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Threading her truth: local artist speaks through fabric

Wednesday, 24 July 2019. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Threading her truth: local artist speaks through fabric

Laurel Francis’s quilts are not unlike their maker — bright and lively, with lots to say. Laurel is pictured here with “Ode to Sam,” one of the central pieces of her show currently on exhibit at Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village.   Photo by Jess Harrington

Threading her truth: local artist speaks through fabric

By Jess Harrington

Laurel Francis’s work isn’t just beautiful, it’s also stitched with meaning, both personal and political.

As she puts it herself: “I see my quilts as making statements, even though they just look like pretty pictures. They make a statement to me, anyways.”

Laurel is an artist from the Pincher Creek area who has achieved renown for her exceptional work with fibre and fabric arts.

With 39 years of practice in quiltmaking, weaving, rug-hooking and other fabric techniques, she finds expression through traditional handicrafts.

Her latest show, on display at Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village until Aug. 22,  is a collection of pieces pulled from the private collections of her family and friends.

“This is all off people’s beds,” she says gratefully as she gestures to the entire exhibit.

Laurel originally planned to stage a fully themed gallery show, featuring multiple pieces that explored one central topic. But when difficult personal circumstances prevented her from finishing the anchor piece, she was left to scramble.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Because most of the exhibited quilts were gifts, or made to mark personal moments in Laurel’s life, this eclectic show is inherently intimate, and explores a range of themes that are important to her.

Prominent among these are the themes of family and race. Indeed, almost every piece in the collection either overtly or subtly explores how these two concepts have informed Laurel’s identity and experience as a mixed-race woman.

“Ode to Sam” is a prime example of this. It’s a quilt Laurel made in honour of her late father, Samuel Benjamin Francis.

Sam was a black rights activist, filmmaker and poet, who was determined that his half-black, half-white children would grow to be strong in a world that would often reject them.

“This is the piece that started the whole thing as far as me being a pattern-maker, and doing my own designs,” Laurel explains.

“My father was dying in hospital, and I bought him a quilt to show him what I’d been doing. He said, ‘That’s nice, but when are you going to start doing your own work? This is somebody else’s statement. You should be making your own.’

“Being mixed-race, that was always a theme [growing up]. Don’t tell someone else’s story, tell yours … because no one’s going to do it for you,” she sums up.

Her pieces “Alberta Buckskin Rose” and “Still a Long Way to Go” further this theme in different ways.

Through “Buckskin,” made as a gift for her half-First Nation, quarter-black and quarter-white nieces and nephews to help them celebrate their indigenous heritage, Laurel quietly affirms the importance of her father’s lesson. This blanket tells her loved ones to own their stories, as she has come to own hers.

In “Still a Long Way to Go,” Laurel overtly speaks out against the oppression of black and mixed-race people, and urges them to keep striving, though the path forward is broken. This piece stands out for its stark design and unmistakable slavery-era iconography — a truly striking and important piece of work.

Laurel also thinks this exhibit stands as an interesting exploration of fibre art techniques and, of course, as just a nice, enjoyable art show. After all, it is still a quilting exhibit. While meaningful, the pieces are also fundamentally pretty.

She hopes this show will not only provide viewers with a glimpse into her particular experience, but also delight them and maybe even entice them to try quilting for themselves.

“I hope people get that it’s doable,” she says. “I’d like them to say, ‘Gee, if she can do all this, then I can do all this!’ And then for them to have fun with it, because that’s all I’m trying to do. I just want to explore and have fun and fully share [myself].”

As well as creating for herself, Laurel teaches her crafts in the community, and out of her home just west of town.

She invites anyone interested in learning traditional fibre arts to call her anytime at 403-627-5034, and she will be happy to discuss options for private lessons. She also teaches traditional cheese-making courses.

If you’re not ready to commit to a full class, Laurel will be teaching either a weaving or rug-hooking workshop at Heritage Acres Farm Museum’s annual flower and quilt show, this Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m.

This session will serve as a good example of Laurel’s teaching style, and the show should also provide additional inspiration for taking up traditional fibre arts.