Romy Straathof 

ROMY STRAATHOF, BFA, 2009, FIBRE
ALUMNI DISCOVERY INITIATIVE INTERVIEW BY SUSAN JOYAL, AUGUST 2015

From left to bottom right: Straathof, Romy. Convocation Stole, 2009. Sumi ink hand-dyed silk, hand-woven paper. ACAD Collection.
Straathof, Romy. Mottainai, 2013. Cut/burnt dictionary pages, paper scraps, hand-spun paper thread. 6 1/2 x 4 3/4"
Straathof, Romy. Map Threads, 2008. Hand-spun mulberry thread in loose bundle. 5 x 7 2.5"
Straathof, Romy. Map Threads, 2009. Hand-spun paper thread.    
          

TYPOGRAPHY – the style, arrangement, or appearance of printed letters on a page. That’s how my conversation with Romy Straathof begins. We are seated in her living room, with a spectacular view of the Canadian Rockies straight ahead, and Romy, who is soft-spoken and composed, soon confesses to a great love of typography. “It’s not just the letters, it’s about the space around the letters; how the shape of one cannot exist without the other. It is almost as if the letters are alive and dancing.” I can already sense this interview will be full of wonder.

As a young woman, Romy earned a Diploma in Architectural Technology1 (1981) and an Associate of Arts (cum laude) in Interior Design2 (1982.) Through the 1980’s, she co-owned a commercial design business in Toronto and it was through the published and award-winning projects they completed that she would first understand how creativity and business success go hand-in-hand. In 2002, a course in typography at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design would fuel the idea of applying to the Alberta College of Art + Design (ACAD). Romy did exactly that and graduated from ACAD in 2009 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (with distinction) in Fibre Arts, and was awarded the prestigious Governor General’s Academic Medal (2009) and Board of Governors Award (2009). Clearly, this is a woman who excels.

Her Artist’s Résumé currently lists 10 selected exhibitions, seven (7) awards, six (6) artist’s talks, three (3) reviews, two (2) publications and one (1) collection. When it comes to looking at things, at the world, Romy credits ACAD for offering a “panoramic view of history” that helped her see the interconnectedness of all things. When deliberating on the College’s role in shaping cultural and economic prosperity, she adds that ACAD also taught her that creativity, which requires looking at things differently, facilitates problem solving (a lifetime useful skill). ACAD does this by providing students with the necessary vocabulary to engage in meaningful dialogue and truly understand creativity and its power. The discussion reminds her of a James Terrell quote, “Science strives for answers but art is happy with a good question.” Leaping from the word “cultural” to “cultured foods”, Romy affirms that all of us “long for connection” and are, quite literally, “starving for it.”

Our conversation about typeface and font resumes. Romy explains that languages are like endangered species, and of the earth’s estimated 7,000 languages, one will disappear every 14 days. It is obvious she mourns the loss of languages and the knowledge that surely dies with them. As the interview progresses, I will, I think, begin to understand that her art and many interests are a response, maybe even a hopeful remedy, to that loss of continuity and connection. She mentions, Ise Jingo, a Japanese Shrine that has been torn down and rebuilt every 20 years for the past millennium. According to a Smithsonian article3, that tradition invigorates spiritual and community bonds and helps keep artisan skills alive. Romy concedes that she is almost always looking for meaning and connection. Synchronicity.

The decision to major in Fibre Arts was not straightforward. Initially, Romy started out at ACAD on a one-year scholarship in Visual Communications (Bachelor of Design) because, and she laughs at her ‘naivety’, they offered courses in typography. However, rulers and rules (of design and perspective) would soon remind her of classes in architectural design taken in the early 1980’s. This time ‘round, she wanted more freedom to explore and fewer rules. So Romy experimented with classes in Printmaking (Lithography), Drawing and Sculpture but ended up majoring in Fibre Arts. All told, she would spend six wonderful years at ACAD. I’ll be the first to admit that, for someone who asserts a fondness for typography / words and text / meaning and connection, Fibre Arts wasn’t an obvious choice. And yet, as she relayed more insights, it would soon make perfect sense.

“I can’t believe I didn’t come to the realization sooner, that it took me so long… but ‘textus’4, ‘texture’ and ‘textile’ all share the same linguistic root, they derive from the Latin ‘texere’, which means, ‘to weave.’ That certainly never occurred to me and I marvel at the profoundness and simplicity of what she has just said. Having already researched the topic in depth, she recounts tales of Buddhist texts woven into cloth, and ultimately clothing, for Samurai warriors adding, “the sacred texts provided warmth (additional insulation) and, it is assumed, protection from harm.”

