Knowing and Not Knowing

One of the risks of taking on a long term project such as my work with the Codex Canadensis is that I find myself losing track of why I am doing this. I begin to wrestle with doubt. I ask myself: "What is the point?" And "Who cares anyway?" And I flounder with the answers I feel I must provide to an audience that isn't even there. Yet.

I do hope to show this work some day. And, having previously had public exhibitions of my work, I feel I must be prepared for the inevitable duties such an honour requires. There will, hopefully, be reviews. The local paper may want an interview. There might even be a spot on CBC radio, or, if it's a really slow news day, TV. I have learned that, in order not to appear a complete idiot in public, one should come prepared with sound bites and easily understood capsule descriptions.

I remember my first TV interview and the host repeatedly asking me the same question: "So, what makes a quilt art?" It was all I could do to stop myself from asking him if he was understanding impaired. To avoid such frustrating conversations, it helps to be really clear going in - to be able to do an "elevator pitch" if need be.
The other day I woke up at five A.M. thinking that I knew what I was doing after all. By transposing Louis Nicolas's flowing ink lines into painstaking stitch, I had to look closely at each and every mark. I don't think it's a stretch to say I have looked closer at these drawings than anyone, ever. Even Nicolas probably completed one of his drawings in a hour or so. It takes me 20-30 hours to reproduce a page.

Slowing down the process of image-making to such a degree affords insight, I believe. I have commented before on the preponderance of lolling tongues, gnashing teeth, fearsome eyes, and dangerous claws in Nicolas's images, and how that may reflect his fear of the wild, threatening New World he was encountering. That seems to be a fairly reasonable assumption, but what else can his drawings tell me?

I was trained as an art therapist and spent a couple of years working with a boy who had autism. It was too intense for him to draw outdoors, so we drew inside, from photographs. He particularly liked drawing animals, so we did lots of that. He was quite a skilled copyist and was very careful to make things the right shape and to include the exact number of whiskers or spots of a particular animal. But he had trouble relating the individual elements to each other, which gave his drawings a distorted, somewhat whimsical quality.

I see something very similar in the drawings of Louis Nicolas. Considering that it is believed that he drew, as was commonly done at that time, from books of engravings, and that as a Jesuit he was well-educated, and certainly had instruction in drawing, it is surprising that his drawings in the Codex Canadensis are so inept. And I doubt that the clumsiness of his drawing is stylistic choice. Perhaps he had trouble with his eyes, but my thought is that he was somewhere on the autistism spectrum. This might explain a lot of things: his trouble with his superiors; his facility with languages (he wrote the first lexicon of Algonquin grammar); his fascination with categorizing (see this piece on Brain Pickings for an example); and the detached emotional tone of his writing.

Of course it is impossible to make a diagnosis from a drawing alone - equally important is what the artist says about it. But I do wonder.


  1. Anonymous10:51 PM

    I like your title for this posting, Knowing and Not Knowing. You are painstakingly recreating the drawings of a man who lived about three hundred years ago, which naturally leads you to ask, "What was he thinking while he made these drawings? Why did he draw them the way he did?" These are questions you ask of every single creator who has ever walked the Earth because there is a conundrum that we all must accept. Is it possible for a person to completely understand the meaning in a message, whether it is drawn, painted, sculpted, written. etc... Is absolutely flawless communication possible, where A sends a message and B grasps the meaning, as A intended it, exactly? It's interesting that you've chosen the drawings of a man of the church to work with because it is the church that first studied this philosophical question. When the early bible was translated from the original ancient languages into Latin and then English the translators had to wonder if some of the holiness would be Lost in Translation. Could it be possible to really understand what the original writers (or writer if you believe that God is the author) of the bible had written? This is where hermeneutics comes from. Anybody who has attempted to translate knows the problems. When you try to translate a word or phrase that has multiple meanings, sometimes it means that you have no choice but to guess which is the best. In the case where there is no exact equivalent you have to use an approximation. The translation then can never be an exact copy. It is a replica at best. So what was Louis Nicholas trying to tell us about the fauna of the New World through his drawings? We can guess (fearsome? wild?) but we will never know for sure.

  2. what a stunning project Heather & it's getting near completion, thank you for sharing !

  3. Wondering is the privilege of the artist. Fascinating thoughts, by the way.


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