Last Lass Standing

June 10, 2018

Today is Sunday. Everything is closed. Said goodbye to our Israeli friends, Ayelet and Shelly. Said goodbye to Fiona. Taxi for Sumburgh has been set for 6:30am.

The day is spent at Hays Dock in Lerwick. New buildings dominate the shoreline here: Shetland’s museum and archives, the Mareel arts centre, the Nordhus and the Solarhus. The latter two structures are part of a new business park. Ecology married to economic need. At the dock, the low tide allows the visitor to fully enjoy the four and sixareens painted in cheerful colours. Once a common deep sea fishing vessel, the type is now used only for day fishing, as leisure craft or in rowing competitions.


Shetland music and conversing voices ebb and flow from somewhere on the pier. Looking around, I don’t see anyone save a couple walking a dog in the distance. The sounds emerge from four receivers mounted on posts. An interpretation panel tells me that the windier it is, the shorter the sound clips become. Gale force conditions merge all voices together. An anemometer continuously feeds clips of more than 300 live readings from the Shetland archives to the receivers.


On a calm day like today the voices are clear and crisp. Someone sings “You are my sunshine”. So, not all the music heard originated in Shetland. The receiver dishes are made out of Shetland serpentine, granite, and shell. Although I didn’t see it due to the simmer dim, a blue LED light illuminates clouds of Shetland wool at night in what must be an eerie sight in the fog. (Artist: Lulu Quinn; dish construction by Alan Hart.)

After a cuppa to warm up (it turns out that the Mareel arts centre is open – thankfully), I head back to Alder Lodge by Commercial Street. I must say goodbye to Lerwick harbour, the Bressay ferry, Bains beach – where sisters Mary and Sally had earlier threatened to go sea bathing on what seemed a Winter’s day  – and of course I must say farewell to DI Perez’s house, next door to the beach.

My time in the Shetland landscape has been mainly about the sea, the melting of silver blues and greys into turquoise and greens, the tongues of white surf tasting the side of a jagged cliff. Add to this the weathered faces and grey beards of the old boys who hang about the harbour, the rich sea life, the gentle curve of lapstrake construction and you pretty much have what draws me to this part of the world.

Back at Alder Lodge, I am the last lass standing from our felting group. I meet Stuart in the dining hall to settle up my account. My bag is packed for Orkney. My boarding pass  emailed.

There is nothing left to do but close the curtains and turn off the lights.


60 Degrees of Altitude

May 31, 2018 Day 1 Lerwick, Shetland

First order of business? Take photo of DI Perez’s “house” on Bressay Sound in Lerwick. On the right of the photo, the Bressay Ferry is returning to port. The temperature today is a steamy 16 degrees C. While the weather app says “feels like 16”, the truth is it feels like 25 especially when you are wearing a turtleneck, leggings and a windproof jacket – typical gear for 60 degrees altitude on the North Sea.


Unfortunately, I’m not here to be an extra in Season 5 of “Shetland” though filming begins soon. Lerwick is to be my home for the next 11 days as a participant in Fiona Duthie’s 2018 felting retreat. You can check out her absolutely amazing body of work at While Fiona hails from Salt Spring island in B.C., her ancestors are from Shetland. You can see the influence of the sea in some of her work. She has a busy schedule lined up for us for the next eight days. In following posts I will be blogging about the retreat including pictures of our whereabouts in Shetland, the participants, our felting projects, our excursions, as well as the plant, animal, sea and human life in the area. The following image was taken earlier today along the sea wall. Inspiration for upcoming fibre projects.

