Fresh Linen (The Vancouver Sun, Tuesday, May 28, 2002)
From seed to flax to fabrics, the process of creating linen inspires an artist to new designs.
Something dropped into a pocket, and forgotten, planted an idea for Vancouver textile artist Joanna Staniszkis. Two years ago, while on a visit to her native Poland she says, "I dropped a few flax seeds in my linen jacket pocket (after visiting a flax mill and farm), and forgot about them." After returning to Vancouver she washed the jacket and while it was drying the thirsty seeds began to germinate. For Staniszkis, it was the perfect "aha!" moment, and precipitated the birth of a now ongoing project centred around linen.
With her background teaching textile design for more than three decades, Staniszkis was fascinated by the thriving linen industry and the process of growing flax plants from which linen is made.
Thanks to her position as a lecturer in the UBC agricultural department, she knew of an empty greenhouse on campus. It was the perfect environment for her Linen Project, a series of garments and organic shapes made from light-weight and almost sheer linen that she has specially woven for her in Poland. Staniszkis wove the first samples herself and now has the cloth made to her specifications. "It is an open-ended project that keeps me busy. It generates a lot of concepts and one thing leads to another," said Staniszkis in a telephone interview.
When we photographed her project there were healthy and lusciously green flax plants growing from just about anything: a rocking chair, bed and other household items.
As well as an artistic exercise, Staniszkis is playing with the words table and bed linen. Staniszkis doesn't import seeds for her project, she simply goes in to a health foods store and buys bulk flax seeds. Simple. Her friends help her sow the seeds at her home, then she transplants the seedlings to the project.
To create her pieces, the cloth is stiffened by boiling it with flax seeds, which give off a thickening agent. While the hanging shapes of linen clothing and sculptures have phantasmagoric properties in their murky ethereal shapes they have another meaning for the artist. "For me as a textile artist, we try to create three-dimensional shapes and the human body is the perfect armature for displaying that sculpture," she explains. And into the seams, pockets and darts she has stitched flax seeds, hidden but present.
To give additional interest and to put her own artistic spin on the cloth she has twisted bundles of cloth, made ropes from it and screen printed images of photos on to the surface.
Staniszkis is collaborating with film maker Geoff Browne, and working with a young Polish music composer for a film she is producing on the process. Interwoven into the script is an old Polish folk tale of a King who was wealthy but owned no gold. He is approached by a wise old man who promises him wealth, and hands him a handful of flax seeds. When they grew to maturity there was, of course, no gold. Upset, the King, who thought he had been tricked, threw the flax into the water and had the old man imprisoned. The man's daughter twisted the rotted (or retted) flax stalks into beautiful yarn from which she wove incredible clothes. The King, realizing his mistake, admitted the flax had produced a kind of gold after all.
What's next in the process of her project? "I think I will compost the sculptures," she replies, referring to the process of preparing the flax stalks for spinning and weaving by allowing the stalks to ret over the winter in water. To see the sculptural textiles she creates, there is little doubt that through her own explorations of linen, Staniszkis is, herself, uncovering gold.