Marie Watt: Piecing Together A Story

It was my first community sewing circle. I couldn’t have chosen a better introduction than the one I received from Marie Watt, a Portland, Oregon-based artist whose storied circles bring creative ideas to life.

A half-dozen tables bisected the Great Hall of the National Galley of Canada, arranged beneath the canopy of glass and steel that frames the finest views in Ottawa.  The low winter sun wove deep shadows over the participants, heads bowed to their handwork. Needles and thread moved in and out, a rhythm punctuated by laughter and frequent pauses to admire another’s handiwork or welcome a stranger to the group.

Watt moved patiently and expertly amongst the women – and a few men – explaining her approach to creating communal art pieces. Individual reclaimed blanket pieces, measuring maybe 18 by 24 inches, some patterned by ribbons of removable tape, some nearly naked and open to freeform design, provided a loose map for the many hands working towards creative unity. Numbered drawings corresponding to each blanket piece offered clues to its final form.

Marie Watt Artist
A print, our thank-you for participating in the sewing circle

Watt, a multidisciplinary artist, identifies herself as “half Cowboy and half Indian.”  Born to the son of Wyoming ranchers and a daughter of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation (Iroquois/Haudenosaunee) her work “draws from indigenous design principles, oral tradition, personal experience, and Western art history,” shaped “by the proto-feminism of Iroquois matrilineal custom, political work by Native artists in the 60s, a discourse on multiculturalism, as well as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

“I am interested in human stories and rituals implicit in everyday objects.”

She is best known for Blanket Stories, the stacking of secondhand and donated blankets to create towering installations that reference “…linen closets, architectural braces, memorials (The Trajan Column), sculpture…, the great totem poles of the Northwest and the conifer trees around which I grew up.”1

At her lecture leading up to the sewing circle, I was astonished by the powerful stories behind the donated blankets. While there are thrift store finds, many of the blankets are the most significant family heirlooms one can imagine: Often handmade and frequently re-made by necessity, passed down through generations, brought across time and place, they are amulets to protect and cloaks to make invisible, devices to cover, shelter, carry, store and amuse, and pneumonics to remember, witness, and instruct. How much is demanded of such a common object! I wonder about the people who offer them up: How much is closure? How much is sorrow or joy?

This work-in-progress is bound for SITE Santa Fe, part of the exhibition Unsuspected Possibilities running from 18 July through 25 October, 2015. I hand Marie my card and offer up a vintage Pendleton blanket, the sole memento of a trip to Albuquerque twenty-five years ago.  It may not have as much story-value as others, but it does have holes chewed by my (former) dog, rendering it less blanket-like and ripe for reincarnation. Plus there’s a neatness to its potential repatriation to New Mexico.

Marie Watt Pendleton Blanket
My own Pendleton blanket on offer, purchased in Albuquerque

Marie Watt’s lecture and sewing circle was the first in the four-part Contemporary Conversations series presented by the Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies and U.S. Embassy Ottawa.

Upcoming events in the Contemporary Conversations series:

Nick Cave  Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Eric Fischl  Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Stephen Wilkes  Thursday, November 19th, 2015


National Gallery of Canada
380 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario Canada K1N 9N4


Pocket Loot

If you’re planning on poppin’ some tags at your local thrift shop anytime soon you might want to consider this: A few years ago I was shopping for coats at the Coquitlam Value Village. On I tried one, then another, and another until I finally stuck my hands in the pockets. Out came a fiver, followed by a tenner which practically paid for my entire purchase! Feeling particularly golden, I resisted the urge to frisk the entire rack.

The moral of the story is two-fold: first, people put money into pockets and forget about it; and second, if you’re ever stuck somewhere without cash, look for a thrift shop and go for the scrounge. Winter wear seems to be particularly robust.

I tell this story because spring is on our doorstep and I’m inching towards the annual winter/summer clothes swap-out and closets tidy.  Lo and behold, squished in the back of the hall closet, I found my long-forgotten MEC vest (from Value Village, of course).  Hmmm, I thought, hmmm…..

