Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Thimbles: Not Just For Show

Clover Protect and  Grip thimble
Up until this point, I have regarded the thimble as a purely optional stitching accessory. But, with this quilting-for-hire project, I have finally succumbed to finger protection. The quilt is white, and bloodstains just take away from the desired effect. I ended up with a very expensive, high-tech gadget that seems to work a charm. It was the only one available in the small town across the water, so it's not like I had a choice. But after a few days where it seemed like I had too many fingers, I seemed to get the hang of it. Not only can I gang up more stitches on the needle at a time, I'm not stabbing myself. So far, so good.

Dr. Freud and Agnes Richter

The couch in Freud's office, courtesy The Freud Museum
Regular readers will know that I have an interest in the connection between psychology and textiles. This week, two avenues of investigation opened up.
First, there was an interview with Marina Warner, fairytale expert, on CBC's Writers and Company. She was talking about her latest project, a book about Sheherazade and the Tales of the Arabian Nights. She mentioned that Sigmund Freud's famous couch, upon which psychoanalysis began, was covered with a handwoven Persian carpet. Aha! A quick Google search revealed this essay: Freud's Couch, A Case History. It's a fascinating read. Here's a bit where she begins by quoting Goethe:
 "Here we find ourselves in a factory of thoughts where, as in the ‘weaver’s masterpiece’”:
 a thousand threads one treadle throws,
Where fly the shuttles hither and thither,
Unseen the threads are knit together,
And an infinite combination grows.  
Freud describes how his method requires him to look intently at the threads and, he continues, at “the nodal points” meet. The lines connect to H.D.’s “tangled skeins,” and to her own finely spun metaphor about Freud’s voice dipping the gray web of conventionally woven thought “into a vat of his own brewing” and drawing out scraps of thoughts in new colors to become flags and pennants and signs. The imagery is hardly original, but it gave Freud and H.D. a way of speaking about a deeper layer beneath conscious and deliberate utterance. In the same decade Freud pressed it further, to provide a metaphor for the unconscious order of expression. He analyzed his own dream-thoughts and invited his patients to express theirs as they lay on the couch; in collaboration with them, he tried to discern the patterns and connections in the weave, the figure in the carpet.In relation to the concept of the psychoanalytic method, it is worth reconnecting the linguistic uses of this figure of speech to the material properties of carpets. A carpet maker conjugates structural motifs “in infinite combination,” as Freud wrote about his dream analysis, within a basic structure of frame, ground, and figure, and then inflects each one differently through variations of color, dimensions, quality of materials. 

Well, speaking for myself, reclining upon such a couch couldn't help but bring forth meaningful insights.

The other interesting tangent was sparked by a link  on our dear Jude Hill's blog, about the heavily embroidered jacket of Agnes Richter, a patient in a psychiatric hospital at the turn of the last century.(N.B. It's not a straightjacket, just a jacket in the style of the time.) I had known of the fabulous  garment from my art therapy training, but Jude's post sparked me to investigate further, and I was able to order Agnes's Jacket from the library. It too is a fascinating read, about a different way of dealing with what is normally seen as a symptom of psychosis - hearing voices. Given North America's heavily medicalized approach to dealing with mental illness, I was very surprised to discover a different approach to what perhaps may be more fairly described as "auditory phenomena".

I haven't got to the end of the book yet, which appears (from my skipping forward) to deal more specifically with Agnes's remarkable jacket. But I am sure that it will confirm my hypothesis that stitching and thread describe the fundamental nature of the universe. Or something like that.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Generations of the Image

C'est fini.
Deuteronomy III, (2013) hand embroidery, wool on canvas, 18x26 inches
I don't think I've mentioned that Louis Nicolas used the illustrations of Conrad Gesner, a 16th C. Swiss naturalist, as source material. In the Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicolas, Francois-Marc Gagnon shows the connection very clearly. At the time, people rarely drew from life, and they didn't have cameras, of course, so the way they knew about the creatures of the world (both real and rumoured) was through big books of engravings. Gesner's five volume set was the definitive edition.

Now, the Codex was re-bound at some point in its history, and seems to have lost a bit of page width in the process, often cutting off part of the drawing. Since I intend to stitch the swan, this presented more of a problem than usual, since half the beak is cut off, and it seemed a little odd even for Louis Nicolas. So I went to the source, finding a great collection of Gesner's images at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France website. And there was the swan:
Compare it to Pere Nicolas's version:
I wasn't sure what was going on with the beak, but with Gesner's image I can see that he showed the tongue, as did Louis Nicolas, albeit a bit shorter, as I guess he was tight on space. What is really odd are the legs and feet - he completely truncated the legs, and used his standard way of rendering bird's feet instead of following the Gesner. I wonder what happened - did the library close before he finished the feet, and so he went back to his cell and drew from memory? Or, did he, like most of us, have a pre-programmed image in his head of what it SHOULD look like, and he just went with that rather than really seeing what was there?

In any case, for my third generation rendering of the image, I have taken the liberty of filling in the missing bits of the beak and tail feathers. It's a deviation from my aim of being as faithful to Nicholas' image as possible, but it would just look too odd other wise. Hey, I'm an artist, not a literalist!

