By Susan Birkenshaw
A friend of mine is a fine art photographer; to keep herself occupied, she has been revisiting her travels by looking at her past virtual albums. She shares one new photo each day with the world and tells us a short story about her memories of that image. She is not following any set timeline or single trip – simply what catches her interest on any given day. As I write this, she states that it is Day 176 of lock-down in Buenos Aires, Argentina – she has lived there for many years and has no intention of changing that even in the face of the pandemic gripping the world at present. My friend is one example of numerous creative ways we are finding of keeping our brains active in the face of difficult and changing times.
In most cities around the world, the options for activities have simply been closed to help the population stay strong and safe. This means – art galleries are closed; restaurants have been forced to shrink their seating, create take-out menus or to simply close their doors; movie theatres are closed; schools for any age are just re-opening (not necessarily a good thing) and even churches are unavailable. The way we survive has changed and isolation has become a new way of living for many.
As we pass the time in isolation, the most common thing I have watched is that many of my contacts share stories of their successes and down times with equal passion. We seem to want to share our “airtime” – written, video call or even new hobbies – with our connections to show we are alive, surviving and moving forward.
After following my friend’s retro travelogue for so many days, I began to ponder what I really miss about my “early days” and to look for a common theme in what I learned as I went through my life. As you probably know from my previous articles, I have been blessed to be able to travel extensively throughout the world, to have lived in several vastly different places and to have experienced numerous cultures. I have learned many things about the history, the arts, and most importantly the storytelling of many of those cultures. So, it is not surprising to me that what I really miss and want to learn more about is just how stories and cultures are passed down through the years.
You might be interested in what triggered this longing – earlier this summer I was looking for something to decorate my freshly painted bright red door and I remembered the trip we had taken to the Canadian Maritimes in 2017. There, the lobster fishing industry had been in trouble for many years, so many people spent their off time and long winters creating folk art from the floats, traps and even the ropes and wires involved in their industry.
I ventured to create a door decoration in the same manner. After a number of tries, I have succeeded with bits of driftwood between four red birds to match the door. I painted each bird in the same manner I had seen in Nova Scotia, using left-over door paint and extra craft acrylics to add a variety of wings, beaks, and tails for simple fun. My project was quite time consuming, complicated and a learning process.
I remembered that the artist I chose to emulate was a man who lives on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia. Barry Colpitts carves every one of his pieces to be fun, whimsical and have a story behind it. Family, neighbours and events are all favourite subjects of his. Maybe, after many more attempts, my folk art will shine through as his does. The “Not for Sale” pieces adorn his home inside and out, but if you get there, take a wander into his workshop just to get lost and mesmerized by his stories.
After my folk art effort, I have been wandering down memory lane and remembering that each of my major travel memoirs holds a specific experience of storytelling, passing history from generation to generation.
One of our adventures took us to Machu Picchu. On the way, we stopped for an overnight home-stay at Lake Titicaca (between Peru and Bolivia); this huge body of water is the largest freshwater lake in South America. It is also said to be the highest of the world’s large lakes. It sits at 3810 metres (12,500 feet) above sea level. From the shore, we took a small boat to Taquile Island to “enjoy” our local home stay – from their docks we climbed up another 300-plus feet. The ancestors of the Taquileños, who have occupied the island since pre-Columbian times, paid homage to the Sun God – that’s a lot of cultural stories to be chronicled.
The Taquileños created a small welcome event for us. Each family gave us appropriate garb to wear for this event. My blouse was a beautiful display of large red roses and poppies, with splashes of sunshine, and greenery. The blouse had obviously been lovingly preserved for many years. Once in the communal hall, we learned that the culture had created their own unique method of communication through these blouses. Our group consisted of 16 people – 9 women now dressed in 9 white cotton blouses with entirely different embroidery on the front. We learned that each design represented its family. The stories included their way of life, the background, where they originally came from and possibly even the types of animals that were involved in their lives.
There is virtually no electric power on this island, so before we began stumbling back to our host house in the very dark, we were reminded that the embroidery on each woman’s blouse was specific to each hostess, to each of the homes, and if we got lost or needed help on our way, all we had to do was knock on the next door, show them my shirt and they would get us “home”!
