Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Breakthrough!

From the Codex Canadensis, Collection of the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa Oklahoma
I just started reading Joseph Boyden's The Orenda, a tale of a Jesuit missionary coming to the wilds of the New World in the 17th C., and his encounters with the aboriginal peoples there. Sound familiar? It provides a fascinating alternative view of the world that Louis Nicolas presented in the Codex Canadensis. Early in the book I came across a passage that gave me the feeling of all the tumblers falling into place.
(The priest is describing learning the Huron language from a converted "sauvage".)

"He explained that I had to begin to grasp the natural world around me if I were ever to conquer the language. The Huron, Luke said, don't live above the natural world but as a part of it. The key to their language was to make the connection between man and nature."

Aha! This makes sense to me as I try to understand what made Louis Nicolas tick. His first work was an Algonquin grammar - which would have been of great value to the Jesuits as they carried out their mission to bring the word of God to those they called savage. It seems that he saw himself as something of a man of science, and whether by accident or design, discovered that he could better understand the language if he also knew about the plants, animals, fish and fowl that made up the world in which he found himself. Nicolas made several expeditions with the various First Nations of the eastern part of North America, and, judging by the some of the descriptions in his Histoire Naturelle, he found himself in harsh conditions very similar to ones Boyden describes in The Orenda. (I previously wrote about a movie, Black Robe, which offers an account of a Jesuit priest embarking on a similar expedition, earlier in the 17th century.)

It's all fascinating and somewhat horrifying stuff, and helps to bring Louis Nicolas to life in my mind. My earlier comparisons of him to Mr. Bean aside, he would have to be very, very brave to accomplish what he did.

The Codex includes a number of incredible drawings of the First Nations people. I have avoided them completely so far in my embroidery work because they are so fraught with political consequence and I feel I can't really go there, as a white woman of European descent. But they are really worth viewing, and can be seen at the Library and Archives Canada site.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

An Experiment

The good news is that James finished the video. The bad news is that I can't stand to watch it. I had no idea that I had so many annoying tics and said "Um" so much. When the camera is on, words float in and out of my head at random. I make no sense. And man, do I ever need a haircut! I should have put mascara on and worn a more flattering top. I need to lose 30 pounds and stand up straight! The neurotic self-talk never ends!

James thinks it's okay - in fact he quite enjoyed making his first video. So I should trust him.

If you're not totally put off by that preamble, Stitching the Codex Canadensis can be found on YouTube.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Textile EMT To The Rescue

But first, a quick update. My dance card is full of projects. My favourite is still the Codex, of course, and the birdies are coming along. I'm almost finished the blue jay, but getting dangerously finicky with the thread. We have also been experimenting with a little video of the process, so I hope to share that with you soon.

I've finished two, count 'em, two quilt tops as a test quilter for Sherri Lynn's book. (There's still time to join in if you are interested.) But I am pledged to secrecy so unfortunately can't show them to you yet. Keeping mum is the hardest part of the process!

I also have a small embroidery piece in development for the annual Valentine's Day erotica show at the local art gallery. It's a hot little number so I am not sure how much I will share of it, but I'm pretty sure my readers aren't that prone to blushing.
Now, on to last weekend's stitching resuscitation. I couldn't resist this charming sampler that was at the local recycling centre shop. It was absurdly under-priced at only six bucks, and beautifully stitched and signed by Erin Lindsey. There was some staining at the top edge, though, so I took it out of the frame with the intent of cleaning and remounting.
I was horrified to discover that the canvas had been glued in place on an obviously NOT archival mounting board.

How to get it off the board without damaging the stitching? First, I soaked a towel with water and laid it on the kitchen counter, and placed the board on top of that. Once the bottom layer of cardboard was saturated, I could peel off the cloth. White glue had been used, which is soluble in water, but the piece probably dates back to the early eighties, so the glue was petrified.
I folded the towel to the size of the stitching, and put it in the bathtub, which was filled with about an inch of water. I placed the cloth on top of that, stitching side up - the towel gave enough height so that the stitching was above the water, while the glue-y edges could soak. I left it overnight, and the next morning was able to scrape most of the glue off. I then scrubbed the edges with a bit of soapy water, and followed up with a sponging of well diluted white vinegar. I finished with a good rinse of the whole piece, being sure to keep the water temperature cool, and not to agitate the stitching at all, since it is wool.
The discolouration looks worse here since you can see the whole edge. Once she's back in the frame it will barely show.
It came out better than it was, although the discolouration is still there. At least I know it shouldn't get any worse. I suspect the acidity of the original mounting board was responsible for most of the problem, but was exacerbated by a layer of  foam padding under the stitching. The foam was very yellowed and crumbling.

