Thursday, February 27, 2014

Amazing Nature

Gracie and I were out helping my friend Ranza look for her missing dog, when we were distracted by a group of black shapes in the water. Ranza snapped this picture on her phone - you can see the shapes just beyond the seagulls. We were informed by a helpful passerby that this unusual sight was a cluster of seals ( or sea lions, see comments below), floating on their backs with their heads extended out of the water and their flippers in the air, in a behaviour called rafting. Apparently they do it to regulate their body temperature. At this time of year the males are hanging out waiting for the females to arrive and mating season to begin. The spring herring spawn apparently has also just begun, so there will be lots of action out in the bay.

P.S. Ranza's dog was found at home, safe and sound.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Snow Daze

We've just come out on the other side of a huge snowfall and a two-day power outage. I know that for the rest of North American, that pales in comparison to the awful winter that many have experienced, but we are spoiled on the West Coast, and this kind of weather is a shock to the system.

One good thing about it all was my discovery of where all the hours in a day go. You know, those hours that I am always complaining about not having? Yes, sadly, it's no surprise: the damn internet. Without my endless procrastinating (aka "research") I found I had plenty of time to pick up and almost finish the above embroidery, which had been languishing in the work basket since last August. (I first wrote about it here.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Exercising My Brain

I'm off down another rabbit hole of reading and research, this time, ironically enough, to do with NOT knowing. Or more precisely, being comfortable with the feeling of not knowing, of uncertainty.

Cy Twombly, Panorama, 1957
I'm a big fan of the very smart Alain de Botton. His latest book, Art as Therapy, is exactly up my alley, and I'm sorry to have to return it to the library tomorrow. He begins with his Seven Functions of Art, which are: Remembering, Hope, Sorrow, Rebalancing, Self-Understanding, Growth and Appreciation. He writes wonderfully about each aspect, but I was particularly struck by a passage about a painting of Cy Twombly's.
Contemplating Cy Twombly's dark, scratchy, suggestive surface is rather like looking in a mirror in which you notice an aspect of your appearance that you had not paid much attention to before, except that what's at stake here is not a row of molars, but your inner experience. There are moods or states of mind (or soul) that are perplexingly elusive. One often has them, but can't isolate or examine them. ... 
de Botton goes on to describe the painting in more detail. Then he says:
We are held in the moment of being on the cusp of something. We are about to understand, but have not yet understood. This moment is important because it generally does not live up to its promise. We abandon the process of reflection. Not much of a decision about the personal meaning of love, justice or success is achieved, and we move on to something else. Looking at Twombly's painting assists us in a crucial thought: 'The part of me that wonders about important questions has not had enough recognition. I have not taken proper care of it. But now I see this part of myself reflected in the mirror of art, now I can make more of it.'
Oh, I love this! He put his finger on something central to my own art-making process, one that I often feel I have to apologize for.  Just hearing someone else describe that feeling of being in the place between understanding and not understanding is liberating for me.

Being comfortable with uncertainty is a theme of another book on my bedside table (I hear James laughing as he reads this - the book is actually in a stack on the floor beside the bed, there being no room on the bedside table.) The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman, is subtitled Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, which sounds rather grumpy, but it is delightfully witty and sensible. He considers Stoicism, Buddhism, and acceptance of failure and insecurity as approaches to a more complex, satisfying and possibly happier life than the ones typically offered by self-help gurus. I particularly like his discussion of negative capability, wherein he quotes Aldous Huxley:
Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, of combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent Unknown Quantity may take hold.
Yes, being in that place of uncertainty, of knowing and not knowing, being open - that is where art happens.

And finally, as part of my occasional research into matters psychological - I'm still trying to figure out what made Louis Nicolas tick - I came across a  brilliant talk by psychologist Joe Griffin, whose Irish accent I could listen to all day long, about his concept of caetextia, or concept blindness, as a more accurate description of autism. His talk is an hour long, and covers all kinds of amazing things like how our brains developed to allow dreaming, how to educate children to be better people and save the planet, and even why knitting permits greater concentration (you will have to watch right to the end to find that out!)
Click here to go to his site and watch the video: The REM State, Caetextia, and the Development of Self-Concept.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Strange and Singular, 2014. Hand embroidery, wool, cashmere, cotton and silk on canvas, 18"x26"
I think I am going to title it Strange and Singular after a quote from Michel Foucault, although it should probably be in French. (The quote is from The Masked Philosopher.
Curiosity is a new vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity, futility. The word, however, pleases me. To me it suggests something altogether different: it evokes "concern"; it evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.
My partner James has a new venture that I strongly (and without bias!) encourage you to check out. His new book Dreams and Realities is available as the first offering from Blue Iris Editions, his publishing company, which will offer ebooks and limited edition folios. He is also looking for submissions, so if you have a project you think will be suitable, please do get in touch with him.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Couldn't Wait

