This talk is from May 12, 2023. Penny Berens and I have an exhibition up now in Kenora, North Western Ontario, entitled In the Middle of the World
. We travelled to Kenora to see our work and have public receptions for it on the recent Mother's Day weekend. I lived in Kenora for ten years during my 30's and our children went to school there. Because of this deep connection to the community, I felt that it would be interesting for the audience, many of whom would remember me from that time, to speak about how the family and I have evolved in the 30 years since we moved away from Kenora. I am presenting all the text and most of the images here. Maybe get yourself a coffee or something before starting to read as this is longer than my usual posts. xo
Sophie LaVoie, curator of the Muse, introduced the three of us and then Penny and I were introduced by our loyal and hard working curator, Miranda Bouchard. I began my talk with thanks - to Miranda first, and then to Lori Nelson, the director of the Muse as well as Sophie and her team for the beautiful installation of our work and for the hospitality of the opening reception. I also thanked the audience for coming out to hear us speak.
I'm from Northern Ontario.
I was born in Fort Frances hospital and grew up on an acreage in LaVallee. I went to Thunder Bay for Teacher's College and met my husband there. We moved to Kenora in 1982 with two little kids and two more were born in Kenora. I was a full-time mom when we lived in Kenora, in our house with the yellow verandah on First Street South. My kids all went to school here, and I went to school here too. I took distance university from Lakehead on the weekends at Beaverbrae High School. When I lived in Kenora, my daily attention and my art practice was all about mothering.
I painted my kids.
I also made quilts about my life experiences. This self portrait is from after the 3rd baby. 1985.
Penny Cummine and I founded the Lake of the Woods Quilt Guild in the 80's. Our first meeting was in the Recreation Centre. The quilt behind me in this photo is entitled Something More Magical Than It Ever Was. It is about memory, and how it changes over time and about how people remember things differently than each other.
With textile art, I found that I was able to speak about things that were going on internally. I was a thinker then and I still am. My artwork is a place where I can work through metaphysical things and make them simple. Like telling people out loud that I love them.
Looking back I can see that even then, my subject was the inner world. The quilt above from 1993 is entitled: Hold Me The text around the border reads, “when you consider something like death, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, in order to know life”. (Diane Ackerman A Natural History of the Senses)
In 1993, I graduated with a degree in fine art from Lakehead University. My graduation piece was about daily life in my Kenora house. I didn’t know when I started building this house from photographs of our back yard and women's magazine papers of idealized life that it was my final year to live in it. I wanted to show you this piece because it is the first example of my art where I wanted my viewer to move through the work. In this way, it is similar to my work for In the Middle of the World. I made The House With the Golden Windows 30 years ago during the last year that I lived here in Kenora. I was 41.
We moved to Manitoulin Island. We had to continue on with our lives. My oldest was in high school. My youngest was going into grade one.
I started teaching classical piano again and held two concerts a year in the church next to the school. Our children grew up and left for university.
This is our youngest child April. She went to art school in Chicago. That’s Ned beside her in this photo. Ned and I have remained on Manitoulin. It is still considered Northern Ontario. I’ve lived in Northern Ontario all my life.
I have a view of Manitowaning Bay from my living room window that I look out every day.
In 2006, I enrolled in a distance program in England that would give me a degree in embroidery. It wasn't possible then to study stitched textiles in North America, but in England, embroidery has the same status as painting and drawing. I graduated in 2012 at the age of 61. The work I did for this second university degree helped me move towards making artwork about the inner world and the body and how they are connected. And how it is all a mystery.
By now we were having grandchildren. The fourth one was born in 2017.
Last Tuesday, May 9, I began the drive from Manitoulin Island to be here. I picked up Penny and Miranda in Sault Ste. Marie. We were excited to do this beautiful drive together.
During the next two days of driving, we saw the renewal of spring in the expanses of pale green poplar groves. We saw armies of black spruce and lakes that looked like mirrors and burnt-out hill sides and acres of muskeg.
We talked about our art making and about what we would say for this talk. We connected with each other.
My work in the gallery upstairs contains the northern ness and the vastness that I grew up with.
