Posts Tagged ‘art and science’

Thinking in Circles – The Root Language of Trees

Wednesday, 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

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

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!


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:

Comfort Maple pen by Marv Ens.

























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.

Going somewhere? Start with a Map!

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

Today is the second day of January 2015. Nearly a full year ago, I received a grant for a special project, mentioned in this blog. Much has happened since, and in the next few posts I am going to show you some of the developments.

Just to recap: my new textile art project is inspired by recent scientific research on how trees share resources and communicate through their roots, with the help of mycorrhizal fungi. This amazing root/fungus system is important for most plants on the planet, but trees are especially dependent on this symbiotic relationship. In fact, without these fungi, trees would quickly die of thirst and starvation. Moreover, fungi not only help plants draw water, they also facilitate the transfer of nutrients amongst trees, and, even more amazingly, they actually deliver messages, even to other species (more about this later). It’s fascinating stuff, and the more I find out about it, the more inspiring it becomes.

The mycorrhizal network

The mycorrhizal network

I am treating this project as a journey. It began the moment I first saw Prof. Suzanne Simard’s short video about her research. The ideas presented in this talk so aroused my curiosity that I couldn’t get it off my mind: MUST do something with this! With OAC grant in hand (or, more specifically, in bank) I could proceed with my itinerary.

How does one begin a journey? Why, with a map of course! Mine is a unique map, the product of several years of research by Prof Simard and associates. Using multi-locus microsatellite DNA analysis, they studied how two fungal species connected a group of Douglas Fir in a 30 m section of forest. The green fuzzy dots represent trees, and the lines connecting them are the fungal paths. Even without much technical knowledge, it’s easy to see that the system is extensive and intricately woven. One tree was found to connect to 47 other trees (see arrow)! I wanted to see this for myself.

From: Architecture of the Wood Wide Web New Phytologist (2010) 185: 543–553 Reprinted with permission of the authors.

From: Architecture of the Wood Wide Web New Phytologist (2010) 185: 543–553 Reprinted with permission of the authors.

So, in May, I headed out to BC to meet Prof Simard and to spend four days with her and her generous grad students. Wielding a shovel and gear, we drove through the mountains to locate and examine some of their research sites.

Us and 'Rob Ford', our trusty SUV.

Us and ‘Rob Ford’, our trusty SUV. Julia, Prof Simard, Deon, me and Melissa.

It was an eye-opening experience – far from the shelter of the cozy lab, we encountered all the elements the mountains could throw at us, except for bears and bugs who were waiting in the wings for summer.

End of May. Really.

End of May. Really.

Undaunted, we dug up some fascinating root/fungal structures.

The white fungal strands connect one set of tree roots with another.

The white fungal strands connect one set of tree roots with another.

We also spent time in the lab (more about this in a future post). When I got home I had plenty of material to ponder. For the past ten months I experimented with lots of crazy ideas and materials, came up with a plan, and in November began to approach public galleries with the proposal. In the next few blogs, I will share some of the ups and downs and images of the process. Every journey implies a destination, and mine is a touring exhibition in 2017 called Woven Woods.

OAC 2014

Below is my first interpretation of the Schematic map of the Douglas Fir research site. In it I stitched as many words I could find that meant ‘connection’. My initial intent was to make a very large version of this piece as part of the exhibition, but this idea did not make the cut. Perhaps for a future project?

Tree Chatter 12x12" 2014 Machine collage and embroidery on printed and plain fabrics

Tree Chatter 12×12″ 2014
Machine collage and embroidery on printed and plain fabrics


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


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



On the Rock: Merging Art and Ecology – a new exhibition!

Monday, February 17th, 2014
THE OUTCROPPING 2014 24X48 copy


Hello everyone,

Thought I would post a short note while I wait for my very cold studio to warm up. For weeks, it’s been in the minus tens here in Southwestern Ontario. The hot summer and cozy fall feel like distant memories and we are all longing for a touch of spring. The snow on either side of our drive is neck deep.

Perfect time to give you the scoop on an upcoming group show, soon to open at our local Carnegie Gallery in Dundas.

Just in the past year, I’ve had the great pleasure of learning about an international Christian organization called A Rocha. Their mandate is to engage in scientific research, environmental education and community-based conservation projects, and they are open to all faiths and cultures. A new A Rocha centre is becoming established in Ontario, with a 95-acre rural property in Flamborough, just south of Freelton (a pleasant 20 minute drive from my home). Cedar Haven Farm has both wild and cultivated acreages, as well as a historic house, a pond, a few barns, and animal enclosures.

FENCEROW 1 2014 24X24 copy

FENCEROW 1 2014 24X24

What better way to promote this organization than with art? We decided to approach ten artists, all working in different mediums, with an invitation: to visit the property and create unique visual responses to the land, with the results to be shown in an exhibition. The artists were delighted with the idea, and Carnegie Gallery accepted our proposal with great enthusiasm. The exhibition runs from March 7 to 30, with an opening reception at 7:30 on March 7.

Of course, I am fully involved with the project, and so is my photographer husband. I will tell you more about the other artists in a future post, but for now I wanted to share my resulting work. On my many visits in three seasons, I was most taken with the way wild areas and fencerows contrasted with the cultivated fields. Bedrock and swampland prevented full use of all the property for agriculture, but a system of trails made all the land accessible. The photos in this post are of the three works I made for the exhibition. I am looking forward to seeing it all come together on March 7!

WILD APPLE 2014 24X36 copy
WILD APPLE 2014 24X36
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