UnderCover: Artist Interview with Tanya Athannassova

In the second of Turnstone Press's new UnderCover interview series, we chat with Tanya Athannassova, owner of Silk Scarves Colorado and the artist behind the cover of Ella Zeltserman's The Air is Elastic.

 Your scarf “Gold Foliage” embodies the sensory richness of Ella Zeltserman’s The Air is Elastic. Can you please tell us how this particular piece came into being?

Honestly, I do not quite remember if there was a special story behind the creation of “Gold Foliage.” I have created thousands of silk scarves (more than 5,000 so far), and I love playing with colors. That design embraced the beauty of the fall colors. A fall-inspired design should not necessarily mean painting leaves only. Women do request scarves in gold, so I tried to step out of the cliché design.

Can you tell us a bit about the process involved in hand-painting one of your scarves from start to finish?

Each scarf starts with an inspiration and a vision. But apart from that, it is a long and challenging process.  I work with pre-cut and pre-hemmed pieces of silk that later turn into beautiful hand painted silk scarves. The white silk piece needs to be pre-washed and ironed prior to being stretched onto a frame, thus turning it into a silk fabric canvas to paint on. Then, I outline the shapes either with metallic fabric paints, or with a sticky material called “gutta” that serves as a barrier against the free flow of the silk dyes onto the silk. This is how flowers or various shapes hold their borders and how I prevent colors from mixing into each other.

After the outlines dry, then comes the most important step in that process – the real silk painting using silk dyes. Silk painting is an incredibly beautiful medium—with the flow of the dyes and the mix of colors, and how they interweave, the result is a beautiful piece of art.

After the painted silk dries out well, it then goes into the second most important step of the process – the steam setting. Each hand painted piece of silk goes into a professional silk steamer for 4 hours, so that the colors set permanently, and the silk piece becomes colorfast. It can be then hand washed and ironed, making it easy for the owner to take of it.

What are some of the challenges that come with working with a fabric (specifically, silk) medium?

Silk painting is a beautiful process that is a pleasure to do, no matter the challenges. When I create a new design, I have a lot of freedom. The challenge comes when I need to recreate a given design because the new piece of silk can never be a carbon copy of the first one. Never. It is a completely new piece of art that I make using the colors of the model design, but it can never be identical. The shades always tend to end up slightly different after the painted silk piece undergoes the steam setting process. Even if the colors look almost identical to the original design, after steaming the real colors of the silk piece truly develop, and there might be a slight shift in the shades. The culprit here is usually how that piece of silk fabric had been processed after being produced in silk factories abroad...  On most occasions, the special pre-wash is supposed to take care of that and eliminate the element of surprise after steaming, but sometimes the end result is not as expected, and that can be really frustrating…

Tanya Athannassova SilkScarvesCO photoMany of your pieces feature dynamic colours and shapes. What inspires you? How do you decide which designs to create on your textile canvases?

I have been a passionate scarf lover all my life. For me, the scarf has always been the “ultimate accessory”—the most elegant and chic instant upgrade to a woman’s outfit—and I love creating colorful, one-of-a-kind silk scarves. I find inspiration everywhere around me – after all, I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world: Colorado.

I always try to paint a scarf that would be wearable. Not just a piece that I want to make, but a piece that someone would wish to actually wear. Giving life to my vision and ideas is certainly a huge inspiration for me. My main goal has always been to take the silk scarf to a new level, making it almost like a piece of jewelry that any woman can wear in her everyday life.

My company is a one-(wo)man show. I do every step of the process myself and entirely by hand. I work in my art studio in Colorado Springs, CO, and I am the designer and the artist of each scarf. I also take care of everything else connected to my business - customer service, photography, shipping, and all sales and marketing. 

I have never felt happier in my professional life – the scarves I am creating are the true reflection of my artistic vision and my colorful personality. I am happy when my customers are happy with the unique pieces of wearable art they find in my shops.

Is there a certain time of day during which you work best?

Actually, no. I can work any time of the day or night, as long as I feel the creative spark to do it. If I don’t feel that spark – the result is something that I will probably just recycle… It might sound cliché, but you really can’t create beauty if you are not feeling inspired. I tried the “9 to 5” approach, and it just doesn’t work for me. Luckily, most days I feel full of positive emotions to give life to art. When I don’t feel in the mood to create something beautiful, I just take some time off.

Do you undertake commissions? How do commissions affect how you work?

I do commissions all the time – from original creations for special events (wedding scarves, gala outfit shawls, bar mitzva scarf made to the customer’s requirements, etc.) to various changes in almost each made-to-order scarf that customers order at my several online shops; I get a lot of custom orders online.

Customers might like a certain design, but they always request some sort of customization to it – whether in the color palette, metallic accents, the type of the silk fabric, or, of course, the size. As a result, I had to generally change the whole concept of my shops: from offering in-stock items to offering customizable designs, meant to meet the personal requests and visions of my customers. It is a fun and fulfilling work that brings joy to both parties involved.

Nine ScarvesDo you have any favorite pieces? What is it about the design or creation of these items that makes them special to you?

I certainly have my favorite pieces - I love their design or the harmony of colors they present, and I am always happy when I have the chance to recreate them. But my experience taught me that what counts is actually the customers’ preferences, not mine.

Some of my all-time favorites may not actually attract too much attention. And vice versa. I have no idea why this happens all the time – but I guess this is just because we all have different tastes. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. So, my goal has always been to create a certain scarf exactly the way the customer requests it – if I manage to do that, and then they tell me that they love it and it has become a favorite accessory, then I am beyond happy. It means so much to me to have created someone’s favorite piece.

How has your art evolved over the eight years since you started your business? What have you learned about the medium and about yourself as an artist?

I believe that we are always learning every day of our lives. Every error, every failure teaches us something important and challenges us to become better at what we do. I have come quite a long way since I started painting. Today, I feel much freer in what I create, much braver, much more “me.” Art is a never-ending source of education, and I know I will never feel knowledgeable enough or “good enough” in that field.

Silk is a very difficult medium to work with. Conquering it happens piece by piece. Every silk piece is a victory of its own. I learned that I can never predict or promise the end result – I can only do my best and hope for the best.

What project(s) are you currently working on?

I am currently working on quite a few Christmas gifts ordered by my customers, and one wedding set of scarves – a bride’s shawl, plus scarves for the mothers of the bride and groom, and several for the bridesmaids.

Each one of these pieces is a challenge of its own but I take them with a smile. Each new hand painted silk scarf is a unique piece of wearable art with its own life, so I feel happy and privileged to be able to be part of people’s happy moments.