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……

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Don’t get your Ps and Es mixed up with your Ps and Qs!

 You know how everyone these days talks about the “Ps&Es” of design?
…..though they do sometimes get them mixed up!!   The Ps and Es are not the same as the Ps and Qs of etiquette!!   The Es are actually just the elements of design – in the same way that hydrogen and oxygen are the basic building blocks of water.  Design elements are the “things” from which the design is made viz: value, color, texture, line and shape. In quilting terms these would come down to small pieces of fabric of different solid or patterned colors, some dark, some medium, some light and the quilting stitches.  That’s what we have to work with: fabric and stitches.  Pretty straight forward.

Ah, but what about the Ps…the “principles”….which are, by the way, guidelines not rules.    Well, classically these are said to be: unity, variety, rhythm, balance and economy..however I’ve been thinking -  nay -  cogitating!  I feel that these are merely the techniques one uses, not the final result one wishes to achieve, and definitely not what the Art Must Be.  The  Most Important characteristics that one would hope for in an art work (no matter the medium) are in fact the following:

• That it catches your eye, that you SEE it and want to LOOK at it….(or hear it, or taste it, or feel it…). Even the cave paintings at Lascaux done over 17 thousand years ago were done for someone to SEE.
“[Art] should call out to the viewer…and the surprised viewer should go to it, as if entering a conversation” .
(Roger de Piles, Cours de Peintre Par Principles, 1676).

  That it has great beauty (which could be a “terrible beauty” as in Geurnica, Picasso’s painting about the horror of war).
  When I think of art, I think of beauty.  Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection”.
Agnes Martin

  That it lasts – you can look at it every day and still get something from it.
This is probably the toughest to assess but I find that if I sew quite a few quilt tops, and don’t immediately baste and quilt them, but instead put them away in the cupboard for a few months, then when I get them out I can judge them better.   Or I’ll hang the piece up in the living room where I will see it every day – if I’m sick of it after a week – I’ve got my answer!

Is there anything else d’you think?  We want to see it, we must look at it, we can’t not look at it – it is totally wondrous and transformative…and we could see it very day and still love it.
Let me know if you think anything should be added to this…..
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Questions one is asked......

Ellen Lindner asked me to answer the following:

1. What am I working on?
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
3. Why do I write/create what I do?
4. How does my writing/creating process work?

Yikes!! ... 3 volumes later....

but here is the short answer:

After a year of travelling - seeing amazing places - I'm  mentally consolidating all I've seen...absorbing the images and seeing which ones "hold" for me. 
 Most of my quilts (even the abstract ones)  have been based on very early photographs:

Here's a typical sequence: the photo, the drawing, the quilt.

 I'm not going to tell you just how long ago I took that photograph!!  But it's in York, UK...not too far from the Kirk Museum (if it's still called that!) - a street close to the bar walls behind the museum.  I remembered the photo not only for the moment (apparently he'd never permitted a photograph before but I caught him unawares) but also the juxtaposition of boy, bicycle and old streets.

 Here's part of the drawing I made - I think there was more - but these things disappear!!

 And above is the finished quilt.  A typical process for me.    The boy is ghostly because of course he's long gone, the streets remain the same.....and glow with the freshness of sweet old memory.

It takes time for images to sink in:  I don't really know why this should be but I think it's, in part, because the younger you are the more impressionable you gets harder and harder (but of course even more important for an artist) to achieve those same fresh responses, the strong reactions, and also to lay down significant memories that stay with you for years.   At age six I could lie on the warm paving stones underneath the rose bushes in the local park and just watch the petals against the sky and smell the marvelous scent of the flowers....alas,  that's not really possible now!!!  imagine!! 
Also, the old city streets I made quilts about I walked every day for around 14 that's a significant amount of time:  almost 5000 days...I've not been able to spend 5000 days looking at Paris, or Western Colorado or the loess hills of SE name just a few of the gorgeous sceneries I've been privileged to visit this year.    But I do have the photographs, and the mental images and I am cogitating.......

So, if you have been - thanks for reading!!  Elizabeth ........  now back to the cogitation!

PS you can read Ellen's responses to her own questions on her blog. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

...and yet another class...

with some very talented ladies in Grand Forks - and the best laughers of any group I've come across!!
As a teacher, it's lovely when people listen attentively to information, but even better when they laugh  uproariously at one's jokes - such as they are!!!

