Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gratitude Is Not Some Distant Land

Grasses and trees, fences and walls demonstrate and exalt it for the sake of living beings, both ordinary and sage; in turn, living beings, both ordinary and sage, express and unfold it for the sake of grasses and trees, fences and walls. 
Eihei Dogen, (1200-1253) 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Strange Materials

Excited to share with you this book, Strange Material, Storytelling Through Textiles by Leanne Prain.  Two of my projects, Spindle 7 and SpinCycle, are included in it.  Indeed, I get the last word in!

You may remember Leanne, who hails from Vancouver, as the author of Yarnbombing and Hoopla, The Art of Unexpected Embroidery.  She has generously written about my work in the past and I am thrilled to be part of this book, in particular.  I think the topic - how textiles become "saturated with narrative" as she writes in her introduction - is endlessly fascinating and so beautifully accessible to anyone who has ever worn a piece of clothing or covered themselves in a blanket.  (Hint: this means you.)

The book also arrived at exactly the right moment as I have been spinning and working out the technical issues related to my Richard Serra project (I really gotta think of a better name).   As I have been spinning and swatching, I have been thinking and talking, to myself and others, and feeling all sorts of stuff about what I am up to here.  At a certain point, I thought that it is exactly this - the thinking, talking, feeling, touching - that will make the project whatever it wants to be.  Richard Serra can have his pristine white walls and shiny, black oil stick.  I am already moving in another direction.  I am sure that he would be horrified at the notion that his work contained a storyline, but not me.  I am drenched in it.


Monday, November 24, 2014


We just ended the fall intensive Zen training period.  It was three-months of stepped up practice.  One thing that usually happens during this time is that the teachers assign a theme for an art practice.  This fall, my teacher asked everyone to write poetry (usually one can choose the medium - visual, movement, writing, etc.).  He then gave us a short selection about how to practice written by Hongzhi Zhengjue, a Zen master who lived in China from 1091-1157.  I can't find the piece to copy it here but essentially Hongzhi is asking us to notice what we have excluded, "integrate into our house" and sit upright with it.  My teacher asked us to choose something that we have excluded - be an international topic like the Ebola crisis or climate change or something more personal to ourselves - and write about in a poetic frame of mind.  

Although I had no particular inclination to take up this assignment, as Shugen described it to us, I immediately knew exactly what I want to - no, needed to - write about.  At the end of April, it was 20 years since I was raped.  To me, this event is as long past as the 20 years makes it sound so I was surprised that it popped into my head so strongly even as Shugen was still speaking.  I did a lot of work in the immediate (and not so immediate) aftermath to "integrate it into my house" and I have been quite satisfied that I have found an understanding and acceptance of what happened, so this too made it surprising.  Why bring up this old thing from the past?  But clearly, it was asking to be brought up, so I began to write.

As I began, I realized that what I wanted to explore was about being silenced.  There is the profound and violent silence of the act itself.  There is the self-silencing and second kind of humiliation that comes from dealing with the police and then there is the silence that happens as people begin to tire of seeing your pain.  Anyone who has grieved for a dead partner or friend knows what I am talking about here.  There is a time limit on suffering, or so it seems.  As I wrote more, I also realized that silence has other, sometimes contradictory, faces.  And that I want them all in my house.

We had a reading of our work a couple of weekends ago and this is what I read.  

Lucy left this on my camera a while back, so...fair game.

Silence:  An Epic Poem to be Told with Words in Three Minutes Flat

There’s the thing that happens
And there’s the story about that thing.
Telling the story is another thing.
Sometimes we need our things.
And we need them to be
just so. 

There is a difference between holding and releasing.
But both can be quiet, under the radar,
The opposite of noise. 

Sometimes the people who love you most cannot bear to see you suffering 
and they beg you stop-it-right-now
and because you love them too,
you do.

Once, when I was a little girl, I went with my father to the electrical supply store and the man behind the counter took my hand and squeezed it really hard because I wouldn’t answer his questions.  My father had to tell him to stop. 

