Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Thinking in Circles – A journey through the rings

Friday, 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

 

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

Woven Woods: A Journey through the Forest Floor

Thursday, 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

Saturday, 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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Canadian Comfort

Saturday, 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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The Power of YES

Sunday, 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.

Heart of Cold: Ten reasons to embrace winter without Irony

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

I was born in what is lovingly nicknamed the Banana Belt of Ontario. This flat, intensely agricultural area is nestled in by three lakes: Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake St Clair. Despite the relatively warm climate, serious snowfalls were common, and I grew up loving the endless white expanses and tall accumulations against our farm buildings in winter. It was childhood heaven.

FENCEROW 1 2014 24X24  A country drive in winter

FENCEROW 1 2014 24X24: Collage
A country drive in winter

Each year I reconnect and fall in love again with winter’s stark beauty. Today I share ten good reasons, none of them cliché, to embrace winter’s cold cold heart. Here goes:

1. Contrast – what is life without it? We would never appreciate light if we didn’t know darkness. Or heat, without frozen fingers. I love black and white compositions.

Winter Woods #1 I made this sketch right after that walk – I used big markers because that’s all I could see

Winter Woods #1
I made this sketch right after a local hike, using big markers to keep from getting too fussy.

2. Nature has fun with it – brilliant splashes of colour are more intense against a snowy backdrop.

Red Maple 2008 28X32 Wall mounted quilt

Red Maple    2008   28X32″  Net collage, machine embroidery, appliqué and quilting.

3. Native plants go to bed until spring – they need rest. Good example for all of us.

DARK WOODS 10 2005 28X15

Dark Woods #10   2005   28X15″  Phototransfer of a tree, net collage and machine embroidery.

4.  There’s more going on than the eye can see – stuff is happening under there.

FISSURE 3 2011 16X20

Fissure #3   2011   16X20″  Seeds, fungal spores, insects and other soil organisms burrow down, some die, some hibernate. Roots keep working.

5. You can see farther, especially if you are already short.

DEEP SNOW 5 2004 19X19

Deep Snow #5   2004   19X19″   Phototransfer of treetops, net collage and machine embroidery.

6. You don’t have to worry about deer eating your apples before you do.

The view out my back window after an early snow.

The view out my back window after an early snow.

7. Conifers are still working. They are at the helm!

WINTER MOON #1 2010 12X9"

WINTER MOON #1  2010  12X9″ Conifer leaves are resistant to cold and moisture loss. On cold dry days, their needles curve in to reduce their exposed surface. They continue to photosynthesize, only more slowly, as long as they get enough water.

8. Night skies are enchanting.

TREES I HAVE SEEN 1 2009 2 24X24

Trees I have Seen    2009   24X24″   Net collage, appliqué, machine embroidery.

9. Whether you love pruning or not, there’s no need to do it in February. You can, but you don’t have to.

DARK WOODS 7 2004 28X17

Old Apples #7   2004   28X17″ Phototransfer of trees, net collage, machine embroidery.

10. And we all know: spring will follow in due course ……

To the Light #2  Stitchery on photographic print

To the Light #2  8×4″
Machine stitchery on photographic print, watercolour, fabric collage

 

Small is beautiful

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

(This post is the third installment of a creative journey inspired by research on tree root communication. For a bit more background, go to Going Somewhere? Start with a map, and The Mother Tree.)

Trees can’t chase their food, so they must count on resources harvested from their immediate area. Through the process of photosynthesis, they can feed themselves directly from the atmosphere using sunlight and carbon dioxide. But this chemical process also requires plenty of water … and for many trees, a consistent source is not always a given.

Cedar Grove by Janusz Wrobel

Cedar Grove by Janusz Wrobel

From the fungal point of view, water is not a problem. Fungi have the ability to draw water from the most grudging of sources, even from the air itself. They also break down molecules into simpler nutrients that can be absorbed by tree roots. But they are not capable of creating their own food because they do not photosynthesize. Trees and fungi are meant for each other!

Secret Heart #7  6x6"

Secret Heart #7 6×6″

It’s a lovely, romantic idea. But how exactly do these two very different species get together? How does the two-way transfer of water and nutrients work?

In my last post, we saw that a fresh seed root soon introduces itself to the massive fungal network in the top layer of the forest floor. The root tip exudes a natural hormone that awakens fungal spores or strands nearby. In a process called colonization, the alerted fungal strands pierce their way through the epidermis (skin) of the roots. (If this sounds like a terrifying Body Snatcher situation, remember that our own bodies are walking zoos: we have at least ten times as many bacteria, not including yeasts and fungi, as we have human cells.)

