Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Studio Series: Shadow Hope 4

Shadow: Hope #4 © Karen Thiessen 
Shadow: Hope #4 is one of my problem children. A few years ago I started substituting a middle layer of cloth in place of cotton quilt batting to shift the texture. The result is that the quilts are flatter with more subtle texture. I pieced the back fabric and placed the seam face up so that it would be concealed between the layers. This would have worked fine had I used quilt batting. I finished stitching the quilt, took it off the frame and hung it on my quilt wall for a long look. That's when I noticed a subtle line -- the seam of the back layer was noticeable when hung on a vertical surface. Hope #4 took hundreds of hours to dye, piece, and stitch-- what was I to do? I left it on the wall and busied myself with another quilt and then the solution came to me: sew a line of buttons along the line to highlight it. I call it a shine line or a spine and the quilt is better with it.


The entire Shadow series is built on mistakes-- the fabrics began as botched screen prints and dye jobs that I flipped over and hand-painted with dyes. You can read more about the series here. See, mistakes can be a good thing.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Postcards: Sharon Elphick

Wish You Were Here by Sharon Elphick
Years ago Sharon Elphick's photographic montages of high-rise buildings, trees, numbers, and graffiti caught my eye. Lately she has turned to creating collages of found images, like the hexagons of vintage postcards that make up Wish You Were Here. Sharon has a handle on using old materials in a modern way-- no sappy, nostalgic collages here! What draws me to her work is how she pieces together multiple images into a structure of hexagons, grids, or circles.


In 2009 I stumbled across her shop on Columbia Road in London, UK. She was sitting in front of her closed shop, but she graciously offered to let me in for a look around and I came away with the above postcard and this card-- it was all I could fit in my carry-on luggage. Heathrow airport loses the most luggage in the world and I wasn't about to become another statistic by checking my bags. One day I'd love to own some of her larger work but for now, this postcard does the trick.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Quotes: Jarmusch Golden Rule #5

"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”"
-- Jim Jarmusch,  American film director, screenwriter, actor, producer, editor, and composer 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Sun print redux


Here in Canada, summer is on its way out. If you've had an urge to go outside and make sun prints, now is the time. I bought my Super Sunprint® Kit from Swipe Books in Toronto. The paper is 20x30 cm and when I did my first prints a few weeks ago, I found that the paper was too big for what I was doing, so I cut the remaining sheets in half. Once you start, the ideas keep flowing and I found myself digging through my odd collections to find unusual things to print with. In the top image are wooden toothpicks. A few weeks ago I found the leaf during a walk and pressed it in my knapsack sketchbook. The kits are geared for people aged 6 to adult, so if you have a child this would be a fun end-of-summer activity.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Birthday flower

Today is my friend Sal's special birthday. We've been friends for fourteen years and I am grateful for her wisdom, storytelling gifts, and sense of style. Sal is optimistic, even in difficult situations. Her daily tea ritual is an inspiration -- even though she is a working mom of two young children, she takes a sliver of time each afternoon to recharge her batteries. She's a better mom because of it. 


Sal, this zinnia is for you. Happy Birthday! 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Studio Series: Sanctuary/Exile 1

Sanctuary/Exile 1 © Karen Thiessen 2000; Photo: Julian Beveridge
Sanctuary/Exile 1 is one of my favourite pieces, and it is now in the collection of the Nova Scotia Art Bank. In 2001, it won an award in the exhibition Watermark at the Mary Black Gallery and as a result I met the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Myra Freeman. Sanctuary/Exile is part of the Wide Borders series and you can read the essay here.


I dyed most of the fabric with onion skins and various mordants and stained some of the onion-dyed fabric with rust. Ted Hutten, a farmer from the Halifax Farmers' Market, gave me the onion skins, and with Halifax water they dyed a rich gold. Using the same Hutten onion skins with Toronto water yielded disappointing (pale) results. It's all about the chemistry between the onion skins and the water. Where onions are grown has a big effect on colour too. 


