Bio written by: Saskatchewan Arts Board

Acceptance speech written and presented by: Martha Cole, SCC Patron and fibre artist


2019 Lieutenant Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Saskatchewan Arts Awards • November 4, 2019

Photo: Carolyn Pihach

Martha Cole, Disley

Martha Cole has established a prominent reputation as a master fibre artist provincially, nationally and internationally.

She studied sculpture at the University of Washington, receiving a bachelor of fine arts in 1970 and a bachelor of education from the University of Toronto in 1972. After graduation she turned from metal sculpture to sewing and fibre arts, which has been her main artistic medium for more than 40 years now. Her work has been widely exhibited across Canada and the United States, as well as in Japan.

In the 1980s Martha began to create artist’s books, cultivating herself as a highly skilled book artist and calligrapher, creating handmade, limited-edition books.

One of her most far-reaching projects is All Beings Confluence, a community-based, interactive art installation, where participants are invited to create their own fabric panel, representing a single living “Being”, of which there are more than 350. The project began in 2010 and has been shown in more than 50 venues across North America.

Martha has become a mentor to many artists nationally and internationally. She has taught workshops through CARFAC, the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils, the Lumsden and District Arts Council and numerous other textile-focused organizations across Canada and the United States.

Her art is in the public collections of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, Government of Saskatchewan, MacKenzie Art Gallery, Weyburn Arts Council and the City of Regina, as well as in numerous private collections. In 2017 Martha was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit for her contributions to the province.


Acceptance Speech • “What I Saw When I Looked Back”

I’d like to thank the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Saskatchewan Craft Council and OSAC, CARFAC, and all the other local Arts Councils and Guilds that make up the supportive cultural environment in which we live. Also, Sabrina Cataldo of the Arts Board with whom I had many email exchanges over the last while.

I decided to be an artist at 14 and now I’m 74. That’s 60 years! In all that time I never thought of myself as having an art career — I’ve lived an artist’s life. I still do, so it was a great surprise to get a Lifetime Achievement Award.

It’s a long view back. How did this happen? What have I learned? What has sustained me? This is what I want to talk to you about.

First, of course, you need money.

To quote Gandhi –

“Enough is enough, but enough is necessary.”

I worked part-time as a clerk typist for 15 years to pay the bills. That freed up the rest of my time to make art. After that, I continued to teach workshops to stabilize the income.

  • I worked hard and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to say.
  • I’m self taught in textiles so I needed to acquire practical skills to say it well.
  • Basically, I did it wrong until I learned to do it right. I just kept working.

From this vantage point, I can say absolutely that there is no plan and there never was!

I was in my 40s before I realized that perfectionism was a bad thing. I used to expect 120% of myself all the time. Now, at the end of every art work, I ask myself:

  • Is there anything else I can do to improve it?
  • Is it finished?

If it is finished, I rate it. My criterion now is 87% (I know, the bar is still high). If it doesn’t measure up, it doesn’t leave the studio.

When a new work is finished, I shift my focus to its strengths, not weaknesses. I ask myself:

  • What’s new?
  • What’s working?
  • What is worth exploring further?

I look at the work of other artists this way, too. When you turn off your “Critical Evaluation” button, you see and experience so much more!

Over the years I have actively cultivated a wide circle of artists and friends with whom I can talk art. They are invaluable to me when I’m stuck and the ongoing exposure to new perspectives and ideas stimulates and enriches my art practice. These people are absolutely essential to my well being. A number of them are supporting me here tonight. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

As I’ve already said, there is no plan! This can lead to the darker side of being an artist. It has to do with the perception that MONEY + REPUTATION = SUCCESS.

Many artists just “give up” along the way. In the later years, the lack of financial security and recognition of the very real hard work we all do can lead to major fears and deep bitterness. It is vitally important that each of us define our success on our own terms and celebrate our achievements — in our personal lives and in our art practice.

Getting this award has made me pause and look back. I have been overwhelmed with gratitude for the river of people who have supported me:

  • My parents;
  • My partner, Heather Elliott;
  • Family, chosen family, and friends;
  • Those who organize exhibitions, workshops, and lectures;
  • Our publicly funded galleries and the commercial ones, like Assiniboia Gallery, who enable me to put my art work out into the world;
  • Those you have purchased that art over the years;
  • All those who showed up to my exhibitions and said nice things to me.

By looking back, I can now say that the greatest achievement of my life has been that I have been able to make art continuously all these years. This simply couldn’t have happened without all this support!

I want to end with another Gandhi quote –

“Understand that whatever you do is inconsequential and understand, also, that it is absolutely essential that you do it!”

However you can, keep making art or supporting art makers! Together, we make the world a better place.