In September of 2017, I had the opportunity to participate in an artist residency hosted by Artscape Gibraltar Point on Toronto Island. The residency "Awakening", was posed as a ten-day retreat among like-minded artists, sharing similar interests in earth-based spirituality. The themed residency was lead by artist and educator Monica Bodirsky, a well-known advocate and practitioner within the spiritual community. I was curious to enter a space focused on this sort of spiritual topic combined with an artistic focus. I was also especially interested in how I could expand on my previous body of work: Seeking Evermore. A series which touched on themes of how society seeks order.
As part of our introduction to the residency and each other, we were educated on the history of the peninsula and its people. I was comforted by the care that was taken in acknowledging the land's history and significance. Toronto is the ancestral home of Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. (Read the Toronto land acknowledgement here). In a residency with the intention of exploring the spiritual relationship between us and the earth; it is vital to understand the significance of the land and its people.
"The land as a whole is sacred in the way it could sustain communities living together, rather than an animistic theology, where individual spirits live among the rocks and orchard trees."
During our first morning discussion, we were encouraged to begin our work by exploring our own ancestries, especially how our own personal ancestors encountered the land.
As a person with deep-rooted Anabaptist-Mennonite ancestral history, I hadn't considered how iconoclast theology could relate to the approaches of earth-based spirituality. The land as a whole is sacred in the way it could sustain communities living together, rather than an animistic theology, where individual spirits live among the rocks and orchard trees. Historically speaking (and true of my family history), Mennonites who were forced to immigrate while being persecuted went to where they were offered land. In turn, they could practice their pacifist faith without persecution. My own great grandparents were among the Russian Mennonites who came to Canada during the second world war. My grandparents settled in the Niagara region and Manitoba, where they were known in their communities as good farmers and teachers. My father's side was from Germany and fled before the war, leaving significant yet quiet generational scars on his family.
Coming from my undergraduate thesis, I still had an interest in exploring symbols and geometries. Those ideas combined with the encouragement to explore my ancestry, I began my exploration of geometries within the quilt making tradition shared by Mennonites, Hutterite, and Amish communities. While quilts were made for practical reasons, they also become a symbol within these faith and value-based (often rural) communities.
As I settled into my studio space for the next two weeks (known as "Shadowland"), I began watercolour studies of traditional quilt patterns on paper. I had brought a couple wooden embroidery hoops, so I experimented further by stretching paper into the hoops, adding a sculptural element to the work.
As is standard for my practice, this was merely an ice-breaker, as it's rare that the first idea survives the entire development process. I researched quilt designs and painted a small piece with a compass pattern. I hung the piece in the window of my little space and admired the joy it brought to the people on an escape from the city.
It had only been a couple days since I started this journey. Already, it was clear I wasn't revisiting the process I had developed in Seeking Evermore. Freed from that notion, I started to reflect more intensely on responding to ideas of the land and my heritage. I decided to push the work in a new direction, and consider the symbolism of the embroidery hoop slowly wedging itself into my work.
An embroidery hoop is a tool intended for a single task: holding fabric in place so it may be sewn by needlepoint. Threads and appliques are carefully embroidered bit by bit, composing extravagant details or simple prayers and symbols. The medium of embroidery often invokes imagery of handmaids sitting in chairs picking away at a casual project. In the age of post-feminism, the works of the embroidery hoop are often turned on its head by artists and craftspeople. Phrases of empowerment or disruption are delicately sewn into the fabric, juxtaposing against the homebody associations the embroidery hoop finds itself apart of.
"I quickly realized that the reading of this work had become far different than my original intention, and it had to do with the painful realities of colonialism."
While meditating on the idea that an embroidery hoop is a frame, as well as considering the cultivation of land in the Mennonite tradition, I decided to go out and collect plants from the island. I would compose them on paper stretched in the hoop as a way to push this series into another context.
This was the first and necessary downturn in my work.
As I sew the leaves and flowers onto the paper, I became painfully aware of every piercing movement of the steel needle through delicate flora. I quickly realized that the reading of this work had become far different than my original intention, and it began speaking to the painful realities of colonialism.