While I was hand-quilting Sanctuary/Exile, I was thinking about the Kosovo War and how the situation of the ethnic Albanians paralleled the horrors that my grandparents and great-grandparents experienced in South Russia (present-day Ukraine). Sanctuary/Exile refers to the duality of leaving your homeland in search of safety-- the new country is a sanctuary, and yet it is also exile. You are safe, but you have to learn a new language, new customs, make new friends. You leave behind a landscape, a culture, and loved ones. During the conflict, several Albanian refugee families moved to Halifax and I was honoured to help one family settle in and learn how to navigate their new language and culture. Laughter and a dog-eared English-Albanian dictionary served us well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Postcards: Dorothy Caldwell

With dye, wax, fabric, and thread, Dorothy Caldwell maps rural landscapes. Her large-scale quilts are quiet odes to fields, laneways, lakes and streams. A master of the mark, Dorothy uses a Tjanting and hot wax, needle and thread to chart her environment. In 1990, she won the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in the Crafts, and in 2003 she was nominated for the Governor General's Award. She is featured in the 2009 Telos book Art Textiles of the World: Canada. She maintains an active exhibition and teaching schedule, travelling the world to share her techniques and wisdom. Dorothy Caldwell is one of my art heroes and I've been fortunate enough to have taken a few workshops with her. The postcard is from her 2003-2004 solo show, In Good Repair, at the Textile Museum of Canada.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Quotes: Johnson

"The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank." -- Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, p. 246*


* When I first read this quote on Helen Carnac's blog, I made a mad dash for this book and read it slowly, some parts over and over. Johnson offers a fresh perspective about ideas and innovation. This book is not a cure for insomnia. If you are as obsessed as I am with ideas, innovation, and creativity, this will hit the spot.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Studio series: 1 in 6 (Hunger)

1 in 6: Hunger © Karen Thiessen 2010
In 2009, Ray Dirks, curator of the Mennonite Heritage Gallery in Winnipeg, Manitoba, contacted me about a group exhibition. It was summer and I was up to my eyeballs in work, so I ignored it. Thankfully Ray was persistent and he encouraged me to read the proposal, so I did. Then I started laughing, really laughing: a Mennonite organization was commissioning two artworks for a show that would travel across Canada and they were paying a decent fee. If you're Mennonite, you'll understand my surprise and amusement (Mennonite + visual art + money = laughter). If you're not, please let me explain. First: Mennonite churches are full of brilliant singers and musicians, so congregations emphasize music as a form of artistic expression. The visual arts are often under-developed and misunderstood, and artists are few and far between. Second: Mennonites are both frugal and generous, giving loads of money and volunteering thousands of hours to good causes like Mennonite Central Committee, Ten Thousand Villages, Mennonite thrift shops and more. Mennonites rarely commission artwork and offer to pay a proper price for it: generally, if they want it, they want it for free or for very little. 

Obviously I said yes -- this was history in the making. I was one of 19 artists from across Canada and around the world commissioned to make artwork for a show called Just Food which addresses the right to food from a faith perspective. Ray Dirks invited me because he knew my work would be a bit different and not so literal. Both are true.

1 in 6: Hunger is made up of six 8" square panels collaged with images of our over-consumption of food, fuel, and material goods. In my research I learned two troubling statistics: one in six people in the world are hungry and one in six people in the world are overweight. As I thought about it, I realized that those of us who have so much are also hungry. We are hungry for love, acceptance, respect, and community and we consume food and things to try to fill that void.