It contains my life as a daughter and a mother. Some of the pieces enclose inner mystery and softness.
The Nor Wester mountains around Thunder Bay, the granite cliffs alongside Highway 17 as well as my daily view on Manitoulin all inform my work.
The sense that time is moving swiftly informs my work. Here I am. 30 years older, whirling along the road. Thinking about things.
My mothering. My northern-ness. Time.
We are each specks.
Time is a material.
The sense of touch communicates on an emotional level.
Things that are bigger than us but are contained in us.
My Awakened Heart is one of the first pieces I made for this body of work. It sets the tone of trust in intuition. I am inspired by the materials and how they change under my hands.
I began working because of a piece of fabric. I was inspired by the dots on a piece of Naomi Ito
double-weave cloth. If I cut into the top layer, I was able to reveal the inside cloth. I started working on it with a plunge, drawing a circle with scissors, without knowing what would come next.
Through the months of making it., not with intention but with response - it became a statement about self love and repair.
I began to love the beautiful second side. Distorted with stitch.
And I responded to that second side by covering it over, but then revealing the circle of stitch by cutting a hole.
The title comes from Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun who lives in Nova Scotia. My Awakened Heart for the first side and Noble Tenderness for the second side. Pema Chodron tells us to allow our hearts to be opened by pain or by love or by sadness or fear or by all these things and to keep forgiving. She wrote that the heart is noble, and never gets destroyed. She said that when we feel ready to give up, that is the time when healing is found in the tenderness of pain itself. The noble heart is always inside us, opened and yet completely whole.
Materials and the work of my hands.
The sensuality of cloth.
Cycles of life.
Cycles of nature.
Flowers Bloomed is the last piece that I made for this show and is another example of intuitive process. I responded to the materials and the changes that happened under my hands. What happened in the end was not prescribed at the beginning, it evolved.
I started it after a medical appointment that made me realize I was aging. I came home from that appointment and cut holes into an old blanket. The initial emotion that started this piece was FEAR.
But as I worked on it, it became more about love.
I named it Flowers Started Blooming Inside Me.
I continued with it and under my hands it returned to the original subject of aging. But instead of fear, there is an acceptance of being older, and I renamed the piece Flowers Bloomed.
Working this way demonstrates how art comes from a deep place inside us. We can’t see or name what it is. It is brave to allow it and to accept it. Even though the eventual work process is slow, there is spontaneity involved. ‘Plunge in and go slow’ is what I say to myself.
I find that working through strong emotions like fear or anger with my slow art, heals me.
Flowers Bloomed is an example of body/mind connection. Of allowing the body and the emotions to take the lead, and then stepping away for a bit, to reflect. Then, responding and changing the piece entirely. It is an intuitive process. None of the pieces in my body of work for this exhibition were figured out ahead of time.
However, I was making work for a two person show.
There was a curator involved.
We each owed it to the others to let them know what we were up to in our studios. Every now and then Miranda would ask for lists of proposed works and we would send in what we were making.
My titles (and shapes) kept changing every time with nearly every piece.
There were some pieces on my list that never were finished.
It must have been difficult for Miranda, but she never said so. Never.
She was always very supportive to anything I did.
|Judy age 7|
Art making is a radical acts of hope in this broken world.
Governor general award winning author Sheila Heti
says: We have been chosen to live in this terrible time.
|Judy age 14|
She says: We have been chosen to live in this heart breaking time.”
It is the responsibility of the artist at this time in history to keep making authentic work. Just by continuing, just by expressing the human passion within, just by creating something about being alive, shows hope for the future.
|Her Arms Wrapped Round and My Heart|
“When my arms wrap you round, I press
my heart upon the loveliness
that has long faded form the world” W.B. Yeats
|three of our children in our Kenora kitchen|
I'm interested in time.
|the four of them grown up. three girls and a boy|
I’m on a journey towards self.
I am softer now than when I lived in Kenora and organized quilt shows and volunteered to play the piano in Kindergarten. I wear pink more. I try to be kinder. It’s a journey to softness.
Grace had twins in December. Our 6th and 7th grandchildren