What does making and crafting with the beautiful natural fibre of wool offer us?
Does the comfort of handwork and the chance to work in community with other makers bring us comfort in this time of [post?] pandemic anxiety? Does wool’s biodegradability ease our ecological grief as our planet faces what seems like catastrophic climate change?
My hunch is “YES!!” and with colleagues Miranda Smitheram (Design and Computation Arts) and Kelly Thompson (Fibres and Material Practices), and students at Concordia University, I have put together a research project to find out more … from people like you who work with wool. We will join our community partners, the TWIST Fibre Festival, this August 12-14, 2022, and invite some of the thousand attendees to tell us their side of the story by completing an online questionnaire, showing us their favourite knit creations, and possibly joining a hybrid (in person in Montreal/on line anywhere) knitting circle in the fall/winter of 2022/23.
We hope to make and learn with you, and help support a societal shift back to natural fibres and glorious wool in particular, at this pivotal moment in our planet’s history.
Watch this space for more info on how to join us!
When actual entry to a space seems impossible, the arts can provide imaginative and virtual access, generate debate about the politics of space and environmental justice, and even potentially initiate change. Such is the premise behind Giardino dell’Eden, the art action that I and collaborators Cynthia Hammond and Kelly Thompson initiated in Venice, developed as an off-Biennale art event exploring an infamous and inaccessible, locked garden. This urban ghost is known as the Eden Garden or Giardino dell’Eden, after its first non-Venetian owners, Sir Frederick and Lady Caroline Eden, who bought, developed and loved (1884-1920) what still remains the city’s largest private garden, located on the island of Giudecca. Through the mid-century, the space was owned by minor European royalty and enjoyed notoriety as a cruising grounds and glitterati favourite. Closed to the public since its 1979 purchase by the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the Eden Garden is now a place of legend behind 10-foot high brick walls, as well as the focus of our activities from May 16 to 22, 2017.
Our on-site conversations confirmed what our preliminary research had suggested: no locals had entered the garden in recent memory and just about all wished to. This desire was most intense among those feeling a lack of ‘place’ for local Venetians, as rampant tourism and the ‘Air BnB effect’ price housing out of residents’ reach, and national economic instability results in youth unemployment skyrocketing to 39 percent earlier this year. We were told that every day, three Venetians move out of the city, causing the local population to fall more than two-thirds since the 1950s, to an historic current low of 53,000. By contrast, each day, more than 60,000 tourists visit the city. As artists traveling from Canada for this project, we felt our implication in this difficult dynamic. The black irony of our project’s coinciding with the Venice Biennale was part of the work, as well. Noticeable to us was the increased tourist- and Biennale-traffic to the Giudecca, visibly up since our 2015 on-site conceptualization of our project. This normally quiet post-industrial island, across the Canal from the main tourist and exhibition sites, was visibly gentrifying. What this all means for the future of the Giardino dell’Eden is unclear. In private hands, it can remain locked away in perpetuity. But we would like to believe that our project, by gradually building connections with and between locals and owners and supporting residents’ efforts, may offer the possibility of change. While this year’s Biennale theme is “Viva Arte Viva,” set by curator Christine Macel as an “exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist,” our project proposes instead a countercry that would encourage art in the service of communities, of the people, plants and animals that seem under-represented in the new Venice that is in the making. We hope that by raising the spectre of the Giardino dell’Eden’s urban ghost, our art project can encourage efforts towards a city of greater social and environmental justice. Or at least unlock the gates to a garden.
We have returned from Venice with ample documentation, photographs, audio and video that takes up questions of public vs private space, the role of gardens and our natural environment in creating joy and promoting environmental stewardship, and considerations of gentrification and displacement in our globalized world. Our plan is to develop an exhibition from these materials for Montreal (2018) and the Giudecca (2019).
A week ago today (meaning Thursday, May 26), I awoke with the strongest feeling of wanting to bring some silk with me to Iceland. Silk? Really? Silk and not wool? Silk in addition to wool? I had had the question of which materials to bring on my mind for weeks, but had been too busy with other matters to get to the studio or art supply store and start assembling them. With my flight on Saturday, I basically now had to gather and go. Warned by the Icelandic Textile Centre that options local to Blönduós were virtually nil, I expected to bring with me the materials I planned to work with.
