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Nature in Needlepoint

In a mini-proverb, Jesus asks us to "Consider the lilies of the field..." reminding his listeners that these wildflowers are divinely clothed, and are even more glorious than King Solomon in full royal vestment. The natural world, then, is a place to rediscover the splendor of God's creation and our ancestral Eden, to ponder deeply humanity's role within it, and to realize and act upon our entrusted responsibility for it. These concerns are strong in the Golden State. Few corners of our dazzling planet are more naturally blessed than California, a region lavished with natural riches in amazing variety. Even Nob Hill, the Grace Cathedral site, once harbored a rich tapestry of wildlife. Summarized in Grace Cathedral's California granite and California redwood High Altar, our state's bounty extends from the granite peaks of the Sierra to the pristine desert, from the golden oak-lined hills to the fog-wrapt coastal redwood groves, from colorful tidepools to ocean kelp forests. These multiple habitats support a vast variety of plant and animal life; from California poppies to valley oaks, from dragonflies to black bears, from wild strawberries to monkey flowers, from kangaroo rats to condors, from shooting stars to Monterey cypress, from anemones to humpback whales. It is this life - California wildlife in all its stunning diversity and glory - that dances across the cathedral's needlepoint choir stall seats, and is the subject of this feature.

Climate change, overpopulation, overharvesting of nature, soaring energy demands, and bloated lifestyles are some of the pressing and fundamental environmental challenges humanity, especially Americans, must now confront. The future of the planetary environment has become recognized as a moral issue, perhaps the most grave issue of our time, and environmental awareness is growing fast around the globe. Earth itself has become the Ark and we are all called to be latter-day Noahs. As long as people have the God-given will and ability to find solutions, as long as we recognize our ancient home, the natural world, as our true Eden - a wellspring of spiritual and biological life, there is hope for life on our amazing home planet.

William Hick's painting "The Peacable Kingdom", envisions a world where all life is at peace and harmony, where antipathy is banished and innocence rediscovered, where compassionate love is the driving force. Saint Francis also expressed that love through his delight in the natural world and its creatures; brothers and sisters in God's splendid creation. The vision of the heavenly city, the second Eden, for which Grace Cathedral is an architectural metaphor, reinforces that age-old ideal. In that spirit of delight and compassion for all life, we present our fourth web site feature, an exploration of the abundant flora and fauna of California as depicted in the sanctuary and choir needlepoint of Grace Cathedral.

The kneelers/cushions are in two groups, California Diocesan Wildflowers -- the sanctuary kneelers, and California Fauna -- clergy stall, choir stall and choir wall stall seat cushions and related kneelers. 

California Diocesan Wildflowers Series:  Background Information

The idea for a sanctuary kneeler cushion series took form in early 1958, two years after the arrival of the Very Reverend C. Julian Bartlett, Fourth Dean of Grace Cathedral. Dean Bartlett envisioned needlepoint cushions for the sanctuary rails (then lining the apse sanctuary) and Mrs. Donald Craig of the cathedral congregation offered to lend her assistance. A Grace Cathedral Needlepoint Guild was formed, with Mrs. Dean Witter (1893-1991), needlework expert and Episcopalian, as chairperson. Assisting were Mrs. Herman Phleger (vice-chair) and Mrs. Charles F. Mills (daughter of Bishop Nichols) (secretary), who was later succeeded by Mrs. Robert E. Hunter. Mrs. J. Max (Mary Cowes) Moore was secretary. Early members included Crocker family (cathedral site donors) members, and members of Bishop Nichols family (second bishop of the diocese). Several members of the guild had worked on needlepoint for Washington Cathedral, in Washington D. C.

A theme featuring California diocesan coats of arms and native wildflowers of each diocese was chosen. Botanist John T. Howell (1904-1994) of the California Academy of Sciences, Mrs. Ann Witter (Gillette), and Professor Juneau W. Kelly of the University of California (San Francisco Extension) researched indigenous wildflowers. The designs were by Mona Spoor (b.1905), then among America's foremost needlepoint designers. Robert S. Pennell of San Francisco, a well-known local interior designer and Episcopalian, served as technical advisor on construction and finishing. The three-paneled cushions were stitched over a six and a half-year period (1958-1964) by women of the diocese under Mrs. Witter (mother of Ann Witter (the former Anne Witter Gillette)). A group of interested volunteers was organized, and those with sufficient skill purchased prepared kits to work on, covering individual panels. Bishop Nichols' daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter worked on the kneeler cushions (the original sanctuary rails which they border are in his memory.) The finished cushions were in place for the cathedral consecration service on November 20, 1964.

The four kneeler cushions bear shields with coats-of-arms of the (then) four Episcopal Church dioceses in the state of California in the late 1950s and 1960s; (from left) Northern California (1874), Los Angeles (1895), California (1857), and San Joaquin (1911). Each diocesan shield is flanked by native wildflowers of that diocese. After 1964, two new dioceses were formed; San Diego (1974 - southern part of original Diocese of Los Angeles), and El Camino Real (1980 - southern part of former Diocese of California). The Diocese of San Joaquin withdrew from the Episcopal Church in 2007.

