Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Monday, 16 February 2015

Making Contact: The Story of a Tapestry

Yesterday's post gave you a glimpse into the world of the Afghani weavers who make the pieces which have transitioned from using tribal, spiritual and natural motifs to including or being composed exclusively of images of war. The effects of war continue; this article on the current rugs and the living conditions of the refugees caught in Pakistan camps speaks of the ongoing struggles of the people forced from their homes and living under threat of constant violence. 

When I first learned of these rugs, I was fascinated by the beauty which can come out of such struggles. I wanted to pay tribute to the weavers I would never meet and acknowledge the suffering which I hope will end for everyone and which I hope I and my community will never experience. I knew I had neither the weaving skills or the knowledge of this culture to weave anything similar, but the subject matter called to me. Then, in March 2005, an article in the local newspaper caught my attention. A sixteen year old boy had surrendered to (or been captured by, according to which source you read) authorities while wearing a vest loaded with explosives. The photo which accompanied the article showed a terrified child, hands on his head, surrounded by soldiers, bombs strapped to his torso. Ten years ago, reports of strapping bombs to children and sending them on suicide missions was still uncommon and as horrifying as it should be. The idea that anyone would think this was a justifiable practice, coupled with the fact that this boy was the same age as my son, made me ill. The image of the young man haunted me. Surely, this couldn't be the way of the world? (Sadly, now, we hear these reports far too often. Recently, a 9 year old girl was turned into a bomb and sent to explode in a crowded market.) 

At the time, I was weaving a series about characters from various mythologies. The first was "Anni and Eve." "Minerva" had followed soon after, but I was unsure of what came next. When I saw the article, a tapestry appeared in my mind's eye - "Mars," the god of War. I sketched out a rough cartoon, set up one of my tapestry looms and began to weave. The result was this piece, approximately 27.5 cm x 40 cm (11 x 16 inches):

"Mars" was woven on a Cactus loom, with a four selvedge finish, using hand spun wool singles on a commercial wool singles warp. With the exception of the red letters in "Mars," the orange pineapple grenades and the sixteen candles in the border, the wefts are naturally coloured and naturally dyed yarns. I deliberately used fugitive dyes for some of the background; the theory is that the script in the tapestry will become more visible with the passage of time. (It seems to be working.) The portrait of the boy is based on the newspaper photograph and photographs of my son. The tapestry was completed in October 2005. It's a gift to Young Mr. DD. Hussam Abdo, the boy in the photograph, was sent to prison in Israel. As far as I know, he's still there.


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Road Trip: Afghanistan War Rugs

Afghanistan weavers have a long tradition of weaving intricate rugs using knotted pile, soumak and tapestry weaving techniques. A typical prayer rug is filled with intricate symbols and images of flowers, animals and daily life. Over the years, with the invasions of outsiders into their country, Afghan weavers began to incorporate images of another kind into their rugs - the constant of war and its intrusion into daily life.

I have read about these rugs for many years, the beauty and subtlety of their patterns and the skill of the weavers as they knot their rugs from wools dyed with natural materials and synthetic dyes. Apart from photographs, I've never seen one, so when fellow weaver and fibre enthusiast, Leslie C. sent me a link to an exhibit of these rugs in the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, I didn't hesitate to invite myself along on a road trip to see the show. We headed out on Friday for the day to spend time at Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan.

As a weaver, this was a trip of a lifetime for me. The show, organized by the Textile Museum of Canada, displays 118 pieces, rugs of various sizes, along with two bags, dating from around 1920 to the present. We had the gallery pretty much to ourselves and were allowed to take all the photographs we wanted, provided we didn't use the flashes on our cameras. (My point and shoot camera didn't care for that, so I apologize for the quality of the photos here. If you want to see more detail on these pieces, click on the link above.) I was like a kid in a candy store, running back and forth between the displays, which were organized by theme rather than chronology. Perhaps I should say I was more like a kid on a scavenger hunt; unfortunately (and surprisingly), there was no catalogue. Large, laminated cards provided some information on each section, but details on techniques, dates and the significance of the images were scarce. There were small "souvenir" battle rugs for sale in the gallery shop, accompanied by a pamphlet on these rugs:

Men and women are involved in carding and spinning sheep's wool by hand. Natural dyes (including from onion skins and pomegranate rinds) and synthetic dyes are used.
. . .The first Afghan war carpets, featuring stylized depictions of helicopters, tanks, and weaponry, emerged during the 1979 - 1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and Afghan carpet weavers incorporated these symbols of war into more traditional Afghan carpet designs. ("Souvenir Battle Rugs from Afghanistan," pamphlet, Mendel Art Gallery)