And hmmmm was right. I recognized pocket loot from the very first squeeze: Out came $60 cash, a stack of business cards, my misplaced bank card, four packs of seeds and the usual wads of kleenex and receipts. Now I’m feeling motivated to clean the van…

What’s the best thing you’ve ever found in your pockets or other unexpected place around your house?

So You Want to Lead a Community Project?

You have a ‘good idea’ and want to start a community project. Good for you. Or maybe not. Here are ten things you need to know to keep the ‘unity’ in ‘community.’

I’m going to assume that you already know that leading a project in your neighbourhood is a yin-yang experience: equal parts pleasure and pain, cooperating with strangers and people you like and/or normally avoid at all costs, that even with a talented team, you will be the first to arrive, the last to leave, perform countless hours of invisible work, and at the end some boob will announce: “Well, that was easy!”

And I know you know how important it is to complete what you start and not leave it hanging in a zombie-like state of purgatory, and, to borrow from the Infinite Monkey Theorem, that ideas are a dime a dozen but people who can finish are worth their weight in gold, that starting small and building cred is critical but not sexy, and everyone wants a little sexy, right? And preferably right now.

So before you whip out your great big idea and start waving it around, here’s a dose of tough love for future community leaders.

1. The nature of an idea

In the beginning, an idea is just that: an idea.  It remains words, a concept of limited use, until it has been thoroughly researched, documented, communicated, and assessed by the community it potentially serves.

Saying you’re going to do something isn’t enough to give you ownership of the idea. How often do people talk about what they’re going to do and not do it or, worse, not do it well?

Ideas provide an adrenaline rush with minimal effort. That’s why, in the beginning, they feel so good.

2.  Feasibility of the idea

First, define your end goal and write it down. Ask a dozen random people to read it and verbally describe what they think you mean. Here’s a hint: You will be surprised by their answers. Rinse, rewrite and repeat.

Second, you need to quickly figure out whether the idea has legs over the longterm. An idea becomes a feasibility study before it can be (or not be) a project.  The study will be modest or complex depending on the size and scope of the idea and will address the five w’s: who, what, where, when, why and provide informed, credible options on how to proceed.

The study seeks to understand community capacity for the potential project and, critically, ends with a ‘Go/no-go’ decision point that asks:  “Does the idea have the appropriate people, skills, and resources to move forward as a project over the longterm? Is the timing right?”

3.  Defining community support

Asking for support is an exercise in semantics. The purpose is to clarify precisely what people are being asked to support. It’s not enough to ask “Do I have your support?” or “What do you think of the idea?”  If the goals and  tangible benefits to the community have not been clearly defined BEFORE the idea proceeds to project form, it will be perpetually undermined by mistrust.

And if you have to beg or bully for support – volunteers or approval – then it’s a red flag that the idea is not feasible (and may never have been).

Ignore this step at your peril. 

community project warning


4.  Understanding community capacity

Does your community have the capacity to manage the project? If you struggle to find volunteers to organize a potluck, fundraising dinner or community picnic you are highly unlikely to be successful with complex projects which require specific technical and business expertise. Stretch goals are good but it means the idea leader must be prepared to step up their game, to secure the appropriate level of resources before proceeding.

As the idea leader, you need to ask yourself the really tough questions: Am I the right person for the job? Is my presence making the project unpalatable to others, particularly high-performers? And, for goodness sakes, don’t berate the community for not meeting your personal expectations.

It may be ego-bruising, but It’s a positive, not a negative, to grasp the existing limits of community capacity.

 5.  Know when to fold ‘em

There’s no shame in shutting down an idea or accepting that the timing may not be right. Setting a one year time frame for discovery is ample to assess community interest, capacity, leadership, financial potential and to draft a rudimentary, but useful, business plan. If the basics haven’t been crafted in this duration, chances are they never willIt’s time to enforce a ‘no go’ decision.

