Most people would see the winter scene, call it pretty and keep driving.
But Pirkko Karvonen looks upon the golden of stubble of leftover crops poking up through the blanket of snow, and resolves to recreate it with the loom.
Karvonen first learned how to craft fabric essentials as a youth in post-war Finland. Goods were scarce, and her stepmother created everything the family needed with her loom.
“There was really a shortage of everything. You couldn’t buy anything from the stores,” Pirkko said.
She asked her stepmother to teach her how to work the loom, and never looked back.
Through countless hours pumping her loom’s treadles and honing her craft, Karvonen became the internationally recognized fabric artist she is today.
Her daughter Vireo Karvonen says people are astounded when she admits she is Pirkko’s daughter.
“I don’t say this as her daughter, I say it as a person who I keep hearing it from others … She is one of the best out there,” Vireo said. “Most of the people out here don’t really know, right. It’s funny. But when I go other places, like Edmonton, people are just astounded that she’s my mom.”
She added Pirkko is a “true artist” in her triple-threat capabilities as a creator.
“It’s like when you hear a musician, and some musicians – they play and it’s technically good, but they don’t have the passion,” Vireo said. “My mom has the technical skills and she has the passion and she has the creativity.”
Pirkko does not copy other people’s designs, Vireo added, but creates her own.
Just last month, Pirkko was given a gold medal by the Finnish Craft Association Taito for her “exceptional achievements,” domestically and internationally, as an artist and teacher of fibre arts.
Pirkko was 16 when her father moved the family to Edmonton in 1951, in case of the civil war picking up again.
She did not know a word of French or English, and failed all of her courses in school. However, Pirkko said “one of her savings” was being placed in a home crafts class.
“I could excel at least in something,” she said.
In her adult years, weaving helped carry Pirkko through many tribulations. It was the common thread that allowed her to disappear into a different world when her eldest son Ben took his life, when she underwent treatment for colon cancer and when she lost everything in a house fire. Thankfully, Pirkko said, a friend lent her a loom after the house burnt down.
Vireo said she is not sure her mother would be here today if she did not have her weaving.
“There’s been times, and of course the big one is the loss of my brother to suicide – she didn’t actually weave for four years after brother died. She stopped living completely,” Pirkko’s daughter said through tears. “I knew she was going to be OK when she started weaving again. It’s like she was able to channel some of that energy into creating something new, and that’s what’s kept her going.”
Pirkko said her art did help her keep her sanity after her son died.
“I could slip into another world,” she said.
Pirkko learned to make lesson plans in the 1970s in part through her husband – who was studying to become a teacher – thus beginning her long career passing along her craft to others.
She started out giving lessons through Edmonton Public Schools, and Pirkko said a waiting list formed to be in her classes.
Alberta Culture and Tourism got word of Pirkko, and she moved onto the provincial stage, travelling around the province giving lessons. She said she did this beginning in 1972 and until Ralph Klein’s government took office and cut funding for visual arts.
In 1974, Pirkko started the Hand Weavers, Spinners and Dyers of Alberta, which continues to have over 100 members to this day.
It was during her stint with the Department of Indian Affairs in 1977, teaching weaving at Frog Lake when she created her most memorable piece of art, a commentary of her son’s struggle with mental illness.
Melting from burnt umber into crimson and finally to tangerine fabric, Pirkko said the one-by-1.5-metre piece called Three Arrows is an optical illusion. Appearing as three-dimensional, Pirkko said it conveys the message that “things aren’t always the way you see them.”
While at Frog Lake, Pirkko decided to research and teach fabric arts that are traditional to Indigenous culture, which she said seemed to have a profound impact on her students.
“Those students started to believe in themselves,” she said, adding this is something she strives in accomplishing with her students. “They said, ‘We can do anything.’”
Guild of Canadian Weavers editor and vice president Dani Ortman described Pirkko as a “prolific weaver” that has contributed greatly to the guild over the years.
“She is a wealth of knowledge and experience, and has an incredible CV that spans decades of work involved with weaving and tapestry,” Ortman said.
She added when she was transitioning into the editing role of the guild, Pirkko was a great mentor to her.
Pirkko has also been chosen out of thousands of applications to give workshops at the Handweavers Guild of America’s bi-annual Convergence conference over 10 times.
Vireo said her mother’s students have told her Pirkko was “so inspiring” to them. She described her mother’s teaching style as one that encourages the development of her student’s own creativity.
“Because she’s outside the box and she knows how to be creative and design new things. Too, she also recognizes other people’s gifts and what they like, so she will help them that way,” she said.
Vireo said even if people are not interested in weaving, there is an important lesson to be learned through Pirrko’s story.
She said she sees her friends’ parents wasting away in seniors’ lodges, with nothing to do but play bingo. Then she looks at her parents, self sufficient and still dedicated to their crafts.
“I believe one message from this is we all need to find what our gifts are that have been given to us in this world and share them,” Vireo added. “That’s what makes us stay healthy and alive and vibrant at 82 years old.”