Wendy D.

Synthesizing my life… 

I was born the 2nd child and only daughter in a family of five. My mother was an amazingly creative woman who lived to be home, but needed to maintain home by going to work. My father became a quadriplegic after developing Multiple Sclerosis in his early 30’s. The result was the need for us kids to be resilient, independent and creative in our means of getting through. 

I never knew my maternal grandmother, though I was often found talking to her photo with a constance that would make you wonder. My paternal grandmother was very reserved and was mostly familiar with raising boys… and never seemed sure how to connect to a young granddaughter.  Thus I don’t believe my ‘creative’ came from my father side… but instead my mom’s, which makes sense based on what she loved most… making things.

I have always had a creative streak… whether it was in the making of doll clothes, improvising for the trendy toys, creating unique Christmas gifts or later making up my own clothes, often from a hope and a prayer and any left over scraps and funds I could cobble from a very unique home-life. 

My mom left our situation when I was 16, leaving a angry father and two equally angry brothers and me behind. Things took a decidedly more challenging direction then, though I was old enough to begin making my own decisions about how things would be for me… and literally jumped ship at 18, fearing I would be trapped forever in a very unhappy household. I moved in (it was the ‘70’s !) with my then boyfriend, who became my husband in a matter of months –  I wanted children and though it was the 70’s I wanted to do right by the kids. 

My first son was born when I was 20 and my second came along 2 and half years later. We had lots of ideas on how life should be but very few funds to make it so. Not being able to afford going out to work, I was a ‘stay at home mom’ until the kids were school age but I never stopped trying to ‘create’ a new space, a new dream, new skills.. a new home. I ran a quilt shop in the front room of the  home while the babies were tiny… they were my little ‘sales people’! This was great fun, until their 2- and 4- year old  curiosity and the challenge of the economic times got the best of us. 

My husband was in forestry and was  in and out of work and like my mom, I just wanted a home to call our own. With this is mind… we packed up all our belongings and headed about eight hrs north into the interior of our province and settled into rural life in the Cariboo, where I often existed, on my  own with the two boys as my husband worked away from home 2-3 weeks of every month. However difficult that was, it gave me the time and space to explore who I was. And… I invested heavily into the fibre arts even if it was on a shoestring. I worked very hard to develop my ‘emerging fibre talent’ and had seriously begun to make head way.  But you know, life is never a straight line. And sometimes I truly feel I ‘sold myself out’ way back then… when feeding the family became more important than my pursuing my dreams. It was the crossroads of my personal existence…  as almost the same day that I was offered the opportunity to develop a gallery showing of my work, I was offered the chance to go to school to acquire ‘employable skills’.

I  took door number 2 – and went to school  to learn about technology, with a committed belief that it would help me to design more quickly by learning how to use the computer and that it would only only benefit my work. But alas, it would be nearly 30 years later before I would return to my fibre art.

Going deeper…  what I love, what I care about.

I have always believed that I was born 100 years too late… 

As a child I revelled in the stories of the pioneers, the Victorian era, the Edwardian era… of course, my imagination and the fiction I read, I am certain I made it much more romantic than it was. But the fascination with the past has remained… 

As mention above, the  early joys in working with textiles were instilled through my mother… she loved to make things and she was very good at it. I would watch and try to mimic and when she wasn’t looking I’d always add my ‘own bit’, though, often not truly appreciated… When my father took ill, my mom had to go to school during the day and to work at night, and when there were  few hours left in her energy she would sit at her sewing machine late into the night and early morning. Why? When she must have been so exhausted!  I am not truly certain, though I believe that it was what kept her going and  she made the most fabulous dresses, skirts and suits.  Truly, making,  was her passion and having to go to school,  then work, and deal with an angry husband and kids  when she came home… the hours between midnight and dawn were often the only time she had to herself and the quiet to do what she loved most. And me? Each night, once things quieted down, I would slip out of bed and join her at the dining room table and sometimes just watch, or ask questions until we were both too tired to continue.

My first pieces were doll clothes and patch quilts, mostly tied… but they were colourful and full of stories that had fallen to the floor from the dining room table. I loved the bits… I would stash them away till I had enough pieces to begin a project and though each had a story, most often my imagination would create its own reality.  

As I grew older, I continued to explore my  interest in creating… often seeing an outfit  in the catalogue one day and after having stayed up all night at that dining room table just like my mom… I’d being wearing my own ‘version’ the next day. I can’t say that they were well made, but they stayed on my body at least for a few wearings.

