Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Keeping Quiet



I wanted to reproduce a   poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), (translated by Alastair Reid) for you which is called Keeping Quiet....but alas the required permissions to do so are incredibly laborious.   The publishers (not the poet!)  want me to have a copy of the book in hand so that I can fill in a form with about 20 different esoteric bits of information - almost to the point of counting the full stops (periods) in the entire book!!! Plus full details of my entire existence!!!

The poem is so appropriate at this time of year - when we're singing about silent nights but not really thinking (or cogitating!) about the importance of silence.

 The message is so strong - for all of us of course, but for artists in particular.  It is difficult to create beauty in the midst of noise and chaos....we need silence.

It begins:

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.



and here's the link to the full poem...do read it.



 All my very best wishes  for the holiday season (however you celebrate it) to all my blog readers.
And if you have been, thank you so much for reading all year long!  Elizabeth

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Question of Confidence




I recently asked several folk what they felt were their chief weaknesses in art quilting and was surprised by how many responded that they felt one important thing was that they didn't have enough having confidence in themselves as an artist.







I remember seeing a study of disadvantaged youth in LA who were not performing at all well academically - they were giving special training in self esteem.  It was thought that what they really lacked was feeling good about themselves as people.  At the end of the training, their self esteem was indeed improved...but their academic performance was, if anything, slightly worse!




Some years ago Robert Hughes was quoted as saying:

"The greater the artist, the greater the doubt;
 perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize".

Now I do know that just because all As are B, it doesn't mean that all those who are B are A!!!
So I'm not suggesting we start giving lessons in doubt!  But also it's clear that encouraging confidence in one's art is not going to be helpful either - IF the goal is to improve the Art.

And it really does depend on what the goal is:  we do know that confident people generally do better in the market place, they are considered better student by their teachers in school, are more likely to be hired in the job market, make more sales etc....and if your goal is to sell your art - not matter how mediocre it is, then probably working on improving confidence is a good idea!!!  But if you want to make better art, then do two things:

1.  find out is good
2.  practice doing it

yeah - I know!  No easy answers!  I always used to hope that over the next hill in whatever I was learning, or in whatever endeavor I was engaged, there would be a green and pleasant valley where everything was easy - amazing art would literally drip from my fingers!!!  Then I started reading about famous artists and their doubts, their constant struggle and I realized that uncertainty is the norm in good art.  If it's getting easy, it's probably getting trite...

So...don't worry about confidence!  Don't be fooled by the confident...instead ...get back to the art of making art!!  

If you have been, thanks for reading!  I'm off to perfect the art of making a nice cuppa tea - it just needs a little more practice.    Elizabeth

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The List of Important Features

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an artist should have a singular “voice” or style. 

People say this is important.  One's work should be recognizable for various commercial reasons, getting into shows and so on.... but I think a much better reason is that the only way to become really really good at something is to practice it over and over and over.  If you’re practicing a lot of different things at once, you simple won’t get as much practice at one thing. Of course I'm as guilty of this as the next person !!!

It's so much fun to try a lot of different new things, but like any kind of performance, whether gymnastic, or pianistic or artquiltistic you need to practice and perfect one type of piece.  In quilt making, at least, we don't have to work on the SAME piece over and over - though it really seems like a few (well-known) people do!!  But I do think we need to be making the same kind of work - whether it's delicate little appliqués, lots of embroidery, amazing chunks of surface designed fabric beautifully balanced (nobody is better than Elizabeth Busch at this), or the ubiquitous "improv', knock-offs from Gees Bend, quilts.

And talking about Gees Bend, I saw they currently have a show in Atlanta airport, and the pieces are small and completely unfinished - they are small framed tops...definitely worth checking out if you're in the area.  It's at the T gates - I can find no mention online as to how long the show will be up, but Bonnie Hunter's blog has some pictures.  Also the Metropolitan Museum in NYC has just announced a gift of 20 of the earlier Gees Bends quilts from Southern Art collector William Arnett.  Brilliant!

