Friday, February 27, 2009

The Art of Unpredictability

A composition is simply an arrangement of the elements (in 2D art these are: line, shape, value, color, texture). It’s really helpful to think of these quite abstractly – ie. Not a house but a square or a rectangle, not a tree but a circle with a line, or rectangle emerging from the bottom

In quiltmaking the elements are usually: shape (i.e. patches of cloth), value, color and texture (or patterning).. For most quiltmakers, line is much less frequently used.

There are a lot of “checklists” available for assessing the strength of an arrangement of our patches of different values and colours and textures.One of the most important things is that the arrangement should be unified and harmonious – that there are no really sore thumbs sticking out! No bombs ticking in the pasture, or giant black blobs, or sudden unexplained divisions. Even if your piece is about disharmony and chaos, it will be too difficult to see it as a whole if every shape is unrelated to every other shape. I’ve not seen too many giant black blobs! But I have seen a lot of quilts that appear to be sections from other quilts sort of haphazardly sewn together – there’s one draped over a chair in my living room!

However, if you have complete harmony, things could get really boring. It’s important to have some contrast, some variety – this is also often called “tension” or “edge”. Sometimes called "counterpoint" - as in music...a melodic phrase or rhythm that opposes the main idea but works in harmony with it. Every shape should not be completely predictable, every colour shouldn’t be pastel and sweet – unless you’re aiming for complete and utter boredom. Beige people sitting on beige furniture in a beige house – how long would you really want to look at that?

While overall symmetry to achieve balance is helpful –( it’s difficult to look at a piece where there’s a heavy weight on one side pulling it down), perfect symmetry can get quite tedious. Asymmetry is actually not so much a lack of symmetry as balance achieved by means other than identical placement of identical objects. The old sketch of the fat boy sitting near the center of the see-saw (teeter totter) opposite the small boy at the far end of the other side illustrates that well.

Symmetry and asymmetry work together in good design. A piece that has symmetry without the tension of asymmetry is predictable and boring, whereas a design that feels balanced yet looks asymmetrically off-balance is exciting. A strong design should keep you wondering! In the old days they used to think that homeostasis (everything in balance, everything just right) was good for human beings, now they realize that in fact we do much better, stay more alert, more interested and more active if we’re slightly out of balance. And the same holds true in art.

A piece that has energy and tension will raise question. If it's too cutesy or sweet, slick, or trite (save me from that!) you'll just pass it by. In my blogs in late September last year I showed some work (stitched blankets) by Tracy Emin – very edgy work. You might not like it, but it engages you. And her misspellings (she’s dyslexic, and had little education) make you read every word and hear her voice. They’re unexpected.

Any piece of art or music or dance will have a basic structure of repeated elements. Variety (contrast, tension) is the counterweight of repetition. If you think about any piece of music that begins with a series of the same note (there are lots of examples in both classical and popular music), notice how although the note is the same, the emphasis, or the length or the colour of the note varies. And that’s what makes the phrase work! If you did a piece about a fence and every board was perfect, it would be an architectural drawing….If you had a knot hole here, and slight lean there, a gap somewhere else…it begins to be a lot more interesting.

Matisse wrote: “Ready made images are for the eye what prejudices are for the mind”. Frank Webb likes alternations of cool and warm which he feels adds excitement.

An artist is a “choreographer of space” (Barnett Newman) and every inch of the piece should be consciously considered to achieve the most interest. So negative spaces should also be examined to make sure there is variety and contrast – as well as the positive shapes. If you are making a quilt with squares mounted on a background, look at the background grid – is it totally uniform? Could you tweak it a little to gain some interest? Some uncertainty? Your piece will be stronger for it.

Don’t have every flower in the same pink fabric…if you add occasional touches of a different fabric it will bring the flowers to life. The contrast can be in any of the elements – if you have all straight lines…boring!! But one or two that just wiggle slightly..hmmm, what’s happening here? If all the shapes are identical? Bring on the geometry exam!! Instead…have some not quite complete. All colours are the same value? How Deadly!

