Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cultivating the Inner Critic

Dealing with critics. It's unavoidable, especially as the most pressing and persistent are usually within us. These phantom-like entities have often arisen in my recent sessions with a therapist. I was somewhat surprised to discover that in addition to my internalized stern elementary school teacher who likes to discipline with the sharp side of a 12 inch ruler, I also am dogged by a shadow of excessive weight, an ogre who catches all that Miss Reidegar misses, and more.

My therapist and I have developed a very good therapeutic relationship. (And I think I speak with some authority, having had much more therapy over the years than the average bear.) She has a somewhat different approach than the usual -- CBT, ten sessions or less -- that our health care system prefers. Instead of heading for direct integration of my psyche, she has instead teased out different aspects, or guardians, of my somewhat conflicted self. What I have learned may be useful for others.

If we think of inner critics as trying to protect us from something, what would that something be? Failure? Embarrassment? Shame? Ridicule? Financial or creative ruin? Is it possible to thank the critic for their concern, to appreciate how hard they have worked to keep us safe? To let them know they have been heard, and to suggest their energy might be better appreciated if they waited until a later phase in the process to voice their concerns.

I was in a writing workshop once where we were encouraged to just write in an intense flurry, and tell the critic to wait until we were ready to edit, when what they had to say would be more useful. This is helpful when the nagging negative voice prevents us from actually getting started. If we can just get something down on paper or cloth, then there is something tangible to respond to - and, interestingly, that other internalized force, the creative one, is so chuffed after making something that it can meet the critic as an equal, rather than subordinate to the overpoweringly protective role the critic needlessly takes on.

Design is closely based on a photo from Tiggy Rawling's blog, "I'd Rather Be in India".

Prolonged, careful contemplation is an essential stage in the creative process. I have been working on this hooked rug for the longest time. I just did a couple of hours a week usually, and didn't feel especially invested in it. Now that it's getting near the end I am keen to see it finished, yet I find myself ripping out more than I put in. Even though I have been following a photograph of the Indian embroidery that inspired this piece, the translation to hooking means I have had to make many choices in the interpretation. I finish a section, I throw it down on the floor and assess how it works within the context of the rest of the rug. This means I can't be attached to a section just because I've done it and I want to get to the next bit.

Here is where the critic shines. In fact, this can be the part I enjoy the most - gazing upon the work, asking "What does it need?" For me, this feels productive, engaged and open ended. The rigidity of the critic relaxes and makes interesting suggestions. The sharp ruler is put away and sometimes the gold stars even come out. Because critics can also see good, if they are given a chance.

In art school, critiques would happen regularly, where the whole class would comment (constructively, hopefully) on each person's work. This was probably the best aspect of school for me, and the one I miss most. Criticism need not be discouraging or despairing, it can be thoughtful, helpful and kind - as well as pointing out bullshit when need be.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Stitching with the Stars

I'm sure many of you are familiar with Maiwa's annual Symposium and their School of Textiles. I have attended many Maiwa workshops and they have been quite wonderful. The ones with Dorothy Caldwell here, here, and here, and Beverly Gordon stand out in particular. This fall, I took one with the famous Dutch embroiderer, Tilleke Schwarz, and I am sad to say it was a dud. Thinking about why it didn't work for me led to these thoughts:

  1. The instructor of the workshop needs good teaching skills.
  2. The participants in the workshop need to have a shared intention, and have left their neuroses at home. The focus of the participants is at least as important as how good the teacher is.
  3. The location of the workshop should be accessible, with good light and enough space for the group. 
  4. The participant herself should be realistic about how compatible her skill level is with the material to be covered.

So, what went wrong in this particular workshop? I was thrilled about the chance to learn from Tilleke, who is a justifiably famous star in the stitching world. Her lecture the night before was inspiring enough, but then she just repeated it for the class. That would have been okay if a number of participants hadn't heard the lecture already, but most had and were eager to get on with it.

The really unfortunate thing was that right off the mark Tilleke said she wasn't there to teach us how to stitch like her. Fair enough, but she also was not forthcoming with any instruction. Instead, she waited until we had stitched something to critique it. I wasted a lot of time using the tracing paper design transfer method she recommended, and, after a couple of false starts over the two days, ended up with nothing to show her. So my interaction with the instructor was pretty limited.

I'm willing to take my share of the blame for that, but what had me really annoyed was that a couple of participants chose to talk throughout the whole thing in loud voices about themselves and Tilleke did nothing to get them to quiet down. Midway through the second day, my friend and I picked up and left because she sensed I was getting ready to blow. (I think I reached my breaking point when the lady from Texas proudly said they had "Open Carry" gun laws in her state.)

The workshop took place in the Net Loft on Granville Island, which is incredibly fabulous. No complaints there. The staff at Maiwa are pros at providing all the amenities.

In the final analysis though, of course, the biggest problem was probably me. I already knew everything Tilleke had to show us. (Which wasn't much, but still...) My style is already quite developed. I was there just to rub shoulders with an art star, and nothing much was rubbing off Tilleke. She was a very nice lady but what I hoped for just wasn't happening.