But back to our own work: while having a clear style  is partly the result of much practice and experience, it is also, I think, a matter of knowing your own taste.  Some day - when you've nothing better to do! - it's a great exercise to print out (or line up on your computer screen if it's big enough - scrolling through on a "smart" (so called!) phone does not count! - to print out at least a dozen images of quilts you've seen that you really really like and admire.

Looking at them all at one go, what similarities can you see?

1. Is it color?   or black and white? neutrals, restrained sophisticated color schemes?
2. Representational, impressionistic or abstract?  landscape, cityscape, figurative?
3. Improv or designed?
4. referring back to traditional quilts?  or not?
5. Using a lot of surface designed fabric?  Or commercial fabrics? or solid colors?
6. does the content relate to a specific topic?  like nature? or social commentary?
7.  what is the emotional impact?  An expression of beauty? of elegance, of energy? or something else...
8. Is fine workmanship a major feature, what particular skill does the artist demonstrate?

I'm sure you can think of other topics, and the images themselves will suggest topics to you - please put them in the comments so that we can all add them to the List of Important Features.

Once you have the list...take a look at your own work - how does it compare?  are these things that you find are most important when you are Looking at other people's work, evident in your own work?  And if not, why not?  Why are you not making the work that really turns you on??

Well...after so much cogitation, I think a nice cuppa tea is in order...so , if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Cutting up!


Well I'm in cutting up mode again!  Often I find I've made a quilt just far too big!
And Steelyard Frieze is one of those, it's so wide it hangs over the edge of my storage shelves and I have to get into that room sideways through the door!

  Now I've put up with this crab like entry to the art quilt store/library (aka spare bedroom) for 3 years or so in the hope that Someone would have a Pink Sofa over which they absolutely had to have hanging a very strong beautiful PINK art quilt!   But,  I have finally realized, nobody Ever had such a sofa!!  At least not for a very long time - and probably only in Hollywood too!

Well, here's the quilt:



and I'm thinking this would cut up into 3 very nice slices:



of course I'd try to make them a little more even in width and probably would alter that strange "cow" effect on the right hand one - spell checker was having me write "strangle" the cow on the right!!  And maybe - for once - spell checker's wild guess is the right solution!

So - what d'you think?  Should I cut it up?? - it really is too wide and very awkward to ship - it's 68" wide, by 35" high, so each slice would be 32" wide  (I'd lose a bit on the seam allowance of the interfacing) and 35" high - which is a very nice size for a pink bathroom!!

all comments most willingly accepted!!!
And, if you're eating turkey, make sure it's NOT pink!!
And, of course, nothing better after the turkey than a nice cuppa tea with the old pumpkin pie!!

If you have been, thanks for reading!   Happy Thanksgiving Day!  Elizabeth

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Art of Critiquing

I've been asked recently about critiquing work and thought I'd revisit and revise a blog I wrote on this topic several years ago (yes it's really been that long!  I was nobbut a chahld!!).


I had been reading a very interesting book about the formal art critique: The Critique Handbook by Kendall Buster and Paula Crawford. Kendall Buster is a sculptor who works with airy forms – fabric stretched over wire frameworks, often in circular shapes. Paula Crawford is a painter of airy abstract landscapes and skyscapes. Their book is an expensive paperback but it is densely written with lots of ideas and a heap of fascinating questions – in fact nearly the whole book is questions. It makes you think all around the art work you’re examining, from every literal and abstract angle. The authors talk about a critique as going through several steps beginning with an assessment of form vs content.

Form is defined as the particular elements: the lines, shapes, values, colours and textures that the artist chose for a piece plus the design principles: how well those elements balance and harmonise, how much variety and tension is included; whether there are rhythms and repetitions is evident, how well the viewer is led around the piece to examine each part, how well the whole piece is balanced, and whether the proportions of the elements are in keeping with one another. It’s also very important to judge how well crafted the piece is and the material from which it is made. Buster and Crawford define form as “the means by which one gives substance to an idea”.

