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Thursday, August 20, 2015

'THREADS' - the story of a remarkable woman

It has been a long while since I have written due to the fact that we moved from our forest retreat in Quebec to the Niagara region of Ontario and it has taken a while for me to adjust to the new environment and find my feet in our new community.  But recently I attended the premier of a documentary called 'Threads' and I was inspired to write a piece about my reaction to the film.  I wanted to share it with you.  Here it is: 

‘THREADS’  Documentary by Cathy Stevulak and Leonard Hill

I happened to be reading David Brooks’ recently published book ‘The Road to Character’ when I was invited to attend the première of the documentary film ‘Threads’ at the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival in Mississauga.  This well-crafted 30-minute documentary, produced by Cathy Stevulak and Leonard Hill, and directed by Cathy, chronicles the life of Surayia Rahman, a Bangladeshi woman who, in Brooks’ words, discovered her ‘core virtues’.

Like any young person, she had a dream.  She was determined to become an artist.  The road would prove to be rocky, but her tenacity never failed her.  She was married off at 17 and had three children.  When her husband fell ill, she went to work and she became the breadwinner for the family.  When her elder daughter died tragically, she carried on.  She seemed to understand that her art, her work, would be the necessary means through which to grieve, to heal and move forward. 

Surayia joined a social welfare organization, the Women’s Voluntary Association shop, in Dhaka and worked as a staff artist.  She sketched and painted at home.  She experimented with many media including even painting with mud on fabric.  She also created paintings inspired by the effects of the embroidery stitches on the kantha quilts, the traditional coverlets of Bangladesh and West Bengal made from the fabric of old saris, pieced together and embellished with running stitch1.

Surayia’s artistic skills were recognized and in 1982, along with a Canadian ex-patriate, she co-founded the Skills Development for Underprivileged Women (SDUW) where impoverished women could earn a living by stitching her designs.  This association was to be short lived and in 1986, she was unexpectedly terminated.  Not to be discouraged, she continued working on her designs from her home, a home that she had built from the proceeds of her previous years of hard work.  To her surprise, some of the women with whom she had worked at SDUW sought her out and pleaded with her to continue teaching them.  It was at this point, in her home, where Arshi (Bengali for ‘mirror’) was born.   It had not been her goal to run her own business, nor teach, but such a role was thrust upon her and she found that she had an ability to foster the embroidery skills of the women who flocked to her home.  Surayia’s dream to create her own original works, known as Nakshi Kantha or story quilts, was finally realized.  She drew her designs from memories of the past, stories of her culture.  They were transferred on to silk and using many of the stitches used in the traditional kantha quilts as well as introducing a fill-in stitch called ‘bhorat’2 the young women embroidered her stories.  The finished pieces, having undergone Surayia’s strict scrutiny, would be blocked, stretched and framed thereby moving the embroideries from their historically functional role to that of a decorative one.  It was a visionary move by Surayia. This move changed the discourse around her works from ‘craft’ to ‘art’, with, as a consequence, the enhancement of their value.  Her innovative style became known as ‘nakshi kantha tapestry’.

Today, Surayia’s work and that accomplished at SDUW and Arshi have found international recognition and are exhibited around the world in private homes and museums.  For the young women who worked with Surayia, translating her designs into magnificent works of art, they learned a skill and in the process they earned a living.  In addition, and maybe more importantly, they gained a community, a place to share, a place to learn, a place where they played a significant role and all of this engendered a sense of personal strength and empowerment. 

I believe that Surayia’s story is what Brooks is talking about in his book.  She exemplifies those individuals that serve as an example.  She faced many of life’s great tests and she was not found wanting.   I do not believe that this was the life that she would necessarily have chosen at the outset, but it was the life that claimed her and she discovered that she had the necessary mettle to take up the challenge and with joy and satisfaction.  It is a remarkable story of ‘success’, not as defined in our current western terms, through material values, but as Brooks defines as ‘living in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honours creation and one’s own possibilities.’

Surayia is now in her 80’s and her hands are no longer nimble.  The women she has trained, and there are many, have become her hands. In 2008, Surayia gave Arshi to the Salesian Sisters of Dhaka.  It is under this banner that Surayia’s students, now accomplished embroiderers, carry on the work of Arshi.    Thanks to Surayia, and the tenacity of these young women, now skilled and working, that all lead autonomous lives, able to care for their families, educate their children and walk with pride.

‘Threads’ is the story of a life at work, a success story of the most profound and far-reaching quality.  What is captured on film, and what I loved most about it, is the harmonizing of an inner voice with the outward actions.  Early in the film, there is a snapshot of Surayia as a young girl.  She has a beautiful, open face full of joy and optimism.   The latter scenes of the film show Surayia in her 80’s, and what catches your attention is that this luminosity still shines forth.   Brooks speaks about such people as if ‘they radiate a sort of moral joy’.   Surayia Rahman does, undeniably.

So, if ‘Threads’ is being shown anywhere near where you live, go see it.  You will be moved and inspired.  Also, by extension, you will be supporting the documentary film industry.   Often, and ‘Threads’ is no exception, the financing of these films is limited.  So supporting the film,  particularly through a donation, would show a commitment to producers like Cathy and Len allowing them to continue to promote the film and ensure its long life.

Kathryn B. Borel
August 14, 2015

References :
                                    ‘The Refining of a Domestic Art : Surayia Rahman. Niaz Zaman & Cathy Stevulak
                                    ‘Accidental Saint’ by Bianca Diabase :  Hand Eye Magazine, March 4, 2010
                                    ‘The Road to Character’ David Brooks, Random House 2015
                                    ‘A life at work’ Thomas Moore, Broadway Books, 2008                             

   1           Running stitch is a series of continuous small stitches                
   2              Bhorat stitch is a filler stitch similar to Roumanian stitch.   

