Monday, May 22, 2017

Researching New Work, or, A Journey Back in Time

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that in March I embarked on a Masterclass with Lisa Call. As part of my desire to focus in on the work that means the most to me, I have narrowed my current work to pieces inspired by Africa. In response to Lisa's challenge, I have brought out much of the ephemera I have collected over many, many years, and packed away everything that doesn't relate to this work. Loosely, I'm thinking of it as a series called "My Africa" (that is, Africa as I experienced it), and I expect there to be a number of sub-series within it.
Along with thumb pianos and carved gourds, woven baskets and all sorts of jewelry, are children's balls made of banana leaves, and a carved wooden bird mobile; barkcloth in various colours, and of course the fabrics themselves. Two tables are now covered with my collections, and gradually I am imposing some sort of order on them, so I can at least see what's there. Now when I begin a new piece, or wonder in which direction to take a piece in progress, it's all there at my fingertips.
Which has lead to a mental journey back in time - remembering when we first arrived in Lesotho in 1991 (lots of photos in my albums to help me with this, as well as the journals I kept during that time). So memories of rain falling on the hard-baked Lesotho soil during thunderstorms of epic proportions (there are more people killed by lightening in Lesotho each year than any other country in the world, David once told me), and being freezing cold inside cement block houses, and driving up into the mountains to visit tiny and remote villages, all come tumbling back.
And I remember the skies - huge and open - scenes of spectacular sunrises and sunsets, deep blue and cloud-filled, or thunderously black and oppressive. Or once so full of the red dust of the earth blowing up in a dry season that the sun was obliterated and it looked as though the end of the world might be coming.
I found an image of the first Lesotho quilt I made, using Shweshwe cloth in traditional indigo - a simple representation of the Basotho huts I saw all over the country, and the Maluti mountains, and the cosmos that bloomed so wildly and prolifically every Easter. (I was still using the very sedate colours of my Canadian home at this point in time!)
And now, up on the design wall, is my newest piece made remembering Lesotho, called "Where Heaven Meets the Earth". I first started using bright, saturated colours when we returned home to Canada in 1994, and really haven't stopped. Somehow these colours say more about the heat and the place than indigo and pale pink, to put it quite mildly! There will be two companion pieces to accompany this large work, and when they're all completed, I will post a better photo of them together. The thing is, that these years spent living and working in Africa, were some of the best years of my life, and of of our life as a couple and a family. I experienced so much while I was there, that even now I can still hardly believe it. So I have decided that this is what will inform my quilts and assemblages in the near future. It feels freeing to have narrowed my options and chosen this path for the time being, and I can't wait to see what lies ahead.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Weekly Leaves in Wool - The Year So Far

Back in January, when I began my weekly leaf project for the year, I wasn't quite sure where it might lead me. But I've been enjoying making these squares as much as my traveller's blanket from three years ago. While attending the first ever SAQA Western Canada Conference in Kamloops last week, I began stitching some of them onto a background. I chose a piece of black wool felt, mostly because it was what I had on hand. I then chose 15 of the 18 squares finished by the end of April (the length of the piece of felt determined the number of squares) and using blanket stitch, began stitching them in place.  As frequently happens to all "best laid plans", I discovered almost immediately that when you sew wool to wool they stretch again one another and even with careful pinning, they all listed to the right. Not a happy outcome. So I will remover this stitching and try again on a different background, maybe a fused and backed raw silk next time. What am I going to do with the 3 leaves left out of this collection? Well, that's a good question, and I don't quite know the answer right now. 

What I enjoyed most in choosing the leaves I used, was what a plethora of shapes leaves come in.
My favourite shapes here in this grouping are the eucalyptus and the geranium.

Here the gingko (from our backyard) and the arbutus are faves.

See on the top row how the squares shifted! Not what I intended.

I like the simplicity of the camellia (bottom left) and the three global shapes of a different eucalyptus (plucked from a bouquet in my daughter-in-law's kitchen), but I must also say that choosing the colours for the leaves was as much fun as choosing the leaves themselves.

I hope the detail shots (please forgive the repeat blocks - hard to come up with 4 detail shots without the repeats when the entire piece is 3 blocks wide by 5 blocks long!) show a little better which stitches I used.
Finally a snap of this week's stitching underway. No it's not wool, in fact it's an upholstery sample,  but I was ready for a small change in direction so have switched to these for the time being (thanks to Eleanora Laffin from Hornby Island, who passed these luscious reds on to me some time back.) And how will I incorporate these into my work? Another very good question. Lots to think over while I stitch.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Cyanotype Leaves