The central kneelers (currently in storage, to allow easier access through the sanctuary gates) show the Episcopal Church coat-of-arms flanked by fifteen plants native to the Holy Land (front gate - east) and the Episcopal Church coat-of-arms flanked by flowers native to the thirteen original dioceses/states of the Episcopal Church (side gates- north and south). All of the sanctuary kneeler cushions were made in basketweave stitch on French single-thread canvas using naturally-dyed three-ply Persian wool. Each cushion is made of three sections, with the diocesan arms occupying the central section. The finished cushions measure 99" by 18" by 3". (Central cushions measure 60" by 18" by 3".) A cobalt blue background color was used to harmonize with adjacent stained glass windows.

California Fauna Series: Background Information

The idea for a bimillennial choir needlepoint project, to celebrate the sesqui-centennial of the Diocese of California, grew out of a conversation between Mary Louise Gotthold of Grace Cathedral, active in diocesan affairs, and the Rev. Katherine M. (Kitty) Lehman, rector of St. Bede's Church, Menlo Park, in the spring of 1997.  Lehman was working on a degree in sacred art. The Diocesan Altar Guild (Mrs. Nancy Granfield, chairperson) offered to sponsor the project. The Guild's Needlepoint Committee was headed by Mrs. Gotthold, assisted by Mrs. Eliza McFarland, Mrs. Joey Clark, Mrs. Christina Williams, Mrs. Gene Bozorth and Mrs. Margaret Leonetti. The clergy stall cushions were sponsored by the Grace Cathedral Fabric Committee. The Rev. Mark Stanley, a member of the Diocesan Council (of which Mrs. Gotthold was recording secretary) and rector of Christ Church, Sausalito, recommended one of his parishoners, Mrs. Eulah Getty (Mrs. Robert Capron), as the designer.

A graduate of the University of Oregon at Eugene, and schooled at the the Academy of Art in San Francisco, Eulah Getty had created needlepoint under the name "Eugenia Designs" since 1993. An outstanding needlepoint/wildlife artist, she suggested central California fauna, grouped by geographic region/habitat, as the theme. Of the 164 animal species shown, there are 89 bird species, 34 mammal species, 9 reptile and amphibian species, 16 fish species, 24 insect species, and 13 invertebrate species. Several endangered and threatened California species were included. Some 33 plant species were also included. Animals of the clergy stalls were chosen with symbolic intent by Mrs. Getty, Margaret Leonetti and Mrs. Gotthold. The California fauna concept dovetailed nicely with the California flora theme of the sanctuary kneelers, which show native wildflowers of the California dioceses in the 1950s and 1960s. Most wall stall cushions are memorial or diocesan designs. Many contain animals or plants, and some relate to the California faunal theme (seven mammal species, 12 bird species, two reptile species, 11 plant species).

The designs were painted onto the canvases by Mrs. Getty beginning in the fall of 1997. The otters sequence from the Monterey Bay set was first, followed by the Deep Sea set. The Shore/ Wetlands and Pastorale series were done simultaneously with the Sierra Nevada sets, followed by the Farallones set. Mrs. Getty-Capron studied videos of swimming sea lions for part of the Farallones series, did on-site wildlife sketches and consulted many field guides . Many of the shorebirds were sketched live at Marin County shore locations. Most official California state fauna (and flora) are included. Some 134 distinct colors were used in the designs. Most kits were prepared with labelled small plastic bags of wool to ensure the correct placement of colors. The first kits were prepared by September of 1997 by the needlepoint committee, and passed out to volunteer stitchers from parishes and institutions of the Diocese of California, under the supervision of Mary-Louise Gotthold. It was the intention that each parish would participate, but some parishes did not participate. Several parishes opted to do wall stall seat cushions of their own designs. Some 122 stitchers participated. The needlepoint was dedicated at an Evensong service September 14, 2000 by Bishop Swing, and installed October 31, 2000. Individual stitchers carried their completed (or unfinished) cushions in procession and placed them on the sanctuary steps for the service. The wall stall cushions for Church of the Epiphany, Eulah Getty, Anglican Cursillo, Dick Rounds, Thale Struthers, Daniel Valentine, and St. Francis Church (Novato) were installed October 27, 2003. The Hymn 400 stall kneeler cushions were installed in July, 2006 September, 2007, and November, 2008 (with a few awaiting completion). The series displays the text of Hymn 400 (1982 Hymnal), a paraphrase by the Reverend William Draper of the famous poem, the Canticle of the Sun (1226), by St. Francis of Assisi.

All cushions have a pale brown earth-colored background. The needlepoint uses English (Appleton) wool supplied at cost by Needlepoint Inc. of San Francisco. The work is in basketweave stitch on 13-mesh canvas. The finished cushions (north side choir stalls) measure 49 inches by 15 inches by 2 inches and (south side) 47 inches by 15 inches by 2 inches. Most clergy cushions are 25 inches wide. Project consultants were Diane Nerheim of Needlepoint Inc., San Francisco, and Elena Guo-Hom. The cushions were blocked, upholstered and installed by Lars Johnson of Scandicraft Upholstery, San Mateo. All cushions have been treated to prevent soiling.

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