In order to gain the viewer’s attention so that you can communicate and entrance them, there should be something that makes them look again? A little variety, unbalanced.. something to focus your eye on.

ello, ello, ello - wot's 'appening 'ere?!!! It works!

Above is an early quilt, you can see I've got a lot of variety already but I've squared the blocks off rather uniformly and the quilt below I rectified that error and allowed the blocks to make a more natural organic less predictable edge which I find a lot more interesting and engaging.

In the next quilt, my aim was to contrast the block look of the manmade forms with the more organic rounded look of the natural ones. also the triangles that repeat...are rarely identical - which makes the piece look a little bit less as if its made from a child's set of blocks (though I was also alluding to that!).

Having some conflict/contrast/variety/energy/tension – creates interest, relieves monotony. And it can it can be used with design elements. It can be used with different degrees to attain different effects. if there isn’t some variety your piece might be boring!! So never make any two elements exactly the same.!! Make repeats subtle, varying them (the line, the color, the shape, the value, the direction, the size, the texture). One way of varying is by using gradations. Above all - Don’t be too predictable!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!!
All comments will be carefully read! Be unpredictable!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

To see something I had not seen. Plus: more about jurors.

Watercolour (10" x 14")
There’s a story that has floated around for years – even pre-internet! Probably Russian – it has that nuance. It’s about several men who share a hospital room, but only one bed is by the window. The other patients ask the man in the bed by the window to describe what he can see. Every day he describes beautiful things, interesting and intriguing things, the sky, the trees, the shifting shadows, the meadows, etc …the best part of the day is listening to his gorgeous descriptions. Then the man dies…and another man is moved to the bed by the window…and he discovers it looks out onto a brick wall.

This is the job of the artist – to be able to communicate wonder, beauty, intrigue, fascination to those who cannot, or had not, seen it. Walking round a local art show yesterday, I was saddened, puzzled, and also energized, by how few of the works were able to transform a brick wall into a wonderful scene.

Nantahala (quilt) (31" x 48")

Reading the juror’s (Karen Shaw, curator at Islip museum) comments, it was evident that this was also what she was looking for: work that showed the artist to be thoughtful, work that had content and was also able to catch and hold your attention.

Interestingly, in view of the blog discussion last week about whether jurors of art quilts shows should be themselves quilters, Karen Shaw also stated (as I did) that one of the first things she assessed was how well made a piece was – Whether it was a medium she knew anything about or not.

Being well made is important, poor workmanship can detract from content - but good workmanship cannot make up for a lack of content.
One of the things that I notice, on the rare opportunity I have to visit an art quilt show, is that so many focus on craftsmanship to the exclusion of content or thoughtfulness. I think that this may be the result of our traditional quilt making training where the emphasis was almost exclusively on technique, but also on a drive to get things made – fast! An attitude that says: “Don’t drizzle about thinking, girl, get cutting and pinning and piecing – that’s the REAL work of the quilter!!”
Frequently when I ask the maker "What did you have in mind when you made your quilt?" they tell me something about technique - this is all too post modern! that time has past.... if art quilts are to move into the “fine” art field, we have to Think, consider, contemplate, deliberate, reflect, ponder, meditate and cogitate!
Our real work is to turn the brick wall into an amazing landscape!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Learning by transfer

I decided to learn how to paint in watercolours in order to improve my knowledge of design, composition, colour, sensitivity to value, balance and proportion – all the concepts that you have to juggle when making art! Watercolour is difficult: with quiltmaking I already had most of the techniques (having sewed since age 5 – thank you to the nuns for all those embroidery lessons!); with watercolour I had to start from the beginning to learn the delicate dance of brush, water and paint.

City of Willows (detail)

What I have discovered from my watercolour journey, however, is that all the information that is so lacking in the art quilt world is right there in the painting world – there are numerous wonderful books – too many to make a list because there are nuggets to be found in practically every one. And it’s there for the taking! I’m hoping that the knowledge I learn in painting will transfer to quilt making – it certainly would be good if it worked both ways of course!! What’s so weird is that my PhD thesis was actually on the transfer of learning from one arena to another. I never thought that I would benefit personally from those experiments!

