Category Archives: People and Places

Stitched Illustration

I’ve always sewn clothes, made pictures, sculptures–tactile, physical objects that I could share with others pretty easily.

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The lakeshore, formerly at 76.5 metres above sea level had risen by 15 metres and was lapping at Queen Street West. From The Bones, Chapter 2, by Laura Wythe

For a number of reasons, writing has become a great creative and personal outlet for me.  But how to show and share words? Contests, blogging, writing plays and joining writing groups have worked for short fiction.

Recently I finished a novel, inspired in part by a street in Wortley Village. Tecumseh Avenue is the only native name among so many traditional English names. It took a lot of research to find out the story behind the name, and I used the presence of this First Nation man in The Bones.

The main character is Catherine Blackwood, the textile curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. She grew up on a farm next to the battlefield north of Chatham where Tecumseh died in the War of 1812. She heads back to the farm, now in Flood Zone 4, obsessed with making one last search for Tecumseh’s bones. (I’ll blog more about the Tecumseh story.)

I’m used to showing and telling what I’ve been up to. The logical thing — for me — was to make a series of illustrations and launch a book with pictures! Catherine, the textile curator, came to mind as having the perfect point of view for the illustrations.

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gathering materials for The Bones Laura Wythe

For more than 2 years, I have collected textiles–table linens, threads, and other bits and embellishments. I have pored over maps and charted the travels of the characters through a flood ravaged land. I have joined London branch of the Canadian Embroiderer’s Guild to bone up on my stitching techniques.

I have 4 months left to finish the illustrations, and literally thousands of stitches to go.

 

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Indie Publishing

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A long time ago, in the town I grew up in, I had my first Indie publishing moment in Mr. Smith’s Canadian Lit class. I wrote the story, drew the pictures, hand printed the words, and bound the pages with red electrical tape. Pretty cool. An excellent teacher, Mr. Smith went through the pages with pencil and pointed out my not-too-numerous spelling and grammar mistakes. He whispered to me (I was a class-slacker) that I should get this book published. I thought it was.

Little did I know at the time “nurd” would be become a part of our vocabulary, and have a different spelling!

Now with online printing platforms, I can go beyond a short children’s story and print out a whole novel, and many copies! In my case, I used CreateSpace, and being a pencil and paper girl, I had a hard time until I just followed the instructions. Oh yes, and I enlisted a friend’s help!

Talking out design problems and getting the book just right was a great experience, and now it’s done. I have a BIG book.

Mind you, I also booked a venue to hold an art show in 2018 — can’t resist illustrating a novel. Deciding how to include illustrations is still to be decided. I’d like it to have some of the charm of an “old-school” book, maybe with colour plates pasted onto blank pages opposite the text, or scattered through more randomly. It won’t be hand printed, but the illustrations will be hand-made.

I’m proud to announce the release of The Bones, and will be among the small presses and indie authors at London Ontario’s Wordsfest — Southwesto Book Expo — held November 4 and 5th at Museum London. A cool start for a book.

Meet local author_landscape

 

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Colours of the Garden: colour wrapping

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thread wrapped basket/Laura Wythe

Many of the fibre artists I meet dye their threads to make their own pallet. I haven’t tried it, except the once when I sank a skein of pearl cotton into a brew of black walnut juice.

In the cold of winter, I went to a workshop led by Nancy Latchford. She’s a fibre artist who specializes in baskets, and her baskets are amazing in size and range. We met in a workroom in the Jonathon Snell-Bancroft Gallery where we had a view of Nancy’s fibre-based work, as well as many, many amazing ceramic pieces.

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Base of basket by Laura Wythe

We started making our little baskets, first wrapping a washer for the base, then wrapping more threads over a cotton and wire core to make our coils. I’ve made slippery coils for clay for pots before, but this was new, and quite a challenge to juggle the pieces.

A huge part of the project was to choose the colours, or in my case, let the colours choose me. There was a boardroom-size table before us filled with hand-dyed cotton thread of all colours and tints. Impossible to include them all, but I tried. Red is always my favourite, but then violet, purple, orange, yellow, greens and blues took up the bulk of the project. In the dead of winter, I was thinking about June gardens.

The wrapping technique was new to me. You choose 2 or 3 colours and wrap them together around the core materials. It’s blending colours, and then as Nancy pointed out, they become further blended when the coils are bound together with yet more blends.

The basket is still a work in progress, palm-sized. The gardens, however, are in full bloom.

