Children’s author, performer, and former librarian, Theo Heras, recently unveiled her newest needlepoint project, Pandora’s Pandemic Box. It is part of her series of needlepoint works called Words in Wool. At LT we love our librarians so we met up with Heras to discuss her version of that ill-omened box.
The centerpiece of Theo Heras’s latest work is the image of a box, one that looks like the carboard delivery packages on doorsteps. Like the classical Greek version of Pandora’s Box, a warning on Heras’s box: DO NOT OPEN, guarantees that a human being will open it.
LT: Theo, your box releases a swirling vortex of words related to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you decide which words to use?
Theo Heras: We have a whole new glossary of words from COVID-19. I looked it up. There are over 100 words that are linked directly to COVID-19 that we didn’t use as often before the pandemic. Anti-vaxxer is obviously sort of a newish one, as are hydroxychloroquine and long-haulers.
LT: I notice some words are flipped or written backwards, or both.
TH: Around the box are set the more positive words like the drugs used to fight COVID-19. We have PPE, N95, herd immunity. I played with the word languishing. It was a favourite word for about a month.
What’s flown out of the box are the negative words and I played with them: Anti-vaxxers is backwards as is hydroxychloroquine which is flipped and backwards.
LT: Quarantine looks very assertive.
TH: Right. And self-isolation, too. I planned the box first and then I tried to find space to write my words. As more words go on the canvas there is less space. Here, I squeezed in the term essential workers. Lockdown looks a little like a keyhole. Brain fog goes around in a circle. It’s hard to read it. I was trying to show how one feels in a brain fog. You feel like you’re going in circles. I wasn’t going to put HELP in, but there it is. I had the space.
My corona viruses were a complete afterthought. I thought, there’s a little empty space, what can I do? The little ones look like little sputniks. They were fun to do. DO NOT OPEN came as an afterthought because it goes back to the story of Pandora. At the bottom of her box, there is the word HOPE.
LT: You’ve been doing needlepoint since your twenties. Tell me about your technique.
TH: There are many ways to approach needlepoint. I’ve got a bunch of books with patterns. You can buy painted patterns on canvas, you can find patterns online, you can create your own. I do all the above, but I often create my own.
LT: Your Words in Wool project, which you started in 2017, was inspired by an exhibit at the Textile Museum.
TH: The exhibit was about pre-punched out needlepoint designs that were done in the early 20th century, mostly in Nova Scotia. Most of the words were religious, you know, love thy neighbour, and I thought, let me turn that on its head. I’m a writer and a reader and a librarian. I love words. I decided on 8 to 12 of my favourite quotations.
I ran out of them in the middle of COVID-19 so I expanded some new ideas and the Pandora’s Pandemic Box was one of them. I started working on it in early May and completed it near the end of July.
TH: All of this was Persian wool. Part of the reason I started this project was to use up my wool. I ended up using mostly greens and a little bit of orange because I have a lot of those colours.
The thing about needlepoint is you do pull out as much as you put in, it’s amazing that you ever finish a project. If you make a mistake, you have to take it out. Sometimes, you’re lucky and you see that you made a mistake right away, sometimes you see the mistake two rows later.
LT: And you have to go back and pull it out. Theo, you capture the spirit of our pandemic existence. You push and pull needles through the COVID-19 loneliness, isolation, and frustration we all feel. You need patience to do this work, something we all need for COVID-19.
TH: I’ve had two serious illnesses in my life and needlepoint has pulled me through both. I wasn’t ever a patient person, but I think needlepoint has taught me to be patient and it is very Zen-like for me.
When I was in my fourth year at York University, I took a Humanities course on Victorian Times. I wrote a paper on needlepoint which became a huge rage in the 1800s. They had figured out a new way of dying wool so there were a bunch of new colours available, and women of all social classes were needlepointing. I came across something written by Charles Dickens when he was writing about Newgate prison. He describes the women’s prison versus the men’s prison. The conditions are terrible. He said the only thing that is somehow better for the women is that they needlepoint. What they do is literally pull out strands of their hair and stitch with their hair. They were able to dispel the absolute monotony of the day by doing something creative.
– Elizabeth Cinello
Photos by Elizabeth Cinello