This was a little tricky, since I was not at all sure of the work that I would do. There were obvious compromises: bring drawing materials, since drawing can be preliminary to any project. Perhaps I would just draw and work up pieces in textiles when I got home in July. But that seemed wrong, a missed opportunity. Even so, the drawing materials went into the bag and I am glad of them now as I think through dimensions, scale, superimpositions. The next obvious choice: bring wool. Everyone thinks of wool in connection with Iceland. And I loved wool: I had been using woollen and wool/cashmere cloth as the ground for my maps for the past six years. But even fine-milled Italian broadcloth is heavy and bulky – and of course expensive. It made no sense to buy and carry lengths of wool when I wasn’t yet sure what I’d do with it.
Plus, since I tend to choose my background colour and the work’s size very much in relation the the specifics of the project at hand, I didn’t want to pre-emptively select. I had no feel in my body as yet for Iceland, so I couldn’t find a way to feel into the materials I would want to represent it.
Even so, waking up last Thursday morning, what was calling to me was the idea of multiple yards of a heavy silk charmeuse, ivory or off-white. I awoke longing for its multiple yards’ worth of its drape, density and lustre. Really? Such a luxurious sophisticated fibre to take to so ourdoorsy, naturalized a scape, but I have learned over the years to trust my strong and inexplicable desires – at least in the matter of artmaking. That said, time was short. I was not going to get to a draper in the next two days. But rummaging in my existing stash of supplies did turn up some lengths of raw silk in cool white and an ivory: it would do.
In fact, now that I am thinking more materially about it, this raw silk is more robust than charmeuse and will stand up to the multiple layers of cloth and stitching that this Icelandic map – still in the imagining – seems to be wanting. And of course, now that I’m here, responding with body, eyes and breath to the land, sea and air, I find the shimmering silk a perfect versioning of the light on Iceland’s omni-present water. Too simple a reason for the choice, perhaps, but enough to be going on with.
The colours of Iceland seemed obvious after two days in Reykjavik: greys, blues, greens, ivories, and glimpses of golds and golden browns. Here was where the wool belonged, I realized. I would stitch into the silk cloth with wool, silk, mohair and other blends of animal fibres. The warmth and insulation these fibres provide seemed appropriate to context. Plus I felt the softness of their textures, the fuzz of some, would be a good way to render my walks, so different than the cotton floss I’d been used to using. At a local yarn store, I let my eyes and hands shop a spectrum for me. I spent far too much on yarn but came away deliriously happy, itching to get going. I was confident enough that the colours of the southern city would still pertain to the northwestern lands where I was headed: this is a small island, after all. Blönduós is about 237 km from Reyjavik, less than the distance from Montreal to Kingston. And they do.
In Reykjavik, I also found a beautiful map of Ísland to version, imagining a textile work that superimposes a version of the country and this small town, within the greater arc of walking during these long, long, luxuriously long light days. So I have created a pattern from this map, a shape to cut from one piece of silk and stitch onto the other, and I am aching to begin.
Can it really be as simple as this? Feeling this great drive to make, make, MAKE, I wonder: can I let go and just see what happens, despite being so soon arrived and so new to the place? Isn’t there more research to do? More understanding to develop? Can I trust my desire and see it as not at odds with my ethical imperatives? After all, I strive to honour and reflect something of every place in the walking maps I make. Do I know enough? Am I being too rash?
I will find out!
I have chosen to proceed, believing that whatever I make in this new context may be different from what I’m used to making in my familiar locales. My Icelandic textile map will likely be less a portrait of either of here or of me individually than a testament to my growing connection to this land. My map is my means of connection, perhaps, a gesture of process rather than an artifact of completed experience.
Okay then, let’s go!
… or coming north for a month of textile dreaming
I am in Blönduós, Iceland, a small community of 800 people who live and work in the country’s northwest, where the Blanda River meets the Arctic Sea. I have come for the month of June to the Textílsetur Íslands, a place for textile research, education, and making – where artists from around the world have come since 2005 to connect with each other, this Icelandic community and textile practices, both historical and contemporary. In the image above, the Icelandic Textile Centre is the tallest building on the left, white stucco with a red roof. Taking this picture, I am standing looking up the mouth of the Blanda River, with my back to the sea – or at least to that long finger of Húnaflói, the 100-kilometre long bay that connects us to the Arctic Sea.
