Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky & illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

By Maureen Tai, 13 May 2018

“Louise’s mother was her best friend. Deliberate…patient, soothing…subtle, indispensable…and as useful as an araignée (spider).”

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Every mother leaves an imprint on her child.  For French artist Louise Josephine Bourgeois (1911-2010), known best for her impressive metal sculptures of spiders, that imprint is achingly deep, lasting her entire life. Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois is a gorgeously illustrated non-fiction picture book that tells the moving story of a daughter’s love for her mother, and of the artist – and the art – that emerges from it. 

Louise is born into a family of tapestry restorers.  They live by a river, which provides water for their garden of flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables, and in which the wool that is used for restoration work is washed and fortified.  The river is the lifeline of the family business, just as Louise’s mother is her lifeline through her childhood and early youth.  Louise’s dad who is not a restorer, is mentioned once.  His frequent absences from family life cause Louise to throw herself into the life-giving waters of the river (she survives, thankfully).

When she is 12, Louise joins the family trade.  She learns to draw using wool and to sew, as well as to colour wool from natural sources – red from cochineal bugs, yellow from plants, black wool directly from black sheep.  Louise’s mother teaches her not only the technical skills of repairing tapestries, but also about the variety of cloth and textiles, their forms and hues.  It is this knowledge that forms the basis for Louise’s art many years later.  Broken-hearted by her mother’s death, Louise the university student turns her back on the study of mathematics and the cosmos, and immerses herself in painting.  She weaves and sews and stitches together pieces of cloth as if trying to reclaim pieces of her lost past.  She sculpts, and immortalizes her mother in a massive steel sculpture of a spider called Maman, which (as far as I am aware) is owned by and displayed at the Tate Modern in London.  Louise creates art for the entirety of her life, soothed by the cloth lullaby woven exquisitely from memories of her mother, the river and the stars.

Louise’s story is gently told in Amy Novesky’s delicate and poetic prose. The watercolour pictures are ethereal, gorgeous works of art by Isabelle Arsenault, a Canadian illustrator whose other work includes the similarly lovely picture book, Once Upon a Northern Night.

Perhaps it is best to close with Louise’s own words, written in 1987:  “You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love.” As a mother, to have imprinted a child’s life with such enduring trust and love would be a life’s mission accomplished.

For ages 6 and up.

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