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Bill & Larry - Image taker meets fabric maker

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

Image taker meets fabric maker

The images each carry a unique story. Each is different from the next; some captured locally, others from more exotic locales far distant to the Quinte area. Each picture captures a moment in time; one or two depict an unexpected glimpse into the ordinary everyday lives of strangers. A guy in a bright orange winterized jumpsuit wearing reflective sunglasses rides his bicycle in the snow using no hands; the big fat tires somehow striking a chord. There is the obscure, the abstract, the mundane, everyday images transform into remarkable scenes captured through the eyes of one extraordinary guy.

Appearing straightforward at an initial cursory glance, the images meld beauty and simplicity, the use of a single focusing colour often an intentional bold detail bringing ordinary images to the forefront. It’s all in the detail, however minute; his pictures tell the story of the surroundings of life, but mostly of the maker and the image taker, photographer Larry Tayler.

Quilt maker Bill Stearman broke the mold on quilting, developing his own unique designs and dyes, opting to do things his way while still conforming. There are quilting traditionalists and purists, and then there is Bill who came to quilting late in life, blasting onto the scene four years ago at age 64. In that short time, he has produced around 80 quilts, with a dozen new quilts to be finished this year.

Exhibiting at shows locally and across the country, he has won awards, gained recognition, been accepted into quilting guilds, and has a standing within quilting circles, all while sharing his story with anyone who cares to listen. Bill’s quilts aren’t just pretty works of art or functional everyday items, they each carry a story. There is meaning behind the designs, where each delivers a message; some obvious, others more subtle, but each one is profoundly meaningful and is an invention drawn from the heart.

Bill and Larry had both resided in Prince Edward County, yet despite many parallels, their paths were slow to cross. “That’s part of the story, we were 25 years apart living in the County,” says Bill. “Larry had been away from the County for 25 years and I was in the County but had only been here for 20 years.”

Both were educators, both lost their spouses far too soon, and both had theatrical backgrounds. They also shared a common friend but didn’t know it at the time. “When we started talking, we realized we had a lot of things in common besides Elizabeth,” said Bill.

Larry doesn’t know what name to give it: synchronicity, kismet, coincidence. Bill agrees, “You just have to be open to what comes your way and welcome it because good stuff comes and if there is a greater being controlling what happens, her purpose is just pure joy.”

Larry is a County boy growing up on a farm near Wellington in a loving supporting family. A Prince Edward Collegiate Institute graduate, he found himself back at PECI after university, teaching mostly history and English. Larry soon got bored and headed to Australia for a great adventure – the Australian flag a permanent marker on his forearm. “We love Australia and return there just as often as the bank account has allowed.” He and Bill have been there twice together and are heading back again next February. “We fell in love with Tasmania.”

Larry speaks to his own experience of Australia, which he describes as a real turning point in his life, especially Sydney where he lived, and how he was able to share his experiences with his late husband Spencer. He was subsequently able to introduce Bill to the country that is dear to him. “Both Spencer and Bill insisted their experience of Australia not be simply a photocopy of my experience and that has led to all sorts of wonderful places and people,” said Larry.

He held a wide variety of jobs he describes as fascinating: working with the Ontario Arts Council, the Canadian Opera Company, and the Canadian Booksellers Association. Working with passionate bookstore owners got Larry revved up to return to teaching once again, and in the summer of 2014, he had completed 24 years at Havergal College in Toronto.

Larry decided it was finally time to hang up his hat, although he stayed teaching because he loved being at Havergal. “People said you’ll know when it’s the right time to retire and it was about that time we got married that I thought this will be the last year.”

It was also that same summer when Larry hurt his back. Climbing up into his truck he found himself in incredible pain. It took a year to recover but was the catalyst to his photography. “I began what physiotherapists call walking therapy but walking every day in east end Belleville can wear thin after a while.” Looking for something a bit more challenging, he got out his camera and decided to post photos every day on Twitter.