Actually, it’s often the case that you cannot learn the knowledge and techniques you require in the particular situation where you want to use them. Think of flight simulators….who would want a pilot in control of a plane doing the things to it that I did to a car when first learning to drive? My best feat was getting the car balanced on its chassis on a high kerb with all its wheels off the ground! Of course, if I’d been a trainee pilot, that would have been a good start!

City of Willows (46.5"w, 31/5"h)

Back to quiltmaking…like many folk I began with traditional quilts and got a good grinding (sorry! “grounding”) in following a pattern, being neat, length of stitches, piecing etc. But soon I realized I wanted to make up my own patterns – it was fine as long as I stayed within a grid and abstract repeated patterns…but once the windows, and then the houses began to appear, I needed to learn something about composition. I knew there was something badly wrong, Michael James said to me “You’re out of proportion” – well that was interesting but what to do about it? So eventually I headed to the art gym! Aka the library, the museums and galleries, the websites...(One I like is Empty Easel but there are lots of others.)

Jaunty Ladies (detail)

The beauty of something like watercolours is that you can try out a new composition, or a new idea about light and shade, deep and shallow depth of field, single versus multiple focal points, color schemes, overall formats and on and on – every day! A quilt usually takes a couple of months and that’s a long time for feedback…..we know that repetition is the best way to learn something, moreover - repetition over a fairly short period of time.

So I promise myself – practice practice practice! Repeat, repeat repeat – but mindfully! Thoughtfully! Knowledgeably!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


Friday, February 20, 2009

Dialogue: Quilt Shows, Quilt Sales

Where Bong Trees Grow

Gathering Storm
Quilt Shows
I was very intrigued by Marianne’s suggestion yesterday about a quilt show judged twice – once by a panel of quilters and once by a panel of art critics and experts who knew nothing of quiltmaking. what a fascinating idea! the show could be hung in three galleries – one for the pieces chosen only by the quilters, one for those picked by the critics and a third – where both had thought the work was strong. I don’t know why there is so much secrecy about the judging – more secrecy than the Supreme Court! I’ve heard that the 3 judges give “scores” – it would be so interesting to have the scores from each person in the catalogue.

Quilt National ’09 was juried by 2 quiltmakers and one art professor who has worked with quilters for years. Will this, therefore, be a very “quilty” Quilt national? Why do such juried shows play so safe by having mainly quilters on the judging panel? Are they afraid that non-quilters wouldn’t accept anything? Or maybe, there’s some kind of weird prejudice that a non-quilter couldn’t judge a quilt? Which would be fine if the aim was them to be only judged as a craft form. But I think most people who enter QN, AQE, Visions, Q=A=Q are wishing their work to be considered as art and judged in that vein.

I’ve heard it said that one reason is those who don’t know the art quilt world wouldn’t be able to pick out a copy or clone, which has some weight as there is a lot of cloning going on out there! Not that copying is bad or unexpected. It’s a time honoured way of learning a craft, but, of course, should not be entered into shows as original art. This problem could easily be addressed by a quilt expert looking over the choices after the works were chosen.

So – Quilt organizations!! Be Bold! You want quilts accepted into mainstream art? Then, choose more curators and fewer quilters as jurors!

The art quiltmaker, of course, can choose to enter all media art shows rather than quilt shows. The downside is that all media shows tend to be more local and the publicity within the quiltmaking world is pretty much insignificant, so if you’re entering shows to get “known” so that you’ll get lots of teaching engagements then all media shows would not benefit. But if your aim is to present your work as art and have it judged against other art, then those shows might be better. And which shows do I enter? I enter the big art quilts shows (above), though Visions has now got too expensive for me, and I enter wider “craft” based shows like Form not Function, and Craft Forms. I also enter several local all media art shows. Plus I look for opportunities for solo shows and have been lucky enough to have one nearly every year – my next one will be in the Campus Gate Gallery at Young Harris, GA in the Fall. (email me privately if you want to be put on my postcard list).

