The I, Canada Project: an introduction
I, Canada is a series of fabric patchworks. These irregular shaped patches of recycled wool, felt, and cotton fibres are hand-stitched together to create a blanket. Words, images, and designs are stitched into and adhered onto these patchworks. Images of canoes, paddles, Canadian sayings, songs, references to popular Canadian culture, and poetry adorn these patchwork creations. Some of these elements are sewn in clusters and others in more spacious arrangements. These compositions reference how things are recalled and remembered; sometimes in masses, other times with exceptional clarity, and others in a distorted haze.
I have been working on this series for several years (2009-2017). What began as a kind of compulsion to remember and record, in stitched fabric, my nostalgia for my teenage summer camp experiences,has evolved into a larger exploration of issues regarding personal identity and nationhood: how do personal memories and place inform one’s sense of self and belonging?
Viewing the blankets in this on-line gallery
The first slide show of images show the blankets in various stages of production. The second slide show shows them in their completed forms.
The I, Canada Project evolved from a position of personal inquiry into a consideration of how others identify themselves in relationship to place. Thus, this gallery includes collaborative pieces between myself and student works from several local elementary and secondary Ottawa Schools that reflect their own statements about personal and collective Canadian identities. These works were exhibited at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte Ontario from June 6 2017 – September 16 2017.
Patchwork Blankets; A Prelude to the I, Canada project:
The images of boats and paddles that saturated my mixed media work followed me as I began to explore textile art. Stitched boats and paddles began appearing in my hand sewn patchwork blankets. But now their meaning was changing. They were no longer a marker of the self, a signature stamp or personal motif, they now lived amongst a mass of other images colours and text, thread, and material. They were now understood as part of a greater whole. They acted as visual notes in a symphony of other images and meanings. These hand sewn patchwork blankets turned into a large body of work titled the I, Canada Project that was exhibited at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in 2017 in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.
I have been creating mixed media works on paper, mylar, wood & canvas for years but it wasn’t until 2009 that my work began to reflect a coherent and recurring theme of boats and paddles in a myriad of imagined lanscapes (see galleries titled Boats I, II, III, and Paddles ). During this period I also began to sew. I began to hear the words and melody to a long forgotten song from my younger days, a Classic Canadian canoeing song, ‘Land of the Silver Birch’. I don’t ever remember learning this song and I’m not even sure I remember hearing it sung around campfire circles at summer camp. But it is certainly imbedded in me from somewhere and seemed to bubble up through the layers of paint and colour and memories I was mixing on my painted surfaces and spill out into coloured felt and fabric that I began to sew into fabric patchworks.
I began cutting out, in felt, all of the lyrics to the song and sewing them onto felt patches. I was inspired by both the traditional work of the First Nations women of Baker Lake with their felt stitched wall hangings (e.g., Nancy KangeryuangSevoga, Marion Tuu’luq) and more contemporary fabric art (e.g., Tracey Emin’s blanket art, Joyce Weiland’s “quilts”, Gee’s Bend quilts) and Kim Dorland’s paintings. I began using only thread and felt. I cut out every letter to every word in the Land of the Silver birch song and stitched them in various configurations onto pieces of different coloured felt. I also stitched images (canoes, paddles, animals) shapes , random configurations of letters and numbers. Over time, this vision grew to include different types of fabrics (wool, blankets, clothes, and other cotton blends) and different songs, expressions, and “Canadian-isms” that spoke to a greater understanding of how I identify myself and how I situate myself in the Canadian culture that I inhabit.
I, Canada Project Opening Remarks
Saturday June 10, 2017, The Mississippi Textile Museum, Almonte Ontario
Thank you all for coming.
My name is Vanessa Coplan and I am the artist and orchestrator of the I, Canada Project”.
The I, Canada Project began 8 years ago with a pair of scissors, lots of coloured felt squares and the lyrics to the song “Land of the Silver Birch”. As many process-based artists know, when one begins an artwork one often ends up in places they could not have fathomed at the outset. Such is the evolution of the I, Canada Project.
This project has gone through many incarnations. Always attentive to the strong inner voice that guided the work in the direction that felt closest to my experiences, I continued to work. What began as a kind of compulsion to remember and record, in stitched fabric, my nostalgia for my teenage summer camp experiences,has evolved into a larger exploration of issues regarding personal identity and nationhood: how do personal memories and place inform one’s sense of self and belonging?
Why blankets? Canada is cold! Many of us living in this country experience more winter than any other season. Blankets are warm; wool, felt, sweaters, jeans and socks are what keep us warm and safe to counter the elements. All of these bits, and more!, have been sewn and glued into and onto the blankets to make support this sentiment.
It took a village to move this project from an idea to a reality so here come the thank yous:
A big thank you to Michael and his staff for welcoming me and my work here in this incredible venue – Installing together & working together has been great.
My immediate and extended family: My husband Rob, for his unending love, support , guidance and excitement about my work, to my kids, Adam & Jaimie for putting up with my work that covered every inch of living space for many months, shout out to J for her hand in the work. To my parents for their encouragement and coaching in all of this and a special shout out to my mom whose hand is in many of these blankets.
My two excellent assistants Thomas Morin and Anita You. These two are Canterbury High School students in the visual art program. Make sure to check out Thomas’ solo creation called “tent” which is hanging in the hallway. And be sure to pass by The blanket titled “Snow day” which was completed by Anita.
Another huge thank you goes out to the schools that participated in this project the names of the students and staff are listed on the wall and a special thank you to Canterbury High School who offered me a space to work as the artist in residence from 2016 to this past March.
A word about the configuration of the exhibition; my blankets are hung in and around the collaborative blankets created by me and the kids from various Ottawa schools. The show begins at the top of the stairwell , continues through the main 2nd floor space and then through the doors and into the hallway by the elevator. Looking at the labels placed on the wall beside each blanket will let you know exactly what’s what.
Lastly! There is an interactive part to this exhibition. On the table is a new blanket that I am inviting viewers to participate in creating . There are patches, scissors and pens provided for you to make your own patch and contribute to the on-going inquiry into what it means To be Canadian.