Monday, May 21, 2012

Provisions for a Northern Climate

Astonishing as it is, I am now the two-thirds of the way through my MA course, and 30 of 45 weeks have passed. This week our work is being assessed by our tutors and an external examiner, and we will be given a provisional grade.

 Still much left to do.  In late March and April I was working intensively on my pieces for Field Dress, and I have to admit that my attentions were divided. Back in London after a visit to Canada that was lovely, but not particularly productive work-wise, I needed to refocus.  While the intended focus of my MA project is natural dye printing, I have lately found myself seduced by stitching.  I am obsessed by embroidery, particularly using knitting yarns to get big, bold marks.  I love the effect of dyeing the samples after stitching because of the way different fibres take up the yarn:  darkest colours on wool, then followed by silk, then cellulose fibres.  I am fascinated by the unpredictable nature of natural dyes - beautiful surprises not expected.  Sometimes failures also!

 While working on Field Dress, I discovered that hand-sewing the seams of a garment can be very enjoyable.  I sewed an entire outfit by hand, which was quite labour intensive, but also very meditative, and my hand stitching has improved.  It is more even and precise, and I am getting faster.  Hand sewing has advantages, too:  greater ability for easing and fitting difficult seams, like curves.  For the collection of stitched and printed garments I plan on producing for my MA exhibition, I may not hand sew all the seams, but I will certainly hand finish all hems and edges. For a sample garment for my collection, I did sew the entire thing by hand.  Above shows the garment before dyeing.

 Above and below are samples of embroidery that I later dyed.  I am exploring shapes and stitches to render imagery of some of the plants I've been drawing - Queen Anne's Lace, and the mullein (which rather ended up looking like wisteria instead).  I do not plan the stitching very much before I begin a piece.  I have an idea of the image, but I let the embroidery take form as I go.  Many of these pieces are stitched with various tape yarns of cotton, linen, bamboo, silk, and wool, that I purchased at Romni Wool in Toronto. They have a particularly lovely silk tape that I love, which also dyes beautifully.

 My stitching has helped to determine the imagery for printing.  My process is quite organic:  I spent some weeks drawing plants, then stitching based on the drawings, before moving on to drawings based on the stitching.  I had not quite realised that this was my process, but by analysing it because of my MA course, I've become aware of it. 

Mylar, my former favourite drawing surface, does not seem to be available in the UK.  In fact, over the last few years it has become more scarce in Canada.  While considering sustainability, I should consider whether continuing to draw on a plastic film is suitable.  In any case, I have found that the high quality cotton rag vellum is a nice substitute.  I do draw on paper in my sketchbook, of course, but I find that by drawing directly on to vellum, I can use any image as a screen positive. 

Above, sketchbooks, technical notes, samples, and drawings compiled for presentation.   Provisions for a Northern Climate is the current title of my project brief:

'Inspired by the resourcefulness of my ancestors, imagining a world informed by the ingenuity of the past and the science of the present, where we exist in alchemy with the wilderness that surrounds us, I intend to create a collection of garments suitable for living in concert with nature.  The climate of Canada is often one of extremes: cold, dry, snowy winters followed by hot, humid, stormy summers and in the past we relied on our clothing to help us adapt to these conditions. Modeled after utilitarian clothing of the past, this collection will include items such as quilted petticoats and woolen underwear, both printed and stitched, with imagery and colour to be drawn from the Canadian landscape.  The colour palette reflects the forests, gardens and fields of early Canada: black walnut, butternut, birch and oak, bedstraw, madder, weld and woad, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace and sumac, and kitchen scraps such as tea, carrot tops and onion skins.'

Gathering Seeds Tunic

This garment is modeled after the Mexican huipil, a very simple top made of one piece of fabric.  The selvedges are the side seams, a neck hole cut at the fold, with arm holes left open.  Traditionally, the neckline and sleeves are heavily embroidered, rendering beautiful this utterly simple, utilitarian garment. My father brought me back two huipils from Mexico at least ten years ago, and they are my very favourite pieces of clothing.

First stitched, then dyed with dried carrot tops accumulated over this past winter, this shirt will be used as a blue print for the rest of my collection.  I imagine this tunic to be worn as the summer turns into autumn, walking through the fields in under the suns of August and September, when seed heads are heady, just ready to burst. It has ample pockets to allow for collecting seeds, or other treasures gleaned while wandering about.

