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 have this idea for building healthy community in this pretty/cold city through hand-making. It’s a process of making peace with ourselves and connecting with others, transforming individualized desires (thanks, capitalism) into shared desires for a sustainable life and world.
That's the idea. 'How' is the big question.
I start with a few rules of thumb. (I love that phrase for its controversial origin that is a deep-dive into human history and etymology, but also for the visual of the hand-as-tool.) First, the activity must be low-barrier enough to open it up to as much collaboration as possible — no need for special skills or equipment or fees or even shared verbal language. Second, the project must use only found material: freely available, with no better use (because there's already too much stuff in the world). Third, the project must spark interest, otherwise, why would people bother?
A decade ago, these rules of thumb resulted in The Network, an ever-growing public fibre-art piece engaging a wide variety of folks around Vancouver, co-created by Debbie Westergaard Tuepah. That knotty piece continues to weave through my work, mummifying a perfectly good painting practice, winding around ideas of alternative space-making, shelter, and safety nets. Now it's needling into my current project: the Safe Supply collaborative quilt.
'Safe supply' were the two words on the lips of the crowd at a CBC Town Hall gathering two months ago. Providing a safe supply of opioids would go a long way to addressing all the problems and fears raised by everyone from student activists to local businesses, from concerned politicians and developers to Indigenous elders: the toxic-drug death epidemic, violence, homelessness, sexual exploitation, theft, vandalism, mental illness. A safe supply is inherent in the view of addiction as a public health issue, not an individual, moral failing.
Ground zero of this humanitarian crisis is the colourful, chaotic tent city crowded in Oppenheimer Park straddling Chinatown and the old Japantown. The sight of all those bright, tenuous shelters layer up with this history of racism and injustice, stolen land and lives, and soon I am binding up ideas of found colourful material and that call for Safe supply!, embedding it all in a design, with designs for this as a group project destined for exhibit in more privileged spaces. It is planned as a comforting activity in this often ruthless, discomforting city: a dis-comforter.
I begin this overarching theme one block at a time, and that block is, fittingly, the traditional 'log cabin.'
There's a long history of the log cabin block, ingenious for its simple construction that makes use of even the smallest, thinnest available scraps as well as its history as a vehicle for social justice.
I am attracted to the name that stands as aspiration for home and all that that entails, beginning with the hearth, the centre of the block. From the hearth, the block is built in a spiral of connected scraps to form a foundation for countless quilt designs (traditional examples below).
The work has not yet begun but like all collaborations it begins with faith in people and trust in my practice. Something will emerge. We will engage. We will generate some heat in this log-cabin community.
Some useful how-tos and overall pattern examples:
At first I thought all this must still be debris from the Japan tsunami. But that was eight years ago and the surf in my remote neck of the woods keeps throwing up snarls of monofilament netting, plastic shards, nylon rope, bits of fibreglass hulls, and styrofoam. So much styrofoam.
I’ve been collecting up the stuff, inspired by this Gulf island’s own Styrophobe who’s taken on what some would say is a Sisyphean task of removing even the tiny beads of polystyrene from the clefts of rock along the shoreline.
My gathering is a tiny, maybe even futile, gesture but I’m giving form to the invisible: the bits and pieces we overlook on the foreshore or in the forest that, when lashed, bound, and woven together demand attention. These small but critical masses of debris are inspired by the found-material sculptures of Judith Scott. As I lash, bind, and weave I think of how the kids in my life would like to be in on this: hunting for material, making form from their hands and imaginations.
My gathering requires connecting with others to access materials. The Styrophobe, who’s also the guy in charge of the local dump, stands on the top of the garbage mountain, holding up uncertain objects for my consideration: How’s this? This stuff looks pretty good. Could you use this?
In 15 minutes I fill the back of the pickup truck with a curated collection of colourful plastic throwaways: pool noodles, watering cans, yards of orange fencing, jerrycans, twine, tape, cleaning-pad refill boxes, five-gallon buckets and lids. I fill up with purple things, red things, plastics in acid green, electric blue, hazard yellow, and caution orange — all the colours of the petrochemical rainbow.
After a lot of material prep (cutting off snags and sharp bits, wiping and washing off surface debris), I haul it to the local school where the kids, teacher and I dive in and play with the unwanted stuff. We have plans and we don’t have a plan, which is the right place to be with material exploration. This is where we learn to work with each material and not against its inherent nature, a great reminder of the futility of forcing solutions. This is where we learn to follow our hands, to work on our own or collectively over days and not minutes, to consider colour, form, and techniques for putting it all together, to create something that resonates with this time and place out of nothing anybody wanted.
It’s an important start for the generation that will be forced to deal with this legacy of stuff long after the plastic-agers die off.
The other day I did this because it really needed to happen. All that gleaming new-campus architecture, surrounded by other gleaming buildings and gleaming buildings yet-to-come was begging for a little fuzzying up.
I did my undergrad at the old Emily Carr University of Art and Design campus which was decidedly less smooth and metallic and more crafty, situated as it was in the Granville Island artisan mecca on the ocean's edge. I liked running my hand along the old wooden posts carved with decades of scrawled text, and all the wiring and ductwork that in the last few years looked like a set out of Brazil. I miss the giant murals on the cement factory silos next door and the funky houseboats and the food stalls in the public market and Opus Art Supplies 30 feet away from the front entrance.
The new serene, clean Emily Carr building is surrounded by new and planned condos that most students could never afford, high-tech companies and, soon, an elevated rapid transit rail line. As much as I wanted to return for graduate studies, I was not convinced that I would be a good fit here, so asking for permission and access to the sign was a bit of a trial balloon for me. I got quick and full support for the idea and its installation, and now see this new white space as a blank canvas, ready for the next era of student artistic expression.
