Thursday, November 27, 2014

Some Things Are Worth Putting the Stitching Down For

That's Jean McLaren on the left, holding our banner.

Yesterday I joined a group of grey-haired ladies and trekked over the Salish Sea to help protest Kinder Morgan's drilling in a conservation area on Burnaby Mountain. They want to run a pipeline through the mountain that will contain dirty oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. No, I'm not writing from prison, as my mother asked when I called her this morning. One of our group - Jean McLaren, an 87-year-old grandmother and veteran activist - did cross the police line and was detained for an hour and then escorted down the mountain with a burly officer on either side of her.

It was not an angry protest, but a passionate and determined one. There were about 200 people there, lots of singing, and a good cross-section of the community -  a broad range of ages, gender and ethnicities. I was struck by the good will of the crowd, many thank you's being said, lots of generousity of time and dollars being donated to the people who are camping at the top of the mountain.

It felt like a bizarre ritual being enacted. Twenty RCMP officers in body armour and full gear defending the rights of a huge American corporation against a peaceful group of Canadians in toques. (Fibre note: I did see lots of hand knit hats and scarves.)
Gathering at the bottom of the hill.

Jean in the middle, being introduced and acknowledged for her leadership in the Clayoquat Sound protests that helped change the way forestry is done in B.C.

Jean and others after they crossed the line.

The muscle, defending an American corporation, funded by Canadian taxpayers.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Round the World Blog Hop

 Thanks to Arlee Barr for inviting me on this journey.

Q.    What am I working on?
A.     I'm finally back to the Codex Canadensis series, after a few months of dabbling with other stuff.
This is exactly where I left off last night. I am experimenting with stitching the foliage in dark green perle cotton.

 Here is what I wrote as I was just beginning this project, over three years ago now.
The Codex Canadensis is a 17th C. document most likely created by Louis Nicolas, a French Jesuit missionary who also is believed to have written the Histoire Naturelle des Indes Occidentales (The Natural History of the New World.) The Codex comprises seventy-nine hand drawn plates detailing the flora, fauna and aboriginal people that Pere Nicolas encountered during his years in the land he called the “North Indies” , which is now Canada. The Codex is a significant document as it is a rare example of early Canadian art. The drawings are also delightful in their fanciful and untrained style, and reveal how Nicholas saw the world through the lens of the similar and analogous, rather than the phenomenological or scientific. Francois-Marc Gagnon’s essay that accompanies the 2011 facsimile edition of the Codex Canadensis (McGill-Queens University Press) clarifies the differences between the way Louis Nicholas viewed his world and the way his more rational minded colleagues saw it, and sparks the question of what these colliding world views mean to us today.

Contemporary with the production of the Codex was a European style of needlework known as crewel. It was a popular method of decorating household upholstery, window and bedcoverings, and featured coloured wool threads worked on heavy linen cloth, depicting large scale repeating patterns of botanical and zoological motifs. (The earliest dated bedhanging (1696) is in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum.) Primarily the work of women, the patterns reflected the changing knowledge of the world gained through exploration and colonization and placed it in a domestic context.
What I do is render, or translate, Louis Nicolas's drawings into embroidery, re-contextualizing them by adding elements of my own such as text or design. These pieces are large scale and I mount them on stretchers as I would a canvas for painting. Here's the last one I completed:
Wheel of Life (2014) Hand embroidery, wool, silk and cotton on canvas, 36"x36"
And here is the page of the Codex that I began with:
I look closely at the pen and ink images and try to duplicate them as accurately as I can in stitch.

Q.    How does my work differ from others in its genre?
A.    Good grief, what is my genre? I usually describe myself as an artist who works with textiles, which is pretty wide open. My art training was steeped in late post-modernism and feminism, which means I bring an intellectual, political and philosophical slant to a medium that is/was often seen as lacking such rigour. But this is a hard question for me to answer. I see other textile artists as compatriots, so I guess I look more for similarities than differences.