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Thread-wrapped basket in progress, Laura Wythe

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Take Away Art

On the way out of the Central Branch of the London Public Library, I noticed a table with a sign: Take Away Art. An man of many years with a walker noticed the same table, and instead of avoiding it, as in avoiding contact between strangers, we both stopped and checked out the artwork in a basket: screen-printed canvas, black on natural canvas, likely cotton.

The man told me he had made artwork many years ago, up in Kincardine where he lived until 25 years ago. He had a favourite piece, one he’d painted on glass. He’d lived at home until he was 22 because there was a dance hall across the street from him, no need to leave for some excitement. In his “old” age (he confessed to feeling quite young at times) he was studying Greek and Hebrew, and “all the universe,” which, if I understood him well enough, boiled down to the number 5. Then he had to go, but as with many long-lifers, he gave me his opinion that young people weren’t active enough, and how it was a shame. There had been too many teens drowned in the lake up his way in recent years. He didn’t remember anyone drowning when he was a youth. Young folk, pay attention and get a life outside your media devices. Such was our encounter, a rambling circling chat between generations.

But, he wouldn’t take a piece of art. He wanted to make something himself.

I took a piece of art–it seemed too much good fortune just to pass by. The back of the canvas is signed, and there’s details about the print run. Only, I would ask Charles Harris (working on his MFA at Western University), if he’d  be really upset if I embellished his Take Away Art. Not sure how to reach him. I have been putting away the devices for more and more of my days, and I’m embroidering. Not like my mom or gran, but like me. And if ever there was a piece of cloth needing embellished, it’s this Take Away print. Like fries needing ketchup. Sorry Charles.

Or maybe I shouldn’t. Should I let it stand as a statement, now a statement of private art in my eclectic collection. I’d like to find ways to make it public again, like the case of the “Traveling Pants.” Perhaps send it on a journey among friends who embroider and embellish and quilt and bind books, and …

In any case, without this Take Away Art in the branch of the Central Lbrary, I wouldn’t have had such a charming chat. Cheers to the Take Away Artist!

 

 

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Song of experience

A lot of my life is spent wondering. And I wonder at my mom, how she manages living deeper and deeper in dementia. A while ago, her older sister, who also had dementia, passed away.

I wondered how a person with dementia would respond to the news that a loved one had died. I wondered how dementia might have affected the sisters in the first place. Would they still have a relationship, each in their own world?

This playful drawing came after writing a short bit of fiction about this. Sometimes drawing helps with the wondering where words fail.

Sketches for the garden gate for Song of Experience by Laura Wythe

The style of the drawing is based on  William Blake’s work and this poem:

THE GARDEN OF LOVE

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

 

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Out of Africa quilt show

Volunteering for Out of Africa quilt show arranged by the London International Quilt Festival was really cool.  My friend and I spent more time with quilts than we normally would have, and with the other volunteers and the circle of vendors around the room.

Tent hanging hand sewn by the Men of Cairo, approx 14' x 14'

Tent hanging hand sewn by the Men of Cairo, approx 12′ x 12′

A quilt, apparently, can be broadly defined as a fancy top and a back, with a batting sometimes in the middle.  At this show, there were very few, if any, quilts like the traditional ones my grandmother would make.  Almost all of these quilts from the African continent were meant to hang on the wall.  Stunning “quilts” from the Men of Cairo collective were actually tent walls, and resembled Persian carpets or mosaics. African animals, cultures, traditional and everyday life were celebrated with brilliant colours, sombre desert hues, embroidery and embellishments.

Salamander Quilt, Out of Africa show in London ON, 2013

Salamander Quilt, Out of Africa show in London ON, 2013

Detail of salamander quilt, Out of Africa, London ON, 2013

Detail of salamander quilt, Out of Africa, London ON, 2013

I didn’t get to the lecture on the African quilts, but I did meet a volunteer, Hasebenebi Kaffel who knew the subject in broader terms.  I mistook him for a member of the Men of Cairo collective.  He really works for the UK-based ACORD and has been to Cairo many times, he said.  Also a member of ACFOLA, he was at the show to volunteer his knowledge of Africa.   He told me how long ago he fled his home in Eritrea with nothing, and then ended up in front of the World Bank to deliver a paper on the importance of gender in the economics of developing countries.  Very interesting!

Alas, I did not make any purchases.  There were vendors from all over the world, but instead of getting into something new, I vowed to finish the quilt that I started 30 years ago.  I know, I’m amazed at how quickly time has passed. “The Wedding Plate” is pieced bits of fabric from projects that my sisters and I made in our teens–dresses, PJs, blouses, pot holders, whatever–and I need to finish the quilting and bind it.

It’s good that Africa came to London, for the education, inspiration, and the joy!!

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Yarn “bombing” in the Capital

Tulip Festival, city Hall, Ottawa, Canada

Tulip Festival, city Hall, Ottawa, Canada

The Tulip festival was in full bloom when I visited Ottawa.  Ties between Canada and Holland, made during World War II, continue and I love that it’s through planting flowers and not through war memorials.  The activity of planting bulbs each fall and waiting for the winter snow to melt, for the tulip bulbs to burst into our Canadian spring, however short it may be, is full of hope.

I walked back to my daughter’s house after checking out the Tulip Festival activities at City Hall, past the Nanny Goat Hill Community Garden, and then I came across a yarn bombing by seniors in the trees in front of The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre.  They are getting ready for their annual Walk of Ages fundraiser.  All the flags attached to the trees were knit or crocheted.

Yarn bombing in front of The Good Companions Seniors' Centre, Ottawa Canada

Yarn bombing in front of The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, Ottawa Canada

Yarn bombing at The Good Companions Seniors' Centre, Ottawa

Yarn bombing at The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, Ottawa

Yarn bombing at The Good Companions Seniors' Centre, Ottawa

Yarn bombing at The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, Ottawa

Imagine the history of the last century if this tactic had been used.  If Dickens had written not of Mme Lafarge merely watching the beheadings and knitting the names into the fabric, but of her knitting covers for the guillotines, crocheting a woman’s discontent and fixing it to icons of her displeasure.

Perhaps more lives can be saved as cunning fingers wrap yarn around people and place.

The Good Companions Seniors' Centre, Ottawa

The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, Ottawa

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Setting the table

Linen napkins cut from a vintage tablecloth.

Linen napkins cut from a vintage tablecloth.

Maybe this is a generational thing, maybe it still happens, but family dinners on Sundays and holidays used be quite formal.

At the centre of it all was the large dining room table.  During the week, it might the place for doing homework, for cutting out sewing patterns, or once at our house, for a quilting bee.  On holidays, the table was extended to fit 12 or 14 people.  The boards that extend the length are called leaves, as though we were adding to a tree.  The final act of transformation came when the white linen cloth was placed on top.  Pure, fresh.  A sacred space created.

In the afternoon before the dinner, real silverware, bone china dishes, wine glasses, a centrepiece,  napkins, serving dishes, butter dishes, crystal stemmed salt and pepper shakers, and gravy boats were set out on the white sea.  The table was set.

Recently, I met Marilyn, who told me she is in her eighties and  how she found some table cloths that she had no use for, but there were memories attached.  She asked me over for coffee, then spread out her mother’s and grandmother’s linen table cloths on her dining room table.  They’d been well-used.  Here’s where the gravy spilled, still a large yellow stain.  And there were holes, small ones from the wear of weekly washings, and a large plate-sized one.  Perhaps a hot pan had burned through.  Marilyn asked if there was enough “good” fabric to make a set of large table napkins, as a keepsake for her niece.  To throw the linen out seemed wrong.

The Mary Campbell Cooperative on Talbot Street, London ON

The housing cooperative on Talbot Street, London ON named after Mary Campbell.

When I delivered the set of eight large linen napkins, Marilyn didn’t look at them right away.  Instead, she talked about another kind of table she’d sat around.  When she’d first come to London, she  became friends with Mary Campbell, also from the west, but an activist who would start a co-op movement in this rather white-collar city.

Marilyn remembers the Campbells’ table, how she read there, reading things she didn’t always understand: Communist treatises, trade union booklets, socialist literature.  She remembers falling in with a movement where working as equals was preferred, and then having the courage to leave a bad marriage and go to college to become a social worker.

Now it’s a choice for a woman to stay in a marriage, but 40 or 50 years ago, to leave brought on a lot of judgement and shame, like spilling gravy or red wine on the white table cloth.  I thanked Marilyn for her courage, for making it easier for the women of my generation.  It’s not that we don’t love the traditions, the white linen and beautiful place settings, but we know there are other tables, tables set with a different cloth.

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198 Church Street, common ground

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I emailed a woman about her advertisement for free copy editing in the London Writers’ Society newsletter.  She turned out to have a good eye for missed words, inaccurate spelling, and phrasing that could be better.  Sue had a background in speech pathology, she told me over our first cup of tea.  She was from Stratford, at least that’s where her parents had lived the longest, where she graduated from high school.  I was from Stratford too, I told her, but we were a number of years apart in age, and didn’t have any real connection that way.