As yet untitled, 2014, Hand embroidery, wool, cotton, silk and cashmere on canvas, 18"(w)x26"(h)
 Unstretched and with a weird shadow on the right side, but done! I'll update with a proper photo ASAP.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Erotica Opening

My friend Ranza took this picture of me at the opening - terrible lighting but that's not her fault! The gallery, in my opinion, overlit and hung the work too low. But it is out of my hands...
She also liked my shoes. Fluevogs are made for openings. There are not too many occasions where I get to wear fancy shoes - gumboots are far more de rigueur!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The More I Know, the More I Know I Don't Know

Scene from the Kama Sutra, 2014. Hand embroidery on cotton, silk, 15 1/2x12"
I'm on my second glass of wine. Yes, I know it is not wise to drink and blog, but I've just come off a four day stitching marathon, and I'm throwing caution to the wind.

"What prompts this excess?" you might ask. Let me back up a bit. Every year, around Valentine's Day, the local art gallery hosts an open call Erotica Show. Now, I have had an idea kicking around in the back of mind my mind for a few years now, that it would be fun to do a stumpwork (raised embroidery) version of a scene from the Kama Sutra. Since Adam and Eve figured prominently in stumpwork pieces, it's not much of a leap to picture a somewhat racier entwined couple in the same technique. So, voila! Erotica Show= Perfect Opportunity to Realize My Idea.

Okay. I've never done stumpwork before, but I have read quite a lot about it and it makes sense, just a lot of detached buttonhole stitch and thinking in three dimensions. I found an image from the Kama Sutra that I thought would work - it was a miniature, so had the added advantage of being small. (Famous last words!) How long could this take? I figured 10-15 hours, easy.
The original image. I figure it was about 5x3" originally, so details are fairly minimal.
Two weekends ago I prepared my materials. I wanted to go with sumptuous all the way, so selected some silk taffeta for the background. There was a lot of gold thread in my stash, so, great, throw it into the mix. Never mind that I have never done goldwork - I've read up on it, same difference.

Hah. The stitching goddesses have a finely honed sense of humour. Needless to say, I persevered all weekend and only produced snarls of thread and much unladylike commentary. Oh well, it's only the beginning of February, I should go back to the Codex birds, which are THIS close to being done.

I don't know what happened to last week, but on Friday there was an email reminder that the pieces for the Erotica Show were due Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. Gahhh! Okay, Plan B. Enlarge the image 200% for less arthritis-inducing finicky-ness. Maybe don't strive to reproduce the image exactly. Use more amenable materials. Oh, relax and have fun. This isn't meant to be serious.

Four days and twenty-six hours of stitching later, I am humbled. I bow down to those who have gone before me. Subject matter aside, this was no walk in the park. Let me summarize my lessons:

- if you have not planned out your piece, anticipate about double the time for testing threads, decision-making and UN-stitching.
- if your husband has a job interview the morning of the deadline, schedule a certain amount of time to help remove dog hair from his dress pants. Try not to curse while doing it.
- avoid putting in a twelve-hour day. Any progress will be negated by back and shoulder spasms that require heavy-duty medication, meaning one sleeps later the next day and wakes cursing feverishly.
- remember that any positive, soothing effects that stitching brings will be counteracted by the stress of working to a deadline. Things that normally happen, like the loop of thread getting caught on one's thumb and pulling out of the needle, will become major catastrophes, with subsequent cursing.
- before yelling frantically to your husband that you can't find your purse as you prepare to step out the door, look down. It may be in your hand.

Finally, an hour before the piece was due, and I was still putting on the binding, I cajoled James into phoning the gallery and telling the curator I would be a half hour late. Sweet man that he is, he not only did that but cut and sanded a hanging dowel for me while I put in the last stitches. He wouldn't hear of me driving myself to the gallery (probably very wise given my frenzied state of mind) and I presented my work with fifteen minutes to spare. The clerk took my pertinent data. Whhhewww!! Done!

Suddenly time opened up, expanding leisurely and with great generousity. We asked if there had been many submissions. The clerk said, "Well, most people drop them off tomorrow."

"What!!!! Tomorrow?"
Sigh. I forgot about island time.

Hence the wine. I think I will have a third glass.

P.S. The piece is for sale through Gabriola Artworks , 250-247-7412. The price is $320.

Friday, February 07, 2014

A Concordance

I received my first piece of evangelical Christian spam in my inbox today, and wondered if it had any connection to yesterday's post which does include a Biblical reference. It made me think that there may some question in people's minds as to my personal position as to religion and spirituality. Goodness knows this is tricky territory to map out on a blog, but perhaps a little background information might be useful.

