The Imperfect Garden: Falling in love with our Dots and Spots

May 10th, 2018

Like nearly everyone out there who is reasonably informed about the direction our planet is heading, I’m worried. We are told each day that we are approaching, or have even surpassed, the point of no-return.

I wander in my garden, taking in all that teeming unsuspecting life.

This is how I want it to be, forever. I want to snap my fingers and wake up to a world that promises to stay just like this. But the pragmatist in me knows that, as a representative of the most intelligent life form on earth, I have to stop wishing and start doing. As one little person on a planet that now holds over 7 billion people, what can I do to make a difference, and why would I even try, with so little possible effect?

As always, when I face a question of a moral nature, I turn to my muse and mentor, Science, for guidance.

Science pulls up a chair, pours the wine. She begins by saying that our Earth is a unique and rare environmental miracle – so rare that we have not yet found another planet like it.

Chlorophyll, that amazing molecule that abides in the green of leaves, is the man behind the curtain. This complex molecule is composed of one Magnesium atom nested inside a ring of Nitrogen, and festooned with strings of Carbon and Oxygen. Chlorophyll combines carbon dioxide, water, minerals and light energy to synthesize food for the plant, releasing oxygen as a by-product. It’s like making cake from air and water. This process, called photosynthesis, is the foundation for nourishment and breath of all life on earth. Without a filter of green leaves to capture sunlight, reflect some back, and provide shade, the surface of this planet is toast.

Photosynthesis: to harness energy from light

Considering its crucial role in our lives, we could ponder why we don’t talk about Chlorophyll every day, embed it in every child’s prayer and shout it on every street corner. It should come up in conversation at least as often as water and air. Chlorophyll, the tireless machine for photosynthesis, is fully responsible for setting the stage for life on Earth.

It took billions of years to achieve Earth’s precise atmospheric profile and vegetation. The diversity of life forms allows some flexibility against temporary anomalies and disasters, but a steady temperature change eventually creates dramatic results. As it happens, over millennia, species were wiped out on a regular basis due to such events. Nature can cope with change: she is generous and prolific, filling all the broken spaces with something new. But she is also cruel – she doesn’t care if one species or another dies. If humans irresponsibly accelerate change to a point where natural corrections no longer match our biological needs, we get voted off the island. Nature turns a blind eye. Clearly it behooves us to maintain the conditions we have now, for our own survival if nothing else.

Solar Power #1 14×26″

Millions of acres of land are now lost to urban spread. Parking lots, roads, massive structures. The soil under and around them is long dead, swallowed by industry and polluted or inaccessible. The only real pockets of life left in the urban environment are our public parks and home gardens. This is where home gardeners come in (to be clear, from this point, we are talking home gardens here, not commercial agriculture).

Lately many local environmental agencies have been offering workshops and classes on Natural Gardening and, curious about the concept and execution, I cautiously dipped my toe in the water. Natural gardening is the process of returning our landscape to its original state before human disturbance. Hmm. I pictured lots of weeds and shrubby overgrown borders. My landscape garden teeters on the edge of chaos as it is. But if I wanted to lay out the red carpet for wilderness, there was some re-thinking to do.  One big turning point in this thought process came to me in the form of a book: Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy, of University of Delaware. A simply put, and elegantly written call to action. Here are some things I learned.

Highly recommended!

It’s pretty simple, actually – like us, wild creatures need food, shelter and nesting sites. And every creature evolved to fill a niche, to form part of a cascading series of relationships that depend upon each other. We need to encourage them to keep doing their work. Most gardeners are great at planting flowers to attract and feed pollinators like butterflies and bees. However flowering plants are rarely hosts for insect larvae, who require instead specific native trees and shrubs. Caterpillars and larvae, soft and easy to catch for the parents,  are the main food for young birds. One small clutch of chickadees requires some thousands of caterpillars to reach maturity!

In fact insects are unusually nutritious. Higher in protein than beef, they are the most important vehicle to convert the energy from plants to edible form for animals higher in the food chain. These in turn become sustenance for larger predators. So, in order to maintain a stable ecosystem, we have to acknowledge the incredibly important role of insects.

If you are like me, you’ve spent a lot of energy ridding the garden of insects! In the past I grabbed a spray can or insect powder as soon as I saw the first flawed leaf. And of course, we are always looking for plant varieties that are bug free, those convenient alien ornamentals. This is one of the main problems – our native insects have not evolved to lay their eggs on introduced plants – they simply do not recognize them as food. If insects cannot feed themselves in the garden, the animals that depend upon them won’t either. By planting foreign species, we are essentially creating deserts for wildlife. Those plants are not contributing to the natural cycles, and hungry animals must go somewhere else. An ever-diminishing ‘somewhere else’.

Maybe we need to change how we think of beauty. Instead of looking at the holes in our leaves as empty, we could think of them as the full belly of a baby bird:

Connected #1 14×14″

or as baby blankets for Leaf Cutter bee larvae:

A Redbud leaf, with the telltale carved ovals made by Leaf Cutter bees.

