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

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Nocturne 2017: Georges Island Quilted Over

Georges Island is a tiny island in the Halifax harbour. At its summit is a fort. A small lighthouse faces the city of Halifax, giving a picturesque view for boardwalk pedestrians. This was the subject of my first Nocturne project, our annual city nighttime arts event. The theme for Nocturne this year, in its tenth anniversary year, was Vanish.

The significance of Georges Island to the immigration experience at Pier 21 is that of first impressions. As new immigrants arrived by boat, their processional led them off their vessel onto the second-storey platform. Looking over their shoulders to the land where they had just arrived, a view of Georges Island and its lighthouse was the first sight beheld in their new country. During the years between that initial mental snapshot to a pilgrimage back to Pier 21, an immigrant may forget or cover over that moment with the realities of building a new life, but a revisiting of the site brings a momentary pause — to remember that moment of arrival. The most recent architectural iteration of Pier 21 frames this vista with grand windows in the Hall of Tribute at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Georges Island Quilted Over erases the view by installing a temporary structure in front of the centre window. The frame mimics the existing window in scale and proportion, but with backlit translucent vellum panes – a screen of sorts, hiding what lies behind.

With precut coloured paper, visitors were invited to create a “paper quilt” that was illuminated to the effect of a stained glass window. The modular precuts are units used in traditional quilting, cut from single-sided coloured origami paper.

Counterintuitively, visitors were asked to tape their pieces with the colour side facing away from them. The coloured pieces transform the new window over the course of the evening.

Photos: Deborah Wong

When Nocturne ended at midnight, the backlights were turned off one at a time, and house lights illuminated only a white paper quilt. All colour vanished from the piece, leaving an opaque window frame. Georges Island, still hidden from view as it was at the beginning of the project or over the decades of a new life in Canada, remains as it was.

Photos: Deborah Wong

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

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Pier 21: Emotion in 5″ x 5″

This is the third 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 posts related to the project can be found at the bottom of the blog post.

One of the visitors I encountered my first week was a visitor from Newfoundland. He entered my workspace at Pier 21 in an emotional state and his story emerged as he told me about the fabrics he chose for his bear paw block. His thoughts were simply put.

“This is about my Nan; she raised me. She loved her garden and her favourite colour is purple. I just found out within the last hour that my Nan arrived here at Pier 21 in 1946 with my aunt on a ship called The Scynthia. I just finished a long cry about what this place means to my family.”

The Scynthia was part of the first fleets of post-WWI boats built by the Cunard Line in Britain. She made many trips across the Atlantic to New York and Boston, and carried American tourists from New York to the Mediterranean. She evacuated sponsored children from Liverpool to escape German invasion and suffered a torpedo attack in 1942. After being repaired, she voyaged many Canadian and American war brides and their children to their new homes; one such trip took this gentleman’s grandmother to Pier 21 in early 1946. The Scynthia later took many more refugees from Europe to Canada.

This boat is a part of many family histories, saved lives, lost lives, new lives. To hear one very personal one through a small creative exercise really demonstrates the power of making.

Many people are reluctant at first to participate in The Here and Elsewhere Bee, until they hear that there is no sewing or cutting involved. “You only have to pick fabric!” I tell them. They don’t intend to tell their stories. They agree because it seems simple enough.

After they pick their bear paw fabric, we go over to the design wall to pick a solid background colour. I ask casually, “Can you tell me a bit about what you chose?” Sometimes they are short answers:

“These green clovers are for my Irish heritage,” they simply say.
“This looks like a field of crops,” says an Albertan of Ukrainian descent.
“I just like these colours.”

Sometimes, they let me know what’s weighing on their minds..

“I just found out my grandfather is dying. He immigrated through here, Pier 21, with his wife and son (my father) from Spain. He wanted a life of opportunity for his family. I wanted to connect with him today, because I can’t be with him in Ontario.”

She chose the blue windows because they looked like they were drawn on graph paper; her grandfather was an engineer. The vibrant teal represented the bright life they have led in Canada. As she left, I heard her say, “That made my day.”

Stories with emotion, in a 5” x 5” square.

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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.

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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.

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