C'est Cheval Marin

I have been listening to Radio-Canada, the French language service of the CBC. Not only do they play great music, but I can't understand a word of the news, so Monsieur Harper's doings don't alarm me. Today, I finished stitching the sea horse, or Cheval Marin as Pere Nicolas calls this interesting creature. The book's author/editor, Francois-Marc Gagnon speculates that what Nicolas was trying to depict was a hippopotamus, but, in any case, I doubt he was drawing from life.

The hours have stitching have given me ample time to reflect on my odd project. I think what it really is all about, for me, is that "things are not as they seem." Looking back over all my work since art school, that theme is most consistent. Translation, or the process of taking an image or phrase from one context and putting it into another, always bears the mark of the person rendering the translation, taking the work a step away from the original creator's intent.

Louis Nicolas drew from memory, or other artists' work, rarely from life. His understanding of the natural world of New France was mediated by his preconceptions, enforced by his culture and times. He may well have truly believed that what he was drawing was accurate, and it is easy, five centuries later, to laugh at his naivete.

On the technical side of things, it has been a greater challenge than I thought it would be to translate the pen and ink drawings (quill pen at that!) to needle and wool. The embroidery, is three dimensional - yes, it has height, however slight - which causes shadows to thicken the already thick line of the yarn. And I am discovering that the essential nature of a stitch is a straight line. To create a curve, one must either use very small stitches, or couching. Whereas the line of pen and ink can flow, yarn cannot, in spite of its flexibility.

I find this all very interesting, and at the same time I realize that not very many other people would share my interest in such minutia. I actually went online to try and find a theory of embroidery, and was unsuccessful. There are theories of painting, sculpture and design, so why not embroidery? A naughty question, I know.

Well, back to the hoop. Next up: a pelican.

*Update: I found this fabulously enticing book: The Textile Reader, by Jessica Hemmings. It will be out in paper in May! Has anyone seen the hardcover? It goes for $115, so I'll have to wait for the paperback, but, ooh, looks right up my alley.
Images of pages from the Codex Canadensis are from the Library and Archives of Canada website.


  1. onesmallstitch3:47 PM

    fantastic, Heather. I can't believe how beautifully you are capturing the drawings. It is exciting to see your progress. The book! well, I just have to have it but I will be penniless (thank you M. Harper!) so will have to come and drool on yours, let me know when it is out in paperback.

  2. Your stitches make me dream, I am sure that Père Nicholas had the same purpose in mind. Real or not the Cheval Marin is an interesting and intriguing creature.
    You are doing an absolute fascinating work, I am sure that the above mentioned gentleman would have approved.

  3. You are doing such an incredible job, Heather! I like the original drawings but I love your interpretations in thread even better.

  4. not a naughty question at all! or if it is, it's right up my alley too. the book doesn't seem to be in the libraries yet, but i'm going to keep an eye out too.

    i'm speechless at your stitching, but that's nothing new. this project is really special nevertheless!!

  5. This is exactly why I am reading your blog... you cover topics I never found elsewhere!

    (Mow I have to catch up with all the posts, I've been on a long holiday without internet. Yes, it's possible. :) )

  6. It's inspiring to see you so deeply involved in these translations. You are on a deep roll.


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