We spent a couple of days on designing, then one day on completeling value sketches and choosing color schemes...and finally into the sewing...
Here are some of their designs:

What's lovely is how varied they are....nobody's looks like anyone else's at all...and each person can use the construction method with which they are most familiar to create the quilt.  I do think that the type of construction method you use should be something you're good at...and that the design should come first, and the method of construction second.  Also the quilting pattern should be subservient to the design, rather than a totally irrelevant display of quilting virtuosity!!!
I also like art to Mean be something that is important and meaningful to the artist - doesn't matter if it's abstract, impressionistic, realistic, hyperrealistic...but it should have the Artist's heart and mind and hand within it.

Here's an image from Grand Forks that I think would make a great watercolor!!!  And I'll always remember standing on the spot from which I took this photo with the mild October breeze, the warmth of the sun...and the laughter of all those lovely ladies!!!

And now up to the little quilt museum at La Conner, WA.  I had a show there last year but, alas, could not attend...however it will be much more interesting to see someone else's show!!!

If you have been, thanks for reading.........Elizabeth

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On the Road...

One of the great things about teaching quilt workshops is all the amazing places you get to visit and the people you enjoy meeting.
This week I'm in Sisters, Oregon.
 It is an old forestry town now converted to a tourist place...very pretty with lovely hanging baskets of purple petunias, and lots of pretty plantings alongside the Western style shops.  The Sisters in question are three mountains part of the Cascade chain - which can be seen in the distance from the edge of town..within the town we're deep in pine woods.

I took the photo on the left on the way to breakfast this morning!!

And here's me teaching.....

I only hope the solemn look on the ladies is concentration and not despair!!!  They worked really hard and produced some super designs...I set the parameters tightly at first emphasizing major important points in creating strong composition - like unity with variety - and then gradually broaden the variables.
Here are a few of their designs:

I think there's a good chance at least one of them will find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow:

If you have been - thanks for reading!!!  and please do make comments...also I'd be very interested in any topics you might suggest for the blog...  thank you!!  Elizabeth

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Best Place to start a design… directed by Sherlock Holmes…

 A lot of people like to begin their quilt design with a photograph; I have very often done that myself.  It’s really hard to begin with just a blank page when writing or a blank canvas when painting – so I wouldn’t expect quiltmakers to be any different.  Why should they have to begin with a blank wall, an empty cutting table and all their fabrics neatly stashed away according to color in drawers, shelves or boxes when artists in other media don't?

However, when it comes to choosing that inspiration,  I find many many quiltmakers do not know where to begin.  They have a beautiful folder full of gorgeous photographs, but they don’t know which ones will lead to a good design.

 Now I must say upfront that in ART there is no way that you can get it right from the outset!! Unless of course, you’re filling in a paint-by-numbers picture, or following a quilt pattern.  There are no guarantees.  And if you really want guarantees, if you really want to know that every single minute of your effort, every piece of cloth and stitch is going straight to a perfect end then I suggest you do stick to the patterns that someone else has worked out for you – there are lots and lots of wonderful ones.  But if you have an adventurous creative spirit – as I suspect most of us do! – then I know that you’re willing to take a few risks…..and many many famous artists have told us over and over that without risk there is no original art.  So you’re in good company!

Let’s look at some steps you can take in choosing a photograph or other inspiration source that will help you to focus on what is important, what might be more likely to work out well.

Elimination is the key
As all good detectives know (beginning with dear old Sherlock of course!), it’s a great help to eliminate things.  Narrow the field to the likely candidates.  If the reason that you chose the inspiration picture is totally based on any of the following, and nothing else, then I would eliminate it.

Color is not important at all – any color can be changed. Keep the gorgeous colored pictures in a separate “color inspiration” folder.

Value isn’t important, you can develop a strong value pattern on any background. E.g. a white wall can have all sorts of enticing shadows cast upon it…a sky can have clouds and nuances, stacks of white boxes can have light, reflected light, cast shadow, shadowed sides, side horizontal to the light source, side vertical to the light sources….

I don’t even think texture is the key, since you can add it too…unless your piece were all about a specific texture in which case I could definitely see beginning with it….

Subject too is largely immaterial – a good artist can make an interesting design out of any subject, in fact that’s one of the important things about art – helping us see the beauty and design that can exist anywhere.  The same is true of poetry: think about the poem by Rose Fylman that we all knew as kids: It begins: “I think mice are nice”!! 

Size – I have not found the size of the source material to be of any concern, small images can be enlarged, large ones made small.