Leaf Cutter Bee #2 18×18″ Click on the image to read more!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Instead of condemnation, we could honour our ‘holy’ plants for being active participants in the natural cycles in our environment, letting leaves fulfill their purpose of providing food for wildlife. Or take the long-term view by accepting that damaged leaves will eventually yield riches of new butterflies, birds and animals. Encourage lazy gardening by leaving things alone and appreciating the small areas of beauty that arise naturally, over sweeping vistas achieved by painstaking effort. There are indeed complex issues around natural gardening that I’m sure you’re thinking about right now. Introduced pests and other invasive species complicate our efforts, and we have an emotional attachment to traditional ornamentals. And of course, the neighbours! Nevertheless, this is a call for all home gardeners to take things in hand and begin saving our world, if only one small plant at time.

My personal plan?  Long ago I delivered all our chemicals to the waste recycling plant, and this year will be the first fertilizer-free year on our property. Our plan is to replace failing trees and shrubs with native species sourced from local nurseries. I’ll let goldenrod and milkweed flourish, and allow other natives as they find their way to the borders. I will aim for continuous blooms for spring to fall, and keep shallow dishes of water filled for the birds and the bees. I will keep the discussion open with my good friend Science, for updates about best practices. And I will say a prayer of thanks for Chlorophyll, every single day.

Holy Leaf #2 8×14″  Holes in leaves are all about potential!

 

Oh… and I will be presenting a talk on this very subject on June 12… here is the info:

The Imperfect Garden: Falling in love with our Dots and Spots
Carnegie Gallery
June 12, 2018 at 7 pm
As a professional Horticulturalist I’ve been following the evolution of gardening practices since the late 1970’s. In this talk I will present and discuss current information about incorporating native plants, and its importance in preserving and renewing our natural environment. The talk will be illustrated with my own photographs and examples of my textile art work.
$10 for members, $12 for non gallery members – Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling the gallery

Our Jesuit Pear – A living Love Note from the past

March 28th, 2018

I grew up on a cash crop farm in South Western Ontario, complete with a small orchard of peaches, cherries, plums and pears. Whenever I see a row of fruit trees, I feel a rush of nostalgia for my childhood.

Small Orchard #1   2016   10X30″ framed textile

My father would not contemplate life without them and now I know why – the urge to plant fruit trees may well be genetic. My French ancestors, who colonized the area which constitutes the Canadian/American border at Windsor and Detroit in the 1700’s, were the first settlers to plant fruit trees in Ontario, following earlier plantings by Samuel de Champlain at Annapolis Royal some time around 1610 (thank you for that, Heather!).

With them, they brought everything they needed, generously bestowed by the beloved French King Louis XV. This included equipment, seed, trees, and animals. Nothing but the best for the new colony! Jesuit missionaries, who were great travelers, planted fruit tree pips wherever they went. But the one defining tree was the Pear – every original French farm along the Detroit River had its share, as an epicurean connection to the home country. These trees were later called Jesuit or Mission Pears.

A couple of years ago I was invited back to my home town of Chatham as keynote speaker for the release of a video about local Heritage trees. At the event, I was surprised to learn that a few Jesuit Pears still survive in small pockets on both sides of the Detroit River. What?! Pear trees that are 250 years old? Impossible!

Enter childhood neighbour and passionate local historian, Dan Peltier, who offered to take me around and introduce me in person to three old timers on the Canadian side.

The famous Iler Road Pear, mother of hundreds!

We toured through the rich farmlands, sideroads and hidden driveways of Essex County to find these silent matriarchs. Never have I seen such big pear trees – in their present form they are diminished due to the vagaries of time but it’s easy to see that in their heyday, at over 60 ft in height, they might have given the local oaks and elms a run for their money. Jesuit Pears take 20 years to mature to fruit, so needless to say that, along with their discouraging height, they are not sought after in the modern orchard. However, the generous and reliable fruit, though small, is spicy and sweet, and the tree is resistant to pests. These characteristics make it a worthy addition to any breeding program. At the Harrow Research Station, 16 Jesuit pear clones are being preserved in the Gene Bank.

Martin Gadsby, Research Technician at the Harrow Research station in front of cloned Jesuit Pears.

In subsequent research, I learned something else: one early 19th Century farmer in Detroit planted an orchard of 12, which later became known as ‘The Twelve Apostles’. The tree designated as Judas was set a bit apart from the others. Scroll forward to Detroit in the 40’s: there was a ceremony to plant new cuttings from the last remaining tree, the St Peter Pear, only to find out a month later that it was actually the Judas Pear. Consternation ensued!

As a victim of further breeding in the motherland, this particular breed of pear can no longer be found in its original form in France. It suddenly struck me that the French language in our area parallels our Jesuit Pear history: many French words commonly spoken in Ontario decades ago are no longer used in France. Like these! I recall using some of these old words, or hearing them spoken by elders. No wonder the Jesuit Pear has been recognized as a living symbol of our region’s French speaking community.

Easy to see that the Jesuit Pear is the coolest Pear ever. What can I do to honour it? And so I begin with the idea of tree rings, which are visual markers of the passage of time. Below is a first trial which may lead to other larger versions.

Jesuit Pear   2018   8×8″   framed textile

Fascinated by the story of the Twelve Apostles Pear orchard, I wonder, if not for Judas’ betrayal, would Christianity have taken its present form? I consider the idea that darkness can bring light.  In the piece below, the 12th tree, the Judas pear, grows through to the centre – joining the outside to the heart. With this piece and with many others, I am exploring and embracing my attachment to my Roman Catholic roots… what it means to me now, as compared with my early training in doctrine.