Romy is of German and Japanese descent and, not surprisingly, that informs who she is and her art. There is a quiet nature, a delicacy and respectfulness about her and her work that I associate with Japanese culture. An ancient textile technique, “Shifu”, which uses long fibres of Japanese paper to create hand-spun paper yarn, becomes part of the conversation. An artwork titled, “Map Threads”, was an adaptation of the technique using topographical maps of places she and her husband, Roger, and their two children have lived or travelled to create, “a vibrant energy (that) emerges from the resultant mix of graphic information”, whereby, “each map (is) recognizable by the density of the information it carries.”

In the 2009 Convocation Shawl worn by the College President, she wove panels of hand-cut text and images that included the names of each and every graduate and many of the words and images that inspired her years at ACAD. The idea of preserving language and words and meaning also underpins the artwork, “of everything that disappears there remain traces”5. About 25% of 12,789 endangered plant and animal names was spun into a single thread measuring approximately 500’. In the accompanying Artist Statement, Romy wrote, “through the process of hand-cutting and hand-twisting this single strand, names such as aquatic warbler, boreal felt lichen, Brazilian three-toed sloth, chantaburi bug eyed frog appear momentarily before disappearing into this continuous and fragile document.” I’ve heard it say that good art evokes emotion in the viewer. That is certainly true in this moment. Looking at the snarl of disappearing biodiversity, I can’t help but feel sad too.

These early works and a ceaseless curiosity about nature and processes led to a project titled, Paper Landscape. Thanks to a 2011-2012 Canada Council grant, Romy and an artist contemporary, explored the idea of collecting plant materials, both native and introduced, to produce different papers and, in her words, “understand more fully how I may interpret my research through materiality itself.” Medicinal and practical uses of the plants collected were also considered. The resulting paper library, from ‘A’ (Aspen) to ‘Y’ (Yarrow), comprised 22 different papers. There were some unanticipated outcomes too: the sense of anguish when stripping the inner bark of branches in early spring when the sap was running (like peeling flesh from bones), some real life lessons on plant toxins and pollen, and an acute awareness of exactly how much water is needed to make paper.

Romy would recount her journey of “Pulp Paper Pages” to ACAD students and faculty as a visiting artist lecturer, noting that is one way ACAD supports its alumni. Referencing that experience, she would say, “I enjoyed the talks, however, I’d prefer to participate in a roundtable discussion because I learn so much from students and enjoy their fresh energy.” She also thinks alumni would appreciate invitations to informal seminars, just to learn. And she’s especially glad her name was finally added to the alumni list because she likes getting caught up on alumni activities and news.

“Making art allows me to examine, to think deeply, and to make statements that are more intuitive, not fully formed, and that engage the senses. This is a unique place where statements are not conclusive, but invite others to think.” The ability to articulate a point of view well, even if the statements are not conclusive, is something Romy would urge students to get right when establishing a creative business. Moments later, she says, “there are many ways to participate in the art world and individuals shouldn’t feel pressured; they should participate in ways that feel right to them.” Elaborating further, she explains how, just after graduating, she followed the ‘conventional’ path of participating in the whirlwind of gallery openings and exhibits, artist talks and project planning, accepting all invitations (Royal Canadian Academy of Arts invited her to exhibit in Stride Gallery) and accolades (chosen as one of Canada’s Emerging Artists). Joking that her biggest obstacle after graduating was herself, she quickly admits the pace and demands of that life soon overwhelmed. And somehow, pricing her artwork by the square inch just didn’t feel right.

Retreating to a quieter life, one that allowed this extraordinary introvert to be still and think, and to explore the world in her way and at her chosen pace would prove the best remedy. She is fond of this Zen proverb: “We cannot see our reflection in running water. It is only in still water that we can see.” Romy deleted her website just over two years ago. Since then, she’s devoted a great deal of time to researching plants and learning about their connection to nutrition and health, discovering a fascinating relationship between traditional culinary practices such as fermentation and brewing, and traditional textile and dye preparations along the way. She feels no real need to show her work; if she does produce artwork that someone wishes to purchase, she typically follows the “Pay It Forward” model, which consists of asking clients to donate what they consider a fair sum to a charity of their choice and informing her of that choice.

When asked, “what would you like to be recognized for?” Romy replies “integrity” and follows with a sentiment akin to the Latin phrase, “Ex nihilo nihil fit” (out of nothing, nothing (be)comes). She has studied philosophy and religion and has come to the simple conclusion that, in the end, life’s most honourable intention is, “to be nobody special.” While I understand the purity and nobility of that intention, I can’t help but feel that I’ve had the privilege of spending a couple of hours with someone who is quite special. And for that I’m grateful.

1Northern Institute of Technology (NAIT), Edmonton, Alberta
2Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Los Angeles, California
3http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/this-japanese-shrine-has-been-torn-down-and-rebuilt-every-20-years-for-the-past-millennium-575558/
4textus: page of early text, cloth
5Jean Baudrillard, "Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared?"