Tuesday, May 03, 2005


My grandmother Elsie was a bit of a textile nut. She noticed and appreciated texture, materials, pattern, colour. She was great to go shopping for clothes with. She'd say things like "I may not dress like I know style, but I know style." And it was quite true. Famous for her hand-knitted grey skirt and cardigan ensembles, Elsie had a good eye for line, effect, and quality, no matter what she was wearing.

Maybe it was from growing up around so many of her woven wall-hangings, but all I know is that from a young age, by a combination of training and natural inclination, I notice these things too. I like fabric, I like my hands working with it, I like spinning wool, I like thread, I like it all.

When I was a student in Vancouver, I used to sometimes go noodle around Granville Island, which for those of you who don't know, is a neat little slightly-touristy place near downtown that has a farmer's market and a bunch of neat little galleries and artisan shops and cafes.

One sunny day I went down on my bike by myself and wandered around, sun shining, helmet clipped to my backpack. Down by the grassy quiet bit towards the back of the island (away from the boats that face downtown), I decided to pop into a little gallery.

I don't remember anything of what I saw, except that on one of the walls was this one beautiful piece of art, made entirely from different scraps of cloth, coloured thread. Intense and fine detail, showing a lone figure, a young girl in a red dress standing on a point looking out across a straight to some islands across. The view was from about 100 feet behind the girl, and the composition was about 4 feet wide and 3 feet high -- the effect was that it had a very full-feeling perspective, an expansiveness, bright and airy. It took my breath away -- and then made me breathe more deeply. It captured a startling realism in its detail and accuracy of proportions, but the fabric lent it a fantastical quality -- as well as somehow making it feel strangely accessible.

I remember that after I got my wits about me and put my socks back on, I went and checked the tag. It was about $300. Looking back, even counting inflation, I can't imagine how it could have been that inexpensive. So many tiny stitches (and there must have been millions of them) -- it must have taken so long to create, and the result was spectacular.

I remember feeling that $300 was just too much for a student like me to spend on a piece of art. How could I justify it when there were books to be purchased, important adventures to go on, (and yes, of course, cold gin to buy, because it was summer after all).

I went back about a month later, reconsidering, wondering if there was some way after all, but it was gone, and the woman working in the gallery was new that week and didn't know anything about it. I guess I could have tracked down the artist if I'd been more persistent but I was unsure, and possibly a bit relieved that the decision had been made for me.

It's been so long since I saw anything original that I liked so much. I have thought about it many many times in the ten years since.

A couple of weeks ago, I went with a friend to a new friend's art opening. It was packed with local artists. One has a studio in the back of the gallery and she ended up showing me her stuff. She uses paint on canvas, and then sews fabric onto it, and adds these other layers of stitching in coloured thread. It got me instantly, all of it, but one piece in particular. So I bought it today. It's called underskirts. It's the first piece of original art I have ever bought, but I promised myself I wouldn't have my heart broken like that again.


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