By Leslie Clark

The moment Dorothy opens the door of her drab black-and-white Kansas farmhouse and beholds the land of Oz in all its glorious, glowing Technicolor still reminds us how color itself transforms everything. The idea that color has a life of its own; that infinite juxtapositions of color exist and speak to us in ways outside our experience and assumptions, is a moving principle behind Gild the Lily’s one-of-a-kind art-to-wear. Husband-and-wife partners Uosis (pronounced “Wasis”) Juodvalkis and Jacquelyn Rice launched their atelier in 1999 in Providence, Rhode Island, inspired by the explosive possibilities of manipulating color and design at the intersection of craft, art and technology. With characteristic brio, Gild the Lily has become synonymous with ambushing aesthetic conventions, creating instead a mesmerizing ebb-and-flow of eclectic natural and geometric forms and patterns in edgy, arresting palettes of color.
Two formidable careers contributed to Gild the Lily’s audacious artistry. Rice had been head of ceramics and a former dean of fine arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, a three-time National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, an international lecturer, and an acclaimed artist whose ceramics were exhibited in New York’s American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Art and Design). Juodvalkis, a digital photography expert, owned a 35-employee commercial photography studio and color lab. After they married in 1995, Juodvalkis introduced Rice to the creative capabilities of Adobe Photoshop, and she was transfixed. Then Juodvalkis was asked to test a new line of liquid acid dyes for inkjet printing. Grappling with translating Rice’s computer-generated images onto paper, they experimented with printing on fabric and, wildly excited by the results, decided to focus on textile printing and design.
Their dazzling, unearthly confections of color play into Gild the Lily’s quirky designs, well-controlled by spacing and scale. “I had a reputation in the world of ceramics for color,” Rice explained. “I see color as subject matter; it means something. Color combinations tell stories that have an implicit effect.” She makes her color choices intuitively, working for hours in Photoshop® blending tonalities and hues until it “looks right.” A larger-than-life, luscious pinky-mauve ginkgo leaf floats off-center across the back of a silk georgette jacket, overlapping a stippled-water effect in burnt orange and purple.
Juodvalkis was as well-known in the photography world for a color sensibility that drew customers like glass artist Dale Chihuly. While he masterminds the printing, he and Rice consult with each other on every detail from image selection to which fabrics to use, how to achieve the colors they want, and which garment, scarf, wrap, or handbag harmonizes with the composition. All of their jackets are completely reversible, with both sides printed in strikingly different yet resonant designs.
Behind Gild the Lily lies Rice’s lifelong passion for textiles and handicrafts. In high school, she harbored fantasies of becoming a fashion designer. She bought her first sewing machine at the age of eight with money earned picking cherries in her native Washington. “I truly love to sew. The first few years at RISD were hard, and at the end of the school year I would sew for about six weeks before I started working in my ceramics studio.” Now several years into production, Rice constructs each garment with the help of their long-time seamstress. Last comes the trim, in what Rice dryly refers to as “strange flavors,” chosen from fabrics collected over the years and never repeated to keep each garment unique. Fashion dictates silhouettes, like the trend towards smaller, tighter jackets. White wool crêpe and white silk georgette are stock basics, but just as often Rice and Juodvalkis follow their own whimsy, coming up with new concepts in response to a fabric they cannot resist. It happened with a handwoven raw silk organza that they discovered in New York. “We found out Balenciaga’s term for it was gazar. Uosis looked at it and said, ‘I’m going to have to print on cobwebs now?’ “ Rice recalled. The distributors told them they could specify the weave to get the density they needed. “It’s very sheer, and because it’s made out of tussah silk, it has a natural goldenness that gives a sheen and luminosity to the colors that is marvelous.”
