Monday, April 30, 2012


Arborescent means "tree-like". That is what I am going for with the branch-y foliage that twines around the animals. I was surprised to find this step the most challenging so far.

First, to come up with a design, given the zillions of options it seemed were available to me. I consulted all my design and pattern books, looked at lots of 17th C. crewel work, did a lot of sketches, and finally returned to Louis Nicolas and the Codex. Pere Nicolas did several pages of botanical drawings, and I chose his drawing of the white cedar, which of course looks nothing like cedar. I considered drawing a branch of cedar so that you could recognize it as such, but finally decided to stick to Nicolas's clumsy rendering. It seemed more congruent with the overall concept and the odd critters seemed more at home surrounded by the giant seed cones and leafy fronds.

Then, a final design was drawn, based on an ogee structure. I reversed and mirrored the upper section of foliage for the lower, so that there would be a symmetry. I traced the basic lines of the branch along the diagonal basting I had put in at the beginning, adjusting the foliage part a bit so it wouldn't crowd the animals too much. So it is not perfectly symmetrical but hopefully will appear balanced to the eye of the viewer.
I stitched the main line of the branch first, in coral stitch, which was a new one for me. Its bold texture seemed to resemble tree bark, and it was quick to work. I used sort of a detached chain stitch for the individual bits of the cedar fronds. I was quite uncertain about it for the first while, and it wasn't until I got a fairly big chunk done that I could see that it was working.

It's fairly slow going though, and will probably take me a couple of weeks to finish. I'll try to keep things interesting here in the meantime.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Quack Quack

The final critter for this cloth has been completed. C'est un canard. Even this little guy has teeth! He is also one of the few images of the Codex that depicts a background for the animal - in this case water.

Finally, I spread out the whole piece to have a look. I am very happy with how it's coming. The next step is to design and embroider an interlocking trellis of vines, so each creature has its own little niche. And I'm not sure yet about the corners. I may leave them unfilled, depending how much space I have. It will be mounted on canvas stretchers, so at least two inches a side will wrap around. Right now the cloth measures 54"x79".

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Big Night

Bruce's Kitchen has moved to a new location in Ganges on Salt Spring Island.

With only ten days to change over, the chef and his crew managed to paint, redecorate, write new menus, organize the kitchen and order food. Some where in there they also did a few caterings. Above, Molly, and below, Deegan, set the tables for opening night.

Although roomier and more formal than his previous location, Bruce wanted to keep the same comfortable, homey feel.

Molly and Tala are busy behind the bar. (Yes, the new place has a liquor license!)

Chef Bruce does prep in the kitchen.

The appetizer was handmade ravioli stuffed with Moonstruck cheese and leeks, in a wild nettle pesto, with smoked salmon and fresh micro greens. All locally produced. And yummy!

The main was seared albacore tuna with "smashed" baby potatoes and roasted vegetables. Fantastic flavours. And I forgot to take a photo of the dessert, which was a gorgeously presented plate of two "Tim Bits" - fromage blanc beignets in a pool of rhubarb coulis (from the first rhubarb of the season), with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream and a dusting of sweet cicely blossoms.

Congratulations, Bruce. May this be the beginning of many years of memorable dinners in your new place.

Silent Death Stalks the Range

A small lynx. I am happy with the amount of detail I was able to get with the 4-ply yarn. This little guy is about seven inches long. Surprisingly, he has no ear tufts, one of the distinctive features of the lynx. Louis Nicolas did not include them in his original drawing, although he, as usual, was careful to detail the sharp teeth and claws.

I am always astonished at how beautiful the lynx is, although now that I think of it, I can't remember ever seeing one in real life, let alone the wild. I have only seen photos, which show the lynx to have regal dignity, an otherworldly wisdom, and mesmerizing eyes. Pere Nicolas mentions them in the typical context of the value of their furs. He also says they taste delicious. They are now rare in Eastern Canada due to "human activity."

Monday, April 16, 2012

Elaine Reichek and Me

Elaine Reichek is an artist I admire wholeheartedly, who currently has a solo show at New York's Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, as well as being a standout in the current Whitney Biennial. Intense as my admiration is, though, I find myself avoiding her work, because it is like looking in a much smarter and more talented mirror. It's impossible to say that without sounding like a jerk, so there ya go, I know I sound like a jerk.

