of herself as a catalyst for nature. “The nature does the design,” she tells us, “I don’t create it.”
We return to Mathilde’s kitchen to watch her artistic process, which Aimee has seen before, as she met Mathilde a year ago, at the Medieval Garden Festival in Plazac in the summertime. Mathilde, who works with schoolchildren, had set up her booth so kids could try out her art process. In her work with children, Mathilde teaches kids to be stewards of the Earth, to identify plants and not just take from nature. Little kids were all working on the ground, Aimee recalls, pounding their leaves on swaths of fabric, eager for the ink to finish drying, their own pieces of art to take home: children transformed into nature artists for the day.
“The nature does the design. I don’t create it.”
This ink Mathilde uses is no ordinary ink. It comes from the plant itself, from photosynthesis.
Leaning over her kitchen table, Mathilde patiently folds fabric into squares. She selects matching leaves from the morning’s foraging for her motif. She lays the fabric on top of a marble slab, places one leaf beneath the fabric, covers the leaf, then pounds it with a rubber mallet. The chlorophyll paints a green leaf on the fabric. As the pattern on the table runner emerges, the imperfections and subtle bend of each leaf captures the movement of the forest. Her work, she says, “is the work of the flower outside,” and her palette, “the colors of life.”
Outside once again, she shows us a t-shirt wrapped tightly with leaves and twine, like saucisson. The bundle has been soaking in a solution of iron. In her yard, she unwraps the mysterious bundle, peeling off layers of wet leaves. Once revealed, the t-shirt’s print echoes the look of camouflage, but it is more: the landscape of an entire forest translated onto a piece of fabric.