Friday, February 14, 2014

Woodpecker 3

The Woodpecker and his companion are moving along in the Orange Grove.  It is a painstaking exercise which I am enjoying while listening to the Olympics from Sochi.

It has been cold and stormy outside, so another reason to stay inside and embroider.

The bright colours of this project offset any grey moments in the weather and state of mind.  The winter has been long this year, beginning in late November, but the occasional sunny day, despite the wind and snow, gives me hope that Spring is not far off.

Monday, January 20, 2014

William Morris - Woodpecker 2

Each day, I add a little more to this project.   I am mixing up DMC cotton floss and Pearsall's silks with the goal of making the woodpeckers stand out.  I began to embroider the second woodpecker last night.  You can see the beginnings of the tail in the upper left corner.  Admittedly, it's hard to make out any shape yet, but by tonight or tomorrow, I should have more of an effect apparent on the canvas.

I worried that the colour of the oranges was too vibrant and killed the effect of the red crest of the male's head.  However, I think with the deep blue background colour once stitched, the whole colour scheme will come into its own.

Monday, January 13, 2014

William Morris - Woodpecker

I'm off and running again with another adaptation of a Beth Russell chart, this time the Woodpecker panel.   I am playing with the colour palette, working in cotton and silk as opposed to Appleton or Paternayan wools and on a very small count linen (32 ct) as opposed to the penelope canvas. 

It has been cold and grey outside so I've thrown in some real vibrant tones on the canvas to brighten up the inside of the house.  

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Interpretations - The Hare and the Fox - Christmas gifts

These two pieces have been constants on my work table for more than 2 years.  I gave myself a goal to finish them both and mount them for Christmas and to offer them to my daughter as a gift for her new home.  K.2 is a direct person and while working on the Hare, she had indicated that she would like to claim it as hers.  A loyal admirer of my work, it was validating and pleasurable to hear her be so adamant about wanting it.  What she didn't know was that I had already begun the Fox piece.  When both were finished in early December and I had chosen the framing for them both and mounted them, it was evident that they could not be separated and that if I was to offer the Hare as a gift, the Fox would go with it.

During the two weeks that these two pieces were completed and K and N had not arrived for Christmas, I displayed them on a wall in the living room so that my husband and I could live with them for a while.  It seemed over this fortnight that the Hare and the Fox had taken their permanent place in our home and in our life.  Each time we looked at the works, they seemed to speak to us in a different way.  I knew it was going to be hard to part with them when K.2 left to return to her home in Los Angeles.

Mentally, I was bargaining with her.  Why don't you leave them with us for a while and in exchange, we'll buy you a chair for your new place… or something like that.  It wasn't that I didn't want her to have them but more that I wanted to have a little more time with my new furry friends.

As it turned out, K.2 made the adjustment to my separation from these works easier.  She had come to visit with her own furry friend, Georgie Girl, her much-loved, delightfully discreet dog.  GG is a cross between a spaniel and a poodle, or this is what we have surmised.  K.2 had taken her from the refuge and gave her a home.  GG's start in life was sad, as most of the stories of the animals at the shelter.  In her case, she was abandoned and this hard beginning made her delicate and tentative.  With the love and attention that K.2 and her partner give her, GG is a close to perfect dog, never barking, shyly coming into our arms, responding quickly and obediently to K.2 and travelling well.  

But back to the gift of the Hare and the Fox.  What with a large suitcase, a computer bag, the dog carrier and handbag, K.2 decided that it would be difficult to take the frames back without risk of breakage, so she suggested (with some encouragement from me) to leave them with me until our next trip to California at which point I would bring them to her.

And so, The Hare and The Fox are now semi-permanently installed on our living room wall in a place that we can feature them and enjoy them for the time that they will remain with us.  

I have often said that each work is rather like a child.  I give so much time and creative energy to bringing it into the world, it is hard to see it leave the house.  In this case, they are staying on for a while longer, time enough for me to wean myself from them and finally say goodbye to them knowing that they will go out into the world and be enjoyed and appreciated in their new home.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Barbara Hammett's William Morris Birds (2)

I first posted on these projects in January this year.  It seems appropriate that I am close to completing all three of these projects as the year draws to an end.  I began the background of the third piece last night and anticipate having this work in my hands as the family gathers around the fire during the Christmas holidays.  
I think that next week I'll have the Hare and the Fox pieces (posted in March 2013) back from the framer.  And then the question will be whether these three bird subjects will be mounted in frames, singly or in a group, or whether I'll make them up into cushions.  I also have a bell pull finished as well as another cushion.  They are all worked with the same deep blue background which sets off the colours so beautifully.

Here is Morris' definition of art in his lecture 'Art and Labour' delivered in 1884.  He said:

'…by art, I do not mean only pictures and sculpture, nor only these and architecture, that is, beautiful building properly ornamented;  these are only a portion of art, which comprises, as I understand the word a great deal more;  beauty produced by the labour of man both mental and bodily, the expression of the interest man takes in the life of man upon the earth with all its surroundings, in other words the human pleasures of life is what I mean by art.'

These words resonate with me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A gesture

Given that the Christmas season is almost here, I am working my way through the list of gifts I want to give.   For the children that will be visiting over the holidays, I think I am relatively well organized.  As they grow older, gifts are simpler since the focus is less on the gifts and more on the time spent together.  This may sound clichéd, but I feel this is a true statement.

One member of the extended family will not be with us and I was looking for a way to show our caring but not overwhelm with a monied present.  So my choice is an embroidered card with a message.  A gift of time and affection.

The recipient is a sensitive and creative person.  This small piece in silk on linen, mounted on a archival card seems so appropriate.