It's 1995 and Sandra Brownlee has stopped weaving. It's not quite the reaction she expected following the success of her internationally touring solo exhibition, Weaving Out Loud. But that dust has settled, and the physical repetition of the loom has begun to worm itself into her thoughts and ideas. After first sitting down at a loom almost 30 years ago, things have become arid.
Brownlee didn't return to her loom for eight years. Instead she taught grade school art in Philadelphia. Gone were her delicate, black and white fabrics---replaced with mud, sticks, yarn and stories.
Those years away from weaving have now proved more important than any time spent on the loom. Capturing the impact of this furlough is her first solo show since 1995, Departures and Returns, now on display at the Mary E. Black Gallery.
"This feels like the first time I've had a show where I couldn't really easily say, 'This is what the show's about,'" says Brownlee from her Dartmouth home. "This exhibition is difficult. It's a very quiet exhibition visually. It's quite calm and serene."
Brownlee has reconciled herself to the fact Departures and Returns is confusing. She displays a shelf of her notebooks, but you can't open them. The only open book is housed beneath glass. The weavings are more stitching than technical weaving, and while tactile you aren't allowed to touch them. A 14-minute video is elucidating, but very much a one-way conversation.
It's a torn and conflicted kind of confusing, like the feeling between Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. Weaving and living in Nova Scotia again after 26 years, these returns have fuelled new departures for Brownlee. The show is a reflection of the artist's creative process.
Although she wasn't weaving in Philadelphia, Brownlee did maintain a vigorous notebook practice. It's something she's always enjoyed doing, "sometimes more sporadic than not." But in Philly she was doing a page a day. She would write. She would pick things from the street and draw or collage them. Her notebooks became very tactile as she gave herself over to her sensual side.
"I really know things only by touching them. My mother said if she had a problem she'd scrub the floor. With weaving it's going into a deeper space."
Of course, Brownlee had always been touch-oriented. Once while travelling, she spent eight hours stitching out a love letter. Brownlee discovered out of necessity---she didn't have a pen---that stitching words allowed her to connect with her feelings.
Brownlee is now exploring the power of textile to connect words and feelings. It's a fresh approach to language and art. Her piece "I am Becoming" brilliantly deals with this with the hand-stitched phrase, "I am becoming more centred as I recommit to being in the studio as my way of life." "By stitching it slowly, physically, I'm absorbing this message," she says. "The stitching has really made a difference. I have been able to have a bridge to language and meaning."
Brownlee is working on limited-edition books to accompany the show, finding a way to explain what's really going on with Departures and Returns. "It's almost like a thesis. I don't mean it's intellectually dense, but it is a written statement, description and exploration of what I think, how I make and what has affected my life as an artist.
"In the end, the focus of this show is the words, ideas and images I put together in this deluxe book."