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Quilt artist Laurie Swim

The Globe and Mail

It's one of Nova Scotia's most photographed spots and has been immortalized thousands, perhaps millions, of times. But on a summer day two years ago, something was different about the familiar image.

The usually abandoned fishing store in Blue Rocks, near Lunenburg, was humming with activity. The cluster of workers had brought the ramshackle old building back to life - a scene that had a profound effect on Laurie Swim.

"It's the first time I've actually put people in my work," she said this week.

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The photograph her husband took that day became the basis for a highly detailed quilt that went on display last month as part of the show Land, Sea and Memory. The exhibition at Halifax's Mary E. Black Gallery, her first solo show in a public gallery, features works ranging in price from $6,000 to $16,000.

Other works offer similar vistas of land and ocean. Her goal was to explore "the connection of Nova Scotians to the sea," documenting a personal journey that brings her "spiritually closer to the core of the place I have always called home," she said in an artist's statement.



The quilts of Laurie Swim



"I'm a native Nova Scotian, so these scenes speak to me," said gallery director Susan Charles, curator of the show. "The fact that she can capture it in thread and fabric, I think, is just a miraculous process."

Swim was designated a Master Artisan last year by the Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council. Examples of her work are in the Nova Scotia Art Bank and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. A huge collaborative piece marking the 1960 Hoggs Hollow disaster that killed five construction workers was hung this year at York Mills subway station in Toronto.

The effort that goes into each of her pieces is evident - the quilts are painstakingly executed - but Swim sighs that her "rogue medium" doesn't always get the respect she believes it deserves. "I think I'm creating art in probably an artisan medium," she said. "I sit on the fence where both sides aren't too sure about me."

Her bona fides have been buttressed by her 1984 publication of The Joy of Quilting, to which painter Alex Colville contributed a glowing introduction. He wrote that he was "astonished and deeply affected" upon seeing one of Swim's major works.

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"When, without warning, we encounter a utilitarian object like a quilt which also evokes in us a deep emotional response (the kind Panofsky describes as 'unspeakable') and when we then, simultaneously, take in the self-effacing craftsmanship of the piece, then we are in the presence of a work of art rare in our time - a quilt by Laurie Swim."

The introduction to Swim's latest book, The Quilt as Art: Rags to Riches, was a thoughtful contribution by painter Mary Pratt. "She has used the same understanding of line and colours as those artists who created the mosaics on the walls of the Cathedrale in Monreale in Sicily," Pratt wrote. "Every artist must be true to whatever images encourage her to take up needle and thread (or brush and paint). What must come through all of the effort is a way to give confidence to a world that is always in need of reassurance."

This sort of work remains rare. Swim said that fewer than 2,500 people worldwide are part of Studio Art Quilt Associates.

Swim began as a weaver and only later switched to quilting, typically working off a photograph. She explained this week how the rigidity of weaving was too restrictive for her. Freehand quilting on a sewing machine allows her the flexibility to be creative.

And her experience quilting those people she saw working on the famous Nova Scotia fishing stage has her energized about taking that creativity in a new direction. "I love taking photographs of workmen because they're so expressive," she said. "I think there's going to be more of that."

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