Bear Season

Source: Gilcrease Museum
© Public Domain. Courtesy of the Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, OK.
The image I chose for my next embroidery of the Codex Canadensis is that of two bears - a black bear and a white bear. I liked the juxtaposition given the rich symbolic meaning of the bear. It is Jung's symbol for the unconscious, it is a shapeshifter, almost human and supernaturally powerful.

It appears that Louis Nicholas had more trouble than usual depicting the white bear. Given the extent of his travels in the New World, it is unlikely he would have seen a polar bear, but then again, he didn't do much drawing from life. His odd shading of the white bear has given me quite a challenge in choosing yarn for stitching. He may have been using diluted ink, as the lines are paler than most of the other creatures he drew. I tried dyeing a white tapestry yarn, but the dye struck unevenly and I got a rose pink mess.

I did trace the bears onto canvas at what I thought was a reasonable size - about fifteen inches high. I started stitching with the dark brown Paternayan yarn, after first sitting quietly for a few minutes praying to the divine bear spirit to guide my hand. (I am not very familiar with the animal spirit world, but figure it doesn't hurt to invoke whatever help I can get.) I stitched teeth and claws, and was unsatisfied with the result. I pulled out the yarn, and restitched. Still no good. Then a message came to me loud and clear. "The bear needs to be bigger." There was no denying that the message was absolutely right. I pulled out all that I had done, and will scale the drawing up even more. It might need to be really big. I'm thinking  at least three feet high. That's a hell of a lot of stitching, and yarn.

Why would I persevere with this image, given the technical trouble it has caused me? It's not one of the most immediately compelling images from the Codex. But bears had a special attraction for Pere Nicolas. It's a story that I have avoided so far in my telling of the rather unorthodox missionary. Apparently while in New France Nicolas had two bear cubs that he tried to tame and teach tricks, hoping to bring them back to Europe with him, which did not please his Jesuit superiors. Worse, and this is the part that really makes me cringe, part of his taming technique included removing the bears' teeth and claws. I don't imagine it was done humanely.

So, no wonder Pere Nicolas seemed to overemphasis the fierce fangs and talons of every animal he drew. Whether he was fascinated or afraid, or a combination of both, his drawings exemplify the age-old dissonance between man and nature, between nature and culture, between light and dark.

My choice of this image feels like I'm being taken deeper into a realm where somehow time dissolves and I  am sitting with Louis Nicholas as he draws. This is not unlike the role of the art therapist as she sits with the client. Making art in the presence of another. Having empathy and compassion, hopefully gaining insight.

We shall see...

"Bears are not companions of men, but children of God, and His charity is broad enough for both... We seek to establish a narrow line between ourselves and the feathery zeros we dare to call angels, but ask a partition barrier of infinite width to show the rest of creation its proper place. Yet bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters. A bear's days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours and was poured from the same fountain....."
- John Muir 


  1. What an exciting challenge to have taken on for your next project. I have loved reading & watching your progress through the previous Codex pieces & look forward to watching this one jump off the page & come to life!

  2. onesmallstitch11:24 AM

    you're right - a 3 foot bear is a lot of stitching. the ears are very strange. yarn dyed with tea or coffee might give you the correct colour. maybe he overemphasized the fangs and talons to compensate for guilt feelings due to his treatment of the cubs?

  3. I got my invitation to the cambridge show today, Heather, and your codex embroidery is right there in the middle. It's also in the monthly program for the gallery as the main image for the fibreworks show.



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