Things get solid in words,
Hardly room to breath let alone form and unform
The way things want to do. 

Already people talk too much. 

I read in the newspaper about how soldiers in The Democratic Republic of Congo broke into a house, killed the father and raped the mother while her 13 year-old son was forced to watch.  Then they cut off her leg below the knee and roasted it on a fire and tried to force the son to eat it.  When he refused, they killed him.

I think about that woman often.  How does she manage?  Where does she find strength to make a cup of tea, sweep the floor, fold her clothes?  Where does she find strength to laugh at a joke or take a nice nap?

I think about those soldiers.  Adrenalin pumping through their bodies, fully aroused by the insanity of the moment.  The perfect logic of an almost unthinkable psychosis bringing them to a barbaric climax - as helpless as lost children.

To be quiet is a blessing –
Thank you for not telling me what you think. 

I would like your permission to say something.  Something stupid and ill-informed, that doesn’t add to the discussion, that is self-centered and pretentious.  Something that leaves you rolling your eyes.  Something obnoxious and obviously wrong.  Something at exactly the worst moment, that makes people turn away in embarrassment.

I want to say something without apology. 

How can I ever say anything?  Encase a feeling into letters?  Little set arrangements that make things so nice and pat?  My feelings are like the Gulf of St. Lawrence after a November storm.  They are a bog in Scotland turning plant life into coal.  They are the blue, blue sky. 

Why would I speak?
Can you blame someone for taking a vow of silence? 

You can’t not communicate.  If your tongue fails you, then your body will pick up the slack.  Eyes, shoulders, hands – dead giveaways.  People make fortunes reading the words that you never speak as they float over your body.  The flesh knows.  Every muscle cell is directly connected to the brain.   Each one a tiny holding tank of events, smells, sounds, things remembered and things forgotten. 

To be quiet is a blessing –
But funny how the need to speak becomes a gash, an open wound, arterial bleeding of the most urgent nature, when someone else tells you to be quiet. 

So please,
I want to tell you what I think.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Courage of My Convictions

What is it that people say?  Every long journey begins with a single step?  Well, in this case, every massive art installation begins with a single stitch.

Kind of obnoxious in both instances.  And yet, like every cliche, there is that nugget of truth in it!  I swatched up my first skein of yarn (is swatch a verb?) so I could see what stitch I like and what the various breeds of sheep were looking like.  The lighter brown is Romney.  I don't like it quite so much as the Shetland, which is darker.  In my original idea, I thought I would like the surface to be very textural - I actually didn't want processed wool but thought I would spin it washed but not carded so it would be very thick and thin and still showing its locks.  Then I pictured a huge, hairy brown thing on the wall and suddenly I started having visions of it looking like a huge wall of pubic hair.  Sorry, I know it may sound vulgar to those of you who are the more sensitive among us, but once a thought like that enters your head, it won't go away.  So, I am giving the whole thing a Brazilian and going with good, old, dependable, and most importantly, flat stockinette stitch.  I might even want to full it a bit after it is all stitched together, but that decision is a long way away at this point.

One thought that has been coming up for me as I have actually begun to work on this (once I got the pubic hair out of my mind) is about what the purpose of this work will be and where will my conviction to keep going come from.  Obviously, I do not have the same impulses and inspirations as Richard Serra did when he (or his assistants) made those drawings.  But there was something there that was strong enough to get me this far.  Now the work is taking on its own life.  Even as I spinning these first skeins, I was thinking about what this whole process will bring to the work - the labour, the time and energy.  As someone very wise said to me, the conviction that brought me to begin the work will not the same as the conviction that will keep me going with it.  And that will not the same as the conviction to know that I am finished with it.  Yes, very wise.

I also was thinking about that old bugaboo - how some people will inevitably say something like, "you wasted all that good wool that could have gone into making sweaters for homeless babies for the coming winter."  Even as that genre of comment makes me want to smack the person saying it upside the head, I know the reason that it irks me so much is because sometimes that speaker is me.  As I was spinning, I did have some thoughts along the lines of "Holy shit!  All this wool for something that might turn out to be a total disaster!"  But you know, anything could turn out to be a disaster, including knitting sweaters for homeless babies.

