Canadian Crafts Federation: Placemaking Conference, October 2018

Last December, as I reflected on the year that had passed, I came to the conclusion that an overarching goal in 2018 would be “to learn how to be an artist.” Let me now qualify that with an adjective: “To learn how to be a professional artist.” One of the things that has struck me in these last few months is how little I know about my local network of artists and arts organizations. I am not a Nova Scotia native nor was my formal education leading me to become an artist per se. I have so much to learn about the structures, the funding, the networks, and the rich talent and arts and craft community that has to offer — both locally and nationally.

I have been a member of Craft Nova Scotia for the last couple of years. This organization, along with parallel regional organizations across the country, supports craft artists in exhibiting and selling their work, their professional development and advocates for fair compensation for their time and work among other things.  I am fortunate to be able to attend this October’s  craft conference put on by the Canadian Crafts Federation (CCF/FCMA), the national organization that brings together the country’s regional bodies. The theme of the conference is Placemaking: The Unique Connection Between Craft, Community + Tourism. The notion of placemaking has been close to my heart throughout my career(s) in architecture, museum design and education, and now as a textile artist. (In fact, I wrote a lengthy post about placemaking in the context of urban architecture in Halifax last year.)

What is placemaking? According to Wikipedia, placemaking is “a multi-faceted approach to the planning, [urban] design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.” So how does that apply to craft?

The CCF/FCMA conference will explore this question: “What does craft look like in relation to community? In order to create a craft identity, artists and organizations are engaging and experimenting within culture and community in an effort to attract and retain tourist audiences, and to improve quality of life for all. Placemaking will highlight the role of contemporary craft culture in strengthening and encouraging community development. By exploring the positive impact of craft practice on both physical and virtual communities, we’ll share information on craft’s role in enhancing the sense of belonging, understanding, and appreciation of community members, leading to happier, healthier, more positive social interactions” (emphasis mine).

Cultivating: Entrepreneurship, Community, Industry. CCF/FCMA Conference, Alberta, 2016.

Last year’s opportunity to be the artist-in-residence at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 gave me a close-up perspective to the impact of collaborating with the public to form a tourist community of sorts. The project gave us – both the artist and the participants – a shared sense of belonging, conversations about personal experiences above historical narratives, and a way for the visitors to the museum to process the information presented to them and see it through a personal lens. These identifiable but intangible products of the work are ones that I want to continue to fold into my work moving forward. But I can’t do it within the four (or eight) walls of my studio.

Being an artist can be solitary and perhaps an introvert’s ideal scenario. However, when conversations happen between artists, community, arts organizations at a regional and national level, a larger impact can be had. Support, willingness and funding can make imagined projects become a reality.

Robert Jekyll Award for Leadership in Craft ceremony, 2016. Gilles Latour, CCF Past President; Robert Jekyll; and Michael Husalok, 2017 RJA recipient.

If you are making or looking to make a career as a craftsperson, craft artist, textile artist, quilter, textile designer, quilt designer — whatever you call yourself — I encourage you to seek your local, regional, or national crafts and/or arts organization. You will find mentors, curators, and collectors; you will find colleagues inside and outside your artistic discipline; and you will find fruitful conversations that will push you forward.

Here’s the abridged 2018 conference lineup:

October 12, Halifax
  • Keynote Speaker : 2017 Sobey Art Award recipient Ursula Johnson on Indigenous Placemaking
  • The Craft Social celebrating the 2018 Robert Jekyll Award for Leadership in Craft
  • Gallery and shop visitations
October 13, Halifax
  • Halifax Feature Speaker: Jenna Stanton, Craft and Creative Placemaking
  • Panel Discussions:
    • Artist & Gallery Panel: Creating Space
    • Educational Impact: The Ripple Effect of Craft School
  • “3 minutes of Fame” rapid-fire presentations from craft organizations across Canada
  • International Guest Speaker: Annie Warburton, UK Craft Council Creative Director
  • Nocturne, Halifax’s all-night city-wide culture crawl
October 14, Lunenburg
  • Lunenburg Feature Speaker: Senator Patricia Bovey, National Placemaking in Canada
  • Panel Discussions:
    • Contemporary Craft Practice: Thinking Big in a Small Place
    • Community Practices: Leveraging the Allure of Craft
    • Guided Walking Tour of Lunenburg Galleries

