Summer residency print studio at Contextural.

Photo provided by Siri McCormick

Art school is a fantastic experience — dedicated time and support to explore your craft and creativity. It is a group experience where you can lean on classmates and rely on their critique and advice (whether you want it or not). But when you leave art school, that circle of support disappears.

That is, unless you make it happen yourself.

In 2007, a group of recent fibre arts graduates from the Alberta College of Art + Design (ACAD) gathered. Missing the collaboration and camaraderie of school, they started Calgary-based, Contextural: A Fibre Arts Cooperative.

From those early days, where the small group met to talk about their work, to the current operation as a cooperative, not-for-profit society with annual sales, residencies, and exhibitions, Contextural grew. The current membership sits at 32. The group still meets regularly for critique nights, in addition to the other work. The support model remains.

“At the start we were a group of people who went to school together. But when you graduate, you need a group to help you pursue the profession. That was the start. Then and now we really want to champion contemporary fibre arts,” says co-founder and current board member Siri McCormick.

The 32 members of Contextural all work with fibre. There are artists who silkscreen, some who silkpaint. Some quilters, some knitters. Some use fabric as part of their sculptural work, some use fabric as the medium for dye work. Some work on a commercial scale and some in the fine art realm. Their diversity is their strength.

This diversity allows for open critiques where opinions are valued.

Summer residency print studio at Contextural.

Photo provided by Siri McCormick

“In school you hate critiques, but when you graduate you crave that. The group works that way. I think they are going to see that there is so much more, they are going to get a lot of feedback, and open their eyes to so much more,” says McCormick.

Another valuable resource for members is the access to studio space. In partnership with ACAD – Contextural is now considered an affiliate of the university – Contextural offers a Self-Directed Summer Residency from June to August each year. Artists are given access to the fibre studios for any fibre arts-related work. It is perfect for dying, silkscreening, silkpainting, and more. Many members access the studios to do the work they cannot do at home – indigo preparation and silkscreening, for example. Thus prepping for a winter of making with this work done.

You do not have to be a member to access the studio. Contextural takes applications from other artists interested in a residency. Each artist pays a rental fee that also covers insurance. Non-members’ applications are vetted by the group. At the heart of the decision is whether the artist is like-minded and open to potential collaboration. It isn’t required, but the group is looking for people with an openness to the process and the people in the space.

The process of becoming a member is similar. There is an application process and potential members are voted on by existing members. Central to a successful application is not the calibre of the work — although current, relevant work must be shared — but more the interest in the group itself.

“We are not a very large group, but it is important that when we get together we expect professionalism and ability to work well with each other,” says Julie Baratta, another co-founding member.

Exhibition critique night at Contextural.

Photos provided by Siri McCormick

The ideal member is someone who is interested in fibre arts and respects the diversity of the medium; is interested in collaboration and community; embraces an environmental approach to studio production; and will contribute to the co-op activities such as fundraising and business development.

The existing members see themselves as mentors as well. That relationship is fostered through the critique nights and member meetings. Part of the vetting process has the existing members asking the question, according to McCormick, “What is this person trying to achieve and how can we help them achieve this?”

No member of the group is forced to participate in any activity. All residencies, sales, critiques, and exhibitions are voluntary. Exhibitions are held at least annually, sometimes more often, and as part of the annual Summer Residency, artists exhibit the work they produced as a way to share the collaborative spirit of the group.

Work for sale at Contextural’s artisan market.

Photo by Siri McCormick

Annually, the group hosts a Christmas sale. Again, members can choose to participate or not. It’s hosted in the same location each year, inviting the public to catch their favorite artists as well as to see the progression of work over the year. For many of the members it is their only retail opportunity.

As a not-for-profit society, Contextural operates with a board and membership. There are 4 official board positions, with members stepping in as needed. The board makes decisions on budget and operations. In keeping with the cooperative model, the board does take most decisions on programming and membership back to the members.

Landscape brooches by Contextural member Siri McCormick.

Photo by Siri McCormick

Ecoprint by Contextural member Siri McCormick.

Photo by Siri McCormick

The cooperative model of Contextural provides a solid basis of support for members. It ensures everyone is participating as much as they need or like. And that each member is there for the others. It is important to note that many of the Contextural members are not artists 24 hours a day. Many hold jobs in traditional or related fields. The work and energy they bring to Contextural is special.

“Given that I work a full time job in a totally different industry, it keeps me engaged and active in my personal art practice. It encourages me to practice and participate,” says Barratta. “I like the sense of community. I like giving a platform to other artists and feel good being part of a group that a lot of people find so much value in. The relationships we’ve built, the connections we made — it is really inspiring.”

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Cheryl Arkison

Cheryl Arkison


Cheryl is a quilter, writer, and teacher. She enjoys her Morning Make in the tiny sewing room in her Calgary, Alberta basement.

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