We still march forward.  We still have to knit that first stitch.

Friday, November 14, 2014

And So It Begins

"Go ahead, photograph me....again....if you must."
There were some tense days at StudioLove (hey, if you are taking on Richard Serra, at the very least you have to come up with a name for yourself that isn't actually your name).  My spinning wheel came back from South Dakota not functioning and missing one critical part.  The critical part was fairly easily replaced but the part that was no longer function caused me to quit breathing for a moment or two or a thousand.  I looked between my non-functioning wheel and the 45 lbs of wool currently residing in my living room and felt a wave of panic mixed with despair - not a feeling that I would recommend.

Praise be to the internets because after a thorough search on forums and chats about my wheel, I discovered that others had had this experience and corrected it.  It took me two days, but I also corrected the problem and my wheel spins again!

I set to work immediately.  My first skein is something of a fibre sampler so I could see what each of the types of wool I purchased looks like in finished form.  As I suspected, there is a fairly large difference in colour and texture, which means that I will have to stick to one breed for each individual piece for consistency's sake.  I also was curious how many skeins I would get from a 1/2 lb of roving.  Answer: five.  That is a total of about 600-800 yds.  I have no idea what that actually means for my piece but there is comfort in numbers and solid information like that, don't you think?

The next step is to knit and crochet some swatches to see what I like.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I'll Take It

Last night, Lucy and I were sorting through old photographs that have been stored in a big bin in the basement for many years.  Photographs dating back to the time when we actually took photographs with film and sent them away to be developed.  I had a sneaking suspicion that a lot of them were pictures that would be on the receiving end of "delete" these days - blurry images, pictures half obscured by a thumb, and repeats of an image that was slightly better in the next frame, etc..  I was right in that assumption.  Without too much heartbreak, I was able to toss out half of the collection easily.

Many of the photographs were from the early years of Finn and Lucy's childhood, including the pictures of their births (we didn't take many so they feel extra precious now).  We both got teary-eyed over a picture of Lucy's first and most loved doll, Ashley, who became a member of our family for over a decade and who met a very upsetting end when a friend's father tossed her out after she was left behind following a sleepover.  It still pains me to recall the terrible moment when we discovered poor Ash-a-day-day's fate.

We also had a lot of laughs of their naked, chubby baby pictures and reminiscing about various events and places that we had been, including a bunch of pictures from before they were born.  As we packed up the "saves" Lucy said, "I never think about your life before we were born but you did have one.  I always just assume that you went to college and then you had us."

Me:  "Um..not quite.  There were ten years in between."

Lucy (somewhat incredulous):  "What did you do??"

Me:  "Work, make art, you know, live my life."

Lucy: "Seems like you really dove into the whole parenting thing.  Like, it really changed your life.  I guess.....thanks."

I're welcome!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Annnnnnnnd, One More!

Did I mention that Helen is not an earth-toned kind of person?  I was secretly (and now, openly) cheering that little fact when I realized that I need to clear off all the bobbins that would be returned with the wheel.  I had very finely spun some BFL/silk roving with the intention of making a two-ply but I never got around to spinning the second ply.  Suddenly, I needed to ply it with...something.  I searched around and found some Shetland on my Majacraft bobbins.  It would have to do, although I had my doubts about the colour combination.

The whole time I was plying, I was regretting wasting such gorgeous yarn by sticking these two incompatible colour schemes together.  Once again, I was totally wrong!  After a good soaking and drying overnight, the result is beautiful!  Once again, you just can never tell until it's done.

And that earth-toney goodness is all mine!

(She clutches it to her breast and runs away, laughing.)

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Gratitude in Woolen Form

Believe me, I know what you are saying.  "Oh Robyn, I could barely sleep last night wondering what the yarn you made for Helen looked like!"

I have heard your desperate cries and so, here they are - skeins of gratitude.