Once inside, the fungal strands colonize the root in one of two ways, depending on the species:

Cross section of root tip showing two different types of mycorrhizal colonization. Photo courtesy of the Botany Department at West Virginia University

Cross section of root tip showing two different types of mycorrhizal colonization.
Photo courtesy of the Botany Department at West Virginia University

1) Arbuscular fungi start growing INSIDE root cells along the central core of the root. They are called Arbuscular because once inside the cells, they form tiny tree-like structures: trees inside trees! The large surface area created by their dense canopies is an efficient way to transfer water and nutrients.

2) Ectomycorrhizal fungi spread their strands AROUND root cells, forming a 3-D spongy structure called the Hartig net. The tip of the root becomes enveloped with a pale mantle, easily seen with the naked eye.

Some fungi are specific to particular trees – for example, Arbutus and Maple trees have their own favourite fungal species. But many fungi are non-specific and will colonize trees, grasses and many other plant species. Also, one tree may host several types of fungi at once. The established fungi maintain the flow of water and nutrients through fungal strands that connect their specialized inner root structures with the outer soil network, visible to us in the form of mushrooms and truffles.

A pale swollen mantle is a sure sign of ectomycorrhizal activity on tree roots. From “Relationships between Plants and Fungi”

A pale swollen mantle is a sure sign of ectomycorrhizal activity on tree roots.
From “Relationships between Plants and Fungi”

But the best view of all is under the microscope. When tree rootlets are thinly sliced, treated with special dyes and magnified, it becomes possible to see exactly where and how the two species, tree and fungus, meet and mate.  Electron microscope photographs are bizarre and beautiful, and these are no exception: a gold mine of ideas and eye candy. Below is one of many that drew my attention.

Arbuscular colonization

Electron microscopic image. Arbuscular mycorrhizae are in fuschia. See how they’ve expanded like blobs inside the root cells? Photo by Marc Perkins.

And the quilted panel that it inspired:

ROOT XS 1 2014 22X22S

Root XS #1 2014 22×22″ Quilted wall panel

In this piece my intention was to stay true to the photo so I could learn to manipulate line and shape, but while working on it I began to see great potential for design and content. More adventures ahead in future posts!

ROOT XS 1 2014 DET copy

Detail from my quilted wall panel inspired by a cross section from a tree root with arbuscular mycorrrhizal fungi. I used many kinds of materials, and the technique is machine collage, embroidery and quilting. Note the little trees!

The Mother Tree

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

In my many years of tree studies, I’ve accumulated a vast and varied assortment of reasons to love trees. I present you here with yet another great excuse: larger trees in a forest actually protect and nurture seedlings and young saplings.

It all begins with a complex system that involves specially evolved intermediaries called mycorrhizal fungi. Their fungal strands form an intimate bond with the tips of tree roots, and help the tree absorb water and nutrients. In return, the tree supplies the fungi with sugars. This network forms a dense mat in the top six inches of the entire forest floor, connecting all the trees in that location. Biologists have known about this root/fungus relationship for a very long time, but new research reveals even more fascinating material: the existence of Mother or Hub trees.

Niagara Escarpment Woods #8 by Janusz Wrobel

Niagara Escarpment Woods #8 by Janusz Wrobel

In a dense forest, the germination and establishment of fresh trees is a challenge: larger trees take up most of the nutrients, and the canopy prevents penetration of light to the forest floor. Ground-level surfaces tend to be inhospitable, and soil quality is poor. What is a seedling to do? What else: it calls on its Mother. In effect, once a seed begins to germinate, it awakens components of the fungal mat that quickly colonize its roots. The seedling thus becomes linked with a large pool of nutrients that connects it to larger, older specimens that have access to light. The more shaded the area, the more resources a seedling can access.

Saplings form strong fungal connections with large, mature trees.

Saplings form strong fungal connections with large, mature trees. Image by Prof Suzanne Simard.

When a mature tree declines and begins to die, she sends her resources back into the network, and it is time for the younger trees to begin nurturing their own young charges.

Fallen by Janusz Wrobel Shows a mature tree, fallen and being absorbed back into the network

Fallen by Janusz Wrobel
Shows a mature tree, fallen and being absorbed back into the network

In even more recent studies, biologists are discovering that a mother tree actually favours her own offspring. At one of the research sites I visited in BC, Amanda Asay, PhD (Does kin selection play a facilitative role in regeneration of forests under climate stress?) was monitoring the survival rate of related and unrelated seedlings. How was this done? Several mature trees were harvested of their seeds. Around each tree was embedded a series of marked mesh bags filled with local soil, into which were planted either the tree’s own seeds, or those of others. Over the next few months, if bears and other wildlife hadn’t harvested them first, a tally of survivors was taken.

Here are a couple of those bags. They are 8x5" in size and allow water and roots to pass through.