I will now mount the stitching on an acid-free mat board, using thread lacing to hold the cloth in place. Mary Corbett has a good tutorial of the whole process.

During the cleaning process I discovered, under a hardened layer of glue, that the piece is Sunset Designs#2615, from 1979. Don't know if that is when Erin Lindsey actually made it, but I see that unopened vintage kits of that pattern are going for over $60 on Ebay. Crazy! It's shocking to think that an unworked kit would be worth ten times more than a well-executed finished piece on the re-sale market, even though I suppose nothing should surprise me anymore...

I'll post some pictures of the piece once she's back in her frame

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Writing an Artist Statement

This afternoon, James was labouring over an artist statement for the book he is working on. He asked me to hear what he had written, and it was, as usual for him, beautifully worded and gracefully reflective. It certainly would have been fine as it was, but something about it niggled at me. It sounded like a perfectly good artist statement, but that was the problem. Most artist statements sound lovely but really don't get to the heart of the matter. When I read what the artist has to say about his/her work, I want to know what motivated them, why they chose to work with the materials they did, how they approached their subject. Sort of the nuts and bolts. Let the curators and critics write the fancy, high falutin' interpretations of the work, that's what they are there for.

I was thinking about this as I stitched away on one of the birds, and I realized that not once in my four years of art school had we been asked to write an artist statement. Even my class in Professional Practices had neglected to cover this very important skill. We would talk about our work in crits, but it's a very different thing to have to write a succinct, intelligent statement that clearly communicates to a viewer why you have done what you have done. This probably accounts for all the vague, pretentious or nonsensical artist statements that I have read over the years.

Yet it is something that every artist is asked to do at some point, whether you are showing your work at a gallery, applying for a grant or residency, or putting together a website. And it's a daunting task. Even though I am pretty comfortable with writing, when I have to devise an artist statement I sit for ages in front of the blank screen, with the cursor blinking mockingly at me. It seems impossible to distill the vast, floating, altered state of being one experiences when in the flow of creating art into a few evocative words. Eventually, I manage to come up with something that I think does what I want it to.

Here's a few tips (at least this is what works for me):

  1. No one will ever complain that you didn't use big words. Keep the language simple and conversational.
  2. Explain your motivation - tell us what was so important to you that it wouldn't leave you alone until you dealt with it, explored it, brought it to life in your work.
  3. Talk about your materials. How does the media you chose express what you needed to say better than anything else?
  4. Dare to be passionate. That's one of the reasons non-artists love us.
  5. What have you learned from this work? What is the truth you have brought back from the wilderness?
  6. Avoid artspeak at all costs. Even if you know what it means, not everyone else does.
Yes, it would be wonderful if the work could speak for itself. And of course it does, on its own terms, but remember that the viewer hasn't been living, breathing, and sharing a very small apartment with the artwork in question as long as you have.  Imagine that you are at a party, introducing a couple of mutual friends who have never before met. Now put your work in the place of one of those friends. Like most polite people, with a couple of sentences, you would want to give your other friend a bit of information about your art, maybe something they might have in common or some shared experience - enough to get them talking on their own. That's what a good artist statement should do.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Supporting the Creative Process

For those of us who may have set some intentions for 2014, I hope that it is not too late in January to share some inspiring advice for keeping our noses to the grindstone and/or our feet on the pedal.

Novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro offers a whole slew of worthy advice in her delightful little book: Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Life, but what really struck me was the list that she says she has had pinned over her desk for the last 20 years, which comes from the poet Jane Kenyon.
Protect your time.
Feed your inner life.
Avoid too much noise.
Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.
Be by yourself as often as you can.
Take the phone off the hook.
Work regular hours.
(Dani says she would add:
Disable the internet.)
Then there are the 11 Steps of artist Robert Genn , whose twice-weekly letter I subscribe to and usually find quite interesting.