BFL, single ply, I don't remember the yardage on this one.

Merino, N-plied, about 100 yds

Merino, two-ply, over 250 yds here.

A wee skein of BFL, single ply - around 43 yds.
There was one more, a biggie (625 yds)  in greys that was Icelandic and alpaca too but I don't have a picture of that one.

Are you getting the sense that Helen likes colourful yarns?  If there was one thing I remembered about our conversation when she loaned me her wheel, it was that she was not an earth tone kind of person.  She said that she likes "jewel tones."  I thought that I knew what that meant and, further, I thought it would be no problem at all because I like to fancy myself as being something of a colour person, what with all those years of art school and so forth.  Imagine my surprise when everytime I reached for a colourful roving, it was earth tones straight out of Central Casting.  I would think, "this looks nice, she'll love this one."  And then I would have to look again!  "She said jewel tones! What's with all the mossy greens and browns?"  Suddenly I had no idea what jewel toned meant.  Everything was looking earthy to me.

Doubt creeps in like that.

Finally, I resolved to simply spin what was in front of me, which happened to be a nice pile of Merino and BFL rovings.  As it turned out, Helen seems pretty pleased, and that is what is most important.

Thank you, Helen!

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Spinning Demo TODAY! at Gauge + Tension

TODAY!  I will be at Gauge + Tension, a pop-up yarn store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (110 Meserole Street) from 2 - 3 p.m. to lead a spindle spinning demo.  We will talk about wool, spinning, spindles and how all those work together to make delicious yarn.  Hope you will stop by and say hello.  I will have extra spindles for trying out this ancient and oh-so-satisfying craft.  

My intentions are pure, I swear!  

Making the mess a little smaller by returning borrowed items is always a good idea.

Today also is the day that I will return the spinning wheel that I borrowed from Helen.  She very generously lent it to me almost six months ago.  I have been using it happily - it seems to like to be used.  In return, I spun her up some yarn but you will have to wait until tomorrow to see that.  It seems only fair to let Helen see it first.  She called it a "minor favor" but I disagree.  It was a very, very kind thing to do and I am very grateful.

Instead, here is a cute kitty in sunlight photo.  Enjoy!

Friday, November 07, 2014

What Is It?

Here is a snippet of the conversation over at Diva/Divan/FridgeFest (the collaborative project that I am a part of, along with other visual artists, performers and writers).  I am not even sure of the context with which to frame this except to say that this is me talking:

I do not know if I am part of an institutionalized system of belief or religion. That said, several times a week, I put on a robe and a weird little bib thingie that I invested hours of deliberate and directed stitching and chanting.  In this get-up, I perform rituals with other people, who also are wearing robes and some have bibs too.  Why am I still unsure if this is institutionalized?  We didn't make it up!

Chogyam Trungpa wrote a book titled "Spiritual Materialism".  It's a great book.  He also said, "Zen is “the biggest joke that has ever been played in the spiritual realm. But it is a practical joke, very practical.”  

He also said this:
Once we commit ourselves to the spiritual path, it is very painful and we are in for it. We have committed ourselves to the pain of exposing ourselves, of taking off our clothes, our skin, nerves, heart, brains, until we are exposed to the universe. Nothing will be left. It will be terrible, excruciating, but that is the way it is. 

But back to that bib, because, for me, this object that I created with such intention - literally acknowledging with each stitch that we are all connected - is an object of fascination.  In Japanese, it is called a rakusu.  I always know where my rakusu is and I bring it with me whenever I travel.  I touch it everyday.  I made a very special case for it.  Every time I put it on, I do a small ritual.  Every time I take it off, I do a small ritual.  It is just cotton cloth.  It is steeped with meaning.  Sometimes I mistakenly think I am important when I wear it.  Every time I put it on, I remind myself that it means that I want to be helpful.  And then I forget that, over and over.
What is it to have one thing - one handmade object - that means so much, made from so little?  Eons, universes, lifetimes, inhalations and exhalations all concentrated in this one humble thing.  

What is it?