Friday, March 30, 2012

C'est Cheval Marin

I have been listening to Radio-Canada, the French language service of the CBC. Not only do they play great music, but I can't understand a word of the news, so Monsieur Harper's doings don't alarm me. Today, I finished stitching the sea horse, or Cheval Marin as Pere Nicolas calls this interesting creature. The book's author/editor, Francois-Marc Gagnon speculates that what Nicolas was trying to depict was a hippopotamus, but, in any case, I doubt he was drawing from life.

The hours have stitching have given me ample time to reflect on my odd project. I think what it really is all about, for me, is that "things are not as they seem." Looking back over all my work since art school, that theme is most consistent. Translation, or the process of taking an image or phrase from one context and putting it into another, always bears the mark of the person rendering the translation, taking the work a step away from the original creator's intent.

Louis Nicolas drew from memory, or other artists' work, rarely from life. His understanding of the natural world of New France was mediated by his preconceptions, enforced by his culture and times. He may well have truly believed that what he was drawing was accurate, and it is easy, five centuries later, to laugh at his naivete.

On the technical side of things, it has been a greater challenge than I thought it would be to translate the pen and ink drawings (quill pen at that!) to needle and wool. The embroidery, is three dimensional - yes, it has height, however slight - which causes shadows to thicken the already thick line of the yarn. And I am discovering that the essential nature of a stitch is a straight line. To create a curve, one must either use very small stitches, or couching. Whereas the line of pen and ink can flow, yarn cannot, in spite of its flexibility.

I find this all very interesting, and at the same time I realize that not very many other people would share my interest in such minutia. I actually went online to try and find a theory of embroidery, and was unsuccessful. There are theories of painting, sculpture and design, so why not embroidery? A naughty question, I know.

Well, back to the hoop. Next up: a pelican.

*Update: I found this fabulously enticing book: The Textile Reader, by Jessica Hemmings. It will be out in paper in May! Has anyone seen the hardcover? It goes for $115, so I'll have to wait for the paperback, but, ooh, looks right up my alley.
Images of pages from the Codex Canadensis are from the Library and Archives of Canada website.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hooray! Another Beach Walk!

You might remember a walk last fall to Burgoyne Bay Park on Salt Spring Island. That time we took the path that winds through some old farm buildings. Today we'll go the other way, toward the beach.

As we climb a gentle hill a number of huge mossy rocks can be seen through the trees.

The hillside was logged many years ago. The second growth Douglas Firs are nowhere near as big as the old growth stumps.

The path opens out onto a windswept point. This land, and the rare Garry Oaks that grow here have recently be protected as an ecological reserve.

The daffodils that grow here have probably naturalized from a garden of the old homestead.

There is a very old plum tree in blossom.

Gracie, of course had to lead the way down to the water.

A bit of a camera hound, isn't she?

My friends, J.-P. and Jacquie, have fun taking pictures. We sat on the rocks for awhile and ate sandwiches. No one else was around, and it felt like we were very far from the rest of the world.

Time to head home.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Perfectly True to Life

I have finished the "caribou". In the Natural History that accompanies the Codex, Louis Nicolas writes: "My drawing of the caribou is perfectly true to life."

Something must be lost in translation, because caribou have skinny antlers, more like an elk. These antlers look like those of a moose, yet the rest of the critter doesn't. And it's not a reindeer either.

But in any case, I am quite happy with it.

And today, thinking of Jude and Was.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

I Have to Laugh, Otherwise I'd Be Weeping...

I've been reading the Natural History of the New World, attributed to Louis Nicolas, creator of the Codex. It is surprisingly hilarious! Who would have expected comedy from such an attempt at authority? (But perhaps that is a natural source of comedy, or at least tragi-comedy.) Rowan Atkinson would be the perfect choice to play the role of Louis Nicolas in the film version, if there was one. Imagine a pompous, know-it-all young priest, arguing passionately for the existence of unicorns. He misquotes Latin phrases with aplomb, although the resulting meaning is often quite opposite to what he intends. He describes a buffalo very accurately, yet illustrates it with a drawing of an ox.

But his language is beautifully poetic, (or at least the translation by Nancy Senior is) even if much of what he says is misinformed. The subtitle of the book is "The Faithful Search for Everything Rare", a lovely phrase which captures the odd combination of missionary fervour and fascination with the exotic that Nicolas brings to these pages.

There is even some interesting information about the use of moose hair and porcupine quills in embroidery and weaving. Nicolas is very impressed with the indigenous people's skill in creating beautiful objects with the most basic of materials.