Step 1. Art is a perfectly complete cause.
Step 2. You are solely responsible for doing the work required to become better. 
Step 3. You are responsible for understanding your limitations. 
Step 4. You are responsible for radicalizing your strengths. 
Step 5. Make a searching and fearless inventory of your creative curiosity. 
Step 6. Pay no attention to the less courageous. 
Step 7. Learn from the greats, and expose yourself to better work. 
Step 8. Read in order to write, but paint in order to paint. 
Step 9. Be artistic, choose taste, set an example. 
Step 10. "Play" is your route to mastery. 
Step 11. In the art game we do our own cooking. 

And finally, I always return to the wise and funny "10 Rules of Thumb" offered by the brilliant furniture maker, Wendell Castle.

1. If you are in love with an idea, you are no judge of its beauty or value.
2. It is difficult to see the whole picture when you are inside the frame.
3. After learning the tricks of the trade, don't think you know the trade.
4. We see and apprehend what we already know.
5. The dog that stays on the porch will find no bones.
6. Never state a problem to yourself in the terms it was brought to you.
7. If it's offbeat or surprising then it's probably useful.
8. If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.
9. Don't get too serious.
10. (And my personal favourite...) If you hit the bull's eye every time, then the target is probably too near.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Man (With Missing Fingers, No Less) Carves Replica of the Bayeux Tapestry

Mary Corbett linked to this jaw-dropping story on her site Needle'n'Thread. I, too, just have to share the amazing tale of a hand carved wooden version of the Bayeux Tapestry. Yes, you got that right. An iconic piece of needlework has been translated into wood. This thrills me no end.

Monday, January 13, 2014


On Friday, I received the most wonderful present in the mail from the very talented artist and fellow stitcher Arlee Barr. This little guy is made from her gorgeous eco-dyed fabric, and embellished with embroidery in thread that also looks hand dyed.
At first glance I thought he was a deer, because of the antlers, but he has a broad bullish chest and stance. 
And a kicky back leg. He looks both very earthy and at the same time otherworldly.
He's just a fabulous l'il critter. I've assigned him to supervision duties at the embroidery frame - so far he's been the perfect muse!
The red-winged blackbird is coming along. I found a deep madder-red silk thread for the heart, but I have vowed to finish the other birds before I complete the heart. There's nothing like the promise of colour at the end of the tunnel to keep me going.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Learning to Love Basting

A senior's walking group hired me to install zippers into their new club jackets. A bit of a crappy job, especially since I underquoted them far too generously. Still, I think it was worthwhile, as it brought me and basting closer together.

These were kangaroo type hoodies, with a big patch pocket on the front. All I had to do, I thought, was cut them up the front and sew a zipper in. Foolish me.

First off, even though all the jackets were the same size, each of them was a different length. Only one was exactly 26" long. Also, only one (not the same one) was on grain. Complicating matters was that the hood had been sewn in with a bit of an overlap so I couldn't tell exactly where the centre was. Through careful measuring and marking I was able to slash the front quite neatly, but I did have to undo about 2" of the neck seam to do it.

I then zig-zagged the cut edges, folded them in and pinned in the zipper halves. Normally I would consider this enough and just have at 'er with the zipper foot, but considering the bulk of the fabric over the pockets and that I was working with a scant 3/8" seam allowance I took the time to hand baste the zipper.

It sure made sewing the zipper a breeze. Removing the basting thread the first couple of times was another matter, since I had basted too close to the stitching line. I did better with the rest of the jackets.

But then, re-sewing the neck seam was an unforeseen challenge. It originally had been serged and then cover stitched, so there was a lot of fussiness to get things to match after I tucked in the excess fabric from the neck edge of the hood. Basting saved unpicking of stitches, and probably a lot of swearing on my part.

The finished job is not beautiful, but it works.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Memory Like a Sieve

Thanks for your comments and suggestions about the embroidery workshop. It would seem I need all the help I can get.

A funny story - I went to follow up Sue's recommendation for books: Constance Howard's Book of Stitches and Jacqueline Enthoven's The Stitches of Creative Embroidery. First I checked the public library: they had neither of them. Then I went into Nanaimo and my favourite store, The Stitcher's Muse*. I couldn't remember Constance's last name, it completely eluded me even though I knew her work, which gives you an idea of the level of brain fog I'm experiencing. Luckily her book was facing outwards on the shelf. I leapt upon it, saying "Here it is!"