Quilt Sales
In her comment, Marianne asked:
"You write that you would love to think of art quilts becoming a luxury must have decorator item"
I wrote that while I would love for art quilts to become an item that everyone should have – like the flat tv that is desired by 50% of my household (!), I didn’t think that would necessarily make art quilts better art. I would love for it to happen because I think that the average person still will only think of a painting when they are looking for something to hang on their walls. Quilts, and all fiber work, have many advantages over paintings – for one thing if they fall down in the night, you don’t hear a crash of breaking glass and imagine burglars! (yes that has happened!). Also I think there is more to look at with the added dimension of texture and detail. Hickey was pointing out that it became fashionable in the 80s and 90s to have the work of an “in” painter on your walls – but that didn’t mean that the strongest work was chosen – by a long way. So it would be good for the quilt medium to have people understand that not only paintings can make a room a visual treat, but to increase demand wouldn’t increase quality. Sadly! Though maybe if art quilts were accepted into the formal art world, and more and more people with some knowledge of formal issues in art began to make quilts, that would lead to an improvement – maybe!! It would be exciting to watch – and I do think it’s beginning to happen.

Marianne also asked:
"as an artist working with textiles would you prefer to sell a piece of work to somebody who wants to buy it because you are a name and in vogue or to somebody who will buy it because the piece of work is something they really, really want and there is something in that piece that hits right home for that person?"
I have enough work for sale that both people could buy!! And I encourage them to do so!
Seriously, I sell some of my work through galleries, and some directly. It is always a bonus to know the person who is buying the piece and to hear from them how much it means to them. It’s lovely!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading...and
Thank you, Marianne, for raising interesting questions…
PS the quilts at the top went to people who loved them for themselves - a good feeling!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How d’you know when it’s good?

I love reading Dave Hickey’s opinion pieces in Art in America ,which magazine by the way is one of the few that I take. If I have a “good year” with sales, I extend my subscription by several years – to get me through the lean ones.This month Hickey wrote about judging quality/value in art.Who could resist reading a column with this first sentence?

“no piece of art criticism written by me or anyone else contributed a whiff of pheromone to the fragrant panache that sustained the art world for nearly two decades as a market in luxury goods”!

Hickey is writing about the astonishing rise in art as a luxury product, a status product – now of course being dashed on the recession cliffs. He feels that, however, there were always a few voices holding out for quality, believing that it is possible to discern that some art is better than others though he bemoans the fact that those voices have not been clear enough or loud enough to make an impact.

I think the same thing has been true in the art quilt world. Though I would love to think of art quilts becoming a luxury must have decorator item, I don’t think it would actually lead to progress in the medium. There are some “art quilt” designers who sell to upmarket trendy stores like Takashimaya on 5th Avenue. Take a look next time you’re in New York! I find their work safe and bland, uneventful – not nearly as exciting even as the Emperor’s new birthday suit! Definitely priced as luxury goods, though.

However, who is to decide what is good work and what is not? There is some consensus about a dozen or so quiltmakers who are really at the top of their game – you know their names: Nancy Crow, Jan Myers-Newbury, Rachel Brumer, Dorothy Caldwell, Pauline Burbidge and several others, but what about the new folk coming alonge – where can we find strong innovative work? For one thing, As in the art world, there has been a tendency to go for the middle road, to opt for the “in” thing, or the politically correct thing. To choose work that is safe, that we’ve already decided is acceptable. Hence all the clones.

There is also a tendency towards equal opportunity that tends to dilute the overall effect. Quilt shows that ask for 3 entries but will only choose one piece per person – if Suzie’s 3 pieces are all stronger than Sam’s 3 and Lily’s 3 then why do we have one from each person? This is not showing us the best in quilts but giving everybody a chance. There was a book written many years ago by Thomas Kuhn called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It described how science was at the mercy of politics (well, we’ve seen that fairly recently too!) – perhaps progress in the quilt world (and in the art world in general) can be said to be a victim of the same problem. As Hickey says being fair, rather than being right.

