The Image, From A to B and Back Again

One of the themes inherent in my work with the Codex Canadensis is the questioning of the veracity of the image and the mutability of truth. Louis Nicolas's drawings are his best effort at presenting the flora and fauna of the New World. But to the jaded eye of a person in the 21st century, they are laughable in their inaccuracy. We have the benefit of cameras, and rigourous scientific methods, and the conclusions of experts to aid us in knowing what a buffalo is, for instance. But Louis had never seen a buffalo, only heard verbal descriptions of one, and did the best drawing he could based on his only visual source - the books of engravings by Gesner and his contemporaries.

Detail of Plate 35. Source: Gilcrease Museum via Library and Archives Canada
The timeline goes something like this and begins in prehistory:

A. First, there is an actual creature, living in its natural environment.
B. Human eyes are laid upon the creature. Perhaps the direct sensory impression enters memory, and the human attempts to share the remembered image with others, as in a cave painting.
C. More likely, the creature is found dead, or hunted and killed by predators or humans. Its lifeless form may be simulated in clay, or pigment on rock walls, and as as graphic technology develops, drawn with ink on paper, or painted on canvas. These images are available to a few.
D. With the development of printing, ie. etching or engraving or wood blocks, multiple copies of images can be made. These images are primarily available to the rich, religious or scholarly. The general public still relies on first hand experience, or the stories of people with first hand experience to know what a buffalo is, for example. It is difficult to confirm accuracy.
E. Taxidermied animals, zoos and menageries are marvels of exotica. If a person is lucky enough, they may get to witness such a rarity.

This brings us to the time frame in which Louis Nicolas found himself. Caught up in the spirit of the age of discovery, he did his best to catalogue the creatures of the New World through vivid verbal description in the Histoire Naturelle and with pen and ink in the Codex. He drew from books, as confirmed by Francois-Marc Gagnon. If there was no image in the books that matched some of the new creatures encountered, he would simply copy the closest thing to it. That is why what looks like an ox is labelled a buffalo, and Louis declares, "This is exactly how it appears!" (I'm leaving out any discussion of Louis's idiosyncratic drawing skills).

Now, 350 years have passed. I have the benefit of all the amazing technologies developed in the meantime to assist me in knowing what a buffalo is. I have actually seen Plains buffalo in the wild, while on a camping trip, and been able to photograph them. I have been close enough to smell them and experience their enormous physical presence. To want to stitch their image on cloth is kind of bizarre. What can I hope to offer the viewer that will add to their knowledge of what a buffalo is?

My answer to that question shifts, depending on which shadowy and subterranean path my brain has followed into the maze. Sometimes I think my work is about the medium, how translating a pen and ink drawing into wool stitches on linen changes what an image means. Sometimes I think it's about process, or communication, or trying to understand another person from the evidence they leave behind. Other times it's about the impossibility of knowing truth. The usual big, unanswerable art questions.

Today, I am thinking about all the steps between the original drawings, in that actual document that resides in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the stitched cloth that hangs on my wall. To continue the timeline from the original living and breathing creature I'll pick up at "F".

F. Louis Nicolas creates the Codex Canadensis sometime around 1675.
G. The document is photographed or digitally scanned to produce the images found in the 2012 edition of the McGill-Queens University Press publication.
H. I enlarge images from the book on a drugstore/library/copy shop photocopier. Depending on the quality and service record of the photocopier, distortion may be introduced at this step.
I. I arrange the photocopies to create a new composition. Sometimes I will edit the image by drawing in missing parts of ears or tails, but I endeavour to be as faithful to the original as possible. More distortion is inevitable.
J. I trace the composition onto the cloth, using graphite transfer paper. Again, I try to be as accurate as possible, but the fallibility of the human hand will enter in.
K. I stitch the traced line, trying to convey the energy, texture and spirit of Louis's original drawing as well as is possible in such a foreign medium as wool thread. I refer back to the drawing as I stitch.

I view the work as a co-creation, primarily between Louis Nicolas and myself, but also to some degree involving the technology of photo-mechanical reproduction (camera lenses, photocopiers, digital reproduction, printing and engraving). And it all started with that long-ago critter in the woods.

I'm tracing the image onto cloth today. Then the stitching will begin!


  1. what a wonderfully convoluted process Heather

  2. Chinese Whispers game!

  3. Yes, Arlee, exactly!

  4. I love posts about the codex. Keep on !

  5. Anonymous7:44 PM

    I think you are playing a game that is millennia old, as long as people have tried to pass on information through speech, or translate a message from one language to another or one medium to another. How does one know that the message that was sent has been understood as it was meant to be understood. Has one truly understood the meaning? These questions are part of a philosophy called hermeneutics, which arose with the translation of the King James bible. Translators had to wonder as they were translating ancient Greek and Latin into English, ruminating over the precise meanings of every word, whether they were keeping intact the "word of God". They had to question their understanding of the text. Perhaps they had faith in their ability. And here you are, doing the same. You study and analyse the drawings of Louis Nicolas, drawing on all the sources you can find so that your embroidering hand is an educated hand, replicate his drawings and deconstruct them and then replicate them again with each stitch until you have a translation of the original Nicolas, which was a hand drawn translation of an image in a book of etchings, which was probably a translation of spoken descriptions or.... The chain goes on and on and each is a play on the previous. It is the game of meaning. It could be a buffalo. Or in Magritte's case, it could be a pipe. Jean-Pierre

  6. Heather, have tyou thought of submitting a proposal to the Virtual Museum of Canada? Historical perspective oriented, you can get the info here

  7. love that you are doing this!

  8. I have wanted to do something monumental similar to this in the USA with topics centering around our Native Americans in the early days, but I am on my own. Did you consider getting help (i.e. Arless’s suggestion), or is there more pleasure in doing it on your own?

    1. Although the Codex Canadensis has a number of amazing images of First Nations life, I have shied away from using them, because, as a white European woman, it is just too politically fraught. I do think it is valuable to consider why and how we are drawn to this conflicted relationship we have with aboriginal people. I have no answers but my own feeling is that we can talk about these things from our own perspective, but we cannot speak for anyone else. I have set myself up for a whole can o'worms with this work, but I am trying to frame it as truly as I can from my own limited perspective. And yes, I get a lot of pleasure out of doing it on my own, simply working it out in my own weird way.

  9. "My answer to that question shifts, depending on which shadowy and subterranean path my brain has followed into the maze" Love it. You write so beautifully, Heather, it's a pleasure to read about your process as well as see the images as you go along. Such good work!


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