Fish coming into being: a creation story

This time last year I was making a quilt for my son and his wife-to-be. I batiked fish onto cotton squares, made lines of shibori-style resist, and then dyed the squares with indigo. It took a long time but I think I loved every step. Towards the end I realized how lovely it would be to sew shell buttons along the spines of the fish, in part to echo the beautiful Tlingit button blankets, and in part to suggest eggs within the bodies of the fish.  I think the original cultures of the Northwest coast were right to revere salmon. If I believe in anything, I believe in fish.

For the past few weeks I’ve wanted to make something. This has nothing to do with my writing. It has to do with my hands. I remember being a child and rushing into our basement, filled with the desire to build something, make an object to translate what I felt into a solid statement. What that statement would have been, I have no idea. Or wait, maybe I do. Even then it might have had something to do with fish. But I’d see my father’s workbench, his tools, a few scraps of wood, and I’d be lost. What could I ever make anyway? I didn’t know how to use tools. My father might have taught me if I’d been able to explain what I wanted to do. But I couldn’t and he didn’t. And now it’s too late.

But that feeling has never gone away. Sometimes it’s a kind of despair. I look at art — paintings, fine ceramics, sculpture — and that child filled with the urgency to create surfaces. But I don’t have the skills. I can’t draw. I can’t think in dimensions, have no spatial sense at all. (When we were building our house, John drew the plans. I honestly couldn’t see how a window might look in a real room based on what he would show me. I’d wonder about sills where a pot of geraniums might flourish in spring light. Or where we’d hang our paintings.) Other times I am determined enough to simply use the skills I do have — I can sew in a pretty rudimentary way, I can work out patterns, I can (it turns out) mix indigo dye.

This spring I thought about making another of the salmon quilts but I didn’t want to do the same one twice. Then a week or so ago, I decided to batik the fish onto long panels of cotton, hovering above stones. Two panels, fish swimming in opposite directions — heading out to sea from their natal creek, and then returning. I haven’t bothered with the shibori resist because it didn’t do quite what I wanted it to, though there were moments when it almost did. But I have some other ideas involving a roll end of Japanese cotton I found — an indigo print resembling rain-drops — and more of those akoya shell buttons which I can buy in bulk at the wonderful Button, Button on Homer Street in Vancouver.

Here’s a little gallery of images and I will add updates from time to time. Today is the first day in ages that it hasn’t rained so my dye vat is out on the patio, the long panels of cotton soaking as I write.

Indigo fish, buttoned

Progress on the fish quilt has been, well, slow. Life has intervened — weddings, short trips, a delivery of five yards of mushroom manure for the garden. But now that cold weather is here, I have such a yearning to sit in the big wicker rocking chair by the fire, stitching. I had problems finding backing for this quilt — nothing I had on hand quite worked so I ordered a big flannel sheet in a lovely marine blue which was backordered, then lost. Finally I found unbleached cotton of a good weight and went through the process of preshrinking, drying, and then piecing to the right size.

So here are the three layers, basted together, waiting to be quilted.

And in a moment of what I hope was inspiration and not foolishness, I thought how lovely it would be to articulate the spines of each fish with small shell buttons. I think this will echo the beautiful Tlingit button blankets with their emblematic fish and birds.