Monday, 31 January 2011

Sandra Brownlee: Notebooks (part two)

Sandra Brownlee in her Dartmouth, Nova Scotia studio
From a young age Sandra kept a notebook and it was while a student at NSCAD that she began to incorporate its use into her daily life. At first the books served as tools to record information and weaving charts, but over time they evolved into a greater role. Sandra uses her notebook as a thinking space-- a safe place to enter more deeply into her work and her practice. She normally works in one notebook at a time, but when she is working on a special project she keeps an extra one specially dedicated to that. Sandra's notebooks are now a catch-all for everything: quotes, images, experiments, and ideas. They are a place for playing, experimenting, creating, and freely expressing herself. The notebooks are a place to see and respond.

It is in her notebooks that Sandra digs deep. It is where she enters "the thorough experience of experience" as Inez Martinez wrote in an essay called Interiority. On these pages Sandra responds to her physical environment. Once she picked a delicate flower, pressed it, made a cloth pocket for it, and then darned this pocket into her notebook. She will post a card from a friend on one page and then on the opposite page, recreate the card in her own way. When she receives gifts, she does a line drawing of the object, thus becoming one with the gift, or becoming the object as Walt Whitman wrote in his poem There Was a Child Went Forth.

"There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of
the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years."

During a decade-long transition from her well-established weaving practice (that I will write about in another post), Sandra ramped up her notebook practice, often filling a page a day. She returned to childhood activities and found herself exploring materials and techniques of childhood art like finger-painting in her notebook. During this transition, the notebook became a portable studio and she was free to create art anywhere.
 Artwork by Sandra Brownlee, Photography by Keith McLeod
When artists exhibit their work, we generally see the work and an artist statement. We are rarely aware of the thinking that allows the artwork come to fruition. Sandra's inclusion of her notebooks in an exhibition, even when firmly closed, remind the viewer that artworks and the ideas behind them don't just come out of the blue. They evolve from a jumble of dreams, images, thoughts, and stories that we tuck away in our notebooks. They jostle together, a hodgepodge of miscellanea, until connections are made and insights arrive. The mind sees patterns and creates linkages between unlikely things.

In her essay, On Keeping a Notebook, Joan Didion wrote: "It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you." So, in the end, although I would love to curl up on a comfy couch with a pile of Sandra's notebooks and a mug of hot green tea, the reality is that my own notebooks (or sketchbooks, as I call them) will tell me what I need to know.

Thank you Sandra for so generously including your notebooks in your solo exhibits. They inspire us to fill our own sketchbooks, make our own connections, and make our own artwork.

* you can read part one of this essay here

Friday, 28 January 2011

Buckminster Fuller: Intuition

Image found: (Sept. 10, 2007)
"Intuition is the key to thinking. Intuition is our contact between the conscious and the subconscious. It's your subconscious that suddenly comes through and lets you know that 'this is something important to be thought about.' It's intuition that is continually opening doors of thought."
-- Buckminster Fuller

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Sandra Brownlee: Notebooks (part one)

Sandra Brownlee notebooks,  Image © Keith McLeod
Sandra Brownlee catalogue,  Image © Keith McLeod
You say couch, I say sofa. Sandra Brownlee says notebook, I say sketchbook. I first encountered the notebooks and woven images of Sandra Brownlee during her solo Weaving Out Loud exhibit at the Textile Museum of Canada in 1995. She generously shared two notebooks for viewing and my immediate impression was that her black-and-white woven imagery was a direct contrast to her colourful notebooks. Sandra's intimate artworks are finely woven using a ground weave with a supplementary weft pick-up with only ubiquitous black and white mercerized cotton threads. An alchemist, she has the gift of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. 
Sandra Brownlee notebooks Detail,  Image © Keith McLeod
Back to the notebooks. They were, and still are, colourful, loose and textured. The covers are lavished with care and attention, like icing on a wedding cake. Jan Baker, a colleague who is a graphic design professor at RISD, inspired Sandra to cover her notebooks with special fabrics from her collection. She takes a mundane notebook and elevates it to a work of art. Some notebooks are embellished with buttons, others have secret pockets stitched into them to hold a pair of embroidery scissors. They invite you to hold them and examine them closely.