Last year I was introduced to cyanotype - another means of making impressions of leaves, this time on specially prepared sheets which are exposed to sunlight. The area on which the leaf is lying remains a blueish-white, while the surrounding fabric becomes an intense indigo. The first piece I made using this technique was called "Eucalyptus", and was entered in the FAN exhibit, "Botanical Reflections". This is the second piece - "Willows".
The process that's used is the same as used to be used in producing architectural blueprints. The prepared fabric sheets can be purchased in a package of ten, made by Jacquard, or yardage can be purchased. Sylvia Pippen sells this online.
Pressed leaves are laid on the grayish-green fabric under glass, preferably in the summer noonday sun. This will give you the sharpest images, although other lighting situations will also work. The leaves are exposed for 20 minutes to half an hour, and then the fabric is rinsed in cold water. This is when the magic happens.
The fabric becomes a lovely deep indigo blue, leaving an imprint where the leaves have been lying. You can see here how fine the lines are that are left where the leaf (or fern) is removed. As it is allowed to dry, and over the next 24 hours, the blue becomes even stronger.
These ferns were all printed in New Zealand, and may or may not be embroidered (as was the willow and eucalyptus) before being incorporated into my work. I have found that yellow and red, and even lime green, work beautifully as accent colours with the indigo.
This close-up shows how I have combined African wax fabric, Japanese fabric, batiks, and Shweshwe into the piece as well, with the hand-stitching on the African wax fabrics complementing the yellow strips found elsewhere in the piece. I look forward to making more in this series, having found that cyanotype is yet another wonderful way to make a record the leaves I have collected both at home and further afield.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The End of My "Sabbatical"

Today - May 1st - marks the end of my "sabbatical" from writing my weekly blogposts. Traditionally, sabbaticals are times away from one's usual paid job, time spent studying, travelling, and generally regrouping. And mine pretty much followed that same pattern. It began with a month spent in New Zealand (February). This was a time spent "filling the well", to use Julia Cameron's language. Time to  see and to explore many new places, to gather more leaves (more about them in a later post), and most important of all, time with family.

But time away is also gives one the opportunity to assess where you are and where you'd like to be. With the distance from usual responsibilities, there is more clarity, I find. And by the end of February, I had decided to enroll in Lisa Call's Masterclass in Studio Practice. It began on March 1st, so the timing couldn't have been better. And that's what I've been busy with for the last two months. I have worked with Lisa before when I took the online class, "Working in a Series" with her, and knew from that experience that  I would be challenged and that I would learn things I had never anticipated. This has definitely been the case so far. One of the first things she asked us to do was to decide what our three top goals were for the coming year, and one of mine is to develop a body of work that is uniquely mine. It will come as no surprise to many of you, that I've returned to my experiences living and working in Africa, and to the textiles and artifacts I've collected over many, many years, as a source of inspiration. For the time being, I've packed away all the other pieces I've been working on, in order to focus on my African work without distractions. Starting with a piece of work I began two years ago, "On the Road to Dar es Salaam" (see below), I am collaging together stories of my experiences there. 
This piece is built around a necklace I bought from a Masaii woman on my way to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. She was making her way to market with her friend, carrying a basket of her wares on her head. The Tanzanian friend I was travelling with agreed to stop the vehicle so we could talk to these women. I was delighted by this chance encounter, miles and miles away from any town or settlement, and especially pleased that she allowed me to purchase two necklaces from her. A wonderful memory. To this I added porcupine quills from Namibia, buttons from South Africa, mudcloth from Mali, barkcloth and beads from Uganda, as well as some Ghanaian and North American fabric and some locally made paper. I completed it by mounting it on black wool felt and hanging it on a Ugandan spear. Each of the pieces in this series will be composed in a similar way, and to the same size specifications (17" X 35"), until I run out of spears.
The next two pieces in the series are "By the Shores of Lake Victoria" (above), and "Shopping in Maputo" (below). All three were exhibited in the Ladysmith Waterfront Gallery last month, and "On the Road to Dar es Salaam" was sold, and is going to its new home today. 
I am so enjoying this new work, and will post photos of more pieces in this series in the coming months, but first I need to finish a couple of other pieces that are long overdue. Then I will be free to hunker down and spend my studio time on these Africa-inspired works.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fifty Years of Words

I have been a journal writer for most of my adult life, and recently realized that if I didn't do something soon with all the pages I'd written over the last fifty years, my children will be left with a dreadful job when I "leave this mortal coil". There is so much "blah, blah, blah" in them, along with quotations I've gathered over the years, and cuttings I've carefully pasted in. But mostly I have used writing as a way to get a handle on my many thoughts, and as a place where I could pour out my feelings as I tried to sort how to live this complicated life we're given. 
A few weeks ago I read in Judy Martin's blog, that she was re-reading her own journals then wrapping them up when she finished them, and I thought this was brilliant. So beginning with the journal I wrote when I was sixteen, I am beginning this process. I couldn't throw them out, because in some way they measure and mark my life. So instead I'm going to package them up with fabric (silk?) and yarn after I read them, and pack them one by one into a suitcase. Inside there will be instructions for my children - that they are under no obligation to read them, and would likely get very bored very quickly if they tried, but instead that once I'm gone, they should have a big bonfire and burn them all at once, a celebration marked with good food and good wine (will I provide a budget for that, I've been asked!). Now you can see the reason for me beginning this post with the quote about being weird.
In the last twenty or so years, many of my entries have been about my creative life. When I see something that strikes a chord with me, I write it down. Or when I'm struggling with what to do next on a certain piece, that might get written down too. There's often repetition of certain ideas, and when that happens, I know to pay attention. Sometimes by writing things down I am taking the first step towards them becoming a reality. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by a situation and need to work my feelings out on paper. And sometimes I'm just taking the time to be still, to observe the world around me, and to reflect on it. Then the writing becomes more of a meditation.
The small fibre art group I belong to has taken on the challenge of making work with "Words" being the theme. I made quite a few African proverb pieces, but now want to make some more small pieces that incorporate some of the quotations I have found helpful over the years. These are changing all the time, and what strikes me as deep and meaningful today may not do so in a few years time, but the practice of collecting the words of others is now a huge part of me, and making small works which incorporate words will be one more way to do this.  I'm looking forward to getting started.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Winter and Wool Stitching

