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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 9 | July 4, 2002

The Joy of Flax

Providing the seeds for fabric and art.

By Michelle Cook

Textile artist Joanna Staniszkis has spent more than 30 years searching the world for exotic fabrics to use in her work, but she found the inspiration for her latest project in her coat pocket.

Two years ago, while visiting the Natural Fibre Institute in her native Poland, Staniszkis dropped a few flax seeds into the pocket of her linen jacket. When she returned to Vancouver, she washed it and while it was drying, the forgotten seeds began to germinate.

For Staniszkis, an Assoc. Prof. in the Agricultural Sciences landscape architect program, those seeds formed the root of an ongoing exploration of linen and the flax used to weave it.

Using an empty greenhouse on campus, she began experimenting with the relationship between the plants and their end product. The result is the Linen Project, a series of sheer linen panels and sculptures that have been screen-painted with images of flax stalks and bundles of twisted linen cloth. Hanging alongside them are almost translucent dresses, skirts and tunics with flax seeds stitched into their seams, pockets and darts.

"There are layers of meaning in the installation. My goal was to create another dimension -- a third dimension -- to linen by growing flax from it," Staniszkis says.

Under the greenhouse ceiling fan, the gauzy pieces sway eerily in the early morning sun. To create them, Staniszkis stiffened the linen by boiling it with flax seeds, and then draped it into clothing and organic shapes. She spun some of the cloth herself from plants grown in her own backyard. The rest is custom-made for her by a mill in Poland.

In one corner of the greenhouse, Staniszkis shows off an artistic pun: a linen-draped bed, table and rocking chair sprouting wispy blue-flowered flax plants.

"With this, I'm playing with the words bed linen and table linen, and giving them a new visual meaning," Staniszkis explains. "I'm using linen as a background for images of linen."

Staniszkis has been teaching at UBC since 1969, first with the former School of Family and Nutritional Sciences, and now with the Agricultural Sciences faculty.

As an academic exercise, Staniszkis says her ever-evolving linen installation has helped her to answer design questions, and discover new ways of handling the fabric. Some of her students even got into the act last fall by helping her to harvest her flax plants.

For now, linen remains Staniszkis' fabric of choice. Her next step is to compost some of the sculptures. She is also thinking of creating some flaxseed-filled scarecrows to "tease" the birds in her garden this fall.

"I'll watch to see whether they pick seeds from the ground or those embedded in scarecrows themselves," Staniszkis laughs.

Although the Linen Project isn't open to the public, Staniszkis is collaborating with filmmaker Geoff Browne to document the evolution of seeds to flax to fabric to art.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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