Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Postcards: Gaye Jackson

When I saw this exhibition of colour photograms of old bottles, I was smitten. Jackson collected dozens of old glass bottles that, according to her artist statement, "once contained medicines, oils, and other domestic products." She found them in an old dump located at the bottom of a lake near an abandoned logging town built in the 1920s. What isn't clear in her statement is whether the lake is dried up or if she found the bottles while scuba diving. Regardless of this detail, her haunting photograms convey the age and stories contained in these bottles. The images resonated with me because when I was growing up on the farm, I would pull on a pair of rubber boots and trek through fields to the tree line  where previous generations dumped their garbage. With each visit, I would find old bottles: mostly Minard's Liniment bottles. My bottles look innocent and ordinary compared to Jackson's images. There isn't much information about Gaye Jackson on the web, but here are two websites that feature some information about her: Gallery 44 Database and IndexG. Jackson's work is intriguing and I am curious to see what she does next.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Quotes: Stravinsky X2

"Too many pieces finish long after the end." -- Igor Stravinsky

"My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit." -- Igor Stravinsky

Friday, 27 May 2011

Grave Rubber

Floral grave rubbing © Karen Thiessen 2011
Funny things happen when you forget to bring a camera to a major tourist destination: you resort to the unusual. A few years ago, while in San Antonio, I reluctantly visited The Alamo. Thinking that it would be boring, I went without my camera. To my surprise, The Alamo was an interesting place and I was inspired to capture elements of it. Tucked in my knapsack was a tiny sketchpad and a good graphite pencil, so I set out to take rubbings of odd-shaped leaves, metal stars embedded in the concrete. I did this in a respectful way, not taking rubbings of anything that I could harm. As a result, I came away with a different experience of The Alamo than if I had brought my camera. 

A few weeks ago I trekked off to the old graveyard where my great Oma rests. She died in the 1930s long before my dad was born and her grave is in the back corner of a small old cemetery that filled before her children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren could join her. Great Oma's grave is forgotten and I find comfort in collaborating with this brave woman that I never knew. I imagine that her daughter-in-law, my Oma, chose the floral pattern: it has a woman's touch.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Flowers for C

My 18-year-old niece was nine when she drew this for me. What amazes me is that she coloured the flower stems to show that they were immersed in water. The child artist is now an adult and will soon graduate from high school. She is on the threshold of a big future. C is beautiful, funny, and intelligent. I remember how scared I was when I was at C's stage of life. Leaving home and moving to the city to attend university was nerve-racking. I had never lived in a town or city, never shared a room, never ridden a city bus, never had to be completely financially responsible for myself, never had to do my own laundry (mom had control-issues when it came to laundry). I felt like a goldfish in the vast Pacific ocean: lost and overwhelmed. I learned how to share a dorm-room, how to manage my money, how to ride a city bus, and how not to do my own laundry (being frugal I washed all the colours together). I made life-long friends, learned a lot and graduated. Then I moved to Toronto and was once again terrified. I had three jobs in order to pay my rent, pay my modest student loan, and buy meager groceries. Somehow I got through it, established more life-long friendships, and learned a lot along the way, including how to do my laundry properly (wash whites and colours separately). Since then I've married, moved to the other side of the world and back, graduated a few more times, and established a career. I faced each large transition with a healthy dose of fear and learned to make fear my friend. During one transition I read Susan Jeffers' Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway three times in a row. I've made LOTS of mistakes on this journey and I'll make plenty more. 

C, I'm thinking of you as you embark on your post-secondary future. You don't have to figure it all out before you begin and you don't have to be perfect. It's OK to begin on one path and then change course. It's as important to learn how to fail as it is to learn how to succeed: you'll encounter both in your life. Whatever you decide to do, I wish for you the best and hope that you realize your full potential. Your family loves you and will stand behind you. C, you have one skill that I didn't have when I left home: you know how to do laundry. Bonus!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Fibre with a Difference: Women's Multipurpose Co-op

Like the Tiwi Designs mat, this coiled paper hot mat is functional but beautiful enough to hang on the wall in my kitchen. The mat is made from recycled newspapers by skilled artisans who are part of the Women's Multipurpose Co-op in the Philippines. The women sort the paper according to colour and then using an umbrella spoke or broom bristle coil a single sheet of paper into a tightly rolled tube. Finally, the coiled paper products are coated with a starch solution that renders them resistant to water and heat. I bought this from a Ten Thousand Villages store and had difficulty choosing because each mat had its own seductive mix of colours. The recycled newspaper product-line made by artisans of the Women's Multipurpose Co-op includes placemats, jewellery, coasters, and picture frames. 