I'm sure the shopkeeper thought I was a bit nutty, but it was a slow Monday so she went on an online search for the Enthoven book - none of her suppliers carried it so she suggested I might find it used. When I got home I checked Abebooks, and indeed they had a copy at the used bookstore in the town my mother lives, so I emailed her asking if she might look for it next time she was downtown. Mission accomplished, I thought smugly!

But there was a nagging thought. The cover of The Stitches of Creative Embroidery looked strangely familiar in the small picture on the website. Had I read it before? Perhaps checked it out from a different library? Maybe, just maybe I already had a copy. I searched my bookshelves, which are considerably less full after I donated a huge schwack of books to the Saltspring library. My God, maybe I had given the book away without realizing it!

But no. There it was, on the bottom shelf, in with all my Japanese craft magazines. It still had a sticker for $2 on it. I must have picked it up at a thrift store somewhere, read it, and completely forgotten about it. I very sheepishly phoned my mom and told her to ignore my email.

Both books are very 1970's, and quite astonishing in the range and depth of stitch-y exploration. I think that era may have been the last great hurrah for embroidery. Today's revival typically uses a much smaller stitch palette, and deals more with ideas and references than boundary pushing pattern and texture. I think the Howard book could be republished, with colour plates and more images of her own work - it would be a blockbuster!

*The Stitcher's Muse will have a new website in a month or so, with all their 15,000 products available. Their range of threads, tools and kits is really fantastic, so bookmark their page for your future online shopping pleasure. In-store shopping is a real treat, too. Plus, they had the Book of Stitches new for much  less than Amazon, and their customer service is tremendous.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Planning an Embroidery Workshop

I have been asked to present an embroidery workshop for this coming spring's "Isle of the Arts Festival." For two weeks in April, various short workshops in all kinds of disciplines are offered to the general public. Some are free and the rest are low cost, so it's a great way to try one's hand at ceramics, painting, garden design, bookbinding, poetry, what-have-you. And Gabriola apparently has more artists, writers, musicians, actors and dancers per capita than anywhere else in Canada, so the talent pool is quite deep.

I struggled to come up with a three sentence description of what I would offer. I have done workshops before, and usually run into a fairly large gap between what I think we can cover and what actually happens. And I only have three hours - really, if a complete non-stitcher came in and left with running stitch mastered I would consider it a success. Anyway, here's my blurb:
Learn basic embroidery stitches and make them your own.  Using an intuitive approach, we will create personal samplers that can be used as reference and inspiration. We will also look how various threads and yarns can be used to embellish and enhance your work.
I'm hoping to avoid the "shoulds" and "musts" of traditional embroidery and approach it more as "mark-making". If a person is so inspired after the workshop there are lots of paths to follow, from Royal School of Needlework perfection to Mr.X Stitch pop culture. I just want to turn people on to the pleasure of stitching.

I am thinking of a band sampler format, with a feast of threads, yarns and sparkly bits and bobs set out for the participants to try. A long, narrow, band sampler of linen cloth, that can be rolled up and added to as one goes. I'll include a handout of "How-to" stitch instructions.

What do you think? Any favourite references for stitches? Any pitfalls that I should watch out for? What is YOUR favourite stitch and why? Any memories of learning to do embroidery or plain sewing? I'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, January 04, 2014

A Fine Line

Looking back over the last month's worth of posts I see very little about actual stitching. Have I lost track of my mission statement? Well, to me, not really, because I see the world in stitching metaphors if not literal needle and thread, but I do think I need to get back on topic.
It's just a start, but I am already loving the feel of the needle pricking through the cloth and the expressiveness of the thread. In addition to the Paternayan wool, I am trying out DMC #8 perle cotton. It gives such a clean line it feels like cheating - I prefer the wool because of its more unruly nature. It is a bit harder to control, and I realize that I like being on that edge. Maybe it brings me closer to the wild nature of the animals I am depicting, or to be more exact it brings me closer to the hand of Louis Nicolas as he was depicting the wilds of New France.

In any case, it's a bit too soon to tell if the cotton is too neat and tidy for the piece, and most of you are probably saying to yourselves, "What the heck is she going on about?" It's a subtle thing, I know, and I have no perspective! I might even be a tad obsessed. The only thing that will cure it is more stitching.