Category Archives: creativity

Artist in Halifax: a visit with Sandra Brownlee

Last week I was in Nova Scotia, reveling in the sparkling cool weather and in the company of my dear friend, Sandra Brownlee. Sandra is well known for her finely detailed weaving, and for her inspirational workshops on Tactile Notebooks and the Written Word.

We have been creative friends since we were at Cranbrook Academy of Art together in the early 1980’s. Sandra was a strong and compassionate mentor then, and continues to teach me with her love of making.  Here, with her permission, a few photos of her magical home, a huge inspiration to me.

Everything has its place

Hand prints strung on a line

Studio wall with Sandra Brownlee weaving and notes

Sandra Brownlee’s studio

Inside the entry, front door art

Braided mats by Sarah Bude lead upstairs

Braided mats by Sarah Bude

Threads and art. Print on right by Doug Guildford

Story text printed on fine muslin, by Jan Baker

Artistic “Expression”

I have been hunting for a way of manifesting a body of work which would be rigorous, exploratory, and pleasurable in the execution. I am into the third set of small weavings of faces and face-like items. (I wrote about Sad Mango a few weeks ago)

I supposed this was sparked by my adventures in the woods at Bloedel Reserve a year and a half ago. The trees were full of eyes, watching me with a benign interest. I have been struggling ever since to determine what to do about this perceived watchfulness.

Eyes of Alder (above) becomes The Man in the Moon (below)

I finally determined, after quite a bit of waffling, that I have a great interest in faces. I want to express that interest.  The challenge in weaving is (as always), just how to manifest the subject. And why even make them?  It took my head a long time to settle down over these issues and just allow me to weave simple faces, but full of expression.  I am working on economy of marks but full expressiveness.

Here are a few recent ones, (each handwoven, wool with cotton, roughly 6″ square).

Terseness, handwoven tapestry, 2018.

Skepticism, handwoven tapestry, 2018

Pain, handwoven tapestry, 2018

Wail, 2018, handwoven by Laura Foster Nicholson

Sanguine, handwoven tapestry, 2018

cats on hand

designing with cats

I usually find that my cats are fairly uninterested in my world, unless it directly overlaps with their own in terms of being fed, getting the head scratched, whatever.

The two cats at my studio have recently begun piling up directly in front of my computer, begging for attention. My attention is focused there,  hence it is their main mission to distract me from my work so I will pet them.

This morning, after the usual frantic purring and thrusting activity from the grey cat, however, she settled back to rest and purr.

Later, I noticed that she wasn’t sleeping. She was intently watching the computer screen as I made changes to a design. Who knew? I have held cats up in front of mirrors as they demurely refused to acknowledge the image of the kitty opposite, so I had assumed that they simply were not interested in two dimensional representation.  My story is now being corrected.

Looking for Vision

alder eye

Bird Marsh, Bloedel Reserve

Bird Marsh, Bloedel Reserve

For me and for many people I know, 2017 has proven, so far, to be a year full of dread.  The hope and creativity I reaped from an artistic retreat at Bloedel Reserve on Puget Sound last October remains a fragile flame to protect from howling winds of change around me.  I am grateful, so lucky, to have had the opportunity for that beautiful and thoughtful time, just before the election, to focus on what was important to me as an artist, and to sharpen my ability to see, and to manifest what I see in my art.

My work for many years has been more about pleasure, contentment, finding the good in my world.  It has felt solid, providing a vision of beauty as a way of making sense of what is important to me. That no longer seems to be enough.

weaving a river

Weaving a River

I recently began a weaving which, in spirit at least, felt totally new to me.  Some of the visual techniques are familiar, some  are stretching, as I struggled to manifest something deeply felt and ineffable.  I have decided that it is the world of the feeling and the spirit that have meaning for me now. How to show them?  

As I was trying to focus on how to go about the new work, I was doing my morning crossword and hit upon a clue to both a word, and to what I was thinking about: “river of forgetfulness”.  Aha. It resonates.

Crossword clue

New York Times Crossword Clue

The resulting tapestry refers to the sad, longing eyes in the alder trees which watched after me on my daily walk through the woods.  They were growing around a gloriously evocative bird marsh at Bloedel Reserve, and the knots where limbs had been were all eye shaped.  This image spoke so strongly to me I knew it was a big metaphor.

alder eye

the watching alder tree

I know it seems to be a dark work.  It hurts me to look at it.  The silver river winds among the watching trees, trying to distract from what they are seeing.

River Lethe

The River Lethe, 2017
handwoven textile 34″ x 27″

targeting with the kaleidoscope in clothing design

Like many designers, I have been having a load of fun with the recent kaleidoscope apps available everywhere. Like a funhouse mirror, they can be amusing;  refining them into a usable design and actually applying them to product can get into more skilled and rewarding work. Here are a few things I have culled from my designs at PAOM.com.