 Q.   Why do I write / create what I do?
A.    I would go crazy if I didn't. For me, making art is manifesting what I see in my mind's eye. An idea will occur to me, or a problem will present itself or a truth will need to be revealed. When those things appear, they will ricochet around in my head until I get them out into the work. The Codex Canadensis stuff is a bit different. When I first saw the cover of the book, it was like the hand of God was on my shoulder, saying "Here, this is for you." There was an instantaneous desire to work with Louis Nicolas's images, which has developed into feeling like he and I are co-creators. (I'm sure if he would be shocked and appalled to think that over 300 years in the future some woman would be thinking so much about him.)

Q.    How does my writing / creating process work?
A.    I usually begin with an image or line of text that niggles at me, that wants to be recognised or honoured or explored. Most often, there is something puzzling or ambiguous about the core material, something that is not as it seems. It buzzes around in my brain, sometimes for days, weeks, months, until suddenly I see it, whole. I rarely change things too much from that "Aha!" moment - what follows is production, making manifest.

Sometimes the materials I start with prove to be too uncooperative, but most of the time I take on the challenge of mastering a difficult fabric or thread. That's where the surprises can happen. I used to be more of a control freak, but I have consciously tried to loosen my grasp and to listen more to the design, the materials, the inner voice of the object. I ask, "What does it need?" That comes from my art therapy training, letting the work speak, and listening to what it says.

And then, towards the end of the process, there is the important stage of "gazing upon the work". This is where I look upon the piece from a bit of a distance and wonder at the unique entity that is in front of me. I open myself up to the work and ask again, "What does it need?" There is an element of critical discernment here, it's not like I just let the piece blather on. I also ask myself, "Does this answer my initial question?" "How can I make it clearer? Stronger?" This aspect of distancing myself from the work is kind of a summing up, a final tweak. The piece is in the world now. I have been madly in love with it, and now I'm letting it go off and seek its fortune.


Well, blah, blah blah, enough about me! I have invited two other wonderful artists to join us on this trip, and they will be posting next week with their answers to these questions. From a remote south-eastern corner of England comes Sarah Fincham who says about herself:
A sociologist by training, Sarah found her way back to a childhood love of needle and thread via chronic illness, drawing and painting. She is highly tactile by nature and all her work, regardless of media, begins with touching the materials, feeling her way to an idea.
Her website is Small Offerings, where you can see her drawings and paintings, as well as her beautiful stitching.

And joining us will be Sima Elizabeth Shefrin from Gabriola Island in the Salish Sea, Canada. Elizabeth is another multi-talented artist who has illustrated children's books and organised an international peace quilt project. Her website is Stitching for Social Change. (I am helping her get her blog going. Hopefully it will be up by next Friday, but if not, she will be guest posting here.)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ephemeral Objects

Yesterday I went to see the exhibit Black Diamond Dust at the Nanaimo Art Gallery. Curator Jesse Birch has taken a very engaging approach to this look at coal-mining, once the driving force of Nanaimo's settlement and history. It was fascinating to learn that the ground underneath the city, and in fact some of the surrounding seabed, is riddled with the tunnels and mine shafts of this now-abandoned industry.
What really blew me away though, was Vancouver artist Stephanie Aitken's 8'x10' rug based on her painted studies of decomposing plant matter. (Which, given enough time and pressure, turns into coal.)
Photo: Canadian Art

Aitken had the rug made in a fair trade factory in Nepal. It is of wool and silk, and these photos do not do justice to the colours and textures. But, believe me, it is a stunner.  There was nothing on Aitken's website or in any artist statement I could find about her intention of turning her paintings into a textile work - it would appear from the placement in the gallery and in a couple of pictures on her Pinterest page that they are intended to be used as floor coverings. She describes herself as a painter, and her paintings are interesting, but feel rather slight in juxtaposition to the power and energy of the floor piece.
Black Wood Rug by Stephanie Aitken
And I know this is being pedantic, but the piece is described as a "hand hooked rug" on the title card. It is definitely knotted, not hooked, and I mention it only because of my eternal quest to educate people about textiles. It's important, especially when they are being shown in a fine-art context, to get it right. You can imagine the fuss if a Van Gogh oil was labeled "acrylic".