The Comox Valley typically has mild winters, but we're just coming through the third cold snap of the season, with snow staying on the ground, the sound of plows clearing it in the wee hours of the morning and the crunch of it underfoot, and are dealing with the ice that results when it freezes again, making everyone a little less confident than usual in leaving the warmth of their homes for the great outdoors. No better time methinks, to settle down and do a little more wool stitching.
I finished stitching the ivy leaf I showed you last week, using blanket stitch, chain stitch and back stitch, and then moved on to a leaf coming from a shrub in our front yard. I will have to find out the name of it when next I go to the nursery. I was thinking of spring while I was stitching - yes, I know it was a little premature - and ended up adding a few daisy stitches down at the bottom. I also tried out fly stitch for the first time, down the centre vein of each leaf, and am pleased with the result. 
Another terrific source of suggestions as to what stitches to use is Sally Mavor's book "A Pocketful of Posies". It's not a how-to book, but a good visual reference, and would make a wonderful gift for a little person in your life (and perhaps for yourself). She created the illustrations for the entire book with her hand-stitched scenes - an incredible accomplishment.
Here's just one page to show you what I mean. Sally creates all of her figures and leaves first, and only attaches them to the background when the stitching is completed. What an imagination, and what patience! I admire such work, but for now am content continuing with my little collection of
wool leaves. It is noticeable that many people are travelling down this "Slow Stitching" road at the moment, at least I get that impression from various blogs and Facebook postings I've seen recently. Maybe we're getting tired of the quick and easy, and beginning to realize what we lose when we abandon handwork. Maybe the comfort of seeing what we can do with just our hands and some thread and some fabric is what we need right now.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Tutorial #1 - Hand-Stitching Wool Leaves

Happy New Year to each of you! I've started the new year with my leaf-stitching project, and it occurred to me (now that I'm back in the rhythm of blogging once a week) that although  I've retired from teaching, I can still share some of what I've learned and am learning with tutorials. Many other quilters and stitchers have already done this, and I've been most thankful to be able to access their knowledge and learn from their experiences. So here is the first one:

Hand-Stitching Wool Leaves

1. Walk around your garden, or through the woods, and pick leaves from half a dozen or so plants. Look for shapes that appeal to you, and leaves that won't overwhelm the background size you've chosen. These are from the ivy which climbs up the chimney on the side of our house.
2. Place two or three leaves between each double sheet, folded, of paper towel. Write the name of the plant or tree and the date you picked it on the paper towel - you'd be amazed how quickly you forget where they've all come from - and photocopy one of each leaf as well, just for reference. When all the leaves are folded, press them under a stack of heavy books, and leave them there for several days.
3. After a day or so until they'll usually be flat enough to trace, but will take longer to dry more completely. Trace around the each leaf outline (including the stem) onto freezer paper.
4. Press the freezer paper pattern onto the wool you've chosen for the leaf shape. Cut around the leaf on the marked line and remove the freezer paper.
5. Place the wool leaf on the background you've chosen, and use a few dabs from a glue stick to hold the leaf in place. (It doesn't take much.) If you decide to add a stem from a different piece of wool, this is the time to do so, adhering it to the wool leaf in the same manner.
6. Now comes the fun part. Using photos you've seen of stitching you like (there are tons of examples on the internet), or a reference such as the one above (my current favourite) begin stitching the leaf to the background and the stem to the leaf using stitches that appeal to you. Two or three strands of embroidery floss or #8 or #12 perle cotton work very well for this. Keep stitching, using a variety of stitches, until you feel happy with the result.

I find I don't know quite how I'll stitch a leaf until I get going. I make it up as I go along. But for others who like to plan in advance, you might want to add another step at this time, and make a little sketch for yourself of what you plan to do before you get going. I stick to pretty basic stitches - Blanket stitch, Chain stitch, Straight stitch, Backstitch and French knots - so you don't need to be an expert to get good results.  It's amazing how many variations of each of those listed above is possible. Most of all, enjoy the process. It can become quite addictive!