His descriptions of the First Nation people he encountered are mostly respectful, even admiring. He does condescend at times, though, calling them foreigners, showing how firmly his own feet are rooted in French soil. And many of his commentaries about animals, birds and fish are based on the economic or trade value they might have, which is not surprising since that is the classic view of the colonist. This is where my laughter turns to tears.

The view of North America as a land of such abundance that it can be exploited endlessly for its riches persists to this day. The caribou that he describes as thriving in the northern lands, have been reduced in numbers to such an extent that last week, the Canadian government announced plans to do a count of the remaining herds. We all know the story of how the buffalo, which once roamed the prairies in vast numbers, became almost extinct within a generation. Nicolas recounts merrily how easy it is to kill 100 or more passenger pigeons with one blast of a shotgun, and that one could even shoot them from the window of a Montreal home as they passed through in flocks of such numbers that the sky would be full for days.
Passenger pigeon is at the top.

The chapter on the buffalo ends with a (probably unintentional) commentary on the acquisitive greed of the colonizing forces. Nicolas describes how the aboriginal people are:
"attached to nothing but living from day to day, without attempting to amass anything, or leave anything to their wives or children. Consequently, they are never seen to quarrel, nor to plead for goods whose advantages they do not seek, as do civilized nations whose self-interest gnaws them to the marrow, in a manner about which I have nothing to say, as everybody knows it all too well, particularly the poor, who groan under the violent oppression all around them."
He wrote this in about 1701. I guess somethings never change.

Images of pages from the Codex Canadensis are from the Library and Archives of Canada website.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Breaking Rules

I'm only on the second image of this piece and already I'm breaking the rules. I really intended to stick to wool on canvas, as per crewel dogma, but the delicate crosshatching in the antlers required a finer line than the wool could create. So, after about five minutes of mental debate, I tried two strands of DMC floss for the barely visible striations. And was happy with the result.

Yeah, I know it will hardly be noticeable in the finished piece, but I usually lean to the purist side of things. I seem to remember reading somewhere that "crewel" by definition meant worked with wool. But part of my enjoyment of working this embroidery is how fluent I feel in the language of stitches, and if I can't draw upon my repetoire as needed in my own creation, well, what am I here for?
Here's the original. Someone commented about the emphasis placed on the claws of the turtle, and it is interesting to speculate on how Louis Nicolas viewed the strange New World he was encountering. I guess he was somewhat unnerved, if not downright afraid of the wild creatures of the forest, and so the teeth and claws were forefront in his mind as he drew.

With the caribou, he shows a meek and gentle creature in the pose, but the mighty antlers could not be downplayed. It might be my art therapist background coming through, but I see a great deal of psychic energy invested in certain elements of Louis' drawings. The teeth, claws, horns, tusks and tongues are very detailed and out of proportion.

Images of pages from the Codex Canadensis are from the Library and Archives of Canada website.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mile One

I have finished the turtle and am now working on the caribou. I can't for the life of me seem to get a good picture of this. It has something to do with the shadows that the yarn casts, making the lines look a bit thicker than they are. But I fear the only reason that I can't get a sharp focus is that the camera is dying. It's a Panasonic DMC-TZ1, in case anyone has technical information that they could share. Anyways, now that I'm out of the gate, I think I will only post finished images, unless something exciting is going on, stitch-wise. Otherwise it could get boring rather quickly, like watching someone run a marathon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Today I discovered skunk cabbage poking up around our well. They look like candles in the forest, and don't seem to smell at all.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thrill of the Stitch

I'm having a blast stitching up this turtle. It's interesting how my marks have a different expressive quality than the original drawing, even thought I'm trying to follow it closely.

Louis Nicolas used a very loose, jagged-y scribble to shade the turtle shell. He wasn't able to achieve a naturalistic effect, instead the turtle looks bizarre and chaotic. I have to resist my desire to correct his drawing. It's a good challenge.

Images of pages from the Codex Canadensis are from the Library and Archives of Canada website.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Have I Passed This Way Before?

The above image is of a piece that I did back when I was in high school - probably circa 1975. I remember I worked from a postage stamp of Tom Thomson's famous painting of a battered pine tree.

The embroidery had been sitting in my Mom's basement for the last thirty years, and when she came across it last fall gave it to me in case I might want to do something with it. It was kind of appalling and fascinating at the same time to re-encounter something I had made so long ago. It was faded, stained and the moths had been at it, but I thought I would take it off its stretcher and see if I could refurbish it. Ah, it was not to be. The rust stains not only didn't wash out, they spread. I wasn't particularly attached to the piece, so I just threw it out.

I did take a couple of badly lit  photos before it went, though, and I share them with you now as evidence that I have come full circle. Once again, I find myself working with archetypal Canadian images, and I am using wool on canvas in a painterly way.

