Realism meets folk art in Sola Fiedler’s Vancouver Tapestry
by Robin Laurence
Sola Fiedler’s East Vancouver loft is more dedicated to fibre art than to interior décor.
Furniture is secondhand and mismatched: a sofa bed, a couple of chairs, a small side table. On and under all the worktables and benches are bins and boxes stuffed with thrift-shop sweaters and vests, yarn unravelled from them, and newly upcycled objects, such as hats, knitted by Fiedler. Much of the remaining floor space is taken up by clothing racks, also hung with salvaged sweaters, arranged by colour and awaiting repurposing.
At first, the impression is of wandering into the wardrobe department of a winter-weather theatre group. After a few minutes in the presence of this passionately dedicated senior artist who paints, she says, with yarn, the effect becomes that of an immense palette overflowing with deliciously graduated pigments—blues and greens, yellows and oranges, reds and pinks and creamy whites.
The knitted hats are a rent-paying sideline. Fiedler’s reputation as a fibre artist is based on her large, highly detailed cityscape tapestries, which are also woven from the yarn she reclaims from the discarded garments she collects.
“Why use so many of the Earth’s resources making new stuff,” Fiedler asks, “when there’s so much lovely stuff already out there?”
Born in London, England, in 1936, Fiedler recalls wartime and postwar shortages and a consequential ethos of recycling and repurposing. It’s a philosophy that continues to shape her life and her art.
Fiedler also remembers being evacuated from London to Wales as a child, safe from the Blitz but desperately missing her parents and withdrawing into herself. Through the lonely years of the war, she roamed the Welsh countryside, gathering and playing with the tufts of sheep wool that had caught on barbed-wire fences.
“That’s where my love of wool comes from, and I’ve never lost it,” Fiedler says. “That was my comfort then and it’s my comfort now.”
Her fibre-art vocation, however, didn’t assert itself until she was in her late 40s. In the meantime, she emigrated to Canada, landing first in Toronto, where she worked as a scientific researcher, moonlighted in a coffeehouse, and then opened and ran the Riverboat folk club in an old house in Yorkville.
After splitting with her partner, she moved with her daughter to Vancouver, and founded and operated Kitsilano’s famed Soft Rock Café, a 500-seat coffeehouse she created out of a defunct mattress factory and show room. “When I came to Canada, I started recycling old buildings,” she says, laughing.
Fiedler launched herself into her first large tapestry-weaving project—self-taught and, she reports, extremely naive—in the early 1980s. A view of downtown Vancouver, it was made in anticipation of Expo 86 and with the personal understanding that our cityscape was about to change forever. Now, she says, “I’ve come full circle.”
Her most recently completed tapestry is an aerial view of Vancouver in the year 2010. It includes the Olympic Village on the south shore of False Creek, a downtown bristling with condominium towers, the low-rise brick buildings of Chinatown, the lush greens of Stanley Park, and the snow-dusted, house-dappled North Shore mountains.
Like all her works, the Vancouver Tapestry—which took some 5,000 hours to complete—is executed in a style that marries realism to folk art’s closely observed and carefully articulated details. The folk element is the consequence of her not depending completely on photographs but walking every inch of the city and looking carefully at its components. “I know every building, every tree,” she says. “When I’m actually working on a tapestry, it’s really important to me to get it absolutely accurate.”
Then she adds: “It’s hugely about maths, because if you’re doing buildings you have to work out exactly how many windows there are and exactly how many floors.” She values the personal connections viewers bring to the work. “People will come right up to the tapestry and say, ‘I live right there’ or ‘That’s where I work.’ ”
These connections, in combination with the unspoken histories woven into the image with every repurposed sweater she unravels and reweaves, and the documentary sense of preserving a moment in the life of a rapidly changing city, are what make this tapestry particular to this place. Fiedler is not at all shy about saying that she hopes to find a buyer for the work who will keep it and display it in Vancouver.
“I do not want this tapestry to end up in Hong Kong or Dubai,” she says. “It belongs here.”
Sola Fiedler’s Vancouver Tapestry will debut at the grunt gallery’s 30th-anniversary party on Thursday evening (August 28) at the Mainspace Community Gallery (adjacent to and accessed through the grunt). It will be on display there from 12 to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (August 29 and 30).