186 Church Street, Stratford, Ontario

198 Church Street, Stratford, Ontario

Then we discovered we had lived in the same house.  Her family had come from a small town and her father was to become a high school principal.  My family came from Toronto and my father would become the VP Finance for a furniture manufacturer.   Our families’ first homes in Stratford were the same place, on the second floor at 198 Church Street.

Sue remembers her mom getting groceries delivered from the corner store and her grandfather having a room in the attic.  I was only four, but I remember the bats descending from the attic into the living room, and the sturdy crab apple tree where my brother got caught in the branches with his winter coat and swung from it, as though he was in a cartoon.

Neither family stayed long.  We moved kitty-corner through the block to rent a whole house on the corner of Birmingham and St. David streets until our new house in the suburbs was built.  Sue’s family moved to Mornington Avenue across the street from St. James Church.

Apparently there was a pattern for professionals with families immigrating to Stratford.  Perhaps first, they had to pass through 198 Church, second floor.

Parts of Canada we seldom see

My friend Charlotte and I went to the opening of the medium gallery (yes, it’s all lower case) in the Old East business district on Saturday night.  In 2011 a photographer, Johan Hallberg-Campbell, had flown into the bush of northern Ontario with the Canadian Red Cross to photograph their efforts to supply Attawapiskat with sleeping bags, heaters and winter clothing.

Attawapiskat

This poster photo is the least representative of the exhibit, a romantic, christianized image, and it was placed next to a photo of a beautiful but very sad young woman living in the crawl space beneath the floor of a house, her arms marked by cutting.

Hallberg-Cambell said, to paraphrase, that while he was in Attawapiskat, he didn’t want to traumatize the citizens there.  He found them to be gentle and kind people, and he knew the general media was using images for articles that would result in misunderstandings, or misrepresentations, that would further politicize the situation.  The images he chose for the exhibit were personal and sincere. It was well worth the visit.

Years ago I lived on another northern Cree reserve in housing that was trucked in, just as the housing is being trucked into Attawapiskat.  The 3 months I spent at the Red Earth IR have had a huge impact on me.

The newly built high school and two 4-plexes for used offices and teacher housing on the Red Earth IR, Saskatchewan.

The newly built high school and two 4-plexes for used offices and teacher housing on the Red Earth IR, Saskatchewan.  The only new buildings I saw on the reserve.

The trailer i lived in, newly trucked in and waiting for insulation and skirting.

The trailer I lived in while teaching in Red Earth, Saskatchewan, newly trucked in and waiting for insulation and skirting.

The housing I lived in was considered “new” housing on the reserve, a used trailer with frustration already punched into the walls. The gas for the stove came from a big propane tank that looked like a bomb at the edge of the clearing, beside the tree that the bear liked to maul. Our neighbour in the next trailer had a small gas explosion after he came home and lit the pilot light.  The hospital was over 80 km away, but luckily his burns weren’t severe.  And we were teachers, told that our housing was “nicer” than most of the residents.

As the seasons turned from Saskatchewan prairie summer to fall and then winter, I came to know more about the resiliency of the people who held on despite the incredible patronizing system that kept the once vibrant community dysfunctional for decades. I can relate to how Halleberg-Campbell photographed both the life-threatening poverty, the trauma and the beauty of the gentle souls in Attawapiskat.

Horses were still part of the treaty agreement, and they mostly ran in a herd fending for themselves against wolves and bears.  The Cree at Red Earth still rode them, just had to round them up first.

Horses were still part of the treaty agreement on Red Earth 29, and they mostly ran in a herd fending for themselves against wolves and bears. The Cree still rode them, just had to round them up first.

All those years ago I was shocked at discovering the biggest “secret” in the Canadian family closet.  The missionaries of my childhood church had us folding bandages and diapers, collecting school supplies and donations for Africa.  Our grannies should have have been knitting and praying for those on the reserve I worked at. I didn’t know third world conditions existed in Canada.  Our schools should have told us about contemporary “Indians.”  Our treatment of them remains appallingly political and needless to say, less than christian.  As a direct result, I became a feminist, an atheist, an activist.

The medium gallery is part of a community economic development project in the Old East area of London, Ontario, where a large percentage of the residents are also struggling with neglect, poverty, mental health, drugs and prostitution.  The anti-poverty advocacy group, Life*Spin has spear-headed this new development.  Their neighbour, Artisan Bakery, also opened on the same night.

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