Allowing infeasible ideas to drag on – sometimes for years – chisels away at the unity of the community it is supposed to serve (see #10).

6.  Attracting high-performing volunteers

Don’t expect the best and brightest in the community to drive your idea or project (that’s your job), especially when they are already driving other community endeavours. High-performing individuals have established interests and priorities and your project needs to excel across the board to attract (and keep) their attention.

A ‘good idea’ is not enough but strong, effective leadership may be.

7.  Consultation and communication

Communicate to educate, engage and inform but don’t be a press or political whore, demanding attention for an idea that’s half-baked. Be modest because things can and will go wrong. Get some tangibles under your belt before leading a parade.

When you need public feedback produce a strawman proposal based on solid research so there is a basis for discussion. Asking people to attend a meeting to “gather ideas” willy-nilly, without proper structure or handouts, wastes their time and undermines your credibility.

Goodwill has a limited shelf life before people get frustrated or bored and tune out.

8.  Funding is not the most important thing

The difference between a small and large volunteer project is complexity (more steps/dependencies) and size of budget. But the principles of effective leadership, communication, volunteer management,  project planning and risk management remain the same and determine success. Financing is, of course, important but it doesn’t supersede all else. It’s easier to ask for (and receive) money when you’re knocking it out of the ballpark with superior research and documentation.

And speaking of money, don’t accept private or public funding before your project plan is solid. Arguably, it’s morally questionable and can create long-term problems for your community (see #10)

9.  Leadership is hard, not glamorous, work

Which is why it’s (generally) easy to find volunteers to complete tasks but hard to find people to take the lead in a community project.

But if you deeply believe in what you’re doing, then you’ll be the one who bucks up, doing what needs to be done, learns new skills, reads everything you can get your hands on, becomes the subject matter expert, and refuses to take your eyes off the prize – the defined end goal.

You will definitely not be that person who hides in the cloakroom when it comes time to push a broom.

If it all seems a bit too much like work, then you’re better off saying ‘no’ than saying ‘yes’ and failing to work to completion.

10. Success matters

Project mishandling can leave a troubling legacy for a community project. Failure can sully a good idea rendering it unusable, leave financial messes for others to clean up, antagonize stakeholders, negatively impact community reputation, scare off volunteers and other resources, and create division within a community.

But you’re not going to be that person, are you?

LeBreton Flats: An Acre of Time

LeBreton Flats: An Acre of TimeDear Phil:

It was my pleasure to meet you for coffee and finally put my hands on An Acre of Time, a history of LeBreton Flats. I wasn’t kidding when I said I discovered you in the most random of ways, a mention buried in the comments section of a review of a book of historical maps of New York:

An Acre of Time

Truth is, I know more about the history of New York City than I do about Ottawa, my home for the past 17 years.  The busyness of daily life chisels away the exoticism and mystery of a place until it seems hardly worthy of further notice. But Ottawa is a city no less worthy nor interesting than any other if one is willing to dive deeply into the layers of story.

Understanding history, beyond the party trick of reciting dates and names, is complicated. It requires a tipping point of fundamental knowledge, which is quickly crowded by a multiplicity of interpretations and points-of-view. It demands a persistent curiosity to move beyond the scratched surfaces of people long dead, places drawn and quartered and events interpreted by subjective bystanders. Then there’s the question of where to begin.

You weave a story of an acre of land, lying below Parliament Hill and bounded by the Ottawa River, from when it lay drowned by an ancient sea – and whales swam overhead – to when it dried out, greened up, and peopled out, the first settling over millennia, the rest arriving in a frantic blink of an eye. The acre was chopped down, carved up, built-on and, finally, stripped bare of its community and left to die, a brownfield fifty years thus.

