‘Sorry, I’ve been delayed 2 hours. Boring, I know. What will you do?’
Julia somehow managed to send me this text message. She was on a flight from Cuenca, Ecuador to Porto, Portugal, where we were meeting. We would take a shuttle bus together from Porto to Guimarães where we were both taking part in their biennial Con-textile exhibition. A textile art exhibition. I’d been before, but not as a contributor. She had never been.
I’d known Julia for more than 30 years. We’d never lived in the same town, not even the same country. Yet, we were friends. I’d say close friends.
In the 90s, when I’d probably had my biggest meltdown, I recall her saying, ‘Don’t worry, me and Marge are going to get condos on the beach in Florida when we retire. You’ll have a place to come to.’ I felt enveloped by this woman’s warmth, her confidence in, and most importantly, her belief in me.
Of course, Julia, being Julia, didn’t end up in Florida. Marge did. No, Julia was drawn to the Spanish speaking, culturally mixed city of Cuenca, Ecuador. It had a good climate and she loved being in a Spanish speaking country. She knew the city well as she had done a couple of teaching/ advisory jobs at the University and vowed to return. She did. Julia was good at manifesting what she wanted.
We were both in our fifties when we got interested in textiles. The theme for this year’s Con-textile competition was ‘Big and Bold’ and that suited our respective styles.
Julia had gone to Mexico as a young woman to study on a Master’s programme and had returned there regularly. She developed an interest in weaving rugs and wall hangings: bright, to my eye, a little too bright sometimes. Products that ended up on the walls of rich Americans’ homes. A stylist had taken an interest in her work and commissioned pieces for homes she was styling. Can you imagine someone else styling your home? Her main influences were Mexican but merged with the magentas and blues of Guatemala and, latterly, Ecuadorean ambers and greens.
For this exhibition a huge woven piece Julia had done, had been selected. It was very abstract in design and awash with pinks, blues, reds and oranges. A wee bit garish? However, there was the figure of a young, probably Quechua, woman woven into the background. She was portrayed using a more muted palette. A lovely round-faced, rosy-cheeked girl (or so I imagined), with a black flat-topped hat and a shawl in grey and maroon. I hadn’t seen the piece yet, only photos, lots of photos. I was sure it would make an impact.
One of my patchwork pieces had been selected. A Queen-size – no, a Jumbo-size – quilt. I had interpreted the title to mean Big as in Big Women, and Bold as in women with attitude. I had scoured the Internet and libraries for images of Big, Bold women. Buxom Beauties who took risks, who stood out in some way. Funny, I kept being drawn to images of black women. There were so many of them I was spoiled for choice. But I didn’t feel I could cover a huge patchwork with only images of black women. I kept scouring, looking for Asian women – Chinese, Indian. Those were harder to find. Middle Eastern, a few more. South American, enough. White women – so many of the images were so negative. Eventually, I found enough that I was happy with.
Then, I needed quotes from those Big Bold women. Or at least, I wanted to find out enough about them that I could feel confident putting words into their mouths. I found words but I wanted the words to be snappy, punchy, make a point but not rant. That took time, but it was worth the effort.
My next task was deciding how to portray the images: photos onto fabric. I had had some bad experiences of printing images; they often came out shiny, unreal. Did I want full-on faces? What about silhouettes? Now there’s an idea. Silhouettes that could be embellished with embroidery silks, paints, dyes. Maybe print onto gossamer silk and lay the silhouettes on a background of hand-woven cotton and then embellish. That might work.
Once I had all my material, I would have to decide on the juxtapositioning of people and quotes, and working in some relief.
Oh, and oh, what colours to use! I loved that part, even though it was not easy.
It had been a long process researching and deciding. As with all research, some of the process had been interesting, some painstaking, laborious.
Big, in size, was no problem. I had plenty of material: fabric, images and quotes. Portraying the women’s size without being patronising or making them look ugly or ungainly: that would be harder. The sheer size of the piece would be big and bold but I had to be sure that my big women came across as bold, too: that would be my challenge.
My Big, Bold women from around the world had to be portrayed in their true colour: or as near as I could get to it. That was another task. It would not be easy. I didn’t want standard black, Asian, Middle Eastern, White. I wanted a palette of colours.
Two hours to sit and reflect on that process was really no time at all and it gave me the chance to think about what I was going to say on the opening night and to all the people who would approach me with questions.
I looked around the airport; I walked up and down looking at faces, trying to see if there was anything I had missed: anything I had failed to capture in my silhouettes. Anything missing in my monstrous piece.
There were plenty of Chinese faces – big groups arriving almost every minute: the norm these days. I only saw one or two faces of women from the Indian sub-continent. I saw lots of sazzy Brazilian women. There is a green in their flag that is often used in their fabrics, a very real, earthy green, a cut-grass green, that is so beautiful.
Brazilian, Brasilia. Why didn’t I think to depict Capoeira – a self defence style, with its own language, used by African slaves taken to Brazil. I could have found a Big Bold Brazilian Capoeira expert. Claudia would have helped me. Damn!
I saw one black woman. Gauging from her head-dress, definitely African. Cape Verde?
Back to the coffee bar for a galao and a nata. I am addicted to those delicate little lemony, egg custard tarts. Last time I was in Portugal I discovered there was a chain selling mini-natas, the size of vol au vents, and they’d added flavours. Almond, orange. No, no, no, No! Stick to the original, it is a cultural treasure and should be UNESCO protected or, at the least, have protected designation of origin status. The original tart is good enough.
Just like my piece