“I gave myself 365 days and posted over 500 photos.” As his back improved, so did the photography. He bought better cameras and discovered a whole visual world lay at his feet. “It has brought great joy and I’ve met all sorts of incredible people; that’s what got me into the photography, it started with drama and then turned into this incredible blessing.”

Larry doesn’t much like the terminology used of taking, capturing, and shooting images. “I find those three verbs restrictive and not the kind of relationship I want to have with whatever in nature I am seeing, so I photograph, and I make photographs; for me, it’s an important element of the photography.”

Retired teacher Bill ran a Shetland sheep farm in Milford with his late partner Gene, operating a bed and breakfast for a while. Bill came out as gay in 1997 at the age of 47. “Everything people know about me is in the last 21 years,” he says. One of the quilts he submitted to Quilt Canada 2018, which was accepted in the national juried show, is August 15th.It’s a tale of 20 years,” says Bill. “I was taking a design class on August 15, 2020 and I realized August 15, 2020 was the day I began my life as an openly gay man.”

He is the only male member of the Prince Edward County Quilters’ Guild where in July at the PEC Quilt Show he displayed 12 of his quilts, receiving a People’s Choice Award for one of them. I Wish I Had a River achieved third place at Quilt Canada 2018 held in Vancouver in June and was on display at the PEC Quilt Show. Currently in the works, I Am, was created to represent Bill’s life prior to 1997. It will feature excerpts of text from an apology made to the LGBTQ2 community as read by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons in November 2017, and will include, “We were wrong. We are sorry. And we will never let this happen again.”

Bill usually works on three quilts at a time where he does the piecing, the designing, the sewing, and the dreaming up, but he gets assistance from friend and quilt maker Deanna Gaudaur who takes care of the quilting part of the sewing. Hand-dying fabrics is one of Bill’s favourite and important parts of the process where he uses many natural substances such plant material, rusted metal, tea bags, raspberry leaves, and more. The unique result means the designs can never be replicated or repeated as the hand-dying methods create one-of-a-kind fabrics.

On Thanksgiving weekend in 2013, Bill and Larry were married in a Quaker service at Havergal College Chapel. Larry’s nephew gave Larry away and Bill’s grandchildren gave Bill away. “It was so much fun, that was the best part,” says Larry. One of the things central to their relationship and their values is their love of kids. “Having the grandchildren is a superb addition to my life.”

Larry had lost his partner Spencer in 2011 at age 62 to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Bill lost his partner Gene at 59 to cancer. Bill talks about how he will sometimes hear Gene’s laugh in a crowd and how it gives him chills. “Oh my God, laugh, did he laugh,” said Bill recalling the fond memory. Larry talks about how things came collapsing down after Spencer’s diagnosis, and being a very strong-willed human being, Spencer decided he wasn’t going to live with ALS. A year later, they went off to Switzerland for an assisted death, but not before Spencer had insisted Larry find someone new and to get on with his life. “Literally on his death bed, Spencer had said this is killing me, not you, get on with your life otherwise I will be really ticked off at you.”

“Our late partners are really important parts of our lives,” said Larry. “I spent 29 years with Spencer and Bill said to me there will always be four of us in the room; we actively honour these people in our lives.” Bill adds, “I talk about Gene all the time and it’s just comfort, it’s not anything beyond that.”

When Bill married Larry, he inherited Larry’s now 98-year-old aunt and Larry got Bill’s four grandchildren. “I think I got the better end of the deal because she’s a pretty cool old girl,” laughs Bill. Bill’s children and grandchildren play a significant role in the couple’s lives. “I never thought there would be grandchildren in my life and what a joy that has been,” adds Larry. “You get to put photos on the fridge.”

A recent collaboration saw the pair come together to deliver the very best of their art. Heart and Soul: Two Men Tell Their Stories held at the John M. Parrott Art Gallery in Belleville through November showcased Larry’s photography and Bill’s quilts.