In the beginning you invite readers to  “Leave where you are and come stand beside me” and in that line lies the strength of your story. It is engaging, intimate, contextual and readable narrative non-fiction whose scope and scale is kept in check by the birds-eye view from your first-person roost.  Anyone who’s read Canadian history will recognize the thematics of conflict we’ve grown to know and love: English vs. French, colonials vs. First Nations, Canada vs. America, land vs. money, power vs. ideals, government vs. the people,  locals vs. immigrants, and community vs. urban renewal. Herculean subjects all, but still you propel the story forward.

The first point you make abundantly clear is this: Make no mistake, it is always about the land.

The story [of the acre] comes to us from letters and recorded speeches of men now dead, so we can never ask the first person what the real story was. Besides, there is no such thing as the real story.
Between 1599 and 1633 [French explorer Samuel de] Champlain will cross the Atlantic twenty-nine times, averaging just over two months per crossing - five years of his life spent commuting. If professions have lineages, Champlain's leads down 400 years to the astronauts in the Apollo moon missions. On behalf of an imperial power....he went to the edge of a frontier and extended it...a 'terranaut'
But there was a vital difference between his job description and that of the modern astronauts. The frontier Champlain was contracted to explore was already inhabited.

The frontier Champlain was contracted to explore was already inhabited.

As with any Eden, the acre will be for one last time lush, fecund, and unspoiled. Land that defies the word ‘undiscovered’,  that has supported woodland peoples since the beginning in a “constant and massive presence for over twenty centuries” had been ‘found.’  With one fell swoop, everything changed.

...the acre is be a construction site of organic architecture, bustling with ingenuity and survival, reproduction and extinction. Skylines will grow, forest fires will level those, and new skylines will rise in their place...The settling of the acre by generations of flora will proceed unhindered until, to be precise, 1818, when the lordly trees will feel the first predator: a man with an axe.
Here comes a biped with an ability to adapt that is frightening. It combines a limitless curiosity with the skill of manufacture...a brain that grasps solutions and hands that can grasp anything...a prodigious memory, and it very much enjoys breeding. It is determined, sooner or later, to go everywhere and, once there, to stay.
Progress had arrived, and progress is a train with no reverse gear.

You tell us “the written history of Canada is a book that starts only five centuries ago.” Unfortunately whatever bones lie in whichever ground bear little weight compared to the stroke of the pen. What can be recorded in a ledger – and conversely legally bought and sold – is what matters. But King George III’s proclamation of 1763 – a written proclamation, a promise to protect native land –  didn’t help much, did it? And when the land registry books were inscribed, the Algonquins were left out.  Clearly, pen and paper do not serve everyone equally.

But, as you’ve said, it’s all about the land, land that was arguably never ceded, never traded away for a “…few goods… [that] are soon worn out and gone.”

They came and kept coming and this latter-day inundation overwhelmed: French, English, Loyalists, American entrepreneurs, European migrants and land speculators, looking to make their fortune first on fish and furs then on timber and free land. They aimed to leave their mark.

Place names...let history know who has passed this way...Landlords, as they arrive, mark their territory not by leaving scent on a tree, but by changing the title of the ground the tree stands on.
When they took over management of new land in their rash of colonization, the British exported the doctrine of enclosure. An unwitting recruit, the acre lost much of its spiritual wealth and respect in the process. Its essence no longer lay in its ability to provide food for a native family, but was inherent in its surface area and its proximity to a waterfall. It was primarily this latter virtue that first bestowed on the acre its market value.

When land is transformed into real-estate, the phases shifts from its natural gifts to its commercial potential; from greenery to greenbacks.

Fast forward a hundred and fifty years. LeBreton Flats is very much alive, a mixed-use blue collar neighbourhood, yes, but no slum. Interesting and homely, but not aesthetically pleasing in a Rockcliffe kind of way, it is deemed unworthy to lie below Parliament Hill and so it must be expunged.