20180531_103756#Fionaduthie #Shetlandphotography #ancumstudio #Shetland


A Yarn from North Ronaldsay

Lighthouse - NR Map - NR

November 30, 2017

North Ronaldsay. Orkney

Did you know that a small group of islands north of Scotland, collectively called Orkney, have a strong fibre link to Canada going back to the 1700s? As early as 1702, ships leased by the Hudson’s Bay Trading company regularly called at Stromness, a port town on the western side of the Orkney Mainland. There, the company both bought supplies and hired labor for their fur trading posts in North America, including large swaths of Canada. By the end of the 18th century, 416 or approximately three-quarters of the company’s workforce were from Orkney (

So, it was with little surprise when our family visited the wool mill this summer on North Ronaldsay, the most northern of the Orkney islands, that we learned of a continued fibre connection between Orkney and Canada. It turns out that the mill owes its method of operation to a Canadian company in PEI that produces spinning equipment on a small scale. The flexibility of the scaled down equipment allows more control over the stages of treating the fleece in the milling process.  This flexibility permits the mill to produce small batches of high quality wool (i.e. yarn, roving, prefelt, batts, etc.)

Having recently purchased some of the mill’s roving, I can attest to its softness – as soft as a good Merino, however the staple is slightly shorter and curlier. The wool when first purchased has a distinct sheep tang – not unpleasant to the nose – which soon dissipates once exposed to air.

Unlike most sheep, North Ronaldsay’s flocks dine primarily on seaweed as they live on the shore for most of the year. A 13-mile (20.92 km) stone dyke surrounds and protects the island’s farmland and pastures. The resulting wool, according to the mill’s web-site, differs little from the primitive breeds of sheep that inhabited the island, several hundred years ago. In Spring, the sheep are gathered into ‘punds’ or stone collecting rings on the shore. “There are 12 punds round the island for catching the sheep as they tend to stay in their own ‘clowgangs’ (areas),” states Jane Donnelly, manager of A Yarn from North Ronaldsay. The pregnant ewes are then moved to pastures for lambing – where mothers and their offspring can rest and feed. “The sheep [remaining] on the shore (mostly rams and castrated males) are usually sheared at the end of July – early August depending on the high tides, the ewes are usually clipped earlier,” adds Jane. The sheep are still sheared communally by the islanders.

A bit about the mill’s process

The following description follows the steps outlined on the mill’s web-site. Helen Galland, visitor centre manager, mill worker, and wool textile artist, was in the process of sorting fleeces when our family arrived for a visit. She was more than pleased however to give us a tour.

When the fleece arrives at the mill after the North Ronaldsay sheep owners have sheared their flock for the season, the fleece is sorted, graded, skirted and washed.

Wool being washed - NRAfter being washed and dried the resulting fibres go through the Picking machine where it is opened and conditioning oil is sprayed over it to protect the fibres during further milling processes. In the next processing stage, the coarser fibres are removed as the fibres go through the Dehairer. Afterwards, the wool travels through the Carder where the fibre is combed out.


In this image (above), Helen is supervising a batch of fibres going through the front of the Carder.

This next image  shows the other side of the Carder at work.

The other side of the carder

Helen explains that “the carder brushes the picked wool and the end part of the machine twists the carded wool into a roving or is allowed to drop off as a sheet of wool called a “batt” – sold to felters and used on the felting table” (see next image). After carding, the fibres are ready for either hand-spinners or felters.

The felt machine at the mill makes sheets of pre-felt approx. 36’’ x 48’’ and in various thicknesses and natural colours.

For further processing in the mill, the Drawframe is the next stage. Helen demonstrates that two or three bins of rovings go through this machine at a time.  The job of the Drawframe, says Helen, “is to pull the fibres apart slightly” so that the fibres overlap less which results in an increase in length.

The wool can then be spun into single yarns on the eight-spindle spinner.

It can then be plied on the four-spindle spinner.

Finally, (see last two images) the twist is set on the steamer before the yarn goes onto cones or into hanks.






For those interested in trying out some North Ronaldsay wool, I have a variety of natural colours for sale in the Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) area. You can contact me at; or on Facebook @fibrelass.

All photographs are by the author.

2017 Canadian Biennial/Biennial canadienne 2017

“There are no rules. There is no hierarchy.”

                                – Marc Mayer, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada at the opening of the 2017 Canadian Biennial, October 18, 2017.