I first discovered Reichek about six years ago, when I picked up a shopworn copy of her book When This You See..., beautifully documenting her show of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in 2000. I was instantly struck with the conceptual similarities between her work and mine, even though hers was of course much smarter and better executed. I bought the book and read it thoroughly, with feverish awe and some jealousy (to be honest). Then I put it on my shelf and studiously avoided it, except for when I had to pack it for moving, when I would be re-acquainted with how brilliant Reichek's work is.

So, while leafing through a recent copy of the New Yorker, I saw that Reichek had a new show. I made a mental note to look it up online, and promptly forgot about it, as happens with mental notes. Two weeks later, leafing through the same New Yorker, I saw the notice again, and this time went and looked her up. The links are at the beginning of this post, and if you didn't check them out when you started reading, go and do it now. I'll wait. Go ahead and Google her as well if you like, since I know you will be amazed. I won't be offended if you don't see any similarity between her work and mine, either.

Remember how I have been talking about the idea of translation as one of the aspects of my exploration of the Codex Canadensis? Read Reichek's artist statement. Gah, I hadn't seen that until ten minutes ago, and there she is, talking about her concept of translation, in a much more coherent and thoughtful way than I ever have.

Here is a quote used at the beginning of When this You See...
Masters of embroidery know that it is not enough to follow faithfully the drawing traced: the expert needlewoman must be in possession of the nature of the drawing, to give to it with each stitch the appearance of life, sometimes life itself. The vibration of a wave lies not only in the perfect placing of the woolen thread, and the passing of the needle in the cloth follows an interior movement that is not exhausted by the mechanical gesture.
- Marta Morazzoni, The Invention of Truth

Just as I was trying to say in my convoluted way in my last couple of postings. If I let myself dwell on it, it could be galling to keep encountering someone who does what I am trying to do, but just does it do much better.

It's not that I think I am as good as Elaine Reichek, or would have been were it not for life's circumstances. It's more like every time I encounter her work I get a good smack upside the head, and need to remind myself that it's not too surprising that similar strategies have appeared in both our work over the years: needlework, knitting, the use of found quotations, mirrored images, flying carpets, a combination of literary references and pattern, feminism and the idea of "women's work", interest in native North American culture, mythology, etc.

These similarities are perhaps not so surprising because we covered the same ground in our educations. Reichek studied under some of the greats of American post-expressionist art. I studied under the next generation of that same tradition, which gave me a similar theoretical groundwork. But I obviously didn't work as hard, nor was I as confident. And I fell off the career path long ago.

One of the interesting things about Reichek's work is that she has always positioned herself as a conceptual artist. None of this tiresome art versus craft debate. It would probably help my muddled thinking if I could be as clear about what I do as she is, and I wouldn't be getting so upset about silly contemporary embroidery books.

So, with that intention, I shall return to my embroidery frame with renewed energy and a great thanks to Elaine Reichek for doing what she does so very, very well.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Don't Go Into the Woods Today

This quail, although relatively small in relation to the whole piece, commanded quite a lot of my attention. There is a lot of detail, which I could have left out, but I have a strong feeling that every element has to be given the same amount of care and psychic energy. It will make a difference in the finished piece, which sounds like simple logic, but it feels like more than that.

When I was in art school I took several painting courses, even though I recognised that I was not much of a painter. I learned the most from Tom Dean, who would go on these rhapsodic philosophical monologues while the class brushed and scumbled. He would talk about such things as the "sexual tension" between a chair and floor, and how to render that on canvas. It was a very visceral and expressive approach to creating an image. I am trying to draw from that approach as I translate Louis Nicholas's pen and ink creatures into needle and thread, and at the same time be true to the original image.

