Saturday, 8 April 2017

A story about a story

Through all cultures, cloth has long been used as a vehicle to tell stories. For instance, the grave cloths in Ghana were stamped with symbols that told the mourners about the character of the deceased. In Chile, women embroidered small wall hangings as a protest against police brutality and the oppressive dictatorship they lived in. And the Hmong hill people in Laos embroidered story cloths depicting aspects of their life. Those cloths accompanied them to a new land as they fled a repressive regime so they could remember and tell their children about their stories.

I bought this "priceless" piece at a thrift store (where else?). It has some mildew stains on it--but beautiful, nevertheless.

Every quilt tells a story, say quilters. Some quilts tell stories of the maker’s delight in colour and design. Others praise nature. Some quilts, by using scraps of fabrics from old clothes, may tell the stories of a family’s history.

I don’t think every quiltmaker sets out to tell a story. But that’s what happens as they work. And that’s what happened to me, too.

It started with a challenge posed by a member of our Small Worx group: create a piece using a technique that is not part of your culture. The original image in my mind of a clothesline hung with articles of clothing from around the world morphed as I noodled with that idea and it became something else altogether.

What if...? Those two words are a universal kickstarter for creative thinking. What if the clothesline held quilts or blankets from around the world? Like, a Hudson’s Bay blanket, a Haida button blanket,  an Indian coverlet stitched with Kantha embroidery, a cloth of African batiks? What if the clothesline extended across Canada? Over the centuries Canada has welcomed many immigrants, and our population consists not only of many aboriginal cultures, but also of more than 190 people groups that “came from away”, each with their distinctive cultures and crafts. What if...what if I titled this quilt The Great Canadian Clothesline: Canada Airs Its Quilts? What if...what if I let this be my own quiet little political statement about what’s important to me, a thumb of the nose to #45 down south? Ah! Now we’re talking turkey. This was the beginning of a story.

I began. I sorted through my ethnic fabrics, and cut little blankets from them, embroidering and beading them in the evenings while I watched TV. I created a background. What had originally been intended to be a 12 x 12" piece had grown into 10" x 40" so I could accommodate Canada from ocean to ocean, from coast to coast. The green ground, consisting mainly of sari silk remnants, had to be redone several times so it would lay flat. I had to go on a major hunt for a blue sky that wasn’t too distracting. And then, there it hung. Now what? Just add poles and a clothesline, and hang the quilts?

Have you ever noticed that storytellers often embellish their stories? The story evolves from its simple bare-bones plot outline, and with each telling more details are added. That’s what happened to my story quilt, too. What if I added a background of silhouettes in the distance, showing features of the Canadian skyline? This was scary business. “What if?” may kickstart creativity, but “I doubt I’m able” can nip it in the bud. I wasn’t at all sure I had the technical skills to pull it off. What if, when I hung it for display, people said with a tight little smile, “Oh, isn’t that cute?” or even worse, “Interesting!” Who did I think I was, after all? Grandma Moses?

Fortunately, the resident sweetie knows how to give me a kick in the pants when I need it. “Just try it,” he said. So I did. I put a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean, stitched some Snowbirds in the sky, and created the Coastal range of mountains. Next came the totem pole, with one wing shorter than the other. Oh well. Keep moving, you can fix it up later. That was day one. My assessment: maybe. Just maybe it might work. The RS smiled.

Day two: some lower mountains in the interior of BC. The Rockies. Calgary. Hmmm. Okay! Keep moving! It took me all week to finish Canada: an oil well, a wind turbine, a train, grain elevators and many more features, all the way over to a lighthouse on the East coast.

Each day, I looked at the piece with anxiety and dread – was this the day I would mess it up? Was it really any good or was I deluding myself? -- but I did it anyway. I told my story.  These features live in my heart and in my memory. I too was an immigrant once upon a time, albeit a very little one, and grew to love these features. They are probably part of most Canadians’ collective memory, and they will become part of our immigrant newcomers’ story, too. I love that story.

It’s not done yet. I need to put up poles and string a clothesline, to which I will clip my tiny quilts with the cutest little clothespins I found at Michael’s craft store.

I will make many more tiny quilts than will fit on the line, and store them in a tiny laundry basket so I can change the picture from time to time. At any step in the process, I may still find the piece is not going to work, after all. That will be hard. But it will not be the end of the story. I will continue to keep plugging away at it until the story I want to tell is there for all to see. Because it is the viewers' story, too. Since this is Canada’s 150th birthday year, I will put it on display at our Guild’s Quilt Show, and also at the Valley’s Fall Fair.

It’s not perfect, not breathtakingly beautiful, maybe just cute and interesting. I doubt that it will win any ribbons, but that’s not what this was about. This is a story, our story, and we have much to celebrate.

As I worked on this story, I realized that I have left out a big piece of the story. I have not acknowledged that immigrants have a story to tell because they moved onto land that originally belonged to our First Nations. There's another story waiting to be told, if I have it in me. Time, and the design wall will tell.