WaWa body dress LFN

WaWa body dress LFN Textiles for PAOM

prairie dazzler hat LFN

Prairie Dazzler Baseball Cap LFNTextiles for PAOM

buzz star boxers LFN

Buzz Star Boxer Shorts by LFN Textiles for PAOM

prairie dazzler body dress LFN

prairie dazzler body dress. LFN Textiles for PAOM

How I spent my summer hiatus

I have not written on either of my blogs for several months.  I have been a period of fairly deep transition — no, let’s say self-examination.  It’s been a few years of most of my studio work being design and craft based, while avoiding the issues and depth of the fine art-making that I associate with my woven work, and in the spring I began to feel that I was spinning off center.

Spring Field, detail.  2014, wool with cotton & metallic, 26″ x 27″
Laura Foster Nicholson (copyright 2014)

Ever since I began weaving I felt an almost mystical connection with the process.  For many years I worked almost like a demon, taking few breaks, focusing on weaving as my most important means of communication in art.  I strayed off the path in the early 90’s when I bought a computerized knitting machine, and substituted knitting jacquards with deep focus.  Then in the mid-90s I learned to design for and weave on the jacquard loom, and eventually segued that knowledge into founding a ribbon business, which for a number of years took up a great deal of my time.

Generally when I work through whatever it was that sparked such intense curiosity I come back to the loom full of fresh insight.  After machine knitting, I rediscovered the joy of slow hand manipulated weaving with a lot of detail.  After jacquard, the investigation of color re surged with great urgency.

Each time I take a break of any significance from my woven thought, I come back to it with a changed point of view, which seems to amplify the expressive powers of my chosen medium.

Now, after spending 7 years expanding my practice of textile design through ribbons and home furnishing textiles, I am finding that I need to let the artist gain precedence once again.  Here is my thinking.

For me, design, while a great discipline with which I have barely come to terms, remains something which is tied to someone else’s needs.  I began by working with smaller companies which, like me, valued individuality and creativity for their own sake, and the interaction with the market was a happy one, where (as it appeared to my admittedly naive eyes) the customer came because she valued what we put out there under our own terms.  But now (after having read hundreds of posts and comments and opinions about the value of promotion and marketing), I feel impatient with the fickle customer, for whose favor I must fight constantly.  It would seem that it is not only essential to have a broad range of styles, but one must be able to work completely in disguise as some other creature.

Maybe I am just to old and stubborn, but I see that in art, one of our primary tasks is utter honesty about what is being made, the voice that is speaking; whereas in design for the general market (I should qualify that to say “surface design”), the job seems to be to do anything to stay the most popular girl on the block.

I am aware this could seem jaded or bitter.  I still very much enjoy designing ribbons and rugs, and value the support of my clients who want my work in its fullness, not a pastiche of trend.  But the reinvention on a seasonal basis of style, palette, and trend are making me crave the solitude and thoughtfulness of my studio and my loom.

All this thought takes introspection, and I don’t like to write when I have nothing to say.  But I’m back, and will try to stay here!

Sandra Brownlee, Inspired Artist

Sandra Brownlee, Weaving in progress, Pages Series #1

One of my dearest and most creative friends of all time is the Canadian artist, Sandra Brownlee.  We studied together at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the early 80’s, and I learned an enormous amount from her freshness, her curiosity, her generosity, and her openness to learning.  A born teacher, she has taught itinerantly for many years, workshops mostly but also at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now Philadelphia University), Philadelphia College of Arts (now University of the Arts), and Nova Scotia College of Art & Design among other places.

She has been on my mind lately.  I owe her a phone call, and we are always plotting to figure out how we can get together, since Halifax, where she lives, is an expensive plane ride away.

I looked her up online today with an idea to finding out her teaching schedule, and I found that she has won another prestigious award, this month.  There is a Youtube video of Sandra musing as she works.  Watching it made me fall in love with her all over again.  Her philosophy is a simple one, in fact it is the same one I have for working:  “Make a mark.  See where it goes.”

Here is the transcript from the video (taken from the Youtube site):

Published on Mar 4, 2014
2014 winner, Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts

Directed by Tim Wilson
Presentation of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Independent Media Arts Alliance

For more information, visit: ggavma.canadacouncil.ca
—————————————-­————————————–
Sandra Brownlee — Transcript

You have to begin. You have to make one row, one row of weaving. That’s all you have to do. And then, you look at that row and you take the very first thought you have in your mind: “Oh, I am going to make the next row this way… then the next row this way.” And it just starts to grow.
The way I basically proceed is: What I feel like doing, I do. I don’t question it so much, I just do it. I often start my day in the studio with some kind of repetitive drawing exercise. So, here’s another circle. This is made of soil from my vegetable garden, and I rubbed it with my hand into the paper.
I’m very tactile oriented and through touch and all my senses is how I access ideas and feelings… and knowledge, really. I’ve found a way of working that really suits me, which is this improvisational weaving. Very low tech. It’s like I work with a limited palette of black and white usually, and a few tools. It’s sort of like drawing and handwriting.
Almost the moment I sat down at the loom I felt at home. First of all, you have a piece of equipment that you’re sitting at. You have a place to be. You have all these procedures. And it was just exactly what I needed as someone who gets quite distracted. It was just very calming for me, and it made me feel secure and all settled so that somehow, I was able to go deeper within myself. And at the same time, going beyond… using it as a way of somehow witnessing to life… my life.
Make a mark. See where it goes.

