When I first tossed out the idea for this show in the spring, I thought it may eventually come to pass -- maybe -- sometime in the vague future. When the Executive Director and Exhibitions Co-ordinator at North Vancouver Community Arts Council received the idea enthusiastically and proposed an opening date a little more than three months away, I nearly got cold feet. But I decided that it was important to me to explore these ideas sooner rather than later, and that the best way for me to guarantee that the work would get done would be to promise it publicly.
I'm glad that I did.
Below are some images from the exhibit, and the accompanying text.
My family's winter boots are moulded rubber and neoprene marvels that get worn for a year, mended, worn for another year, and then passed down to cousins. As a mother, I'm grateful for those boots every time I watch my children to off to school in the November rain. As a person with a strong environmental conscious, though, I feel regret: we do as much as we can to extend their functional life, but those boots will still wear out beyond repair and then persist here on the earth long after we’re gone, degrading into indigestible dust.
Woven into every fibre, every trim of every pair of shoes is a story about our relationship to the environment. Because the basic premise of that story is that we are vulnerable and require protection, it seems to me that shoes are a potent vehicle for exploring some of the more difficult and base aspects of our relationship with the environment: our fear of pain and injury, our love of comfort, our urge to protect and provide for ourselves and our loved ones to the limit of our abilities.
For us, the limits of those abilities are more far-reaching than at any time in human history; we have been able to live almost as if the environment is irrelevant. We’re all finding out now that that isn’t the case.
This collection of shoes is my attempt to reach back into human knowledge, explore a different way of being and doing, and experience for myself the realms and limits defined by the land.
How did you learn to make these?
Some of these shoes are inspired by contemporary forms, and some of them are reproductions of traditional styles in a variety of local materials. In particular, I owe debts of gratitude to the following makers for sharing their skills with me so generously through their books:
- Vladimir Yarish of Russia, and his American co-authors Flo Hoppe and Jim Widess, from whom I learned to make the diagonal-plaited lapti from their book, Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark, published by Sterling (NY), 2009.
- Hisako Sekijima, originally of Japan, from whom I learned to make the Japanese-style straw sandals and extrapolated the straw boots, from her book, Basketry: projects from baskets to grass slippers, published by Kodansha International and distributed through Harper & Row, 1986.
What are they made out of?
Western Redcedar, Thuja plicata.
Perhaps the single most generous species of tree on the coast, it provides materials for clothing, storage, shelter, and transport. The fibre for clothing and weaving comes from the inner bark of the tree; this bark was gathered from trees that my friends used to build their cabin. Purpose-harvested cedar bark used by Aboriginal weavers is smoother.
White Birch, Betula papyrifera.
Another very generous tree, White Birch and its cousins will give up sheets of their bark for shelter, storage vessels and canoes, mainly for people west of the Rockies and in the birch forests of northern Eurasia. The trees that I know here in the Salish lands tend to have very dense bark much marked and scabbed; but the trees that grow in eastern Canada and the Maritimes tend to have smoother bark.
My sister and brother-in-law collected the bark that I used in the interior of these lapti from deadfall on his parents' property in northern New Brunswick.
Cherry, Genus Prunus.
There are over 200 species in the genus Prunus, which includes all the plums, cherries, apricots and other stone tree fruits; seven of those species are native to Canada. Aboriginal people here used the glossy, strong bark of the wild cherry trees to create fine decorations on baskets.
The bark I used to make the outer layer of these lapti came from a Prunus serrulata, a Japanese flowering cherry, that was cut down near my home.
Black Cottonwood, Populus trichocarpa.
The scent of this valley giant's resinous buds means springtime to me, and the sight of its drifting cotton signals the summer. I have seen it give up its bark in sheets for use in sewn baskets, like birch and cedar bark, and I have been told that the inner bark is sweet and delicious.
I collected the bark fibre I used in making the rope for the soles of these thong sandals from the inner bark of driftwood logs along the Squamish River.
English Ivy, Hedera Helix.
This plant is reviled here for aggressively invading local ecosystems, climbing trees and forming large mats across the ground that become 'ivy deserts', eliminating biodiversity. I've never seen it in its habitat in Europe, but my weaver friend from the Isle of Wight is incredulous at the way we rip it out and burn it as biofuel, and some herbalists argue that it's particularly good at purifying air, and that's what our ecosystems need right now.
I collect ivy from the green spaces near my home, where there are patches of ivy that form 'ivy deserts'. The ground runners are the only ones good for weaving, because they are long and supple. The vines that grow up the trees become bushy and brittle, and removing them can damage the trees' bark, so I just clip them clear from the base of the trunk and let them die. They will eventually become a mysterious bone-white exoskeleton around the tree, like a coral lattice.
