The walk and the talk fibre arts in the ottawa valley
photos: ken ewen, gerard bordeleau, david irvine, a. micic
Tapestries, weavings, all of the textile arts are done with deliberation. No one weaves a rug in a day. The artist works slowly and carefully. As time slows, other meanings, other stories, appear. The viewer sees this and walks a little bit slower, stays a bit longer, looks a bit more closely. We need these times and places to slow down, to look more quietly at the world surrounding us.
The Ottawa River may serve as the provincial dividing line between Ontario and Quebec (and some would say marks the historic English-French divide), but its long, wide valley is replete with artists whose work crosses every border. This is wonderfully evident in the vibrant, contemporary practice of the Ottawa Valley’s fibre artists. Their work is well rooted in nature.
Throughout the Outaouais are little farming towns and villages, fields of corn, cows at pasture, and the remnants of a now exhausted logging industry. Not so long ago, the valley was also the centre of Canada’s textile industry. The old mill town of Almonte, Ontario, for example, had seven mills whose woollen products were shipped the world over.
mississippi valley textile museum Today, Almonte’s mills are closed. The Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, a national historic site, occupies one of the town’s old stone mills. The museum regularly shows the work of artists from the valley, as well as that of such famed international textile artists as Japan’s Reiko Sudo and Nuno in 2014. A year later people still remember and talk about the beauty of Reiko’s installation of silk against stone. In September 2015, the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum opens its 20th Annual Festival of Fibre Arts. This is a crowded two-day event showcasing demonÂstrations, vendors, and crafts exhibits – everything from rug hooking to lace making. Hobbyists and professional artists alike attend in number.
Quieter public art galleries and exhibition areas are many in the Ottawa Valley. There are also several art schools, and one university MFA programme. EstiÂmates of the numbers of working professional artists throughout the valley vary, ranging into the thousands. moon rain centre for textile arts In addition to the on-going programmes of the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, the textile arts are also supported by the outreach and imaginative programming of the Moon Rain Centre for Textile Arts in the Outaouais. Textile artists Thoma Ewen and her daughter Gabby Ewen are the founders and co-directors of the centre. It is located in Val-desÂMonts, Quebec.
In 2016, we will see the third edition of the centre’s remarkable series: La Triennale Internationale des Arts Textiles. It should be a stunner.
The 2013 Triennale drew 25,000 visitors and participants; the 2010 Triennale attracted 8,000 visitors. Both Triennales were held during an eightÂweek period in August and September. The programÂming for both included gallery exhibitions, profesÂsional workshops, conferences, collective projects in the community, and a walk – a walk in the woods, a walk through the fields – a 1.5km walk to see siteÂspecific fibre artwork installed along a nature trail at Moon Rain Centre in the Gatineau Hills of the Outaouais.
The Triennales originate in the mother-daughter collaboration and genius of Thoma Ewen and Gabby Ewen. In 2013, their nature trail presented work, by twenty-four international artists at twelve installation sites. The artists worked in response to a set theme, one entitled, ‘Matrices’.
In mathematics, a matrix is a rectangular intersecÂtion; in nature, a matrix is a place of formation, of becoming; it is a womb. One of the most successful installations in 2013 was the white horse Lynne Bedbrook fabricated of jute and wire. Placed on a hilltop ridge, the horse stood 2.Sm tall. Whether seen from a distance, or seen close-at-hand, the horse appeared to be a creature from fairy tales. Surely it frolics at midnight with elves and fairies.
One of the quieter 2013 installations was that of Thoma Ewen. The artist hung a light woven panel of ramie and cotton high between two trees. It floated in the evening breeze.
In addition to the nature trail, the 2013 Triennale also included seventeen artists’ exhibitions at fourteen different public galleries and libraries throughout the valley. The artists participating in the 2013 Triennale hailed from Argentina, France, Germany, Korea, Poland, the UK, the USA, and, of course, the Ottawa Valley.
In 2010, the theme Thoma Ewen and Gabby Ewen developed for the Triennale’s nature trail was one romantically entitled ‘When Thirteen Moons Entwine’. Why thirteen? Because there are thirteen lunar moons in a lunar calendar year. For several of the artists, that meant moonlight, and the phases of the moon as reference points. Krystyna Sadej, for example, hung a woven disc of cotton on a wood frame between the trees along the trail. Its diameter was perhaps 2.Sm. A harvest moon rising in October might appear to be at least that big in the sky when seen by an earthbound viewer.
Other artists seem to take their cues from their own memories of moonlight and streetlamps flickering in the dark of night. Irene Anton’s installation, for example, extended across the forest floor over an area at least 1 Om deep. Her work was made of stretched nylon pantyhose, a fabric not obvious upon first inspection by the viewer. Jolanta Sprawka also used recycled scrap materials in her installation. She braided cellophane strips into long ropes, then hung them in a row across a tumbling, rushing stream. Andie Haltrich, too, crocheted jute, lots of jute, then pulled and stretched it in and among the trees. The knots of Haltrich’s work seemed to pull light right down from the sky, dancing it into play about the trees.
