No Ordinary Magic: The Art of Laurie Swim by Carol Bruneau

No Ordinary Magic: The Art of Laurie Swim is no ordinary book. This ambitious work, part biography/part cultural history, spans four decades, uses numerous literary threads (from Eve and the forbidden apple to Dickenson’s admonishment to “tell it slant”), and weaves over fifty pieces of quilted textile art into the fabric of its narrative. Luckily, author Carol Bruneau, best known as an award-winning novelist, also spent many years teaching analytic writing at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). Bruneau’s expertise as both an interpreter of art and a master storyteller enables her to translate the remarkable career of Laurie Swim into a cohesive and engaging narrative.

“Bruneau’s expertise as both an interpreter of art and a master storyteller enables her to translate the remarkable career of Laurie Swim into a cohesive and engaging narrative.”

The artist, who “reinvented quilts as paintings-that-happen-to-be-made-of-fabric” has herself authored five books, two on the art of quilting, but she made a wise choice to trust Bruneau with her story. The strong narrative, poignant details, and honest reflections are evidence that Swim was generous, honest, and accessible to Bruneau throughout the writing process. Like Swim’s many community-based projects, No Ordinary Magic has the hallmarks of a well-researched and collaborative project dedicated to telling the truth. 

Each of the thirteen chapters is a lyrical stand-alone essay in which Bruneau skillfully interweaves Swim’s life experiences with her artistic practice. As Bruneau explains in the preface:

“… it is the artist’s sense of memory, knowing we are linked by past losses and future possibilities, that fuels her work. The drama of place, in all thickness and thinness, is contained in it, reflecting the way of the world where the ebb and flow of adventure and staying put, of good fortune and bad, are life’s salt.”

From the beginning of the book right through to the final pages, Bruneau draws our attention to Swim’s narrative approach to art and uses meticulous detail to unpack specific stories embedded in a selection of Swim’s “decidedly un-quilt-like-quilts.” As Bruneau writes:

“Regardless of her subject matter, it is Laurie’s gift for narrative—balancing the known with the unknown, giving us freedom and space to engage with her storytelling on our own terms and to draw our own conclusions—that makes her art and artmaking so resonant and endlessly intriguing.”

The overall storytelling is vivid and inspiring, not only because of Bruneau’s skilful descriptions but also because almost every spread of this beautiful book contains at least one awe-inspiring photo of Swim’s art quilts, the majority taken by her husband of forty-plus years, Larry Goldstein. Today, owing in no small part to Goldstein’s efforts, including his careful reproductions of her images in her books, giclée prints, and greeting cards, Swim’s works have become icons for coastal Nova Scotia. Many of her original artworks are commissions and museum pieces, but through quality art cards and prints, a wide range of her images are now available and accessible for thousands of people to enjoy.

As the beautiful cover and frontispiece images (the art quilts“In the Beginning” and detail from the wilder “High Seas, Hirtles Beach”) imply, ultimately this is a book about the sea—in all its beauty, vulnerability, and power. Swim’s evolving practice, and this book about her art, is eco-literature at its best. Invitations for readers to engage deeply and to reflect on their relationship with the natural world are threaded through the text. For example, when describing the art quilt “Down to the Seas Again”, Bruneau writes:

“With the death of old ways, as poet and science/nature writer Robert MacFarlane suggests, nature is no longer something to revere remotely. It’s the evidence of our wanton activities come to roost. The verisimilitude of Laurie’s scene, the uncanny precision of her colour choices to represent the littoral as a beautiful place on the edge, show its strength and its fragility. Her manipulation of an extraordinary cache of fabrics to ‘arrest motion, which is life’ details exactly what’s at stake.”

Bruneau weaves biographical breadcrumbs throughout the text as we follow the determined artist from her childhood home in a yellow cliff-side house at the far end of Crescent Beach (in Lockeport, Nova Scotia) to post-secondary art school (first Mount Alison University, then NSCAD at the heyday of Conceptional Art), to winters of teaching weaving on Prince Edward Island, and travel to Denmark to apprentice with designer weavers (an experience that forged Swim’s ties with Scandinavia, which continue to this day).

In the mid-1970s, like so many Nova Scotians, Swim made her way to Ontario. Here she met her husband, publisher, and literary agent Larry Goldstein, and they settled in that province for thirty years, mostly in Toronto. It was while living in Ontario that she honed her skills exploring the infinite possibilities of textile art. One of Swim’s earliest critical recognitions in 1976 came from the renowned realist painter Alex Colville when he wrote that he experienced an “almost physical response to her work”. In No Ordinary Magic, Laurie’s husband, Goldstein, admits that Colville’s recognition of his wife’s artmaking helped spark what he calls the “sacred obligation” to support and promote her work.  

Although Swim pursued many private commissions during her years in Ontario, her close contact with larger, more urban communities helped transition into a practice more centred on community and public art, demonstrating how aspects of textile art can be performative. Bruneau makes space in the narrative to describe six major memorial works, including “Pulling Together, the Buildings of the Rideau Canal, 1826-1832,” “Break Ground, The Hogg’s Hollow Disaster, 1960,” “Lost at Sea, 1961,” The Canadian Young Workers Memorial Quilt,” “Lunenburg Heritage Quilt,” and “Hope and Survival, the Halifax Explosion Memorial Quilt.” Some of these stories were relatively unknown to the public at the time. Bruneau writes that Swim’s “art casts history as a net in which all peoples and all eras are connected”. Curator Richard Marsters, concurs, saying: “Laurie has the ability to alchemize the past and make it real”.

The final four chapters of No Ordinary Magic are a kind of homecoming. After undergoing treatment for cancer in 2003, Swim and her family made the decision to return to Nova Scotia permanently. Swim wanted “to go home—the view just wasn’t as good in Toronto.” For the first six years, the family lived in the tiny fishing village of Blue Rocks where “the sea, its creatures, and surrounding landscapes seized her imagination with a fresh urgency.” During this prolific period, Swim and Goldstein also opened their own gallery in Old Town Lunenburg, and they now live in the town, retaining that all-important daily connection with the ocean.

Bruneau writes that on her return to Nova Scotia, Swim continued to show “openness to risk and a joyful daring to try things for the sake of trying them.” Her new and varied projects are testimony to this, including recent work focused on open-pen fish farming and international collaborations with artists who share her concern for the dying ocean. In Bruneau’s estimation, Swim’s art is “a rallying cry that lights a pathway to the future,” and her greatest strength is “her faith in our capacity to see the light, and act on it.”

No Ordinary Magic is a book to return to again and again. Each time you will notice details in a new way, experience insights in a deeper way, and be reassured that beauty does indeed exist.

Catherine Walker (she/her) is an instructional designer and writer/editor living on the South Shore of Miꞌkmaꞌki (Nova Scotia). A founding member of Lunenburg's Little Books Collective, Catherine also walks down the street every second Thursday for Spot of Poetry Get Togethers. Whoever said poetry was a solitary pursuit?

About the Author

Carol Bruneau is the award-winning author of nine books. Her reviews, essays, and articles have appeared across Canada, and she has previously taught courses on writing for the arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She lives in Halifax, NS.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Goose Lane Editions (Sept. 12 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 104 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773103458
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773103457