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Gotta go: time to call Sandra.

Weaving again!

This has been a pretty tough couple of years for me in terms getting myself to weave, which is, paradoxically, the activity most central to my identity as an artist.  Weaving is the calming, centering, intellectual and creative activity that allows me to make things that I feel are profoundly expressive.  All other creative activities — design, sewing, crafting little things — are fun, make money, but are peripheral to the core.

A bit like writer’s block, I hit a bad snag in my creative flow a couple of years ago and just stopped working.  I questioned the value of making art at all.  It seemed to be piling up here, the economy was making it nearly impossible to sell it, I had to turn to more intensive textile design work to get by.  And once I broke the continuum, it has been terribly difficult to raise up the faith to get back to work.  But I have begun.  I finished my studio sale, and the local Christmas fair the week before, sold a lot of pretty little things I had made, (even sold a real tapestry!), and then I sat down, sighed in relief, and decided it is time to lay off the little stuff and make more important things.  I began a new piece based on a photo I took earlier in the fall while driving through southern Illinois.  I made myself a sign to keep me on task.  And I finished hemming the tapestry this afternoon.

Illinois Field, 2013,  24″ x 27″, wool with cotton & metallic Laura Foster Nicholson

meditating, or not

Well, I am still not weaving — nor am I writing very much, despite best intentions and earnest promises to myself.  But as I fuss and bother and stay far away from the studio, meditation is creeping back into my life, and that, as we all know, is the path to mindfulness.

I have never been one to sit and chant a mantra, though I have sat and followed my breathing (thanks very much to yoga training) and I know full well the value of this: the clearing out of the pipes, the increased ability to concentrate, the intensification of focus and clarity which will result.

I have always, since I first understood what meditation meant and how it worked in our lives, thought that my weaving was my meditation.  At Cranbrook, where I studied in the 80’s, Hamada’s writings about the centering power of craft were much in discussion and a formative and empowering defense of hand weaving in the face of conceptualism.

But I had a significant conversation with a dear friend, who lives and breathes a meditative life, earlier in the week.  I told her how much I felt unbalanced because I was disconnected from my artmaking, in particular the meditative weaving process.  I asked her if weaving was, as I had frequently claimed, a true form of meditation, and to my chagrin, she replied that it certainly has great meditative qualities, but the attention required from time to time for the motion of the hands or the decisions one makes along the way remove it from the total detachment that is the goal.  Aaaaahhh.

No, I have not yet dug out my zafu and begun pure meditation in earnest.  But as I was weeding my gravel garden this morning (how Zen!), my mind roamed elegantly around and formed such beautiful, clear associations about art, life, gardening, spring.  What to do?  Interrupt it, run in and write it all down?  Or keep going and savor the experience, knowing that it will slip from my memory by day’s end (now)?  I chose the latter, valuing the experience over the recording of it.  Kathleen assures me that when I start meditation in earnest I can, in effect, have both: the beautiful experience and the reclaimed memory to write about it later if I choose.

The Half-Life of Words

The internet sometimes spooks me.  Your words can literally come back to haunt you!  I subscribe to Google Alerts to find out what people say about me (call me vain or paranoid, it is useful!), and today and alert about an article mentioning me came up, so I went to it and found the abstract ot a talk I gave to the Textile Society of America in New York in 1998, when, if I remember rightly, I was asked to speak about making textile things.  I should note that I was practically schooled to understand that weaving was plenty old fashioned (or call me paranoid!).  Here is the abstract.  As for the talk, it was probably ad-libbed, used slides, and if I stored it on the computer at all that was a few crashes ago.

Making It the “Old-Fashioned Way”

“It is tempting to consider the process I am about to describe as the result of a point of view which is subjective and maybe even romantic. Although the adjective “old fashioned” as used in the title carries a certain amount of ironic wit, in fact my method of weaving is ancient and timeless. I chose it because it is the only way I can adequately convey the majority of my ideas about the textile world. I also work this way because I love the process itself I have tailored my ideas, and risked hobbling them, in order to continue to indulge in a way of working that suits me eminently.
I weave objects which I call tapestries, although technically they are compound twill fabrics with images composed of discontinuous inlaid wefts. The structure is a three harness twill; the ground is warp-faced and the inlaid areas are weft-faced. I selected the structure after studying the three-harness twill tapestry of Kashmiri shawls. The structure confers the ability to express acutely refined detail while yielding the drape necessary for a shawl’s function. I adapted the weave to an inlay structure in order to economize on the time spent in weaving. In fact, I weave quite rapidly as a result, often more than 12″ a day. I am also able to exploit both warp and weft as design elements. The sett of my warp is relatively fine, 30 epi, which gives the work good detail and yet is a large enough scale to be able to see easily the interaction of colors between individual threads.”

And here is a detail of something I was weaving around that time.

detail, “Pear Tree”, 1996 hand woven textile