National Treasures

Title page of Louis Nicolas's Grammaire algonquine from  Bibliotheque Nationale de France
 I am almost wetting myself with excitement. Sorry to evoke that image, but I just found an online manuscript of Louis Nicolas' Grammaire algonquine, in his own hand, with a signature even! It is part of the collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, an institution that obviously treasures the history of its country (unlike the sadly underfunded National Library and Archives of Canada, which probably wants to treasure our history, but has been gutted by Stephen Harper.) The Grammaire, a study of the language spoken by some of the people he encountered during his time in New France as it was then called, was another of his great contributions to the early history of Canada. (And I think it was the only work of his published during his lifetime, although I'll have to check on that.) He hoped that it would be published but his Jesuit superiors were not enthusiastic because they were very reticent about publicizing any details about their missions.
Page from Louis Nicolas's Grammaire algonquine from  Bibliotheque Nationale de France
It is utterly fascinating to see how he edited himself as he wrote. A similar clumsiness of hand is evident in his penmanship when compared to the drawings of the Codex Canadensis. There are also some odd doodles similar to those that appear in the Codex. This all serves to make him more tangible, more of a real person in my mind.

I hate to imagine how distressed he may have been by the idea that, three hundred years after his death, a middle-aged woman in the country of his adventures would be thinking so much about him (and delaying a trip to the bathroom because she was so thrilled by his manuscript). It's okay, Pere Louis, I promise to do my best by you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Stitching is Only the Half of It

I always marvel at the convoluted path that my creative process can take. It's like solving a puzzle - I have the sense of what I am seeking, and need to keep myself open to all possible clues. Sometimes the clues lead me down blind alleys, and sometimes they present themselves in a coherent order.

The current piece began with my sighting of a barred owl in December. He sat on a fence post and stared at me for quite a while. "Okay", I thought, "the owls are up next." I couldn't decide between the two pages of owls, so decided to go with both, as a diptych.

The search for a border that would work for both pieces sent me scurrying in all directions. I thought perhaps something to do with snakes, as both images contain a small snake. And I have a snake tattoo on my wrist, and it is the Chinese Year of the Snake. I know herons will eat snakes, but I wasn't sure about owls. I thought of the symbolism of snakes, which in Judeo-Christian tradition are seen as an embodiment of Satan. In other traditions they are symbols of renewal, but we are dealing with Jesuit priest Louis Nicolas here, so how do I reconcile that?

Owls are creatures of the night, so maybe inhabit the shadowy realm of snakes, but in the Codex they are grouped with eagles, herons and swans. What do these birds have in common, besides feathers? Well, they are all mentioned in the dietary restrictions of Deuteronomy; as carrion eaters they are unclean. I am no scholar of the Bible, by the way, I discovered this while searching for quotes about owls. Deuteronomy 14: 12-20 gives me some text to possibly work with. Even though I often use text in my work, so far I have avoided it in the Codex pieces.

Now, as it happens, the first owl piece is going to my friend Sue, as a trade for two of her paintings. Sue had mentioned that she liked the captions in the original drawing (she lives at Heron Bay Farm, and the drawing includes a heron.) I felt that the captions on their own were too literal, but maybe combined with some of the passage from Deuteronomy?

Then one night, just as I was falling asleep, it came to me. I could use the first part of verse twelve: "These are they of which ye shall not eat:" and the last bit, which is basically a restating of the same: "And every creeping thing that flieth is unclean unto you: they shall not be eaten." I thought the first bit could go on the left panel of owls, and the second bit at the bottom of the right panel., and the captions would form the list in between.

So I played with that, but kept coming back to my liking the way that the whole passage refers to many birds, birds that are also in the Codex right next to the owls. So the diptych became a series of four panels intended to be shown as one. I will start with the eagles, and end with the swan and pelican, with the owls and heron in the middle. They will all bear captions in Louis Nicolas' hand, and be framed by the Deuteronomy quote.

I'm now tentatively titling the panels Deuteronomy I-IV. I like that the name itself means a copy or duplicate, which in Biblical context means a restating of the law of Moses, but in my work refers to the process of "copying" Pere Nicolas' pen and ink drawings in thread. I considered for a minute using the Latin term Deuteronium, as that would be the language of the Bible that Nicolas was familiar with, but a Google search showed that that name is taken by a Scandinavian Christian death metal band. So no.

An interesting dilemma occurred during this thought process. I knew that one of the pieces was going to Sue, and I have someone else interested in another of the pieces. Even though I knew that I felt I had good reason to use the text, I was worried that the potential buyer would not appreciate it. I think this is the first time I have seen my creative process run into self censorship because it might make my work less desirable to the "customer". Four panels rather than two solves this rather neatly (although in a bit of a cowardly way) as the text is just on the two end panels.