The rugs ranged from many square metres in area to much smaller rugs which looked as if they were designed to be wall hangings. Some of the rugs had technical problems, in that they had large amounts of draw-in, bubbling and were dramatically off square, but each one had its charms. As time passed, the weavers replaced images of camels, sheep and flora with the machinery which has become all too familiar to them. A few contained only one or two images of weapons, often Kalashnikov rifles, the Russian AK-47, while others were packed with tiny images which, at first, seemed to be traditional symbols. On closer examination, the symbols were images of helicopters, tanks and guns. Some of the rugs depicted New York's Twin Towers. The most modern of the rugs have shifted perspective completely; from the traditional overall depiction of pastoral scenes, mosques and Afghan cities, they show, in modern landscape format, what could be any bustling city.

While a preponderance of these battle rugs may have appeared during the decade from 1979 - 1989, the incorporation of symbols of the modern machine age goes back much further. This is the earliest rug on display; dating from around 1920, it shows a British Sopwith Camel airplane joining the bird in the sky over a placid natural scene (#1.58, 1920's,p. 3 in the link to the exhibit):

This rug was well-used, probably as a floor and/or prayer rug, as the detail shows:

The detail of the weapons is astonishing, showing both the weavers' skills and their familiarity with the weapons themselves. The tank at the bottom of this rug showed every detail of its machinations. (#1.90, 2001-2007, p.2):

Some images are more stylized, used in ways similar to traditional motifs, as borders:

#1.40, 1989? p. 1 

Some of the smaller rugs contain much less detail, but are far more poignant. This small rug, one of four depicting single images is, according to the exhibit information, "the saddest image in the exhibit." It caught my eye instantly. What was this woman's story? How had the shift from flowers which would normally be included in such a scene to grenades and tanks affected her life? (#L2008.408, 2001-2007, p. 2):

Words and blurry photographs cannot do justice to this exhibit; it's a once in a lifetime opportunity for local weavers and textile enthusiasts to see this large collection of remarkable textiles up close. The display runs until March 22, 2015; if you are anywhere near Saskatoon, go to the show. Plan to spend several hours in the gallery. If you are a weaver or a textile enthusiast, prepared to be humbled by the skills and beauty which can come from adversity. (If I lived in the city, I would be there every day, examining each rug and taking notes.)

Thank you so much, Leslie, for taking me to see this show. I am very grateful to have been your travelling companion.


Monday, 9 February 2015

Go Back, Jack, Do It Again: A Message to My Art Teachers (And a Thank You to Jack A.)

Two activities most soothe my Spirit: being out in Nature, camping in a field, a forest, near or on water, and making art. (Yoga and meditation are in there, too, but they're interwined with my art.) I don't remember a time when I wasn't attached to the creative process. As I grew up, our parents kept supplies of paper, pencils and crayons available, My mother sewed, did decoupage, knit and fashioned intricate clothing for Barbie dolls. Her mother, who lived with us until she died, preferred cigarettes to sewing needles, but she did teach me spool knitting. The next door neighbours, mother and daughter, whom I considered grandparents, taught me to read and fascinated me with their intricate, hand made crocheted work which covered every piece of furniture throughout their house.

Every summer, we'd go on vacation. Dad and Mom packed up a borrowed station wagon with a mess of children - 7 at final count, plus my best friend and sometimes a lovely bachelor "uncle" named "Hugh," who, although Catholic, was the personification of "Zen," long before I had even heard the word. If we happened to have a dog, she came, too. To this day, I marvel at how many bodies you can pack into a vehicle for a road trip. My father drove; he, too, was a miracle of patience. Most summers, we headed to a provincial park somewhere in the prairie provinces or even as far as the west coast. My parents installed Hugh in the park lodge and we stayed in non-modern cabins. My favourite spots were places where I could walk the beaches, combing for treasures. Nirvana was defined by the arts centres which many parks staffed all summer. I'd head to the centre every day and stay there until it closed. Nature and art/craft became intrinsically linked from an early age.

