textile museum, judy chicago, and me

My mother went home this morning. We had a very nice visit, a good mix of sightseeing and hanging out, grilling in the backyard and a few restaurants, watching baseball and playing with the dogs.

On Tuesday we went to the Textile Museum of Canada, in downtown Toronto. Connie, my mother, is a huge appreciator of handcrafted work of all kinds, as well as an expert knitter and talented needleworker in her own right. A textile museum is perfect for her, and a nice thing for us to do together.

I really enjoy small museums, the kind where you can easily see the entire museum in one visit. For example, in New York, although I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my favourite museum is The Frick. In Paris, although I'm glad I've been to the Louvre, I prefer the Marmottan or the Musée Rodin.

So when we arrived at the Textile Museum, I was pleased to learn it is just two floors of a small building. My mom and I explored one floor, had lunch at Java Joe's across the street, then went back to see the other floor. Perfect.

The current main exhibit is "When Women Rule The World: Judy Chicago In Thread". Judy Chicago, if you don't know her, is an immensely talented and creative feminist artist who works in many different media. It's been a long time since I've seen any of her work in person, and this exhibit deepened my appreciation of her.

There were works from Chicago's Birth Project (1980-1985) and Holocaust Project (1993), but what really grabbed me was Resolutions: A Stitch in Time (1994 to present). I would love to see more of these.

Resolutions takes the old idea of a needlework "sampler" and updates it. Think of those old embroidered aphorisms found in home of generations past: "Home Sweet Home", "Bless This House" and such. The expressions have become meaningless cliches, but the work itself was done by women, with their own hands. Of course that work was devalued as non-essential "women's work" - craft at best, but never art.

Judy Chicago's Resolutions: A Stitch in Time updates the idea of the sampler. Using needlework genius, as well as paint, applique and other media, the women of Resolutions created samplers with messages of hope for today's world. "Bury The Hatchet" shows a rabbi, a priest and an imam joining hands in work. "Two Heads Are Better Than One" shows a man and woman working together as equals. "Do A Good Turn" shows cooperation between generations, colours and genders. Each sampler displays needlework talent that seems almost otherworldly in its complexity, yet creates simple, direct beauty.

We watched a great video about the making of Resolutions. Chicago had just finished eight years of studying and creating Holocaust imagery. (Not incidentally, her central thesis on the Holocaust is that it arose not as an aberration, but directly from, Western culture.) She was overwhelmed by darkness and faced a choice: succumb, or choose hope. In keeping with her Judaism, she chose hope.

Resolutions: A Stitch in Time is a celebration of that choice, and of life, joy and hope. The project itself was collaborative every step of the way. Chicago assembled a group of talented women needleworkers. Together, they explored the themes that would be expressed and methods by which they could implement Chicago's designs. Chicago had the challenge of finding imagery to match the text, and she designed "resolutions" specific to each artist's special talents and skills. In the video, the women all attested to the profound experience of being part of the project, and to how much they learned about themselves and their craft.

Resolutions reminded me of all the talented people, everywhere, who work at their crafts because they want to and need to, and the seemingly infinite variety of ways that creativity is expressed.

* * * *

There was a time when all my writing energy was focused on trying to be published in as many places as possible, trying to see as many of my ideas in print as possible. I thought this way for many years.

Coincidentally to this, in 2001, Allan and I were planning a trip to Ireland. I had a long-standing fascination with Irish history and culture, and going to Ireland was the culmination of ten years of reading and dreaming.

A big part of the trip was hearing Irish music, which I adore. Every town we visited had at least one pub where traditional Irish music was played. We would drive into a town, ask at the B&B or in a shop where traditional music could be heard, and get the name of the pub, then we'd stop by that pub to ask what time music would start. In this way, we heard music every night of the trip, nearly 3 weeks.

This was not in tourist season, and we were usually the only non-locals in the pub. The music was played by whoever showed up. One night it might be two guitars, a pipe and a bodhrán, the next perhaps a guitar, a fiddle and a pipe, or any other combination.

The musicians sat at a table - no stage - and played whatever they wanted. Patrons would make requests, and sing along. Sometimes everyone in the pub would sing. Imagine this, a community of people hanging out at night together, raising their voices in song.

These musicians made music because they were musicians. They played for the joy of it, for their craft, and to keep their tradition alive. Undoubtedly they all had jobs and did this after work. You could say they made music because it gave their lives meaning.

I returned home from that trip with a new understanding of my own craft. I wasn't sorry I had spent so much time and energy trying to be published. That was something I needed to do, and it was important that I did it. But whatever I had needed to prove to myself was now proven.

I decided to stop applying pressure on myself, stop viewing publication as the necessary end of any writing. I still wanted an audience, of course, but I would get back in touch with the writer within, and not focus on the external affirmation.

Watching the video about the making of Judy Chicago's Resolutions, I remembered all this. The women who stitched these Resolutions are not famous. Standard Western culture does not even consider them artists, nor their work art. But they are, quite clearly, artists.

* * * *

I just might return to the Textile Museum for future exhibits.

On Wednesday, we visited the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, which I'll write about in my next post.

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