The Twelfth Pear 2018 16×16″ framed textile

And another take on it…. this one a wall hanging.

Call of the Heart    2018    36″ fabric wall hanging

I intend to continue working on this series as fresh information and ideas come along. There is plenty to draw from its connection to my French heritage. And I’m imagining how its seeds and seedlings might have traveled to the New World in the pockets of the missionaries.

These cupped hands belong to the 80+ year widow owner of the Petroschuk farm from which the Harrow Station pears were cloned. (Photo by Tanya Wigle)

Who knew an old fruit tree could be so… fruitful. Her twisting branches reached out and drew me back to my roots, in spirit, language, history, and HOME.

By clicking on some of the images in this blog, you will be linked to the relevant research sites.

(with thanks to my great friend Dan Peltier, who knows the most important things there are to know, and to Robert Holland who dedicates so much energy and effort to help preserve the Jesuit Pear, and who generously permitted me to share the image of the cupped hands from his website)

Thinking in Circles – The Root Language of Trees

January 10th, 2018

Greetings and Happy New Year!

In my last blog post, I described how my touring exhibition of round wall hangings, Woven Woods, came to be. This collection is now launched at its first venue at Art Gallery of Burlington and will be there until January 28, 2018. It will then move on to several other venues until 2021. You can imagine that after four years of dreaming and working toward this goal, it might be hard to let it go.

Woven Woods at Art Gallery of Burlington
Dec1 – Jan 28, 2018

Well, not surprisingly, it turns out that circles are simply irresistible. No sooner had I finished the last wall hanging for Woven Woods, an intriguing new direction presented itself. I was checking out images of cut tree trunks, when it occurred to me that tree rings have a great deal to say. They tell us about a tree’s history, about growth and aging, about endurance, about how their stories grow from the heart and mark them forever. Circles are symbols of eternity and commitment. I thought that these tree rings might help me better understand trees, from the inside out.

As I studied various types of cut tree stumps and their rings, it struck me how differently trees must experience their world from that of humans. As mobile bilateral beings, we humans interpret our surroundings from the centralized perspective of our brain. Trees however are radial beings, with no bundled nervous system, and live their entire lives in a fixed position. In spite of these limitations, we know now that they developed sophisticated ways to communicate with each other. Wouldn’t it then be natural to wonder if trees might share their consciousness with beings like us? Moreover, is it possible for us to reach out to them too?

Right around that time, the movie Arrival came out. The film is based on a short story in “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. In the story, an alien ship lands on earth, and the life forms on it, mobile radial beings, are desperately attempting to communicate. A specially trained linguist is hired to decipher their written language, which is comprised of intensely ornamented circles and spirals. By the end of the movie, we understand that these beings use a communication system that incorporates time – past, present and future – in each of their missives. Time for them is measured in a circular way. This new language is in fact their special gift to us – reminding us that we must always take into consideration the karmic effect of our thoughts and actions. This led to an exciting AHA! moment for me, in support of a fresh approach to relational experience.

Could not find the creator of this wonderful cartoon 🙁

Of course, in my online research I came across numerous techniques for approaching and communing with trees – some arising from ancient cultures, others that seemed, well, just made up. Here is one of the better examples, a very detailed series of steps of Chinese origin: How to befriend a Tree. As I’ve said before, I’m a doubting Thomas when it comes to most of this new age stuff. Still, my direct experience tells me there is a distinct field of energy that surrounds each tree, and the strength varies greatly from one to another. I can feel it. I wonder, does the tree also feel me?

Wind in the Willow #2
12×12″

Working with tree rings in fabric is a rare delight – there is an unlimited scope for play and ornament using the wealth of shapes and structures that nature provides. I layer circle upon circle of fabrics, stitch them down, and start the journey using free-motion embroidery on my sewing machine.  Each one is a fresh meditation, leading me along a slightly different path. As I make more, I discard some motifs while bringing in new ones. With these pieces I put myself into the heart of the tree and work outwards, letting the prints and colours guide the choices. They take a long long time to make.

Mother Oak
16×16″ 2017

Might tree rings help us understand the language of trees? Is it possible that a tree’s consciousness extends, aura-like, beyond the rough bark of its exterior, like radiating tree rings? Do trees embrace the full cycle of time as they witness the world around them? These are questions I continue to ask as I explore the imagery and possibilities. As I walk in the woods I try to stay open to the fresh perspectives my art has opened up for me.

Heartwood – Hawthorn
12×12″ 2017

You may well ask, is all this just a stretch? Maybe. But not long ago, inter-plant communication was also considered a stretch. Our scientists have now proven it true. The First Nations people honour and speak to trees. Perhaps in the near future, we will determine without doubt that they are indeed reaching out to us, and are only waiting for us to accept their gift.

Communion #2
8×16″ 2017

Woven Woods: A Journey through the Forest Floor

November 2nd, 2017

At long last I can tell you about a major collection I’ve been working on for nearly five years, that just began its cross country tour of Canada. This project has been on my brain since the initial idea found me, and naturally I’m excited, if only to be able to see it at last on gallery walls.

An exhibition is coming! An exhibition is coming!

