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

Thursday, 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

The Mighty Mitochondria

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014
Detail of Microcosm

Detail of Microcosm

I get all kinds of commissions, from very large (17 feet), to very small (6×12”). Sometimes a client simply wants a piece that ‘looks like’ one I’ve already made, but most projects are far more complicated. I rarely turn one down though. Thinking back, some of the most memorable, cherished and not, moments of my art career came to me via commissions.

So, just before Christmas 2013, I got a call from the wife of a retired Professor of Biochemistry who was about to enjoy his 80th birthday. Knowing of my interest in the sciences, she wondered if I might create a wall piece to celebrate her husband’s research in mitochondrial biogenesis. Now I had heard of mitochondria in my Science courses, ummmm…. literally back in the last century, but couldn’t, at that moment, recall a single thing about them. My right brain raced as we discussed practical matters like size, shape and timing.

Then I thought, what the heck… that’s what Google is for, right? And I love abstracts. Thus began the steep learning curve from mitochondrially-challenged to mitochondrially-knows-just-enough-to-make-a-wall-hanging.

Just so all that knowledge doesn’t go to waste, let’s get up to speed on mitos. They are small, really small: less than 1 micrometer in size. They live inside most of the cells of living organisms. They are often described as “cellular power plants” because they generate most of the cell’s supply of energy. Electron micrograph photos show globular forms filled with parallel strands (threads! Yes!), and either alone or nestled amongst others of their kind. They can both divide and recombine. The reasons scientists are interested in them are many – with implications for health, aging, growth and even memory.

Some of this was coming back to me. Could it be my own mitochondria were dancing?

Here is a single mitochondrion.

I’ve always trusted in my ability to rise up to the occasion, however happy or dire. For this project, as with most others, there was research – reading, gathering images, making rough sketches, pondering techniques. I drifted off at night thinking about possible layouts.  After a few weeks, it was time to commit to paper. With a few attempts and some tweaking, this was the result:

A coloured pencil sketch of Microcosm

A coloured pencil sketch of Microcosm

The colours came from electron micrograph images of the interiors of cells. I wanted to show all the energy at the moment of division, so one of the mitos broke out from the border. The dark background provided an atmosphere of mystery while also creating a foil for the bright neon colours.

I sent the drawing off to the client with bated breath. Normally after viewing a first attempt, the client comes back to me with all kinds of suggestions and changes, but not this lady! … It was a solid ” GO FOR IT!”

The next challenge was technique. This design was quite different from recent work and would require more attention to the strong clean lines, to stand clear from all the background details. For the solution, I harkened back to 2002 and 2009, recalling two series of Seed designs I’d made with the same sharp edges (image below). Great! A precedent!


Kentucky Coffee Seed 2003 17×25″
Here I used a collage technique that provided a nice crisp contrast with the background

I cut the globe shapes in fabric, leaving the edges bare and crisp, filling in the centres with other fabrics and clippings. Once the globe shapes were done, I added the interior strands using strips of a semi-transparent print. They looked good but a bit washed out. Would couching a contrasting yarn around them create more contrast? Oh yeah! And it was pleasant, meditative work, not at all the chore I had anticipated. The design did change somewhat – it always does as I’m working on the real thing. That bottom mito needed to be whole, not cut off.

A real closeup

A real closeup, since you asked….

Then came the finishing: backing, batting, quilting, sleeve…. Ta-da!!! Six weeks after that first call, “Microcosm” was delivered, rolled up in a cardboard box we hoped would escape detection until Presentation Day, in early February.  The final word?  Instant recognition, and very well received.


Microcosm 2014 36×19″ Fabric wall hanging by Lorraine Roy



The Charity Fundraiser: A good idea for artists?

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Hello everyone,

I was asked by the Canadian Artists Representation of Ontario (CARFAC) to write about my experience in donating artwork for Charity Fundraisers. There has been considerable discussion about this topic over the past many years, pro and con, and I was very happy to throw my own opinions into the mix. You may have seen this article which has been circulating on Social Media. While I agree with many of the points in the article, I continue to donate in a way that is working for me. I would love to know what your experience is, and how you are dealing with the issues. Let’s have some discussion!

Here is the interview:

– What was your experience with fundraisers over the years?

I have donated work to all kinds of organizations with all kinds of setups for auctioning, from silent to live to online. Results varied wildly from my work being withdrawn for not reaching the starting bid, to selling way over its estimated value. I was getting up to a dozen requests per year (often still do). Over time, it became evident that saying Yes to each one was spreading my generosity a bit too thin.

I now participate in three kinds of fundraisers:

  1. One event  for which I make a special piece each year, because I believe in the organization and want to support it to my utmost
  2. Two to four yearly auctions that give back up to 50% of sales, for which I donate older works
  3. Timeraiser, that pays the full requested value of accepted works

I prefer donating my work to giving money – it’s a more personal way to give back to my community. Plus, I enjoy attending the auctions – when they are well done, they are a lot of fun.

St Ignatius Bean was made specially for the Ignatius Jesuit Centre Silent Auction in 2013

– Have you noticed any negative or positive effects of fundraisers on the sale and value of your artwork (outside of fundraisers)?

I am unconvinced that exposure via fundraisers is beneficial for my career, but by the same token I am equally unconvinced that by participating, I significantly reduce the value of my work. I do believe the public and collectors admire and value artists for their generosity, as they should.

I make a living from my work so I have a vested interest in maintaining its value. I have not noticed any effect from participating in fundraisers one way or the other. I’m secure in the value of my work, and I’m glad there are ways for people to possibly acquire a piece of mine if they can’t afford the full price. I make sure all parties know that I NEVER donate new work, except for the special event mentioned above. Many people have contacted me after auctions, filled with joy, which makes me happy too. Older work would otherwise go into storage, and what use is that to anyone?