Silly Lies and Wide-Eyed Wows – Remembering Cathy Callihan

Whenever the Home County Music & Art Festival comes around, in July in London, Ontario, I can’t help but think of Cathy Callihan. Back in 1982, it was called the Home County Folk Festival, and she had a craft booth there, selling her beautiful, extraordinary stained glass and metal work.

Marian Buchanan at her silk painting booth, Home County Folk Festival 1982
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I had a craft booth too, selling my silk paintings. (That was before I realized silk is not produced cruelty-free from empty cocoons). She came across it as she was strolling around the festival grounds, looking at the work of fellow artisans. She stopped, and stood for a while, hesitant, waiting, but I wasn’t noticing her among the people milling around my booth. Finally, she got up her courage and came to speak to me. “Wow!,” she said. “Wow!” I found out later that this was the most typical Cathy utterance ever. At the time, though, she was a stranger, and all I knew was that she seemed impressed by my work.

Artwork by Marian Buchanan - business card

But it was more than that. She pointed to the logo on my business cards and price tags: a pen-and-ink profile of a woman with flowing hair and a spiral horn coming out of her forehead. “I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “I made the same design, but in stained glass!”

The thing is… it wasn’t true! I only found out years later, when, as my best friend, she confessed that she’d made that up because she felt such an affinity with me that it might as well have been true, and she wanted so desperately to make a connection with me. I assured her we could’ve connected just as easily without that fake coincidence. But I guess that impulsiveness and willingness to blur reality in favour of imagination is part of what made her Cathy. She did eventually create a stained glass version of the design, after the fact.

Cathy Callihan, showing a copper tree wall piece she created, 1983
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It’s true we had a strong affinity in our themes – Nature & Spirit; women, water, woods,… And as it turned out, we also had the same birthday. She was 3 years older but the date was the same. We were both Americans living in Canada, both artistic, both somewhat psychic, both interested in personal growth. But while I was quiet and introspective, Cathy in a good mood was always exclaiming and laughing. When another friend gave me the workbook Kundalini Yoga for the West, Cathy borrowed it, and what I remember most about that was how, for a while, she was going around with a pebble in her mouth. It was an exercise from the book. Having to carefully move the pebble out of one’s way to speak without swallowing it, forced one to take the time to think about what one was about to say. She used it for a while to try to keep herself from spewing out the first things that popped into her head, which was something that sometimes got her into trouble in relationships.

Awakening - stained glass by Cathy Callihan
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She almost married a boyfriend just to stay in Canada when her visa was about to expire. In lieu of a wedding dress, she asked me to make her a skirt and blouse out of silk, and paint them green with mermaids, shells, and seaweeds. She didn’t get married to that friend after all – she knew it would’ve been for the wrong reasons. Impulse, blurt, retract. But in trade for my silk work, she gave me a large stained glass piece to hang in my window. It was a woman with fairy wings, the tips of which protrude from the edges of the oval design. The fairy stands in water, with a full moon hanging in the folds of her wind-swept dress, and a real sea-shell soldered to the headband in her long flowing hair. I think Cathy called the piece Awakening.

One of the most interesting pieces Cathy ever made, she referred to as “the octogon” — I don’t remember if she ever gave it a title. It was kind of like a glass tipi, with four trapezoid sides that came together at the top and flared out at the bottom, leaving four openings between the panels, through which one could enter into the inner space. The year she brought it to the festival here in London, she and I used it for shelter from the weather, laughing at how “It’s not Home County if there isn’t any rain,” because it feels like there hasn’t been a single year when it hasn’t either drizzled or poured during the festival’s weekend.

It was fun being huddled together underneath her art, and she told me about her creative process in making it. First, she constructed the four wooden frames. Then she stretched clear plastic on them and took the whole thing out to a place in nature where she could set it up, lie underneath it, and look up through the plastic with an unobstructed view of the night sky. Onto the plastic, with a marker, she traced the stars she saw, and drew in the lines that she felt connected them. Back in the workshop, translating the plastic draft into glass, she used glass pebbles for the stars, and the lines became the seams of solder between adjacent glass panes of space. From concept, through execution, to resulting art object and art experience of the finished piece, it seemed to have a mystical or meditative dimension at each stage.

Stained glass by Cathy Callihan
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I would say there was a kind of nature-rooted spirituality in almost all of her work. One of her pieces, which I bought for myself, was a stained glass hanging of a woman’s profile in a wave of hair and water. It doesn’t convey a specific, explicit message, but to me, it conjures something on a level beyond words. She spoke to the psyche through imagery that might seem on the surface quite mundane but can be felt very deeply.

Something particularly unusual about Cathy’s relationship with her art, was that she was very un-self-conscious about finding it fascinating, not just to create, but to appreciate as a finished piece. On several occasions, when showing me a new piece, she exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful?!”

She was always willing to keep exploring, not just the wonders of the world, but also new artistic techniques. At some point she experimented with painting added-on details onto the glass shapes of her designs. One piece I particularly liked, and bought for a friend, was a tall, rectangular stained glass piece with little bugs painted as details on the glass leaves.

