The Meanings and Possibilities of Materials

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The colours of summer Iceland, as I see them, in yarns from Storkurinn, a premiere yarn store in Reykjavik. I favoured but did not limit myself to Icelandic yarns in my selection of wools, mohairs, silks and interesting animal-fibre blends – also chosen for their light weight, meaning they’d be easy to stitch into fabric.

A week ago today (meaning Thursday, May 26), I awoke with the strongest feeling of wanting to bring some silk with me to Iceland. Silk? Really? Silk and not wool? Silk in addition to wool? I had had the question of which materials to bring on my mind for weeks, but had been too busy with other matters to get to the studio or art supply store and start assembling them. With my flight on Saturday, I basically now had to gather and go. Warned by the Icelandic Textile Centre that options local to Blönduós were virtually nil, I expected to bring with me the materials I planned to work with.

This was a little tricky, since I was not at all sure of the work that I would do. There were obvious compromises: bring drawing materials, since drawing can be preliminary to any project. Perhaps I would just draw and work up pieces in textiles when I got home in July. But that seemed wrong, a missed opportunity. Even so, the drawing materials went into the bag and I am glad of them now as I think through dimensions, scale, superimpositions. The next obvious choice: bring wool. Everyone thinks of wool in connection with Iceland. And I loved wool: I had been using woollen and wool/cashmere cloth as the ground for my maps for the past six years. But even fine-milled Italian broadcloth is heavy and bulky – and of course expensive. It made no sense to buy and carry lengths of wool when I wasn’t yet sure what I’d do with it.

Plus, since I tend to choose my background colour and the work’s size very much in relation the the specifics of the project at hand, I didn’t want to pre-emptively select. I had no feel in my body as yet for Iceland, so I couldn’t find a way to feel into the materials I would want to represent it.

Even so, waking up last Thursday morning, what was calling to me was the idea of multiple yards of a heavy silk charmeuse, ivory or off-white. I awoke longing for its multiple yards’ worth of its drape, density and lustre. Really? Such a luxurious sophisticated fibre to take to so ourdoorsy, naturalized a scape, but I have learned over the years to trust my strong and inexplicable desires – at least in the matter of artmaking.  That said, time was short. I was not going to get to a draper in the next two days. But rummaging in my existing stash of supplies did turn up some lengths of raw silk in cool white and an ivory: it would do.

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In fact, now that I am thinking more materially about it, this raw silk is more robust than charmeuse and will stand up to the multiple layers of cloth and stitching that this Icelandic map – still in the imagining – seems to be wanting. And of course, now that I’m here, responding with body, eyes and breath to the land, sea and air, I find the shimmering silk a perfect versioning of the light on Iceland’s omni-present water. Too simple a reason for the choice, perhaps, but enough to be going on with.

The colours of Iceland seemed obvious after two days in Reykjavik: greys, blues, greens, ivories, and glimpses of golds and golden browns. Here was where the wool belonged, I realized. I would stitch into the silk cloth with wool, silk, mohair and other blends of animal fibres. The warmth and insulation these fibres provide seemed appropriate to context. Plus I felt the softness of their textures, the fuzz of some, would be a good way to render my walks, so different than the cotton floss I’d been used to using. At a local yarn store, I let my eyes and hands shop a spectrum for me. I spent far too much on yarn but came away deliriously happy, itching to get going. I was confident enough that the colours of the southern city would still pertain to the northwestern lands where I was headed: this is a small island, after all. Blönduós is about 237 km from Reyjavik, less than the distance from Montreal to Kingston. And they do.

In Reykjavik, I also found a beautiful map of Ísland to version, imagining a textile work that superimposes a version of the country and this small town, within the greater arc of walking during these long, long, luxuriously long light days. So I have created a pattern from this map, a shape to cut from one piece of silk and stitch onto the other, and I am aching to begin.

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A detail of a replica of a beautifully rendered historical map of Iceland. The legend indicates that BLÖNDUÓS, being written in all caps, roman type, is a market town with a church. I’ve drawn the island’s contour onto tiled pieces of tracing paper laid over the map: this silhouette will serve as a pattern for cutting cloth.

Can it really be as simple as this? Feeling this great drive to make, make, MAKE, I wonder: can I let go and just see what happens, despite being so soon arrived and so new to the place? Isn’t there more research to do? More understanding to develop? Can I trust my desire and see it as not at odds with my ethical imperatives? After all, I strive to honour and reflect something of every place in the walking maps I make. Do I know enough? Am I being too rash?

I  will find out!

I have chosen to proceed, believing that whatever I make in this new context may be different from what I’m used to making in my familiar locales. My Icelandic textile map will likely be less a portrait of either of here or of me individually than a testament to my growing connection to this land. My map is my means of connection, perhaps, a gesture of process rather than an artifact of completed experience.

