Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Politically Incorrect Petit Point

Today I bought a pair of beautifully stitched, matted and framed petit points, identical to the pattern above. I bought them because every time I passed them on the wall of the thrift store, I cringed. I bought them to get them out of circulation, not because I have a secret collection of cringe-worthy needlepoint stashed away in the vault.

What do such images mean in today's world? Just yesterday, Canada's Miss Universe contestant was raked over the coals for wearing a dress reminiscent of a totem pole. The Truth and Reconciliation report was recently tabled, prompting hopeful talk for the beginning of a new phase in the relationship between First Nations and non-indigenous Canadians. In conjunction, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has unveiled a powerful installation by artist Carey Newman. (And, thank you Jean-Pierre for suggesting this, Kent Monkman certainly says it all better than I ever could.)

The above petit points are stereotypes at best, reprehensibly racist at worst. How can one make sense of them? After all, they exemplify one of the things I am always going on about, the skillful labour of the human hand. What baffles me is how someone could work so long and carefully with such imagery. The patterns date from the 1980's, not that long ago, and certainly a time when they would have been considered kitsch, if not recognised as politically suspect.

It is possible, I suppose, but highly unlikely, that they were stitched by a First Nations person. Petit point is a technique of white Europeans, a showpiece to beautify the home and a sign of refined cultural sensibilities. Maybe the lady who stitched it had a fondness for indigenous people and sought to honour them with her time and stitching talents, but I find that hard to swallow. Even if her intentions were well-meaning, how could she reconcile the cartoonish imagery with the real people she knew? Most likely she just didn't think it through. It's not like embroidery was considered a moral or intellectual undertaking at that time.

I also have a pair of petit point images of a little Dutch girl and boy, and a matched set of 18th C. French aristocrats, all gleaned from thrift stores. It's a trope of popular needlework patterns, the male and female figures, probably going back to Adam and Eve. They are easy to make fun of, and lend themselves readily to subversive intervention. But the Dutch and French figures aren't as weighed down with such political baggage.

What the heck am I going to do with my new acquisitions? My urge is to deconstruct them somehow, to respond to and transform their meaning. But, as a white person, do I have the right to say anything at all? Maybe they require a ritual burning, or would that be censorship, an unwillingness to acknowledge the ugliness that lurks beneath the surface of even the most innocuous seeming objects? Right now, I'm struggling with their very existence. Does that seem all too academic and PC to you?

It's hardly a subject for the holiday season, I suppose. Or maybe it's an apt one for a time when we're all talking about peace, goodwill to all, and new beginnings.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Word for the New Year

At our "Monday Matters" rug hooking get together yesterday, we celebrated the winter solstice and shared our "words" for the new year. This practise seems to be fairly popular these days, and I can see how choosing an apt word sets an intention, or a direction and can lead to a fruitful outcome. I usually throw myself to the Fates, and my life probably reflects that!

About mid-way through 2015 I realized that a word had chosen me, and that word was path. It's a pretty obvious word - after all, everyone is on a path, right? ( I wrote about it here.) My revelation was that there are always paths in front of us, and they are created by others who have gone before. (Just as great minds might create paths of philosophy or art, deer in the forest create paths down the hill to the water.) It was a comforting thing to realize.

The other day, while transferring the Louis Nicolas map of the Mississippi to linen, I noticed there were two dotted lines connecting rivers over some distance of land. These were labelled chemin du retour and chemin de l'allee, which translates as "return path" and "outward path". (Thank you Blandina for correcting me!) More paths! I take it as a sign I'm on the right one.
I've been spending a lot of time with this map, wanting to understand it, not simply transcribe it. Interestingly, it appears to be a fairly close copy of the map drawn by Louis Jolliet on his 1673 trip down the Mississippi to find its mouth. Accompanied by Jesuit  Jacques Marquette, they made it as far as the Arkansas River before encountering indigenous people with muskets, indicating there had been contact with the Spanish, who the French wanted to avoid. The expedition turned back at that point, and Jolliet made it all the way home to Quebec where he could present his map (with great fanfare) to the Jesuit administration. And guess who else was likely in Quebec at that time? Our dear Louis Nicolas, who must have been very excited about this epic journey.
And so, he drew a version of the map, in his own inimitable style. The mouth of the rattlesnake and the many toothed fish parallel the mouth of the Mississippi. (Coincidence? I don't think so. Undertaking a journey into previously unmapped territory might have felt terrifying.)
Which is kind of a roundabout way of telling you what my word is for 2016. Chemin. French for path. I think it's apropos, as Canada is a bilingual country. I may be a dunderheaded anglophone, and a westerner to boot, but somehow I am being beckoned a la Francais. Who knows where it will all lead?

