Connected: The Textile Art of Lorraine Roy

2 November 2022
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When I asked Lorraine Roy what she’d consider to be the theme of her artwork, her reply was immediate: “We’re all connected.”

That sense of connection, between plants, their environment—and even the humans who experience her art—is unmistakable in the vibrant, dynamic fabric collages created by the Ontario-based textile artist. From realistic vistas inspired by the Niagara Escarpment to stunning abstracts of trees and their related ecosystems, Lorraine combines a powerful love of plant science and a deep understanding of the interconnection between humanity and nature to both portray connection and create it with the viewer. Lorraine joined me online from her home studio in Dundas, Ontario. We chatted about her process and how her background in ornamental horticulture continues to inform and inspire her vivid work.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Michelle Woodvine: I love the sense of connection that you create within your work, the sense of life and its cycles. How would you describe your work and its meaning?

Lorraine Roy: My work is how I speak. It’s my voice. I don’t feel I’m a very good communicator, voice-wise, but there’s so much that needs to be said; it sounds clichéd, but when I’m talking about scientific research, an image is worth a thousand words. My work is how I express how I feel, and how I communicate that feeling to the world. Realism by itself doesn’t do it, and abstract by itself doesn’t do it, so I combine the two. People begin with something they relate to: They see an image of a tree, and they say, “I know that’s a tree;” they see fabric and say, “I know that’s fabric.” Then they look more closely and say, “There are lots of colours; there are lots of different things going on here.” It makes them ask questions and come up with their own ideas, which is fantastic. So, when I’m portraying a tree, it’s often really about people. People connect personally and feel in tune with whatever is in the piece while also taking in the science behind it—they see how scientific research relates to us directly.

For example, with Woven Woods, it’s about the science—the interconnectedness of trees speaks to us on a whole other level, and we have so much to learn about it—but it’s also about relating it to humans as well. I like to help people make that jump. That back and forth with the public is important to me. I wouldn’t be interested in doing work on an island, just for myself. It’s my voice—it’s like speaking and communicating with the world.

M.W.: There’s a fabulous sense of texture in your work. Can you tell me about the techniques and materials that you use?

L.R.: The technique is very much “throw it down and stitch it down.” My main technique is raw-edge appliqué. I use machine stitching to hold it down and then add details later. Everyone says, “You must use a really amazing sewing machine,” but it’s a forty-five-year-old Bernina. I think she and I kind of evolved together. So, anything that she can’t do, I can’t do either, but everything she can do, I can do too.

I also sometimes use watercolour pencils or paint to accent the shading or add details.

Lorraine Roy Process Collage

The photo collage above illustrates the stages of Lorraine’s process:

  1. Collecting fabric and working on the initial layout
  2. Assembling the fabric pieces
  3. First round of sewing sets down the main elements and the background
  4. Adding some smaller details to the background with paint
  5. Adding more foreground detail
  6. Testing is part of the process. Here, Lorraine first chooses orange for the tree leaves
  7. Changes to the trees, arranging other foreground details
  8. Final version

M.W.: Can you talk me through your process?

L.R.: I do a little drawing first, just four inches—tiny—with not a lot of detail, because if I put too much detail, I feel like I’ve already finished it! I usually buy bedsheets from a thrift store and cut a piece that’s the size of the end piece that I want to make. I lay that down and then start throwing down the background colour and a foreground colour. After that, it’s a little different for each piece, but generally, I cut out bits of fabric and lay them down. I pin them and then take them to the sewing machine. I’ll go back and forth three or four times, adding more and more layers until the design is finished. I either finish it as a framed piece or as a quilted piece. It’s a very simple technique, really. Lately I’ve been using men’s shirts that I find at the thrift store. I don’t use thick fabrics like upholstery fabric and corduroy, because they just make everything way too thick, but other than that there’s no limit to the kinds of fabric I can use.

M.W.: You create such interesting textures that add another dimension to your work.

L.R.: Yes! And there are little bits if you look closer. Some are really small—tiny, tiny little pieces. When I’m making a large piece then the proportions change, but mostly it’s very small pieces. People who sew give me their leftovers; sometimes I can only use maybe ten per cent of it, and sometimes there will be that one piece that works.

image description: a quilted textile image of a wooded area, viewed from above

Napuro. 2022. 30 × 30 cm/ 12 × 12 inches Textile in shadow box. From living-language-land.