Hmmm.

Okay then, let’s go!

The enchanting silver light of Iceland, or coming north for a month of textile dreaming

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Visible on the white wall facing us is a long row of windows – into the studio where I and other artists will work in felting, stitching, dyeing and weaving.

I am in Blönduós, Iceland, a small community of 2500 people who live and work in the country’s northwest, where the Blanda River meets the Arctic Sea. I have come for the month of June to the Textilsetúr Íslands, a place for textile research, education, and making – where artists from around the world have come since 2005 to connect with each other, this Icelandic community and textile practices, both historical and contemporary. In the image above, the Icelandic Textile Centre is the tallest building on the left, white stucco with a red roof. Taking this picture, I am standing looking up the mouth of the Blanda River, with my back to the sea – or at least to that long finger of Húnaflói, the 100-kilometre long bay that connects us to the Arctic Sea.

This is my third day in Iceland, arriving on May 29th to spend three days in Reykjavik before heading north 350 kilometres. I have come specifically at this time of year to live the experience of the 24 hour daylight. Now, there is always light in the sky, with the sun setting today at 11:52 p.m. – midnight! – and rising again at 2:38 a.m. By the time of the longest day on June 21, the sun will not touch the horizon. I have come to my work of walking and mapping within this place of perpetual light. What will this mean to my sense of place, to my ability to come to know a terrain that never ‘disappears’ into darkness but remains always visible and accessible?

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Looking across the 50 km span of the bay, with the structures of Blönduós on the dark peninsula to the left. I am standing on a small pier – a fishing dock? When I first reach this spot, no one is around, but I am soon joined by other walkers, photographers, a father, his dog and two children. Up on the ridge behind us, Icelandic horses watch us, hear the sheltie bark, watch this other creature dart and run.

I set out for my first walk about 9 p.m., heading away from the Textile Centre up the east side of the bay. The overcast sky was a fleece-like billow, with the light dancing in the distance through openings in the cloud cover. What a feast for the eyes, the ever-changing patterns of light and shadow, painted in a palette of blues, mauves, greys and silvers. The matte softness of the sky played beautifully against the irridescent shimmer of the sea: wool and silk, the fibres that I have brought to work with. The light is mesmerizing, so beautiful and changeable it is.

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Others love this view: a bench has been set facing the water. I perch there to take this shot of the light piercing the clouds. Now, I am wearing wools and a windproof coat. The summer’s bushes and flowers are still coming into bloom, the flashy purple of the invasive lupine among them. I can only imagine the fierceness of winter, which (it seems) starts to creep back as soon as September.

How will I work in textiles, a static medium, to capture this shimmer and change? How will I bring together the movement of the sun above and of my feet below, map earth and sky as one? These are just some of the tasks I have set myself this month. I’ll discover more as I go. What joy to have this time, place and community for such exploration and growth!

 

Nel mezzo del cammin (2012 – ) • A series of textile maps of walks in urban woods and greenspaces

Nel mezzo del cammin (2012 – ) • A series of textile maps of walks in urban woods and greenspaces

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Nel mezzo del cammin: Summit Woods, textile assemblage and embroidery floss on wool/cashmere coat weight fabric, 44 in H x 60 in W

Nel mezzo del cammin uses digital and hand-worked textile practices to represent the pleasures and political ecology of walking in urban woods, specifically four terrains in the Montreal area. Like much of my recent work, Nel mezzo del cammin takes the form of mapping and explores walking as a knowledge practice and artist’s method. Remembering that maps represent particular versions of place – replete with questions of ownership and access – at very specific moments of history, I work into the gap between the authoritative bird’s eye view and the lived experience of a place over time: my maps use digital embroidery processes to version ‘official’ portions of a map – surveyed contours, texts, and labels in both French and English – and hand-stitching to record multiple trajectories of walks taken over time. This series takes its title from the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno in its original Italian, and so also addresses questions of naming and translation, with a nod towards the language politics of Quebec. The Inferno begins with a walk in a dark wood and takes up questions of humanity and ethical relations, which have their resonance in the environmental concerns embedded in my works. Referencing and de-familiarizing the comfortable ‘hominess’ of textiles and the long work of stitching and piecing, my maps suggest that the process of emplacing oneself is incremental and on-going, step by step, stitch by stitch. I began this series upon relocating to my native Montreal after 20 years of life in Toronto. My collaborator in this project is my dog, Baloo, who accompanies me on my meanderings.

Nel mezzo del cammin: Summit Woods (44 inches high by 60 inches wide) explores the specifics of the small bird sanctuary atop Westmount. Into my map I stitch the perambulations of a month’s worth of outings, with 31 different colours tracing the particular route I took on each occasion. If I move briskly, I could cover all my preferred paths on foot in about an hour, but re-tracing my steps in embroidery floss took me longer.