Referring to the works by more than 50 artists mounted in the Temporary exhibitions space adjoined to the Great Hall, Marc Mayer began the evening by citing needlework, stitching, and embroidery as part of the exciting media included in the fourth edition of the Canadian Biennial. Works by Shannon Bool, Ruben Komangapik, Nick Cave, Angela Marston, Kiki Smith and Barry Ace were the most notable for their fibre arts techniques.  Cave’s work, “Soundsuit”, 2015, is a playful fabric sculpture featuring strung beads, fabric, and metal outfitted on a mannequin, a bouquet of ceramic birds, metal flowers and a gramophone horn growing out of its head.  It is a stylish creation that marries the whimsy of surrealist artist René Magritte’s paintings to some of the more outlandish outfits displayed on contemporary fashion catwalks. Of interest to fibre artists, Cave’s work certainly pokes fun at anyone who still thinks beadwork is an unacceptable medium for serious art. Ironically, it is “Soundsuit” that is the poster child for the National Gallery’s much hyped exhibition. If you are wondering why an American’s work is showcased in the NAGC’s promotional material, you will have a chance to ask Jonathan Shaughnessy, curator of the exhibition, when he gives his series of talks on the show.


Kiki Smith’s monumental tapestry, “Underground”, 2012, made of cotton, viscose, wool and dye finds its inspiration from medieval wall hangings and contemporary weaving techniques. Created first as a collage, the work is then photographed and digitally transferred into a wall-sized weaving that resembles an archaeologist’s field sketch. In the artwork’s stratification, there is a human body in the upper layer, entangled among rabbits and tree roots. The layer below might be etched rocks or protozoa. And below that? Indecipherable remains.


The most painterly of the fibre arts pieces is Shannon Bool’s, “The Spinner”, 2015, made from cotton, wool, polyester, acrylic, viscose, metal and dye. The work shows a Twiggy-like fashion model, her elongated body dressed in a patchwork of Fall fabric, with her legs draped over the arm of a chair. It is at once reminiscent of 60’s fashion magazines but far more haunting with its shadows, fractured planes of the body, and traces of a spider web in one corner of the image.


Contemporary fibre artists owe much to our indigenous brothers and sisters for maintaining and elevating traditional beadwork and animal fibres to its current artistic zenith. Ruben Komangapik tells the story of one family’s starvation and salvation literally on the back of a harp seal skin in his work “Nattiqmut Qajusijugut (the seal that keeps us going)”, 2014. The story is encoded in a very contemporary but handmade QR code that takes the viewer to a YouTube video.


Barry Ace cleverly combines glass beads with reclaimed electronic components to create “Healing Dance 2”, 2013, a lively colour circle of floral and insect motifs set against a black background ringed by spikes of dyed horsehair. Angela Marston’s four “Healing Rattles”, 2010, a gift from the Salish Weave Collection of George and Christiane Smyth of Victoria, depict Salish design elements in honour of the four elements Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water as part of her exploration of the symbolism of the number four and the primary forces of nature.

Towards the end of the evening’s speeches, curator Jonathan Shaughnessy said there were many themes represented in the show. If he had to pick one consistent idea among the many pieces, it would be the “rethinking [of our] history” through the lenses of different cultures.

All photographs are by the author.

2017 Canadian Biennial, features a selection of works recently acquired by the Gallery’s departments of Contemporary Art, Indigenous Art, and the Canadian Photography Institute in the last three years.

2017 Canadian Biennial/Biennale canadienne 2017                                                                         
National Gallery of Canada/Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa                       
Thursday October 19, 2017 – Sunday March 18, 2018/ Jeudi 19 octobre 2017 – Dimanche 18 mars 2018

Review: Rewind – Typologies of Time

November 27, 2017

Although central to the theme of the exhibition, Rewind: Typologies of Time at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte, the timeline of the 200-kilometer Mississippi River is largely absent. In some of McMaster’s work, this absence seems intentional –  a way of undermining the so-called objective rendering of the landscape as represented in maps. Whether deliberate or not, the exhibition is sponsored by the Mississippi River Power Corporation and as such the river’s typology deserves more attention.

Noelle Hamlyn and Jenny McMaster, the two fibre artists featured in this exhibit, have created bodies of work that show mastery of their individual media.

