Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Path of the Thread

Bird 1 (of 3) is completed. You can see the two birds to come in pencil underneath his claws. I usually trace out just the main lines of a form, and fill in the detail freehand.

It's coming along well. I feel a little more comfortable with the crewel thread. It has quite a noticeable difference in smoothness if I stitch in the direction of the twist, so I run my fingers along each length of yarn as I cut it to feel which way feels smoother, and thread my needle that way. It makes a big difference in the appearance of the stitches, and I don't feel as if my thread is going to drift apart.

An odd line of outline stitch appears under his right foot. It's actually part of the beak of the pileated woodpecker below. I had some thread left after finishing the foot, and rather than waste it I just kept stitching. I realize that this habit of mine is part of the problem I had in counting the cross stitch piece I just finished. Rather than   doing the logical thing and working in rows and "parking" my threads, I tend to work in sections that are determined by the colour and length of my thread. I try to work adjacent areas of the same colour as much as possible, trying to be economical with thread and knots. It's not the smartest strategy, since I end up with stitches in the wrong place more often than not.

According to the text of the Histoire Naturelle this little guy above is probably a gray jay, although he is identified as a "Pie ameriquaine" on the page. Pere Nicolas seemed to classify the animals in the Codex by their similarity to what he already knew. The closest he could come in naming a Canada Jay was by relating it to the European magpie.

I found an interesting passage in the Taschen edition of Albertus Seba's Thesaurus, called Cabinet of Natural Curiousities. Seba was a little bit later than Louis Nicolas, but shared the same spirit of exploration and inquiry that was typical of the time. Here's the quote:
Albertus Seba's Thesaurus was composed during a period of great change, which is what makes this work particularly interesting from today's point of view. In the first half of the 18th century, the study of biology was thriving, making its first strides towards becoming a true science. Even though the term "biology" was already in use by the close of the 17th century, it had to await the beginning of the 19th to become officially introduced. The longstanding links to medicine and the healing arts meant that scientific concepts in this field were already well evolved. But the boundary with the arts was not yet sharply defined, and the Christian world view remained a pervasive influence. The prevailing view was that all of God's creations, including plants and animals, fulfilled a specific purpose. Ultimately, everything in nature was of use to humankind, the crowning achievement of Creation. If all of God's creations fulfilled a purpose, then, evidently a divine order must exist, a harmony of the cosmos. Thus an important aspect of the natural sciences, which incorporated what we would call the biosciences today, was to decipher and understand this order. This, in turn, would bring man closer to God, for God was to be understood above all through his works.
This makes a lot of sense in understanding what Louis Nicholas may have taken to be an important part of his mission in the New World. He would have had a rationale if quizzed by his superiors about why he spent more time drawing than saving souls.

There is another bit from the same essay:
In the first half of the 16th century, plants and animals were still categorized primarily by their uses to man, or were simply sorted alphabetically, as in the mighty Historia Animalium by Conrad Gesner, a splendid tome of over 4000 pages.
Gesner's work is considered to be a primary source for much of Louis Nicolas's Codex. Nicholas though, made an effort to group or classify the creatures he drew by the number of feet they had, and whether they were creatures of land, air or water. This one of the aspects of Nicholas's work that fascinates me: his struggle to understand the world around him, and the way he built upon what was already known.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Jumping In Again

"Pie Ameriquaine"
I have started the next piece in the series. This one is a whole page, a composition of three birds uncomfortably overlapping each other.
Source: Gilcrease Museum
© Public Domain. Courtesy of the Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, OK. From the Library and Archives of Canada website.
It's a stunner, alright. No wonder it was chosen for the cover of the Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicholas. 
It always amazes me how anxious I can feel starting out on a new piece. I go through a lot of ritual preparation: washing and pressing the cloth, transferring the image, mounting it in the frame, praying for the gods to guide my needle. There is a period of sitting thoughfully, just gathering the energy to begin, waiting in fact for the moment to begin to reveal itself. It's something like preparing to jump off a cliff into an unknown body of water.

That might sound a little overdramatic, but I experience actual nervousness. Maybe it's the fear of failure. There is indeed risk involved, although the sensible among you might be thinking, "Good grief, it's just embroidery." I may identify a bit too closely with my work, in that I find self-validation through what I make.

