Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Nothing to be Alarmed About, But...

I am officially as old as dirt. I got the black flag* yesterday at 1:25 p.m., while meeting the doctor who was filling in for my regular doctor. He was young, but then they all seem young now. His last name was common in the small town in which I grew up, so I commented on that. He said that is where his family is from. Banal chit chat, right?

But suddenly, out of left field, I realised this kid was probably the grandson of people I had gone to school with. No, wait - given the early age at which they married in that community, he could even be, is it possible, a great-grandson?

I'm 56. I'm out of the race. The body work is loose, and the bumper is definitely dragging.*
Thank God! Now maybe I can get some work done!

*Wikipedia says: The solid black flag is used to summon a driver to the pits. It is usually associated with a penalty imposed on the driver for disobeying the rules, but may also be used when a car is suffering a mechanical failure, leaking fluid, exhibiting damage such as loose bodywork, loose hood, dragging bumper, or any other damage that could potentially become a hazard to the driver or other competitors.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Image, From A to B and Back Again

One of the themes inherent in my work with the Codex Canadensis is the questioning of the veracity of the image and the mutability of truth. Louis Nicolas's drawings are his best effort at presenting the flora and fauna of the New World. But to the jaded eye of a person in the 21st century, they are laughable in their inaccuracy. We have the benefit of cameras, and rigourous scientific methods, and the conclusions of experts to aid us in knowing what a buffalo is, for instance. But Louis had never seen a buffalo, only heard verbal descriptions of one, and did the best drawing he could based on his only visual source - the books of engravings by Gesner and his contemporaries.

Detail of Plate 35. Source: Gilcrease Museum via Library and Archives Canada
The timeline goes something like this and begins in prehistory:

A. First, there is an actual creature, living in its natural environment.
B. Human eyes are laid upon the creature. Perhaps the direct sensory impression enters memory, and the human attempts to share the remembered image with others, as in a cave painting.
C. More likely, the creature is found dead, or hunted and killed by predators or humans. Its lifeless form may be simulated in clay, or pigment on rock walls, and as as graphic technology develops, drawn with ink on paper, or painted on canvas. These images are available to a few.
D. With the development of printing, ie. etching or engraving or wood blocks, multiple copies of images can be made. These images are primarily available to the rich, religious or scholarly. The general public still relies on first hand experience, or the stories of people with first hand experience to know what a buffalo is, for example. It is difficult to confirm accuracy.
E. Taxidermied animals, zoos and menageries are marvels of exotica. If a person is lucky enough, they may get to witness such a rarity.

This brings us to the time frame in which Louis Nicolas found himself. Caught up in the spirit of the age of discovery, he did his best to catalogue the creatures of the New World through vivid verbal description in the Histoire Naturelle and with pen and ink in the Codex. He drew from books, as confirmed by Francois-Marc Gagnon. If there was no image in the books that matched some of the new creatures encountered, he would simply copy the closest thing to it. That is why what looks like an ox is labelled a buffalo, and Louis declares, "This is exactly how it appears!" (I'm leaving out any discussion of Louis's idiosyncratic drawing skills).

Now, 350 years have passed. I have the benefit of all the amazing technologies developed in the meantime to assist me in knowing what a buffalo is. I have actually seen Plains buffalo in the wild, while on a camping trip, and been able to photograph them. I have been close enough to smell them and experience their enormous physical presence. To want to stitch their image on cloth is kind of bizarre. What can I hope to offer the viewer that will add to their knowledge of what a buffalo is?

My answer to that question shifts, depending on which shadowy and subterranean path my brain has followed into the maze. Sometimes I think my work is about the medium, how translating a pen and ink drawing into wool stitches on linen changes what an image means. Sometimes I think it's about process, or communication, or trying to understand another person from the evidence they leave behind. Other times it's about the impossibility of knowing truth. The usual big, unanswerable art questions.

Today, I am thinking about all the steps between the original drawings, in that actual document that resides in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the stitched cloth that hangs on my wall. To continue the timeline from the original living and breathing creature I'll pick up at "F".

F. Louis Nicolas creates the Codex Canadensis sometime around 1675.
G. The document is photographed or digitally scanned to produce the images found in the 2012 edition of the McGill-Queens University Press publication.
H. I enlarge images from the book on a drugstore/library/copy shop photocopier. Depending on the quality and service record of the photocopier, distortion may be introduced at this step.
I. I arrange the photocopies to create a new composition. Sometimes I will edit the image by drawing in missing parts of ears or tails, but I endeavour to be as faithful to the original as possible. More distortion is inevitable.
J. I trace the composition onto the cloth, using graphite transfer paper. Again, I try to be as accurate as possible, but the fallibility of the human hand will enter in.
K. I stitch the traced line, trying to convey the energy, texture and spirit of Louis's original drawing as well as is possible in such a foreign medium as wool thread. I refer back to the drawing as I stitch.

I view the work as a co-creation, primarily between Louis Nicolas and myself, but also to some degree involving the technology of photo-mechanical reproduction (camera lenses, photocopiers, digital reproduction, printing and engraving). And it all started with that long-ago critter in the woods.