Cities have always been cannibalistic. They eat large chunks of their own pasts, chewing up landscapes and buildings and regurgitating them. This municipal mastication implies a kind of hunger, the hunger to replace then with now, to recycle stale visions of a city with fresh ones.
What happened to the acre in the 1960's was the result of a steamrolling civic vision. It is perhaps the premier example in the country of the haste to reach glory, to be world-class, overwhelming a parochial sense of community.
Canada got its own [Washington] District of Columbia. With the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill as the centre pole, the National Capital Region was staked out like a groundsheet, nine hundred square miles on either side of the river. The fiefdoms within it, the cities and villages, kept their mayors and their councils, but chains were rattled. A higher authority, the National Capital Commission, had been turned on, with the ultimate right to expropriate.
"Owning" land is a myth. Ownership of part of the earth's crust is really no more than leasing, with the option to sell to lease. Expropriation is always possible, by an act of government or an act of violence. In the acre's case, Chapter 106 of the Expropriation Act of 1952 gave sanction to the unhousing of the 2,800 people who lived and worked on the Flats. of May 1964, "the Commission has been able to demolish seventy-five buildings, which may contain as many as twenty-five families, out of a total of 215, and the balance are being removed as quickly as possible." He went not to say: "As is characteristic of local residential districts, when about 40% of the properties are vacated, the occupants of the balance of the housing leave voluntarily. This seems to be caused by the break-up of the social community and the remaining homes, due to their proximity to vacated housing which is subject to vandalism and to other annoyances. As a result, most of the occupants of residential properties in the Le Breton Flats have now left."

LeBreton Flats

After expropriation and demolition the acre began its “second childhood.” It reverted back to crown land, a tabula rasa, begging the questions: Who is its rightful owner? And what is its highest and best use?

Fast forward another fifty and we’re on the eve of approvals implementing a Phase 2 development vision for the site. For the record, Phil, I’m partial to your vision of an urban forest and park. I have spent my fair share of time in Stanley Park and Central Park and can’t imagine either city without its timeless green.

I look forward to our acre walkabout and luncheon as soon as the weather shifts from bitter cold to bearable. I hope you still have the giant measuring rod you used to mark out the acre, way back when, because there are pictures to be taken besides having much to discuss.

I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Kindest regards,



Further reading:

Fields of Vision by Phil Jenkins

Riversong by Phil Jenkins

Beneath My Feet by Phil Jenkins

Food Hub: Wendy’s Country Market

Wendy Banks, Rick Trudeau and their daughter Leigha are sixth- and seventh-generation farmers on their family property in Lyndhurst, Ontario. Wendy and her siblings grew up steeped in the value of land and food, her father, Neil, believing that one day there would be a shortage of both. While his hands worked the soil in the present, he and his wife, Gail, amassed a thousand acres and planted trees with an eye to the future.

The market occupies a heritage one-room schoolhouse on that land, repatriated to the family homestead when it was closed in 1956. Most of the other neighbourhood kids worked summers at the local Opinicon resort as waitresses, chambermaids and maintenance staff, but Wendy stayed put.

“I never wanted to leave,” she says, and she didn’t, watching others around her drift off the land to somewhere else.

It was a frozen January morning when I drove down to meet her. I had heard about the hub, and was intrigued by the year-round delivery option, being able to order food online by the week instead of being bound to a fixed subscription of defined offerings with a single CSA. If I needed twenty pounds of potatoes instead of five, or one bottle of milk instead of three, I could order exactly that.

The Evolution of Food Hubs

Food hubs are a fairly recent phenomena, taking a variety of forms but with a two-fold common mission: 1) to distribute locally grown food directly to end users (individuals, restaurants, institutional clients); and 2) to strengthen food security, reducing dependency on imports. Through aggregation, hubs provide the widest product selection and benefit both growers and consumers: Consumers don’t need to drive around the countryside to buy from individual farms and, likewise, growers find their market en masse. It’s about strength in numbers.