Some of Hamlyn’s artworks are from her “Sweetness of the Work” collection, first installed at the Biennale International du Lin, Portneuf, Quebec in 2013. Initially, the sweetness seems to refer to the white crystals that look like sugar and adhere to the tools of women’s hand work – threads, thimbles, pins, needles and even a 1901 sewing machine cast in paper – until the viewer learns that the material encrusted on these objects is salt.

Hamlyn -1

It is a symbol, according to Hamlyn’s artist statement, of the sweat labour and salt tears shed by seamstresses of long ago. The salt also seems to refer to the tears of the artist who, through her labour of love, laments the loss of traditional women’s hand skills.

There is also a reference to the three fates in Hamlyn’s statement, a fitting mythological gloss for her subject matter. Unfortunately, the reference is lost here, perhaps due to the scaled down version of the “Sweetness” collection to fit the gallery space. The embroidered scissors, a signifier of Atropos, one of the three Moirai in Greek mythology, were nowhere to be found when this reviewer visited the exhibition.

Hamlyn’s other contributions to the exhibit include her “Wallflowers” collection, a series about men’s wear – an assortment of jackets, shirts, a vest, and a man’s suit complete with bow-tie and shoes all made of Japanese gampi tissue paper. Its colour is reminiscent of the paper used to make patterns for clothing. However, this tissue is much stronger.

The paper has this wonderful glazed quality which is used to strong effect by curator Michael Rikley-Lancaster in lighting Hamlyn’s ephemeral gampi sculptures.


The lightness of the “Wallflowers” collection is contrasted by Hamlyn’s “Bricks” installation, two walls of plastered reclaimed clothing folded and combined in such a way to create a fence of bricks, a “calcified wall of memory” to the people who wore them.


An eponymous poem possibly refers to those who once worked in Almonte’s mills, shoulders hunched, and jaws clenched.  These ordinary folk, some of whom are named by McMaster, laboured for pitiable wages while the owners – the very same men who wore the real clothing alluded to in “Wallflowers” – became the illustrious pillars of the community as referenced by “Esquire” at the end of their name. The two plastered walls are positioned in such a way to appear as a gateway.

McMaster’s series of art works constructed from handmade paper, pulp painting and embroidery are an interpretative response to archival maps housed at the museum. Her sources range from line maps dated from 1829 to digital photographs from Google Earth. All have an aerial point of view.

Her introductory piece, visually adjacent to Hamlyn’s encrusted sewing machine, is a work entitled “230 hands”. It is based on the archival map “‘Rosamond Wool Mill, Almonte Ontario, 1889’”.  The art work focuses on the layout of the Rosamond Wool Mill in 1889 and the ordered functions of the workers in each of its buildings.


The mill, now the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, includes a grey T-shaped block with the embroidered word, ‘DYEHOUSE’ within it. The building is positioned perilously close to the Mississippi River which borders two sides of the mill/image.

In both “Sites of Power”, 2017 and “The River Electric”, 2017, McMaster undermines the dry and seemingly objective qualities of the archival line maps on which her art works are based by her use of cerulean blue – a colour that shouts “Water!” and “Electricity!” simultaneously – as the central shade that defines both works. “Sites of Power” is a visual poem; the only lines uttered are the embroidered edges of land with a few yellow threads signifying proposed power sites.

McMaster -1

“The River Electric” is based on a 1946 diagram “‘Showing [the] Location of Water Power Users on the Mississippi River at Almonte, ON.’” Both works are delightfully ironic. They elucidate the myopic approach by the original cartographers towards the source of another type of power – the river as a force of nature.

A work by McMaster, in which the river is marked by its visual absence is “Untitled Almonte”, 2017. The town is represented as a patchwork of man-made sectors somewhat like a topographical map – but with the natural features missing. The island on which the museum sits is represented by a block of clay-colour bricks.