Workshops aren't easy to dial in, so much depends on the group as well as the instructor. But when a workshop has an elite reputation, and costs over $300, it's hard for me to write off a bad experience.

I didn't even take any photos. There really wasn't anything to show. But I did have a great visit with my friend Barb, so the trip to Vancouver was not completely in vain.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Dare I Say Truth?

The zeitgeist of the past year has given me pause to reconsider the name of this blog. Supposedly we are now living in a post-truth era, a time when it is apparently up to whomever to decide whether some incredibly important piece of data or news is true or false. Saying something is true invites doubt. The ground has shifted.

It was in 1984 (somewhat tellingly) when I first conceived of calling my various pursuits "True Stitches". I was living in Toronto and supplementing my income as a graphic artist by doing dressmaking for a select few. I made up a business card and called my enterprise True Stitches. Truth actually had nothing to do with it, it was a play on the old pulp fiction magazines like "True Crime" and "True Confessions". I was merely being witty and ironic, hot commodities at the time. (Well, hell, when does being witty and ironic ever go out of style?) I even had a rubber stamp made up that emblazoned TRUE STITCHES on the cards, combining the nostalgic with the handmade. I long ago threw out the cards, but I still have the stamp. The original logo, such as it was, featured these guys,
with my stamp emblazoned on top in red.

Fast forward to the mid-noughts. I was in a program for building one's own business, and I had chosen True Stitches as the name. A few years earlier, I had used truestitches as an email address. I actually had as a domain name until a few years ago when I let it lapse because it was under my ex-husband's account. Now I see the name coming up on Etsy - I am merely a now.

So I return to the beginning. What does the name mean? I feel very sincerely that my stitches, my expression, my actions, must be true, whole-hearted and verifiable. It's kind of the essence of what I  do. The subtitle of this blog: "To make, to mend, to decorate." This is the part that is the definition of the word stitch, and also what I strive for in my daily life.

To make: I am a maker, I like to make things. This connects me to the divine. It is what I do, my life's purpose.

To mend: As humans, we fail, we cause trouble. But we have the potential to mend, to once again make whole something that is torn apart. This gives me hope.

To decorate: And why not? We have the capacity for joy, for play, for frivolity. Beauty is possible.

I was fooling around the other day with a new logo.
I used my old stamp with the line "Since 1984".

I think I am getting too old to be ironic. I still think truth is something important. Even if it isn't fashionable these days.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Settling the Land

Seigneury, 2017 Hand embroidery, wool and cotton on linen, 114"(w) x 24"(h)
It's hard to make out all the detail in the image above, you really should be here in person. But then again, this piece was finished hours before the show it was in opened, and then it sold. I do hope the buyer will lend it when I have my big retrospective. (Don't hold your breaths, there is no retrospective in sight.) (But I'm working on it.)
Louis Nicolas included a section on the domestic animals in his Codex Canadensis. Oddly enough, there was no pig, which, according to my friend Gaetanne who is descended from the earliest French settlers in New France, was often the only meat animal a family could afford. Anyway, I first thought of arranging them in a kind of crazy quilt or mosaic.
Then it was pointed out to me it made more sense for them to be in a row, and indeed, the long strip of land granted to the early settlers suggested a horizontal format. Blocks of land were granted to the seigneurs, who usually had done something notable in service to the French king, with the provision that the land be cleared and made "productive" so that the colonial claim on the land would be more established. The seigneurs divvied up the land into long strips, each with frontage on the river, as that was the main source of transportation in those days. Working class French men were allotted a strip each, and they paid rent in grain to the seigneur. They couldn't do it alone, so filles du roi ("daughters of the king") were imported from France to marry the men, produce children, and further establish the colony's foothold.
The critters fit obligingly into the long strip of cloth, and were traced on with my usual graphite transfer paper method.

Interestingly, while the wild animals of the Codex were notable for their feverish eyes, snarling teeth and fearsome claws, the domestic animals are quite benign looking. Some even smile.

The turkey took quite a long time, with all his feathers.
The ram is a very obvious copy from Conrad Gesner.
It's not every day that one can say, I stitched the horse's ass!
The dog and cat were especially bizarre in Nicolas's rendition. Although the stitching did help me realize that the dog doesn't have one giant foot with six claws, but that his front paw is on top of his back paw.
The meek donkey is just lovely.
Since in the middle of stitching this I was offered a show I had to seriously pick up the pace. The quote was the last piece. There were 121 letters, I think, and I had ten days to stitch them. They were done on a separate strip of linen and sewn to the main piece. Then the whole piece was backed with another piece of linen with hanging strips pre-sewn into place. The piece was hung over the stairs leading up to the gallery. (Barb Mortell, who I shared the space with, had one of her quilts hanging below. It made for a very attractive entrance to the show. I'll post more pictures next time.)