If you’ve been following my posts, you will know I’ve been working with a number of natural concepts, centered mainly around trees and tree biology. The current research that interests me most is about tree communication, particularly the mechanics of how trees send and receive nutrients and messages through their roots with the help of forest fungi.

Here is a short description of this natural process, which I’ve described in greater detail in earlier posts (including this one):
In the top six inches of the forest floor lies a vast and flourishing communication system as old as photosynthesis itself: an exquisitely balanced symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and tree roots which provides a network of channels for resources and messages between individual trees. The resulting plant chatter is as complex and efficient as our own worldwide web. In recent research, biologists have also discovered the existence of Mother trees: larger, older specimens that, with the help of their fungi, serve as system hubs in life, and as nutrient pumps in death. This mycorrhizal network thus connects and stabilizes the forest, and by extension, our entire planet’s biosphere.

Fascinated by this current research, I applied for an Ontario Arts Council Grant to travel to the University of British Columbia and meet Dr Suzanne Simard who is a leader in this field. Together with her and some of her gracious Grad students, I toured her lab on campus and her field facilities through the mountains to Kamloops. It was an eye-opening experience.

Dr Suzanne Simard in her natural element, the forest.

I couldn’t wait to share my reverence for this ancient forest system, not only for its own sake but also because we have so much to learn from nature for our own survival on earth. After visiting Dr Simard I spent three years of sometimes excruciating trial and error, trying to nail down the best way to portray the process, without having it look like some kind of neo-artsy science project. You will not believe the crazy things I drew on paper, the weird thoughts I thought, and the strange clunky semi-formed beings that were born and died. And all the hours of sleep lost over flashes of brilliance, while awakening to yet another non-germinator.

What IS that thing?

But something finally clicked – I kept coming back to it with many of my earlier concepts and realized that the most logical way to show connection was with the CIRCLE. The circle is not only present everywhere in the natural world, including the shape of our planet, but it’s also symbolic of environmental cycles of all types from seasonal to reproductive to regenerative. Not to mention, the circle is inherently spiritual and beautiful.

From there, it was a matter of choosing technique, size, and cohesive elements. How many to make? Which materials? Is my 45-year old Bernina up to the task? Am I? I’d rarely worked with circular designs before – what might be the challenges?

While reading as many research articles I could find for inspiration, I drew and drew and drew dozens of coloured samples… trying out designs, layouts, colours, concepts.

One of many ideas in pencil and pen.

I decided to make quilted wall hangings rather than framed works, because I didn’t want to feel limited to any particular size or standard ‘look’. Each was to have an organic shape of its own, unencumbered by the rigid expectations of a square format. And thus began a new journey for me, working in a larger format and in the round. Once I’d made the first, I was hooked.

Ubuntu- Source 2014 47″
The very first one.

The resulting collection, entitled Woven Woods, is a series of twelve round quilted wall hangings, measuring 36 to 46″ in diameter, each depicting twelve trees of varying types, seasons and stages of growth, and portraying a different aspect of their connection with the mycorrhizal net. I chose the number twelve because in numerology it is the ‘number of completion’, and it is found almost ubiquitously in our measuring and mathematical systems, our measuring of time, and in several key spiritual and astronomical concepts. Each circle encloses the story of a thriving ecosystem, where all individual elements contribute to support the whole. The word Ubuntu, given as a prefix to each title, is an African word which means “I am, because you are.”

Ubuntu – Winter
2015 46″

For materials, I used fabrics of all kinds, mainly dyed and printed cottons, some silks, a variety of synthetics and sheers, and cotton batting. The surface technique is raw edge appliqué enhanced with machine embroidery. In a few of them I also used acrylic paint for shading effect. They are all machine quilted, and hang flat with the help of a ‘brilliant’ (ie, my own secret idea) structural framework on the back.

You can see them all HERE.  If you click on the photos you will see a description of the inspiration for each quilt and a relevant quote or poem.  Or you are so very welcome to see them in person wherever they may be. They really are better in the flesh.

Woven Woods at Art Gallery of Burlington
Dec1 – Jan 28, 2018

This collection was shown for the first time at the Art Gallery of Burlington, Ontario, from Dec 1, 2017 to Jan 28, 2018 as part of ‘Holding by a Thread’, with Line Dufour, Carole Baillargeon and Kelly Jane Bruton. It will tour until 2021 (or as long as I can find venues). My goal is to show them in every province in Canada, and, with some luck, abroad. Please see my Upcoming Events page for locations and dates. The pieces in this collection will be available for purchase at the end of their exhibit run.

Thank you thank you thank you, Ontario Arts Council!

 

Oh Canada! A Prayer for my Country

July 1st, 2017

On this day of our country’s 150th anniversary, I’m at home alone. My husband is in Europe and the rest of family and friends live away or have other plans.

I’ve never been one to join the hoopla and rah rah of nationalism. Right now I’m in the best place I can think of… my own home, on my own. My plan is to stay put all day. This morning I walked along our road on my usual circuit. A toad killed by a car caught my eye, and I carefully removed it to a shady bush to spare it further indignity. Such a fleeting little life, snuffed out. It reminded me how we humans occupy a similar small space in the grand scheme of the universe. Even 150 years pales in comparison with eternity.