 

This video, from the 2015 CCF/FCMA’s conference, features interviews with previous conference attendees:

Pier 21: Quilt as Infographic

Data can become art when a layer of interpretation is added, like the colourfully arranged temperature quilts or Libs Elliott’s limited edition Canada 150 Absolut vodka bottle. Part of The Here & Elsewhere Bee was collecting qualitative data to tell contributors’ narratives through the quilt. I was excited to see what data groupings formed as I listened to visitors’ stories.

The Here and Elsewhere Bee in its final form. Photo: Deborah Wong

As I began collecting bear paw blocks, I arranged them geographically by country of origin. The result was relatively uninspired  The grouping of European stories grew rapidly, indicative of a large demographic of people that came through the museum – people or their parents or grandparents) who came through the Pier 21 port from Europe as they settled in Canada.

The swath of prints was unsettling to my personal aesthetic and I had to remind myself that the point of this project was not about my work as an artist or designer, but about facilitating other people’s stories. It was uniform across its surface, and although it aimed to unify the multitude of stories, it was hard to focus on anything in particular. There was no differentiation, no place for the eye to rest, no direction.

As Canada Day approached and I knew that a large volume of people would be coming through the museum, I scaled down the blocks to 2.5″ square and reduced the single colour paired with white. About 200 blocks into the project, I looked back at my notes and reclassified the units according to things that kept recurring: ocean journeys, coming for a new future, freedom, nature, agriculture. I grouped them, but the result again, was unsettling.

I opened up a jelly roll of Elizabeth Hartman Rhoda Ruth Coordinates provided by my fabric sponsors, Patch Halifax and J.N. Harper. They were all Kona Solids, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

People chose colours that made a lot of sense to represent aspects of their stories: yellow and earth tones for agriculture, blue for water, orange and green for new life, pinks and reds for love. It was easy to choose the colours that would represent each theme. Organizing the blocks around these stripes broke them up and gave the pieces some articulation instead of getting lost amongst each other.

Up until this point, I gave visitors a bit of blank slate, and they could piece their story together as they wished. But some were a bit lost. Although the technical process of ironing on precut fabric onto a background was not daunting or difficult, often non-artists or people who do not identify as creative had a hard time starting off. What should I talk about? What colour should I use? What part of my story is significant? If they needed some prompting, I could point to the themes that people had already talked about, and it gave them a departure point. They were able to have the quilt speak to them first and fit their story into a larger narrative. A dialogue started between themselves and the work, rather than the quilt silently receiving their story.

This became a pivotal point of the project, where the stripes became tree trunks and a forest emerged as the “leaves” grouped around their theme. The multiple prints that people chose in the bear paw block phase were given breathing room amidst a mass of stories that focused on a singular aspect of an individual’s immigration story, told in a single colour. The quilt became an infographic.

I continued to jot down notes about each block and catalogue them. The documentation process was by no means a rigorous collection of data, but it certainly guided the process. These 54 pages were a record of qualitative data and contributed to a deep qualitative understanding of what was being told.

Although 1200 participants is a large sampling, it is clear that there are gaps in the larger Canadian story. The participants are a self-selecting group: They came to the museum of their own volition, paid admission, stopped at my workspace and chose to engage. Many of the people that came through were removed from their story by at least five years, unless they were international students. There was only one family who were recent refugees from Syria in the last year. Their sponsor family brought them to the museum from New Brunswick, a four-hour drive away.

