Thinking in Circles – A journey through the rings

November 9th, 2018

My following essay was published on Nov 7, 2018 by Abbey of the Arts as a ‘Monk in the World’ Guest Post. I invite you to visit their website for more posts and inspiration.

At the moment I’m shutting down my textile studio after a long day. The chaos of my work surface recedes. My thoughts take a quiet stroll through the day’s creative journey, where my eyes and hands led me outward from the warm heart of a tree, and back in again.

I have been a professional artist working with textiles for over 30 years. I also hold a BSc in Horticultural Science. Not surprisingly, my work is inspired by trees and the many ways they connect with each other, other organisms and humans. The biology, mythology, culture and symbolism of trees have given me an infinite source of material to draw upon, gracefully guiding me from one absorbing subject to the next. Lately my generous muse has led me to circles.

The circular motif perfectly mirrors the inter-dependence of forest trees in their natural setting, and reinforces a spiritual interpretation of this remarkable phenomenon. Recently, I finished producing a collection of twelve round wall hangings called Woven Woods, which highlights the science of tree communication.

Woven Woods at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum 2018

In this way, circles captured my imagination. In my wish to delve deeper into their mystery, I came upon the idea of working with tree rings. Tree rings are a living journal of a tree’s history: its growth, development and endurance. They record events in the life of a tree by building layer upon layer of fresh cells, leaving the marks of events forever preserved within. I’m intrigued. My new task is to explore a question: what can tree rings teach me?

Taking this challenge to the studio, I begin by layering circle upon circle of plain and printed fabrics, and stitch them down. Each new layer represents a fresh phase of the tree’s life. In my mind I situate myself at the heart’s core, and, like a tree, build outward, letting stitches and colours guide me.

Heartwood – Oak Framed textile, 12×12”

Through the rings I imagine tracing my own life path, from youth, to jaded young adult, to my long break from my Roman Catholic roots. I lose myself among the layers, through the various bumps and spots, the tortuous side trips, the dark tunnels, each step leading me further from the heart. Eventually I finish the rounds, and find myself outside the circle, past the bark layer, surrounded by empty space.

I look down at my work, surprised. How did I get here, so far from the heart?

Wind in the Willow #2   12×12″

As I examine my emotions, I am suddenly reminded of my many failed attempts at communing with real trees. I’ve studied various techniques on how to approach them, imagining the power of their radiating energy, hoping to experience a warm response. Nothing works. I am always on the outside, cold, rejected. Perhaps I am taking the wrong approach. I wonder – instead of expecting energy to radiate outward from the tree, why don’t I allow it to draw me in? Is it possible to follow the rings back in as I have come?

I can experiment. I seek out a grand white oak and press my arms around her fragrant being. I let go of expectations and allow myself to fall. The difference is magical. In this moment I stand at a labyrinth’s entrance, sensing the power of her heartwood. I am guided inside, drawn up into the branches, and pulled downward into the roots. At last, the right way to approach a tree. And perhaps this is the finest message of all: she has always been there for me.

Mother Oak   16×16″ 2017

We move through our lives unconsciously collecting, storing and sometimes burying our own memories. We add layer upon layer of life experience and distraction, moving around and away from our center. We need to be vigilant, because at any moment we can be offered the gift of return. I examine my own life trajectory – one that took me far from my roots, physically and spiritually. The centre is slowly, miraculously, calling me back, and I am listening. It will likely take a few more curves and tunnels to recover, uncover, the span of my life, but a true strong heart awaits. All I need to do is let myself go.

Call of the Heart 2018 36″ fabric wall hanging

 

How to Stitch a Song: A Kingston Symphony Orchestra project

September 10th, 2018

Last year, in 2017, I was invited by Evan Mitchell, the Musical Director of the Kingston Symphony Orchestra, to create a suite of three wall hangings inspired by a special performance of classic music pieces, all of which incorporated birdsong. This project was so well received that Director Mitchell approached me once again this year with a new challenge: to use as inspiration four selected Strauss art songs.

Not one to resist an intriguing exercise, I accepted with pleasure! And thus began my six-month journey with Richard Strauss.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

A quick look at some of the links and information revealed that all four songs refer to death and renewal in some way, two of them composed at a time when the great artist was contemplating the end of his creative life.

