The Canadian artist Joyce Wieland (1930–1998) called The Water Quilt a quilt, and although it shows evidence of meticulous needlecraft, it differs markedly from a traditional bedcover: concealed within it are the pages of a book. The surface of this fabric assemblage is delicate and decorative, owing to its off-white colour and the little embroidered flowers that adorn its sixty-four squares of cotton. Each of these flowers is a botanically correct rendition of an arctic flower—and the scientific accuracy is important. Lifting one of the fabric squares from the bottom reveals a page of printed text from James Laxer’s The Energy Poker Game: The Politics of the Continental Resources Deal, published in 1970.


Joyce Wieland, The Water Quilt, 1970–71

Joyce Wieland, The Water Quilt, 1970–71
Embroidered cloth and printed cloth assemblage, 134.6 x 131.1 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Laxer’s book concerns the future of Canadian natural resources; he reports critically on plans by American business interests (as far away as California) to seize control of Canada’s northernmost fresh water and divert it south of the border. Wieland was apparently so alarmed by this possibility, euphemistically referred to as the sale of “bulk water,” that she asked Laxer’s permission to incorporate the book into her artwork. 


Here Wieland depicts the delicate flowers to suggest an ecologically threatened northern environment, while linking the problem to questions of national sovereignty. This way of understanding and representing landscape was unique among artists at the time. The Water Quilt is also a profoundly interdisciplinary object, in that scientific knowledge (the botanical specimens on display) intersects with economics (Laxer’s analysis) as well as with aesthetics.


This Spotlight is excerpted from Joyce Wieland: Life & Work by Johanne Sloan.

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