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A closer detail, showing the variety of surface treatment, from hand stitching, to digital embroidery, to pieced material

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Extreme close up

Nel Mezzo del Cammin: Arboretum Morgan Arboretum: 30 Walks (60 inches high by 40 inches wide) takes us to a much larger and wilder forested reserve, portrayed using a mix of patterns to designate specific identified landforms: knolls, ponds, fields, paths and other features. I work with fabrics that I have found, purchased, and solicited from others who know this space and or walk with me here, a reference to the traditions of collaboration in textile practices. The yellow of the stitching references the unseasonable warmth of October 2013, when the foliage stayed gold for so long, barely deepening to red before the leaves fell and our long winter descended.

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Nel mezzo del cammin: Morgan Arboretum, textile assemblage and embroidery floss, 60 in H x 40 in W
The yellow tones of the stitching reference the lingering golds of the Arbo’s trees during the glorious October of 2013.

Wall sized, the maps have real presence when installed – as I found out when I recently hung the works together in a Concordia studio. Seeing them for the first time on (or, actually, hanging slightly off) the wall, gave me great pleasure. The two completed green maps are flanked by the two final works in the series, still underway. Angell Woods (in ivory tones, on the right) explores a terrain in Beaconsfield, an upscale suburban community of Montreal’s West Island. An unofficial park that in fact made up of contested patchwork ownerships and zoning, Angell Woods is one of the few undeveloped stretches of land in the area and much beloved by dog walkers – especially during the dryer, bug-free cooler seasons. Also wonderful in the winter is the urban greenspace of the Lachine Canal, a 22-kilometre long linear park that stretches the length of the waterway westward from Montreal’s Old Port out towards Dorval. In the warm weather, an extremely popular bike path races along the water’s edge, given wheeled vehicles a certain precedence. A beaten ash path allows walkers (two- and four-footed) a separate place to tread. But when the snow and ice settles in, bikes have no passage, and dogs can run off leash. Such a pleasure!

An installation of the four Nel mezzo maps, as they were in mid-February 2014.

An installation of the four Nel mezzo maps, as they were in mid-February 2014.

In addition to engaging with issues of political ecology, Nel mezzo del camin: Lachine Canal takes up questions of gentrification, urban planning and neighbourhood building, with new development in adjacent streets marked in pink organza. The stitching work – tracing Baloo’s wheeling, free trajectories at my side – is yet to be done.

The two panels of Nel mezzo del cammin mimic the two PDFs posted online by Parks Canada, spanning the distance from the de l'Eglise Bridge on the Verdun side to the Old Port. Both maps include the Atwater Market, a neighbourhood hub.

The two panels of Nel mezzo del cammin mimic the two PDFs posted online by Parks Canada, spanning the distance from the de l’Eglise Bridge on the Verdun side to the Old Port. Both maps include the Atwater Market, a neighbourhood hub.

This portion of the map depicts Griffintown, the community on the north side of the Canal that is experience rampant condominium development – new building is marked in pink. Tomato red marks sites that are 'for rent/à louer', often a prelude to a process of change.

This portion of the map depicts Griffintown, the community on the north side of the Canal that is experiencing rampant condominium development – new building is marked in pink. Tomato red marks sites that are ‘for rent/à louer’, often a prelude to a process of change. Machine stitching identifies the genealogy of buildings that have been or are experiencing transformation – industrial and commercial names followed by development names.

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An interview about my place-based work, February 2014

As part of his Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – funded Insight Development Grant, “Going Public”, Steven High interviewed multiple research and community practitioners about their work. I was honoured to be among the number.

This 52-minute unedited interview is based in conversation and discussion of one of my artworks currently underway, the Lachine Canal map from the Nel mezzo del cammin series of textile maps of walks in urban woods and greenspaces.

This is video is password protected: if you are interested in seeing the interview, please contact me via e-mail or comment here.

Teaching with place

Teaching with place • an on-going paradigm

I began teaching almost two decades ago, during the time I was completing my MFA at Concordia University. As an independent artist looking for funding – and technically still a student and so not eligible for awards for arts production – I stumbled on the Artist in Education program of the Ontario Arts Council (OAC). Successful in my application there, I began project based work as a visiting artist in schools. And I loved it. I loved seeing kids come alive with art, finding the vocabulary (material and verbal) to explore their interests and ideas, express their desires. Over the years, my work with more than 1000 young people in schools all over the Greater Toronto Area prompted my interest in art as a mode of knowing and my pursuit of a practice-based PhD on the subject. (More about my OAC work with children and youth can be found in the Teaching pages of my ‘akaredhanded’ site.)

