Click HERE for a 10-minute journey through the methods and motivations behind this MFA thesis. (Film made by Ana Valine, Rodeo Queen Pictures, August 2020)
Hoping for heat in this log cabin
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)
“Your hair seems blue,” a friend noted over dinner.
It really is. I’ve joined the blue-rinse gang — emphasis on the blue. Denim blue is an unnatural hair hue that seems only natural now that I'm surrounded by heaps of old jeans and altering all those tones of denim. As usual, I’m not questioning why, but how: how to add some pleasing form to a traditional working fabric; how to infuse some lacy aspect into that utilitarian cloth.
What I do see is that after four months exposed to the bright colours of urban Mexico and the glare of the garish new Trump era, I am thirsty for cool, serene tones and patterns of rain-soaked skies and coastal stones rolled smooth by the sea. I returned to discover that I am, in fact, attached to the world of hot-water bottles, mugs of tea and toasty quilts, the coziness against the cold.
Blue is my touchstone: something real and eternal to cling to in these uncertain, unfathomable times. I may be seduced by sun-baked yellow, spicy red, lethal lime green and sunset pink but my deep, serene dreams are all denim blue.
(For a sample of my blue-jean fabrications, check out my other site, Workwraps.weebly.com)
Below: Recent experiments with denim include dousing doilies in bleach and imprinting them on on jeans before cutting for quilts.
It feels like the Internet has killed the fun of taking snapshots of beautiful cities and people. So many times over the last four months in Mexico I've raised my camera (phone) to capture an impressive bronze sculpture or some baroque church facade then thought: This is pointless. A Google-image search with a few key words (Guanajuato, musicians, Don Quixote, Pipila) would produce hundreds of better-quality stock photos. We're saturated in instagrammable images. I miss those old pocket travel photo albums.
This might explain all the selfie sticks threatening to take your eye out in the crowded plazas on any given night here; putting yourself in the picture with all the famous stuff behind will guarantee a unique photo.
So I have very little in terms of a photographic record for my time here. Every view of the strolling musicians in the plazas, or the teenage girls decked in ballgowns for their quinceanera (debut) parties, the food vendors, the street singers dressed in Renaissance-style hose and puffed velvet jackets are already done. So done.
Then last week I finally started to see that the one signature-Guanajuato element that I've been captivated by is actually a worthy photo subject: the retaining walls that barely seem to be holding back the jumble of colourful, cubic houses clinging to the surrounding hills.
There's a compelling visual story in those layers of peeling paint on crumbling plaster on adobe bricks stacked on crudely cut limestone foundations. The traces of human activity in one section of wall speaks to the human habitation in this city that has its roots in the 1500s. It's quite a study in social history and handwork, an unplanned, almost invisible beauty, especially to a tourist whose port town of Vancouver has been replaced by a gleaming, pristine city of glass.
I'm seeing them as found abstracts, images of unintentional collages and mixed-media works by generations of people who work with their hands.
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:
For the last six Saturdays I have thrown open my studio doors to seven kids between the ages of 5 and 7, ostensibly to offer some art classes, but really, this was for me. I had been feeling a little stuck, with lots of false starts and second-guessing in my artwork. It was a sign to shelve the 'work' for a while and go play outside (my comfort zone) with kids.
There is nothing easy about mixing wildly enthusiastic kids with acrylic paint and ink, Sharpies, white glue, pointy scissors and a wide range of making materials. But through trial and error, this messy, slightly chaotic exploratory play leads to some beautiful surprises.
Kids at this age are not hung up on outcomes yet; they are intrinsically curious about whatever materials they come across. Their gift is showing me where their untamed hearts take them, without wrecking the joint.
I've always loved making but as a school kid I felt great anxiety about producing the class assignment correctly. I was constantly comparing my effort with the next kid's and everyone could identify who were the "good" artists and who were the hopeless cases, with the main message being messy = bad). So I decided that my class would not be about making any things in particular but just playing around with materials and methods.
I started by giving each kid a coil-bound sketchbook that would live in the studio for the entire six weeks. This is where all the weekly experiments would go, but it would also be a place for them to glue in any flat things they collected that week from their world — photos, leaves, magazine clippings, bits of fabric, birthday cards.
