Stacks of different coloured fabric with yarn embellishments Dye Samples. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Smith

Maawanji’idiwag: They Come Together

August 23, 2023
Stacks of different coloured fabric with yarn embellishments
Dye Samples. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Smith

Creative in Residence Chelsea Smith explores the threads of ancestral wisdom that bond and connect us all.

The annual Ontario Culture Days’ Creatives in Residence series invites artists to develop community-engaged projects to be presented during the fall Festival. This year’s lineup of residents explore themes of material culture.

Chelsea Smith is based in Temiskaming in Northern Ontario. Her project draws from both her European and Anishinaabe heritage, and involved the cultivation of plants for dyes, quilt making and storytelling.

August 11, 2023 | By Chelsea Smith

maawanji’idiwag: they come together

The faintest whispers of spring dance across the cool wind. Snow still blankets the ground but the ever-familiar scent of spring clings to the air. I have stored dried flowers from last year’s garden in my studio hutch, and the itch to create returns with the slow homecoming of the season.

I have a reoccurring dream of a hand-sewn quilt, dyed with locally foraged and grown plants, gently swaying in a summer breeze. I also dream of the quilt embracing the earth, protecting the land with the love that it was created with. Carefully and lovingly sewn, tenderly held by amorous hands, conversations breathing life with every stitch sewn in.

The desire for connection and belonging has never been a stranger to me. I greet the feelings like an old friend, returned from a trip that I cannot wait to hear about, to tell me stories of those who came before and those who are here now. I am spellbound by the stories of those I am in relation with. I collect the stories and store them safely in the bookshelves of my mind. Mindfully dusting them whenever I need a reminder of who I am, where I come from, and who I am to become.

Sketchbook with flower and notes
Sketchbook, marigold. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Smith.

My inspiration has always been rooted in my relations; to the land, to the water, and to the soil. To the rocks, the trees, the plants, and to family and friends. They are all beings who surround me, both animate and inanimate. My knowledge is young, freshly coming to life as I age but I collect this knowledge and store it with the stories lined in my inner bookshelves. Plucking at facts and truths as I work with each plant, I have introduced myself to and listened to its story.

I am still learning; I will always be learning. How boring and fruitless life would be if I were to believe that there is nothing left to learn from birch trees, marigolds, cosmos, sumac, and all my other friends.

The hand-sewn quilt started in the very late days of winter, where I spent my time gathering any information I could about the dried plants from last year’s foraging and garden growth. Playing with fabrics and water from the tap to watch colour slowly bleed out from the parched plants, swirling round and round in the pot on the stove. I became so familiar with this motion that whenever I closed my eyes, I would picture the colours pooling in rhythmic motions.

Quilt squares
Quilt squares, nine patch. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Smith.

As I continued this work, I understood it as a sacred undertaking for myself. I was becoming a keeper of plant, dye, and land knowledge. Some of which I have struggled to put into words as there is no way to describe the knowledge of simply… knowing.

I wanted to be sure that these fabrics dyed with plants were taken care of while they were being stitched into one. I wanted people with wholesome energies to breathe their stories into the collaborative quilt so I could be certain that the land and earth could feel their intent. The love of many has touched this quilt, worked it into existence and now it holds their knowledge closely for those who may need extra love and kindness.

maawanji-idiwag; they come together. An Anishinaabemowin word I learned while researching for this project. I am still learning my traditional language and for now, this beautiful word brings everything together. My relations, human and other-than-human, knowledge, stories, ancestors, and newfound friends. I thank them for being a part of this project and for being a wonderful light to work alongside. I hope that this time has been tucked safely into your own version of the inner bookshelf, I hope you tell its story and continue inspiring all the wonderful beings you encounter along the way. I hope this inspires you to explore and deepen your own connections to the beings around you, to find your way home.

Ontario Culture Days runs an annual Creatives in Residence program. Part of the work of the Creatives is presented during public events for our festival of free arts and culture programming across Ontario.

Find more information on Chelsea Smith’s project here, and read more about the 2023 Creatives in Residence cohort here.