Monday, December 4, 2017

Life in the Northern Hemisphere

It has been a bit of a shock to return to BC from New Zealand at the end of November. Driving home from the airport, I asked David if it was always this dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. It felt end of the world-ish to me. I even took a photo of it, and looked it up online, and it's true that we are about 8 degrees of latitude further north than I was degrees south in Wellington, and it is winter here, but still. How quickly one forgets about the sluggishness that settles in, in November, December and January. It's not always like this, of course, and there was one brilliant day last week when the new snow was visible on top of the mountains, but those days are the exception.
So what does one do? Well, I'm being kind to myself while I re-acclimatize myself to my Vancouver Island reality. I have spent most of this week tidying up my studio, and it's looking as though it will be another week at least before I'm well and truly finished. While I was away I took the brave step of listing my studio in the guide to artists in the mid-Island. This was a necessary step if I want to be included in the Spring Studio Tour, which I do. But it also means that I might have visitors at other times too, and I need to be ready for that. So a massive re-organization and tidy-up was called for.
I finished another of my African collages this week - this one is called "In Search of a Better Life". It's is the fifth in the series, and began with me thinking about all the different ways that people consider themselves rich. It might be in acquiring property, or in having produce to sell at the market. It might be in gold and jewels or perhaps as basic as feeling rich when we have enough food to eat. It might be in having the opportunity to go on adventures. I especially liked being able to use the footstep fabric which I purchased in Ghana. Other found items include paper beads, cowrie shells, buttons from Lesotho, a barkcloth painting from Uganda, and porcupine quills from Namibia. I'm keen to get to work on the sixth collage, and have been sketching ideas for that. 
And for those times I simply want to add stitches to fabric, I've begun another project - adding African motifs to my cloth "canvas", improvisationally. The batting is a wool blanket and is as delicious to stitch through as butter. The thread is #8 perle cotton. I'm not quite sure how this will develop, but trust it will tell me what to do as I go. 
I also wanted to let you know that while I was in New Zealand, my dear Sweetie was in Uganda. For those of you who have followed this blog for sometime, you know that I used to spend a good bit of time each year in Uganda working with a group of women in a sewing project. I want to report to you that they are still sewing, albeit not as much as they'd like, and many items were purchased from them to bring back to Canada to raise funds for the Widows' Garden Project that David is now involved with. He also had the opportunity to visit Rechael's Clinic in Kikagate, and it is doing very well indeed. So good to hear news of these women, who are never very far from our thoughts. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Visit to Lake Ferry

One of the last things I did before I left New Zealand this time, was to take the train up to the Wairarapa, to visit a new friend - Trisha Findlay. Trisha is a textile artist whom I met through Lisa's online class. I knew she went to Lake Ferry on the south coast of the North Island most Mondays, and I asked if I might possibly accompany her. She graciously took me on what has become a regular visit for her to one of her special places, no matter what the weather - a time to sketch and write and just to be there experiencing all of it. And to pick up whatever treasures she might find on her explorations.
The sky was blue but there was a cold wind blowing hard when we arrived, so we pulled on hats and hoods and buttoned up our jackets as we went in our separate directions. Trisha headed off in the direction of the water, but I didn't get any further than the grasses growing in the dunes beside where we'd parked the car, and before a large expanse of smooth black rocks began stretching out to the water. They were fighting to remain vertical in the southerly and the chattering of their stems as they rubbed against one another in their efforts was like a frenzied conversation. They caught the light so beautifully, ever-changing because of the constant movement, like the waving of golden flags by an enthusiastic crowd.
And there were so many varieties of grasses. I don't have names for them, but that didn't matter to me at all. There was something heroic about them that captured my imagination. Something about surviving and even thriving in spite of difficult circumstances, I suspect.
Look at these little puff-ball things, crouching down for shelter amongst the taller grasses. Whispering to each other as they nod this way and then that.
And then just beyond the grasses were the sands and the rocks, scattered with a few remnants of long deceased logs. Like ancient skeletons. So very different than our west coast beaches, heaped high with logs that have escaped  the tugs that were pulling them to be milled, or just raw trees newly knocked from their earthly moorings close to the water.
Looking back behind me were these craggy and much eroded bluffs, almost devoid of vegetation. Lesotho-ish.
After a time I looked back to the water, to see that Trisha had found herself a perch on which to anchor herself while sketching. And that's when it began to dawn on me that what we were seeing, what we were drawn to in this interesting place, was quite different. She has a fascination with the ever-changing sky and sea and beach, and her beautiful work explores this. Meanwhile I was more interested in seeing what managed to grow there, against the backdrop of the sea.
In fact it took me a little while to get down to the shore, and then I began to understand what Trisha was seeing. I sat and watched for awhile, journalling (with some difficulty) at the same time. And in that brief interlude, I saw it change from this,

to this. A storm front was moving in and the colours of everything began to change. Absolutely fascinating. Earlier this week I read in Debbie Lyddon's blog, that she and her artist friend Mary Morris are travelling to the same place in the UK together, the first of many they hope, where they will spend a week working independently but from the same source material. How brilliant is that! Because, of course we all experience place differently, and reflecting our own response in our work is what makes it authentic. What an amazing revelation! And thank you Trisha, for a most wonderful day, and visit.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Cyanotype and New Zealand Ferns - a Not-So-Original Idea

