Monday, 23 April 2012

A Dispatch from Calgary

Teaching in a specialized field like screenprinting and surface design gives me an opportunity to travel for work. I'm a most-of-the-time Hamilton resident, and some-of-the-time Calgary resident, spending the winter term at the very wonderful Alberta College of Art.

One of the classes that I teach there is the Fibre 101 class, which focuses on 2D work. I've been wanting to add a natural dye project into the class, particularly one that can be done outside of school, requiring no specialized equipment. So much of what I teach relies on specific, often expensive tools such as exposure units and vertical fabric steamers, and I remember coming out of school totally unsure of how to do things on my own.

The class was given the task of purchasing a silk scarf, eating pasta or pickles for a week to obtain a 1L-ish glass canning jar, and collecting natural materials that they thought might provide colour. I wasn't very specific with the materials, just asking them to gather what they could find from nature or from the kitchen. This was, of course, the week it was minus thirty-five outside, so most of the materials were from the kitchen.

After being laid out, the silk scarves were folded over to fit into the jar, and then rolled around a stick that the students also had to find. Then they are tightly bound with twine, and tucked into their jars. Some students opted to add a colour modifier in the form of giant rusty bolts [iron], old pennies [copper], or in one case, a huge, beautiful copper mineral deposit that the student bought from a gem and mineral show. We then filled the jars with a 10% alum solution, as alum is a good colour-brightening mordant that helps to stick the colour to the fabric, and usually brightens colours as well. oh, and all that drawing you see happening? that is each person making a 'map' of where they put what, so they could have a reference for what material made what colour when we were done. I'm big on note taking.

The jars are then placed in a sunny window to let the heat of the sun cook the fibres and their contents, as in the first image. A week later, we unpacked the jars, shook them out over a bin, and then rinsed the scarves. I learned a great lesson from my class in this assignment - use lots of herbal teas! They make the unpacking process actually nice smelling [my test run was really, really gross! make sure the bundle is submerged in the jar, or you get mold. Lots of it], and hibiscus and rose petals provide lovely colour.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Ontario Craft Road Trip

Originally hailing from Toronto, one of the most gratifying side-effects of my move to Hamilton has been the removal of big-city blinders regarding the rich cultural life of smaller cities and towns in Southern Ontario. So I was super pumped when asked by the Ontario Crafts Council to travel across the province to uncover regional issues for makers practicing outside of large urban centres. In November of last year I visited Picton and Bloomfield to the East, Kitchener and Waterloo to the West, and Thunder Bay to the very North. While super interesting, it would be far too long-winded to go in to my findings on craft-life in these places here. Instead I would love to share some travel highlights; perhaps you might become inpired to explore Ontario further, to expand your understanding of the place where you live.

The high point of my visit to Prince Edward County was tea and chats at Spark Box Studio, an artist residency, education centre, and professional resource project located on farmland and inside a renovated century farmhouse on the outskirts of Picton. Owners Chrissy and Kyle were kind enough to let me poke around in their well-outfitted print studio as well as their home, complete with three art-filled (and pretty darn luxe) residency bedrooms. Such a calm and beautiful spot, I absolutely believed Chrissy when she said that city folk get converted to country living when they stay here and make art.

Should you find yourself Kitchener-Waterloo way, do visit the Joseph Schneider Haus Museum and Gallery, a Pioneer Village-eque spot in downtown Kitchener. The central building is a Georgian farmhouse built by one of the area’s first pioneers, Joseph Schneider, a Pennsylvania-German Mennonite c. 1816. The rooms are filled with gorgeous woven Menonnite blankets and quilts, linen feedbags, super heavy duty functional ceramics, hand woven baskets, wool spinning wheels, and fellows stitching up cotton sausage casings for an upcoming butchering bee. The museum also hosts a Folk Artist-In-Residence program “designed to support the efforts of local artists and artisans working in traditional crafts and trades”. So cool.

While experiencing some serious cultural regeneration in the Bay & Algoma and Waterfront districts, much of Thunder Bay has a definite “land that time forgot” vibe, which I would describe as very, very awesome. One example would be the Kivela Bakery, established in 1910, a great spot to pick up Finnish cardamom bread and have this dapper gentleman show you his oven. The strength of Finnish culture in Thunder Bay (public saunas! a Marimekko store! Finnish pancake houses!) came as a big surprise to me in a city full of surprises.

Can’t wait to go back to all of these places and uncover more.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Historical Interpretation

Today, a sneak preview of one of the activities lately occupying much of my time.  Last year I was asked to be a part of an exhibition this spring at Harbourfront Centre on the occasion of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  The premise of the exhibition fits perfectly with the current vein of my work as I've been recently exploring through the lens of natural dyes how our deeper past can shape the future.  I've always been fascinated by my own family's history, which is rooted in its immigration to Canada between 200 and 400 years ago.  The War of 1812 in particular is an important part in that story, as several of my ancestors can trace their settlement in southern Ontario to the period following the war.

I've been pondering the blurred lines between historical fact and fiction, how in the present we interpret the past, romanticize and embellish it; it is these narratives that bring the past alive.  With that in mind I decided to construct a costume for an especially legendary figure of the War of 1812, Laura Secord. The pieces I've been working on are based on garment patterns intended for historical interpretation and reenactment from Sense & Sensibility patterns.  In the process of sewing every stitch by hand of these regency era garments, I've learned just how laborious clothes-making was before the sewing machine.  No wonder clothing had so much more value historically.  I realised also that while the regency period was a period of relative freedom in women's dress, women still had to contend with layers of petticoats and undergarments that restricted their activities.

I've spent much time constructing undergarments, and now I've moved on to the outerwear, a dress and red coat. The piece above, the dress, has been printed with iron paste in imagery of plants of the roadsides of southern Ontario - purple loosestrife, goldenrod and Queen Anne's Lace. The rust colour will change once I've dyed the dress in a bath of oak gall, to the colour you see below.

1812-2012:  A Contemporary Perspective opens Friday April 20th, with a public reception beginning at 6 pm, at Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West, Toronto.