I'm tracing the image onto cloth today. Then the stitching will begin!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Another Mystery Cloth

I picked up this large-ish cloth at an estate sale. The technique is shibori, but at first I thought it was Korean because of the (rather odd) yin-yang symbol at the centre. Then I realised there were eight trigrams surrounding the centre, instead of the four on the Korean flag, so I researched a little further and figured out it is a bagua, a symbol used in Taoist cosmology, so probably Chinese. I have some similar pieces of shibori that are of Chinese origin, and the work is very fine, although I suspect that it is produced for commercial purposes. My cynicism makes even me wince, so if someone has more information, please, I welcome it.
The motif at each corner seems very much like a fertility or goddess symbol, as far as I can gather from Sheila Paine, who taught me much of what I know.
I love this stitch, although I can't quite figure out how it is done. Cross stitch on a fold? Double overcast in opposite directions on a fold? Amazing, however it is done.

I found the estate sale deeply affecting. An artist, a single woman with only one surviving relative died, leaving the most fabulous collection of art supplies, cloth, photographs, paintings, hats, books upon books upon books.... She had expensive, and exquisite, taste. Looking at what her executor was trying to dispose of felt like being a witness to the evidence of a wonderful life. I never knew her, but some who were at the sale did, and they commented on her passion for beauty, and fashion, and art.

I couldn't help but thinking "This is what might happen to me". I will go, and the things that meant so much to me will be sold at 10 cents on the dollar. Or not at all. I voiced this thought to another woman who was there, and she said, "Me too, me too." What is the value of our stuff, or maybe the question is "Where does the value come into it?" I've always thought my stash held my dreams, my ideas, my ambition, my possibilities. The stuff, without us, is just stuff.

But somehow, we gleaners who were picking over the earthly remains of a person's creative life, recognized the life force the objects still contained. I'm sure I was not the only one who felt that it was a duty, an honour to take these materials and carry them forward. I came away from the sale with far more things than I needed, or know what I will do with. I trust that inspiration will arise, but at the same time am aware that this stuff may bind me, weigh on me. The energy that drew me to it is mutable, can change, can be a yoke or a burden.

This may well be the flakiest thing I have ever said in public, but I believe that our job as artists is to be conduits for the great mystery, what I call the divine. I'm not talking any particular philosophy or faith here. Somehow this post, intended to be simply about a piece of cloth has led me to think about what might be beyond a simple piece of cloth. I will never know the circumstances in which this cloth was created, and bought, or what it might have meant to the owner. But it called to me.

Maybe I'm not so cynical after all.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Carpet Slippers

Are carpet slippers for wearing whilst walking on carpets, or are they made out of carpets? Maybe they could be both!
This is my first attempt at hooked carpet slippers. Trickier than I thought they would be, due to the thickness of the pile. After wasting hours searching for the Japanese slipper pattern book I know is in a box somewhere, I just drew up my own pattern, using thick blanket material to "drape" the upper. Even though the pattern looked enormous, the slipper ended up just fitting due to the draw up of the hooked loops.
I lifted a motif and colour scheme from a book on middle eastern textiles.
But they feel super cosy. Or should I say "It feels super cosy." The second slipper is still to come. I hope what I learned from the first speeds things up a bit. Let's hope they match.

Monday, July 13, 2015

August Linen

It's not August yet, but when I went into the bedroom the other evening, the sultry amber light reminded me of late summer. I took a series of photographs without moving anything - this is the jumble of my life. I was thinking of skin, and stone, form and time.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Not To Worry

It's been a bear of a week - forest fires, heat wave, my Mom came to visit, my landlord came to visit, the water ran out, the dogs have been licking incessantly and developing hot spots, I lost my wallet (and found it again, thank you lovely people in Parksville), I haven't been able to do any work except harvest garlic, blah, blah, etc. etc.
But I'm still here, and hoping for a new week with calm time to stitch. And I have nothing to complain about, really. Prayers for the rest of the world.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015


Dip, Dip and Swing (2015) embroidery on birch bark, mixed media
Today is Canada Day, a national holiday in which we celebrate 148 years since Confederation. Above is the piece I have going in to the Canadiana show at the Gabriola Gallery. The canoe, one of Louis Nicolas's, is stitched with #8 perle cotton on birch bark. (The window is 3 1/2 by 5 inches.) The quote above is by Samuel de Champlain, commenting on how great the canoes of the "sauvages" are.
The canoe is, depending on who you are talking to, one of the great symbols of Canada, right up there with the beaver. For this day, Google has a lovely little vignette of what looks to be a multi-racial couple canoeing in the wilderness. That's supposedly what we pride ourselves on - our tolerance, our land's beauty, our connection to nature. These days much has changed - the government just passed legislation that will allow the citizenship of anyone who was born in another country to be revoked at the whim of a judge, we continue to allow the rampant exploitation of our natural resources, eco-friendly tourism such as canoe and kayak trips is being discouraged in favour of allowing oil tankers through our waters. And the Alberta Tar Sands are our national shame.

Am I being a big grump on a day I am supposed to celebrate? Maybe. But award-winning writer Joseph Boyden's article about our Truth and Reconciliation hearings is still burning in my mind. I hope you take the time to read it, especially if you are from a country other than Canada. We are more than simple, happy people out for a romantic trip in a canoe - our history has the complexity of great drama and tragedy and good and evil. I hope we can move forward in a way that honours all our people and the great mother Earth.