McMaster -4

While the two exhibits are connected by historical narratives, the perception of the Mississippi River as a sovereign force of nature is missing here. Hamlyn’s cast clothing and sewing tools clearly mark a time in the past when women’s hand work had social value. McMaster’s interpretations of archival maps show them for the cultural artifacts that they are: embedded in a way of seeing that only becomes noticeable after decades have passed. A third artist’s work might have taken the museum visitor to a visual time and space when there were no mills or white settlements adjacent to Almonte’s Mississippi thus strengthening the typology of time for the river and the pathos inherent in the exhibition. It is not only the loss of traditional women’s hand skills that can be lamented in this exhibition.

To quote McMaster from her artist’s statement, “the former Rosamond Wool Mill, which now houses the museum, would never have come into existence if it were not for this body of water.”

All photographs are by the author.

Until December 16, 2017 

Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, Almonte Ontario

Book review – Vanishing Stars: Unravelling the appropriation of art by science

Sanjeev Sivarulrasa, author

Published by Sanjeev Sivarulrasa

November 13, 2017

Artist Sanjeev Sivarulrasa’s 2013 volume is a valuable cautionary tale warning us of creeping scientism in North American culture, the idea that the only accepted means of understanding reality is through the lens of science.

In effect, scientism is a faith-based worldview that, according to the author, has overreached its claims about reality by undermining other modes of human knowing such as philosophy, the humanities, and as the title states, by appropriating art-making for its own purposes. Increasingly lost is any sense of a clear academic and cultural boundary for the discipline of science whose mandate is to study, explain, and predict the machinations of the physical world, including the universe, through empirical observation and repeatable results.

The author uses the example of astrophotography, a specialized form of photography that requires additional technical equipment, to make his case. Sivarulrasa argues that scientists and scientific institutions such as NASA are manipulating the public by using false colour and other photo-altering techniques to create emotive, awe-inspiring images of deep space that are more artistic than scientific. Unlike a photograph of a tree or an animal, the public has no actual reference with which to compare the deep space image. (Auroras are atmospheric not deep space phenomena.) The result, according to Sivarulrasa, is that the public swallows these jaw-dropping images whole not realizing there is no exact visual referent in space.  While the images begin with scientific data collected by space telescopes and crafts such as Hubble and Cassini, the final image promoted to the public as scientific, is a construction made by a NASA team working with artistic tools. Not only are scientists and science institutions using these images to secure funding and public support for their billion-dollar projects, but the more significant worry according to Sivarulrasa, is that the scientific narrative promoted by marketing teams and popular astronomy magazines is fundamentally shaping our perception of the cosmos and, ultimately, our place within it – “including what it means to be human” (p. 8).

I might have dismissed the key concerns of this book had I read it before the op-ed pieces in the Globe and Mail appeared citing our new Governor-General, Julie Payette’s, seeming endorsement of scientism at a recent public event (David Mulroney, “Governor-General 101; Don’t insult Canadians”, November 6, 2017, p. A12; follow-up article by Peter McKnight, “Science and Religion can co-exist so stop the turf wars”, November 9, 2017, p. A15). Peter McKnight’s op-ed piece called for both Science and Religion to respect disciplinary boundaries. Science, he argues, can teach us about “the nature of life, about what we are, and how we came to be, while Religion teaches us about the nature of living, about who we are and how we ought to behave” (italics are mine).

While Vanishing Stars is not an academic book, Sivarulrasa’s argument is clear and he does support his claims through research, attested by footnotes – though oddly cited – and through visual evidence using Hubble’s and his own results of astronomical imaging (see chapter IV) as evidence. The cover photograph of the Orion nebula is by the author.

20171113_132630 - small file

When popular scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, experts in Theoretical Physics, claim that “’Philosophy is dead’” (p. 26) and science is close to being able to explain everything, we need to step back and remember that such claims are based on looking at reality through a single lens only – and perhaps a single ego. Whether we like it or not, science cannot explain everything. It certainly cannot explain some humans’ propensity towards violence and others toward peace given similar upbringings, nor the human love of literature, art or music. Indeed, some scientists would have us believe that what it means to be human can be reduced to  “’the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’” (Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis, as quoted in Vanishing Stars, p. 18).

When science superstars step beyond the limits of their expertise, it’s time to call them out just as we would call out theologians who claim a creationist origin of the universe.