 

The Comfort Maple on home turf – click on the image for more information about her history

So for this notable day, I chose as my model for meditation a grand old tree, the Comfort Maple of Pelham, now thought to be 500 years old. Like me, she has deep roots, older than the country that holds her. Hers draw on soils built over thousands of years with the bodies of billions of life forms. She breathes air from the breath of ancestors, human and pre-historic. My roots are formed from my ancestry of French and Scottish settlers mixed with North American Aboriginal blood. My breath is her breath. We share the present and the past.

The Comfort Maple doesn’t need a day of celebration – she is a celebration in herself. Each day, each minute, is a full appreciation, a prayer, of the moment. But as upright as she is today, she is declining, well past her best-before date. She is a grand old dame, destined for the same dust she has drawn upon for centuries. If she’s allowed to die naturally, she will stand for a few more decades, slowly returning to the soil all that she has taken, and more, will provide nesting and breeding space for a whole new set of creatures. Her passing is every bit as important to the natural world as her many years of service in life.

Mother Tree 2017 Framed fabric collage 18×18″

Countries, as we know them, also come and go. We don’t know what will happen over the next 150 years. My hope for our country mirrors my hope for humanity: that we will thrive without ever putting ourselves above the common good. The only purpose for borders is to keep other countries from impinging on a set of arbitrary freedoms, goals and regulations. The natural world does not make borders. At some point in the future, perhaps all borders must dissolve for a united world, and, at the risk of sounding disturbingly unpatriotic, I hope we have the trust and courage to let ours go if such a remarkable opportunity presents itself.

The Comfort Maple     Framed textile 24×36″

I adore this country, and celebrate it every day with all my heart and soul. I feel so lucky, so grateful to have been born on her soil. I’m in full support of parades and parties, and all the positive energy around them. But as for me, I will stay near and quiet today, listen to the birds, note the shadows, hold a caterpillar in my hand. This is my Canada, my beautiful beautiful Canada. May we accept the wisdom of an old maple, who by gracefully surrendering to the present, teaches us all we need to know for the future.

Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar in our forest of bronze fennel

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ASKING FOR IT – a special rant on International Women’s Day

March 8th, 2017

This morning I awoke with every intention of going into the studio for a major clearing session. I’d just put two large projects to bed and relished the thought of restoring order to the chaos that my fabric stash had become.

Complete with hula hoops, long story.

But then I remembered: today is International Women’s Day.  And I have a simmering rant to share, reanimated by an email I received only yesterday from an American quilting magazine’s editor. Her request closely ran as follows, with some edits to protect her identity:

She was writing a series of articles on how to stitch (particular styles of) quilts, and showcasing the quilts of various artists for examples. In her article for an upcoming issue, she was focusing on ‘a certain topic’. She came across my ‘wonderful’ website in her research for this article, and hoped I would agree to having three of my quilts (listed) shown in this article. She needed full and detail high resolution photos of each quilt, with its name, dimensions and copyright date, and a paragraph or so about how I accomplished the quilting, my thread choices and why I chose those threads, and what machine was used. She also needed a statement giving my nonexclusive permission to publish this quilt in print and digital media. She concluded by adding she was working on a very short deadline, so would appreciate it very much if I would get back as soon as possible.

Now, since I do not subscribe to magazines in general, I had never heard of this publication.  I generously assumed this was a recent startup, with an editor who, though polite enough, hadn’t quite mastered the etiquette of asking for a favour. Upon Googling, I learned that this is a large publication with physical and online subscriptions, with a Facebook following numbering over 200,000 Likes. Hello?

With my usual empathy for deadlines, I quickly sent my standard response,
“Thank you for your invitation.
I am wondering what is your fee to artists for using their images and information? There was no mention of this but I’m sure your publication compensates artists for their contribution to its success.”

And the swift response was,
“ … we do not pay a fee to artists for this type of publicity. If that is something that you would require, I’m afraid I won’t be able to include your beautiful work in the article.”

Hmm.

Fair enough. I don’t blame the editor. Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free? And citing ‘publicity’ is the gold standard for this type of response. Translation: “the excellent exposure we provide for you should be enough renumeration in itself!”

If I accepted all offers of free exposure, I would have little time or energy left to do the real work in my life. Artists have been known to ‘die of exposure’.

But sadly, there’s nothing new here. I am frequently asked by commercial publications to contribute articles and images for free. I am not alone. I don’t know a single artist, textile or other, professional or hobbyist, man or woman, who has not been mined for free stuff, from auction donations to images for calendars, to public presentations.

Many requests come from a good place, with charitable intent, and I’m pleased to accept some of these commitments as part of my desire to make the world a better place, with gratitude for my luck and ability to be able to contribute. But over the years I’ve learned that commercial forces try very hard to prey on this generosity as well as the gullibility of new and emerging artists, and women are excellent targets. After all, isn’t the crucial work of mother, homemaker, family cook and social supporter usually done for free? Isn’t your quilt making part of that?

I make my living as a textile artist. Historically, very little has come back from free images and articles I provided to quilt magazines over my thirty years of professional practice. I’ve had articles published in Canada, Europe, Britain, the US, and Australia, and only one time has anyone contacted me for a (very small) purchase, and not one offer to teach paid workshops. This, after hours spent collecting the information, and wrapping it up the way the editor wants it – just the tip of an iceberg when taking into account the making of the artwork itself and all the years it took to get there. Moreover I’m struck by the realization that editors who ask for free services, and the audiences who enjoy it, likely earn a more stable income (with benefits) than I can ever hope to reach with my full time work in art making.  They are essentially feeding on my creativity while giving nothing back.

