If you’re out and about in one of Savannah’s parks and you see a fashionable-looking woman on her hands and knees digging around in the bushes, collecting up fallen plant debris, don’t worry: That’s just textile artist Stella Ranae Von Schmid hunting for materials to use in her work.


"I do forage within the city of Savannah," she told me during our conversation for this week’s Art on the Air. "That’s where I would say that 99.9% of my botanical material comes from. It comes from our gorgeous tree canopy. It comes from the ground. It comes from the neighbor’s garden, my garden.


"I’ve been known to clip a few things or two, mostly with permission," she joked.


Von Schmid utilizes a process where she takes plant life and, using eco-friendly techniques that she’s learned through both research as well as trial and error, transforms it into both printed images and natural dyes to create stunning, one-of-a kind wearable art pieces.


But the path to her current form of creative expression began when she was a child, growing up as the daughter of a farmer in Pennsylvania coal-mining country.


"I started out, funnily enough, as a private school girl, who always had to wear her catholic school uniform," Von Schmid recalled. "I had the best little old auntie, who used to send me boxes of these amazing, gaudy, crazy clothes. So when we had dress-down days…this is what I wore. The weirder, the crazier, the more off-the-wall, the better for me."


Her early experimentation with fashion eventually lead to a two-decade career of on-again, off-again employment in the vintage clothing business. She became fascinated with the kinds of details in apparel that many take for granted, like stitching patterns and seams.


And it was while she was trying to do some restoration work using over-the-counter dyes that she realized store bought materials weren’t cutting it for what she was trying to do.


"So that’s kind of how I fell into the natural dye work," Von Shmid explained. "I started throwing things in a pot, mixing them up, bubbling the cauldrons, and just jumped and immersed myself in that to restore the clothes."


That was over ten years ago now, and at this point the artist feels as though she has a pretty good grasp on both her process and how the materials work, though she admits that, "there’s always room for both learning and still tons of errors and mistakes."


Von Schmid’s foraging, mostly by bicycle, takes her all over Savannah, "from downtown to midtown to uptown." And while she’s gathering material, she’s considering a number of factors that will determine what the viewer sees in the final product, from hue to composition.


"Leaves that come out in the spring, for example, may print a beautiful green," related the artist. "Whereas at the end life of the fall, when I’m picking them off the ground, half wilted, maybe a little crunchy goodness, you may get a completely different color."


Even the water she uses can have an impact, whether it be rainwater or coming from the tap.


According to Von Schmid, Savannah’s old pipes mean, "we have a very high iron content here. And that really does affect…making dye matter into a true dye to immerse my fabrics in," adding that, "even with the seawater on Tybee" will result in an entirely different outcome.


The end results are unique creations that are both beautiful as well as a thoughtful homage to the natural beauty of our beloved city.


"Look what you can make out of ‘leaf litter,’" Von Schmid proclaimed lovingly. "This is wearable art right from Savannah."


You can follow Stella Ranae Von Schmid on Instagram @stellaranae. Her work can be found at www.gallery209savannah.com as well as at the new Merchants on Bee at 2934 Bee Road.



Next week I’ll be speaking with painter Morgan Adler about non-traditional landscapes and other topics.


Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.


Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."


Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.