While the intention was to compose the natural world into sacred geometries, I realized I was forcing nature into a form that was unnatural to it. Instead of letting nature decide its own beauty and cycle, I was removing its agency. A piece that was intended to be alive, was slowly dying with each drag of the thread. I felt incredibly emotional about the dark story the work was speaking. I felt unsettled I hadn't noticed the connection before the act of creating it too. In a residency that focused on how we can connect with the land as itself, I had misplaced an important consideration.
"In a world of side hustles and "Always-Be-Closing", it was a gracious reminder that when it comes to making art, taking time to simply experience the world is crucial to its process."
With the acknowledgement I needed a directional shift, I took time to walk the island and speak with the incredible artists I was sharing the space with. I moved through the water and breathed into the campfire. I lay in the grass to get grounded, and touched the air with migrating monarch butterflies. I took the daily group discussions to heart and immersed myself in the stories they shared. In a world of side hustles and "Always. Be. Closing", it was a gracious reminder that when it comes to making art, taking time to simply experience the world is crucial to its process.
It is crucial- considering it was how I was able to take the next step.
I was sitting in Shadowland. I could see the CN tower across the lake, though I also had a perfect view of a wild hedge, dotted with white September flowers. I had been staring at those dainty flowers for a week, especially then as the sun set covered them in a golden tone.
At that moment, the muse hit me like lightning. The next step became clear: "Why would I take nature out of its place when we could coexist? Collaborate." I grabbed an empty embroidery hoop, my camera, and ran outside to the hedge.
This is where I feel the true results of the residency come life.
This series of photos express hope for coexistence. Hope for the colonial association of the hoop to shift from one of erasure, to instead speak of collaboration. For the hoop to act as a modern frame, while also letting the subject to exist with its own agency and life.
From flowers to sand, to water. All that was contained in the hoop was no longer a representation or tribute to the subject like the needle work it was meant for. The real land moved in and through it, swaying and seeping. Awake and living. In these moments, the hoop became a sacred circle. In allowing life to move through it, it became alive on its own.
The muse whispered again. "You've captured the land, now what of the sky?"
From these photos, I was reinvigorated with the idea that I could create compositions with the land, as opposed to out of the land. I thought of Robert Smithson and his Mirror Displacement series often, and how he re-framed landscapes by placing mirrors among them. It seemed silly to me that this hadn't been my first idea from the start.
The next day, I woke up to a storm brewing over Lake Ontario. The muse whispered again. "You've captured the land, now what of the sky?"
I tied the hoop to driftwood with thread and grabbed my camera once again. I couldn’t help but hoot and holler as the powerful winds buffeted me. I reached to capture the rumbling clouds overhead, and the thundering waters below, all within the circle. The hoop sailed in the air like a kite to the sound of my camera shutter.
When I exhibited my work to the group, it was to showcase the journey. While I felt satisfied with the photos I had ended with, the process of how they came to be felt as much a part of the work as they alone. The watercolour pieces marked the first steps on a creative path. The hoop and driftwood became a sacred instrument. The wilting leaves and flowers became a stern reminder that the dire consequences of colonialist acts against indigenous people in Canada- no matter how well intention-ed they might have been to those who conducted them -are still being felt to this day.
I learned a considerable amount during my time at "Awakening", particularly from the other artists who joined me. Through the residency, I had been given the chance to sit down and surrender myself to the artistic process, and connect with my own spirituality too. I was able to detach myself from the distractions that often take me away from my practice. More importantly, it helped me understand how spirituality manifests in my art practice, betokening my relationship with the natural world and beyond.
I hope that knowing the story behind how this series came to exist offers a new perspective and appreciation for the twists and turns that were required to get to it. Perhaps consider your own ancestral relationship to the land. How were spaces cultivated? What traditions speak to the greater relationships, (spiritual or otherwise) between people and nature?
In all honesty, I could write three or four blog posts about my time on Toronto Island. The works of the other artists, the bustle of tourists who waved to me in the window, the cormorants mastering the air and water. However, I think this will be all I’ll say of it for now. I promise if I go again, you won’t have to wait three years to see the results.
I would like to take a moment draw awareness to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls, of which the final report is now available. It is an important document that speaks to generational trauma, and the lasting effects of colonialism on Canadian indigenous communities.