“I decided I wanted to be an artist at 14 and here I am at 70!”
Martha Cole is a full-time artist whose fibre artworks have been exhibited widely throughout Canada and the U.S. for the last thirty plus years. As well as being included in a number of public collections, her work has represented Canada at the Yokohama Quilt Week in Japan, the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, the Assoc. of Pacific NW Quilters Biennial Showcase in Seattle, and most recently at the prestigious Quilt National 2015 in Athens, Ohio.
Martha resides in a rural community in Saskatchewan and usually creates fabric works that relate to the natural world—either in the form of large-scale landscape works of the prairies of in smaller, more intimate explorations of the vast array of plants and patterns in nature.
Spaciousness and tranquility abounds around Martha’s home in Disley, Saskatchewan. The open prairie fields is her front yard. A beautiful lush garden surrounds her home studio. The sweet chirping of birds is a constant. It’s in this picturesque environment that we sit down for a chat.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I’m an art maker and a culture maker. When I’m in my studio I’m an art maker and that’s where I get my ‘grounded-ness’ and sense of satisfaction. I’m a culture maker when I put my work in the world and when I teach and enable other people to be creative.
At this point, after having achieved so much, do you ever feel the urge to retire?
Artists never retire. This is my life. My art is absolutely essential to my well-being. As essential as food.
Maybe not retire then, but don’t you get tired? Or ever want to sleep more?
When I’m deadline driven, I get tired physically. Usually three days after the opening of a new show, I look out the window and say: “Oh it’s spring? Last time I looked outside it was fall. Did we have a winter this year?” (She laughs)
Sometimes the focus my work needs really pulls me into a bubble. And sure, the creative well can seem dry. But I still want to make the world a better place and I have a certain responsibility to move my art out in the world.
My semi-retirement is deciding not to worry about selling art. I try not to pay attention to the financial ticking clock. And at seventy years old, the ticking clock of life means that I better do it now. No sense putting anything off anymore!
When you’re in your ‘bubble,’ are you still aware of the space of the prairies that surround you?
Oh yes, that space, stillness and quiet is essential in my work. Even if I miss a whole season because I’m preparing a big show, my psyche knows that I am surrounded by open space and tranquility.
What happens when you come out of your ‘bubble’?
Well sometimes I’ll go see Heather [my life partner] and say: “You’re a very good-looking woman. Can I come home with you?” (Laughs)
Mid-bubble, Heather will also sometimes come into my studio with her appointment book and ask to book time with me. I trust her. I know that if she needs to see me she’ll tell me.
How has stillness and silence influenced your work?
I moved back to Saskatchewan for practical reasons but when I got here, in rural Saskatchewan, I realized it was the best thing. I wasn’t distracted. It’s so quiet. Well, there’s always the sound of birds but I don’t find that distracting. Listen.
(We both listen to the songs of birds)
It’s like this all the time. I don’t listen to TV or the radio. This gives me that certain ‘grounded-ness’ that I seek.
Do you ever work with music?
When my inner critics start giving me trouble, I put music on to distract me. Or if I’m tired and it’s been a long day and I really must work for another four hours, then I put on Country Western music. (Big laugh)
Or k.d. lang or, you know, blue grass. Oh I also love medieval music; Gregorian chants. And if I’m anxious, I listen to Carolyn McDade.
But if I’m really focused on creation—it’s quiet. I have my windows open. So quiet. Oh and the birds! The birds are always there.
They’re pretty loud actually.
They’re essential! The noise of the birds in my yard all summer long is what I need. I’m so used to them.
They’ve become like a creating partner.
Oh yes. And in the winter, we have bird feeders all over the backyard. So I may not have their song keeping me company but I get the visual equivalent. They’re still present. I need their presence. ‘All Is Well With The World’ is what the birds provide for me. When they’re well, then I can move from a place of abundance in terms of my creative process.
Do you feel there’s room for chaotic noise in creativity/making art?
No. I wouldn’t invite chaos. I DO welcome exploration, chance and risks. I often create projects which have a certain ‘built-in non-control’—such as working on double layers and then, after the sewing, cutting away parts to ‘discover’ what is underneath.
You’re surrounded by so much open space. Do you sometimes stare into it as a way to meditate or be inspired?
I am OF the open space.
Do you still seek it out in other ways—like through silent retreats?
I’ve tried meditating. Oh I’ve tried many times but it’s next to impossible for me to sit still for more than ten minutes! I understand that I must be grounded and I’ve worked hard at that. I don’t do things that I don’t believe in. That keeps me grounded, honest and authentic—to not be something I’m not.