Since that time, I have taught all kinds of topics related to visual art, community engagement, and education to adults and children in a wide range of venues. With younger artists (children and youth), the topics I chose tended to emphasize age-appropriate questions of identity and subjectivity; now, working primarily at post-secondary, I add a focus on place, histories and belonging. This is particularly appropriate in the Department of Art Education at Concordia, where teaching and research practices have a strong orientation to community art education.

Community art in Pointe-St-Charles, Spring 2013

In the winter/spring 2013, I taught two back-to-back graduate courses that explored theories and practices of art in communities, with the spring session taking the grad students, experienced artist-teachers all, to three sites in Pointe-St-Charles. The Point is an historic neighbourhood in the South West borough of Montreal (10 minutes directly south of Concordia’s downtown campus) that has faced longtime social needs such as poverty, lower levels of education, social exclusion and stigmatization. Now, with real estate development in all areas adjacent to downtown, the Point and its people are also contending with the stresses of gentrification. Each of the three sites (a school, an adult education centre, an after-school program) is facing particular social issues and challenges that were addressed via collaborative artwork in the form of murals and banners.

The Carrefour d'éducation populaire, an adult education facility that for decades has been housed in an unused public school building. Learners, local adults (some low functioning) learn literacy and computer basics, life skills, and arts and crafts from pottery to knitting to stained glass. It's an important community hub for many who otherwise would be solitary and without much connection. Now, the school board is saying that it can't afford the necessary maintenance and repairs to the building and wants to evict the Carrefour. Many locals suspect that this is simply so that the Board can sell the building to developers, now that the land in the Point is worth something.

The Carrefour d’éducation populaire, an adult education facility that for decades has been housed in an unused public school building. Learners, local adults (some low functioning) learn literacy and computer basics, life skills, and arts and crafts from pottery to knitting to stained glass. It’s an important community hub for many who otherwise would be solitary and without much connection. Now, the school board is saying that it can’t afford the necessary maintenance and repairs to the building and wants to evict the Carrefour. Many locals suspect that this is simply so that the Board can sell the building to developers, now that the land in the Point is worth something. Grad students and adult learners worked together to create the banners tied to the security fence.

 

"Soyons tous solidaires!" - Let's all stick together In acrylic paint on tyvek, participants worked together to design and paint this banner. Materials were donated by local businesses, with Harvey Lev of TechnoLith providing the tyvek, and Quincaillerie Lavoie and Rona donating paint. I sourced some materials, students others: often, the success of community practice can depend on the facilitator's ability to beg, borrow or salvage materials.

“Soyons tous solidaires!” – Let’s all stick together
In acrylic paint on tyvek, participants worked together to design and paint this banner. Materials were donated by local businesses, with Harvey Lev of TechnoLith providing the tyvek, and Quincaillerie Lavoie and Rona Hardware donating paint. I sourced some materials, students others: often, the success of community practice can depend on the facilitator’s ability to beg, borrow or salvage materials.

At St. Columba House, three experienced artist-teachers (day job = school teacher) worked with the highly energetic and occasionally focussed kids in the after-school program. A challenging environment with lots of noise and occasional rivalry between the Francophone and Anglophone children in the group, St. Columba House became the site of a highly successful mural, painted in pieces on Tyvek, assembled and then adhered to the gym wall -- above 'bounce' level!

At St. Columba House, three experienced artist-teachers (day job = school teacher) worked with the highly energetic and occasionally focussed kids in the after-school program. A challenging environment with lots of noise and occasional rivalry between the Francophone and Anglophone children in the group, St. Columba House became the site of a highly successful mural, painted in pieces on Tyvek, assembled and then adhered to the gym wall — above ‘bounce’ level!

At St. Gabriel School, small teams of Grade 6 artists worked with three graduate artist facilitators to create murals within the school. This work portrayed fun things the students love to do outside, though the seasons.

At St. Gabriel School, small teams of Grade 6 artists worked with three graduate artist facilitators to create murals within the school. Seen here in its finished state, this work portrayed fun things the students love to do outside, though the seasons.

Transferring the preliminary design to the wall with the help of an overhead projector.

Transferring the preliminary design to the wall with the help of an overhead projector.

Only the adult graduate artists had ladder-climbing privileges!

Only the adult graduate artists had ladder-climbing privileges!

Ingeniously, the Grade 6 muralists opted to make each of the faces of the children in their scene a reflective surface in which the viewer can discern his or her own features. This means that the children in the mural are 'every child' rather than any particular individual, which keeps the scene meaningful to the classes that will come after the one that created these works. In fact, since all the Grade 6 artists will move to another school for Grade 7, the murals they created represent their parting gift to the School.

