Anyone who knows me knows that I am an infrequent, thoroughly unskilled, but generally enthusiastic sewer. That is to say, I take out the machine twice a year and stitch up something that requires nothing more than straight lines (and even that is too much, sometimes) over a few afternoons. My “repertoire,” if you will, runs to gift bags and pillows.
That said, I’ve also managed to make a bedspread, and last summer, gathered together a bunch of colourful fabric in reds, pinks, oranges and greens to make a wall hanging. And so, emboldened by my summer success I drafted a Christmas project for my sister and brother-in-law.
As you can see from the sketch, I didn’t venture far out of my comfort zone. In what I call my cubist period, I’m focusing on rectangles and straight lines, relatively restrained variations on what I have seen in various places online as a ‘lego’ quilt. [disclaimer: in the event that my sister reads this before she gets her Christmas present and has a heart attack when she sees this, I’ll note in advance that I haven’t chosen nearly as bright colours]
So what is it?
I wanted to do something that really reflected my sister and brother-in-law (S and BL for short). And to do that, I needed to engage the idea of nature. S and BL find their passion in the natural world, their bliss in the shape, feel, touch, and sound of the land. Nature is their source of joy. A source of comfort. A source of generation. The mountains, the forests, the waters… the Land… this is what they call home, and this is where they seek inspiration, knowledge, and the source of life itself.
My project needed, somehow, to reflect this passion. It needed to tell the story of the S and BL that I knew; the story of how they understood themselves in the world and what the world meant for them. And so, I imagined a forest. A deeply wooded space. The sun poking tentative beams between leaves. Wind moving, shifting. A space that is constantly in motion.
I drew my inspiration from the writings and paintings of Emily Carr. In Carr’s visual world, trees are alive with energy and stories. The trees move. They overwhelm a space. They envelope a space. For Carr, trees have personalities and characters all their own. They are close friends with whom she communes, spirits in and through whom she finds her peace.
Though visiting painters assumed that her beloved British Columbia coast was unpaintable, Emily Carr proved that it wasn’t. Listen, watch, wait, and learn… her trees seem to say…and nature will tell you her story. She will tell you how she wishes most to be painted.
I’m no Emily Carr. But I wanted to capture, somehow, the idea of a welcoming forest. Of the rooted energy of trees and of the wonder of the natural world. If you look closely (and use your imagination and squint a bit to make it blurry), you might get a sense of what I was after.
So off I went to Value Village to hunt down fabrics to make this work. And then I sat myself down at my borrowed Singer Genie 354 (it’s got orange daisies on it!) and set to work [as an aside, the Singer Genie is a step up from my previous machine, a Black Singer with a knee pedal]. It started out quite well. As the afternoon progressed, I started to see the pattern take shape.
Things got more challenging closer to the end, when it became abundantly clear that a straight line was beyond my scope of abilities. Suddenly, my forest scene, my towering trees and deep blue sky, was…well… askew. lopsided. crooked. bent.
Something had gone completely awry.
Interestingly, however, things looked much better if I gave up my dream of a vertical tree scene and turned the whole thing 90 degrees.
So much for my careful Emily Carr-infused musings.
What I needed was a shift in perspective. It was, in many ways, still the same story – the story of two people who find their bliss in the landscape – but I needed new details and a new narrative. I needed … quite literally… a change of scenery.
So I screwed up my eyes. And I squinted. And I used my imagination. And I thought of S and BL and their beloved dog, C, getting ready to work their way from Southern Alberta through the many blizzardy mountain passes towards their Christmas destination on Vancouver Island. I thought of snow-covered evergreens and snow-filled clouds. I thought of lonely highways winding through British Columbia before finally reaching the ocean. And I thought of land giving way to water, and of waves rolling onto wild shores. And in that moment, a new narrative was born.
My horizontal tree trunks became glacial striations. Or they told of layers of sedimentary history. Perhaps there were dinosaur bones embedded somewhere within. The rootedness of the tree gave way to the evershifting land. And as I looked through my new narrative gaze, the tree leaves became grasses and flowers, the marshy open spaces of Delta and Tsawassen that are home to so many different birds. And the blues of my sky melted into the ocean depths of the Georgia Strait, flowing around the many little islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island.
This was still my sister’s story. It was still a story of nature, of land, of water, of skies, of grasses … In some ways, it is a better narrative than the one I had originally imagined.
All it took was a change in perspective and a different way of seeing.
I am reminded of Virginia Woolf, who, in her provocative essay, On Being Ill, argued that the experience of illness was one that required a fundamental shift of perspective. Illness, for Woolf, is a horizontal – rather than vertical – way of engaging with the world. And that makes all the difference.
Happy Christmas, S and BL. I know it’s not perfect. But I still hope you like it.