We need both the objective observer and the subjective response of the artist to reality to grow as human beings. To conflate the two and call both “Science” begets a loss of knowledge – of the differences that each way of seeing and experiencing reality has to offer humanity – insights about what and who we are and quite possibly, where we are going as a species.

Sanjeev Sivarulrasa is an Ottawa artist primarily working in the specialized art medium of astrophotography. He owns and operates Sivarulrasa Art Gallery in Almonte, Ontario where he exhibits a mix of contemporary art including his own.

In Memoriam – Tanit Mendes, d. October 31, 2012

Tanit Ann Mendes died on All Hallows Eve exactly five years ago today. She was in her 54th year. A set designer and Co-Director of Ryerson’s Theatre Production Program, Tanit loved to bring a good story to life on stage. She also loved to teach university students bent on an artistic career.

I met Tanit at a university teachers’ conference in Ottawa sometime in the early 2000s. We immediately connected over how to teach visual and material culture in our text dominated disciplines – hers: Theatre and playscripts; mine: Religious Studies and sacred texts.  When the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences offered a panel on Religion and Theatre, I immediately suggested to Tanit that we submit a paper.

The result was an academic paper that was eventually published: “Set Design as Cosmic Metaphor: Religious Seeing and Theatre Space” in Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada ( It was the result of an interdisciplinary effort in which Tanit and I had to learn each other’s disciplinary lexicon – at least in a limited way – in order to work together.

We were writing about Michael Levine’s innovative set designs for Wagner’s Die Walkerie (2004) and Siegfried (2005) for the Canadian Opera Company, at that time performed on Toronto’s Hummingbird stage.  Our claim was that the definition of stage space in these operas could be read as divinely ordered. Given Wagner’s source for these operas – the Prose Edda (circa 1220AD), an Icelandic literary expository on Norse cosmology – our claim was a “no brainer”.  What made it somewhat cheeky was the fact that the director, Francois Gerard, had explicitly stated, “the piece was set in the mind of Siegfried” in an earlier interview in Vanguard. By setting the operas in the mind of the main character, what Gerard had unwittingly done, we argued, was to represent Siegfried as a shaman within Norse religion. (You will have to read the academic article to find out why.)

One of the most fruitful interdisciplinary learning moments for me occurred when I finally realized what Tanit meant by “the definition of three dimensional space”. It wasn’t simply a process of reading the stage as a flat two dimensional screen but rather understanding the stage as a sort of Rubic’s cube – three rows of cubic space by three columns of cubic space that were three cubic units deep. Each block of space effected the other blocks.  While I can’t say for sure, I think Tanit’s “A-ha” moment came when I explained that different religions perceived cosmological (divinely ordered) space differently. For example, generally speaking, in some Amerindian beliefs, all space was sacred; for Christians, cosmological space had a strong vertical axis, with heaven above and hell below; for Norse religions, cosmological space had a strong horizontal axis, with the centre (the site of Yggdrasil – the World Ash tree) viewed as the most sacred space and the edges – where the giants lived, and where creeping Christianity appears in some artwork – are represented as the least sacred.

Tanit and I also collaborated artistically. As a set designer and visual artist, Tanit was constantly sketching and painting in her artist’s books. After she passed, I received a couple of these books as gifts. One, I noticed was only partially finished.  I thought it might be fun to respond to Tanit’s images with some of my own detailing recent events in my life.

Tan and Jan - artist book

One of the best pictures I ever painted of the cosmos was after Tanit passed. It was on an unfinished page of hers called “Doors open in a new place,”.  I cut out her image of a door with text and placed it over my night sky view.


Mythologically, in North Africa in Hellenistic times, the name Tanit was associated with the female form of Ba’al and in Carthage, Tanit was worshiped as a moon-goddess. Her father, the artist, Ross Mendes, was well aware of the etymology of the name.


Whether the soul of my friend passed into the great space we know as the universe, I will never know. I do know that there is no up or down or axes of any kind in deep space except for the ones we construct ourselves. But when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is considered by some to be the thinnest, on All Hollow’s Eve, I think of my friend who chose the perfect night to pass over to the world beyond.