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:
Back when I was still transitioning from workaday newspaper editor to mainly work-for-free artist I applied for a Nexus card.
"Whaddaya you do for a living?" asks the clerk in her American drawl, without looking at me.
When I get this question I always wish there was an easy answer, some simple keystroke like in the relationship status options on Facebook.
"It's complicated," I say. She sighs.
I start in about how I was a journalist but then quit to go into full-time Fine Arts studies, then after graduation I got a studio and am now developing an art practice and doing work for upcoming projects... and stop as her eyes fall to half-mast. We go back and forth for a while like this when she announces: "I'm gonna put you down as housewife."
Even though I've always been self-supporting I decide not to waste my breath defending my non-conforming life choices. But really, I'm using the best skills I have to be a contributing member of society and I'm grateful to be a part of the ever-expanding, borderless community of crafters, craftivists and visual artists, all connected beyond language by hand-making for peace of mind and social, political connection.
Craft creates wellness, it brings humanity during turbulent times, it breaks down hierarchies and is the connecting thread between those who make for personal, tactile pleasure or for use and those who make art for art's sake. Craft is as at home in the home as it is on Etsy or in the white-cube gallery. It has footholds in ancient practices and the avant-garde. It complicates categorization and won't be fenced in (or out).
Making and their makers form an essential humanizing force more encompassing and enduring than even advanced capitalism but there's no way to show that value on a Nexus form.
I reject that line of questioning. And I am not married to a house.
Everyone is feeling that relentless creep of plastic that is threatening to consume us, the consumers. I felt myself drowning in the tsunami of stuff over this past year of grad studies at Emily Carr University. Art, as one instructor stated, is a wasteful business.
Even as I retreated back to my green, pristine Gulf Island I was hit with it at the end of the long drive through forest to the local dump: a mountain of garbage. This, from a small off-grid community known for its environmental consciousness.
My art practice is driven by a need to physically grapple with the unfathomable when words are not enough. In the strange way that an idea for an artwork takes hold, that sight of that mountain of petroleum-derived recycling-rejects led to my latest project: Foundlings.
For a while I’d been trying to land on a low-barrier, low-skill technique that could involve kids in the making of objects from found, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable materials. Then I landed on the work of late American sculptor Judith Scott, whose many exhibitions of her curious bound and woven fiber/found objects have led to discourse on “outsider” art, disability (she was profoundly deaf, non-verbal, and had severe Down’s Syndrome), intention, new sculpture forms and the privileged art world.
Within a month of escaping the art institution I was driving a pickup-truckload of colourful non-recyclable, non-biodegradable bits from the home-grown garbage mountain to the island’s only elementary school.
Before we got to the making part I sat down with the students and shared some images of Scott’s work for inspiration. We talked about how this artist’s method of wrapping, binding and weaving fibre around objects adds curiosity to what is on the inside. We talked about how working with familiar objects and materials in unusual ways can lead to new ideas. And we talked about how an object can be terrible and beautiful at the same time, does not have to be a recognizable thing nor have utility.
We worked over time on the pieces, some kids on their own and some in groups of two or three, adding even more fibre and found plastic detritus from their year-end trip to the local provincial marine park. On the final day of school I arrived to pick up the final pieces and was astounded at the creations. They were richly textured, humorous and foreboding, and proof of why I collaborate with children: they consistently demonstrate the importance of letting hands and imaginations fly.
They each titled their pieces in their own hand and I installed them for exhibit on forest plinths (moss-covered stumps from the last big clearcut) in time for the annual Arts Fest. With no chance they’ll degrade in the weather they remain there, pretty and pretty disturbing: our inescapable stuff.
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)
Since it’s camping season this is an appropriate object-metaphor for how you can go from creative flatlining to flourishing: my Biolite campstove.
