My Map of the Earth Includes the Sun // by Kathleen Vaughan
I hadn’t known—I hadn’t imagined the textures, the colours, the endless and changeable light. I hadn’t anticipated how Iceland’s northwest would offer me an enduring gift of wonder and delight that would animate my art-making.
Silk and fleece, water and sky: my time in Norðurland vestra was marked by reverberating similarities between the materials I use in my textile maps, and the features of the landscape itself. The sea had the shimmer of silk; the changing clouds the softness of sheep’s fleece. Wool and silk are core materials in my textile walking maps, which involve hand-piecing, digital embroidery and hand-stitching. Environmentally minded, these works also represent the political ecologies and my personal experience of urban woods in my native country Canada.
After my acceptance into a June residency at the Textílsetur Íslands/Icelandic Textile Center in Blönduós, I proposed to create a textile map of this very new-to-me place, exploring how walking and mapping could – I suggested – deepen my knowledge and understanding of this small town, as well as bring together the trajectories of my footfalls with the long circuits of the sun through the near-Arctic summer sky.
I arrived in Reykjavík at the end of May 2016, just in time for Iceland’s spring and glorious palette. I was struck by the endless variations of silver and grey, by the remarkable blue of the northern sky on sunny days – and we had many last June. But most of all, the greens drew me. The turf was yellow-green, on the acid spectrum, intense and showy in ways unlike the deeper green of Canada's ground cover, which is frequently a mixture of Kentucky blue grass and other species. My research into Icelandic ground cover suggests that species here are more like European than North American plants, with mosses and lichens more dominant than grasses – although the latter are described as ‘abundant’ in meadows, perhaps like the many fields I would see around the River Blanda. Unusual from my Canadian perspective, these greens – sap green, chartreuse, apple green – were visually intense and compelling.
From textile artists such as Hélène Magnússon, I learned of the deeper tones of the “Westfjörds'” green (one of her “Love Story” hues). I saw how a bright yellow-green yarn could be created with natural dye-bath and indigo by over-dyeing the yellow that's achieved with the ever-present lupine (whose vivid purple flower is another notable feature of the Icelandic countryside). This technique came to me courtesy of Guðrún Bjarnadóttir of Hespuhúsid (the Yarn House) in Borgarfjörður, a treasure of West Iceland, who spoke of her work at the Knitting Festival held in Blöndúos mid-June. All around me were artists, present and past, who loved their landscape and its colours and found Icelandic ways to represent it.
Of course it was the light that fully revealed all the colours around me. Each extra-long day – I was there in June when the sun barely dipped behind the mountains at 2 in the morning – showcased new colours in the sky, water and lands. The experience of the ‘endless day’ was extraordinary, especially travelling north from Montreal, Canada (latitude 45.5° N) to Blönduós (latitude 65.6° N), from a large city of 3 million people, whose activities are circumscribed by night’s darkness even during the longest of summer days, to a small town of 800 near the Arctic Circle where dark storm clouds necessitated streetlights on only three occasions.
The opportunity to experience Iceland’s midnight sun is part of what drew me to Norðurland vestra in particular; that, coupled with my reading of the work of American poet Christina Olivares, who is like me — an artist and teacher. Her “Teaching the Map” recognizes that every map is a rhetorical object reflecting both power and desire. She tells of her conversation with a group of boys who resist the racialized and boundary-filled world suggested by the conventional world map and the limited future it proposes. She writes, “No map of the earth / Includes stars. This seems like an oversight.” I agree. To address that oversight, to include both earth and sky, I proposed to the Textile Center that my walking map of Blönduós should also include the transit of our own star, the sun, at summer solstice.
I hope my map will also be imbued with the magic of living through those endless summer days, and with the return to the spirit and the mindset of childhood that occurs when one regularly goes to sleep while the sun is still up no matter the time. I want my map to retain the feeling of wanting to sleep only the bare minimum, so as not to miss the extraordinary experiences of waking life; and the pleasures of studio time in the wee hours of the morning; and the joy of working with my hands in materials as the sky reddens and the sun dips and so quickly bounces back — and wonder, delight.
My time in Iceland was a marvel of freedom and focus; a month to devote my time to a project without interruption or impediment. I have never experienced anything like it, and I carry the memory of that time like a warming kernel within me, now that I'm back in the rhythms of regular life. My work on the map of Iceland continues, amid the activities of teaching at Concordia University and executing the various pleasurable and demanding tasks of ordinary life.
Through the next months, I will add multiple layers to my map. Using regular and traditional Icelandic embroidery stitches, I will add colour that represents the landscape of Blönduós. I will program digital embroidery of key words and phrases in both Icelandic and English. In running stitch, each day its own thread of colour, I will add 30 days’ worth of my walks through the hills and fields, to the pool and grocery store, along the shore and around the town. In the topmost layer of stitching, in a single shifting spiral that suggests the movement of the ever-present sun through the changeable skies of the north, I will draw golden loops that gently frame and contain my textile world. My map of earth will include the sun. I will share this work with the people of Blöndúos when I am done, in another sort of spiraling return. And by this I will have the great joy of returning to Iceland, of being there again.
 Olivares, Christina. 2015. No map of the earth includes stars. East Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press. Quotation from her poem “Teaching the Map,” p. 74
[ nonfiction ]
Kathleen Vaughan is a Canadian artist and educator. Trained in painting, drawing and photography at OCAD University, and with an MFA in Studio Arts and PhD in Education, Kathleen works across media, using digital and analogue forms. She has exhibited her work in galleries and museums in Canada and Europe. She teaches in the Art Education department at Concordia University and is the Research Chair for Socially Engaged Art and Public Pedagogies. akaredhanded.com; re-imagine.ca.
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