Can you weave a landscape? A poem? A memory?
Ariel Bader-Shamai was just looking for a way to keep her hands busy — but she found something much more
Ariel Bader-Shamai was looking for a way to keep her hands busy at home during isolation. The Hamilton-based multidisciplinary artist wanted to feel productive while off work, and so, from her bedroom-turned-studio, she set to the task of weaving like it were her new job.
She'd gotten some cardboard looms and a small pile of yarn from the Artist Material Fund a few months earlier when it was operating from the nearby Art Gallery of Burlington, and she felt compelled to put the stuff to use. Without a pattern — more anti-pattern, in fact — she began stitching, playing with the materials, she says, letting her hand and mind wander like an automatic drawing in yarn and gardening twine, net produce bags and other bits she found around her home.
The growing series of abstract tapestries, comprising thousands of stitches now, are a measure of the months Bader-Shamai has spent at home weaving. They're also a vivid record of the places her thoughts have travelled in that time — some pieces envisioning imaginary landscapes or responding to lines of poetry, and a great many recollecting scenes from her memory.
Bader-Shamai begins each weaving by selecting a group of colours from her yarn. The initial gestures and shapes she makes are exploratory, she says; it is the transaction of different colours that really "starts the story" for her. Maybe she's begun with a leafy green shade, and that causes her to think of the crabapple tree in the backyard of her childhood home, and then that brings her thoughts to the swing set there and its rusty hue. "There are a lot of memories I'm thinking about as I do this," she says. "It does seem like a time to be recalling better days or hoping for better futures."
The artist describes herself as "a bit of an anxious person," and having this project to focus her attention, she says, has been something of a refuge during a scary and oftentimes overwhelming period. The menial, repetitious nature of the work provides a different experience of time and space. She's sitting at home, sometimes weaving from morning to night, while her imagination travels widely, well beyond her doors.
"I get to run away in my fantasies as I'm creating these things," she says. "I guess that's another thing: I don't usually get this much time to daydream."
One weaving, for example — a marble of fire engine red, aubergine, wheat, and hunter green — makes her recall sitting cross-legged on the rug in her Grade 3 classroom, trying molasses for the first time. Another — cream- and yolk- and grass-coloured, which was produced while listening to a podcast on the development of humans — appears like a field of sunny-side-up eggs. There's one in gold, rose and twilight shades of blue and purple that conjures a memory, perhaps muddled or make-believe, of a summer evening in her childhood spent in the country with family and friends, where they chased fireflies and the air smelled sweet and the adults all danced in the barn.
After Bader-Shamai posted the weaving and the story online, a friend connected with her to say the memory was not false: it all really happened. She had stitched it back into the more reachable territory of her brain.
With that one, she says, "There was some sentimental gooeyness, wishing I hadn't been in such a race to grow up and could've just been somewhere like that for longer and appreciated it in a way I wouldn't have at the time." It is a warm image, but also a melancholy one.
More powerful than the busywork she'd originally set to, the project has become a trusty vehicle for self-reflection. "What are the stories that we tell ourselves?" she asks. "And how are our personalities and our everyday lives impacted by those stories?" The weavings, though abstract and made from yarn, are in some ways self-portraits. They represent a handful of the stories that make Bader-Shamai herself.
On the reverse of each piece, the artist has included a label with the instructions: "Please touch." As the weavings depart for their new homes — bought, gifted to or traded for by friends and peers — this is an important part of the project.
"I spend so much time with this in my hands, and then it ends up in someone else's hands, and that feels very special right now, when we otherwise can't be holding hands," she says. In a small way, Bader-Shamai has found a way to share time together.
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