Ten Thousand Villages (TTV) is a nonprofit Fair Trade Organization (FTO) whose purpose is to benefit disadvantaged artisans, not to maximize profits. Stores generally hire one or two paid managers and the rest of the staff is made up of volunteers. The roots of TTV began 65 years ago when businesswoman Edna Byler began selling handcrafted products made in developing countries out of the trunk of her car. In the 1970s her organization became SELFHELP Crafts and in 1996 it became Ten Thousand Villages. At the moment TTV is a nonprofit program of Mennonite Central Committee, but I have heard whisperings that TTV will soon be independent of MCC. Off-and-on, I've volunteered with SELFHELP and TTV since I was a teenager. It's an especially fun place to volunteer during the Christmas season. If you are curious about Ten Thousand Villages products or volunteer opportunities, TTV has stores and festival sales throughout Canada and the US. Whether you are looking for home decor products, jewellery, fashion accessories, fair-trade coffee, tea, chocolate, and other food products, you'll find something that tickles your fancy and your purchase will help an artisan in a developing country feed and educate her children. It's all good.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Postcards: Lula

Close your eyes and remember the sight and smell of a box of crayons with the pointy ends lined up like soldiers. Do you remember colouring with all your favourite bright colours, colouring over the entire drawing with black, and then scratching out a pattern? Grade four was my first time doing this. I remember taking delight in drawing with all the bright colours and then feeling confused when the teacher told us to colour over our drawings with black. Blackening the drawing felt so destructive and pointless. When we finally scratched out patterns with the points of our compasses I understood the purpose of the black. Recently I tried this colouring exercise again and it brought me back to old times. Crayons still smell good!

Toronto's Lula Lounge on Dundas Street West always has well designed postcards. Beautiful postcards help make one slice of the world a better place. Now dig out some crayons and start drawing like you were back in grade four.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Ellen Kort: Advice to Beginners

Advice to Beginners

Begin. Keep on beginning. Nibble on everything.
Take a hike. Teach yourself to whistle. Lie.
The older you get the more they'll want your stories.
Make them up. Talk to stones. Short-out electric
fences. Swim with the sea turtle into the moon. Learn
how to die. Eat moonshine pie. Drink wild geranium
tea. Run naked in the rain. Everything that happens
will happen and none of us will be safe from it.
Pull up anchors. Sit close to the god of night.
Lie still in a stream and breathe water. Climb to the
top of the highest tree until you come to the branch
where the blue heron sleeps. Eat poems for breakfast.
Wear them on your forehead. Lick the mountain's
bare shoulder. Measure the color of days
around your mother's death. Put your hands over
your face and listen to what they tell you.

Ellen Kort, US poet
Wisconsin's first Poet Laureate 2000-2004

Friday, 20 May 2011

Fibre with a Difference: Tiwi Designs

In 1996 and 1997 my beloved and I found ourselves living in Singapore. This was our first time leaving North America and the experience changed us forever. Singapore was both amazing and difficult. The food was delicious, the plants and trees were lush, and the public transit was efficient and affordable. On the downside: we were visible minorities and as a result we paid more than the locals and we received more attention than we were used to. My beloved and I are fair and tall and we towered over the petite Singaporeans. I'm a redhead and this was another novelty for the Asian population who consider red to be good luck. Our eyes were opened and now we have a better sense of what it feels like to be a visible minority.

Singapore is a major travel hub and with some research, travelling to neighbouring countries can be inexpensive. To take a break from sticking out like a sore thumb and to buy clothes in Western sizes, we popped over to Australia two times. On our second Australian adventure we flew from Port Douglas to Darwin and from there we took a short flight in a tiny airplane to Bathurst Island. As a textile artist, I had heard about the Tiwi and Bima textile workshops on the island. Above is a coiled mat made by an artisan from Tiwi Designs. The subtle colour shifts and organic shape are pleasing to the eye. The artisans are of Australian Aboriginal descent. According to the website: "Tiwi Design has become an intrinsic part of the Aboriginal art and craft industry in Australia. The organisation continues to support traditional and contemporary art practice, working with highly skilled artists to express their culture." In 1997, Bathurst Island was isolated and mostly wild -- an ideal environment for preserving a culture. 