When we were taking our leave the next day, we were also told that it was impossible to purchase one of these beautiful shirts as the husband in each family creates these beautiful works of art. They create them for their new bride for the day of their marriage. His story for and commitment to his coming marriage and the beauty that would be their lives together – all carefully embroidered on his gift. I think that they did not tell us this tidbit until we were done – no damage, no spills and back in safe hands. While this experience was only two days, it truly is one of my most memorable and humbling experiences. I must think that these blouses could even be a burial outfit, as the young women of the culture would receive their own upon their marriage – my imagination runs wild!
Our most recent travels before COVID-19 were to Asia in October/November 2019. Primarily travelling in Vietnam and Cambodia, we had the opportunity to visit and explore a variety of craft shops producing some of the most beautiful things we had ever seen – hand-tooled silverware, lacquerware, and mostly prized intricate scarves in both silk and cotton.
Every Cambodian has a krama – a scarf of various colours and patterns which is widely accepted as the symbol of their country. It is most commonly made from cotton – often woven by the local women and worn and used in a variety of ways – warmth, personal covering, belt, baby carrier, marketing bag (to and from), pet carrier or even mask for protection. In the time we were in Cambodia, we did not see anyone without a krama and if we asked them what it represented, we were often told “everything” – family, practicality, and beauty. Mom usually designed, created, and then passed on the first one – with her stories woven into the threads.
The common theme in each of these craft studios/shops was that the stories and skilled craftsmanship behind had been passed down from generation to generation. The patterns on each product all had great personal meaning to the craftspeople and these interpretations were readily shared. Any questions we had were willingly answered and the openness filled us with welcome.
I find it interesting that my memories of the krama are mirrored by my experience in a vastly different country. Over the ten years we lived in Ecuador, I collected makana, scarves produced with the ikat technique of weaving. I love the texture, warmth, and fine detail of each one. The one atelier we frequented was a short drive from our home in Cuenca, Ecuador. La Familia Jiménez live and work in this small open-air adobe home. Here they work hard to protect and grow the knowledge from generations from long before them in weaving and dying methods.
My memories from my first visit are still strong – they showed us how they used a variety of plants, insects, flowers, nuts, and minerals to make specific colours. The purple is made from part of an insect with a bit of water – add lime juice to this purple – blazing red! Then they showed us how they weave and create each pattern – painstaking patience, back-breaking movements and long hours sitting on the floor in a backstrap loom.
Ikat patterns are often similar to each other; they all have themes of strength and passion, but as time goes on the family ventures out to be a bit more innovative in designs and stories to be told.
The dying process can be months long in a barrel of colour – these colours are then mixed to find the exact colour the artisan has in mind. Tightly wrapped bits of string create a unique dyed pattern. There are never two the same – the designs are personal to each family member and like the background stories, each has a different woven ending. (Thanks, Tina Paul, for reminding me of this.)
Surprisingly, my most enduring learning about storytelling, fables and customs being passed down each generation comes from the Inuit culture. I have learned from Bryce and Natali, the owners of http://www.inuitsculptures.com, that there a number versions of the background of these small fascinating pieces. They all have stories, meaning and value to the carver and the collector alike.
In the beginning days of the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company (circa 1830), the traders found the toys that the Inuit carved for their children were both fascinating and valuable. While the locals simply saw these beautiful, imaginative, and inventive pieces as way to distract and entertain their young ones, the fur traders chose to trade them for day-to-day items. Today they are highly prized and collectible artifacts.
Creating narratives – tangible art or simply the spoken word – has been with us since before history. Right now, we cannot wander the world, and I find myself trying to keep my brain from daydreaming in the past to avoid feeling sorry for myself. My reading has moved from whodunits and biography to stories with more fantasy, history, and mystery. As for telling my own stories, I’m not likely to be taking up the fabric arts or carving beauty out of rock. I’ll be going down the paints and crafts road – a bit messy, but my own stories! Clearly, this will be coming with new adventures, as travel and learning may never be the same again.
Photos for this article were taken by the author, and from http://www.spottedfrog.ca, http://www.incaworldperu.com, http://www.eluniverso.com, http://www.cuencahighlife.com, and http://www.withapast.com.