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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Video

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 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.

Dancing Shoes

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.