Napuro: a forest that looks like ‘an island within an island’

Language: Cuyonon

Region: Cuyo Islands, Philippines

(From Lorraine’s website: “I used an aerial view of Napuro to show the rocks surrounding the ‘island within an island’. The entrance to the Napuro is important…one must know where and how to approach and return from this mysterious and bountiful space.”)

M.W.: Tell me your origin story.

L.R.: I’ve always worked with fabric. I’m from a French-Canadian background, and all the girls had to learn to sew and play the piano. My mother taught me to sew when I was about six years old, but I was never a very good seamstress—that’s three-dimensional design and I think I’m a 2-D kind of person. Then, in my teens, I discovered embroidery. I picked up a kit and I loved it. After I got my degree, I ended up in London, Ontario, and there, I joined the Canadian Embroiders Guild. This amazing group of well-educated, artistic women brought in teachers from the U.S. and the U.K. to teach workshops. And that’s where I discovered that, first, it’s an art form, and second, you can have a career at it. And I thought, well, this is what I want to do.

I was working in [horticulture] nurseries at the time—I love horticulture—and it took about ten years after I graduated for me start using my science background as a subject for my textile art. Around the same time, I started doing it nearly full time.

MW: Your exhibit Living-language-land: Word portraits from the Earth looks at the connection between people, ecosystems, and language. Tell me about this new series.

L.R.: It’s my voice, but also lots of different voices at the same time, which is really neat. I love language. I like poetry and literature, and I often use them as part of my work. I love how different languages view the world in different ways; in French, there are words for things that there’s no word for in English. There are so many words out there in the world that there are no English words for, that describe things that we can’t even imagine. So, when I saw this collection of words, put together by living-language-land, an environmental awareness group in the U.K., in the run-up to COP 26, I was so interested. They selected twenty-six words from endangered and minority languages around the world—words that connected the people to the land. And some were very simple words like the word for a particular kind of boat, while others were about how that culture views the world. So, I’m looking at the words and thinking, “What’s the image that would go with this word? How would I portray something like this?” I was drawn to some words immediately because I could think of something right away, but others were more challenging—which was good for me; it’s really good to stretch yourself with projects like that. Living-language-land is about experiencing words—and worlds—through someone else’s eyes.

image description: a textile art piece representing the cliff of the Niagara Escarpment

Escarpment Scriptures #10. 2021. Commissioned piece. 80 × 122 cm/36 × 48 inches framed textile.

Lorraine’s work highlights the incredible world of the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Ontario.

(From Lorraine’s website: “Did you know our own Niagara Escarpment is home to the oldest recorded trees in Canada? This crucial information was obtained by daring acts of courage, to collect core samples from white cedars perched at the edge of the escarpment face.

These ancient cedars, many being more than 800 years old, are living journals, recording within their yearly inner rings various natural events that occurred within their impressive lifetimes. In this piece, the rings can be seen as scriptures etched on the escarpment face.”)

M.W.: Do you have any advice for textile artists who might be starting out or looking for inspiration in their own practices?
L.R.: Choose something. I know that there are lots of workshops and stuff out there, but at some point, you have to create your own limits, because otherwise you’re just going to be throwing your energy in all different directions and never getting anywhere.

The more you learn about one thing, the more you’ll realize how much there is to learn about it and the more interesting it becomes.

It doesn’t matter what it is: people, plants, animals, trees—look at them from all different sides. I talk to scientists, and they love talking about their work. They’re not always very good at communicating, but they’re so excited to talk to an artist about their work—to give you all this information and see what you come up with. They’re like artists in some ways. So, talk to a scientist or a specialist in whatever field that you are interested in, and it’s amazing how it will subliminally, if not outwardly, affect your work.

Your art is a way that you speak with yourself. You look at it and you think, “Oh my God, I did that. What does that mean? Why did I do that thing in that way?” You find out more about yourself.

M.W.: Whats next for you?

