Embroidered Memories exhibited at ACUA

Larisa Sembaliuk Cheladyn setting up her display Photo: Marco Levytsky

Marco Levytsky, NP-UN Western Bureau.

A remarkable exhibit of unique Ukrainian embroidered pillows opened at the Alberta Council for Ukrainian Arts (ACUA) Gallery in Edmonton June 2, and runs until June 30.

Embroidered Memories is a folk-art installation and exhibit that features over 750 embroidered Ukrainian Canadian pillows – real ones and photographs, gathered from across Canada. They fill the exhibit space, paying homage to the over 150 artisans who so skillfully expressed their personal and cultural expression with a needle and thread.

For some, these beautiful artifacts evoke a deep, intuitive cultural bond to the Ukrainian homeland and immigrant experience. For others, these podushky represent thousands of hours of detailed stitchery and artistic excellence. Whatever the connection, embroidered podushky have become keepsakes out of respect for our ancestors, as well as the sheer beauty of the craftsmanship.

Inspired by her Master’s Thesis in Ukrainian Folklore, this installation was created by renowned Canadian artist/curator Larisa Sembaliuk Cheladyn. It features pillows collected across Canada from Sidney, BC to Sydney, NS and shares the stories behind these eclectic artifacts, the artists, and the many others who share a clear passionate relationship to these cultural icons.

“I have always enjoyed embroidery, however my interest to study it came from a discussion I had with (artist) Peter Shostak several years ago where we both questioned where a Ukrainian pioneer would have turned to express themselves creatively if they had no access to paper and paints (which was not readily available until after WWII). We concluded it was probably needle and thread – which I theorized was why we had so many unique variations on a theme in Canadian Ukrainian embroidery projects. Although very popular, embroidered pillows had never been studied before – they became the perfect ‘canvas’ to explore,” Sembaliuk Cheladyn told New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

“My original plan was to submit my thesis as a ‘Research Creation’ i.e. an exhibit rather than a written document – which is a new emerging academic trend. How could one possibly explain the magnitude of the variety and richness of the culture simply with words? However, in 2016, the University of Alberta had not yet fully embraced creative approaches to research dissemination, so I wrote the traditional thesis and completed my MA. However, I never abandoned the idea of sharing my new found knowledge with the public. Hence the exhibit,” she added.

June 14, Sembaliuk Cheladyn conducted an online in person virtual tour, during which she pointed out that until now very little information has been collected and recorded. So, she set out to collect as much as she could and started with the backstory.

“Historically, in Ukraine, we find recorded reference to embroidered pillows dating back to the 1600s; they were always mentioned in respect to a young woman’ dowry and the collection of precious items that the bride brought to her marriage… the thoughts of a dowry did inspire the creation of embroidered pillows in the new homeland. There are several in this collection that were embroidered by young immigrants that left home before they were married. And there are still others created by young women who had to leave their dowries behind, but as soon as it was possible stitched at least one that represented their marriage and connection to their Ukrainian heritage,” she stated.

“Each era and wave of immigration had its influence on our material culture. For example, embroidered pillows created during the inter war years, between WWI and WWII, reflect the changes that occurred in commodities and exchange. I found that fabric used by early pioneers was either linen (made from flax) or more commonly fabric from hemp fibers. However, in the late 1930s it became illegal in Canada to grow hemp and ret flax for linen. Therefore, a market for cotton opened up on the prairies. Cotton and burlap sacks became popular sources of material, and small fabric and dress stores were established in many towns.

“Another example influenced visual identity. In Ukraine, embroidery threads were hand dyed with natural resources that were found close to home. Certain colours were common to an area, thus contributing to the regional identity of the people (Hutzuls, Bukovynians, etc.) – motifs and colours even defined clothing from specific villages and families. If there was time, the early Canadian pioneers also dyed their threads with local herbs and minerals. However, with the shift to imported pre-dyed varieties sold by DMC and Anchor), thread colours were no longer confined to regions; the artisan could work with whatever colours they wanted – creating a more homogeneous set of motifs and colour combinations. Ultimately it contributed to assimilation within the culture,” added Sembaliuk Cheladyn.

This exhibition was installed at ACUA in the new neighbouring shared space. This space, which is joined to the ACUA location via French doors on its south side, is a new collaboration between ACUA and the Focus on Fibre Arts Association.

Embroidered Memories was the first exhibition ever showcased in this new space, and the Edmonton iteration was also the last showing of this popular exhibition, which was previously exhibited at St. Vladimir’s Institute in Toronto as well as Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Centre in Winnipeg.