First of all, I have to say that I think religious freedom is fundamental, and very personal. Everyone comes to their own place. Which means that if I am to state where I am on the spiritual spectrum, it will be relative to your own position. Which may make me a damned heathen, a wishy-washy agnostic, a New Age flake, or a secular humanist, depending. But I do believe that growing up and living in a culture that is founded on Judeo-Christian principles has a huge influence, and that shows up in my work surprisingly often. 

Back in 1997 I did a sculptural installation titled Paragons, pictured above. I had just started bringing textiles back into my work, after several years of playing with light in 2 and 3 dimensions. Embroidered samplers were an inspiring form. Paragons came about after a joking conversation with a friend: "What if women had underwear to go with the seven deadly sins, just like we used to have panties for each day of the week?" This idea appealed to me so much that I had to make it "for real".

I built the wooden tiers and crafted each pair of panties to represent a sin. Above is Gluttony, with a commodious waistband and a dinner napkin attached. Greed is to the lower right, which was gessoed and covered with gold leaf. It was a fun piece to do, and I unearthed an article which was written about it which you can read here if you are interested (beware, there is artspeak.) In the same show I also did a series called Exemplary Men, illustrating the four cardinal virtues.
I made the frames based on a Russian Doukhobor icon I found in an antique store. The men were cardboard cutout teaching aids, presumably intended to show children who the good, responsible men were in the community.

So, in these works I was referencing Christian concepts in an irreverent, ironic way. I intended no disrespect, and I think the work was primarily seen as gentle and humorous. A later series of paintings also referenced the prescriptive nature of Christian teachings.
These eight painting were much enlarged, meticulous replicas of pages from a distant relative's schoolgirl penmanship exercises. Hmmn, seem familiar? I think my work has developed quite organically, with certain approaches and concepts recurring. (In other words, there is a method to my madness!)

So maybe it's not so surprising that I find myself now immersed in the work of a Jesuit missionary. I am trying to understand what he was all about, based on the scant evidence he left behind. I am trying to speak his language, in a way. When I embroider a quote from the Bible, it is intended to be a clue to the meaning of the work, not a representation of my own belief.

Yet, I also couldn't just use something that was completely foreign to me. That quote from the Psalms is something that I have added deliberately, and it does represent a choice I have made, after lots of research and sifting through various options. I like the sentiment: "Man shall come to a deep heart, and God shall be exalted." I chose that particular translation from several different versions. To me it means that the inner life is important, and when one yields to a contemplative, open way of being, and listens to their heart, they will connect to the essence of the universe, a higher power, God, or what you will.

Please forgive the crappy images. Someday I will have my slides properly scanned and set up a little online gallery of my work. But in the meantime, there's stitching to do!

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Sacred Heart

I'm just doing the "framing" quotation for the bird piece. If you watched the last little video, you will already know that it is from Psalms 63:7-8. "Man shall come to a deep heart, and God shall be exalted." This verse apparently had special meaning for the Jesuits, as taking God into one's heart is fundamental to their spiritual life and their missionary work. I was going to use the Latin version of the text, but felt the English translation was more visually interesting.

I used an Edwardian script font in my design. It has a very thick and thin line, and is slanted, so it is a bit tricky to stitch. But the little imperfections will make it fit in with the general wonkiness of Louis Nicolas's birds.

Robert le Longe painted this image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at about the same time as Pere Nicolas was drawing the Codex. A small plaque in the lower right corner references the same quote.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Diary of an Indifferent Housekeeper

The wonderful artist Sylvia Oates sent the above image to me. Apparently she saw it on Facebook, so maybe it won't be new to you, but since I'm not on the aforementioned social media site and am hopelessly out of the loop, it made me laugh. A lot.
And here is the lady of the house in action. No wonder she's able to master the art of machine embroidery - her mind is at ease knowing that the dishes are done and the beds are made. The little bag of French chalk is nowhere to be seen, but my, that's a handy tip!

It's all clear to me now. My indifference to making sure the house is clean before I start sewing is only part of the problem! Neglecting the lipstick and powder, not mention making sure the seams of my stockings are straight before I sit down to the machine, is surely the reason I spend half the time cursing and the other half looking for my scissors. It's a miracle I manage to get anything accomplished at all.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Good Grief, Another Video

There has been a development.

James has taken to video like a fish to water. Who would have guessed? He's only been taking still photographs for forty years or so. Using just a small digital camera with a video function and IMovie, he's becoming an auteur. Well, maybe I exaggerate. But he's sure enjoying himself.

Here's his second effort.

There are some breathtaking scenes of stitching, and fewer "Ums". I'm quite pleased, although I have already abandoned the idea of using Latin for my framing quotation. (Watch the video for that last sentence to make sense.)