Where do we belong?
Weaver Cally Booker describes how belonging, identity and sustainability sit at the heart of her collaboration with visual artist Andrea Tsang Jackson in Halifax, Nova Scotia who also works in textiles.
This blog is part of a series by the Scottish makers participating in a programme of residencies with makers in Mexico, Thailand and Canada as part of the AAS international exchange project to create new work on the themes of identity and sustainability for an exhibition, Meet Make Collaborate.
I am a weaver. This is the way I introduce myself whenever I am asked to do so. When I identify myself professionally, I deliberately avoid the terms designer and artist but focus rather on the process at the centre of my work. Over the years this process has gradually become the identity that I lay claim to.
As much as I have claimed it, however, it also troubles me. I weave. I put together raw materials and create cloth, which goes out into the world to… do what? Add to the mountain of unnecessary fabric and garments which feed the insatiable shopping habits of the western world?
The importance I place on sustainability has led my practice in several interesting directions. I have learned skills in natural dyeing using ecologically responsible methods. I have exhibited work based on data about climate change. I have even undertaken formal study in environmental sciences in my ‘spare time’. And I was drawn to the Shift Canada residency, which has identity, sustainability and collaboration at its heart.
My collaborative partner, Andrea Tsang Jackson, also works with textiles. Her practice encompasses art-making, teaching and writing, and her main medium of expression is quilt design. It has been fascinating to explore the areas which our practices have in common and where they differ.
We are both interested in the constraints and challenges of working with fibre; in experimenting with form and scale, within and beyond the traditional grid structure of our respective disciplines; in exploring new materials. We are both motivated by questions of belonging, coming as we do from families with a history of migration, and having established our own lives through relocation and ‘coming from away’. And we are both planners!
Our collaboration began in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we were assigned to work together during the week that the Scottish makers spent in residence at NSCAD in October 2019. Day one was a day of newsprint and sharpies, and our first collaborative product was a timetable of the week. For me – and I think for Andrea as well – putting the structure around our time meant freeing up mental space and energy for the creative conversation.
By the end of the week we were brim-full of ideas and had sketched out the barest outline of a plan for the work to come. I returned to Scotland with photos of our mind maps on my phone, a bundle of fabric scraps in my suitcase and a commitment to a schedule of WhatsApp calls with Andrea.
We had settled on two core elements of the project: a material and a process. The fabric scraps were from the Nova Scotia company Faire Child, which produces rainwear for kids. The cloth they use is made from recycled plastic bottles, and we were going to work with their offcuts. The process we intended to explore was animation.
In January this year we knuckled down to some serious discussion and exploration. The thread we were following led us to focus on that theme of belonging: how are we shaped by the communities we inhabit and how are the communities shaped by each one of us? We looked for ways to express this theme within the parameters we had drawn for ourselves.
I’m used to constructing fabric not to working with it, and my experiments were a bit wild at first, but I began to find a way forward by incorporating narrow strips as knotted pile on a woven ground.
We also struggled to imagine how we would realise our animation ideas, but Andrea put her project management skills to work with excellent results. She obtained some funding which allowed us to work with a mentor, the Halifax-based animation artist Becka Barker.
By March our intention had taken a much more tangible shape. The regular discussions, the guidance from Becka were steadily moving us on. Andrea had made storyboards, stitched samples and created short animated sequences. I had a stack of woven samples, a paper mock-up and a long warp on the loom, all ready to weave towards our April deadline. And then…
We have both experienced much unravelling in the last few weeks. Interruption, disruption, reeling, reshaping. Workshops cancelled, exhibitions postponed, studio buildings closed: creative work is not essential to our survival. It would in any circumstances be unsettling to have one’s identity as maker thrown into question, but it is particularly disconcerting when identity is the theme of the making itself. How do we belong to community in isolation?
Those things are still under review, but that warp is on the loom, and – thank goodness – the loom is in my home. I am weaving. I am a weaver.
Top image: Cally (left) and Andrea in NSCAD
Read about the experiences of other Scottish makers taking part in Meet Make Collaborate – ceramicist Susan O’Byrne.