Himalayan Blackberry, Rubus discolour or Rubus procerus.
My mother makes amazing blackberry jelly and I practically lived on the fresh fruit in the summers, so it's hard for me to imagine the land here without the massive, vigorous vines that form palisades along roadsides and dykes and in waste places. But there was a time before my ancestors settled here, when the only kind of blackberry vine known was the elusive and delicate trailing blackberry -- and if you can find some, you may find out that they are an extra special treat.
The long runner shoots of the blackberry canes will yield long strips of their bark as fibre for just a few weeks every summer -- thanks to my friend, artist Sharon Kallis, for her dauntless research in this matter. The bark used in this pair of shoes was harvested in Stanley Park by me, Sharon, and other participants in an Urban Weaving session.
Reed Canary Grass, Phalaris arundinacea.
It's not clear to biologists if this is an entirely introduced species, or if it is indigenous on some areas of the coast; Nancy Turner documents its use by Aboriginal people in traditional contexts. Due to its ability to flourish in disturbed sites, it has certainly done very well since European settlers came to the region, and probably been able to expand its range. It is now considered invasive by some districts.
The grasses that I used in these straw boots were given to me by the Bad Seed team in Coquitlam.
Harakeke/ New Zealand Flax, Phormium tenax.
This plant is becoming popular in perennial landscaping for its dramatic evergreen foliage and water wise nature. The word 'flax' in the anglophone common name was given by European immigrants because Phormium was as key to the Maori way of life as flax, Linum usitatissimum, was in Europe (the Salish equivalent would be Western Redcedar, Thuja plicata).
The Phormium in these Japanese-style sandals was provided by colleagues in Vancouver.
Yucca, Yucca filamentosa and Yucca flaccida.
I know this plant's relations from my travels through the arid regions of North America, and so it always looks a little odd to me when I see it growing in gardens here. Yucca species are well known to the indigenous people of North America's arid and semi arid regions for providing wonderfully strong fibre for weaving and cordage.
I collected the yucca for these lapti from the set of dead leaves of a friend's plants in East Vancouver.
Daylily, Hemerocallis fulva and related species.
Originally Eurasian, but hardy and tolerant to the point where they are now considered invasive in some areas, daylilies are one of the most common plants I see in perennial gardens. Their long leaves are strong, easy to collect, abundantly available, and very gentle on a weaver's hands. I gather the dead leaves throughout the summer and fall, especially in mid-to-late October before the November rains come. I like to bundle them with elastic bands and hang them til I know they're bone dry, then wrap them in a cloth and store for later use.
Iris species, Genus Iris spp.
Another common garden plant, and in some cases, invasive; the beautiful yellow flag irises in Beaver Lake in Stanley Park are an example. For weaving, iris leaves are similar to daylily, although they tend to be thicker and take more time to dry.
These iris leaves were given to me by a friend, who was cutting back her boisterous patch in North Vancouver.
Montbretia/Coppertips, Crocosmia spp.
I first came across this plant in Costa Rica, so I was surprised to learn that it's originally from Southern and Eastern Africa, and that it's in the same family as irises. Now I see it in perennial gardens almost as frequently as iris and daylily. It's not my favourite for weaving, since the leaves are shaped like oblong spearpoints and the stalks are too woody, but I'm happy to have it as a substitute.
The crocosmia in this little pair of miniature lapti came from the campus of my children's school.
Corn, Zea mays.
Most of our culture's conversation about corn is a heated debate about food, agriculture, fuel, and policy. I have a hunch that the husks have been used for weaving and making things for as long as the grain has been used for food; it is a soft, supple, forgiving medium, and collecting it can be an automatic part of preparing dinner.
There is a farm on Vancouver Island near my parents' home that sells only corn-on-the-cob; the buyers shuck the husks into bins before they take away their purchases, and the farm managers kindly let me take away as much corn husk as I could carry.
Flax, Linum usitasissimum.
This plant doesn't feature in a shoe of its own, but I couldn't have made many of the styles here without it. Flax has been cultivated for its fibre, called linen, for as long as humans have been practising agriculture, and has spread from Eurasia to many other parts of the globe.
Most of the linen that I used was a commercially-made twine, which I used in the interest of concentrating more of my time on the visible weaving. The pale yellow linen cord that makes up the ties on the flat sandals I made myself from linen fibre given to me by my colleagues in the Flax to Linen Victoria group.