Ilka White

Ilka White Well 2013 Dry grass, beading line, hand spun thread. Approx. 44 x 15 x 15cm Photo: Kristian Laemmle-Ruff
Ilka White Well 2013 Dry grass, beading line, hand spun thread. Approx. 44 x 15 x 15cm Photo: Kristian Laemmle-Ruff

Where I work

I work from home in Castlemaine, central Victoria.

Right now, it’s glorious. From my window I can see Silver Eyes flitting through the plum tree, the Kennedia slowly climbing it’s way over the wire fence, the Wattle bird building a new nest in the red gum on my nature strip.

Bardi grubs are emerging from the soil. Apples and hawthorn berries are plentiful on the roadsides and I’ve especially loved the delicious rose-hips this season.

While my physical orbit is local, the internet allows me to stay in touch with students, friends and family across the globe. So I also have a sense of working from our shared home and responsibility – the wider planet.

What inspired my work

I see the Singularity 1 embroidery as a map of the mind, life, energy, community and ecology, with allusions to the universe, the cosmos and an understanding that everything is connected, both subtly and powerfully.
It’s an interpretation of a drawing my friend Chris Sprague sent me, about the Buddhist concept of Pratitya Samutpada; the idea that nothing can be isolated from anything else.

Chris said “Pratitya Samutpada is often awkwardly translated as ‘dependent origination’, which has connotations of interpenetration, interdependence, interconnectedness. A free-standing individual, with solid boundaries setting him or herself apart from the environment – as much as we take this for granted – is a pure linguistic fiction and bears no relationship to reality in the slightest. That our language enforces this fiction upon us at every turn is problematic.”

Well also illustrates the delicate relationship between self and wider world, where our health and that of country are inseparable.
During a difficult period in my life I dreamt about an underground well directly beneath my feet. A resonant chamber that filled with an amber-like honey, offering all the sustenance I needed. As I woke, it morphed into something quite fine, with roots extending out and down from it’s base. So this piece was made in celebration of being well.

Both works belong to a series of called Dwelling, about this felt sense of our bodies and selves being intimately connected with the rest of the natural world, all the time. My relationship with the Merri Creek Billabong certainly influenced the work, as did my interest in mycelium and quantum physics. The string bag is also referenced as a treasured object and symbol. All the original internets!

Some of my seminal texts during this time included David Abrams’ essay ‘The Commonwealth of Breath’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’.

You could say the work of both authors was always to ‘make the world new again’. I certainly find their recognition of spirit, indigenous wisdom and respectful societies to be instructive sign-posts for our way forward.

How I made it

Singularity was originally produced for the Tamworth Textile Triennial.
To provide a base, I asked Kristian Laemmle-Ruff to shoot me a blurred image of the sky at dusk, through trees. The depth of blue was very important.

This was digitally printed onto silk twill at the Social Studio in Collingwood.

The cloth was then embroidered over many weeks with an interpretation of Chris Sprague’s Pratitya Samutpada drawing. To meet the exhibition deadline, the stitching was completed in shifts, with the generous assistance of Kim McKechnie, Gillian Lavery, Myfanwy Hunter and others.

Well was built by threading hollow lengths of dry grass onto fine beading line (sewing my wild oats!) I worked over a glass bottle initially, to keep the form.

The roots were core spun by hand on the spinning wheel – stainless steel coated in fine threads of mixed fibres, plied back on themselves to form ‘branches’. The piece collapses unless it’s supported or suspended. Wild oats are very fragile, so it was tricky to thread the dry grass onto beading line without slicing it open. The weight of the form as it grew only upped the chance of damage. I broke a great many pieces of grass!

What I am working on

I’m feeling a deep and gentle ‘right-ness’ to slowing down and staying close to home right now. I think it’s really important that we use the pause this pandemic has given many of us to make the world again in a way that’s more responsible than the old normal.

I’m using it to transition to an infinitely slower, simpler and steadier existence. Even more localised and conscious of our reliance on natural systems in a lived, day-to-day way.

Along with wild foods and medicines, I’m currently gathering materials for new work that carries on from these – and from other work like ‘The Leaf has a Song in It’. I’m hoping this and future work will contribute something to how we proceed in these critical times. To help us collectively take to heart the emphatic lessons Gaia’s impressing right now and apply them into the future. Because we need to become good ancestors now.


Ilka White’s practice spans textiles, sculpture, art-in-community and education.

Her work often responds to the forces at play within the natural world and reflects the principles of sustainability.

An abiding interest in world textile traditions also influences many aspects of Ilka’s making and teaching.


Instagram: @ilkawhite