Here are a couple of those mesh bags. They are 8×5″ in size and allow fungi and roots to pass through.

At the site, I had the opportunity to see how scientific research really happens. In the muddy trenches of boreal forest, after months of exposure to climate, pests, weed growth and just plain attrition, those little mesh bags were a challenge to find. But yes! I found one! Then another, not too far away!… soon we were expert at detecting the minutest bit of white mesh buried in forest scruff. This and other adventures renewed my deep respect for biologists working in the field.

Here we are visiting Amanda's research site, looking for tiny mesh bags of seedlings. Amanda is wearing the red jacket.

Here we are visiting Amanda’s research site, looking for tiny mesh bags of seedlings. Amanda is wearing the red jacket.

Of course, I love the idea that trees might be altruistic: it certainly captures the imagination. However, biologists are quick to share the truth: the evolution of the mycorrhizal relationship has much more to do with the health and survival of species and communities, than what we humans identify as true altruism. The chemistry behind these processes is well documented. Never mind! Scientific explanations are much richer and more engaging than any romantic notion I can come up with – eventually it all connects and makes its own wild beauty. Science is the real magic: as long as we have inquiring minds, our knowledge and appreciation of the world will continue to grow, and so will our sources of inspiration.

LifeLines  2015  30x10" Saplings thriving with the support of a mature tree in the forest. The fungal connections are just visible at the roots.

LifeLines 2015 30×10″  Lorraine Roy
Saplings thriving with the support of a mature tree in the forest. The fungal connections are just visible at the roots.

Go out and name your world

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Last Monday evening I presented a slide lecture for the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington. The title was “Roots and Rocks: From Darkness to Light”. It was a talk that meandered through various themes I’ve been working on for the past few years – trees, rock, soil, roots and what happens beneath the surface. Sure, Roots and Rocks, obvious title! But why the qualifier, From Darkness to Light?

HARMONY 2014 36X30 s

Harmony 2014 36×30″

A while back I found an intriguing video of my hero, Canadian author Margaret Atwood, being interviewed by Lorna Dueck, in an episode of Context called “God’s Gardeners”.  She was accompanied by Leah and Markku Kostamo who head the Canadian branch of an international environmental organization called A Rocha. It was classic Atwood, filled with her wry wit and plenty to sink one’s teeth into. (I also loved how she nimbly fielded a barrage of cringeworthy questions – I digress, ahem) But the most significant question came at the end. What can each of us do, as individuals, to help make the world a better place?

Markku offered three simple suggestions:
1.   Know where your food comes from
2.   Know where your garbage goes to
3.   Go out and name your world

The first two points, although harder to put in practice than they sound, are no-brainers, elegantly tying together many issues of rampant consumerism that is eating up our beautiful Earth. But it’s the third point that hit home with me, and I am going to tell you why.

Go out and name your world. As a horticulturalist and science-a-holic, I love learning the names of the wild things I come across. A snazzy new plant? What can it be? I get a good look, grab a leaf, and head home in a hurry to look it up online or in one of my books. Once it’s got a name, I can’t help but ponder: What is its life story? Where else does it grow and where does it come from? What bugs does it host, what animal does it feed? What do its seeds and flowers look like? Does it have medicinal properties?  It all begins with naming. And I would never have met this plant had I not first ‘gone out’ and explored my surroundings. I would never have had the opportunity to love it.

Lorraine and rare Columbo plant

Me and the rare Columbo plant enjoying a staring contest at Cartwright Sanctuary near Dundas, ON.

However, many things in our natural world are not so easy to name. They can be too small to see. They can be hidden deep inside the bark of a tree or up in the branches beyond reach. They can be nocturnal or secretive or shy and complicated. And they can be buried and tangled deep in the soil.

N EW LIFE 2007 12X12 copy 2

New Life 2007 12×12″

Enter our biologists:  dedicated individuals who devote the full force of their knowledge, time and resources to uncharted territory. Where would we be without these scientists, naming and knowing more and more of the wonders of our universe?

But herein lies a problem. Scientists work hard… but their skill set may not always include effective communication beyond what is necessary to spread the word amongst other scientists. And really, we can’t expect them to do it all, can we? In comes Opportunity! With a science background, love of nature, and passion for imagery, could I become a visual spokesperson though which a scientist can share discoveries? Yes. This is what I want to do.

This is why I called my lecture Roots and Rocks: From Darkness to Light.  To me, art making is an all-encompassing and spiritually fulfilling quest. I hope to leave the world a better place: to bring to light these hidden worlds in such a way that others can see, feel and marvel as I do.

Because we can’t love something until it has a name.

SHADOW 2 2008 24X18

“Even the darkness is not dark to You.
The night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to You.”
Psalm 139:12

 

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