Medium: again no problem, designs can be developed based on any medium that you can translate into a simple sketch: photos, paintings, fiber art, sculptures, theater…film, tv.
Incoherent jumbles of many different random objects.  Sometimes by using your crop tools, you can find some areas that will work, but as a whole these are very difficult to work with.

So, having taken out all the photos that related more to the above concepts, what does that leave us??

Lines and shapes and the relationships between them.   
And this is the key.  Look for pictures that have good interesting shapes, that are fairly clear (a few lost edges will add to your design so don’t worry about them), and where the relationships between those shapes is an interesting one.  These are your likely candidates.
Spread them out so you can look at them all together, which ones pull your eyes and your heart?  Eliminate the ho-hum ones. 

Now you should be down to a very few….are there similarities between them?  Can you take one shape from one and add it into another? Are those shapes strong and interesting – by interesting I mean not a stack of straight sided boxes!!  Great for organizing your files, but BORING in art work!

I would then sketch out the main shapes in those remaining photos, then continue your search for the perfect starting point with the sketches ONLY.  Soon, I think, one will stand out…and if it doesn’t, if they’re all equally brilliant – well then you’ve got perfect ideas for several quilts!!!

If you have been, thanks for reading!!!  And any tips or comments you’d like to pass on….I’d love to read them!!   Elizabeth

The "What the Hell?" award.

I was reading an interesting book about jurying for piano competitions. The author felt that when you have three jurors together they tend to give the awards to the tried and true…not the person who’s doing some experimental work, pushing their ideas and their musician ship further, but rather the person who adheres to the currently accepted ideas of what is correct in piano playing.  Furthermore he felt that they tend to judge by things that are quantifiable: i.e. speed, accuracy of notes and tempi etc. 

It’s also clear that when new art (whether in music, or in painting or in fiber art) is first made public, it is frequently misunderstood, underestimated, ignored, disparaged (“my five year old could do that” – somebody actually said  to me that of a quilt design once!!), even condemned.  There is, it seems, a distance between fashionable norms (of any art form) and the artistic challenge.  Would the work of some of our most innovative and inspiring art quilters have even been accepted a few decades ago?

I know when I go to a quilt show, or look at a book of quilts, I see an Awful Lot of Predictable work…and very little that actually shows me something different.  I’m sure there are many reasons for this that relate to the quiltmaker, the publishers of magazines and books, the tendency for the market place to always dilute ideas so that the greatest number of people can understand and therefore BUY!   But also I wonder if the jurors aren’t to some extent to blame too.

Why are the winners so predictable?  I think that there is a tendency for the hierarchy within the quilting world to both represent and defend the prevailing aesthetic.  People say “oh it doesn’t matter who the jurors are” – I think they’re clearly wrong…and the more jurors you have, the more you will skew the results towards the present norm.  And the weirdoes and iconoclasts who might try some ideas that disturb the quilt world (remember all the furor about a skeleton quilt a few years ago?) face significant  prejudice.

 Furthermore, many of the jurors of the more traditional shows are “trained” to follow a specific standard.  Which seems totally bizarre!   If they are following a standard prescribed by some “authoritative body”, they are not even making their own judgments!  And so we continue to pursue the status quo.  The pianists go faster and faster, the quiltmakers make tinier and tinier stitches, or buy machines that make sure that their stitches are as machine like as possible!!

 Perhaps there could be a category for Different Quilts.  We’ve got landscapes and cityscapes and abstracts and florals and other nature themes, and now we have “modern” quilts, well what about “Different Quilts”?  Quilt that really challenge us, quilts that break the rules, and appear to develop their own rules.  Quilts that can’t be easily categorized, that are not very comfortable.  Quilts that might appear ugly at first sight, but then you remember them and have to go back and have another look.  Dystonic quilts, awkward quilts, odd quilts – but still having their own internal logic.

Can we get away from the Tame?  Will the jurors take some risks too – and stop worrying about fashionability, decorum, taste and general acceptability? 

Can we have more quiltmakers who will transfix us with their sheer force and uniqueness?  Yes there are a few out there – and I’d love for you to nominate them in the Comments!   I would definitely put people like Dorothy Caldwell into that category.

The Kiss of Death for any creative person should be that Awful “Viewers’ Choice” award – the award that goes to the most easily digestible pretty pap in the show!!  Instead let’s have a “What the Hell?!!” award!

Well I’m off to consider my WTH piece…with a nice cuppa tea of course!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!      Elizabeth

PS I just noticed that for some weird reason my blog of last week never got uploaded!!  So apologies - I'll put it up next week.   or maybe the week after I'll be traveling it will be good to have something "in the bag"!