The need for stronger critical writing in the art quilt world has been mentioned several’s interesting that Hickey describes the same phenomenon in the art world in general!

And of course there’s a distinct advantage to (un)educating the public as to what is really worthwhile – you can definitely make and sell more!! In every arena. Quilting, Art, television (look at the rise of reality shows like Dancing with the Stars – why can’t we have expert gorgeous brilliant dancing instead of watching these folk stumble around with clever choreography trying to hide their mistakes – being judged on “personality” rather than skill?).

Hmm, I notice I’m getting off the subject a bit! What really fascinated me was that Hickey’s conclusion as to the best way to judge quality in art – something I’ve written about from the aspect of composition and content…was to focus on a more reactive approach.

Hang your quilt up, really look at it and ask yourself these bold, clear questions:

How memorable is will this piece? Both for me, and for others?

How often will I revisit it in memory?

What in particular will I most remember?

How does it compare to other work?

How does its presence improve the room?

How long will it stay fresh, interesting, even intriguing, if I look at it every day?

If I were to sell it, how much money would I want for it? Or, what would I trade it for?

How would I describe it in an essay?

When I ask others’ reaction, are they generally in agreement? (and not just being nice!)

How does it relate to the art quilt world in general?

What is the quilt about? And is that important? Is it relevant to others?

I would also add – at the end of the year (or when you have a dozen or so pieces)…it would be a good idea to hang them all up (if you can find somewhere to do it!) and survey them very critically as a whole. Pick out the ones that are still good and strong and memorable after a whole year, let the others go….

I think it’s also helpful to hang a piece for several weeks (at least) after it’s finished, to see if you actually want to look at it every time you walk into the room.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


PS the quilt at the top is one of my few forever favorites.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Content, not contented! Down with Blandness!!

I started to think more about content when I was driving up and down to Blue Ridge, GA this weekend. The Smoky Mountains have very relaxed, you might say contented, lines and shapes in the landscape. Their colours are the soft smoky greens and blues and purples created by the moisture in the air. But I think it would be difficult to make interesting work from a scene that Nature has already made so beautiful, so calm so harmonious. The job of the artist is not to blandly portray something that Nature has already done – and undoubtedly a lot better! – but instead to reveal images, scenes, connections, discoveries etc that we might not have seen. Or, to show us awkward beauty, mystery and intrigue, passion or other strong emotion.

All beginning writers are told – introduce tension (or the equivalent thereof!) in the second act….the same in music – Remember the old formula for songs: AABA – (that’s not ABBA misspelled by the way!) – A is the main verse and tune, B is the contrast.
One of the problems I see in contemporary quilts is that the main idea or photograph that is the starting point is just a little too sweet and that, if followed literally, leads to work that is simpering and sugary. Even the Mona Lisa has that mysterious little smile that has puzzled the art critics for centuries!! Notice how in the reality shows, the producers try to whip up tension between the participants – and, I’m told, will sleep deprive them to make them irritable if they’re too relaxed and contented! Now I’m not suggesting that you pull a few all nighters with black coffee or IrnBru to get you nicely agitated! Rather that we all should Think through at least some of the Plot before we get started.

What is going to be different about this viewpoint? What have I discovered that others pass by? What mystery or intrigue can I give to this image. How can I bring some tension into this? Then, look critically through the latest catalogue from a quilt show …deciding which works are more sweetness and sentimentality, and which really pull your eyes in, which have something new to offer? Can you say –“I wonder if anyone else has ever noticed that?” about the scene to be depicted? What is different and special about this depiction of a small child picking flowers, or a dog romping in a field?

And it’s not just what you make a quilt about – it’s how you do it too. The same thing can be the subject of a piece, and yet have a very different meaning. So you could do a mountain scene with flowers in the foreground – and emphasize the sky and the rolling clouds. The clouds could be good rain bearing ones, or threatening ones. Or the scene could minimize the sky and emphasize the flowers – they could be non native flowers that had taken over the native ones, or they could be “weeds” like dandelions but portrayed so exquisitely that we think How Beautiful!! I’ll never get rid of a dandelion again!