The problem is endemic. I wonder – Do we, as female quilt artists, offer ourselves up too cheaply? And what about the editors, many of whom are female? Do they not hold some responsibility?

As quilters and textile artists, it is time to stand up for ourselves whether we are professionals or hobbyists, and ask for financial compensation for the use of our words and images. It does work! One of my favourite successes was to convince a Seminar Series organizer at a local University to pay artists for their presentations. I am happy to say I was the first artist to receive an honorarium. My seminar was released online and got thousands of views, many times more than any previous count. It was excellent publicity for them. Both sides won. This is how we need to approach it. Ask politely. Explain. Enlighten.

And for certain quilt magazine editors, I respectfully suggest that you reconsider your historic stance of not paying your art contributors. Artists have a most difficult time earning income, yet their audience enjoys the visual benefits for free. Especially in this age of digital sharing, artists are already giving their imagery away. Of this I do not complain: this is one of the beauties of the visual arts and it brings me great joy to share. However, if there is no renumeration for creative work that brings profit to others, eventually the very foundation of your livelihood is undermined, as is mine.

On International Women’s Day and every other day, I want to see women supporting women where it counts. Please consider being part of the solution.  Stand up and ASK FOR IT.

Let’s help each other! Your opinions and experiences, successes and failures, are most welcome in my Comments box.

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Canadian Comfort

February 18th, 2017

Lately I’ve enjoyed portraying particular trees, either for the great stories associated with them, or because of their exalted status as Designated Heritage Trees. In my search for a tree that might exemplify the true Canadian spirit to honour Canada’s 150th anniversary (and to submit to a local juried show), I came across a truly marvelous specimen who lives in Pelham, Ontario in our Niagara Peninsula.

The Comfort Maple on home turf

The Comfort Maple is believed to be the oldest and finest sugar maple tree in Canada. It lives on half an acre of land purchased by the Comfort family in 1816 and later entrusted to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, to protect it for its historical and biological significance. In 1975, the tree was estimated to be 400-500 years old by the Ontario Forestry Association. This tree towers about 80 feet at its crown, with a trunk circumference of 20 feet, which is crazy huge for a sugar maple. Despite its age and exposure to at least two bouts of lightning, this is one stunning tree in all seasons.

How to portray the story of this lone giant? I looked at all the available images from winter to fall, checking colour variations, bark texture, position of branches and location in the landscape. I found several articles that discussed its history, age, and issues of preservation. I was struck by the thought that, at 500 years old, this great old maple must have germinated in old growth forest, yet now it finds itself surrounded by tilled land with no other trees nearby. I wanted to bring this contrast of past and present into the piece.

I started with a coloured thumbnail drawing that included a field and shadowy forest in the background, shown during the day, in the fall season. But sadly, the design lacked that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’.

Drawing #1

Why not change it to night, I debated, for a stronger sense of mystery? The shadowy forms behind the tree would recall the primordial forest which existed when the maple was a tender seedling. In front of the tree could stretch the rows and furrows of its newer agricultural surroundings.

Drawing #2

Fine then, Drawing #2 it was! But… maybe a change of frame shape… should I make it a bit deeper to show more of the field rows? Hmm.

Time passed (insert sound of sewing machine, and some thread, cottons, silks, yarns)….

And voila!

The Comfort Maple
Framed textile 24×36″

In my sketches for a new piece, I rarely put in all the details. A lot of the good stuff happens right on the piece itself. I trust that as I focus on the theme for those long hours, fresh relevant ideas will come. As I began the background work I wondered how to address the long interval in time between sapling to ripe old age. What if we could tap the half-century long memory of this magnificent specimen? So I added a small closed door in the trunk, to honour the stories it might love to tell us, if only it could.

Because I’m an artist. I can do anything.

The little blue door

For colours – that particular bronzy yellow/orange from one of the fall photos was a frustrating challenge to capture. After some experimentation, I combined five different shades, colours and metallics in tiny snippets to get the right effect.

And the moon… well a rare tree like this can only occur once in a blue moon…. so that choice was made for me.

Happy birthday, Canada!

Blue Moon for the Comfort Maple

Wood artist Marv Ens of Pelham is making beautiful pens from the wood trimmed from this tree. Proceeds from their sales go to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Foundation to continue their good work. It comes with an embossed display case and a Certificate of Authenticity. At $75, this is THE perfect gift for any environmentalist. To order one, contact Genevieve-Renee Bisson, Foundation Coordinator, Niagara Peninsula Conservation Foundation at (905)788-3135 ext. 260  Website: www.npca.ca.

Comfort Maple pen by Marv Ens.

 

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Winter Apple

December 22nd, 2016

I’m looking out our back window as we speak. A drift of snow fell overnight and the world looks magical. Our old apple tree came with the property and we expect it’s as old as the house itself which was built in 1956, which makes it exactly my age. When we moved here the tree was in dire condition, with branches to the ground and a forest of suckers. It took a few years to get it back into shape and we now enjoy its beauty in all seasons. It even gives us a few delicious, crispy apples every now and then (not a given, given our ‘organic’ practices!).