PS: The first order of business is to figure out how to get the French keyboard to work. It bugs me that I don't know how to put accents in the proper places. Is that nerdy or what?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ode to a Lost Art

Q: What's that weird thing on the left?
A: A Letraset burnisher! Remember Letraset?
 I finally got the vintage drafting table I bought last summer cleared off and sat down to do some cutting and splicing of the artwork for my next Codex Canadensis piece. The feeling of being at the board was so familiar and comfortable, it was amazing to realize that the last time I worked as a graphic artist was back in 1988. The olden days, I call them, before the whole industry went digital. For a fairly accurate and amusing account of what that work entailed, check out this link to Design Before Computers Ruled the Universe. I didn't exactly foresee that my trade would soon be obsolete, but the clues were there, and I chose to return to school to study "real art". (Yes, a brilliant career move, I know! I've never earned more than I did at that last graphic design job.)

If I had stayed in graphic art, I would have been working on a computer in short order. I would have hated it. One of the things that I loved about doing paste up the old fashioned way was the skill involved. I had mastered my tools, and although the content of what I was assembling was often of dubious value (I was putting together ads and flyers for a large department store chain), I was confident in my skills and the controlled physicality of the work was very pleasing to me.

And that feeling came right back the other night as I wielded my X-Acto knife and straight edge, cutting and splicing a patchwork of photocopies together. My eyes, wrist and knife worked in unison. I could feel by the way the knife sliced through the paper if the blade was getting the tiniest bit dull. I realized it's all about tactile sensation. I remembered how I could tell by the delicate pull of the ink if my Rapidograph had a clog or was running low, and how I could lay down Letratape with just the right amount of tension so it would sit on the board perfectly straight, without stretching.

There is no demand for such skill these days. Even though there has been a revival of letterpress and other antiquated processes of the printing trade, I can't imagine anyone continuing to do paste up the old fashioned way. The camera-ready artwork I prepared was called a "mechanical", and in retrospect I can see that I was part of a machine. The same end result can now be achieved by a silicon chip.

And, really, it was not often creative work. That would mostly be done by the art director or designer. Some of my freelance jobs allowed me to come up with concepts and layouts for which I would also order the type and do the paste up. But the people I worked with were usually smart, funny and interesting, the pace was fast, and it was satisfying to hold the finished product in my hands.

Although the trade may be obsolete, the skills have not been entirely lost. I notice a similar sensation of hand and tool moving as one when embroidering a piece of cloth - I can feel the intersection of warp and weft with the tip of my needle and dive the thread through the opening in one smooth gesture. When cutting cloth, I can feel if my shears are running true along the grainline. It is a kind of communion with the material that requires patience, attention and practice to become second nature.
Above is Louis Nicolas's map of the Mississippi that I am re-creating for an Arts Council fundraiser. Twice the size of the original, the images top and bottom will be embroidered, as well as the rivers and coastlines. I will render the lettering in ink as a concession to time, accuracy and the inevitability probability that it will be auctioned for a price much lower than I would normally ask.

But then again, it's a chance to re-awaken some more of my old graphic skills. An art director once told me he only hired people who could render 4 point type with a brush! Those were the days...

Monday, December 07, 2015

Fringe It Is

A Skin for a Skin, 2015 48"(w) 60"(l) Hand embroidery on linen; wool, wood, leather
Yes, I went with the fringe. I am very happy with it, for a few reasons. First, and most obvious, is that the fringe is leather - skin. Even though I have been using wool thread, an animal product, for the embroidery, leather is directly connected to my subject. The piece is full of references to the fur trade of early Canada, and the title is a translation of the Hudson's Bay Company motto, "Pro Pelle Cutem". Leather gives the cloth a much more visceral quality. The fringe visually balances the piece. And the fringe moves beautifully in the breeze, as you can see in the video below.
My search for leather was not easy. I couldn't find any leather suppliers on Vancouver Island, and didn't want to do mail order. There is a leather bag maker on Gabriola, who would have sold me a piece, but she was away on vacation. Then, during my volunteer shift at the Gabe Shop, I noticed a small, very fitted, leather jacket on the rack. Perfect! There was enough material in the sleeves to splice together the needed length, and I cut the strips with my rotary cutter, leaving a half inch or so at the top edge to hold it together. I machined  the leather to a length of twill tape, and hand stitched it onto the back of the hem.
It was such a grey day flash had to be used when taking these pictures. The colours go together much better than it would appear.
My only concern now is the drape of the piece. I interlined it with cotton flannel, which gives heft, but it seems like the linen wants to stretch more than the cotton. I'm hoping gravity will even it out over time, but I may have to go back in there and adjust the interlining.