Dorothy Caldwell has long been one of my favourite contemporary artists.
She came to Hastings from Philadelphia in the company of a group of back-to-the-landers in the ’70’s because one of them had been on a canoe trip near the Petroglyphs and it seemed like a good place to settle down.
A renaissance of textile arts was taking place at that time, when artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz and Ritzi Jacobi took the medium of fibre to places it had never gone before. Previously dismissed as “women’s work”, a new monumentalism emerged as textiles came off beds and dining tables and onto the wall, and artists experimented with the delicious painterly and 3-dimensional capabilities of fabric and thread as structure and medium.
Caldwell began her art career as a painter but began to explore the possibilities of textiles when she saw a small batiked pillow at the 1976 international craft exhibit entitled In Praise of Hands at the Ontario Science Centre.1 Craft has often been a dirty word in the fine art world, but Dorothy Caldwell’s stunning textile work stands solidly with the best abstract art in any medium.
Plainspoken and subtle, subdued but often animated and playful, Caldwell’s work describes landscapes, maps and songlines, with time embedded in every stitch.
After her running her own gallery in Hastings, the Conqueror Worm, she became one of the early founders of Artspace. Her work was shown in its inaugural exhibition as David Bierk took Peterborough by storm. His inclusivity made her textile work not only acceptable in the gallery but desirable and set the tone for Artspace’s enduring broad mandate; Bierk even included the acoustic sculptural work of Caldwell’s partner Bill Woods. She was there when Bierk, on a whim, picked up the phone and called Christo who immediately agreed to exhibit some of his work at Artspace. The wine bottles were wrapped in cloth for the opening as busloads of people arrived from Toronto to hear Christo talk.
A quietly determined and generous artist, Caldwell is grateful to the Canadian arts funding that has made her career possible. She tells students that what an artist needs to learn more than anything is how to make time for their art.
Much of Caldwell’s work is built on the rich heritage of hand stitching, such as the white on indigo sashiko tradition of Japan or the patterned Indian kantha, which she has researched extensively through travel grants. Her stitches are the mark-making that every painter aspires to. She has elevated the techniques of fabric patching and darning to an art form. Through resist and discharge dying, screenprinting and stitching she creates her large-scale pieces with their distinctive palette of black and white or grey tones brought to life with minimal patches of colour. But the depth of her work has long since transcended the techniques of the medium she knows so well and engages our prehistoric relationship with fabric.
“Cloth is very powerful when it retains traces of its previous life, gathers history and becomes something new,” 2 says Caldwell.
Her hunger for knowing the landscape intimately and reverence for place have led her to the far reaches of Baffin Island and the Australian Outback. Her pale blue eyes light up as she describes trips to isolated ranches in Australia, walking for hours, photographing, collecting and documenting samples of stones, earth pigments and plant matter as well as human artifacts such as bits of wire or string. “It’s the time I give myself,” she says – a way of knowing a place. Her ever-present sketchbooks are literally rubbed with samples of the earth that she has walked on, becoming works of art themselves. An adventurer at heart, she admits she would even love to visit outer space.
Caldwell is a recipient of the Saidye Bronfman Award, Canada’s foremost distinction for excellence in craft and has been nominated for a Governor General’s Award. She represented Canada at the World’s Fair in Osaka in 1991. Her work belongs to a raft of prestigious permanent collections, including that of our own Art Gallery of Peterborough as well as The Canadian Museum of Civilization, The Museum of Art and Design, New York and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
It was a joy to have Lester Alfonso join me on this visit to Caldwell’s studio. Watch for his upcoming video (working title What Is Art?) in commemoration of Artspace’s 40th year which features interviews with some of Peterborough’s finest artists, including Caldwell.
And in March 2014, her latest touring exhibition, Charting Unfamiliar Territory, comes to the Art Gallery of Peterborough, as part of the gallery’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
1 In praise of hands : contemporary crafts of the world / essay by Octavio Paz ; foreword by James S. Plaut ; pref. by Charles F. Lombard. Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1974.
2 Source: found, stitched and dyed