Anyway, here's a photo of a little composition of found objects I made on my last visit to the beach. Once the picture is made, it all eventually washes back out to sea. Gracie kept the orange-y red ball/float thing though - it makes an amusing toy. I have come up with a new salutation for her: "Hail Gracie, Full of Beans".

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

And So It Begins...

You'll have to click on this to enlarge, and squint a bit, but the traced design is in the hoop. The piece measures 54" wide and 32" high, so it's a biggie.
The wolf volunteered to go first. Hard to say no to a critter with such sharp teeth!
I took the first few stitches last night. I think I may have said this before, but beginning a new piece always reminds of the days when I used to run - no matter if the distance is short or long, it always begins with just one step. And I'm also reminded of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, which is always worth dipping into, even if you have read it before.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Warning: Major Stitching Ahead

Well, there's the stack of linen pajama pants on the table, with a bit of the bunting in the background. The fair was well attended, and I did sell a few pairs, as well as get a lot of valuable feedback on what women are looking for in the perfect p.j.'s. Since it was such a cold day, I probably would have had greater success with flannel and darker colours, but lots of people thought it was a great idea and were maybe inspired to go home and dig out their own stash of linen tablecloths. Many people liked the bunting too, but I only had one bite.

That's all okay, and I wasn't expecting more than that. It was nice to share a table with my friend and hang out in the village with all the bustle of voting day. But, as you, dear readers, are my witnesses - I'll not be doing it again.

The thing is, I really like making stuff. As long as I am stitching or baking or stirring or however creating, I am happy. But I have been doing that most of my life, and do believe that I would be a whole lot farther ahead if I just focused on the art. Sure, I can have a hobby or two to fill in the odd gaps of the day, but the Codex Canadensis work has real meaning and depth and deserves to have priority.

So I'm posting the "Caution" signs and giving fair warning that there may be some moments of tedium and a lot of sepia coloured thread in the days ahead. Hope you will hang in for the duration!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Pajamas Everywhere

Somehow I got caught off guard and agreed to share a table at the Commons Christmas Craft Sale. It's happening tomorrow. A week ago, I started making stuff for it. Since I had oodles of vintage luncheon-sized cloth napkins, I folded them, trimmed them with lace and rickrack, and made several strings of bunting. I forgot to take a picture, but they are very charming.
I also dove into the tote that contains dozens of white linen damask tablecloths, and began transforming the material into pajamas. Having discovered this past summer that linen is the perfect fabric for sleepwear, I wanted to share the joy. In the promo picture above, I am sharing not just the comfort and joy of linen p.j.'s, but also a much needed glass of wine. (Well, alright, it is just apple juice in the pictures, in case we spilled, but believe you me, the wine came later.) The lovely young lady on the left is Vicky, my very good humoured assistant.
The vintage damask is subtle, smooth and soft on the skin. It also is very absorbent and quick to dry. Best of all, it looks good rumpled. Ironing is totally an option.
I added a rear pocket to the basic pattern, since you never know when you might need to stash a Kleenex or your house key. (I have been known to walk the dogs in my pajamas. The neighbours are used to it by now.) I embellished each pocket with a piece of vintage handkerchief, the kind that are so dainty you would never dream of using one to blow your nose.

The pajamas are $30 a pair for the pants, and I am offering to custom make a linen tank, tee or classic pajama top to match in case anyone is interested. If they don't sell at the Craft Sale, I guess my Christmas gift list is taken care of!

Friday, November 07, 2014

Sunshine and Shadow

Another walk in the woods.
The shadows loom long.
The light is at a low angle.
The maple leaves are spiraling to the ground.
This is my cathedral.
Blessings on us all.
P.S. I made a small offering to Sarah at Small Offerings. Maybe you will too. xox