I’ve noticed that when I entered quilts into shows where you are sent a copy of the judges’ comments, the comments focus on certain aspects of form, particularly craftsmanship, colour and balance. I’ve often felt that the comments address only a very narrow slice of all that goes into an art quilt – with more focus on form than on content. I don’t know why that is – perhaps it’s a matter mainly of time, and also a continuation of judging methods from traditional quilt judging.
Such a critique obviously addresses only formal considerations, but not all art quilts are mainly formalist in nature. Clearly, the more abstract pieces, in the tradition of Nancy Crow’s or Jan Myers Newbury’s wonderful quilts, are principally formalist.  The formalists would maintain that the “aesthetic value” of the piece is based on how sound the formal qualities are. And that is how it should be judged. A work of art can be purely about its own formal qualities, representative of nothing but itself.

Many quilts are more focussed on content than form, however. Content is very interesting when it's not too obvious.   I recently read the juror's statement from the current fiber show at the Fuller Museum in Brockton MA and photographed it because I thought the message was both intriguing and telling:


In the newsletter about the Fuller show (which, alas, I gave away!) Dion continued by saying that if he could see and understand all there was to understand about the art work from a quick glance at the photograph, then he felt it was not strong enough to be in the show. He wanted to be intrigued, he wanted to feel like the piece had more to offer than a snapshot could ever show.

If we're attempting to evaluate an art quilt where content is evident, or implied, our critique of the denoted content would assess how successfully these images are denoted but also just how much the viewer was engaged by this process.  For, beneath the obvious denoted content, lies the connoted content. For example, my recent series of quilts are pictures of industrial buildings – that’s the content. But the way I have portrayed them is to communicate how I felt about seeing those buildings, and similar buildings of that type. There’s a certain sinister beauty to buildings like these, there’s a push pull – we want the steel, but do we want the pollution; we want the jobs and the income but do we want the destruction of the environment – not a living plant is evident anywhere. I hope by my contrasting the natural element of water with the unnatural shapes of the buildings I have conveyed some of that intent.

Sometimes it’s the title of a piece that gives a clue to the connotations the maker had in mind.
I’ve made a number of quilts that denote old buildings, or sections of old buildings, but at the same time I’ve used those images to express some ideas that are troubling to me.

So my quilt “Brighter at the Top”, is actually a picture of the golden end of the day catching the chimney tops, but also alludes to the contrast between the view from the top, and the actuality at the bottom.
The piece called “The Affluent Drainpipe” showing the fancy guttering on an old building but also alludes to some of the waste of resources seen in more affluent communities.  

In evaluating a purely abstract quilt (sometimes called non-representational), therefore, one would rely largely on its formal qualities.  Possibly,  in abstract expressionist work, you would also consider the emotions created in you by the piece.  Of course, I think that is true of all art work - what is our gut reaction?  where does that fit into the judging process?  And I'm sure it does!! Despite what jurors say about being objective, and being able to assess all work whether they like that type of work or not.  We are human beings, it is impossible for us to think with only One part of our brains!! You might be able to do that with a computer or a robot, but not with a human!  In fact psychological studies have shown that we judge less harshly those things - or people - whose appearance we like. 

In judging a quilt that was not purely abstract, one would be looking both at its formal qualities and also how well the meaning was communicated.  And this should be subtle...and draw you in....and keep you, engage you in the process.  Not be "blindingly obvious" at first look, but also not be so obscure and muddled as to lead the juror only to confusion and frustration.   Not an easy task!

And now to critique that half finished piece on the design wall......maybe best done with a cuppa tea now I think about it...
and, if you have been, thanks for reading!   And Commenting!!!!   Elizabeth

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Original? Or Derivative? When is a Clone not a Clone?


What is original work?
How does “inspired by” become original”?
How d’you keep your work from being derivative?