This is my third day in Iceland, arriving on May 29th to spend three days in Reykjavik before heading north 350 kilometres. I have come specifically at this time of year to live the experience of the 24 hour daylight. Now, there is always light in the sky, with the sun setting today at 11:52 p.m. – midnight! – and rising again at 2:38 a.m. By the time of the longest day on June 21, the sun will not touch the horizon. I have come to my work of walking and mapping within this place of perpetual light. What will this mean to my sense of place, to my ability to come to know a terrain that never ‘disappears’ into darkness but remains always visible and accessible?
I set out for my first walk about 9 p.m., heading away from the Textile Centre up the east side of the bay. The overcast sky was a fleece-like billow, with the light dancing in the distance through openings in the cloud cover. What a feast for the eyes, the ever-changing patterns of light and shadow, painted in a palette of blues, mauves, greys and silvers. The matte softness of the sky played beautifully against the irridescent shimmer of the sea: wool and silk, the fibres that I have brought to work with. The light is mesmerizing, so beautiful and changeable it is.
How will I work in textiles, a static medium, to capture this shimmer and change? How will I bring together the movement of the sun above and of my feet below, map earth and sky as one? These are just some of the tasks I have set myself this month. I’ll discover more as I go. What joy to have this time, place and community for such exploration and growth!
Teaching with place • an on-going paradigm
I began teaching almost two decades ago, during the time I was completing my MFA at Concordia University. As an independent artist looking for funding – and technically still a student and so not eligible for awards for arts production – I stumbled on the Artist in Education program of the Ontario Arts Council (OAC). Successful in my application there, I began project based work as a visiting artist in schools. And I loved it. I loved seeing kids come alive with art, finding the vocabulary (material and verbal) to explore their interests and ideas, express their desires. Over the years, my work with more than 1000 young people in schools all over the Greater Toronto Area prompted my interest in art as a mode of knowing and my pursuit of a practice-based PhD on the subject. (More about my OAC work with children and youth can be found here on this site.)
Since that time, I have taught all kinds of topics related to visual art, community engagement, and education to adults and children in a wide range of venues. With younger artists (children and youth), the topics I chose tended to emphasize age-appropriate questions of identity and subjectivity; now, working primarily at post-secondary, I add a focus on place, histories and belonging. This is particularly appropriate in the Department of Art Education at Concordia, where teaching and research practices have a strong orientation to community art education.
Community art in Pointe-St-Charles, Spring 2013
In the winter/spring 2013, I taught two back-to-back graduate courses that explored theories and practices of art in communities, with the spring session taking the grad students, experienced artist-teachers all, to three sites in Pointe-St-Charles. The Point is an historic neighbourhood in the South West borough of Montreal (10 minutes directly south of Concordia’s downtown campus) that has faced longtime social needs such as poverty, lower levels of education, social exclusion and stigmatization. Now, with real estate development in all areas adjacent to downtown, the Point and its people are also contending with the stresses of gentrification. Each of the three sites (a school, an adult education centre, an after-school program) is facing particular social issues and challenges that were addressed via collaborative artwork in the form of murals and banners.
In developing this community/studio course, I worked in an informal alliance with MU, Montreal’s extraordinary not-for-profit mural creation company, that is working to transform our city’s public spaces and its schools. MU was already planning work in Pointe-St-Charles when their director, Elizabeth Ann Doyle, and I connected.
MU was in the midst of organizing the use of the long exterior wall of St. Gabriel’s School for a large mural by artist Annie Hamel, commemorating the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the ‘filles du roy’ (king’s daughters), who first settled in Montreal in the nearby Maison St. Gabriel, now a historical museum. Although exterior murals are created by a team of professional artists, MU also works with local community members on participatory projects, spreading the wealth of art around. Since Elizabeth knew that I had a longstanding interest in bringing more art to the Point, our collaboration was born. Working in a participatory manner inside the school, the Concordia graduate artists and their teams of Grade 6 artists presented quite different views of place, history and belonging than that on the outside wall, oriented to the first settlers from France. The board, the school staff, the parents and the children all appreciated the dialectic: having their own visions made real.
The community-engaged project was very well received by the graduate participants and by the sites at which they worked. We’ve made relationships that we’ll build on, me especially, as I plan for future Pointe-St-Charles based teaching in coming years. With community outreach being an institutional priority of Concordia University, the work of this class was showcased in “Community from the Perspective of an Art Facilitator“ on ConU’s website, a story for all to enjoy.