The sketchbook "stuffing" quickly became the warm-up to art-making, as kids ran into the studio to retrieve their sketchbook from the shelf, showing one another their latest finds, and looking over their past pages.
As they stuffed they discovered new ways to arrange the pieces, which often led to new ideas. For example, one page of glued coins and leaves became a story about a money tree. Another kid learned how to do pencil rubbings on the reverse side of his page of found objects.
But a 9x12-inch page can be a little limiting, so I showed them how their larger experiments could be folded up like a map and glued into their sketchbooks. Going through their own sketchbooks became an activity of unfolding and folding, which also gave them a chance to review their weekly experiments.
I remember being frustrated over the limitations of gritty, porridge-like tempera paints, unyielding plastic paint brushes and shabby newsprint so I put out a bucket stuffed with quality brushes of all sizes and a selection of brilliant, heavy-body acrylic paints. I set them up with their own Styrofoam palettes, a large sheet of white paper masked out right on the wall and made the intentionally vague suggestion that they paint what is inside them. That led to some surprising abstracts, and yes, it did include one portrait of poo. But it was poo with great intention, plus the kid who did that ended up captivated by his palette of swirling colours so the next Saturday he cut it out and glued it into his sketchbook.
Then there was the fun-with-yarn day. One kid demo'd his new pom-pom-making gizmo while other kids glued down bits of yarn like spaghetti and embossed it with a sheet of tinfoil. As they talked and watched one another create, some of those three-dimensional designs morphed into mazes and maps, with the help of Sharpies.
At right: A bit of yarn, some glue and a sheet of tinfoil transported this young artist into a world of tornadoes and skateboards (or was that snowboards?).
Above: A loose suggestion to create a mosaic from magazines, perhaps sorting by colour or shape was advanced to use found patterns as a dress on a picture of a girl, (left) and a mosaic of heads, appropriately entitled, "Hideous Heads."
Letting the kids loose on a wide range of mark-making tools pushed their ability to express themselves. "I love this black" was Mimi's first response as she took the velvety oil pastels for a spin, while the watercolour pencil crayons allowed Javi to achieve some finer painting details.
Every week we talked about the word, 'inspired', as in, I am inspired by your great works.
There is not a coffee shop in town where two people, heads almost touching as if in shared prayer, aren’t focused on one pocket-sized screen. Sometimes one of those people is me, in answer to an artist friend’s question, What are you up to these days?
That ability to instantly share an image is a godsend to those of us who are more comfortable communicating visually than verbally. (The test: We are fully on board with Ikea text-free picto-instructions.) It saves us from resorting to wild hand gestures to describe abstract forms and ideas.
Some things are indescribable but according to the enquiring friend, I have been making ‘doinks’, “a ball of a single material.” Yay! A new term to help place these pieces. I asked him about the origin of ‘doink’, which he said was a word supplied by another artist friend, and could possibly be Finnish or Mennonite.
I was so hoping it was Finnish as those are my people but all translator sites came up zip for ‘doink.’ I became obsessed and pushed him to supply the contact info for this friend (all while he was en route to Paris) and before long this friend-of-a-friend and I were tangled up in possible roots of this nice, naughty-sounding word.
“I wonder if the word comes from the sound the doink makes when it hits something?” she mused. “Doinks are one of the only things I remember being allowed to throw at someone, and throw inside the house.” She knew the expression from her dad, who grew up in Winnipeg, but her husband was also familiar with ‘doink.’
“It was a generally used word from the ‘70s,” he said. “Always in the context of something crumpled that you could throw, like tape.”
Anecdotal evidence reveals it is not in common usage among kids - in these parts, anyway - and there’s no sign of it as a descriptor for an orb in any online slang dictionaries. It may be an archaeic, onomatopoeiac classroom term referring to any orbital projection that is beaned (another great, graphic schoolyard word) at a classmate when the teacher’s back is turned, resulting in neither noise nor injury.
Based on my research and interviews, I have concluded that I am in fact not making doinks, as any one of these single-material spheres could cause significant bruising (the one made of barge tow rope weighs in at 20 pounds) or at least an uncomfortable sliming (10 pounds of kelp will do that).
So I’ve come up with a term of my own that I hope takes root for these hefty natural-fibre wound balls: Orbbits.
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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