And now…back to work!
If you have been, thanks for reading!

Friday, February 13, 2009

More on Evaluating Work

Looking at the field of art quilts today, I see tremendous energy and enthusiasm plus many hours of obsessive work. But how many pieces would stand the test of hanging in your living room for a year? How many pieces would continue to look good and offer up interest, enjoyment and intrigue for even that long? I must say, by the way, that I think the same holds true with many mediums – it’s not just quilts!! I’ve already written about my dentist’s appalling waiting room (grizzly bear statues (yes with full sets of teeth!), heavy brown and black furniture, deeply shaded windows, and deep beige prints on deep beige walls) .. and my optician’s waiting room is no better – 3 large paintings that make you want to sit with your back to them! And I noticed everybody was….

Not all quiltmakers are interested in strengthening their work, they just enjoy making quilts for fun – following a pattern or an idea. And that is just fine. But it’s the proliferation of people throwing stuff onto a background, embellishing it like crazy and then calling themselves artists, but wondering why it somehow just doesn’t look right, that is both puzzling and saddening. If you put a tremendous amount of time into something, you should be rewarded by having a piece that is strong and intriguing and worthy of being passed onto children and grandchildren like the wonderful 19th century quilts some folk are lucky enough to have.

Once we’re out of school, there really are few experts to whom one can turn for assessment and guidance. I do think that we have to educate ourselves as to what it takes to strengthen our work. I’m trying to do that! Every day, as well as sewing or sketching out designs, or cutting or dyeing, I’m reading (and trying to remember!) something about art that I hope will eventually translate into better work. I’m trying not to accept my first design for a new quilt, or the first solution to a problem, or the first colour scheme I devise.

My current book is the Critique Handbook I mentioned yesterday (Buster and Crawford). I think you have to learn to be able to make an honest and, as far as possible, objective critique of your work in order to move forward. A good critique will examine all aspects of a piece and suggest solutions to problems; as a critiquee (ghastly word but you know what I mean!) your job is to listen, not be defensive, no sentences that begin “but..”!! etc. You have to be able to look at the piece on its own, not as your personal creation. I think as quilters we are getting more familiar with the formal aspects of composition – I know I’ve harped on about it! And you have to get that right – which doesn’t necessarily mean a slavish following of rules, but an thoughtful consideration of them.

But I’m getting more interested now in the content. Not just the obvious content that is depicted, but also in that which can be deduced. I’m thinking that when I visit New York in April, I’m going to go to a portrait gallery – and examine the paintings to see what the artist is telling me about the person’s character, and how that was done. How did they convey the extra information, the feeling they had about the person? What could I learn from that that I can use next time I make a quilt?

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Critique Process

I’ve 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. In fact I once told Nancy how evocative of landscape I thought a certain piece was and she very quickly responded that it was not meant to be a landscape in any sense whatsoever! 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.

In order to decide if a work is purely formal, it would be necessary (and here we would turn to the controversial “artist statement” or the title of the piece) to look to the information the artist gives us re form vs content. If the piece is entitled Stripes #35, and there is no statement, or the statement says, in effect,"this piece is about stripes", then one’s evaluation of the piece would focus on those formal qualities alone. If the title is "Candy Striper's Dream" then we assume there is content - though who knows what candy stripers really dream about!! I would not want to guess!

Increasingly, in the quilt world, however, we are seeing work where content is more of the focus than form. I’m thinking particularly of work by people like Lori Lupe Pelish, Noriko Endo, Rachel Brumer.

Content is very interesting to me – because it usually comes in many layers and I like having to uncover them!

Content can be literal – in the sense of what is denoted by the shapes etc. Is it a picture of animals? People? Buildings? Flat blocks of colour? A still life or a landscape? A close up of some aspect of nature? Ribbons of colour, or flowers, or gravestones? Skeletons?

Our critique of the denoted content would assess how successfully these images are denoted?

