Finding Spirit in Fabric

One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance

By Steven Ross Smith

Martha Cole’s passions are large these days. She’s just acquired the grand piano of quilting technology, a long arm quilting machine – it’s twelve feet long – to enable her to work on a large scale. And she’s casting her artistic eye on grain elevators.

Cole is a fabric artist. She refers to herself as a realist landscape artist who makes non-functional art quilts. She also creates art books, large coloured-pencil drawings on paper, and fabric works using symbolic imagery. Fabric and grain elevators currently have her avid attention.

The demolition of the elevator in Disley in 2002 filled Martha with a sense of loss. She has had her home and studio there for the past twenty-five years. Cole’s first fabric landscape, done in 1978, was of the hamlet of Disley and surrounding countryside. In all her years there, she had never been in the Disley elevator, yet she watched the dismantling attentively and with sadness.

She began to contemplate the emotions she felt, and realized that “we’re self-identified with those elevators.” She is speaking of people who’ve grown up on farms, and small towns, but also of urban Saskatchewan residents who’ve been around long enough to have the elevators seep into their psyches, if only as visual icons. “I think that Disley was significantly diminished by the destruction of the elevators, and there is no way to grieve or express those feelings,” she says.

Martha began to envision, as an honouring gesture, elevator images in art galleries in every rural community in Saskatchewan. She approached the Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils with this idea, and the result is, that beginning in April 2005, she will have a show – ‘The Survivors’ – touring to twenty-nine art galleries in rural Saskatchewan. The primary images will be grain elevators in various towns around the province – ones which have so far escaped the wrecking ball.

Martha’s wish is that these exhibitions will help recall the elevators’ grandeur, and their importance to people’s lives in Saskatchewan; she hopes the shows will become a focus for honouring the lost elevators and the community life and meaning that disappeared with them; and she hopes that the pieces will help heal the wounds of that loss. She says, “I feel it is essential that there be a memorial service for the Grain elevators.”

Representing grain elevators can offer a significant artistic risk, because grain elevators have already been rendered in many pieces of visual art and they have also been reduced to be kitschy marketing images – on key chains, liquor containers, and tourist souvenirs. In short they have become the clichéd image connected to Saskatchewan. How to represent them anew is a challenge. The magnificence of their physical presence is difficult to capture within the limitations of art studios and exhibition spaces.

These are the challenges that Cole intends to meet with the help of over thirty years of art practice behind her, the scale her new machine will allow, and her distinctive use of fabric – the art quilt – as the medium.

Martha Cole did not start out as a fabric artist. She received a degree in sculpture at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1970. There she worked with welded steel sculpture and became very familiar with abstract and minimalist work. After graduation she moved to Toronto into an apartment. Metal sculpture requires a big studio, welding and cutting tools, and a foundry – impossible to carry with you, to fit into an apartment, or to find in every community. Cole turned to her sewing machine to satisfy her creative energy. She sewed pieces for friends, always thinking she would do this only until she could turn her attention to her real art.

After finishing a degree in education at the University of Toronto she decided to return to Saskatchewan to live, because she knew she could afford to live here with a part-time job, and still have time for her art-making.

At the end of the 70s, she was looking for a large, open, affordable space, and rural Saskatchewan offered such possibilities. In 1980 she bought the United Church building in Disley, about fifteen kilometres west of Lumsden and one kilometre north of the Qu’Appelle Valley, just off highway 11, and began renovations to turn it into a home and studio.

Her work eventually took over her living space, so at different times she rented studios in Lumsden and Regina. She was still sewing and waiting to do her ‘real work’. But she began to realize that creating with fabric was her real work. In 2000 she was able to build a studio on her property next to her house in Disley. Though not many of the people of her town find their way to her studio and home, she’s most pleased that four couples from Disley came to her recent exhibition opening in Regina.

Since 1980 Martha Cole has shown in solo and group exhibitions in galleries from Regina to St. John’s to Atlanta – in four provinces and two states. Her home gallery and the one that represents her is Regina’s McIntyre Gallery.

Now Cole sees ‘The Survivors’ as the culmination of thirty years of thinking and artistic work. This, she imagines is the first part of a trilogy which may be her ‘magnum opus’. She says, “This work is why I am an artist.”

There will be at least twelve pieces in ‘The Survivors’, and most of them will be large – approximately five feet by six feet. The use of quilting methods will feature surface sewing, layering, painting, appliqué, a double layer of quilt batting, and the free-motion stitching that her long arm quilting machine will allow. This adds a sense of density and depth to the quilt. Cole has been practicing the hand-arm-eye coordination to move and guide the machine, the way a figure skater might practice turns and loops repetitively.

Cole’s work is a reaction to the general mayhem in the world. She is interested in beauty and the celebration of the planet and of the beings on it. There is a spiritual dimension to her art practice. She feels her work is an opening, “an accessing of deep knowing”. This comes perhaps from her contemplation of the landscape and the meditative aspect of any art-making. She is also interested in chaos and its self-organizing propensity, and she’s captivated by natural aesthetics, of, for example, fractals and cliffs.

Cole relies on teaching, along with sales of her art, and exhibition fees to support herself and her primary work. Fortunately she has a passion for passing on her knowledge and techniques through master classes – process-oriented workshops and mentoring situations. She has conducted these throughout Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, and British Columbia.

Cole no longer seeks support from granting agencies to underwrite her art practice, but she is grateful for two or three small grants she received from the Saskatchewan Arts Board which helped her though University on the way to her Fine Arts degree. (The Arts Board no longer funds artists while in university). And she received one other Arts Board grant several years ago which enabled the development of her work. She acknowledges the “wonderful, generous funding support for the arts in Saskatchewan.”

Cole believes that there is an emotional content to ‘The Survivors’, both in the subject matter and in the medium. The scale and the images will compel the viewer, but the medium too will draw them in; fabric is soft, inviting, and tactile.

The elevator images are rendered from photographs and scaled up in size, made into a pattern, then transferred onto cloth. Then the layering and jig-saw-puzzle-like assembly of pieces, paints and stitches begins, to flesh out the image. Through this process Cole will capture the distinct nature of each elevator, dispensing with the notion of there being one generic elevator.

And on close look – the way people look closely at quilts – the viewer will marvel at the assembly method and the patterning of stitchery, especially that enabled by the free-form movement of the long arm quilting machine that Martha Cole plays like a virtuoso, with the aim of touching viewer’s hearts.


Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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