What other gaps could I identify? Someone who came from afar and became disenfranchised with what they found here would certainly not make their way to a national museum. Some more difficult stories of racism and xenophobia, such as the M.S. St. Louis — a boat of Jewish refugees during WWII that was rejected at Pier 21 and had to return to Europe to face doom — are not captured in the Here and Elsewhere Bee. The result was a quilt that celebrates the immigration stories of a select group. These are stories worth collecting and celebrating, and the museum of does a great job of filling in the other gaps.

The academic side of me really enjoyed listening, digging, and analyzing the data in this project. I felt like a researcher with the opportunity to interpret my data and present it in a visual and tactile manner.

#elsewherebee #atelierailleurs

Read the other posts:

Pier 21: Individual to Collective

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts describing and documenting The Here & Elsewhere Bee, my project as the 2017 Artist-in-Residence at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. A list of the subsequent posts related to the project can be found at the bottom of the blog post.


Things have progressed quickly in the last few weeks for the Here and Elsewhere Bee. I introduced Phase II of the project after 4 weeks, as I had collected 158 5” x 5” bear paw blocks during the first 4 weeks of my residency. I scaled down the exercise to a solid coloured triangle on a 2 3/4” white background.

I was worried that the visitors might not want to do it since it might be less interesting to them to work with only one colour, but some people still tell rich personal stories. And the simpler block is enticing to a time-pressed tourist or a person who doesn’t deem themselves artistic.

Here are some interesting stories from a simple colour on a white background:

“I chose this red because my grandmother was a Red Cross nurse in World War II.”
“I chose this blue because my grandmother came across the ocean from England to Pier 21 when she was four years old. I thought this blue would be a colour that a 4-year-old little girl might like. I also studied oceanography and this blue represents my connection to the ocean, too.”
“I chose this yellow because when my great-grandfather moved to Canada, he became a farmer in Saskatchewan.”
“I chose this sea green because my mother came from Finland, a land with seas and skies. I also chose it because it is the colour of tears. My mother left a child behind when she moved to Canada.”

At first, these bitty blocks looked odd and insignificant when there were only a few.  But when they started to form masses, they became something else entirely. Less individual and more collective. The white space around each also eased my mind, since the bear paws are so full of colour and pattern.

I also rearranged the blocks from a loose geography of country of origin to thematic organization. I grouped them in fours, with the bear paws facing out. I thought it was a more meaningful way to represent what was going on in the quilt to group them by theme. A few themes kept recurring: Nature, Agriculture, Crossing the Ocean, Freedom, Family, Love, Culture, New Opportunities. The reorganization  illustrates how, although each of our stories are unique, there is a commonality amongst them.

The mass of the smaller blocks really underscores this commonality, and began to look like leaves. A jelly roll of Elizabeth Hartman’s Rhoda Ruth Coordinates with some of Carolyn Friedlander’s “Friedlander” collection spurred me to organize each theme around tree trunks.

I now have more than 600 blocks from visitors. A good 240 came from Canada Day, which saw a record-breaking 12,000 visitors at the museum. A combination of rain, Canada 150, and stellar programming contributed to that very high number. More evolutions to come.

#elsewherebee #atelierailleurs

Read the other posts:

Pier 21: First Blocks, First Stories

This is the second in a series of blog posts describing and documenting The Here & Elsewhere Bee, my project as the 2017 Artist-in-Residence at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. A list of the subsequent posts related to the project can be found at the bottom of the blog post.


I have spent two full days at the museum now and have met people from all over the world. Two fellows, one from India and one from Sweden, met serendipitously on the plane to Halifax and decided to visit Pier 21 together. Others are visiting for university graduations. A squadron of young cadets from Ontario. A family having a “staycation” in Halifax. One gentleman was a Pier 21 alumnus, who immigrated to Canada many decades ago from England when he was five.

The temporary setup for block backgrounds on a 12′ x 12′ design wall.

Below is Block #001 – my Bear Paw block. The images of the women from Melody Miller’s Fruit Dots collection for Cotton + Steel harken the era of Motown. But I thought of my Chinese grandmother. And I’m actually not the only one. Although none of the three of us who were reminded of our grandmothers are of African descent, the fashion from that era permeated our respective cultures of origin in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Ireland. Many fabric designers talk about the joy feel when the see sewists appropriate their designs for their projects. I think Melody Miller would be delighted to know that her fabric resonates with people across cultures.

