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!

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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!