Several months ago I had the experience of being part of a reading that featured the works of several visual artists. It was at that reading that I first set eyes on Eileen Kwan’s embroidered landscapes. I spent an inordinate amount of time that evening going back and forth looking at the intricate beautiful work. I felt for sure, given how small and perfectly detailed the works were, that they were made by machine. Not so, Eileen Kwan corrected me, when I asked her about it that night. All her works are handmade. I knew in that moment that I had to hear Eileen Kwan’s story.
Eileen Kwan considers herself a métissage of Canadian Québécois with roots in China, where her parents are from. For Kwan, Quebec, her home city, is the cultural dynamo of Canada. “I just love Quebec,” Kwan enthused when I spoke to her. “I consider myself such a Québécoise!”
Kwan has long had a relationship with what she calls “working with her hands” — first as a long-distance bicyclist, then as a successful fashion designer, before transitioning to what she considers her ultimate passion and love affair: gardening. In gardening she found that she loved working with and in the soil, and she loved having to touch things in the environment. For Kwan, it is the “human touch that brings so much beauty into the world.”
But how did this all come about, her leaving a very successful career as a fashion designer, to get her hands all messy? It began, Kwan told me, when she came to the startling conclusion that her designs paled in comparison to nature. “Nature offers up the best designs,” Kwan said, “and I decided that the best I could do is to pay respect to nature in the work that I do. I honor nature by trying to recreate it.”
Nature is an Expanded Canvas
She started puttering around with garden design in her apartment, but after a while realized that this was no longer enough. “For many years I lived in an apartment and did indoor planting, which was fine for a while, but soon I wanted more. I wanted to plant outside, and be even more a part of nature,” she revealed.
By then Kwan had sold her successful clothing line and was being asked by friends to assist them with their gardens. Before long she noticed that not only was she doing more and more gardening for friends, but that gardening had started to give her more than she was in fact giving to gardening.“To see a tomato coming up out of the earth,” Kwan explained, “that is just a gift in and of itself. What a garden teaches us is that there is no time or space to have a bad hair day. The garden keeps giving against all odds. For me, gardening expanded the canvas that I can work with. A garden is a living laboratory. It is coloring with nature.”
Incorporating Winter into the Garden
When I asked her about the short window of time she has to create gardens in Quebec, given that winters there can be so long, she admitted that she liked the time frame she has to do her works. “You see,” Kwan explained, “that short time frame in the summer allows me to have the miraculous experience of seeing things happen up close and in a short time frame. I get to plant things and see them come to fruition all in one season.
“In addition to which, I always try to create a garden for four seasons. Winter doesn’t bother me much because I think of snow like a living sculpture and I incorporate it into the garden. In this way the garden becomes a moving painting. In addition to which, winter is the time I use for embroidery. In the winters I recreate the summer garden on textile. I am so fortunate to be able to do this in the winter. It is all a continuum for me: embroidery in the winter extends the work that I do in the summer.”
And what gorgeous work her embroidery is! They in fact look more like paintings than embroidery, with such carefully modulated and perfectly placed stitches. One has to get really close to examine Eileen Kwan’s work or have an eye for texture to realize that they are not looking at a painting.
“My work with embroidery came from my work with textiles,” Kwan further explained. “That is what I mean about my work all being a continuum.” Here, she paused, reflecting, before continuing. “Maybe, in a sense, my working with embroidery was my first work with textiles, because I remember learning to embroider when I was in grade four, when I was just a small child.
“There is an economy to embroidery that I like. I like the quality of being still and the internal dialogue that ensues. You can literally hear your own thoughts as you embroider, so profound is the silence that embroidering engenders for me. It is almost a sacred space that I enter into when I embroider. And that is why I leave in everything that happens when I embroider. I leave in all the mistakes, because they are all meant to be part of the particular work I am doing.”
Though she is reluctant to see price associated with her embroidery, all the art pieces that she makes are, in fact, for sale. You can contact Eileen Kwan about doing family heirlooms in embroidery; purchasing cushions or framed wall art; or if you would like her to help you create your own personal oasis amid the increasingly fast-paced lives that we all seem to be leading these days.
“I have been in business officially for six years now. I create residential gardens for customers,” Kwan said. “My job is to create a garden that my customers want. For me, this means creating something precious. It is an honor to be able to create beauty in someone’s life, whether that is through using plants like crayons, or whether that is by stitch after patient stitch like I do with my embroidery work in the winter.”
You can contact Eileen Kwan at:
Until next time.
All images provided by Eileen Kwan and used with permission.