I was able to find proper crewel yarn for this piece. Such a difference from the smooth 4-ply I used for the last one! The Appleton crewel thread is very fine, softly spun 2-ply, which makes a finer line, allowing more detail, but also requiring attention that the thread doesn't come unspun. I think it works, but it felt so different in my hand I was worried that I was embarking on a major mistake.

This anxiety may also have something to do with the fact that I am not an experienced embroiderer. Yes, I have done quite a lot, but I usually learn as I go, rather than master a technique before I begin. I sat in front of that last counted cross stitch piece for a full day before I started the single thread backstitch outline. What was the problem? A simple stitch, a clear chart to guide me - it should have been easy. But I had never done it before, and needed to gather my nerve.

Neurotic, perhaps, but the feeling does help me to understand the trepidation a beginner might feel. If I was teaching, I would just say to dive right in and not worry if it's not perfect. I need to take my own advice!

Friday, June 22, 2012


19th C. crewel work from The Textile Blog
There's a fascinating article on Biophilia, Nature and Decoration over at The Textile Blog. If you're not familiar with this great site, I recommend a browse through the depths of their archives on design and textiles.   Mostly of a historical bent, and full of detailed images, each article comes with a selection of book titles for further research. The postings also can be listened to, although the "narrator" is computer generated and lacking the warmth of voice the articles deserve. Links to videos, e-books and contemporary artists are included as well.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Properly Finished

I have at last finished the cross stitch that was only supposed to take a couple of days. Of course it was an odd size, and custom framing was out of the question. So I picked up a thrift store frame that was the right proportion, and sized the finished embroidery to fit. A wee self-pat on my back for having the foresight to leave lots of extra cloth around the image.

I stretched it over a piece of acid free mat board and thread-laced it in place. June at Noon has a good tutorial showing this technique.

The frame was black, and quite scratched, so I gave it a couple of coats of cheap craft acrylic, and "antiqued" it with shoe polish. It ended up quite adequate for the job. (The colour is on the dull side in the photo, since I took the picture late in the day.)

 Now I can get back into the Codex series.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

C'est Delicioux

I have taken a bit of a break before beginning the next piece based on the Codex Canadensis. The latest issue of Marie Claire Idees contains an irresistible bit of cross stitch. I somehow forgot my previous vow to never do another counted cross stitch, after I completed a beautiful reproduction of an antique sampler several years ago. I loved the results, but apparently I lacked (and still do) the ability to count, so the cursing and undoing of threads makes the stitching more of an exercise of will than a pleasure. The chart for this embroidery is super, and I don't think my inability to read French is to blame. I just can't count. But I figure I am about half done, so hope to finish within a week.

Oh, and I'm not going to make it into what appears to be a pie carrier. It's going to the Chef's restaurant - he wasted no time declaring dibs on it!

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Morning Reading

I started off very excited about an article I read on The Textile Blog this morning. The Written Word and Textiles is right up my alley, and somewhat distracted me from the shock of another news article about how Canada's Neo-Philistine government is gutting the Library and Archives of Canada.

As the Textile article makes abundantly clear, the ability to access information has only recently been available to those who are literate. And widespread literacy, which we take more or less for granted in the developed world, only became available to us as it benefited industry. Business and industry needed workers who could read, so pressured government to provide education for all.

The Canadian government is now working to limit access to its people's history. I have often heard it said, either in jest or all seriousness, that it is not in a (retrogressive, right-wing) government's interest to have an educated electorate. I fear this is all too true in our current situation.

Several years ago, I was working an a piece about Louis Riel, one of our early Canadian leaders. I was able to visit the National Archives in Ottawa, where I was issued a card that allowed me access to the collections for research purposes. In an afternoon, I was able to track down and read the original document whose words formed the foundation of my artwork. It was a thrilling experience, and I felt so honoured and proud to be a citizen of such a wonderful country that valued and cared for its heritage.

The source of my most recent work, based on the Codex Canadensis, can be viewed online through the Library and Archives Canada website, one of the many LAC services that has been hit with cuts. The original manuscript is, oddly enough, in American hands, in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The circumstances that brought this about are completely understandable, and although I wish the book was in Canada as it is so important in our country's story, I am also relieved that it is safe where it is. The current Canadian government wouldn't give a rat's ass about it.