Stitch and Dye Samples

 Dyes and fibres have an alchemical relationship.  Certain dyes have particular affinity to specific fibres.  I am exploring these alliances through stitch:  first embroidering with yarns of various fibres, then dyeing, sometimes mordanting, sometimes not.  Some dyes, such as cochineal, are pH sensitive, and therefore respond to after treatments using acids and alkalis that can dramatically shift colours from cool to warm, for example.  The bright pinky coral sample above right, shows cochineal with an acid dip, while in the left corner, with no after treatment.  Below right, osage orange dyes are intensely yellow, but merino wool takes up a warmer tone which is almost orange, while cellulose fibres are more lemony yellow.

This week, some more print sampling, and a few sojourns out of London.  The weather has been rather grey the last few weeks, but sun is forecast.  I have my fingers crossed for a picnic or a day of lying in the grass in a park also.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Field Dress

Last year I was invited by curator Patrick Macauley to be one of five artists to participate in 1812-2012: A Contemporary Perspective this spring at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.  I was flattered to be asked, because Patrick Macauley is a wonderful curator who has always been generously supportive of my work.  Each artist was to propose pieces based on their individual experience and interpretation of the theme, and I was excited because the premise for the exhibition was right up my alley:

'Time passes slowly. How we remember and how we understand the past is always in question. This exhibition invites five contemporary artists to explore the War of 1812 through its historical complexities and bring forward a contemporary perspective.'

As I've been recently exploring through the lens of natural dyes how our deeper past can shape the future and as  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), I was particularly keen.  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.

 We always visited Canadian historical sites as part of our holidays when I was a child, including battle sites like the Plains of Abraham, and various forts dotted around the country, especially as my younger brother was fascinated by the stories of Generals Brock, Wolfe and Montcalm.  I loved our family trips, but I was never enthralled by the stories of these historical wars. Perhaps this was because at old forts I could never see myself in these places that were the realm of men.  Women's contributions were absent there, or at least quite behind the scenes.  I preferred our visits to historic homesteads and living museums like Upper Canada Village where everyday life was being reenacted:  cooking or dyeing wool over an open fire, or eating horehound candy sticks from the general store held much more appeal.   However, in the War of 1812, there was one woman whose story, whether entirely true or not, has become quite legendary in the history of the formation of Canada: Laura Secord.

The story is this:  

'The Secords had been ordered to billet American soldiers in their home. On the evening of June 21, 1813, Laura and her husband James overheard an American plan of an impending attack on British forces. The Americans were planning an assault against Lt. James Fitzgibbon at Beaverdams. With that position captured, the Americans could control the entire Niagara Peninsula. Upon hearing the plan, the Secords knew that Fitzgibbon must be warned. Injured at the Battle of Queenston Heights the previous October, James could not attempt the journey. Despite the danger and harsh unsettled country, Laura decided she would go to warn Fitzgibbon.

'Her journey along a 32 km (20 mile) treacherous route took more than 18 hours to complete. Fearing discovery by American patrols that were in possession of that part of Niagara, Laura Secord daringly made her way to DeCew house on the outskirts of Thorold. The dangers of such a journey were many - wolves, wildcats and rattlesnakes were common in the peninsula at this time, as were unfriendly Native forces. A woman walking alone toward enemy lines risked being arrested or even shot. Overcoming exceedingly hot temperatures and wild, unsettled land, Laura trekked through thick woods and across unbridged streams, tattering her slippers and leaving her feet blistered and bleeding.

'At Beaverdams, Laura encountered Native forces who were allies of the British. Upon hearing her news, they accompanied her to DeCew house where she was able to deliver her vital message to Fitzgibbon. As a result, the Native forces, under the command of John Norton and Dominique Ducharme, ambushed the invading Americans and defeated them at the Battle of Beaverdams, June 24, 1813.

'Although Laura was due much of the credit for the victory, her heroism was soon forgotten. It wasn't until 1860, almost fifty years later, that Laura received recognition of her act during a visit by Edward, Prince of Wales. She died in 1868 at the age of 93 and is buried in Drummond Hill Cemetery. In 2003, the Minister of Canadian Heritage designated Laura Secord a
Person of National Historic Significance for her heroic actions during the War of 1812.'