Our old Apple Tree

I love the shape of this tree. Hawthorns and apples, and indeed many fruit trees, evolved to this wide low shape so that their spring blossoms are easily available to bees. Their graceful horizontal form is also restful to the eye, and I’ve created many pieces with this in mind. Each year provides a fresh take on it.

I will leave you with a bunch of images of my work, some quilts, some framed, in no particular order, relating to the apple and hawthorn, and wish you a beautiful, FRUITFUL New Year!

Apple Seeds 2001 27×31″ Quilted wall hanging

Blue Moon #4 2014 12×24″ framed textile

Faith 2010 30×40″ framed textile

Hawthorn – Red Sky 2003 27×31″ quilted wall hanging

 

Hawthorn 2014 8×16″ framed textile

Hawthorn with blue memory 2000 14×24 quilted wall hanging

Lifeline #1 2013 10×30″ framed textile

 

Little Apple #4 2016 6×12″ framed textlle

 

Little Green 2011 6×6″ framed textile

 

Mystic Apple 2014 12×24″ framed textile

 

Small Orchard #1 2016 10×30″ framed textile

 

Tenacity 2010 16×22″ framed textile

Triumph 2011 30×40″ framed textile

 

Tree House #3 2016 18×36″ framed textile

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On a Wing and a Prayer

December 5th, 2016

Earlier this year in mid-May, I received an invitation from Evan Mitchell, the Musical Director of the Kingston Symphony Orchestra, to create a small suite of works inspired by a special performance of classical music compositions, all of which incorporate birdsong. The three pieces to be performed are: Jennifer Butler’s “And Birds do Sing”, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’.

The concert hall is the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, and the lobby is large, beautiful, open, and enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking Lake Ontario. The performance is scheduled for March 5, 2017.

Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts’ lobby

Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts’ lobby

I know NOTHING about classical music (picture inner struggle here), but YES struck me as the more interesting option in this case… a new experience! So much to gain, so little to lose! I love birds! So I said YES.

And the invitation gave me plenty of time – an eternity, it seemed! The director provided links to the music, and programme notes to explain the composers’ creative inspiration for each piece. I listened to them while working on other projects, read the back stories, and then hoped something magical would happen.

Time passed…… and passed…

 

When all else fails, I think the greatest motivation possible is a deadline. Having lots of time to do something doesn’t necessarily make the result any better – in fact, it can have quite the opposite effect. So, eager to quit procrastinating, I gave myself a two week time window in November 2016 and trusted I would get there somehow.

leap

Leap of faith

 

How to begin? Obviously, listening (with intent) felt like the best first step. I recorded my main impressions as they progressed: which colours came to mind? how did the music fit the background story? How did I feel along the way? what might all those instrument sounds LOOK like?

I started thinking about the physical form of the pieces. How on earth to capture the various movements and the passage of time? After all, music moves through time but visual imagery needs to encompass everything in one shot. What about this: because a musical piece builds on itself while it plays, and previous sounds lodge in our memory even as we hear the new ones, perhaps the pieces should be tall and vertical, and read from the bottom up!

It didn’t feel right to use representational imagery alone – I wanted to show the feeling and colour of the sounds and didn’t want to limit my visualization. Abstracts they must be! As I began the drawings, I also realized they must be quilted wall panels, as the designs resisted being hemmed in by frames. And technique? It felt most logical to plan for a loose (might we say, imperfect?) form of fabric collage that would allow plenty of freedom of shape and background changes.

It takes hundreds of small decisions like this just to get to first base with any new project. Sometimes I think this is why we tend to procrastinate – it’s hard work and it’s scary! At times, the answers are easy and obvious, but other times we must make a leap of faith, hoping experience and wisdom will serve well.

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 17

I decided to begin with the Mozart which was the most accessible to me: a rich melodic piano piece. It had a charming story to match: Mozart tried to teach the theme to his starling, but the bird couldn’t get it quite right. Mozart was so tickled he wrote the bird’s mistake into his journal.

img_2193

Click on the starling to hear the Concerto

In the design of this wall panel, the starling became the central motif, with the three movements of the concerto settling around him in swirls and swoops of colour.

the-mozart-2016-42x20s

The Mozart 2016 42×20” Fabric Wall Panel

 

Jennifer Butler “And Birds do Sing”
https://soundcloud.com/jaebutler/and-birds-do-sing-2010

The second, by Canadian composer Jennifer Butler, is a modern piece written in 2010, and is the most abstract of the three compositions. The sounds begin with drums in cool waves, dark and tumbling and pierced with high flutes, eventually resolving into a lullaby composed for the composer’s daughter. What does a drum sound look like? Maybe circles… oblong circles? And flutes…. might rise up in long strands? The overall feel of the piece was cool and spring-like, hence I stayed with blues and cooler tones. The panel begins at the base with the rhythm of the drums, then another layer, upon layer until the clear notes of birdsong and lullaby surface.

the-jen-butler-2016-42x20s

The Jen Butler 2016 42×20” Fabric Wall Panel

 

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQGm0H9l9I4

The Beethoven piece was the most complex. Although I incorporated elements of the movements, like a walk by a stream, a storm, birds, and a reference to folk art to represent a peasant dance, I was more interested in the smoother cadence and feeling of the performance, the melodic swings and eddies. The sounds were less emotional than the previous two pieces, so I used a more sophisticated colour palette.

the-beethoven-2016-45x21s

The Beethoven 2016 42×20” Fabric Wall Panel

 

Each of these pieces grew and evolved completely differently. In focusing on and working with them, I learned something intriguing about classical music: that, just like visual art, it begins with a personal story – now I will listen for it. And perhaps when the music lovers at the concert see my interpretations, they might learn something about abstract visual art. My fondest hope is that the music provides an entry point for understanding the abstract imagery, and in return the visual art enriches the appreciation of the music. As with many other occasions when I took the leap, I enjoyed every single minute, and the effects will last a life time!