Larry worked hard on the images he selected for the show to ensure he wasn’t stereotyped into one particular look. The pictures couldn’t be more random. “I am really pleased with the collection and the lack of consistent style,” says Larry. They were shot around Prince Edward County, as well as Ontario and New York City.

“I love street photography and I look forward to conversations with people who say you can’t do them,” says Larry. “Is it comfortable? No, it’s not; if photography were just about being comfortable, why bother doing it. Not all these photos are comfortable,” he says.

There are many threads binding these two characters and there is a lot about the partnership clearly meant to be. Larry slipped into photography after hurting his back; Bill took up quilting after a serious leg infection rendered him immobile. Neither pastime was planned; the adventures and hurdles encountered make for a natural unfolding of their lives. “About four years ago both of us fell into passions that are not shared, but are complementary,” explains Bill. “Our interests started because in both cases, it wasn’t a choice; it was something that for a variety of reasons just started happening.”

Larry enjoys spending the day alone with his camera and relishes time to himself. “One of the lovely things about photography is it rewards the introvert; having the camera gives me permission to be an observer,” said Larry. Part of what makes that time rich is knowing at the end of the day he is coming back to his partner to talk about his day over dinner.

Bill’s teaching background clearly hasn’t left him as he happily shares the stories behind the quilts before an intrigued gathering. For his backpack shows, he literally fills a giant backpack with a selection of his hand-made quilts and talks about them. Some listen intently to the stories and the deep meaningful messaging, clearly understanding the voice behind the fabric designs; a few clearly disapprove or simply fail to fully understand and engage. As an observer, Larry watches the people who are fully engaged, and the people who are clearly resistant. “For some people, it is opening up creative space for new techniques of quilting, and for others it opens up emotional space,” says Larry. With his shows and classes and workshops and exhibitions, Bill’s schedule is a full one with bookings several years ahead.

Bill tackles many topics with his backpack shows including his battle with depression. “Interestingly, there’s not a time I’ve presented when somebody hasn’t come up for a hug, just to talk to me about their story with depression, which is what I think quilts should do; I think quilts should have that kind of story to them. People will laugh, and people will cry, it just so warms my heart.”

“It is never just the fabric,” observes Larry. “It’s Bill’s sparking with the fabric and the design. It’s the story behind the fabric and when Bill becomes a part of the quilt and people’s perception; it opens into such a richness of imagination and creativity and this is one of his great strengths for people to have their emotional response to it. When I look at the magic and the quilts that come from that, it’s not only opening the space for others to appreciate, it’s opening up space for himself and I find that absolutely breathtaking.”

Bill says working on his quilts makes him laugh and cry and giggle. “They make me feel joyful, thankful, and grateful, and then they make me feel I am not doing enough. For me it’s very emotional. I am a storyteller and I have waited all my life, and I tried all my life; I tried writing, I tried all kinds of ways to tell my story and none of them worked. Quilting works, quilt making works for me.”

The laughter and the openness come through at many points in the conversation, the sense of humour emanating throughout is truly gratifying. “We are two guys late in life, we both lost our partners, we met late in life and had a chance to do it all again,” says Bill. “We couldn’t have met at a different time because it would not have worked; we were two different people back then.”

Larry and Bill accept their differences and how they move at difference paces, but agree they balance each other. They acknowledge they have it easier than most couples because they don’t have a history. “This is our history, we are making it, that is really, really helpful I think,” says Bill. Larry is fascinated by the contrast between their creative approaches. “I really love Bill’s spontaneity and just zapping a creative thought,” adds Larry.

With his boyish grin, the line he likes to use all the time and doesn’t often get away with is, ‘I’m just a simple farm boy,’ but adds, “Now, “I’m just a guy who makes quilts. Life should just be that simple.”

“It is a good story,” says Larry with wry grin, “and it’s still playing out.”

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