When Karen Cummings discovered a hand written poem inside the back cover of a library book, she felt deeply moved. “I wanted to keep the book,” she admitted, “but I realized I must let others read the poem too.” She chose instead to purchase a used soldier’s uniform and create a piece of textile art. It’s a creation that has the rare capacity to seep deep into the psyche of its beholder.
When Karen approached me several months ago to talk about her “Hedley Hankie” enterprise, we arranged a conversation. Her husband, Ken Hoyle, listened with rapt interest as she talked about their lives and her current art interests.
Ken and Karen moved to Hedley from Ontario last year to be closer to their children and grandchildren. “Over the past five years we’ve taken steps to simplify our lives,” she told Linda and me. “We particularly wanted a smaller home in a less chaotic area. I gave away 13 large pieces of my art work. We tried to give away a dining room table that seated 12. When we moved from our 3000 square foot home, we were able to load everything into an eight foot container.”
They seem wonderfully content in their bright, recently updated home. Karen’s creations provide a spectacular splash of colour on every wall. Observing their present life, we would not have guessed they endured a measure of turmoil in the past.
Karen’s birth family connections have almost completely unravelled. “I was raised to be a stay at home wife and have children,” she said. She had difficulty accepting the expectations of her family. She did, however, get married at age 18, moved to Ontario with her husband and bore two children. In time the marriage disintegrated.
Over the years Karen entered into various business ventures. “I always loved the creative entrepreneurial spirit. At one time I owned a clothing store in a high profile mall. The rent was $5,000 a month.” Preoccupied with operating the business, she didn’t realize she was going broke. “I was amazed when my accountant told me I’d have to declare bankruptcy. They came and put a padlock on the door.”
Karen didn’t dwell on her personal financial losses due to the closing of the store. It was the inability to adequately compensate her suppliers that she talked about. “The clothes were made mostly by small mom and pop businesses. Also, I had to let my employees go. It was difficult.” After that she was careful to only be involved in businesses funded or serviced by herself.
Everything began to change for her and for Ken (who had also experienced marriage failure) when they met on a blind date. “My boss was Ken’s neighbour,” Karen said. “She told Ken we should meet. We went out for dinner and Ken told me later I never took off my sunglasses.” Apparently the sunglasses weren’t a real impediment. They’ve been together 18 years. “Ken is the kindest person I’ve ever met,” she said. “We talk about everything.”
For Karen’s art interests, 2010 was a threshold year. “I came to textile art. That summer I decided I would pretend I’m an artist. I took courses in drawing and painting. I had a sewing machine so I bought a book about making art quilts. I adapted the techniques and made 200 textile art pieces. Fabrics became my medium. I join them together by hand or machine.”
Now in Hedley, many of Karen’s creations are deftly displayed on the walls of their home. The vivid colours suggest exuberance and ecstasy. A festive celebration of life.
The mosaic, based on the hand written poem in a library book, is more sobering. Entitled The More I Cried, The Less I Spoke, it was written by a mother whose son was killed in the Vietnam war. “I bought a soldier’s uniform, deconstructed it and made a work of art. I believe when I create art, I create a story. This re-construction of the uniform was my way of honouring the soldier and the mother. By displaying it in galleries and competitions all over Canada, I’ve made their story more widely known.”
Karen’s life experiences, including the losses, have given her a greater depth of understanding.
“The world is a chaotic mess,” she believes. “It’s important to have a piece of art that has meaning for you. This can provide tranquility.” Ken smiled and nodded his agreement.
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