It's paradoxical. What I have ended up with has very little to do with painting, and I imagine Tom would be rather unimpressed with my efforts. Here's a wolf:

and here are Tom Dean's words about his 2001 sculpture, Desire, in Toronto's Sculpture Garden.
I empathize with these swans. Fat flying snakes, meandering, labyrinthine momentum that has evolved a proud vertical architecture under the drag of gravity, and an appearance under the imperative gaze of others. These swans, in their proud maturity, are the hollowed out libidinous shells of a vanity, erect in the posture of pride and dignity. They are magnificent dinosaurs, monsters, heroic, tattered, ramshackle, bewildered and aghast. They are disbelieving and incredulous at the tide of ignorance and vanity rising in their wake. They are confronted by the cherubs – tender sensual particles, seed and fruit of the erotic body. They arch their feathers and rise to their full stature, doomed dignity confronted by the insolent self-assurance of the future.
(You can see a picture of Desire here.))
From the time of Louis Nicolas and European exploration, Canadian culture has been fraught with the tension between attraction to the wild, dark unknown of nature, and the urge to tame, civilize and profit from it. Our artists, poets and writers still wrestle with the push/pull of nature, and the call of the wild. I hope, immodestly, that the work I am doing now fits somehow within that tradition.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Appearances to the Contrary...

...this is not a beaver. Louis Nicolas describes this critter as "The mountain rat, as large as a spaniel." Unfortunately, the accompanying Histoire Naturelle does not give any more information. Pere Nicolas does illustrate a beaver on another page, and gives a lengthy verbal description. Since the mountain rat is included with the aquatic mammals, I'd say our mystery animal is probably a mash-up of a muskrat and a beaver, concocted in Louis' fevered imagination.

Look at the small sharp teeth, which are indeed quite rat-like. But that tail could only be a beaver's.

The plot thickens, however, when I recall a creature that was rumoured to inhabit Little Mountain, near where I grew up in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. That animal was called a mountain rat, and said to be the size of a beaver. From the same legend, you might think, except that Little Mountain is several thousand miles from the parts of Canada that Pere Nicolas was exploring.

While we contemplate that little mystery, here's a shot of what the whole cloth looks like so far. Now that I've completed the five larger animals of the piece, I have a smaller quail, duck, fox, and wolf to embroider in the edge sections, and then I will link them all together with a swirling vine pattern.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Highly Recommended

Just a quick thumbs up for Taschen's Book of Symbols. A collaborative effort edited by the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (, this beautifully printed, hefty volume lives up to the enthusiastic endorsement on its web page.
"It is still possible, even now, for publishers to do something we have never seen before. The Book of Symbols is a project of mind-blowing ambition and reach, and a book with an almost old-fashioned educational appeal. Bright, optimistic, bountiful and brainy, it makes you reel with a sense of wonder at the complexity of the human mind and soul… You can’t ask for more than that."
— Creative Review, London, United Kingdom

I have quite a collection of books of symbols, and this is far and away the best. Thoughtfully chosen works of art are used to illustrate each symbol, and each receives 2-4 pages, complete with references for further reading. I like the way it is organized: Creation and Cosmos; Plant World; Animal World, Human World, Spirit World, with subdivisions within each category.

The Book of Symbols is an ideal bedside table or bathroom book, which is not to suggest that it is prosaic fare. It is perfect to open at random and discover a fascinating, different view of things that do encompass our everyday world. And it is an absolute bargain, listed at $39.95.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

O Pelican

Things are progressing. The pelican has been completed in record time, even though I started getting fussy.

All those feathers were just too much of a temptation for me. I have been playing with the stitches, trying to get a nice interlocking feather shape. Fly stitch seems to work the best, as long as I keep the first half of the stitch nice and loose, so it forms a curve rather than a "v". I have also tried feather stitch, both single and double, but it leaves gaps that have to be returned to, and doesn't look quite as even.

Then I realize that I am working with my nose five inches from the cloth, and the piece will be seen from across a room, so really, what I need to do is simplify. Simplifying is another aspect of the translation process. Enough information needs to be kept so that the image "reads" true, and at the same time superfluous detail needs to be omitted.

It's a challenge that requires lengthy periods of what I call "gazing upon the piece". This is one of the most crucial steps of creating any work of art, yet to the casual observer it looks like nothing is being done. Just sitting, allowing the image to fill the eyes and letting the mind be free to roam, actually determines the next step. Is the piece done? If not, what does it need? Ideas for the next three pieces float into view. Memories shimmer, connections appear.

Time to sit and gaze.

P.S. Sadly, I decided to reinstate the "captcha" thingie on the comments. I was getting tons of spam - easy enough to delete, but most of it made me aware of a world I really don't want to know about. Sorry, Damselfly!