I impulse-bought this ingenious little stove the size of a Nalgene bottle directly after reading a New York Times article on the young inventor dudes who passed them out during the Manhattan blackouts following Hurricane Sandy back in 2012. It uses any ol’ post-apocalyptic flammable debris as fuel — leaves, scraps of paper, wood-building shards, coffee stirsticks — to make heat, boil water and re-charge communication devices through a USB port.
At first, the tiny fire is underwhelming, barely a flame. But the more you tend it with more bits, the hotter and hungrier it gets until that heat energy kicks in a fan, and soon you’ve got a turbo flame that resembles a gas stove on high. That’s when you can plug in and connect up to the rest of the world. From litter!
But what does that have to do with recharging one’s long-dormant, dead-dog creative abilities? Unlike the prepper/survivalist crowd that loves this kind of gizmo, most of us don’t have the foresight to equip ourselves with a source of heat (and life) in case of emergency. We might not even notice that we’re in a cold, dark spot and could use some serious assistance.
At first we just put on a sweater like our mothers taught us, because we’re tough. When we start seeing our breath we may put on thicker socks, maybe a toque, even long underwear. Next thing you know we’re barely padding around our places in those balloon-y sleeping-bag slippers and a slanket, and stealing the neighbours’ cats just to keep our laps warm. We are not going anywhere.
But at some point we have to give in to a little outside help. This can feel incredibly risky when we’re used to doing it all on our own. But desperate times call for desperate measures so we throw a few dubious bits together and keep at it ‘til we see a spark. Then — and this is the risky part — we put it out there for others to see, tiny and weak as it is. Inevitably we get some heat back: words of encouragement, some effect. We see that even our small little fire can create heat for others, and we can almost feel our endorphins kicking in. The fan is in gear and soon we are generating some serious creative heat through a fiery feedback loop. This is the time to gather around that ring of fire with those who love and support us. Maybe even start a singalong.
Sometimes the heat is too much and we will have to back off for a while, regroup, but it’s good to know that the creative heat-generator is there when we’re in a very dark place.
Once you're ready to shed all those protective layers you'll find you're in pretty good shape.
I'm not knocking social media. Hitting 'Like' to one posted act of injustice after another is nothing like joining a sit-in at your MP's office or marching in protest. But I also get that there is power in those tweets and online petitions. We saw it this week when Tim Hortons decided it had had enough bad press and was breaking its ad deal with Enbridge.
Still, there's a lot we lose by going through life connecting with one another mostly via screen-pecking 'like' or tweeting or 'gramming. We are, after all, a social species; our well-being is dependent on sharing space in the actual physical world. Consider this: If someone took away your ability to connect on social media you might get seriously miffed. If you were allowed unlimited social media access but had to connect in physical isolation from all other humans, you might get seriously unhinged.
There is something profoundly healthy about being around the energy of other people. It's the why for clubs and associations, parties and gatherings. And it's the why behind the Network sculpture/social engagement project.
Artist Debbie Tuepah and I came up with the idea just a few years after the birth of Twitter and Facebook, and within a year of the debut of Instagram and Pinterest. We felt a need to create a physical alternative to all this virtual social networking — some low-barrier, small-footprint way to bring people together. Something that would be collaborative but less skill-based than, say, a quilting bee, but offering similar tactile engagement.
This thread of an idea soon joined other threads: the materials should be found/donated and should be the stuff that ordinarily ends up in a landfill. Synthetic, petroleum-based fabrics and sheeting would do the trick. (No one knows what to do with those lurid-coloured Fortrel bedspreads and vinyl shower curtains.)
We cleared the decks and hung several strands from a hook in the studio ceiling, like I did as a kid when making those macrame plant hangers. We added one strand to another by simple knotting. We held parties and invited friends to bring their friends to tie one on. Kids got knotty and businessmen who thought the whole thing a little weird at first were soon weaving free-style.
We knew we were onto something. A year later it made its public debut at the Mini Maker Faire at the PNE, where it grew into the gargantuan piece it is today.