I first began printing on cyanotype-prepared fabric this spring, after our February visit to New Zealand. Ferns I had collected in Abel Tasman Park were particularly suited to this method of printing.
I got spectacular results printing between about 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when the sun was at its strongest. The rich indigo of the background was the perfect way to draw attention to the lines of the fern fronds.
Over the next few months I made several pieces which incorporated these prints. I especially enjoyed being able to combine them with African, Japanese and batik indigo prints I'd collected over the years. Even shirting scraps combined well, as well as the indigo shibori fabric our small Fibre Art group made together the previous summer.

Some of the tiniest ferns were perfect for card-making, and disappeared at our group exhibit at the Ladysmith Art Gallery in August. So I had returned to New Zealand on the lookout for more ferns, and thinking about how to work with them. One day very recently, I was looking through a book that was issued in conjunction with a photography exhibit at Te Papa - the National Museum, and was intrigued when I turned the page to find this:
It is a cyanotype print on paper, made in 1880, by Herbert Dobbie. Herbert was an engineer who lived in Auckland, and who had a fondness for ferns. This was before cameras were commonly available, and he turned to cyanotype to record his findings.

He recorded 148 different varieties of ferns in this manner, and published them in what is now known as his "Blue Books". Only 14 copies still exist worldwide, and several of them are at Te Papa in Wellington. After doing a little research, I discovered that I could make an appointment to see rare books in the collections department of the museum, and this is just what I did. I couldn't quite believe it was that easy.
Most of the pages are still is excellent shape. The person helping me said the faded ones had probably been exposed to light at some point.
But even then, they were fabulous. Such an exciting discovery. I put on the gloves provided, and slowly turned the pages one by one.
I had also asked to see the New Zealand Ferns book by Dobbie that was published in 1921, and became the authority on New Zealand ferns for over 50 years. It's in black and white, and have jest learned that copies are available even now, and for a reasonable amount, as the book was reissued a few years ago.
What I didn't know, and what was the most exciting of all, was that Te Papa also has the original photo album of all the photos that were eventually included in that 1921 book. And it was incredible.
 Here's a side-view, showing the depth of it. And it was in excellent shape. What a treasure!
Each specimen had been carefully photographed, with the name had been added, in a most careful and exact manner.
And there were photographs showing the size of some samples, in relation to the size of people. Needless to say, I've already ordered a copy of the it for myself. And am more excited than ever to pursue this area of research, ready to see what work results from my investigations. I'm beginning to understand far more deeply, why it's so important to do the research in your area of interest as you move forward with the actual making. It leaves me with the feeling that I've met this pioneer in printing ferns, and share his interest in printing in blue, if not having the scientific bent required to push this in a more scientific direction. Thank you, Herbert Dobbie.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Improvisational Piecing Inspired by Kuba Cloth

Kuba cloth is one of two very distinctive types of cloth made in what was known as Congo, and now is the DRC. Typically two colours of raffia are knotted into a burlap-like base fabric, resulting in complex patterns of woven and slightly raised threads.
Kuba cloth designs are often worked on the diagonal, which is one of the reasons they appeal to me so much. Their imperfections are another aspect of their charm. And it is quite common to see one part of a design "collide" with another, as though two different people had been working on it.
I have admired these very graphic pieces of cloth for sometime, but it was the photograph below that inspired me to work with some of the shapes. It's from the book African Textiles by Christopher Spring, and is a sample that can be found at the British Museum.
I have worked with it once before, on a smaller piece, and returned to it this week while thinking about ideas for a piece I have committed to make for the Vancouver Island Surface Design Association (VISDA). The theme of this particular exhibit is "Pathways". And all those diagonal lines running between the rectangular blocks look just like pathways to me.
I started by making two types of units - rectangular block units and strip units - using the fabrics I'd chosen to bring with me to New Zealand.
I began joining them together on the diagonal. Knowing that the finished piece needed to be 12" x 60-72", I squared off the bottom and side corners to 13" when there were enough pieces joined together to do so.
I thought about squaring it off at this point, and might still do so, but felt compelled to keep adding to it a bit more before deciding whether or not that's what I want to do. For now it's spending a little time up on my design wall before I decide what to do next.
This is very much a work in progress, but I like the way it's going so far. The questions I'm asking myself now are: Do I want to add other design elements next? If so, which ones, and how can I keep them on the diagonal? Should the join between the first unit and the second be a horizontal line, or should it be on the diagonal too? Does it look better upside down than in this orientation? How will I work this so that the whole piece is balanced? Will it need another unit pieced a similar way at the top of the work? This way of working - asking these questions and considering the possible answers, weighing them and then moving forward to see what happens next - this is what I love most about improvisational piecing. I may have an idea where I'm headed, but I can't know the outcome at the beginning. It is very much a conversation that takes place between me and the fabric, me and the design. Each piece made this way is an adventure of sorts. I have to be prepared to fail spectacularly (by my own measure). Still, it is now my favourite way of working.