All of the artists who participated in the 2010 and 2013 Triennales worked with skill, insight, and uncommon generosity of spirit. Wind and rain rustle through the art as it weathers there along the trail. The same wind and rain are ruffling the marten’s fur, too, as it scampers through the woods. Nothing was cleared away from any of the sites to make room for the art. All of the artists knew how to work respectÂfully with what was already there, and of that place: the creatures, the wind, the trees, all were there first.
Long ago, our ancestors knew how to walk quietly through the woods. They knew to watch for broken branch, scattered pebbles. Our ancestors knew the signs of other creatures in the woods, and they knew the architectures of their homes – bird’s nest, anthill, beaver dam, bear’s den, spider web, and beehive – all the warm, safe places nonhuman creatures fabricate for themselves and their young. It is from these creatures, long ago, our ancestors learned to knot, weave, paste – skills still used by textile artists today. When we see the artists’ work outdoors along the trails we, too, learn once more to walk quietly.
Wherever we have travelled, the only sure way to locate ourselves is to walk … walk out-of-doors. That, too, is exactly the approach taken by Zivana Kostic, a recent immigrant to Canada from Serbia. Kostic is a textile artist, working in metal tapestry. She inserts fine steel straight pins into silk to create light-reflective and refractive patterns. The effect is subtle, fascinating, even mesmensmg. Zivana Kostic’s use of light shifts one’s sense of place. In Serbia, Kostic’s reputation as a fine artist was secure. In Canada, her medium is as unknown as her name. The artist must make her way, as others have before her, the hard way. Step by step, with eyes open wide.
(2014), might be viewed as a defensive shelter. In this work, the artist has covered the umbrella with a pattern drawn from the constellation of Capricorn, a figure she describes as a fighter. Kostic then asks if reflections of stars in the river are ” … part of the cavalry overhead”.
In a recent series, Zivana Kostic uses umbrellas to convey the sense of place and discovery she is fmding in her walks throughout Ottawa. Alexandra Bridge
(2014), for example, is an umbrella festooned with pins. The Alexandra Bridge itself is one of the oldest bridges across the Ottawa River. Zivana Kostic sees the bridge as a place where one may walk ” … to consider here, and … over there,” as she put it in a recent conversation.
Another in Kostic’s umbrella series, Ottawa S9
Artist Hannah Ranger, on the other hand, grabs hold of the chaos she perceives in the world surroundÂing and brings it close, draws it in with her own two hands. The artist’s medium is felt and feltmaking. Ranger speaks of her work in terms of fmding a relationship between chaos and order. We see her approach plainly in Norma’s Begonia (2014). A heartÂshaped, veined leaf made of felt, the work also includes wool, ramie, spun mohair, dogwood, cedar roots, and bark. It is 46cm in diameter. One may hold it, but carefully.
Ranger is a founding member of an artists’ studio complex in Farrelton, Quebec. Unlike other artists’ enterprises in the region, the Farrelton artists fully accept textile artists as artists working in ‘fine arts media’.
Unfortunately, too many art professionals today continue to view artists working in textiles, as well as those working in ceramics, as ‘craftspeople’, not as
‘artists’. This makes the work of both the Moon Rain Centre for Textile Arts and the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum even more important. Year by year, their programmes and exhibitions are chipping away at that silly distinction between ‘craft’ and ‘art’.
Long ago our ancestors used metaphors of weaving to tell stories of origin, stories of wisdom. In Sanskrit, the terms sutra and tantra mean “thread” and “loom”. We still speak today of a thread of conversation. In the old tales, the practical skills of weaving were worked into stories of opposition and resolution. No surprise then, E.B. White made a spider the heroine in his children’s tale Charlotte’s Web (1952).
Tapestries, weavings, all of the textile arts are done with deliberation. No one weaves a rug in a day. The artist works slowly and carefully. As time slows, other meanings, other stories, appear. The viewer sees this and walks a little bit slower, stays a bit longer, looks a bit more closely.
We need these times and places to slow down, to look more quietly at the world surrounding us.
More than half of the world’s population today lives in cities. Nonetheless, our older histories – the walk and the talk – have travelled with us, if only we remember them. The Navajo of the American Southwest, for example, are famed for their woven rugs, often termed ‘eye-dazzlers’. They have a blessing they offer the traveller: “walk in beauty”. The blessing is a wish the traveller find peace. In the Navajo language, ‘peace’ and ‘beauty’ are expressed with one word. They, too, know the walk and the talk.
May we all ‘walk the talk’.
Dr Maureen Korp was born in New Jersey and is a lecturer, writer, and independent curator. Dr Korp has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the histories of art and religions wherever she could find a classroom. Her publications and awards are numerous (more than ninety articles, three books, etc.). She is often invited to present public lectures on her work, most recently (2015) by artists’ groups in Germany, Serbia, and Romania. Her academic degrees include a doctorate in comparative religions (University of Ottawa).
Leading Image : Andie Halttich. Installation in situ, La Ttiennale Internationale des Arts Textiles. Jute. 3 x 2 x 4 m Moon Rain Centre for Textile Arts, Val-des-Monts, Quebec. 2010
photos: ken ewen, gerard bordeleau, david irvine, a. micic Tapestries, weavings, all of the textile arts are done with deliberation. No one weaves a rug in a day. The artist works slowly and carefully. As time slows, other meanings, other stories, appear. The viewer sees this and walks a little bit slower, stays a bit…