Interesting questions, and clearly on many peoples’ minds – for two reasons:
  1. we’ve seen a LOT of clones, let’s face it!!
  2. Most big shows and jurors say they are looking for “original” work.

As time goes on it seems to be harder and harder to make something that no one has seen before…to write something new, to find a problem that no one else has investigated (as many a graduate student knows!)…
But wait! Each one of us is unique, not only are our fingerprints, our irises and our ear folds unlike anyone else’s – our way of walking is very distinctive, our handwriting, our voice patterns.  This is our individuality showing through.

An original work is original in two ways:
  1. It looks fresh and new, it gives you a different perspective on something, a new idea.
  2. It is very distinctive to the individual who made it.
I used to carry 6” squares of navy linen with me when travelling  and needles threaded with strands of embroidery floss (white) – every one I stayed with I asked to stitch something on the square.
 What shall I stitch?
 Anything.
 What if I’ve never stitched before?
 Just remember to go up and down on the same side and you’ll be all right.

At the end of the trip I looked at the squares – they were all different, not only that but they all had some characteristics of the maker. I controlled only 2 variables: the size and color of the cloth, and the color and thickness of the thread.
Their individuality came through.  You can do this! Try it! Set a few constants: size of piece, amount of fabric etc…choose things you really like! 

The best way to find your own original voice is by “singing”!!  You won’t find it by thinking about it – even though, as you know, I’m a great lover of cogitation.

Don’t go to any workshop where the teacher is teaching a specific pattern – if you want to do something original and different from everyone else.  If all around you are making the same thing, you’re in the wrong place!! (as Kipling would have said....)

How d’you recognize what is original?  Set yourself a test – open any catalogue from a high quality art quilt show and find the 3 most individual and original pieces and the 3 most derivative ones.  Then sit down and Analyze.  Some of the things you might come up with are:
 I’ve never seen this before vs. I’ve seen this 100 times.
This looks like X’s work vs this doesn’t look like any work I’ve seen.
Or even:
This looks like Xs work…but no, on closer examination, the artist has done something quite different: they’ve taken X’s starting point and gone beyond.
I really like this idea, it's so intriguing and I want to see more...

Think about mystery/crime novels – I know many of us enjoy these!!  Think about the ones that are the most interesting versus the ones you know to be pot boilers – i.e. written to a formula.   The latter are predictable, the characters are wooden, they talk in clichés (I’m allergic to clichés!) and so on.  Now, back to your art work: have you solved a problem in a predictable way?  Is your sky blue, your grass green and your tree trunks brown?  It’s probably be done before!! Have you taken a small unit that is very like a Big Name's unit and done all the usual things with it that the Big Name did 10 years ago?  If you really like that unit – then set yourself the task of coming up with 50 more things you can do with it that the Big Name never even thought of!!

Originality comes from going beyond the predictable, coming up with a new way of looking at flowers, or puppy dogs…or babies.   Remember those photographs of babies all covered in flowers that appeared a few years ago?  How fresh and new they were when we first saw them? 
Are they still as fresh and new? 

Look at combinations ….see which things are often combined…and change it!
Maybe the good guy is the ugly one we all dislike and the baddie is the charmer!

A famous writer I once met told us he looked through the newspapers every day and collected strange little stories that he could later use as a kernel for his plots.  Just a few lines of somebody's odd behaviour would set him to thinking.  Keep your eyes open for strange little visual stories as you go about your daily life.  How could they be expanded into an art piece?

I'm sure there is LOTS more to be said on this topic - so please do send me your thoughts.....
I'll keep on cogitating!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Abstraction? Representation? The truth? or not.......




A few weeks ago I was teaching a workshop in Oregon and asked the students in the class to give me some topics for my blog – sometimes the pump does need priming!  Well they came up with several ideas upon which I will gradually cogitate…and record herewith my various cogitations!

One question took my eye:  “is it okay to be somewhat representational?  How abstract does “abstract” have to be?