Over the years, I drew, painted, made ceramic pots, wove baskets of paper, grass and rush. I knit bizarre bits of string. (They started out as Barbie clothes, but since I never cared for Barbie and refused to follow a pattern, they became my earliest pieces of free form knitting.) One summer, I collected glass containers of various colours, found a board, a hammer and a bottle of glue and proceeded to smash the glass into bits and glue the pieces into a mosaic as a project for Canada's centennial. To her credit, my mother never once protested, even when I broke the glass in the house and despite the fact that my fingers were covered in bandaids from the multiple cuts I got from shards of glass. Another time, a friend and I designed amazing pierced earrings out of newspaper papier mache. While the earrings were quite pretty, the findings were not. With no source for the hardware required to wear these jewels in our recently pierced ears, we designed our own using the paper covered wires found on bread bags. Let me assure you, even if you strip the paper off those wires and clean the wire thoroughly, the result of wearing them is likely to be infected ear lobes.

I never thought of arts and crafts as something one pursued as a career. My best friend's sister was a well-known ceramic artist, but she was much older than we were and, frankly, weird, in our young eyes. It was clearly understood in our household that girls got married after high school or, if they went to university, became teachers. As the oldest daughter, I was destined to become a nun. I was okay with that; there was a convent two doors down from our house and I often went there for music lessons or to roam the halls. Several of the sisters were artists; I thought that was the only way to be a full time artist. By age ten, though, it was pretty clear to everyone that I was not nun material, so that door closed quickly.

My artistic pursuits continued. I don't remember differentiating between good and bad art. Some things worked; others didn't. I kept going. Since no one ever thought of art as anything other than a hobby, everyone either admired what I did or was indifferent to it. Then came The Critic.

We've all had one: that person who decides that they know all about art and how to do it. These critics are determined to set children on the path to Doing Art the Right Way. I'd already encountered a bit of this in school. I was a good girl and learned to colour within the lines, while doing as I pleased at home, but until grade seven/eight, I don't remember anyone telling me I was Doing Art Wrong. That moment came when my teacher, while examining a portrait I proudly held up for inspection, told me, "You'll never be an artist." That was that.

For the next eight years, all through high school and university, I never practiced art. I was an English Lit major and was happy with that, because I loved to write and had always done so,  but I couldn't bring myself to take a single art elective, for fear of hearing those words again. Throughout university, I canoed and camped, but never opened a sketchbook because I was afraid my friends would laugh at my efforts. (Of course, I realize now that they would not!)

The light switched back on at the end of my university days; I discovered fibre arts, my then boyfriend (now husband) built me a loom and the world opened up again for me. When I wasn't working at my library job, I was weaving. Spinning and knitting came next, but I never picked up a drawing pencil or paints until I was nearing forty and working at an arts centre. It was there, when I lamented to one of the other resident artists that I couldn't draw the way everyone else did, that I saw a way around the rocks in my path. Jack looked at me and said just one thing: "Why would you want to draw like anyone else?" That was that; he took me on as a student and I never looked back. I went on to teach drawing to children and a class for adults called, "Drawing for the Terrified." Now, my sketchbooks travel with me everywhere. Once again, I spin and weave in fields, in forests, near water. I draw and paint. Once again, I don't care if my work is good or bad. I simply Do. I am Home.

I tell you this long story as a cautionary tale. When I was teaching the children's drawing classes, I was sad to see that many of the 6 to 9 year olds in my classes had already absorbed the idea that there was good and bad drawing and, usually, theirs was the bad drawing.Once that doubt sets in it takes a lot to convince them otherwise. If you have a child near you who loves art (and what child doesn't), supply them with the materials they need. Unless they beg for help, leave them to their own devices. I've made my share of mistakes with my children; my Artist Ego stepped in to assist in my children's art when it should have remained silent.

If you're an adult who used to practice art of any kind and would love to take it up again, DO IT. If lessons scare you (and there are still many "This is the Right Way" art teachers out there), get some art materials and spend time each day just messing about. Make it a meditation practice. Don't show it to anyone. When your Inner Critic starts to give you advice, say, "Thank you, Mind. Not helpful." Keep going. If you want to nourish your Body, Mind and Spirit even more, take your art outside. You don't have to go into the woods. Your backyard will do. If you can't get outside, look out a window and practice while observing.

The world will thank you. The world needs more artists. Not good artists, not bad artists. Just Artists.