Fast forward 14 years. Sandra has another solo show, Departures and Returns, this time at the Mary Black Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her signature woven artworks adorn the walls along with framed textile collages that are pages excised from cloth notebooks, and a few hand-stitched pieces. At the end of the gallery hangs a shelf with a row of her notebooks, except this time they remain firmly shut with a "Please Do Not Touch!" sign. The notebooks beckon, like Lorelei singing to wary sailors, but I reluctantly obey the sign. The closed notebooks create tension as they tempt viewers to step behind the curtain to get a glimpse of Sandra's imaginings. On the other hand, the closed notebooks maintain the mystery of the creative process. They make me wonder and inspire me to do a deep dive into my own sketchbooks.
* you can read part two here

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Aganetha Dyck: Art Hero

I have never met Gathie Falk, Wanda Koop, or Aganetha Dyck, but they serve as role models. You see, we all have something in common: we are all female artists of Russian Mennonite heritage. Mennonites aren't really supposed to be visual artists. In the Mennonite community where I grew up, it was acceptable to be a musician, it was OK to write (as a hobby), but to be a visual artist was iffy.
©Aganetha Dyck;  Image from Michael Gibson Gallery
"Glass Jar with Beige Wax and Flower Broach with Pearl", 1984 Glass Jar with buttons 9.3 x 3.3 x 3.3 in. SOLD

Of this trio of artists, the work of Aganetha Dyck speaks to me the most. Aganetha's work is rooted in the domestic: in canning, knitting, felting, and bee-keeping. But with a twist. When her studio occupied an old button factory, she used the materials at hand using a technique likely taught to her by her mother: she canned the buttons. Aganetha shrunk wool clothing for her Shrunken Clothing Series, and moved on to collaborating with bees. Her work with bees put her work in an entirely new light. In 2007, she won the Canadian Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.

Thank you Gathie, Wanda, and Aganetha for persevering.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The real deal

Matryoshka doll, 1965 Image © Karen Thiessen 2011
Above are images of the "real deal"-- the Matryoshka doll or Russian nesting doll that belongs to my mom that I wrote about in a previous post. She is mother to five girls and was made in 1965 in the Semionovo style. The eggplant-coloured dress is unusual; mostly I see them in red. The five daughters wear red dresses. This doll is faded from sitting on a plate rail opposite a south-facing window. Apparently the Semionovo dolls are painted with aniline dyes. Almost anything can fade in direct sunlight, so this is an example of what can happen to artwork, furniture, and other collectibles.

This Matryoshka has long been part of my imagination, so I'm delighted that designers brought her into the present with measuring cupspillows, tea towels, plates, and more. Atelier LZC printed some great Russian doll inspired tea towels in 2007 that are sadly no longer available. It seems that 2007 was the year of the Matryoshka in the design world. 

Monday, 24 January 2011

Small things

Bread Tab Image: © Karen Thiessen 2011
"One should pay closer attention to small things." -- Squeak Carnwith, American Painter (b. 1947)

Friday, 21 January 2011

Jon Lee is one talented guy

Jon Lee Installation NYC 2007
This installation of 10" square mixed media panels by Jon Lee caught my eye on a 2007 trip to New York City. It is from his Great Wall of Boxes series and aside from his techniques and imagery, what grabbed me was the modular nature of his work. I've been obsessed with modular art for a few years now and in a future post, I'll highlight a few artists who work this way. Jon Lee is one talented guy. He was one of 15 MFA students to receive the prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation grant in 2010. 

Thursday, 20 January 2011

This Doesn't Have to Be Good

Here's another sign that hangs in my studio. According to author Jim Collins, "Good is the enemy of Great." There are times when trying to do great or even good work gets in the way of taking risks and testing new ideas. Sometimes you need to be willing to make "crap." This is where the Day In & Day Out (DIDO) comes into play. A DIDO is an opportunity to play, test materials, techniques, ideas and not make something perfect. I've been doing DIDO projects off-and-on for 18 years and they continue to surprise me. Since 2008, I've been doing a DIDO to a 2" square piece of watercolour paper. That's 1115 of those suckers, to date. I'll share some of these DIDOs with you soon.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Mundane beauty

Mesh bag 2 © Karen Thiessen 2011
"The mundane is to be cherished." -- Jenny Holzer, American artist (b. 1950)


This needlepoint belongs to a friend of mine. The same framed textile hung in my Opa & Oma's dining room. My Oma stitched it from a kit and it's one of those evocative objects. When I see it, it brings me back to visits with my grandparents where Opa and I played chinese checkers on a board that he made himself and where Oma would make delicious Mennonite foods like zwieback and rollkuchenA cousin has the needlepoint, but I have Oma's wooden cooling rack that Opa probably made himself. 