The Network is too big for any studio parties now. This mammoth collaborative sculpture demands the kind of space like the Atrium of the Mount Pleasant community centre, where it will be suspended on Saturday, June 20, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. as part of the city-wide Draw Down event.
Come on down, tie one on, grab a thread and take part in this social medium in the actual, physical world.
Playing with mainly found materials, and whenever possible with other people, offers me the chance to learn about properties and potential of those throw-away materials as well as about collaborative problem-solving and new/old modes of social interaction. I try not to overthink that link between materials and the inherent social nature of our species but just go with the urge to make the connections.
Working with cob – natural concrete that uses clay, sand and straw – provides a glimpse of an alternative to the inevitable glass-tower existence, the reliance on fossil fuels and the hazardous extraction and distribution process.
There’s nothing like bunker fuel hitting the local beaches or the growing Pacific trash vortex not so far away from those freighters to inspire alternatives. The solutions to these problems require alternative thinking, which depends on playing with ideas.
I got that first glimpse in a two-week cob-house-building workshop in the forest atop a Gulf Island, just days after I closed the door on my office job at a city newspaper. It was a tough adjustment, moving from a hierarchical corporate media culture to a loose, collaborative course-movement.
By day I hauled boulders and danced the sand into the clay with the Mud Girls, the kind of people I had never cross paths with in a Vancouver editorial department. By night I slept alone in a tent on a mossy outcrop.
How was it? my friends asked after I returned. "Wild" was the only way I could describe this foreign experience.
Ten years later, I’ve been aching to dig my hands back into that feeling of the possibility of building something out of nothing, with others, testing our physical strength and forging connections with others who have a line on a local source for our materials.
The project is a cob oven, on a Gulf Island. The goal is to bake a pizza by the end of the summer.
Phase 1 is complete: creating a solid foundation for the oven. This is essential for protecting the cob from the Wet Coast climate.
The first two days were all about excavation. I hacked through thick salal root and hauled out bucket after bucket of compressed silt aggregate. The kids were eager to get into the act of shoveling the dirt onto the screen, then pouring water through the screen until just the rocks remained. I laid down some found French drain then back-filled with the gravel and stones until the site was pretty much level.
Next up: Building a dry-stack stone foundation – with a little help from my friends. Stay tuned.
I liked the idea of messing with the overlooked and the banal to open up possible new understandings about preconceived notions.
There was something delicious about a collection of attractive objects -- flat white familiar forms at a personal/counter-top scale -- that is also just a little disturbing for its wrongness. Those little electrical cords suggest hazard. They seem to say, Whatever you do, don't plug us in, so in a sense they have some visual power.
I was thinking about Martha Rosler's groundbreaking feminist video, "Semiotics of the Kitchen" (1975 - edited version below) when I came up with my "Unfixtures" sculpture series.
Ah, the power of uncertain objects. What was an experiment in found-object sculpture is an eye-catching visual for a company in the business of creative work.
"I love the plug part," my brother Clay said in a text the other day, after sending me pics of his company's latest brochures and business cards. "It makes it real... like you could fire it up and it would start doing whatever the hell it would do."
Unfixtures are a permanent fixture (when they're not showing in a gallery) at my brother's office. One of the pieces in particular seemed to be speaking to him as he was trying to come up with a name for a new web-design/branding partnership a while back.
"It was the perfect storm of me trying so hard to come up with a name and just staring at the sculpture led me to understand how this business was the mix of two companies," he wrote. eggbeater creative was born.
"It was whimsical and interesting, and then there was the obvious part of the eggbeaters working as light bulb (idea) metaphors. The sculpture had traditionally conflicted parts, but they were together in a way that worked."
The company logo (seen at the bottom left of the brochure in this image) riffs on the sculpture and the lower-case 'e'.
Below: A time-lapsed view of a painting commissioned for Eggbeater Creative:
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