PORT TOWNSEND — Since last spring, Port Townsend artist Holly Varah has been creating artwork unlike anything she’s done before. And yes, she says, it’s both strange and beautiful.
“For the most part, I’ve held this project very close to my chest. Very few people have seen it,” Varah said.
Her new collection of cyanotype photograms on silk garments, cotton cloth and paper is debuting in December at Northwind Art’s Jeanette Best Gallery. Following Varah’s unveiling of the work at Port Townsend Art Walk on Saturday, these pieces will stay through the month in the gallery at 701 Water St. The venue is open from noon to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays.
There’s nothing unusual about cyanotype, a printing process using chemical compounds and sunlight to print on paper and cloth. Many crafters make prints of flowers and ferns on T-shirts and note cards.
Varah’s work is something else. She prints images of human hair: thick and fine, straight and wavy. On a deep blue field, the hair is silhouetted in white.
“I’ve always had a reverence for hair … as a subject matter, visually, it has always been compelling,” Varah said.
“I’m one of those creative people who will acquire whatever skills I need” to realize an artistic vision.
Another local artist gifted a collection of hair to Varah; then she proceeded to learn how to make the cyanotypes.
“A lot of patience is required, which is not my first skill,” the artist admitted.
“There was a lot of waiting for things to dry, to sublimate,” while Varah loved the scientific nature of the process. She also loves the way it uses sunlight to capture a singular moment in time — on a silk shawl, on a square of paper, on a tunic.
Varah was committed to using silk, a material that is both tough and light, for her wearable art pieces.
“I love how it moves,” she said.
A longtime Port Townsend resident, Varah’s art practice has also included jewelry making and an old-fashioned photo booth she set up at the old Cellar Door. She’s likewise versatile in her “day jobs”: tending bar at the Uptown Pub & Grill, working as an apprentice cobbler at Puffin Shoe Repair, and providing infant child care.
This newest project, mixing what she calls the power and magic of hair with silk and sunlight, may make some people uncomfortable, Varah acknowledges.
These images can be alluring and seductive — and unsettling: “We all have that push-pull” when it comes to unusual art.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about that,” she said, adding, “I don’t know if people will like it, and there’s no basis for comparison.”
In any event, she’s very proud of this work, and excited about showing it in the gallery, where it will be surrounded by the work of other local artists.
“I cannot wait,” Varah said.