(from the Laura Secord Homestead page of the Niagara Parks Commission)

With the bicentennial of the war, there have been many artists exploring the story of Laura Secord, not the least of whom is Barbara Klunder, whose incredibly beautiful exhibition Laura Secord:  The Paper Cuts was shown at David Kaye Gallery last November.  Initially this gave me some reserve in telling my version of the story. However, I persevered.

Pondering the blurred lines between historical fact and fiction, how in the present we interpret the past, romanticize and embellish it and these narratives that bring the past alive,  I decided to construct a costume for Laura Secord. With this costume, I wanted to emphasise 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, which makes Laura Secord's journey even more remarkable.

The pieces are based on garment patterns intended for historical interpretation and reenactment from Sense & Sensibility patterns.  To remain true to the period, I sewed every stitch of each piece by hand, learning, in the process, just how laborious clothes-making was before the sewing machine.  No wonder clothing had so much more value historically.  In my research, I also discovered many fascinating facts about the history of clothing, the most titillating of which, is that women did not typically wear any sort of underpants prior to circa 1830-40, just petticoats, sometimes as many as four or five, depending on the time of year. 

The piece, Field Dress, c.1812, is constructed as an historical artifact, supposing that, Laura Secord's journey was immediately recognised as a historically important contribution, and the clothing she wore to undertake her journey was preserved.

Artist Statement:

Field Dress, c.1812.
These artefacts comprise the costume famously worn during one lady’s perilous and circuitous journey made the 22nd of June, 1813, under the heat of the summer sun, over some twelve miles of wood, swamp and miry road between the village of Queenston and Beaver Dam, etc.

FIELD • [noun ] an area on which a battle is fought : a field of battle.
DRESS • [as adj. ] denoting military uniform or other clothing used on formal or ceremonial occasions : a dress suit.

History is a study subject to interpretation, in which narratives become scattered and muddied, skewed and biased, altered and embellished, strewn and gathered, unpicked, and patch-worked back together.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is in many ways, the bicentennial of an immigration that shaped my own family’s history. My English and American ancestors settled in this land, Southern Ontario, and here, we have remained, for the last two centuries. Some were soldiers during the war, given land in exchange for their service in the war; others were Englishmen granted land after the war in order to strengthen and expand the geographical reach of the Upper Canada.  In the early days of settlement, often wholly unprepared for living in the near wilderness conditions, settlers endured back-breaking work and laboured to survive in a harsh climate, with few conveniences at their disposal. Landscape shapes the character of the people that inhabit it; the land leaves traces upon us as we traverse it, through fields, woods and rivers.

1812-2012:  A Contemporary Perspective continues until July 15, 2012 at York Quay Gallery,  Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West, Toronto. 

This work is generously supported by Harbourfront Centre and the City of Toronto Museum Services as part of a citywide programme for the Bicenennial Commemoration of The War of 1812. 

China Blue at the V&A

One of my fondest places on earth is the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose founding principle was to make works of art available to all, to educate working people and to inspire British designers and manufacturers, and this 'schoolroom for everyone' continues to uphold this goal to this day.  In the study galleries, the wealth and diversity of the V&A's collection is on display, rather than hidden in a storeroom.

In the Ceramics Study Collections, the galleries hold a huge portion of the V&A's collection of ceramics from all over the world, displayed in glass cases that rise from floor to ceiling.  The pieces are displayed as such that you can see the tops and bottoms, and front and backs of most objects, allowing you to see the marks of the potteries or potters who made the pieces.

The pieces are often grouped together by colour and type of object, and organised by geographical region and date.  This wonderful collection makes it easy to see the many variations of one object, from tea cup to jug to sauce boat to sugar bowl.  I adore the manner the V&A shows these objects, and today I am sharing a selection of their blue wares.

Wedgwood Jasperware cameos, medallions and snuff bottles.

This large bowl with a ship painted inside had to be photographed from top and bottom to see the extent of the detail within.

Finally, the work of V&A artist in residence Clare Twomey, whose piece, Trophy, was originally made up of 4000 blue birds made of Wedgwood Jasperware (a stoneware stained with cobalt oxide).  The piece was displayed at the V&A for just one day in September 2006, and visitors were invited to take a bird as a gift.  The birds you see below are the twenty that remain of the four thousand.