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Inspiration Wall

Inspiration Wall  Image: © Karen Thiessen 2011
Inspiration Wall  Image: © Karen Thiessen 2011
An essential studio tool is my inspiration wall where I tack up found images and objects, plus a few samples and experiments. When I moved into my studio I installed 4'X8' homasote panels on three of the four walls and then painted them off-white, the same colour as the walls. My exercise bike faces one of my homasote walls and I look as I ride. My mind makes connections between the various objects and images and new ideas are born. Riding my exercise bike is the equivalent to soaking in the tub when it comes to relaxing the mind so that eureka moments seep in.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Shayne Dark: Into the Blue

Shayne Dark Into the Blue
Shayne Dark Into the Blue detail
Here's some mid-January eye candy. A few years ago, I stumbled across Shayne Dark's Into the Blue in front of the Edward Day Gallery on Toronto's Queen Street West. The wonders of Yves Klein Blue aka International Klein Blue on Ironwood. Now, if only I could have one of these in my snowy neighbourhood right now-- just looking at it makes me happy!

Friday, 14 January 2011


Oooo, Stitched digitally printed textile, © Karen Thiessen 2010
Trained as a textile artist, I now work in collage and textiles, sometimes together, sometimes separately. Oooo began as a paper collage in my sketchbook. I scanned it, cleaned it up in Photoshop, and digitally printed it onto a special fabric, that I then hand-stitched. This piece is for the Textile Museum of Canada's Shadow Box Event 2011. This is the ninth shadow box that I've contributed and Oooo rates in my favourite top three. Check out the TMC website to view the rest of the shadow boxes.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

John Cage: Rules for Students and Teachers

Rule 1: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.
Rule 2: General Duties of a Student: Pull everything out of your teacher. Pull everything out of your fellow students.
Rule 3: General Duty of a Teacher: Pull everything out of your students.
Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment.
Rule 5: Be self-disciplined. This means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
Rule 6: Follow the leader. Nothing is a mistake. There is no win and no fail. There is only make.
Rule 7: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things. You can fool the fans-- but not the players.
Rule 8: Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.
Rule 9: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It is lighter than you think.
Rule 10: We are breaking all the rules, even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for 'x' quantities.
Helpful Hints: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully and often. Save everything. It may come in handy later. 
via Alison Sant and The Spiral Staircase

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


"Bean tree"; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen © 2011
Winter is here. Naked trees reveal their architecture. I call this a bean tree since it has long pods hanging down. Doesn't this tree look like it belongs in a sci-fi movie?

Winter is a time of creative renewal and gathering. To prepare for this, I clean and organize. Whenever I get the urge to dust, purge papers, and tidy my studio, I know good things are on their way. What are some of your practices for creative renewal?

Monday, 10 January 2011

Yarn Bombs

Wouldn't it be great if more streets were adorned with this kind of creativity? Imagine Wall Street or Bay Street perked up with yarn and knitting. 

Friday, 7 January 2011


Images © Karen Thiessen 2011

Sometimes childhood interests reveal future vocations. In this case, the sister wearing the spool necklace became a textile and mixed media artist. The brother became a professional truck driver. The sister and brother sitting in the tire wells of their father's truck were about 3.5 and 2 years old respectively. The boy would sit in the pear tree pretending that it was a combine or truck. His gear-shifting abilities were exceptional. The girl would draw elaborate scenes from Speed Racer on her mother's freshly wallpapered kitchen wall. Her mother was not impressed.

The spool necklace is another one of those evocative objects. Both necklaces were simply made with wooden spools threaded onto used shoelaces. The necklace below has a few goat bones added for interest and hangs on my office wall. Seeing it floods me with good memories of my childhood.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Evocative Object I

This Matryoshka doll is a substitute for the one that I have admired and played with since I was a young child. The one that means the most to me belongs to my mom and the largest doll has an egg plant coloured dress and each doll nestled into her belly wears a red dress like the one above. In the mid-1960s my aunt travelled to Ukraine when it was still part of Russia and brought the purple doll and her brood back. Travelling in the USSR at this time was dangerous and she did not tell her parents (my Opa and Oma) about the trip until after she had safely returned. For me, the Matryoshka doll is an evocative object. It is a beautiful object embedded with childhood memories of stacking the dolls from smallest to tallest, the colours and patterns adorning each doll, and the squeak made when I opened the doll and tried to align her arms and hands at the end of play. This object represents a brave aunt and the "homeland" that my Mennonite grandparents and great-grandparents fled in the 1920s.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011


This is a image that I created in Photoshop a few years ago.
Have you set your 2011 goals yet? One of my goals is to learn Adobe Illustrator. It's been on my goal list for a few years, but this year is different. In previous years, I set 10 to 20 goals and I reached many but not all. Since reading Leo Babauta's The Power of Less, I have changed my approach to goal setting. Now I choose to tackle just three projects and then break them into itty bitty tasks. Babauta advocates working on them until all three are done and then moving on to the next three projects on the list. Since adopting this approach, I have had much greater success. This week I'll spend more time fleshing out my goals and then deciding which are my top three to tackle. What are your top three projects for 2011?