The Just Food exhibition has already travelled to three galleries in Manitoba and is now at its first stop in Ontario. It is on display at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo until September 27, 2011 during the regular viewing hours of 9 am to 7 pm, Monday through Friday, or by appointment (call 519-885-0220).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Postcards: Veronica Graham

For years I've been looking at this postcard, not realizing that it said anything other than Bonus Map on one side and mutemanifold.com on the other side. OK, I thought, that's the new way to do postcards-- leave us in the dark and force us to go to the (now inactive) website: it's a mystery that we must solve ourselves. I picked it up in San Francisco in 2008 and only now do I see words at the bottom. It reads: an installation by Veronica Graham with musical entertainments. May 1 to May 25 at Cellspace... Although the postcard's message was hidden to me, I've admired the complexity of the pattern for three years. I suppose that if I had looked at the postcard with greater attention, I would have seen that the letters at the bottom actually formed words instead of just filling out the pattern. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Quotes: Dyson + Cage

"I think it's very important to be idle ... people who keep themselves busy all the time are generally not creative." -- Freeman Dyson 


"In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it's not boring but very interesting." -- John Cage

Friday, August 12, 2011

Busy birds and bees

Here's some eye candy to get you through the weekend.
If you take a close look at the bee, it has a science-fiction-meets-beauty-queen look with its hard black armour and fur coat. Do you see what I mean?
Cliff swallows were busy this Spring building these lovely mud nests. One day architects, engineers, urban planners, or scientists will study the nests and adapt their structures to existing or emerging technologies à la biomimicry. Aren't they beautiful?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Too much

My brain after too much vacation.
Do you ever have one of those days where you are so absorbed in your work that the rest of the world falls away? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow. My Beloved and I took a two-week staycation and ten days into it I needed a full day in the studio to ground me. Too much stimulation and not enough silence and solitude don't work for me, no matter how much fun I'm having. As an introvert, my energy cup is small and fills quickly, unlike my extrovert friends. So my guy went off on his own and gave me the gift of time alone. The moment he left the house, I made a beeline for my studio and was there until he returned several hours later. Time alone to work did wonders for me, but obviously it wasn't enough. After our staycation I returned to my studio to discover that my iron had been on for four days straight! Aaack! It's a miracle that I didn't burn down the house, or at least burn out my iron. 

Vacation is good, but it's great to be back at work; and yes, my iron is now unplugged.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Studio series: Forgiveness #1

Forgiveness #1 © Karen Thiessen 1999; Photo credit: Julian Beveridge
In February 1997 I was sitting in the Singapore Mennonite Church trying to listen to a sermon, but the pastor's strong Indonesian accent was difficult to understand, so my mind wandered. In that moment I had an epiphany to forgive someone who had hurt me. The hurt was a biggie that had a significant impact on my life and the people that I love. Fifteen months earlier, I decided that I would forgive this person within ten years and I still had almost 9 years to go. There it was, I forgave. 


I soon learned that forgiveness was a process that I had to repeat over and over. I thought about people who had survived wars, the Holocaust, and other evils: was it possible for them to forgive? What did forgiveness look like visually? These questions, along with a lot of research, writing, and a discussion group at St. Mary's University in Halifax led me to make forgiveness-themed quilts for my solo graduation show from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. In the end, I made 7 quilts and you can read the essay here.


Forgiveness #1 was the first irregularly-shaped and unbound quilt that I ever made and it was a turning point in my career. I machine-pieced the top and had to put on my thinking cap to figure out how to put it on a quilt frame to hand-quilt it. The solution was simple: make the backing fabric and the quilt batting much larger than the top and then cut them off when I took it off the frame. The other issue was that I couldn't stretch the top because of its odd shape, so I pinned the top to the backing and batting. 


Aside from the red, purple, and paisley fabric, I dyed all the other fabrics with onion skins and various mordants (salt, alum, vinegar) and I stained the left central fabric with my own blood. I spent several months dyeing and staining the fabric. The quilt was created through countless acts of staining, dyeing, over-dyeing, piecing, and hand-stitching.  As I wrote in 1999: "Hand quilting and unbound edges exemplify forgiveness. Hand quilting slowly and methodically maps the forgiveness journey with blood, repetition and time. Unbound quilts are ongoing, like the imperfect, unruly process of forgiveness."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Postcards: Heimo Wallner

San Antonio, Texas is rich with history. You can spend days exploring the Alamo, the Mission district, and the River Walk. When you've had enough history vernacular house designs and their gardens gladden the eye. I've long had a fascination with contemporary Texas house architecture, and in 2007 I discovered that the small older homes in the Mission district were equally well-designed. 