I think that my skills have improved over the intervening thirty-seven years. I have learned a few things about design, concept and technical processes. I can't help but wonder if I wouldn't have had a more successful career if I had just stuck with textiles from the beginning, instead of roaming off in all directions.  But I have come back to the path, and hopefully the knowledge and experience I have gained in all my travels will add a depth and resonance to the work I do now.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Stuff We Leave Behind

Deb Lacativa over at More Whiffs, Glimmers & Left Ouevres (check it out, by the way, she's doing some great stuff) left a comment on my last post, saying she had looked up Flo Corconi, the previous owner of my embroidery frame. This was something I hadn't thought of doing myself, and when I googled her name was surprised and impressed to find out that Flo was a major force in the quilting world on Vancouver Island. She founded the Parksville Quilt House Quilter's Guild, basing it out of a converted garage on her property, and taught many Island women to quilt. This article describes how Flo started the guild and her talents as a teacher:
As they were put through their paces, Flo instilled in each aspiring quilter the necessity of straight lines of stitching and a minimum of eight, closely spaced stitches to the inch. No large looping stitches but small, tight ones that resembled a carefully lain, almost invisible line. Later, appliqué was added and the squares took on a life of their own - vibrant and full of explosive expression.
She was honoured as a Life Member of the Guild when she retired and moved to Victoria. She passed away in 2009, and here's her obit:
CONCONI, Florence Gudridur Marcella (Flo) Born in Leslie Sask., Oct 23, 1918 passed away Jan. 30, 2009. Predeceased by her husband Fred in 1979. She is lovingly remembered by her children Bill (Ellie), Arlene (Brenden), Bob (Diane), and Dave (Linda), 10 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren, her sister Violet, and many nieces, nephews and grand nieces and nephews. After moving to Victoria in 1945, Flo and Fred farmed in Central Saanich until 1960 and then moved to Parksville in 1968 . Flo was an intelligent, multi-talented woman with many interests. She enjoyed such things as rock collecting and polishing, woodworking, pottery, sewing, square dancing and music. Many will remember her for her skill and love of quilting. On moving to Parksville she taught quilting out of her Quilt House in the back yard and this grew into the founding of the Parksville Quilt House Quilters Guild in 1979, which has grown to a membership of over 300. She continued to enjoy and attend a quilting afternoon with a few ladies until a few months before her death. A reception for family and friends to celebrate her life is to be held March 7, at the family home 2460 Tanner Road, from 1100 to 1500, when all her family can be together. A donation in her memory may be made to the Saanich Peninsula Hospital Palliative Care Unit through the Saanich Peninsula Hospital Foundation 525939 Published in the Victoria Times-Colonist from 2/10/2009 - 2/11/2009
A picture of Flo can be found in the Guild newsletter. Scroll down a bit and you will find her on page 10. She sounds like a lovely person. I don't know how her hoop ended up in the thrift shop, but I feel quite honoured to be the one who now owns it. I can imagine her spirit hovering over and reminding me to keep my stitches small and even. And it makes me think that labeling our tools and equipment has a value beyond asserting ownership - it could possibly link us to future generations.

Thursday, March 08, 2012


Here's what the dyed yarn looks like, sort of, depending on your monitor. Let's say a chocolate-y brown.

I laid out my photocopies on the scaffolding (underlying structure of the design). In addition to pressing the folds of the layout grid, I machine basted over the lines so that I could see them more clearly. Later, I will replace the lines with a leafy, swirly pattern.

I used Saral graphite transfer paper to trace the designs. It worked the best out of the three I tested - the other two were wax-based dressmaker's carbon and chalk-based dressmaker's paper.

I scored a great embroidery frame on a stand at the local thrift shop. Bless Flo Conconi, the apparent previous owner. (Her name is on the outer hoop.) Believe it or not, I don't usually use a hoop, but this setup allows me to use both hands in tandem, so the stitching goes faster. And I don't have the weight of all that cloth in my lap.

Beginning work on the turtle.
The yarn/thread is quite different to work than embroidery floss. It is thicker, and so creates more shadow, making the line appear heavier than it is. I was planning to use mostly chain stitch, but switched to split stitch after the initial outline.
I used featherstitch for the scales on the foot. I can see my approach changing as I learn how the thread interacts with the cloth and design. I am working with a different medium than pen and ink, so obviously I can't do an exact replica. I like this - my interpretation of the original will be bolder, less detailed, more graphic and textural. This fits - at the time the original drawing was made, there weren't cameras, and it was rare to draw from life. Instead, an artist would refer to books of engraved images and copy them, modifying as necessary. So I am copying a drawing that was a copy of an engraving. Each generation is unique, depending on the medium and the hand of the artist.
Louis Nicholas didn't have a lot of drawing skill, but that's what gives his work such charm. Some of the more fantastical creatures were probably drawn from verbal description, with Nicholas cobbling things together the best he could. The text that accompanies the drawings, A Natural History of the New World, shows that he was passionate about documenting everything he encountered in strange and wonderful North America.