Oh, and it's in French. I assume Louis Nicholas' Bible would have been in Latin, but all his captions in the Codex are in French, so I translated the passage from Deuteronomy into that language. Well, actually, since my French is barely good enough to read the back of a cereal box, I found a site online that had a translation of the King James version of the Bible, and then had a friend who speaks French have a look at it to make sure it was correct. Okay! I have a plan!

And if you have made it all the way to the end of this possibly boring post, here's a picture of Florette and her baby as a reward.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Outside My Window

This bald eagle has been perched atop a 100 foot cedar for about the last hour. The ravens who usually inhabit the tree have been swooping by but not staying. I guess the big guy rules.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Whoo Whoo

Who is watching who?
Louis Nicolas calls the owl coucoucouou, which seems very appropriate. He has included a heron (top) and a crane below. I loved stitching these birds. Now for a border - I have four ideas and will do some thumbnails to see what will work best. I have to keep in mind that there is going to be another panel  on the left, so the design has to work both individually and for the pair.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

At the Edge

"And kneeling at the edge of the transparent sea I shall shape for myself a new heart from salt and mud." Anne Carson

Monday, January 14, 2013

Bottle Babies

The kids are growing fast. The little female's leg has healed just fine. She's the one on the left. The male is a little bigger and thirstier. Mama Bailey is now known as Aunt Bailey, since after being separated from her babies for a day she lost her inclination to let them nurse. So she is milked by hand, then her milk fed to the kids via human baby bottles. The kids are wearing little polarfleece coats( ingeniously recycled from the arms of an old jacket) to help keep them warm.
I am almost done the first owl panel. I'm very pleased with how it's coming. I'm still not sure about a border, but it will make itself known.

Bower (2012) hand embroidery, wool and cotolin thread on canvas, 50"(w)x60"(h)
And I realize that I didn't post the final version of "Bower". Here it is.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Especially the Surprise Yourself Part

The above sentiment has probably been seen all over the place, but since I don't do Facebook, I came across it at Craftivism. Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite creative minds, and, well, his New Year's wish is hard to argue with. And, in somewhat the same vein, Craftivism's Betsy Greer has a new project that I'm happy to contribute to : The Little Book of Craftivism.

Of Birds and Beasts

 Bailey, one of the goats, gave birth to a pair of kids yesterday, quite a bit earlier than expected. Both kidlets are healthy, although the little girl has a wobbly leg. Aileen splinted it with a bit of cardboard. Since it has been cold, the kids were brought indoors and are penned in a Rubbermaid tote for a few days. Mama Bailey has been bleating mournfully, poor girl. Both kids have little gremlin ears like their mom. So cute!
I continue to work on the quilt, but also have started the owls. I plan to do both images as a diptych, about 20"x28" each. I was given a small ball of very fine Habu cashmere, which I am using for the finer shading. Who would have thought you can embroider with cashmere? But it is lovely to work with, strong and smooth. I am also having some fun with this owl, using a variety of stitches for his spots, and trying to find a balance between accurate translation of the original ink drawing and enjoying the soft flexibility of the yarn.
And in the realm of owls, Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak died yesterday. She was an acclaimed printmaker, and the image above, titled the Enchanted Owl, was used on a popular 1970 Canadian postage stamp. I was 12 years old when it came out, and into stamp collecting, so I am very familiar with the image.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Ghost Stitching

A shamefully long time ago, I agreed to complete a quilt that a friend’s mother had been working on before she passed away. I was honoured to be asked, and said yes before I had really had a look at it. The main challenge, as I saw it, was that the quilt was hand-stitched, something I wasn’t very confident about at the time. It was about half done, an orange blossom appliqué design, queen-size, with a rather ornate, traditional quilting pattern.

For several intervening years the quilt lurked in the cupboard, provoking guilt each time I happened across it. I told myself I was honing my skills so that I would be equal to the project. My friend asked at generous intervals how the quilt was coming, finally inquiring if she had offended me in some way. I had to admit that I kept giving other projects priority.

Today, I at last took the quilt out of the cupboard and had a good look at it. Much of the pattern tracing had disappeared, so I will have to re-trace it. Not a big deal. Much more of a concern was discovering that the existing stitching was uneven and shoddily done, with knots on the surface. Some of the appliqué was neatly stitched, but other parts were crudely done.

Judging the quality of stitching done by a 90-year-old lady who is no longer with us seems churlish. Besides, it’s her stitching that gives this quilt its value for the owner. My role is just to finish it, preferably as respectfully as possible. To remove particularly botched areas, as I have an impulse to, would be wrong.

All my high-minded ideas about “collaborations with an unknown artist”, as I like to think of working on previously stitched cloth, go out the window. Here I have a known collaborator. She may have had failing eyesight and a shaky hand, but I have to respect her work. My quilting stitches would never win any prizes, but I do try to keep them even, and I hide my knots. It sounds silly, but I’m afraid of too great a contrast between our work, that somehow I’ll make her look bad.

But ego must go out the window too. This is not my creation.  I am simply a hired needle. I’ll try to do a nice job, but keep myself out of it. I’ll try to focus on how my friend will be happy that I have finished the quilt at last, and that her granddaughter, who will receive it, will be able to curl up under something that her great-grandmother made.