This is my first solo yarn-bombing foray. A bunch of us attacked the old school back in the day for a textile-themed student show but I have yet to meet my people here. So the Emily Carr Cozy is not just a balloon, it's a flare. Is there anybody out there?
As I busied my freezing fingers with the stringy stuff (in hard hat, on the Skyjack operated by design tech services maestro Brian) I kept an ear out for reaction. And it was good. Sharing the fuzzy intervention on social media (#craftivism, #subversivestitch etc.) reminds me that I am not alone in my need for needling authority. Indeed, this public performance includes behind-the-scenes connecting with my community of makers to collect their leftover yarn and thrift-store finds even before the main act. (You know who you are.)
Textile interventions in the public sphere have a way of provoking polarizing responses. Some love the often-chaotic hand-wrapping of colourful fiber; others view the crafty messing with architecture with disdain of all things cozy and crafty and engendered female. I liked the idea of having to wear a hard hat and working for four hours in a Skyjack, in the mode of construction workers in the immediate vicinity of my rapidly changing hometown, to complete my knitting job.
A visual of the process, below. (All photos by Caitlin Eakins)
And yet there is nothing like an untenable situation to spark a creative response. There is evidence of it in the spaces between, beyond, behind, or otherwise outside the scope of authority. You see it in neighbourhood back alleys and in the gaps between buildings all over the world: small, bold, personal gestures. It may start with a graffiti tag (I was here, The Man can stuff it) and evolve into jaw-dropping unauthorized artworks. It may start with that one condo-dweller with no outdoor space who drags a chair down to the street to do some sketching or practise guitar. Last year some folks down the block put out a table at the corner park and had a sit-down neighbours’ potluck dinner. Down another block is a Country Lane, one of just a handful of alleys transformed into a garden-like thoroughfare in a pilot project with the City back in 2002.
And so it has come to pass. Where bloom-perfumed weeknight evenings in spring normally draw out elderly food-growers, young adults on after-class dog walks, tots trying out their new walking legs and commuter-runners with backpacks now there is barely a soul. “It’s so futile,” a neighbour said, hands on hips and gazing around at the remnant plant-bits fighting for traction in the bulldozer tracks. “This is just big male egos at work.”
My community, like all Vancouver communities increasingly hemmed in by one glassy, luxury edifice after another, is under threat of becoming no place in particular.
Living directly across the street from a swath of rubble, I think about the Field of Dreams line, “If you build it they will come.” Except in the case of the formerly thriving community gardens obliterated by CP Rail last month, it’s more, “If you destroy it, they will vamoose.”
These small acts are claims on our community. There’s nothing like an obliterated cherished social space to make us rethink this expectation that city planners or developers or Translink or the provincial government will make our corners of the world livable. That’s up to us. It requires a little courage and some questioning of authority. It may involve a little risk and the understanding that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.
This is how I came to move a couple of wrought iron chairs from my deck to the acres of dead dirt across the street. I wanted to see if they would be confiscated or destroyed. Instead, they’re being used, to rest for a spell, to soak up the rays, to down a beer. It’s a small act but even two empty chairs are an invitation, a potential conversation.
I’ve been researching creative ways to carve out social spaces in the face of the residential-investment spree that’s taken over Vancouver. Even in the tightest spaces -- or especially in the tightest spaces – humanity can grow and thrive. From the thinnest walkway container gardens in Kyoto to a laneway festival in one of our city’s dumpster-blighted back alley, there is potential in occupying a lost space.
Don’t just say something; sit there.
There is a symbiotic relationship between art and cycling. For me, I don’t get to work/play in the studio if I don’t get on my bike, and I don’t get my daily dose of hard-pumping exercise if I don’t go to the studio.
My father, a career artist and devoted cyclist, has long believed a cure to what ills is Dr. Bicycle. I take that to mean not just physical aches and pains but creative lethargy. Any artist who rides will tell you that inspiration often hits while she’s flying on two wheels.
Cycling as daily transportation is pretty much mainstream in Vancouver’s downtown core now, but it took a lot of persistence by non-conformists and idealists to get it that way. The early Critical Mass rides through the city’s main thoroughfares on the last Friday of every month were composed of a motley crew of creative-thinkers. When that critical mass of riders was reached, the infrastructure followed, thanks to a progressive city planning department and pedal-power-driven community leaders like Mayor Gregor Robertson, Gordon Price and Peter Ladner.
The bike has been my main mode for most of my life but I still feel like I'm playing a bit of Russian roulette every time I head out, even though negotiating city streets isn’t the life-risk it used to be. It’s mighty fine seeing old folks and tykes on bikes but you know there’s been a real sea change when you see guys in their 20s and 30s cruising the city on two wheels -- or maybe that’s all due to the new craft beer joints and weed stores. Drunk and stoned cyclists in traffic: not cool.
Meanwhile, there are still quite a few art-loving folks in my world who only rarely, if ever, take to the bike paths but if there's ever a time, this is the season for it, and this weekend is the perfect time for some pedal-play.
May I suggest this art-cycling combo: the self-guided bike tour of some of the city’s temporary public artworks on display for the Vancouver Biennale. (Map and key at right.)
Not listed on this tour is one work that will have particular resonance to the bike-loving bunch: Trans Am Totem, by Vancouver artist Marcus Bowcott.
If the promise of fabulous spring weather this weekend won't tempt you, this call to action video will:
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