Ingeniously, the Grade 6 muralists opted to make each of the faces of the children in their scene a reflective surface in which the viewer can discern his or her own features. This means that the children in the mural are ‘every child’ rather than any particular individual, which keeps the scene meaningful to the classes that will come after the one that created these works. In fact, since all the Grade 6 artists will move to another school for Grade 7, the murals they created represent their parting gift to St. Gabriel’s.

In developing this community/studio course, I worked in an informal alliance with MU, Montreal’s extraordinary not-for-profit mural creation company, that is working to transform our city’s public spaces and its schools. MU was already planning work in Pointe-St-Charles when their director, Elizabeth Ann Doyle, and I connected.

MU was in the midst of organizing the use of the long exterior wall of St. Gabriel’s School for a large mural by artist Annie Hamel, commemorating the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the ‘filles du roy’ (king’s daughters), who first settled in Montreal in the nearby Maison St. Gabriel, now a historical museum. Although exterior murals are created by a team of professional artists, MU also works with local community members on participatory projects, spreading the wealth of art around. Since Elizabeth knew that I had a longstanding interest in bringing more art to the Point, our collaboration was born. Working in a participatory manner inside the school, the Concordia graduate artists and their teams of Grade 6 artists presented quite different views of place, history and belonging than that on the outside wall, oriented to the first settlers from France. The board, the school staff, the parents and the children all appreciated the dialectic: having their own visions made real.

Imagining a future in which the city is their's to claim, the Grade 6 children designing this mural also wanted to include their beloved principal, Jim Daskalaskis, who is recognizably the figure sitting at the 'café', gazing out on the scene.

Imagining a future in which the city is theirs to claim, the Grade 6 children designing this mural also wanted to include their beloved principal, Jim Daskalaskis, who is recognizably the figure sitting at the ‘café’, gazing out on the scene.

The community-engaged project was very well received by the graduate participants and by the sites at which they worked. We’ve made relationships that we’ll build on, me especially, as I plan for future Pointe-St-Charles based teaching in coming years. With community outreach being an institutional priority of Concordia University, the work of this class was showcased in “Community from the Perspective of an Art Facilitator” on ConU’s website, a story for all to enjoy.

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In the village… /Dans le village (2012)

In the village … / Dans le village … (2012) • A guided walk/workbook and participatory installation

In the village… is an artist’s project commissioned by the Centre d’histoire de Montréal in association with their exhibition, “Quartiers disparus/Lost neighbourhoods” (June 15, 2011-September 1, 2013). The exhibition used archival material and oral history interviews to profile the destruction of three residential communities during Montreal’s modernization of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The city’s rhetoric about these neighbourhood clearances tended to have an anti-working class/anti-poverty moralizing overtone; what effectively happened was displacement and expropriation for new construction for Expo 67 and the summer Olympics of 1976.

Flying under the colours of her Urban Occupations initiative, artist/curator Shauna Janssen and I were commissioned to create a project for the Goose Village/Victoriaville section of the exhibition, about a small neighbourhood that once perched on the river’s edge at the foot of the Victoria Bridge. First a stop along the route of seasonal goose migrations, then a First Nations hunting area and, subsequently, the site of cholera fever sheds during the early/mid 1800 waves of Irish immigration, by the mid 20th century, Goose Village had become a thriving working class community of largely Italian-Canadians. All homes were expropriated in the early 1960s to make way for Expo’s Velodrome (since destroyed). The site is now a parking lot for the nearby Casino, so almost all visible traces of fifty-year-old inhabitation are gone.

Planning two walks (in July and October 2012) to take interested participants from the Old Port through the now industrial and semi-abandoned neighbourhood, the Centre d’histoire wanted an intervention that would both animate the route and evoke the neighbourhood that had been once the final destination – the parking lot – was reached. Our response was in two parts. For the walk itself, Shauna and I devised the plan of creating a series of interactive artist’s [work]books, with each participant having the use of one for the duration of the walk. We generated content about each planned stop along the way using archival images and texts, current photos and imaginings, as well as transcriptions of oral history interviews of past residents of Goose Village. As children they and their families had had to leave their homes; as adults they were asked to revisit the locations to bring the community back to life for the rest of us.

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Each booklet is individually made, using an assortment of Japanese and handmade papers onto which are printed layouts of texts, images, and insertions. With multiple variations on internal page spreads, each booklet is individual, meaning that no two participants experience of Goose Village of/through the booklet will be quite the same.

Since the 90 minute walking tour took participants past landmarks that had been wildly changed, erasing the past, Shauna and I were very concerned that our workbook help visualize it – through archival insertions but also via the participants’ memories of their own childhood, wherever these may have been, mobilized by questions and prompts we created within the book. We left space for participants’ interventions – and gave them coloured pencils with which to make their marks.