For purchasing information, please click HERE. All the photography of my work is done by my very talented and dedicated husband, Janusz Wrobel.

starling-1

European starling from frasersbirdingblog.blogspot.co.uk

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The Power of YES

March 8th, 2015

Last week I posted an ‘advice for artists’ article on my Facebook Page about the importance of saying NO in order to carve out time for ART. “Creative People Say No” is an extract from Kevin Ashton’s new book, “How to Fly a Horse  —  The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery.” In this article, creative people (all men, by the way!) were quoted on their use of NO to build walls around that elusive time space needed for creative exploration and production.

But, at least from my point of view, the reality is more like this: picture a studio smack dab in the middle of a busy highway, with lanes curving around this tiny oasis. Is it possible to ignore the sounds of traffic, the honking, the emergency vehicles and the multi-vehicle pileups occurring just outside? Not to mention the distractions coming from within: the trusty iPad twinkling away, and the radio announcing the latest political dramas?

City Lights   2006  19x50"

City Lights 2006 19×50″

The main difficulty, especially for women, is that we thrive on community and connection. Tuning it out, while also remaining open to creative flow, is a creative endeavor all its own. And what does success mean anyway? Wouldn’t this obsession with saying NO lead to unhappy choices in a balanced life?

So I am proposing to turn it around. Instead of selectively saying NO, why don’t we selectively say YES?

Image (2)Before I explain, maybe I should first define success. In the art world, success is the ability to carry through from inspiration to product, and to have that product reach and move an audience. (It is NOT about financial success, which is another animal altogether, distinctly separate from art creation.) I am completely confident in saying that yes, success in the art world does indeed contribute to happiness in the same way any successful interaction does, because it is satisfying to the artist and to the viewer. Communication is the fabric that holds society together. A strong, single minded approach to art-making is a worthwhile pursuit.

CHOOSING THE TOP YESes

At the same time, saying YES to one aspect in life means something has to give. We must decide what we are willing and able to live without. My father always said that it doesn’t matter what you choose, just make your decision and never look back: accept the whole package, positive and negative. So I try to remember that not every single part of my life is going to be perfect. I made a career decision with all my heart and soul, and like a marriage, for better or for worse.

Wilfred A. J. Roy, my greatest inspiration in life.

Wilfred A. J. Roy, my greatest inspiration in life.

Still, none of us is a ‘single purpose creature’. We come from society and we die with society. I believe there is room for a committed, yet balanced, art life. Therefore, for good measure, we need to make room for a few more hard YESes.

Here are my three YESes:

1. YES to Social Connection

Taking care of my Mom and babysitting our grandboy, being there when I am needed for my family. Time with a select circle of friends.

Ubuntu - Source. 43" round  This circular quilt represents connection.

Ubuntu – Source   43″  2014  Lorraine Roy
This circular quilt represents connection.

2. YES to ART

YES to helping and supporting colleagues, both established and emerging, to writing a blog because it helps firm up my own thoughts, and to keeping an active Facebook Page. YES to all the business/client time that arises.

Each time a request for my time and energy comes in, I ask: does this move my art forward, does it support my personal ethics and vision and does it draw on my strengths? Is it an efficient use of my time? Saying YES to ART led to my decision not to participate in committees, societies and group projects. I am not a primarily social creature and the stress was deadly for my work. Here was one solution: our local Carnegie Gallery requires member artists to contribute a number of hours per year, either by joining committees or taking on other tasks. Drawing on my independent streak, I created and managed their first Facebook Page. This meant I worked from home, it segued nicely with my own online time, and it saved them having a non-team player at meetings! For exhibition requests I ask: does this gallery or juried show further my exposure, is it locally relevant, and does it contribute to the perception of quality in the public mind? The answers help me be more selective. I gauge commitments against how much time and distance is involved. Of course, committees are necessary and someone must fill galleries and teach workshops: these are other artists’ YESes, and I feel quite comfortable leaving them to it.

3. YES to Quality of Life

Cooking and enjoying good food and wine, time with select friends, long walks, quiet evenings reading, and gardening. Which means: fewer parties and group activities, less travel, less time shopping, a not perfectly clean house. The resulting NOs have become so automatic I don’t miss them or waste time thinking about them. In the summer it’s a giant, defiant YES to my garden and my home.

Our little grandboy.  Always a YES.

Our little grandboy.
Always a YES.

Instead of asking “How much less will I create unless I say NO?” I ask myself, “How much more will I create if I say YES?” In my art practice, saying YES empowered my choices. If we choose our YESes wisely, the NOs will justify themselves.

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