Another highlight of San Antonio was the Blue Star Contemporary Arts Center on the edge of town. During my March 2007 visit, work by Austrian artist Heimo Wallner was on offer in the University of Texas San Antonio Satellite Space. The postcard shows a detail from Maotsetung. Walking into the space was like walking into a cartoon -- the walls were covered floor to ceiling with drawings by Heimo Wallner. Being in this space was a lot like standing in front of a massive Dorothy Caldwell quilt where you feel like you've become a part of the artwork. Intimate artwork does the opposite: it enters you. Just a thought.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Quotes: Allen + Belsky

"Genius makes the obvious seem interesting." -- Tom Allen (Host of CBC Radio 2 Shift, heard August 3, 2011)


"Nothing extraordinary is ever achieved through ordinary means." -- Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happen, p. 214

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dear John Deere

At the recent Leamington Mennonite Community Sale, I spotted this vibrant ode to John Deere tractors. It reminded me of a family friend who was such a staunch supporter of John Deere that he had only John Deere tractors, a John Deere lawnmower, John Deere farmer caps, a John Deere mailbox, and a green pickup truck. Had my sister-in-law not scooped this quilt for my brother, the farmer could have completed his collection. What is your obsession?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

In Praise of Boredom

A few weeks ago I had the bus ride from hell. What normally would have been a one hour commute took two hours... and the bus had no bathrooms. I had enough to read to entertain me for the first hour, but after that I became bored and this turned out to be a good thing. With my grey Tombow marker I held the tip just above the surface of the page of my sketchbook and recorded the bumpy ride. I was fully present, fully in tune with each pothole and lane change, and the last hour flew by.


Lately I've been thinking about the benefits of boredom. Long bus rides, riding my exercise bike, sitting in church, and long waiting room visits are boring, but important. While I'm stuck sitting still, my mind wanders, ideas form, connections are made. On a good day I have my V7 Hi-Tecpoint pen and a sketchbook to jot it all down or to draw. I confess that the only way I can listen in church is if I have pen and paper in hand and my mindfully mindless drawings are often the starting point of new designs. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King writes about the importance of boredom to pull him through a rough spot in the writing. Illustrator and Wunderkind Mike Perry credits the boredom of growing up around Kansas City for influencing his work. In Drawn In, he says "the biggest effect it had on me was that I was pretty bored, so I made my own excitement, which equaled a lot of work (Rothman, 151)." As a former country kid, I can relate. In the right hands, boredom can be a good thing.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Basket of Poppies

Cousin Edna moved recently and gave me two bags of textiles, patterns, and notions all neatly labelled with notes of where each item came from. In the stash were patterns and notions from my Oma and from Edna's mom. In January I wrote about my Oma's poppies needlepoint that hung on her dining room wall. To my delight, the catalogue containing the Basket of Poppies pattern was in the stash. It comes from Jean McIntosh Needlework Ltd. and was designed in 1959. Since the price list is from February, 1966, I'll assume that Oma stitched it the same year. I did an internet search and the company is still in business and the Basket of Poppies pattern is still available. In 1966, the pattern cost $17.95 and today it is $220.00. Although I likely won't stitch the Basket of Poppies, it is nice to know more about it and that Jean McIntosh is a Canadian company formerly based in Winnipeg and now based in Calgary. Over the next few weeks, I'll show some of the other gems from this stash.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

200th Post!

Time has flown -- it's hard to believe that this is my 200th post. I've written 5 posts a week for the past 8.5 months. When I began this little blog on November 24, 2010 I didn't expect that so many people from 60 countries (some that I had never heard of) would read my words. Thank you all for accompanying me on this journey. I have learned a lot and am still learning. Thanks to you all!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Quotes: Confucius + Heath

s  m  a  l  l
"The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones." 
- Confucius


"There is a clear asymmetry between the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution. Big problem, small solution. ... Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades." -- Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, p. 44.*
*The Heath brothers Switch, along with their Made to Stick are high on my list of favourites.