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Designed to bring alive the scents and tastes of Goose Village as its one-time residents recalled them, the booklets include various insertions: dried chicory and oregano, whose scents were in the air; gummy bears and salt water toffee, remembered childhood treats, updated for the walk’s participants.

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During the October 2012 walk, participants engage with the interactive booklet at one of the designated stops along the walking route.

By the time the participants had reached the parking lot, they had worked through all the pages of the booklets, arriving at the inside back cover. There, an envelope contained two folded paper feathers – ‘goose feathers’ – which could, if the participants wished, be added to the final installation.

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Turning to the final page and discovering the small paper bag that contained the two paper feathers that were part of each booklet.

We suggested that they might want to write a wish or a thought for Goose Village to their feathers, before adding them to the raffia ropes that Shauna and I had strung between the trees at the parking lot’s perimeter.

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Inscribing a personal note on the feather before adding it to the others fluttering on the raffia rope.

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‘Mémoire’ – Memory

 

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Cross-cultural thoughts for the occasion.

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The lines of feathers flutter, a biodegradable memorial to Goose Village, across a lane of traffic from the Black Rock, found by workers building the Victoria Bridge in the mid 1800s and erected as a memorial to all the Irish immigrants who died in the cholera sheds that had once stood on this site. In a city, the only constant is change.

After the walks, the books were collected, the comments and drawings documented, and most were returned to the Centre d’histoire de Montréal with the idea that they would be displayed along with the “Quartiers disparus” installation.

While the Goose Village site remains undeveloped at the moment, across Bridge St – on the other side of the Black Rock and just beyond the grassy verge visible in the photo above – the ground and nearby Pointe-St-Charles residents prepare for a massive development of more than 600 condominiums, to be built on what was once the Canadian National Railway’s local maintenance yard and a primary employer for the residents of Goose Village.

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I’d like to acknowledge the special contribution to this project of Steven High, of Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, where both Shauna and I are affiliate members. His funding allowed the material purchases that made the booklets possible. Thanks, Steve!

I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen (2011) • as part of the DarlingARCADE

I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen (2011) was my contribution to the group show, the DarlingARCADE, which used the device of a shoe store to involve visitors in an virtual exploration of a particular neighbourhood, in this case, the Griffintown location of the Darling Foundry where the show was sited. The installation consisted of a series of single shoes, each linked to a shoebox ‘cabinet of curiosities.’ Altered, designed, beautified, made monstrous, shoe and shoebox together served as an artist’s interpretation of some aspect of Griffintown. An historic Montreal neighbourhood that until the middle of the 20th century had been home to may of the island’s working class Irish-Canadians as well as an industrial hub, the since-deindustrialized Griffintown was exploding with gentrifying condominium developments. Responding to the history of the place as much as to its overwriting by property speculators, the fifteen participating artists created audiovisual dioramas as well as hands-on experiences for visitors to the event, presented over the weekend of the Journées de la culture/Culture Days, September 30 – October 2, 2011.

Titled for a favourite Irish folksong, I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen begins with the Irish heritage of Griffintown and Irish cultural traditions of textiles and dance to propose a story of immigration and longing that is enacted through knitting.

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Irish step dancing shoes, loaned for the occasion by Rossetti’s.

 

The single shoe on display linked to the box, which features an image of water – the nearby waters of the Lachine Canal or perhaps the watery divide of the Atlantic Ocean, that separated the Irish immigrants from their homes and families, usually forever.

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I appreciate that the photo of the water’s surface is somewhat abstract, a visual metaphor for a kind of storytelling distance, a “once upon a time”-ness that is embedded in this work.

Inside the box, the visitor encounters a length of knitting on needles, a text that tells a story of an imagined Irish immigrant girl, and an invitation to add to the work. 

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While many of the boxes provided audiovisual spectacles, mine asked something of the visitor – that they try their own hand at making. (Instructions were provided in the text and I hovered near by to offer a hands-on demo, if indicated.)

 

 

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This young knitter was among the most committed of participants, resolutely staying at the task until she completed a whole – LONG! – row. New to knitting, she worked with concentration to form each stitch; her work was more careful than most others who took part.

As thanks for participating, each visitor was offered a small skein of Aran-style ivory wool to take away as a gift. Over the course of the weekend, several dozen participants added rows to the piece, extending its length by multiple inches. A lifelong knitter myself, I was surprised to find out how few were familiar with the practice, despite its contemporary resurgence in hipster craftivism. 

Developed as part of Urban Occupations Urbaines (curated by Shauna Janssen), the DarlingARCADE project was conceived by Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard, visual and performance artists of 2boys.tv, and of course references Walter Benjamin’s considerations of the arcade as a trope of urban modernity, linked to questions of consumption and the flâneur, that metrosexual dandy who strolls through the city for his own amusement. 

