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Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Bettina Matzkuhn embroiders her love for landscapes, nature, and communicating ideas

Bettina Matzkhun by Aida Gradina
When Bettina Matzkhun embroiders landscapes, she aims to create characters. Photo by Aida Gradina.

Vancouver artist Bettina Matzkuhn knows that textiles have a long history of incorporating stories. She’s continuing this tradition with her use of fibres in her embroidery.

“I don’t want to just get hung up in making pleasant and interesting surfaces,” Matzkuhn tells Pancouver over Zoom. “That’s part of what I do. But it has to lend itself to an idea.”

As an example, the East Vancouver textile artist recalls making life jackets with the insides embroidered with images of nature and human needs, such as water, shelter, and food.

“That embroidery draws people in, but I hope that they will actually think of the context of that thing or how it’s presented,” she adds.

For a project called Gear, Matzkuhn embroidered landscapes on linen and then incorporated these designs into backpacks. When someone opens this gear, they will see a scene of a wildfire or a landslide or trees falling down.

“It’s like the backpack is carrying the land,” she says.

It prompts Pancouver to ask the mostly self-taught craft artist if she practises “meaning-based embroidery”.

“I guess you could call it that,” Matzkuhn replies with a chuckle.

Her dad was keenly interested in sailing, so she spent a lot of time on the water, observing landscapes. In those days, her father taught Matzkuhn how to read charts, sparking a lifelong love of maps. One of her embroidery projects, Sail, honours her dad. Another one, Maps, describes “personal or imaginary journeys”.

“When I’ve done landscapes, I feel like I’m making a portrait of a character,” Matzkuhn says. “I’m trying to convey to somebody what that character is like.”

Bettina Matzkuhn
Bettina Matzkuhn embroidered this work with banana fibres that she brought home from Taiwan.

Matzkuhn learned about nature from her father

Both of her parents were children during the Second World War and escaped from East Germany at different times when it was under Communist rule. Matzkuhn readily acknowledges that Germany was the villain in that war, but notes that children are never at fault when military conflicts erupt. As a result, she feels great compassion for the plight of kids in war-torn parts of the world, including Ukraine and Gaza.

Her mother fled East Germany by crossing the Soviet-patrolled border into West Germany on her bicycle in the middle of the night.

“As a young woman, you did not want to be caught by the Russian army,” Matzkuhn says.

Her dad was a 20-year-old bricklayer who participated in a major strike in East Berlin in 1951. In his memoir, he stated that he was able to cross into West Berlin on a borrowed passport.

Once her father arrived in Canada, he had no interest in even socializing with other Germans, let alone going back to the country of his birth.

“When he came to Vancouver, he said he thought he had died and gone to heaven,” Matzkuhn says. “He never stopped thinking that this was the most amazing place. And he would never dump oil in the water or catch more than one fish that we could eat at night.”

Her parents’ respect for the land has rubbed off on Matzkuhn. On her hiking trips into the woods, she always takes a plastic bag to ensure no garbage is left behind.

“I’m interested in natural history and ecology—things like glaciers disappearing,” she says. “I’m working on a thing right now about drought.”

Matzkuhn
Cortes Ferry, by Bettina Matzkuhn.

Craft works have a voice

In 2000, Matzkuhn earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, focusing on visual arts, from Simon Fraser University. Five years later, she graduated with an SFU master’s degree in graduate liberal studies.

“I had a day job, because embroidery is not going to feed the kids and put shoes on them,” she comments.

Nowadays, she’s a full-time embroidery artist who has exhibited her crafts at many solo and group exhibitions. She’s also the Craft Council of B.C. representative on the Canadian Craft Federation board of directors.

“I always think of craft as a province of the nation of visual art,” she states. “Even if someone makes a plain, functional craft object, it still has a voice. It still communicates through materials and the maker’s hand.”

On a recent trip to Taiwan with two other Vancouver craft artists, Matzkuhn gained even more appreciation for how fibre-based art is a visual language. The National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute helped arrange the tour, which included stops at studios specializing in working with banana fibres, bamboo, bullrush, and indigo and other natural dyes.

“The trip reinforced that crafts people inherently understand each other,” Matzkuhn says. “There wasn’t this kind of confused look and ‘How long does it take you?’ question. There’s just this automatic respect and fascination with each other’s work—and a real, sincere interest from every age group.”

She was particularly impressed by Taiwanese master Ching-Lin Chen’s landscape paintings created from natural dyes. Chen displayed some of those works last year on Granville Island as part of LunarFest Vancouver’s Colours of Formosa exhibition.

While in Taiwan, Matzkuhn marvelled over Master Chen’s use of indigo dyes to create stylized mountains with dark, rounded peaks and paler shades at the bottom. She wondered why he did this when mountain peaks in B.C. tend to have spiky edges due to all the fir and hemlock trees.

“Then, we were driving in the little van and I’m looking out,” Matzkuhn recalls. “They don’t have conifers. The mountains have round, bumpy edges. And all the mountains are dark at the top and pale at the bottom. That’s his landscape.”

This leads to a reflection on her mission as an embroidery artist.

“I’m trying to make the person looking at it feel like they’re part of it; they’re there,” Matzkuhn says. “The thing communicates in some ways. So, that was really cool to see that.”

Matzkuhn
Bettina Matzkuhn embroidered Banyan with banana fibres.

Learn more about Bettina Matzkuhn’s work by visiting her website or following her on Instagram. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

 

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.