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. Here in Georgia, we’re in a drought situation. While the relatively impecunious who live in Athens (one of the poorest counties in the nation) were able to reduce their water consumption by 20%, the very well off in certain areas of Atlanta were still running their sprinkler systems. And I was crouched in my cool basement making The Affluent Drainpipe.

Form and/or content! Things denoted and/or connoted!!

I’ll be continuing this discussion!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


PS. Somebody asked me if I do critiques; I do some in my workshops as I go round helping each person individually – that’s why I prefer a 5 day workshop: the 4th and 5th days can be devoted to individual help; I’ve also do critiques here in my studio, on a one on one basis and would definitely consider doing them via phone and emailed scanned images. Email me if you want more details, and fees and we can discuss.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Arrowmont Class

Overlook (my view on the drive to Arrowmont, in the Smoky Mountains)

In July I'm teaching at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN.
Arrowmont is a wonderfully inspiring place - they have held classes there since the 1920s. It was originally a settlement school for the local children, but gradually focussed more on teaching arts and crafts. It's now internationally recognized for the workshops. The facilities are super. Having taught classes in hotels, in multipurpose college buildings, and in conference centers, it is so wonderful to teach in a purpose built facility.

Evening sky sitting outside the library at Arrowmont, TN

They have specific studios for many different arts and crafts: Fiber and surface Design of course, but also Woodturning, Clay, Photography, Jewelry, Glass and Stone and paper. Each week in the summer, fall and spring they run 8-10 weeklong classes in a variety of mediums. During the workday you work in your own specific medium, but at meal times and for the evening programs you meet people in all other mediums. Each of the teachers does a short presentation plus there's a very attractive gallery filled with the teacher's work.

And, an art store, AND a great library! They have a good variety of accommodation to suit everyone's taste, and talking of taste - the food is great! The whole school buzzes with excitement the whole week, there's such a sense of energy present, it is really inspiring. They get the Best teachers, and I'm very fortunate to be teaching there again this July. There are only a handful of places like Arrowmont in the US ( I can think of Penland in NC, John C. Campbell in TN, Haystack in Maine...leave me a comment if I'm missing anywhere!).
This link will take you to the registration and class list.

My class this summer is entitled: Coaxing the Muse: Art Quilts and Wall Hangings

This workshop will explore the process of becoming Inspired!
Inspiration is the drawing into yourself from other sources the five elements from which we make work: line, shape, value, hue and texture.
Exhalation is bringing forth these elements transformed by the catalysts of our thoughts, sensitivities, feelings, hands and humour - together with the magic of dye and scissors – into something new and fresh!
The medium we will use for this alchemical process is fiber – we will turn plain white boring cotton into brilliant sparkling exciting works of art.
You do not need to be a certified wizard to effect these changes!
Any one who has ever petted a piece of fabric or stroked a sewing machine can participate!

I hope to see you there!!! Do email me if you have any questions, or just ask them in a comment.
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Working Process: design and color

Some time ago, somebody asked me to go through my working process in a little more detail.

I began Industrial Landscape #6 with quite a complex diagram.

I had sketched a portion of the steelworks, then done a number of different value studies.

I decided to go with two that were complete opposites and alternate them in a series of 5.

I began by deciding on the first four lines – the edges of the piece…

I wanted this quilt to have a very horizontal look to it..

I tried four repeats, five and six to get the right balance – five looked good.

I think it’s really important to take your time at this stage.

The next step is the colour scheme. There are lots of different ways to derive good colour schemes and in my workshops we spend some time on getting good ones. I think it’s very important to decide on a scheme and stick to it – not to allow oneself to keep diving back into the stash to find some neat stuff you just fancied using!! Every time I do that I end up having to take it out again because it overpowers the rest of the piece! From my reading of painting books, I’ve learned that a good painter will lay out a palette of colours at the outset.

It’s not just a case of choosing a lovely colour scheme – but the colours chosen should relate to the meaning of the piece. Colour is both effective and affective. People choose many things by colour! Not just clothes, but cars, mp3 players, flowers, furniture, cats and yes, artwork. Colour affects mood – a somber grey waiting room with brown and black furniture and pictures of grizzly bears will definitely sober the patients – unbelievably this is what my dentist has chosen!