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Made Flesh (2010 – ongoing)

Made Flesh (2010 – ongoing) • a graphic novel in digital collage

Perhaps because I moved from Toronto to Montreal (in 2008) with no creative work in progress, and also likely because I and my work are so very place-based, it took me some time to find ‘what was next’ in my studio practice. Eventually, after a 2009 move within Montreal and the re-location of my studio from Toronto to Montreal in July of that year, I was physically settled enough to contemplate making. I needed to make to find myself in my new home. No surprise, then, that the body of work that emerged addresses questions of dislocation and loss.

In many ways, my greatest loss of that interval was my beloved dog, Auggie, who had been my companion and muse for the previous decade. Always sickly from Addison’s Disease and, in later life, related problems of high blood pressure, blindness, cardiac arrhythmia, etc., etc., Auggie’s body started to fail him in the summer of 2008. In February 2009, when he was no longer eating and didn’t want to engage with the world he had loved so much, I had him euthanized.  Then, I truly felt bereft. Desolate. Inconsolable.

But time did make a difference, as did bringing a new puppy, Baloo, to my new home in the summer of 2009. Both dogs figure in my new body of work, a graphic novel in digital collage, that explores questions of love, loss, mourning and the possibilities and limitations of representation.

Opening two-page spread, setting the scene in the daily routine with a live and ghost dogs

Opening two-page spread, setting the scene in the daily routine of walking….

two dog spread w text

Turning the page, the viewer/reader sees the other two protagonists, the live and ghost dogs. Only the live dog breathes visible vapour into the cold Montreal winter air.

I had been thinking of creating a graphic novel for some time, since not long after I completed the collage installation of Finding Home. At that time, after the long (if pleasurable!) haul of the practice-based doctoral dissertation, I wanted to create work that had a high quotient of fun, that built on my love of storytelling and that would be a quick and joyful interlude before a new and inevitably serious body of new visual work claimed me. I had in mind to use friends’ pets as protagonists, along with Auggie, of course. His sidekick would be Earl, the Himalayan rabbit of my friend Grace of New Westminster, BC. The Adventures of Auggie and Earl had a real ring to my ears, as well as lots of wacky potential. Given the Himalayan connection, I imagined Earl in saffron robes as the ‘bunny lama’ (invoked with great love and respect), who would communicate via Skype and e-mail with Auggie, as the two traded existential and aesthetic quips and qualms, their humans completely oblivious to their animal companions techo-rich intellectual lives. Marion, the beloved grey cat of my then-neighbour Liza, would have cameos, for some reason wearing a pink sari. (Marion was not only much beloved by Auggie but also quite girly.)

But then life intervened. Marion developed throat cancer and died. Earl died. I moved. Auggie died. The Adventures of Auggie and Earl lost its lustre and never quite materialized as originally conceived.

But when I was ready to begin making art again, I came back to the notion of the graphic novel. Teaching digital photography and PhotoShop to undergrads at Concordia, I’d gotten increasingly interested in exploring digital versions of the collage practices I cherished. I was invited to submit a chapter to a collection of essays about academics and their dogs, and so proposed a graphic novel format: I had an external imperative to light a fire at my heels. A creative fire that heals, as well.

And so Made Flesh began.

So far I have developed eight panels that use hand drawing, photography, and text to explore my thematics. The narrative arcs through the typical activities of a day in the life with a dog: walks, meals, meditations, companionship. Simultaneously, the external seasons shift from snowbound winter to full bloom summer, suggesting an internal as much as an external thaw. The story opens on the wintery mountain, features the spring melt of the Lachine Canal parklands and continues in the lush grasses of the dog park, before returning … home.

Reflecting the multiple languages and kinds of engagement in our local dog park.

Reflecting the multiple languages and kinds of engagement in our local dog park.

The double page spread I think of as "Office Snooze;" I've always loved working in the company of a sleeping dog.

The double page spread I think of as “Office Snooze;” I’ve always loved working in the company of a sleeping dog.

I’ve enjoyed conceptualizing and creating the drawings and pages of Made Flesh, enjoying the rigour of black and white drawing with Sharpies as much as the pleasure of ‘seeing’ Auggie again, of having his ghostly company continue through recognizable renderings of my Montreal daily life. At the same time, I have found the project unsuccessful in evoking the strangeness and chaos of grief and, frankly, insufficiently tactile. Oriented as I am to the materiality of artistic practices such as fibres and painting, the digital work seems insufficiently handmade to me.