When I hit high-school I excelled in Home Ec – especially sewing and was drawn further into the classic and traditional hand work and fibre skills  through my teacher who was almost as ancient as the stories I loved reading.  She was relentless in her expectations of your execution of proper sewing technique, but each and every lesson came with the wisdom of someone who knew her stuff and I was a sponge.  In some ways, I think she came to be the ‘grandmother’ I had never known. For though I may have fussed and fumed over the ‘need’ for tailor-tacks and bound button holes… I remember them well today, and with a smile. 

Fast forward a number of years later, as a new and young mom, I had the opportunity to join a quilt group that had decided to host a quilt show, called 100 Years of Canadian Quilts. I was asked to be curator… one who visited, documented, logged, collected and displayed over 100 quilts collected from around the west coast of BC. It was a fascinating journey to some wild out-there kind of places that felt very much like they had been left behind in the changing times. But the people, men and women, who either made the quilts or had been trusted with the passing on of them… each had a story that kept me in awe and honour to be sure they were shared. 

One particular quilt was loaned out from the local museum. It was a silk crazy quilt with each and every patch hand stitched, luxuriously embroidered, with some having tiny miniature scenes painted on the delicate silk, logging the makers journey across country in a covered wagon. As I graciously accepted the guardianship of such a precious piece,  I somehow felt the presence of the maker and tried to understand the hardships, challenges and joy she would have experienced that moved her to create such an amazing ‘log’ that had survived long after herself… and had  lived on to be shared by many many generations later. 

My love and passion for the traditional hand arts has never left me… often picking up pieces off eBay, thrift shops, 2nd hand stores,  marvelling at the stories that may have been from  the makers. Seeking to understand the endurance and tenacity they demonstrated in the desire to bring functionality,  light and beauty to someone's life. From these inspirations,  I have tried to teach myself about the time enduring processes. It has  never been enough to learn ‘just’ the technique, as I have always needed to know the why, the how, the history… the story, the people.  And, it has never been about ‘reproducing’ but to explore how to honour the learning and how it could influence the making of meaning in my own work.

… then.

30 years happened.

30 years that stemmed from a crossroad-decision making that seemed justified at the time, with honourable promises to myself that I’d be back… and it took… 30 years.

On the bridge of making my ‘place’ in the world as a ‘fibre artist’,  circumstances in my life were changing rapidly… two fast-growing sons, and an unemployed husband… and well, I could not work fast enough with my hands to contribute adequately to the household costs. Thus, I was sent to school to become employable.. to learn how to use technology. 

At first my goal was simply to get a job… and no one could get a job without knowing how to use a computer… so, that was my basic goal. Learn about the computer, get a job and pay the bills and go back to my plans to pursue the fibre arts – my way…

But.. I became fascinated in the discovery that I could learn! And that I could do more than just ‘plan what was for dinner’ and how many hexagons I could get out of a yard of cotton. And even more fascinating, I discovered that I was good at it! So much so, that they offered me more courses and finally a job as a technical assistant! I was offered $10 an hour and had never made so much money.. lol! And my curiosity in the technology only grew… soon I was an instructor, and then a manager.. then a training consultant! Of which all of this success took an inordinate toll on my creative brain, my heart, my hands… Sadly, they had to give over to constant study, upgrading, application, maintenance and long days and nights. All of which by now, was endured as a single parent. 

The good news was,  I could afford to look after my family and I was good enough at it that it looked after me too. In the last 15 years of my career life… my technical skills took me overseas to work in Iran, Thailand and  most recently, working in remote Aboriginal communities engaging youth through  technology to re-connect them to education. These experiences were rewarding  gifts… and each provided an deep-seated experience of a wider perspective of the world that not many have had the opportunity to live. I never lose sight of this… but throughout all these many years I have carried the ‘regret’ of the crossroads that led me down a very different path, leaving my first passion far behind.  I never forgot my intent to return… and I have lugged the residual history around with me all those 30 years, waiting for the day that I would say now! Now it is the right time to return…

Five years ago, when they phased out my position at the university I was working… it seemed the right time. But transitioning back to the right brain, letting go of ‘earning a wage’ and feeling ‘less than’ now that I was no longer working with such lofty projects, it has taken a good five years to find my feet. It has been anything but easy… and trying to sort out the ‘new me’ vs the ‘crossroad-me’ of 30 years ago has been very difficult. 

This class has been very very helpful in unearthing ‘me’ in all the debris and white noise I have encountered, both externally and internally. Even today as I sat here trying to figure what the hell to do with this request to write my life… and make some meaning of it all, I just wanted to go back to my needle and thread and let another day slip by in my commitment to finish the class.

But I am here. I am writing,  and though the writing has huge gaps and holes… I have been thinking long and hard about what I love to do, what I care about… where did it all come from and where do I go from here….

Two more side bits that are huge, and I am sorry, I have not provided a lot of context to… but hopefully it will make some kind of sense in the end.