I wondered about working with such a dark subject. Director Mitchell explained that “between the idea and imagery of renewal through the night and the optimism of tomorrow, there is a real cycle of evening through morning: a connection to the earth with our own progression of life. In the order they are to be performed, they go from openness, to existentially meditative, to intimately optimistic.”  What a beautiful way to approach life’s natural cycles! Because I’m working almost exclusively with the circular form lately, I was delighted that circles and spirals would suit the theme of death and renewal spectacularly well.

So… I listened (over and over), I read (different translations, history, conductors’ notes), poured myself a glass or two and began sketching. After some trial and error, I began to get a feel for the cadence of the music, the position of the voice within the piece, and the sounds of the instruments. From the best coloured sketches I developed small stitched trials. As I worked on them I noticed how well the rhythmic sound of the sewing machine and the repeated stitches matched the musical notes as they played. They looked good. The size and shape of the final versions practically chose themselves.

With these four pieces, the Great Strauss shares his graceful embrace of the progress of time, and his respect for life’s portentous passages. Working on the imagery drew me closer to the positive symbolism of the Circle: that in all of life, nature and art, there no such thing as a full stop. As with my previous project with the Orchestra, each piece took on its own unique imagery and style, enhancing my appreciation of the music.

These four framed textiles as well as other related works will be on display on the day of the Concert on October 21st at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, Ontario.

Here are the images! I’ve included the music for each, and the poem that inspired it. Enjoy!

An die Nacht (To the Night) – hear the SONG

To the Night 16×16″

The visuals for this piece were clear from the beginning: darkness dimming the bright colours of a passionate life. I accomplished this effect by using black sheer fabric arching over one side of the circle. I was surprised to note that the intensity of the dark side changes dramatically when viewed from different angles, very appropriate. On the dark side grow white spruces, and flowers on the light, as this might also read as the movement of the seasons. The leaf shapes mark the passage of time.

Out of the forest steps Night,
Out of the trees she softly steals,
Looks around her in a wide arc,
Now beware..

All the lights of this world,
All flowers, all colors
She extinguishes, and steals the sheaves
From the field.

She takes everything that is dear,
Takes the silver from the stream,
and from the Cathedral’s copper roof,
She takes the gold.

The bushes are left, stripped naked,
Come closer, soul to soul;
Oh, I fear that the night will also steal
You from me.
by Hermann von Gilm

 

Beim Schlafengehen (At Bedtime) – hear the SONG

Falling Asleep 16×16″

For this one, the concept of letting go, along with the idea of a soul returning to its home with the stars were the main inspirations. The beginning and the end come back to the same spot in the circle, flowing onward into eternity.

Now that day has exhausted me
I give myself over, a tired child,
to the night and to my old friends, the stars:
my watchful guardians, quiet and mild.

Hands – let everything go.
Head – stop thinking.
I am content to follow
where my senses are sinking.

Into the darkness, I swim out free:
Soul, released from all your defenses,
enter the magic, sidereal circle
where the gathering of souls commences.
by Hermann Hesse

 

Im Abendroth (Into Sunset)- hear the SONG

Sunset 16×16″

For this piece I couldn’t help but respond to the sentimentality of the words. Strauss refers to his beloved wife when he portrays an ageing couple at the end of their lives together. They admire a setting sun after traveling from busy, complex early years to the womb-like warmth of old age. The trill of larks can be heard in the instrumentation, marking their path.

We have passed through sorrow and joy,
walking hand in hand.

Now we need not seek the way:
we have settled in a peaceful land.

The dark comes early to our valley,
and the night mist rises.
Two dreamy larks sally
forth: our souls’ disguises.

We let their soaring flight delight
us, then, overcome by sleep
at close of day, we must alight
before we fly too far, or dive too deep.

The great peace here is wide and still
and rich with glowing sunsets:
If this is death, having had our fill
of getting lost, we find beauty, no regrets.
by Joseph von Eichendorff

 

Morgen (Tomorrow)- hear the SONG

Tomorrow 16×16″

In Director Mitchell’s own words, “Morgen (Tomorrow) has such an unbelievably explicit beauty that one can’t help but feel as though it isn’t an end but a new beginning.” The sweet harp/piano notes of this piece along with the imagery of beach and sky reminded me of quiet, dreamy steps along the shore in the morning. I decided to enhance this effect with repeated elements like circles and leaves, alternating with frothy surf against pale marine blue.

Tomorrow again will shine the sun
And on my sunlit path of earth
Unite us again, as it has done,
And give our bliss another birth…
The spacious beach under wave-blue skies
We’ll reach by descending soft and slow,
And mutely gaze in each other’s eyes,
As over us rapture’s great hush will flow.
by John Henry MacKay

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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