-Words by Sean McIntyre Photography by Don Denton
When Pipi Tustian says art is in her blood, she means it.
“When I was young, I didn’t even know that it was being creative, I just thought everybody lived that way,” she says. “My parents weren’t traditional artists in the sense of being painters or writers or playwrights or anything like that; they were an immigrant family coming from the war-torn country of Latvia. They were just so happy to be here, however, we didn’t have much.”
Ever-present in her childhood home was the whir of a sewing machine, where Pipi’s mom sat nearly every morning to create or mend clothes for the family. Each piece of fabric, Pipi says, came to embody a chapter of the family’s past. This growing collection of symbolic day-to-day items blended the family’s Eastern European heritage with a new identity at the eastern edge of the Canadian Prairies.
“It wasn’t just about making the couch match the cushions, there’s a history and stories attached to all of those things,” Pipi recalls. “The house was always filled with all this magic.”
Pipi fondly remembers regularly boarding a downtown-bound bus with her mother. The pair would search through Winnipeg’s garment district as though it were a mysterious land filled with curiosities and treasures, the stores bursting at the seams with chiffons, satins and linens.
“She would take me by the hand, and we would walk into a building that was chock-a-block full of corduroy and tapestries and bolts and bolts of fabric from floor to ceiling,” she says. “It was like a playground of all my fantasies with the drapery and the touch and the feel and the colour and all of that texture. It was just always there in my life.”
Pipi’s love of colour combined with a reverence for repairing and repurposing household objects are major influences in an artistic career that spans three decades. For years, Pipi’s unmistakably unique paintings and fabrics—which include cushion covers, tablecloths, dining table runners, napkins, blankets, towels, throws along with much more—have been fixtures at Cowichan Valley shops such as Ironworks Crêperie and Edward Jones in Mill Bay.
For the hands-on, do-it-yourself crowd, Pipi offers fabric workshops to small groups and has even launched her very own brand of high-quality fabric paints.
Personal commissions are also available for people wishing to commemorate a special event with custom-painted, personalized linens. As COVID-19 restrictions loosen, Pipi continues to grow a strong social media presence predominantly on Instagram and Facebook, where she can keep up to date with her current projects and frequent workshop opportunities.
“Creating for me is a way of expressing emotion,” she recently posted on her Facebook site. “From the darkness of grief comes the colours of joy. Life is a roller coaster, and art keeps me strapped in my seat.”
She describes her artistic process as a kind of “soul connection” in which her mind is free to pursue a natural flow to create unique shapes and patterns in a generous heaping of colour. Once the idea has sparked the process, Pipi says, she often doesn’t even consciously think about the process itself.
“The starting point is a feeling, and then I see how the colours play against each other and what the patterns and shapes are trying to say,” she says. “I can be inspired by nature or even watching a movie. A lot of times I won’t know what’s happening with the plot because I’m looking at how the colour of an actor’s skirt is against the couch that she is sitting on.”
Her latest venture is Studio 1867, which she began a year ago with a team of co-creatives in the funky Whippletree Junction along the highway south of Duncan. In a move that harkens back to those same values instilled in her by her mother’s morning ritual at the sewing machine, Pipi hopes to give some colourful treatment to unloved and forgotten furnishings.
“At Studio 1867 we’re repurposing the older pieces of furniture that people have sort of loved but maybe discarded in favour of the new things that maybe don’t last as long, even though they are twice as expensive,” she says. “If you have a piece of furniture that you’re wondering what to do with, and everybody does, this is a great option. Everybody has that old piece sitting in the corner that they can’t get rid of because it belonged to grandma or they have an emotional attachment to these things because they’ve become part of the family.”
Older furniture, Pipi adds, tends to be more characterful, more unique, and built to last. She says many modern furnishings are less sturdy than those made even a generation ago because changes in the global manufacturing process have prioritized lightweight materials and building techniques to minimize shipping costs.
What’s more, Pipi says, refurbishing and reusing furniture keeps bulky household items out of the landfill.
Clients upload pictures of their furniture project to the Studio 1867 website, where Pipi and her team reference makeover options from a catalogue of fabrics compiled from designers from around the world. Clients then book an in-person appointment for personalized advice, a chance to feel through fabric samples and search online catalogues for options to bring their project to life.
“Just like when I was a kid going into those fabric places, we have that huge number of fabrics, but just not in rolls, now we have them in books and samples and that sort of thing,” Pipi says.
The process may have changed, yet Pipi has found a way to keep the magic alive.
For more information about Pipi, visit her on Instagram (@pipioriginalarteverydayliving) or Facebook. Details about Studio 1867 are available at studio1867.com