I also tried a silent retreat many years ago. It was impossible! I really tried sitting and walking in silence. At the end of that retreat, mine was the first car spinning out of the parking lot. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I did notice that the following week, I felt like a completely different person. It had quite an effect on me and I thought “Oh, I should do this again.” But I never did. Sitting on a beach or considering going on a cruise strikes terror in my heart! (Laughs)
I guess I do a kind of ‘directed meditation.’ I sit in silence in front of my art pieces. I ask myself “What is this piece about anyway?” And then I wait. I think that could be considered a form of meditation… maybe.
Sure, why not!
But I don’t sit in silence and invite the cosmos!
You know, I have to tell you. Maybe this isn’t to include in your interview. Oh you know what, use it if you want. I was diagnosed with cancer this winter. And I have a pack of cards with little angels on them. They’re my Angel Cards. Every card has a different word on it. I usually pull a card at the beginning of every new project. The word that comes up makes me stop and think of things differently or see from another perspective. This also might be called meditation. Anyway, when the cancer stuff was happening, I pulled a card asking “What is the essence that I need to bring to this situation?” I got the word GRACE. The explanation for this card was “Poise and elegance in form, attitude, and action. Give up struggle and allow the universe to participate in the creation of your life.” This was marvellous advice to use all through the whole cancer scare.
Is it meditation? I don’t know.
(Martha gets an excited spark in her eye)
Give me a second. Let me show you!
(She leaves the room for a quick minute and comes back holding her pack of Angel Cards)
(I pick one and get the word EDUCATION. We groan. It makes us both feel like this interview is supposed to be ‘educational.’ So I pick another: FLEXIBILITY. We’re both satisfied with this word.)
I just went to see your new show at the MATA Gallery in Regina. There’s lots of humour in your displays. Does your humour come from the prairie landscape? Or that comes from you…!?
(Martha laughs a big laugh)
Coyote. It’s the First Nations trickster—the prairie trickster. Lots of humour in Coyote and so, in the land. A good example of Coyote would be me saying “Ah, I can draw anything!” Then two hours later I’d get a phone call giving me a commission which would entail drawing railroad trains. But I can’t draw trains! Coyote catches you!
Having a sense of humour has been absolutely essential to me. Creating can be so ridiculous at times. I’m trying to save the planet by drawing? What kind of stand is that to take? I must bring humour to my work and my way of living. And I don’t mean cynicism or irony. I am an enthusiast, absolutely sincere.
You’re armed with humour.
Hah, yes! When things go crazy and worsen—well you might as well start laughing about it. There’s lots of choices. One could get bitter or angry or rail. Why not laugh?
What has been your most important piece of work?
Oh that’s too hard.
(She thinks on it)
All Beings Confluence might be the most important.
Carolyn McDade has a quote that I still carry around with me: “It is our responsibility for where we place our art.” All Beings Confluence is an interactive community based project consisting of many large transparent panels made by many different people. Each panel represents a single living life form and they are hung to fill a space and everyone is invited to walk amongst them and experience being a part of the whole. When people do this, they get it! I’m trying to save the planet—one person and one life form at a time.
Is there still a place you’d like to exhibit your art?
I’m focusing on placing my work in the world. And by the world I mean places where it will be appreciated. I don’t want it in a vault. I don’t care if it goes to the National Gallery. I have a quilt that will be hung in the living room of a young family. Do I want it there? Yes!
Do you have advice for an artist (me) living in the loud city of Toronto?
Embrace what it has to offer, rather than trying to be quiet in it. I lived there for eight years in the seventies. I loved the ability to walk down the street and be distracted by something that you had never thought about or entertained. Spending Sundays eating bagels and cream cheese while reading the New York Times is also a fine way to spend time in Toronto. (She chuckles)
When you were in Toronto, did you ever get that peace and quiet you have here?
Well on the Toronto Island I guess. Though it’s not quiet. But as long as I could see the horizontal somewhere… to see for forever. That keeps me grounded.
What’s your most embarrassing professional moment?
(Martha rolls the question around in her head)
It’s more of an embarrassing state of being. (She laughs)
I’m terrible with names. I forget people’s names on an ongoing basis.
I try really hard to not remember the bad and embarrassing moments. I don’t dwell on them. It’s spilt milk. If I can repair something then I try and then I let it go. I keep my energy creative and positive.
Lastly, would you watch a web series?
I’m pre-computer. So… maybe. Why?
I’m creating a web series with my creative partner, Rebecca.
I think that’s so important! I’ll watch it, sure. Younger artists are doing exciting multi-disciplinary work. It’s shaping the future of art in an exciting way.
Thanks for your time, Martha! For letting me interview you on your only day off this month!
Oh, I was in the studio for a few hours this morning. I can’t help myself. I hope our paths cross again, Marie-Claire. I would love to have more conversations with the new wave of emerging artists—so much depends on you all!
I leave Martha’s beautiful home in Disley, Saskatchewan so completely aware of the birds singing (good-bye maybe?), with a yearning to also have a studio in my backyard and equipped with her determined belief in the new generation of artists.