Jay Reddish holds up a designer knit dress. The colorful leaf patterns imprinted on its fabric, along with the wool fibers that create its structure, are tangible evidence of the path Reddish found to the University of Georgia.
From shoulders to hem, shapes of black walnut and water oak leaves mingle with native grape vines. Nearly all were foraged by Reddish, then arranged on the dress, rolled up tight and boiled in a vat spiked with black walnut leaves and goldenrod flowers in a process called eco-printing.
The blending of art and nature on the dress represent how Reddish is also combining aspects of their dual major at UGA: parks, recreation and tourism management at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and interdisciplinary art at the Lamar Dodd School of Art. It’s a way to blend a lifelong love of sewing, printmaking and creating with a passion for sustainability and wonder for the world around us.
This blending of science and art makes perfect sense to Reddish—but they understand how folks might not immediately connect the two.
“I think folks don’t generally make that connection, because they’re coming at textile arts and natural resources from two different places. It’s almost the conservation vs. preservation discussion we’ve all had,” said Reddish. “How do we want to maintain these resources? Do we want to interact with them through use, or do we want to interact with them by keeping them safe and preserving them?”
While some students find forestry and conservation through hunting, hiking or fishing, Reddish found the field through a love of plants and earth skills. For example, the inner bark of a tulip poplar tree can be corded into rope. Acorns can feed wildlife, but they can also be ground into flour and their husks used as a natural dye.
For nearly all their life, Reddish has been making things, foraging for natural objects or learning how to mend and reuse items that might otherwise be destined for the landfill. When they were 3, they sat with their mother—an artistic quiltmaker—and learned to stitch. “I’m from a family of mechanics and seamstresses,” added Reddish. “With time, I started learning the names of the different embroidery stitches. ... I was 5 when I got my first sewing machine.”
Growing up, Reddish’s mother ran a quilting store that traveled to shows and conferences. They and their younger sister would serve as her assistants, running the store when their mother was teaching a class. Because of the schedule, the siblings were homeschooled—or, as Reddish puts it, unschooled, which meant their mother followed a curriculum set by her children’s interests.
“She would find all these different resources for us, whatever we were excited about,” they said. “So, for me, that was beekeeping and falconry and fiber arts and making your own clothes and leather tanning and homesteading and permaculture and living off the grid—all of these fairy tales and fantasy books I’d been reading in my childhood.”
This exploration led the family to attend earth skills gatherings, where experts from all walks of life would gather to teach in natural settings. A day’s schedule might include a mother teaching how to make homemade yogurt, a forest ecology professor teaching about silvicultural practices for small-scale landowners or an instructor with Native American heritage teaching basket weaving.
It was at these gatherings of artists, scientists and educators where Reddish launched their first business: handmade patches. (Reddish redrew illustrations from their antique science textbooks and printed them onto their mother’s leftover fabric scraps.) It was also at these gatherings where they met alumni from UGA, specifically Warnell, and began to learn about careers that involved environmental education.
“I just started hearing more about Warnell and environmental educators who work in more structured fields,” they said. “I never thought you could work in a structured field and get to do the stuff I loved, and that’s when I thought, I could get an art degree or I could get a degree from Warnell, where all these cool people work. And I’ll get a really cool job and I’ll incorporate these things I love into it.”
That was the original plan, anyway. But after transferring to Warnell—Reddish graduated early from high school after dual-enrolling in a local community college and came to UGA as a junior—they realized art had to be in the cards. So, they applied to the interdisciplinary art program.
Their portfolio included, among other pieces, a hand-printed coat, embroidery created from castoff sweaters that had been unraveled and dyed to create new embellishments and patchwork pants that blend art and sustainability.
“I realized I’m not happy unless I’m making things,” they added. “It helps me remember and keep focused on how important that is to me, and not just the academics of park management.”
So, as each semester rolls around, Reddish builds their schedule with parks and recreation management classes as the scaffolding. Then, they fit in art classes that fulfill the requirements for their exit show, which will likely involve some form of textiles.
On top of all this, Reddish also manages their own business, Forest Troll Art, and works with an Athens-area summer educational program that incorporates art and nature for children. The Warnell classes, Lamar Dodd classes, business and summer work all connect in one way or another—or, Reddish finds ways to connect them.
That’s the joy and challenge of the dual degree, they said.
“So, if there’s something I’m doing for the arts school that I can combine with Forest Troll Art, I will do it. Even if I can’t get Warnell and Lamar Dodd to come together on a synchronous path, I can always figure out a way to get the project and the learning to interact with my own projects.”
Reddish plans to graduate in spring 2023. In the meantime, they are taking classes in patternmaking and screenprinting, incorporating videos from their TikTok channel into class projects about parks and recreation or environmental education and creating personal projects to help with their studies.
Sometimes the combinations make for unusual conversations in class, and that’s OK. Reddish is pushing the envelope and seeing the world in a different way.