My dissatisfaction with my work has been productive, however, since I’ve refused to just let it go. I keep going back to what’s not working, what might work were I to change the project in various ways, and I’m making progress in my understanding. I’ve been using Made Flesh as the basis to continue my methodological theorizing about collage as a form of artistic research, and writing and speaking about my ideas at conferences. Most recently, I presented this work virtually at the 2nd Conference on Arts-Based Research and Artistic Research in Granada, Spain (27 – 30 January 2014). Sadly, I was not able to attend in person, but I did provide a video ‘trailer’ to my academic paper, “A Möbius Paradigm for Artistic Research.”

I have ideas for additional content for Made Flesh and ways to move it forward, which I will gradually implement. Some involve extending the digital creation into specific concrete form and working new content in analogue media, alongside the printed content. In other words, I intend to make flesh of Made Flesh.

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Home Sweet • A digital story created for .dpi 19

HOME SWEET (2010) • A digital story created for .dpi 19 

With the 2008 move to Montreal from Toronto being a mixed blessing – the distress of the dislocation often outweighing the pleasures of my great new job at Concordia University – I used my visual practice to understand and represent my experience. In the form of a digital story, Home Sweet uses the image and reality of train travel to propose that home can exist in a space between sites, and was my first foray into time-based media.

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The vistas from the window of the Montreal-Toronto train are key to this project, which offers a look out on/back at sense of belonging to multiple locales.

Home Sweet was commissioned by .dpi, the online creative space of Studio XX, Montreal’s bilingual, feminist artist-run centre for technological exploration, creation and critique. This issue of .dpi, themed <terre><d’appartenance> or <home><land> and curated/edited by Dina Vescio, considers artistic and theoretical notions of locality, domesticity, identity, belonging, community and territory in relation to Québécois and Canadian culture.

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Sited Stories • A Nuit Blanche event at New City Gas

SITED STORIES (2011) • A NUIT BLANCHE EVENT AT NEW CITY GAS IN GRIFFINTOWN, MONTREAL

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A view into the light and energy of participatory art through the open door of the New City Gas stables, as participants interact with the Sited Stories weave. Photo: Ben Soo.

On February 28, 2011, it was minus 20 degrees C overnight, a very cold winter evening. This was the occasion for Montreal’s annual Nuit Blanche event, a celebration of arts and culture in one of Canada’s most arty and cultural cities. For the second year in a row, a group of local artists organized a community event at New City Gas, an historic series of buildings dating from the 19th century currently owned by Harvey Lev. A good 20 of us responded to the accelerating gentrification of Griffintown; then incipient, at the time of writing a virtually transformed neighbourhood now full of rampant condo development.

In the unheated concrete and wood building that had once been the New City Gas stables, artists Kelly Thompson, Lisa Vinebaum and I created Sited Stories, a participatory weave exploring questions of mapping and belonging. For an armature to receive visitors’ interventions, we built a framework of yarns and plastics to represent the island of Montreal, the waterways around it, mountain at the centre of it and primary streets criss-crossing it – a kind of building-sized cat’s cradle hoisted above head height, spanning the interior length of the building.

Our visitors were asked to use paper or yarns to tell or draw their story of their relationship to the city, and then to tie their artifact into the map of the city at a point on the weave that geographically approximated the place depicted. A widely distributed e-mail suggested that participants might also choose to bring their own objects or mementos to integrate into the web. Either way, part of the fun for participants was adding their contribution to the spot they identified as their neighbourhood on the communally created, wildly idiosyncratic map; part of the fun was working against the cold of the elements, which required that people act fast to stay warm. The work invited those present to consider what about Montreal was particularly meaningful to them and how they would want to represent and share that with others.

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Looking back at the open stable door from the inside. The framework for Sited Stories was installed above adult head height, at about 6 feet from the ground, meaning that the ‘city’ and many elements that participants attached floated above most visitors heads, an upward installation.As noted on an upside down piece of paper visible at left, the diagonal webbing at that side of the image represents Mount Royal, the ‘mountain’ that is an iconic feature of the city that so many of us love. 

Students from the Art Education and Fibres and Material Practices departments of Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts assisted in setting up the framework for the Nuit Blanche activities, which ran from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. on the day in question. More than a hundred visitors participated, adults and children, both friends of ours and strangers to us. As the map filled with tokens and offerings over the course of the event, what became clear was how much individuals care about the places that they’ve lived and loved, and how the specific beauties of the human-made structures and natural elements of this city commonly resonate across our many differences.

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This writer’s text references St. Viateur St. in Montreal’s iconic Mile End, the neighbourhood of Canada with the highest concentration of artists – and of course the famous St. Viateur Bagels, available fresh from the oven 24 hours per day.

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Visitors enjoy perusing the many contributions to the maps, reading others’ stories and exploring the visual vocabulary.

This project was made possible in part by the generosity of Harvey Lev, who provided the space for our project and many other installations, performances and events within his buildings, as well as a lot of the yarns and papers used in Sited Stories.