Monday, November 6, 2017

More Inspiration Photos

While the class I'm taking with Lisa Call has moved on to composition - and I will too, soon - I have continued taking lots of photos that look at line and shape. I feel I'm looking so much more closely at these elements, and learning so much in the process. I don't want to rush past this too quickly. Photos are one way to keep a record of what I see and what I think about it. Sketching is another, but more on that later. Here are some of the photos:
A rock formation at Castlepoint. Undulating curves. Sumptuous is the word that comes to mind.
A plan tree where some of the bark has come off. This is about texture as much as about line and shape. As is the rock formation above.
Tropical leaves of some sort - I don't know the name of the plant, but I know I like those curvy edges and the vein pattern and the secondary pattern that is formed where the edges overlap one another.
I was playing ball with Griffin the other day and happened to glance down at the it, and at the lines and shapes that resulted depending on how the ball had landed. I took a whole series of photos of these. Most interesting.
The lighting on the hull of this boat is not good, but the lines are beautiful. I am reminded of how often I have looked at boat plans - those graphic line drawings that are plans for boat builders - and wondered about spending more time investigating them, and thinking of including them in my work. Boats are such an apt metaphor for life, for living, and being by the sea and in a boat are two of my most favourite things. Note to self: Time to do a little more research in this area. Some sketches. Some reading. And then some stitching.
Sunrise at Castlepoint. Sky lines. Beach lines. Horizon lines. Sand lines.
A ten minute walk from Emily and Michael's home is this marina. Multiples of masts reflected in the water, with the curved shapes of hulls in between. The next time I go back there I will take more close-up photos. That's when I can best see the details of line and shape. That's when I'm surprised by what is in front of me, what I could so easily miss, if I were to limit myself to the big picture.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Sketches - Inspired by My Travels in Africa

I've embarked on a small project while I'm in New Zealand - to create a collection of "sketches" inspired by my travels in Africa. The parameters I set for myself are that each one will be 6" x 6", use raw edged fabrics, and be hand-stitched. I've completed the first five, and am experiencing that thing that sometimes happens when you don't know at the beginning where a piece will take you, but try out the possibilities as they occur to you, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but the process itself, the scope for serendipitous surprises, is so engaging that the whole enterprise is a delight. 
These are the fabrics I chose to bring with me to New Zealand. It took me longer to pack these than to pack my clothing. Which explains why I have no warm cardigan with me (I was coming to summer, I thought), but just the right number of fabrics to make these small pieces. They are what my daughter refers to as "enabling constraints", and for someone like me, who is too easily overstimulated by endless possibilities, they serve as a scaffolding on which to build my work.
I begin each "sketch" with a piece of fabric 7" x 7", back with a piece of low-loft cotton batting the same size. For the first one I chose a piece of rusted fabric on which to build. Actually, truth be told, I started at first with a plain white fabric, but it was too daunting, so I switched it for the rusted fabric, which made a much better starting point.
Thinking back to my recent indigo pieces, I began overlapping different sized rectangles. I was thinking of the tropical trees found in some parts of Africa, and of the oceans on three sides of the continent, of the natural state of this massive land mass, before it became so populated.
But it looked too blue. Not African at all. So I added a hit of orange - thinking of the warmth of the sun, of how truly hot you can be even at the ocean. (Remembering a day in Dar es Salaam when I suddenly realized why people were walking so slowly, and I could do nothing else but return to my hotel room where a fan turned slowly overhead, making barely perceptible changes in the movement of the air, but still, it was better than being outside and moving about.)
I liked the orange but I wanted to give it a more major role. I wanted it to undergird the rest of the design. So I removed the first bit and replaced the dark greeny-blue with orange and black. This fabric made me think of the many people walking along the roadsides just about everywhere, along roads just that colour in fact. So I added the feet. Which could be my feet as I travelled or the feet of the people I met who walk so far every day just for water and firewood.
Still not happy with that blue. Too plentiful. Too available. Not the story for many, many people. So I made more changes such that the predominant colour of the piece it orangey-red. Much better.
But I want the sky in there too - a sky that is this clear hot blue. I'm thinking of the sky over the desert in Namibia - white sands and blue sky. So I try another strip and like it better.
I add one more detail - the leaves - somehow they represent hope for me. Hope that the lives of the women I worked with are at least a little easier than they were when I met them. Hope that the world doesn't give up on Africa, that new ways are found to work with the people so that things change "slowly by slowly" in a good way. And then, when I'm happy with the placement of the fabrics,  I added the next layer - the stitching - which includes a few personal symbols. And I added the solid black facing, and once mounted on a small black canvas, it will be finished.
 Here's the second sketch.
And the third. Each one has a story behind it, a narrative that develops as I'm working, and it helps me decide what to do next, what details might still be added, what works and what doesn't. In the process I'm remembering so many of the experiences I've had, little things that had slipped into the back of my memory without me noticing it and now are being recalled again as I work. This is good, and I'm looking forward to seeing where it takes me next. Right now I'm thinking that there will be sixteen sketches in total, but that could always change. I guess it will depend on how many stories are waiting to be told.