There is no clear cut single definition of abstract art – the term can mean anything from totally non-objective, derived from a mathematical formula, to simply abstracting a section of a scene (whether it be figurative, landscape or still life) and manipulating the shapes and lines and values to create a great design.  Many painters (including Picasso) have pointed out that in a sense all art is abstract since it’s not “the real thing” – except, I suppose, Duchamp’s “Fountain” which, of course, wasn’t ….
Here is the link to the image:
 in case you don’t know the piece.  I do wish it were okay to just show the image on the blog…but some of these places are fussy and litigious these days that even an image that is being used in a totally educative “fair use” way can now suddenly lead to an invoice.  And of course it’s NOT the original artist that would get the loot, but rather the photographer of the art work – or, even more likely, the agency that bought up the rights to the photographs!  But I don’t want to get into ranting!!

Many painters and psychologists have also pointed out that while probably have rearranged and modified (from the original) any visual images that we create, they have actually come from somewhere.  Everything is inspired by something – the images we put together may come from a movie we saw last night, or from a book we read as a child but there is always a starting point. 


So abstract doesn’t have to be all that abstract to be abstract – or abstracted from.  Like fashion nowadays or rather, the lack thereof anywhere away from a fashion center like NYC(!), anything goes!

But the question also implies that maybe representational art is no longer acceptable…..
And that is a valid possibility.  I would say that while the public at large has always preferred to buy (more or less) representational art for a domestic setting, the critics and the curators do seem to swing from Abstract being in and Representational out to the other way round – like those old weather indicators with little people that came in and out according to whether it would be fair or not – you couldn’t have them both at the same time.     Abstract art has had a huge revival in the last few years starting with a big retrospective at MOMA in NYC a couple of years ago and a more recent exhibition a year ago called Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925 about which they wrote:
In 1912, in several European cities, a handful of artists—Vasily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Francis Picabia, and Robert Delaunay—presented the first abstract pictures to the public. [This show] celebrates the centennial of this bold new type of artwork, tracing the development of abstraction as it moved through a network of modern artists, from Marsden Hartley and Marcel Duchamp to Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, sweeping across nations and across media.”

It’s always been okay to produce representational art, since abstraction was “invented” it too has continued to be popular and re-invented with several different “movements” over and over.    With exhibitions like those at MOMA and many other museums, we’re now at a place where we can begin to asses which abstract pieces will stand the test of time and which will be more stepping stones in the development of the art form.

Within the quilt world, of course, abstract was always “in” – especially with pieced work. Since the 1980s there has been a huge resurgence of quilting and many people begin their quilting careers with traditional pieced patterns and then move onto create their own patterns and images.  I think the advent of fusing techniques has really encouraged much more representational work.  Fusing makes  representational work much easier – it’s very difficult to be very representational with piecing unless one really fractures the image to a very complicated extent and, in a way, those images are then more abstracted anyway.

I do think there seems to be something of a dichotomy right now in the quilt world as to styles and not between traditional and art quilts but rather it’s a dichotomy over technique:  there is one school of people who feel that only piecing is truly acceptable (and it’s easier to piece abstract work than it is to piece representational work).  They feel that fusing techniques should probably be considered as fiber collage rather than quilting and they definitely look down their noses at representational work!  Other quilters feel that any techniques that involve putting together pieces of fabric in any way together with some stitching qualify that work as a quilt.      And if you get jurors or curators that do have a strong bias one way or the other, obviously the show they put together will reflect that.

I am much more of a mind with Ellington who said that there are only two kinds of music: good music, and the rest.  If the piece is strong and beautiful and worthy of being looked at and made of fiber then it’s good quilt art , if it’s a boring or ugly mess – then it’s not.

And another good quote which is very apposite to this blog - this time from Matisse::
“Never ruin a good [piece of art] with the truth.”

Please do weigh in with your comments!!!  All comments are delightfully beheld by this blogger!   And, if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

And now for a nice cuppa tea……