In a simple, rectangular studio in Vancouver's lower Main Street artisan district, lost on a wall above a pantone sweep of sweaters and containers packed with skeins of yarn, is a small, playful tapestry that reads: "Leap and the loom will appear."
No credo could more accurately describe the life of the studio's occupant, textile artist Sola Fiedler.
Prowling thrift stores and the occasional estate sale for yarn and sweaters to unravel, the fibre artist has hop-scotched around the globe, often on a whim, setting down in myriad locations for extended periods to meticulously weave large-scale cityscapes in pinpoint detail. Visiting her studio on an early summer day, the petite artist practically vibrates with the kind of energy we all hope to have at 78 years as she excitedly walks me through the laborious process and surprising fine points of her latest work — an almost 4 x 2-metre bird's eye-view of downtown Vancouver and the North Shore mountains.
Already known for tapestry tributes to other cities that have hosted Olympic Games — including Sydney, Australia and Salt Lake City, Utah — Sola began the Vancouver tapestry in May, 2009, and completed it this April after more than 5,000 hours of weaving. Like those other works, it captures in both aerial view and intimate portrayal the architectural elements and spirit of a city at a moment in time; in this case, February, 2010. That each tapestry represents an historical document is ensured by the fastidious attention to detail — every tree, every street, every building (including the correct number of floors and windows) and every colour are astoundingly accurate, no small feat when working at this scale.
It all began with another Vancouver tapestry to celebrate Expo 86, an idea that came to her while taking in the view from a dentist's chair during a root canal procedure. Over the next two decades Sola conducted an odyssey that wove geography and the relationship of urban centres to their landforms into one-of-a-kind art pieces as she travelled to Miami, Atlanta, Salt Lake, Las Vegas, and Sydney.
Since winning a prize in 1973 for Best Fiber Art in Vancouver, B.C., Sola's work has been exhibited in galleries across the continent and collected by many notable corporations and individuals. But benefactors and buyers are only a means to an end; like a ski bum, Sola does what it takes to experience the pleasure derived from weaving. "I absolutely love what I do," she says. "I like waking up in the morning with the tapestry I'm working on right in front of me because I can't wait to get started."
Born in London in 1936, the reuse-and-recycle ethos of World War II played a fundamental role in Sola's daily life, forming the basis for her weaving rubric. Her tapestries "transform the idea of thrift and make it glamorous," the materials donating their warmth to the colourful landscapes. "I figure I rescue 200 sweaters a year from landfill," she says.
Most places (the word is interchangeable with "pieces" in Sola's lexicon) start with a serendipitous inspiration — the dentist's chair view of Vancouver, a Mother's Day trip to Las Vegas — and so went the backstory to Salt Lake City. Sola was driving from Key West back to Vancouver to fly to Sydney and stopped in Salt Lake, where she saw a large graphic depicting the Wasatch Range and city from about a 4,500-metre POV. The canyons and peaks and trees intrigued her, as did their relationship to highways, reservoirs and urban areas. She had a feeling she'd be back. Later, in a Vancouver thrift shop, she found a chenille sweater of forest green with just the right amount of white (chenille being furry fibres of one or more colours attached to a thread), immediately visualized the snow-covered fir trees of the Wasatch and made up her mind to go to Salt Lake. In this piece the attention to detail is again astonishing — every geologic ripple, every tree, every ski run, every house reproduced and sited with consummate accuracy (a decade later she was still using material from the same sweater in the Vancouver tapestry — to depict Stanley Park).
When it comes to leaping into a new project her modus operandi is swift. "When I arrive in a place I go straight to the nearest Home Depot and get the materials to construct a loom. And then hopefully I'm weaving by the next day."
Since Vancouver is home, it was great to be able to return to work on the 2010 tapestry. The large-scale changes that had occurred since she first wove the city in 1986 were astonishing, and you can track the evolution of building sensibilities in the piece: sixties-minded small-windowed high rises in the West End, new millennium glass towers of Yaletown, the red buildings of Chinatown, constructed from bricks carried as ship ballast, many of which have since been demolished ("It's so sad," says Sola, "I love Chinatown).
"There's usually one perfect spot where you can see the whole city," says Sola in her promo video (solafiedler.com), eyes twinkling, "and then I imagine myself either in a helicopter or as an eagle, flying around and I actually physically walk every inch of the city, sometimes going back and looking at a building over and over and over again until I get it exactly right. And so this takes two or three years."
Sola's Vancouver 2010 tapestry is on display at the 4th annual Vancouver Mini Maker Faire (makerfaire.ca) June 7-8 (10 a.m. – 6 p.m.) at the PNE Forum. The event celebrates artists and creators from all walks of life. Few, of course, will have walked as far as Sola.