Thursday, 5 February 2015

Making Contact: Staying Grounded In the Winds of Change

Donna and I taught our yoga workshop last Saturday. I've taught a couple of classes this week and am guiding the 101 Meditation workshop this weekend. There are two in service programmes to attend at the studio and besides Heather's meditation class this past Tuesday, I'd like to fit in one more yoga class. I was offered a new teaching contract yesterday, in an unexpected area. I said "Yes," of course, because it's good practice to grab every lifeline and this is a wonderful opportunity to teach in a place I love dearly, but all the busyness and excitement of change has me feeling a bit flighty.

Fortunately and with utmost good timing, Heather's class was about staying grounded when life threatens to carry you away on the winds of change. We worked with our breath. We grounded ourselves, literally, by placing sandbags on our bodies to give us a sense of weight and security. We practised just sitting and being with whatever comes up. We focused our attention on a candle flame, observing how the flame flickers and shifts, but continues to illuminate the room. She reminded us that, while our lives may seem to be the winds that blow and disturb the flame, the Self stays steady, rooted in our True Nature.

When changes threaten to carry us away on winds of emotion, we can use our habits and practices to maintain our grounding. This week, I've looked to my spinning to keep me centered and calm. The fibre I'm using is cotton. This cotton is organically grown, naturally coloured, purchased from a small business. It needs to be spun finely, with a long draw. If my attention shifts away from the act of making yarn, even for a moment, the loss of focus shows instantly, either as lumps in the yarn or an actual break. I have to maintain awareness of the movement of my hands, the ways in which I hold and shift my body. If I forget to breathe, it shows in the yarn, usually with a sudden snap where, sometimes, the yarn end disappears into the mass of string on the bobbin, not to be rediscovered without a return to patience and careful attention as I retrace the path of the vanishing yarn. I've learned the wisdom, both spiritually and practically, of remaining focused on my task when spinning fine cotton yarns. It seems fitting that something grown from the Earth can offer grounding to another creature who is having difficulty staying rooted to that Earth.

And so I spin, yards and metres and metres and yards of fine, green cotton string. A bobbin full, I will rewind the yarn to smooth it, spin another, then another and perhaps one more. Each of these yarns will be plied with the others, bound together with twist to make a fuller, richer, solid unit of string. As I spin, I feel the Earth beneath me, supporting me and my wheel. The whirlwind of emotions slows and settles around me. I breathe. The winds calm and once again, I'm prepared to resume a steady course.


Sunday, 1 February 2015

Sixteen Candles: Thoughts on Teaching Bodhi 101

Public Domain Photo Google Images

Sixteen people braved the cold and ice yesterday to attend our third Bodhi 101 Yoga workshop, a class designed to introduce yoga to those who are curious about the practice, but not sure if yoga is for them. Sixteen lovely bodies, all different, from all age groups, some with experience, most with none. Women and men, big, small, tall, short, moved through the studio, discovering new ways to breathe and feel. Sixteen explorers, sixteen new candles to light the way into the world of yoga. Two hours flew by (for the instructors, at least).

I love teaching beginners' classes. It's wonderful to explore worlds I've come to know with others who are taking their first steps towards those worlds. Beginners bring fresh perspectives to every practice. Their questions are thoughtful and to the point. They challenge a teacher's ideas and methods because each new body and mind requires questioning our habitual ways of thinking and teaching. Not only does a teacher have to break down the stereotypes that many people have about yoga, she has to work at not reinforcing those stereotypes through her own practice. Beginning students keep us focused, humble and grateful. I always learn more from them than they can ever learn from me.

I'm fortunate to have a great teaching partner. Donna R. and I met at the studio several years ago, when we were both students. We encouraged each other to become yoga teachers and we took our training together. Among other wonderful attributes, she is quiet, reflective, thoughtful and organized. (I know how to be quiet, reflective and organized, but I tend not to put that into practice, sometimes.) We approach situations very differently, but our teaching methods fit well together. This is not a small thing - in the long stretch of time I've been teaching, I've co-taught successfully with one other person. Most teachers like their own classroom, their own stage and their own ways of presenting material. That's natural and good; in order to be an effective teacher, you must have the confidence to work alone. It's a special joy when you find someone whose rhythms are in sync with you and even better when you can carry them into a studio together.

So, thank you to everyone who came out yesterday and thank you to Donna for being the best teaching buddy one can have. I'm doing it all again next weekend, at the Bodhi 101 Meditation workshop. (Donna will be away, playing with a new grandbaby. She will be missed.) If you're in town, please join us. (To register, you can click on the Bodhi Tree Yoga link to the right under "Sites I Like to Visit.") Let's light some more candles.