Metal butterflies and metal fountain - by Cathy Callihan, displayed at Crafthings craft co-op in London, Ontario, circa 1983
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Nature was the main theme in her metal work as well. Some of her bread-and-butter income items were copper or brass leaves and butterflies that people would buy to decorate the fronts of their houses, usually in sets of three different sizes. She also made fountains for interior decors. The pump would be hidden in the flower-pot base, and the pipe that would bring the water to the top of the piece would serve as a stem for the metal leaves onto which the water would trickle down, from one leaf to the next.

Two pieces she gave me as presents, were a small hanging piece of smokey purplish glass sandwiching a pressed wild ginger flower she’d found in the woods of Ontario; and an enamelled copper leaf, curved into a dish shape to be used as an ashtray – or, since I don’t smoke, as a place to keep keys and change.

Cathy didn’t smoke either after an experience she had in the woods. She had just lit up and was puffing out the first breath of smoke when she “heard” the trees screaming in response. She immediately put out the cigarette and never smoked again.

But she did inhale the fumes from her lead soldering and copper torching. “I love that smell!” she would say, with her wide-eyed “Wow!” face and a laugh. When she became sick with the lymphoma that killed her, her medical tests revealed high amounts of these metals in her system. Stained glass and metal work are probably among the most hazardous craft arts there are for an artist’s health. Cathy used goggles to protect her eyes from sparks, but I never saw her wearing any gas mask against the fumes.

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I didn’t know she was ill until I returned home from an overseas trip and found that she wasn’t in my apartment the way we had planned. She was supposed to be staying there for the 1988 Home County festival, but she had forfeited her booth fee and stayed at home in Elora instead. When I found out why, I got a friend to drive me up there as soon as possible. At that particular point, she was still waiting for test results, but was feeling optimistic that she could beat this thing. However, she was dealing with a lot. Her baby was only a few months old — and those of us who have had babies know what an exhausting time that can be; wonderful, and full of love and joy, but exhausting as well. On top of that, her partner Rocco had been experiencing severe migraines off and on ever since the birth, so he wasn’t able to provide as much support as a new mother needs, let alone a new mother who is ill. And of course, there was the illness itself.

It was hard for me to be so far away, living in a different town, unable to help her with practical and moral support in person. I considered moving to Elora to be nearby, but she had a supportive circle of woman friends in town, and in some ways I felt I would just be an extra wheel. I did, however, visit when I could.

Cathy Callihan, July 1988
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Cathy Callihan, July 1988
Click image to enlarge.

On one of those visits, she confided that she felt like she had brought the illness on herself. “You mean with the fumes from your metal work?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I mean I think I set this in motion, when I was going through a really rough time. I told the universe I wanted to leave now.” That wish was made before she met Rocco, and now that she didn’t want to die anymore, she didn’t know how to take it back; like it was too late, as if the means to the end were already activated and couldn’t be stopped. She was no longer feeling optimistic that she could get well again.

On my last visit before she died, she was very worn out by the struggle and the suffering. Along with chemotherapy, she had been trying to maintain a macrobiotic diet, hoping that would help. But it felt to her like neither was helping, she was only getting worse, and she was feeling more ill from the chemo than from the disease, and more deprived from the diet than was worth it. Tearfully, she said, “I just want to have a piece of cinnamon toast!” She didn’t expect to live much longer, and she didn’t want to spend her last months or weeks or days feeling like this. She was talking of stopping her treatments. “I just can’t do this anymore,” she said. She spoke wearily of how her circle of friends were pushing her to keep fighting, cheerleading her on, whereas what she felt she needed now was just acceptance, and permission to let go.

She wasn’t all tears on that visit, there were some smiles too. She knew I had had an unusual experience when my grandmother died, so she expected I might be receptive to messages from the dead. “I’ll come and haunt you when I’m gone,” she said. “I’ll move your couch.” — “I don’t have a couch,” I said. “OK,” she said, “I’ll do something else.”

On June 14th, 1989, Cathy’s friend Resa called me to let me know she had passed away that morning. A week later, I went to the gathering of Cathy’s friends at Resa’s house. We shared poems and memories, a lot of tears, but also laughter. One friend named Soopy (not sure of the spelling) had us laughing with the memory of Cathy watching Soopy’s van roll down the hill into Cathy’s motorhome. “Why didn’t you do something?” asked Soopy, perplexed. “I wanted to see what it would be like!” Cathy exclaimed enthusiastically. “I’d never seen it before!” And again at the Home County festival, when a hurricane swept the park and toppled the booths, Soopy rushed to prevent Cathy’s stained glass from crashing, while Cathy herself looked on. “What were you thinking?” Soopy asked her. “The same thing as when your van rolled into the motorhome,” said Cathy: “I’d never seen it and I wanted to see what it would be like!”

To me, this story is quintessential of who Cathy was. I could just imagine her wide-eyed wonder and curiosity – accompanied, no doubt, with an exclamatory “Wow!” I was so grateful to hear this story to keep in my memory like a treasure. When I got home to London after the gathering, I re-told it to a friend of mine. As I was laughing lovingly at the story, the candle I had lit for Cathy sputtered and grew a tremendously high flame. It burned the wick black without disintegrating it. There were no changes in the room’s environment to explain why the flame would change its behaviour, and I’ve never seen a candle flame grow that tall, before or since. I like to think it was Cathy, haunting me as promised.

Cathy Callihan, 1989




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