L.R.: Woven Woods is currently on display [until October 29, 2022] at the Cline House Gallery and Studio in Cornwall, Ontario. Living-language-land is going to the Elora Center for the Arts next summer, and next year in Toronto, the Studio Art Quilt Associates, an international organization for textile artists, is having its conference and they’ve invited me to speak about the series. My continuing series about tree rings, an exhibition called Local Ring Tones: Trees of the Dundas Valley, based on the tree rings of the Dundas Valley, is booked for the Carnegie Gallery here in Dundas in July, 2023. The Dundas Valley is in the Carolinian forest [also called the Carolinian life zone], and there are some special species growing here, so I thought I would combine the tree ring theme with stories and Indigenous uses. I’ve become friends with a dendrochronologist at the University of Guelph, and he has taught me about all the things that tree rings will tell you, over and above the age of a tree. The rings are like layers of memory and that relates to how humans remember things too. Memories from the time we’re very young, the memories that you will never lose, form that centre core, and then everything that comes after, goes on top and radiates out from there. I just love all these ideas. I mean, trees are so relatable to humans.

 As a botanist, (often literal) tree-hugger, and firm believer that life is a circle, I couldn’t agree more.

To learn more about Lorraine Roy’s work, including current and upcoming exhibitions, commissioned works, and speaking engagements, visit her website at lroyart.com.

Click on each of the images below to see the details in Lorraine’s work.

Winter 2015 46l

Winter. 2016. Fabric wall hanging, 117 cm/46 inches in diameter.

Lorraine’s work forms connections between art and the natural world, and between the artist and the viewer. Her love of plants and their ecosystems are evident in every piece.

From Lorraine’s website: “Tree roots do not let the mycorrhizal net die in the winter. Instead, trees feed the colonies from their reserves through all seasons. Mycorrhizal fungi and root hairs are abundant and active in winter, but they [fungi] also set spores which lie dormant until spring. In the centre of this piece is a cross section of an overwintering spore.”

Seasons 2015 46l

Seasons. 2016. Fabric wall hanging, 117 cm/46 inches in diameter.

From Lorraine’s website: “Seasonal cycles affect the various processes of tree root relationships—what we see above is only a small part of the complex ebb and flow beneath our feet. There are two types of fungi that colonize tree roots: arbuscular fungi and ectomycorrhizal fungi. Ectomycorrhizal fungi spread their strands AROUND root cells, forming a 3-D spongy structure called the Hartig net. The tip of the root becomes enveloped with a pale mantle, easily seen with the naked eye. For this piece, I used a cross section of root as a model for the centre, to show the way ectomycorrhizal fungi surround the outer parts of the cells within the roots.”

Lll Coble 12x12l

Coble. 2022. 30 × 30 cm/ 12 × 12 inches Textile in shadow box. From living-language-land.

Coble: A traditional open wooden fishing boat built without a keel

Language: Northumbrian Coastal Speech

Region: Northumbrian Coast, U.K.

From Lorraine’s website: “For this piece I chose as model a traditional blue and white coble with its distinctive red sail. Alongside it run the salmon, one of the many species of fish and shellfish captured through the seasons.”

Lll Tamposati 12x12l

Tamposati. 2022. 30 × 30 cm/ 12 × 12 inches Textile in shadow box. From living-language-land.

Tamposati: Those born in the Rio Tambo

Language: Asháninka

Region: Junín Region, Peruvian Amazon

From Lorraine’s website: “This piece features an interpretation of a necklace worn by Yessica [an Asháninka speaker who calls Tamposati home], along with the colour of her woven tunic. The river flows between her ancient culture and the seeds of renewal that she plants in her present life.

Memory 2019 16x16l

Memory. 2019. 40 × 40 cm/16 × 16 inches (framed)

From Lorraine’s website: “The way trees add layer upon layer of cells to make rings reminds me of how we store our own memories. Within the trunk there are also rays that carry nutrients from the inner centre of the trunk to the outside, the way some of our memories surface even after being buried for years.”

All images courtesy of Lorraine Roy.

Copyright © Michelle Woodvine except as indicated.
Head shot of Michelle Woodvine

About Michelle Woodvine

Michelle Woodvine is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor on a quest to never stop learning and making. When not wordsmithing for others, Michelle can usually be found working on her trilogy of speculative fiction novels, learning a new skill, or goofing around with her family (including her very own rocket scientist, two teenage boys, and one feisty ginger cat). Follow the weird, wonderful, and wordy adventures @woodvinewrites or visit www.woodvinewrites.com

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