The design process starts with digital photos, usually shot by Juodvalkis using a 10-megapixel Nikon D200 camera. He and Rice have stockpiled hundreds of CDs of images waiting in the wings. They travel to rejuvenate their ideas, recently returning from Istanbul with scores of shots of vaulted brick-and mortar domes and light irradiating the waters of a Byzantine cistern. Rice cherishes drawings of mechanical tumblers that “I’ve hung onto for 25 years.” Flower and plant images, originally from their own garden in Providence, are still significant in their repertoire. A move to Prescott, Arizona, in 2004 triggered Skull Valley Sunset, a turquoise and orange skyline vista flaming across a silk georgette jacket. But otherwise their desert surroundings have had little influence. “Because it’s so culturally different from the Northeast, it’ll take a while for these images to filter in,” Rice commented. “It’s awfully brown here,” Juodvalkis interjected, “and Jacquie would never let any of her students use brown.” Rice smiled, declaring, “Anything made with iron oxide was out!”
Juodvalkis continually experiments with the dye performance. At first, every effort went into “getting the dyes to adhere so that the fabric would retain its hand and trying to get the right amount of penetration,” he explained. He usually fine-tunes the acid dye formulas even further. “We’re remixing them to achieve the kinds of effect we want and diluting them so we get smoother tonalities. Over the years I think our colors have become a little clearer and more defined.” He is still not as satisfied with the technical restrictions of the four-color CMYK process: the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black replaceable color-ink cartridges in the magazine. “There are certain intensities of color that you just can’t get, like lemon yellows or deep purples or really brilliant, saturated tones.”
They moved up from an old Encad 300 dpi poster printer to a used 600 dpi Encad with a 60-inch width which prints about three yards an hour. Though Juodvalkis considers an inkjet-printer relatively low maintenance, it takes vigilant monitoring—for example when the image starts drifting from internal snafus. Because the Encad was designed to print on paper, whatever fabric they use must be mounted on plastic-coated paper to feed through the roller. “That has a very beneficial effect on sheer fabrics because the paper traps the dye and it bounces back into the fabric, so it maintains the color brightness,” Juodvalkis said. They send all their fabric to a company for paper bonding, from experience allowing for four to five percent shrinkage in the final dimensions. Since the fabric is not totally weft-straight on the paper, they oversize pattern images by an inch or two. Unable to print cut lines onto the fabric, they use paper patterns. Structurally that hands-on step compels attention to the drape and planes of the fabric as a function of the design, rather than images alone predominating.
Their mutual interest in exploring textures has generated other innovations. Intrigued with working in leather, Rice designed a pig-suede bolero but hit an impasse: “I wanted a collar which was separate and stood up, and couldn’t figure it out.” Juodvalkis took over, cutting a curved c-shaped piece of scrap material and sewing it into a ruffle around the neckline. Rice was thrilled. They have gone further, stacking up three or four layers of ruffles in fabrics, feathers, fur, lurex, or whatever else strikes their fancy. “It frames the face, which everyone wants,” Rice said. “That kind of collaboration happens to us a lot. ”They have incorporated pleating, striving to integrate more of the presence of the cloth. “I’m a messy, tactile person,” Rice said. “Printing’s an illusion; it’s trompe l’oeil. Pleating adds another dimension to what we do.” They recently introduced subtly mixed fabrics in a garment, like rich heathery tweeds with silk, evoking the terrain and the touch of the fibers themselves.
They shun predictability, ready to go wherever their own yellow brick road will lead them. Repeated prototyping before committing to the final version of a garment usually guarantees the results, but those random effects that sneak into production stimulate them. Even after printing, when the fabric goes into a seven-foot-tall pressure steamer for three hours to set the dyes, they relish the surprises that show up—what Juodvalkis calls “that margin of uncertainty.”
“What’s really interesting is combining this control with not knowing what’s going to happen,” Rice said. “The pleasure is how to capture the unexpected. We’re working directly with the process, varying it, accepting the accidents.”
— Leslie Clark is a writer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This article was published in the Surface Design Journal, Volume 31, Number 4, Summer 2007.