In the last 15 years I worked in a number of  closed societies, seeking to connect our culture in a meaningful way that would assist students in their learning. One of them was 2 years in Iran, another more recently, was working with a remote Aboriginal community in northern BC. What came from those years I am most certain was more learning on my part than anything I could have ever offered… and I am grateful for the experience and the gift of this learning. It was never an easy journey, nor should it have been, but having been given the gift of experiencing it, comes the responsibility of sharing what you have learned. Seeking out my own way of doing this is very much a part of what drives my desire to bring meaning and expression to my work. 

Additionally, in living and working in Iran, and in the Aboriginal community, I was embraced by each of the cultures and treated as ‘one of their own’. I came to know them better in many ways, than I knew even my own.. and especially the understanding of ancestral home and family. For though I was there to ‘share’ what I knew of our culture to help them bridge with the wider world, I came to understand that I had a very thin layer of understanding about who I was, where I had come from or how I come to be.

This awareness launched me into a search for my own ‘reason of existence’. In the beginning, I could only name my grandparents of which I knew almost nothing of… but by beginning and pushing… I have now located connections that take me back to the 1600’s of rural Highland Scotland. I remember well just 2 years ago when I finally found the head stone of my great great grandfather… William McRobbie – and as I reached out to touch the cold hard granite, I burst into tears – with an overwhelming sense of legitimacy washing over me. I suddenly felt I belonged.. I was of this land, of these people and I touched the very stone that my own family had touched almost 200 years ago. It was an intense moment and I felt my own sense of leaving this ‘world’ and joining those who came before me.

That was a life changing moment for me… both euphoric and difficult as I came to terms with the mortality of us all and the importance of understanding who we are, where we have come from and how we have come to be the way we are. With having so very little to work with when I began my own search… I realize that there will soon be even less and less for our own children, grandchildren and their children to work with to discover who they are. We rarely ever leave a ‘granite’ marker now,  to show that someone has lived and died, to hint at the history, the hardships, the challenges, the joys and the accomplishments. How will our children and their children’s children ever know of who went before them?

The other night I was asked to do a ‘short teaser’ on making patches. Patches to extend the practicality of clothing, patches to enhance and breathe new life into an old favourite and patches to embellish just for the fun of it. In my brief intro about the history of ‘the patch’ I pulled out a collection of quilt blocks that I had purchased  almost 20 years go. They were of the basic ‘shoefly’ pattern and were all made with period-specific cottons of the early 1800’s. They were in remarkable condition for their age and handling. The colour was clear, most of the hand-stitched seams were still in tack and what was most remarkable was that many of the ‘bits’ of the 10”squares were actually pieced to create a single squares or triangles  within the block. I suspect that this was as frugal as it gets, using up scraps of fabric left over from sewing their own clothes or salvaged from old, worn clothing. But not only were the pieces, pieced to create a square that formed a part of the block, but often the pieces were stitched to match up stripes, or florals so that it was only on very close examination that you could tell they were actually pieced!

The class was suitably impressed and in awe of the intent of the original maker to use every available scrap of cloth to create something beautiful and functional that would warm someone, someday…  especially in the face of our ‘fast-fashion’ frenzy of disposable consumerism. 

On reflection of this evening, what came to me only this morning as I sit here trying to figure out what the heck I am trying to say “I love to do” and “what I care about”… is this: 

Though I do not have at my fingertips, who actually made these blocks, or where they were made, nor why, ( somewhere in my stashed stuff’, I do have this info…) here it is 2016 and I was  able to share this beautiful legacy of work, that brought meaning to a group of individuals seeking to understand their own sense of purpose in working with fibre, nearly 200 years later. It is not a granite headstone… nor is it written memoirs, but it is evidence of a life lived… And, with a little bit of unearthing, a rich story is embedded in the seams that hold the aged bits of fabric together to create an expression of something that may have even more meaning than I can know, but most importantly, it had a purpose and there was intent to express something to someone.  In showing it the other evening… there was a story, and expression and an honouring of a life lived… 

The tufted patchwork quilts I made with my mom, the crazy quilt made in a covered wagon… the unique and amazing handwork of the different cultures I had the gift of living amongst… the hard cold granite headstone of  my grandfather’s final resting place… sharing the treasured gifts that find their way into our hands, honouring the story, the art of expression and the lived lives… and making meaning  through my own work that leaves a story  for the generations to come… 

that's what I care about…

that’s what I love to do… would love to do…


.. final (lol!) in the interest of 'generating' some kind of artist statement from ALL of below... 

perhaps this may do...

'I am passionately committed in honouring the people, the stories and traditions of the past and exploring how they might influence my work in the present... '