The three fabrics I chose ended up all related to sewing, garments, and design:

  1. Square (Melody Miller, Fruit Dots): As I mentioned, this was about my maternal grandmother. I didn’t get to know her well because she passed away when I was three, but from all accounts she was a fashionable and feisty woman. She was relatively well-off; her eight children all got new clothes, new pyjamas, and new shoes every Lunar New Year. She was a bit of fabric fiend, buying the newest collections from the textiles shop run by East Indian owners just downstairs from her flat. She had tailors make handbags that she designed in those fabrics.
  2. Pink triangles (Sarah Golden, Maker Maker): My mother sewed my sister and I matching dresses every Christmas and Easter. She would always buy an intricate dress pattern, and then add additional complicated details as she saw fit. This one time, she added light pink piping to the hems of our spring dresses. The way two stripes meet in Sarah Golden’s design made me think of how the piping might have met together just before she finished the hem.
  3. Blue stripes: My paternal grandfather was a elementary school principal. I thought of school uniforms when I saw this scrap of fabric. I was scrounging through the scrap bin at Patch Halifax, when I came across these stripes. Someone had tested a button hole in them. I think that prompted the school uniform association.

This story — my story — is only one of 49 that I have collected in 16 hours. This quilt is going to be rich with narrative.

And this may be a giant project. The photo above is the first 24 block from Day #1, organized by continent. The middle chunk is stories of European origin, Asia to the right and North and Central America to the left. As of now, I have no idea how I will organize these blocks into something interesting and cohesive.

Read the other posts:

Pier 21: The Story Behind the Bee

This is the first in a series of posts describing and documenting The Here & Elsewhere Bee, my project as the 2017 Artist-in-Residence at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. A list of the subsequent posts related to the project can be found at the bottom of the blog post.


My project at Pier 21 is a collaborative quilt entitled The Here & Elsewhere Bee and is inspired by the children’s storybook Selina and the Bear Paw Quilt. The American-born author Barbara Smucker lived in Canada for 24 years of her life, a period when she published much of her work, including the classic Underground to Canada.

The book is set during the American Civil War. Selina lives in a close-knit community of Mennonites in Pennsylvania, and witnesses many quilting bees as a part of her everyday life – a manifestation of how her community connects and functions.

“Because Mennonites would support neither the North nor the South, they were considered disloyal to both. They were persecuted, their lands ruined, and some of their meeting places destroyed.”1

As pacifists during wartime, Selina’s family must escape to Upper Canada to avoid persecution and Selina must leave her elderly grandmother behind. Her grandmother gives her a Bear Paw quilt top to take with her to spread over her new bed in her new country. Made of remnants of dresses, tablecloths and other available fabrics, including her grandmother’s wedding dress, Selina cherishes the quilt top on her journey to Canada.

When she arrives, her community rallies to finish the quilt with her; a warm welcome to her new home.

The book’s illustrator, Janet Wilson, worked with Toronto-based quilter Lucy Anne Holliday. Holliday provided quilted “frames” for each of the illustrations, adding richness to the images. In my mind, Holiday’s fabrics have become the ones in Selina’s quilt – the elements that hold so much meaning in this little story.

“Working with the author (Barbara Smucker) and the publisher (Stoddart-Canada), I was a member of the planning team responsible for the appearance of the books. I hand-pieced, appliqued and quilted the borders for each of the oil-painting illustrations in the books. Working with the artist/illustrator (Janet Wilson), I chose the design and fabrics which would eventually complement and frame each of her paintings. These “framed” paintings were then photographed for inclusion in the books, as full page illustrations to the story.” — Lucy Anne Holliday, from lucyanne.org

1 Smucker, Barbara. Selina and the Bear Paw Quilt. Introduction.

Read the other posts: