Where is the joy when you’re living in a time of a global coronavirus pandemic and a local toxic-drug epidemic? What is the use of making when your city is seized by global investment-real estate schemes, when there’s too much stuff in a overheated planet and a hateful, superpower president next door?
These questions ricochet around my brain, only abating when this futile, exhausting expenditure of energy hones in on the rote activity of knotting and needleworking. The hand-wringing falls into rhythm as I grasp at lost, tossed threads that I make whole and into whole new ideas.
Making is a very personal physical reaction to perilous times and unstable circumstances but working with found fibre is also an intrinsically social action that weaves in disparate economic circumstances, language, race, age and abilities. Braiding, stitching, knotting, needleworking create resilient connective tissue between one body and another. Strands thicken into solid links between the ancient and the modern, utility and self-expression, the digital and the physical, the personal and the political.
By exploring the inherent qualities of abject manufactured material, the body binds with other bodies and other places, some known, some not. It is work, but outside the tumultuous dominant economic system. It is an experience of the history of production and distribution through the material at hand.
Even in these times, when gathering around a table is a hazardous activity, when our pack species is feeling at loose ends, masked up and reluctantly apart, the tactility of rote hand-making grounds us into the here and now, one stitch, one loop, one knot at a time. We grasp at the tendrils, continuing the work, with the results standing as artifacts of a time, place and our individual and collective states of being.
Three major works created over one year remind me of the uncertainty, the panic, the perilousness of these times, and of the solace gained through individual making and the joy of making with others. The three are relics of two years of material research that culminated in a Master of Fine Arts 2020 exhibit set up one day before the university locked down.
I've just returned from a month in the big country of southwest Saskatchewan: big skies, big farming operations, big empty days that were all too much at the start of my artist residency at the Wallace Stegner House.
Suddenly agoraphobic, I pulled down all the blinds and paced around that lovely century-old house, wondering what on earth possessed me to throw myself into this imposing patchwork landscape. I am not a landscape painter; that's my dad's bag.
Plus I came by plane and an eight-hour car ride, so even if I did want to paint, I didn't have my usual large stretched canvases and totes of paints. I did bring a few of my usual travel essentials: embroidery hoops, needles and floss — and an old bed sheet. I knew there was just a couple of stores in town, and none would be selling art supplies so I packed a tiny travel set of liquid acrylics, a few brushes and a pad of mixed-media cardstock.
My sketchy plan involved, well, sketching with my father, who has spent some of every summer in this tiny town of Eastend ever since he filled the Stegner House with his landscape paintings 15 years ago.
We were quite a pair: me, not at all comfortable with the whole plein-air tradition, and him, increasingly unfamiliar with his life's work of painting that involved biking into the country to sketch then returning to his basement to paint in the heat of the day. (Actually we were mostly a trio, his wife acting as facilitator for whatever this was, supplying us with water bottles, sunhats, sketch pads and willow charcoal, and generally getting us on the road.)
We circled around this vague idea of mine as we circled around this dead-quiet, struggling little town every morning. But the awkwardness turned to anguish back at my studio as I undertook the tedious pursuit of finding some interest — or even the point — in painting puffy clouds and dun-coloured hills.
A week later and out of sheer frustration at my lack of landscape-painting prowess, I resorted to dropping diluted paint on a taut scrap of bedsheet in an embroidery hoop just to watch it bleed. I threw the first painted scrap away and did another, with a little more intention, then threw that away too. Within a couple of hours I figured out the right water-to-paint ratio to create a slightly controlled bloom with each stroke. A lot of other distracted behaviour (baking apple crisps, walking by the river, venting via text to my artist friends) meant that each additional stroke was added to a dried layer and by the end of the afternoon, a landscape was emerging on a miniature stretched canvas. That one I didn't throw out. But it was still a little hazy. That's when I thought about using my stash of embroidery floss for final line work.
I sat in the cool of the front screened porch that evening and embroidered some more information onto the painting. It was a clumsy first effort but soon I was enjoying the daily practice of biking in the morning with my father, painting something inspired by the ride in the afternoon, then embroidering some details in the evening, inviting others to join me for stitching sessions on the front porch.
I did this every day until I had 12 little paintings, each a progression from the last. I saw them as blocks for a future quilt, which led to a well-attended culminating exhibit, "Scenes from a Quilted Landscape."
But now I'm viewing them as something beyond a quilt and beyond the horizon. I'm calling them Points of Interest: something to build on and build with.
As with all creative pursuits, forcing solutions is futile. My original idea of coaxing my father back into his painting studio by getting him to share some of his process with me was a non-starter. These days he finds everyday joy in the moment, whether that is spotting a hawk while biking the backroads, playing a languid rendition of The Girl from Ipanema on piano in the hot afternoons, or watching the town's many cats on the prowl from the front porch of the Stegner House while his wife and I embroidered the summer evenings away.
I'm not sure if he knew it but he passed on to me the most valuable lesson for painting a scene: You have to actually see it.
Slide-showing the process:
As I was wrapping bolts of fabric around the Haywood Bandstand across from English Bay last Friday, a few intrepid dog-walkers approached me, shouting over the gale-force winds and all basically asking the same question: Why?
As much as I wanted to reply, 'Why not?' that's a bit glib. There's no why involved; it came about by asking the question, "What if?" Instead I told the dog-walkers, "It's for the Lumiere Festival." Some seemed relieved to learn that I wasn't mothballing the bandstand forever.
By the end of the day, and despite the hot colours and textures created in that dark park, I could detect some distrust in this project. Public art raises more questions than answers, and in this corner of the world, that can lead to some unease.
The 'why' response to public art always interests me. People need reasons, answers.
When I designed Cluster, the bright aluminum tubes that seem to extrude from the last guideway of the Canada Line in downtown Richmond, there was a lot of 'why's. There was even a chorus of 'why's' following the installation of the Network social-engagement project (below) at the Vancouver Art Gallery earlier this month.
I have to pick my replies carefully. Answers like, "Because it made you look", "Because it made you feel different" or "Because it made you ask questions" are greeted with annoyance. But that's the truth of the matter. These are not decorations or marketing tools but objects that hopefully lead to new ideas, new conversations.
We are a young city in the middle of a growing spurt and we're not comfortable with all the changes. But already we are beginning to shed our adolescent awkwardness and at some point we will mature into a great, well-rounded metropolis that embraces our ever-changing, diverse cultural landscape and points of view.
What if I was part of it?
I'm sure I didn't come up with the term 'mosaic tagging' but the idea of embedding found remnants of domestic culture into the built landscape has been rolling around my brain for a while.
It finally happened this summer, in an East Van back lane. In the space of one (hot!) half-day, the tiny tarmac'd alley was transformed into someplace special, as neighbours turned found colourful shards of china and pottery into mosaic-ed markers of their home and family.
With a plan in place weeks before, each household thought about a particular design (or not — serendipity works too) and collected chipped china dishes, old toys, and mementoes, the whole endeavour of collecting pieces becoming a conversation piece itself among neighbours. The day before tagging day, someone from each household used chalk to draw a shape of their choice for their mosaic and some of the handier people carved out the layer of tarmac by tracing the chalk lines with a jigsaw. As night fell, the sound of smashing plates could be heard.
On the morning of the laneway intervention, kids helped stir up cement mix and water, and everyone got busy inserting their bits and pieces into the concrete and touring the lane to watch their neighbours' progress.
I love the thought that these upcycled bright bits of pottery and china have created sweet little urban interventions in all that grey tarmac that will withstand our soggy seasons and be around long after the kids grow up and the families move away.
It's the kind of project that would never get permission, but the city is forgiving when it comes to community-building. In fact, the block party that night was funded by a small neighbourhood grant from the Vancouver Foundation just for that purpose.
The mosaic tags remain there as emblems to those families, this time and place, and that one connective neighbourhood event — well, until the developers win.
When the white RCMP SUV was spotted cruising around the Maple Street section of the community gardens early Monday morning, it was clear that the chainsaws and earth-movers were next.
For the next three days all the gardeners of those little plots along the Arbutus rail corridor could do was ask that some of the uprooted shrubs be saved. But mostly those who had the stomach to watch the carnage were shaking their heads, hugging one another, trying not to cry.
The train used to come by here when there were gardens. Now there is no need for trains yet all but a fringe of the gardens must go.
It's the futility of the destruction of people's source of food, pleasure and community that hurts the most. CP has every right to their right of way, but it's a crying shame all the same.
When all was left was the tracks of the backhoe, I thought that laying down some giant doilies seemed appropriate. Or at least it didn't seem any more ridiculous than levelling the gardens along a useless spur where the rails have long disappeared under the tarmac of some streets it used to cross.
There was no one around when I unfurled the two 10-foot-wide doilies on the bare dirt after the land-clearers left for the day - eerie for a time and place where there's usually all sorts of people tending their vegetables, walking dogs, riding bikes, pushing strollers or just surveying the spring coming on. But soon a few curious souls ventured in to ask what I was doing or snap some Instagram-destined pics. Conversations started up, mostly about Those Assholes but also about the grandmothers who loved their doilies, or the other things that these things reminded them of. A bit of absurdity in the face of absurdity, but it kick-started something.
When one's world seems unbearable "it is the sublime madness that makes one sing," Pulitzer-prize-winning war correspondent/author/minister Chris Hedges told the crowd at a packed downtown church two weeks ago. Acts of creative expression in the face of devastation are signs of a belief in a "divine justice." They are small acts of hope that say, 'We exist.'
Hedges rocks your world view here (talk begins at 16-minute mark):
Maybe it's the chilly monochromatic climate at work here, but I'm suddenly wrapping myself up granny squares. The more I think about them, the more potential I see.
There's a lot of culture woven into those fuzzy little colour grids. They're there in the background of popular culture, infusing irony and cozy home-yness, nostalgia and disdain. One graces the couches of neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler's nerdy apartment and Roseanne's working-class house. Jemaine sleeps under one (badly).
Sure, they achieve that soupçon of shabbiness or tastelessness essential to the story but those set decorators are no idiots; granny squares inject hits of high colour and pattern to the visual field. They are trippy, decorative non-decor objects. Their form is used because of their assumed function over form.
They are the throws that are thrown around, their colourful geometry reflected and refracted so that they radiate western domestic culture, love it or hate it.
Cate Blanchett adorned a designer version on the red carpet, to a chorus of derision by the fashion police, which secured the actress more publicity.
There's something delicious in the mix between haute couture and the easy, scrappy crochet method that results in over 13,000 Etsy items under the search term, "granny squares".
I've loved/hated granny squares ever since my cousin and I were given matching shrink vests at age 10, from our moms. I would have been wearing that single, large purple granny square at a time when the Italian dads in the neighbourhood were setting up that granny-square pattern in concrete breeze walls around their brand new Vancouver Specials.
Like the blankets, the breeze walls evoke utility and thrift but are visually interesting enough to warrant new consideration. The modularity of granny squares and breeze-wall blocks ooze with potential, especially as a mash-up.
Granny squares command attention. The Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum took on new dimensions when it was covered in thousands of donated granny squares as part of its CAFAM Granny Squared installation a couple of years ago.
Suddenly, a city that is generally at odds with notions of the handmade, the domestic and the artisanal was attracting mainstream media attention for its collaborative crocheted culture jam.
A couple of years before that, in 2011, members of many Finnish women's organizations and the craft teachers' union blanketed Helsinki Cathedral's steps in 3,800 granny square tilkkupeitosta (Finnish for 'quilt').
The modular motif marries beautifully to existing architecture, as the granny squares take on a Tetris effect, cascading down to the giant public square in this domestic intervention.
But what about the granny square as a building block itself? What if a building appeared to rise out of a giant crocheted coverlet? How could concretized crocheted granny squares be utilized as sculpture?
It's a fuzzy concept worth building on.
It's getting close to a decade since I packed it all in: my needles and wool, my sewing machine and fabrics, my mid-level-management career. There was more to explore.
I've been mixing it up with a wide range of materials (and makers) ever since but even I'm surprised to find that my latest tools of choice for bushwacking new routes of making are the ol' crochet hooks, knitting needles, rug hooks and embroidery needles.
The line on the paper has always been too limiting to me; I need to pick up that line, play with it in my hands, turn it into area, then volume. I remain entranced by the possibilities of connecting something created by a silkworm or an industrial manufacturing plant to a mathematical model or a wearable with uncomfortable connotations.
The beauty of fiber is in its physical and metaphorical ability to connect the Art side to the Design side (not to mention the science side), weaving the two together until it's clear that playing with ideas cannot be put into separate boxes.
Except if we're talking shipping boxes, for the Toronto Design Offsite (TO DO) Festival next month.
A few object-experiments from my ongoing Fuzzy Logic series will be packed in there, as part of the Vancouver group of makers, selected by the Dear Human creative studio.
It's all part of the ‘Outside the Box’ exhibits featuring works from three selected Canadian cities — Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver — and five from the U.S.: New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle.
It's a fine way to mine local design ideas and visions through an unexpected selection of objects that are shared in various locations via specific-sized shipping boxes.
The Vancouver contribution includes nine individuals and teams who live, design and make in the greater Vancouver area. The connecting thread is a pursuit of a design practice through material exploration, according to Dear Human. "Whether through common applications of unusual materials or transcending common materials through unusual applications, exploration is evident in each of the included objects."
Rounding out the Vancouver Outside the Box contingent are: Cathy Terepocki, Dahlhaus, Dina Gonzalez Mascaro, Hinterland Designs, Laura McKibbon, Rachael Ashe, and Studio Bup.
Vancouver Outside the Box will take over the windows at 1082 Queen Street West, Toronto, from January 19-25, 2015.
TO DO is an annual city-wide not-for-profit week-long festival that celebrates and showcases the nation's design scene, providing exposure and cross-pollination of ideas and techniques. There are too many exhibits, installations, talks, parties and films to list here, so check out the full (and growing) schedule here as well as the fun promo video.
I spent most of the day yesterday sitting with a very close friend in a hospital bed, waiting for the surgeon to slice into her gut and remove a large cyst and maybe an ovary or two. Or maybe all her lady parts. There was frank talk about the expected pooling blood and lingering pain and there were some last-minute tears as she was wheeled away.
It was hardly the time to go mingle at a gallery that night, but friends and family would be there for the opening of the Domestic Interventions show so it was the right thing to do. My sister exhibitors, Monique Motut-Firth and Janet Wang, had probably wrestled with attending too; they were both fending off whatever bad colds their little kids had brought home. But we all showed, and even managed to say a few words about the work.
I mention all this because this is what the work is about: trying to nurture an art practice when there is other, more pressing nurturing to be done, not to mention the cleaning and the making-a-living. Sometimes you just have to laugh over the lunacy of trying to paint or build or cut or even think amidst the domestic pressures; sometimes you’re ready to toss it all in, but don’t because you know this ability to express the predicament is what holds you together.
That’s why this show includes uneasy domestic objects, uncomfortable self-portraits and sculptures, paper dolls composed of the fictitious feminine form from women’s catalogues. We brought these works together to talk to one another, and to try to convey that dis-ease of the familiar with the strange. There’s something funny about a tiny mother-artist figurine gnawing through the telephone wire or a mannequin wrapped in 1950s ads of ecstatic home-makers or a long line of girdled paper dolls, but there’s a dark side too.
We love our families and our home life but we need our art practices too. We may live in a corner of the world that respects cultural workers as much as welfare recipients but we can’t help ourselves. Our domestic world and our work as artists will continue to twist and intertwine and something will continue to emerge that will evoke the messy, conflicted, emotionally charged and banal everyday.
And that’s important.
Domestic Interventions, curated by Jo Dunlop, runs from Oct. 17 to Nov. 15 at Cityscape Community Arts Space gallery, 335 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver (three blocks from Seabus terminal). Hours: Mon-Wed, Fri. – 9 am-5 pm, Thursdays 9 am–8 pm, Saturday noon-5 pm.
My brief stint as a home organizer was an eye-opener — door opener, to be precise. I got a rare view of the reality behind the doors of some beautiful houses. Often I was the only outsider who had been invited inside for years, for many different reasons.
Home is where it all hangs out, for better or for worse.
Ostensibly it’s where the meals and love and traditions are shared but it’s also the backdrop to power struggles or social isolation (by choice or by circumstance) and other domestic dynamics that we don’t post or tweet or share or Like.
It’s why Monique Motut-Firth, Janet Wang and I decided that our group exhibit at Cityscape Community Art Space opening next week should include an opportunity for others to take a break from the relentless perfect-homelife-branding and share in the real, in our Dirty Laundry installation.
During the course of the month-long Domestic Interventions exhibit visitors to the North Vancouver gallery will have the option of anonymously adding one of their own pieces of domestic reality to the ‘laundry line’ set up in the Lonsdale Avenue space. It could reveal that our very private, personal problem might actually be a public issue that deserves an airing. Or it may be that no one will take on the option.
There’s power in negative space too.
Domestic Interventions, curated by Jo Dunlop, runs from Oct. 17 to Nov. 15 with an opening reception Thursday Oct. 16, 7–9 pm at 335 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver (three blocks from Seabus terminal). Hours: Mon-Wed, Fri. – 9 am-5 pm, Thursdays 9 am–8 pm, Saturday noon-5 pm.
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