Personal Histories: Amanda Wood

It’s hard to wait two weeks between these interviews, and I’ve been especially impatient to share Amanda Wood’s story with you all. Amanda shares her experiences growing up multi-racial and multi-cultural in the Okanagan, and how she navigated her identity over the years as she attempted to find her place personally and in her community. Amanda is a textile artist living, and working, in Vancouver, B.C. with her husband and two children. She is passionate about sharing art-making with others, and as a teaching artist with kids and adults, she works on making a creative space for all kinds of learners. Her work has been shown across Canada, and has also appeared in Uppercase Magazine and in the book Strange Material: Storytelling Through Textiles. Say hello to Amanda, and don’t be shy to chat in the comments!

What is your background?

My father immigrated to Canada from Trinidad & Tobago in the early sixties, and my mother is a second generation Canadian who grew up in a large family in a Mennonite community in Manitoba. I feel a pull between the slower rhythm of the Caribbean way of life, and the structure of long-held traditions from my mother’s family. My two cultures couldn’t be more different. Being from both and yet also feeing as though I belonged to neither, I had so much trouble figuring out how to make sense of my place. Coming from multiple ethnic groups, I really felt as though there was no one else like me.

When I was about three, my parents divorced. I didn’t see much of my father after that, and it was through learning to make things that I started to find a voice. In my grandmother’s house there was always bread baking and jam to be made in summer, and stitching and crochet work to be done in winter. Nothing was wasted and the days were filled with work. I was a happy helper who eagerly picked up all the skills I could.

That strong work ethic, and ability to figure things out as I go along, has been with me from the beginning, and I think it helped me to eventually choose a career as an artist. Self-motivation and determination are both qualities that came from growing up multi-ethnic, with a strong matriarch who taught me to use my hands. Every day that I work in the studio, I tap into an inner resolve that came from her.

Did your multi-ethnic background inform your childhood? How did you navigate your identity growing up?

I grew up in a small town in the Okanagan, where there was very little ethnic diversity. I remember trying to wash my skin white to be like the other girls around me. I tried to draw as little attention to myself as possible, but my stubborn streak often prevented that. Now I’m grateful for that stubbornness, but then, despite my best efforts, there were whispers and looks and judgement that I felt even as a child. As I grew into myself, it became a little easier, but those feelings of difference that were established when I was young never really went away. I’m not sure they have even now.

Throughout university and my awkward twenties, I felt a need to be quiet and fit in, or to go along with the group. I chose a career path that didn’t quite fit, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I discovered that making things was something I needed in my life. Doubts about feeling different made it difficult to see what my interests were. It wasn’t until I had my children that I became vulnerable in a way that I hadn’t allowed myself to be before. That was the key to finding my path, and to stop thinking quite so much about belonging. I think that journey is still unfolding and evolving, and probably always will be.

Does your background inform how you raise your children? Have you encountered any challenges along the way?

As a parent, there have definitely been moments where my ethnicity pops up. When I was a young mother walking my infant son in his stroller a neighbour commented: “You are so good with him!” and then asked if I would be available to look after her grandchildren. I didn’t really know how to respond. There have thankfully only been a few awkward moments like that. In general, our East Vancouver neighbourhood is full of multi-ethnic families, and I am so grateful that ethnicity doesn’t come up very often. Our community of friends, neighbours, teachers, coaches, and pretty much everyone that has become part of our family life, come from different backgrounds. We seem to have moved the conversation beyond “what’s your background” to much more interesting and relevant topics. My sons have different challenges which are their own, and just as difficult at times, but the pervasive racism I felt growing up in a small town just doesn’t seem to happen to the same extent for them.

Have you kept any specific cultural traditions? Do you have any new ones?

My husband is from a distinct Ukrainian background, with just a little Polish and German thrown in. Our family traditions have tended to come from his family or from the Mennonite side of my family where there is overlap. Every summer we gather berries and other fruit to preserve, just like my grandmother did. We have also created our own rituals around birthdays and family time. For a tradition to stick for us, it needs to be simple, beautiful, meaningful. A number of the Waldorf-style rituals have found their way into our family. We say a poem on the eve of a birthday, and start the special day with a candle ritual. We also have an advent calendar that I made many years ago that we fill with age appropriate treats and little cards with activities on them.

I think the most consistent tradition we have is one we created ourselves. Every Labour Day weekend, we rent a place right on the beach on Vancouver Island. We have stayed at the same property for ten years and none of us ever tire of the familiarity of our special stretch of oceanfront and the nearby attractions. Our summer isn’t complete without a trip to our favourite Dutch candy store for salted licorice. In the absence of strong historical traditions, we’ve ended up with our own hodgepodge collection of rituals that are meaningful to us.

“names will never…” from Means of Production at the Cityscape Gallery in North Vancouver June 9-July 15, 2017

What does being multi-ethnic/cultural mean to you today? How do you navigate life as an adult with regards to your cultural identity?

This past year, I was working on an installation for a group show that explored the idea that we are what we make. At the time, I was very affected by the racist sentiments coming out of the US, just before the presidential election. My response to the fear and sadness that I felt was to make something for the show. My research led me to discover that xenophobia was the word most “googled” in 2016. I wondered if these people searching for the meaning were excusing their behaviour or trying to understand someone else’s behaviour. Why were so many people looking for this word? I reminded myself of the meaning: intense or irrational dislike, or fear of people from other countries.

I discovered the work of Angélica Daas, who blew my mind with her TED talk:

I also read Kamal Al-Solaylee’s book Brown, and for the first time in my life, discovered that I am not alone in feeling outside of any specific ethnic group. He shared a story of being mistaken for a dog walker, despite the fact that he is a PhD professor. It reminded me of the experience of being mistaken for a nanny. This was a real thing! It was a revelatory moment, and gave me greater awareness of my place in the world as a brown person. The installation I made incorporated all this research, and the feedback I got from people of all skin colours was positive. It turns out that feeling different and being misunderstood happens to all people with all kinds of backgrounds.

As a mother and a teaching artist, I try to create space for difference through making. It’s very difficult to be like others when you are making things. When children can make marks, or make a mess or build something with their hands, they learn so much about themselves, and I love witnessing that magic.

When things are challenging, I try to remember Al-Solaylee’s words: “Brown is not white. Brown is not black. Brown is an experience, a state of mind.” It helps me to understand myself, and to find compassion for people that don’t understand, so that I can try to bridge that gap a little more.”

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Amanda is always interested in collaborations, commission, and teaching opportunities. You can find out more about Amanda’s art and her popular weaving classes at www.amandawoodstudio.com, and follow her on Instagram.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Larissa
    October 31, 2017 at 10:03 am

    Thank you so much for sharing, Amanda! Found myself going “yeees!” after just about every paragraph.

    Especially loved this: “Self-motivation and determination are both qualities that came from growing up multi-ethnic, with a strong matriarch who taught me to use my hands.”

    Thank you for sharing Angélica Daas’ work too. So much pride for her and her truly beautiful work!

  • Reply
    Taraneh Erfan King
    November 11, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Loved reading this piece. Thanks for sharing your story. So much of it felt familiar in my bones although my background is different… Reminds me that no matter what the human experience is like outwardly or on a physical level, the heart-stuff is similar. It is like striking one C note on a piano and having all the other Cs resonate…

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