Images of pages from the Codex Canadensis are from the Library and Archives of Canada website.

Friday, March 02, 2012


The Codex Canadensis project has been brewing away in the back of my brain since I first posted about it a month ago. Thanks for your comments: they did help me decide to go ahead. Slowly, and small(ish) to start.

First, the materials. Authentic reproduction Jacobean embroidery seems to require heavy linen twill. However, 80 bucks a meter is not in the budget, so I have gone for an unbleached 7 1/2 ounce cotton duck, which is available at the wonderful island store Stitches, so I can get more if I need it.

Finding thread was not so easy. Traditional crewel wool is not locally carried, nor could they order it. After a couple of visits to Stitches, nothing suitable leapt to view, so I decided to just get white wool and dye it. It's Berroco Ultra Alpaca, hardly traditional, but the price was right and the yarn promises to give the matte effect I am after.I dyed it in absolutely the most haphazard way. After pre-soaking the skeins in low immersion warm water with a couple of cups of vinegar in it, I sprinkled DRY and VERY OLD brown Procion MX dye powder on the yarn hoping for an uneven colour strike with bits of red, blue and yellow livening up the brown. What happened just goes to show the latitude possible in dyeing: I got a very even solid brown, in spite of random stirring and no salt for leveling. It's fine, looks like sepia or walnut ink, which is what I wanted. I would have been happier with more variation in colour, but it will be fine.

Design ideas have also been percolating. Rather than strict reproductions of the Codex drawings, I have decided to go with a Jacobean "Tree of Life" type of design. The animals will lurk in the foliage of undulating vines, basically, although I considered a number of ways that could be configured. Several afternoons of very interesting but unproductive consulting of reference books on pattern and crewelwork later, I settled on an ogee-like layout wherein the vines curve round a diamond shaped lattice, with the animals, birds and fish in the spaces between.
Not like this really, although I love it.
More like this, but still not quite.

I was very drawn to one option which offered the freedom of simply embroidering the critters individually, then applying them to a larger cloth. Making "slips", as the pieces are called, would lessen the pressure of having to have the design figured out before I began, and make it much easier to correct mistakes, as well as not having to lug the whole two meters of cloth around. Somehow it seems important to me to have the cloth be of a whole, though, so I am going for one complete piece. Hope I don't regret it too much!

I laid out the lattice on the cloth by folding and ironing the lines, rather than marking with a pencil. This might not be quite as accurate, but is fast and I don't have the space or a long enough straight edge to mark the lines anyway. I then threadbasted along the folded  lines. I photocopied the pages of the Codex at 200%, which is kind of arbitrary, and I may fiddle with individual size a bit, but will stay with the fantastical lack of proportion between the birds and larger mammals as they appear in the original.

Now I will trace the outlines of the animals onto the cloth, using dressmaker's carbon. I could use artist's graphite transfer paper too, I'll see what works best. Then the stitching can begin!

Images of pages from the Codex Canadensis are from the Library and Archives of Canada website.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Texture and Serendipitous Delight

Photo from Design by Kelly Cannell and Susan Point
"You can actually change the world for the better and enjoy it at the same time. You don't have to be bitter, you don't have to be mad." Jim Green

Okay, for the sake of my personal equilibrium, I refuse to succumb to further ranting about evil politicians. Instead, I will look to some good ones. We lost a great one the other day - Jim Green, a Vancouver politician who was behind some of the positive change in Vancouver over the last thirty or so years, died on Tuesday. David Beers writes about his last conversation with Jim over at The Tyee.

I especially like what he says about texture:
Take that story of BladeRunners' evolution, lay it next to the saga of Woodward's, and of Jim Green's founding of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, and of his founding of a bank to serve low income people, and his founding of United We Can, and his role in founding the Portland Hotel Society, and the many examples of Green's support of the arts, including, for example, his helping to bring opera singing to Blood Alley. You really do have to marvel at the breadth of Green's initiatives. Other than Woodward's, none are the sort that grasp for attention along the city's skyline. Rather, they attend to the finer grained textures of Vancouver -- textures social and cultural, textures felt and inhabited at street level. On the phone, Green remembered another project he was particularly happy about -- his effort to have manhole covers in the city crafted by artists. Thousands of cast iron disks textured with bubbles, tadpoles and frogs are being produced. Cities lacking texture, Green understood, are barren of serendipitous delight.