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Rebecca Vidotto Installation

A miracle happened on Friday the 13th, of all days: we had a small break in the incessant rain that allowed us to visit the James Street North Art Crawl in Hamilton. The May exhibits were all stronger than usual. Loose Canon hosted The Sky is Not Only Beautiful, a three-person show of emerging artists: Kearon Roy Taylor, Rebecca Vidotto, and Connor Bennett. Taylor and Bennett exhibited prints worth a repeat visit when the gallery isn't so crowded. Rebecca Vidotto's poetic and imaginative installation of drawing, collage, and vintage ephemera swept me off my feet. This is work that a viewer can immerse oneself in: it is like a wordless Dadaist story, with the story changing with each new viewer. A native of Guelph, Ontario, Rebecca studied fine arts at McMaster University and was just accepted into the ceramics program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. I look forward to seeing how her work develops. Rebecca Vidotto is an artist to watch.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Postcards: Two If By Sea

Last summer I popped into the independently-owned Two If By Sea cafe in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia for a spot of tea. The cafe was bright and beautifully designed and the tea and the environment hit the spot. The postcard's pattern and block-printed wave motif are a happy couple and they accurately communicate the warm vibe of the cafe. 

Monday, 16 May 2011

Quotes: Leschak + Picasso

"All of us are watchers -- of television, of time clocks, or traffic on the freeway -- but few are observers. Everyone is looking, not many are seeing." -- Peter Leschak

"Art is the lie that tells the truth." -- Pablo Picasso

Friday, 13 May 2011


Blogger was down for 24 hours and in that time the post that I wrote for today was erased. Gone. Oh well, life isn't what happens to you but how you adapt (as if a missing post is a big deal in the grand scheme of life). Here's a sidewalk cut that caught my eye. I believe that it is a surveyor's mark. Happy weekend to you all!

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Swedish weaving

Swedish weaving is a form of embroidery on monk's cloth. It is also known as 
huck weaving, huckaback darning, or huck embroidery. Until my mom learned the craft last year, I had never heard of it. Mom is addicted: in the course of one year she has made numerous samples, table runners, placemats, and afghans. Above are two of the four baby afghans that she made for her church's parent child dedication that was held on Mother's Day. 

Mom stitches like she cooks. She is not one to slavishly follow a recipe: recipes are merely guidelines to adapt according to what is on hand. Mom takes elements here and there from her Swedish weaving pattern books and creates her own combinations. Out of past necessity, mom is a master of improvisation and her meals and her patterns are both excellent.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Mailbox baseball & rural vernacular design

If you live in the country and your mail is delivered to a mailbox, you are familiar with mailbox baseball. Bored teenaged boys drive around the countryside under the cover of night and bash the boxes. Although the homeowner is responsible for buying, installing, and maintaining it, the mailbox is federal property and bashing it is a crime. In both Canada and the US, bashers face significant fines or imprisonment if caught.

Country folk are resourceful out of necessity. Mailboxes aren't cheap and once you've replaced one a few times, you start to design creative solutions. The bulls-eye mailbox is made of welded steel plate, mailbox #3 is made of a discarded rubber belt from a tomato harvester, and mailbox #4 has steel structure enclosing it. On a recent drive in the Ontario countryside I photographed the above mailboxes. I also saw mailbox posts made of 4 inch steel, some made of poured concrete, and another with cement blocks threaded over a steel post. Necessity is the mother of invention. 

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Postcards: Germaine Koh

Since February 1992, Germaine Koh has been knitting Knitwork from used garments that she unravels and re-knits into one continuous textile. According to her website, the textile will be finished when Koh's life has ended. Knitwork is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. This postcard is from her exhibit at the McMaster Museum of Art in 2002 when Koh was ten years into this ongoing project. I'm curious to see how Knitwork has grown in the intervening 9 years.

Germaine Koh's continuous knitting of Knitwork reminds me of the character Tita De La Garza in the 1992 film Like Water For Chocolate, based on the novel by Laura Esquivel, who knits a giant blanket as a way of dealing with her endless grief and feelings of emptiness. 

Monday, 9 May 2011

Quotes: Robin Kay + ?