As we stood chatting, a few customers came and went, on the surface a ‘slow’ day compared to the crowds of 500 to 800 who show up from late spring through early fall, especially on weekends. But, as Wendy writes, life on the farm is never really ‘slow':

For farmers with animals there is the thawing out of water , trudging through the snow or ice to feed them 365 days of the year (there are no snow days ). Winter is time to repair and do machinery maintenance. Greenhouses must be constantly monitered for snow loads. Anyone with wood fires knows that is a semi-full time job. For those still selling root crops , this is the time of year that the cold and icy water veggie baths are not so refreshing! It is also the time…to plan the year ahead figuring out what worked and what did not. It’s time to get all those seed catalogues out and try to figure out what is going to be the big sellers for this year. This is a gamble in itself.

Her grandmother’s red cedar-strip canoe is suspended from the turquoise ceiling above the chalkboards listing products from the dozen or so fridges and freezers arranged around the room. I open and close the doors and peruse the shelves, slowly assembling my order: two kinds of homemade ice cream (amazing!), wild leek pesto, whole milk in a glass bottle, turkey sausages, raspberry pie, sweet potatoes the size of a small cat, dried chilies, apple cider, brussel sprouts, leeks, artisanal cheese, and an assortment of colourful root vegetables. I’m too early by a week for the first greens of the season.

Lyndhurst is in the heart of cottage country, surrounded by lakes, campgrounds and second homes. During peak season, visitors flock to the market to purchase fruits, vegetables, poultry and meats as well as dairy, baked goods, pre-made entrees, fish and dry goods from more than seventy local producers. Three-quarters of the produce and two-thirds of the meat/poultry/fish is organic and traceability – knowing precisely where one’s food is coming from – is a big part of the attraction. Each week she delivers to about fifty local restaurants and offers location-based catering. And one Sunday a month, from April through October, she hosts thematic fairs featuring chefs, musicians and artisans.

Wendy’s goal is straightforward: to sell more local food to more people. But market development –  matching capacity to market share – can be tricky. There are currently more producers in the area than customers. One of her strategies is to partner with CSA’s (individual farmers) who have an existing customer base and a desire to expand their product offerings. Another is to sell more into her current catchment area – Napanee to Kemptville – leveraging community groups or businesses as single-point drop-offs for new clients. Once again, it’s about strength in numbers.

What you can do to support local food

1. Purchase from the market in person (see map below)

2. Advertise the mobile market to your neighbours; arrange home delivery, organizing group drop-off into your community (mobile market order form here)

3. Encourage your favourite restaurant and company cafeteria to buy local food (commercial information here)


As the signs by side of rural roads remind us: “If you ate today thank a farmer.” It’s a tough but essential job, requiring strength of character, persistence and a long view of the world. Wendy was born on the land but what keeps her rooted there?

You may ask WHY do it . The answer is FARMERS LOVE WHAT THEY DO!! IT IS IN THE BLOOD! Farmers love the feel and smell of the earth and the outdoors. The joy of seeing seedlings sprout over and over again. The love of living where they work and being their own boss. The joy of little calves sucking on their shirt sleeves, watching hens scratching around the yard and the birth of newborn animals. The pure joy of feeding people healthy food. Seeing customers eating fresh dug carrots and introducing new veggies to children . These are some of things on why farmers are farmers. Next time you talk to a farmer ask them why and watch this big grin start as they explain WHY.

Food Hub: Wendy's Country Market Food Hub: Wendy's Country Market Food hub: Wendy's Country Market Food hub: Wendy's Country Market Food hub: Wendy's Country Market Food hub: Wendy's Country Market Food hub: Wendy's Country Market

 For more information:

Wendy’s Country Market

Wendy’s Mobile Market

Upcoming Events

Further reading:

The Popularity and Potential of Regional Food Hubs

Local food books from Chelsea Green Publishing

The Ontario Table: The Best Food From Across the Province by Lynn Orgryzlo

Exploring the intersection of people, their homes, and communities