"People who don't take chances are doomed to mediocrity." 
-- Robin Kay

"A creative mess is better than tidy idleness." 
-- unknown author

Friday, 6 May 2011


A few weeks ago, while I was practicing yoga in my parents' basement, I looked up at the ceiling and saw this stain. Being in a relaxed associative state, the stain captured my imagination. I had seen the stain before, but this time the conditions were different: I am learning Adobe Illustrator and now shapes hold new potential. 

I've intended to learn Illustrator for many years, but until last year it wasn't offered where I live. Last year I signed up for the course three times and each time it was cancelled due to insufficient enrollment. In November I bought the book, but it sat on my shelf until January of this year. My belief-system that I couldn't teach myself a computer program blocked my progress. I gave it a try twice and each session was 1.5 hours long and my brain was buzzing with too much information. Finally, by accident, I stumbled upon a brilliant solution: one day I started a lesson but had to stop after 5 minutes because the doorbell rang. I realized that I had actually learned something in those short 5 minutes, so I created a plan where I would do a minimum of 5 minutes of Adobe Illustrator learning or practice 5 days a week. Since April, I have spent over 11 hours with the program and it is infiltrating my thoughts. With much trial and error, I figured out how to import this photo into Illustrator and create a path (an outline) of the shape. A next step is to learn how to convert the outline into a jpeg file so that I can show you my progress. Ironically, as a result of learning Illustrator, I am discovering new tricks and techniques in Adobe Photoshop. Learning new skills opens new doors.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Power of Play

Right now I am finishing Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From, a book that I read about in Helen Carnac's blog. As an artist with both art and psychology degrees, I read a lot of books and articles about ideas and creativity that are written from a range of perspectives: business, art and design, psychology, biology, and spirituality. In the past few months I have read Warren Berger's Glimmer; Norman Doidge's The Brain that Changes Itself; Matthew E. May's In Pursuit of Elegance; Chip and Dan Heath's Switch and Made to Stick, and more. Yesterday I found Laura Seargeant Richardson's article Play Power: How to Turn Around Our Creativity Crisis in the Atlantic online. According to the article, American children have difficulty with ambiguity and complexity. It's no wonder when school systems across North America are cutting art and music programs. Many parents are over-programming their children so that they have no time to just play. The world needs more MacGyvers and people who can come up with 50 alternative uses for a pencil.

Yesterday I dug out my mosaic tiles and started playing. Before I knew it, ideas were flowing and I grabbed a pad of paper to capture them. I'd been reluctant to play with the tiles for fear that I might spoil a cherished childhood memory of playing with my Aunt Erika's tiles. Thankfully the good memory remains intact and now I'll pull out the tiles more often.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Postcards: Andrea Vander Kooij

Andrea Vander Kooij is an Ontario-based textile and performance artist. Andrea and I first met at the 2000 Fibreworks exhibition, a national Canadian exhibition of fibre at the Cambridge Gallery in Cambridge, Ontario. Andrea and her husband Alan Groombridge co-knit a piece for the show where one knit half a row and then passed it to the other to knit the other half. Andrea was an experienced knitter and Alan was a rookie. The piece, called Tension, illustrated the differences between their knitting styles. Half the piece was loose and the other was tight. Brilliant. The above postcard from 2005 announced a series of performances in Montreal for her MFA degree from Concordia. Andrea knits, collects, embroiders, cross-stitches, performs, makes quilts, and has painted an acrylic fingernail or two for art's sake.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Quotes: Martin Luther King Jr

‎"I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
~Martin Luther King Jr

Monday, 2 May 2011

Proust and Lobster Tail candies

During the Easter weekend, my parents gave a slide show of their trip to the Motherland: Southern Ukraine. I saw pictures of where my great-grandparents' home once stood, the photo of the family flour mill which is now a residence for school girls, many photos of farms, villages, food, and this candy. Dad and his siblings were excited to find a shop in Odessa selling these crayfish lobster tail candies that were a special treat from their childhood. They were unfamiliar to me, but out of curiosity, I looked for them in a local Ukrainian food shop here in Canada. The moment I popped one into my mouth, I was brought back to the Mennonite children's Christmas programs of my childhood. After the program, the children were handed brown paper bags stuffed with fruit, nuts, and hard candies. The crayfish lobster tail candy (called Rock-of-ah-shee-key) evoked an involuntary memory similar to Marcel Proust's unexpected experience with a madeleine dipped in tea that he recounted in Remembrance of Things Past. In an instant I was brought back in time to wearing a tinsel halo and an angel costume, to the smell of wax candles burning brightly, and singing Away in a Manger.