Colour also references culture, geography and history. I grew up in a grey rainy stone environment – consequently I find neutrals restful and comfortable – a Californian or a Trinidadian would just find them dreary! If I made a quilt about Trinidad and chose a “Yorkshire” colour scheme that would add a different layer of meaning to the piece – and vice versa. Directors have done this with film for years – suddenly switching to black and white or chiaroscuro to lend an effect. The wonderful Jeremy Brett BBC Sherlock Holmes series are filmed in the browns and blacks so beloved of Queen Victoria after her consort’s death. But what if you filmed Sherlock in Dayglo? What would that indicate? So – the colours of my current quilt were chosen to underline the heraldic “coat of arms” look of my sketch perhaps bringing out the nobility? (or not?). something to ponder…

Back to technique: I paint or dye all my fabrics. I use a technique that uses little water (and thus no salt) ( I live in a drought ridden area, plus we’re on a septic tank) for the immersion dyeing as I don’t want flat colours – I never liked flat colours in painting, so I surely wouldn’t want them in a quilt! I also like to paint the fabric, or do shibori or screen printing.

I teach workshops covering all the techniques I use – here in my home studio by arrangement with small groups – and occasionally out in “the field” (i.e. the big wide world!) if the facility has sufficient sinks etc so people can enjoy themselves with colour and not have to line up for water, or carry buckets for miles. So I’ll be doing a full dye/paint/screen workshop next spring at Coupeville, Whidbey Island. In July this year, in my Arrowmont class everyone will dye their fabric before they make the quilt. (more details on Tuesday).

I think it’s very economical and efficient to dye the fabric for each quilt, and then use it all up - unfortunately I can't do that!! Jan Myers-Newbury told us that’s what she did; she said her stash was only a short bookshelf in size!! Our mouths were open in awe at such restraint!!

Having got my palette of fabric laid out, and my sketch handy I then proceed to block out the piece on the design wall. Of all the steps involved in making a quilt, I’d say this takes the most time. As you put each element up, it affects all the other pieces already in place and it’s good to evaluate that step by step. It’s a matter of constant adjustments of size, shape and value to get the perfect balance of all the elements – even with a good sketch.

So here are a sequence of pictures....gradually adding elements, and frequently taking things away!

As you can see I have my first four lines marked out, and then the back ground sewn together and in place, now I begin to add elements.

I really think I liked the piece best at this stage because it looks something like a dance!
Dancing steel mills? there's a lovely image and contrast....note it down!

And now I have most of the elements from my sketch.....

That’s the stage I’m at now with this piece, I’ll post the completed quilt when it’s done – but it’ll take a while! At present I’m beginning to think I’ve got too many things going on, so I shall try abstracting them one by one and see if it makes the piece stronger – I always like space to breathe!

So…back to work!!!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading.


Friday, February 6, 2009

Reflections (on Comments)

River Reflections (16"w, 12"h)

I love getting comments to the posts, and thought I’d respond to a few of the more recent ones.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
I’ve often wondered about this old quote, and I think the opposite is truer! And certainly that is what gives work to artists!!! There are places where beauty exists but if you don’t look right you won’t see it. It always amazed me that my male friends (in my youth!) could not see the great qualities of some of my female friends – they would focus on a thick ankle or scraggly hair and see nothing else!! As artists, we can help the beholder see the beauty they might miss.

Last year in New York (and apologies to the artist whose name I forget) I saw a show of photographs of the edges of pieces of paper and their shadows..absolutely gorgeous – I had never noticed that before. And another year at the Whitney I saw drawings of shirts neatly folded onto shelves – they were scrumptious! We must bring the non-beholders to the trough and make them drink!!!

And Marina’s comment : A good artist notices patterns and translates them into composition or color harmony, concisely summarises the above.
And , unfortunately, again the converse is true – a bad artist can take something lovely and make us want to puke!!! As in snow scenes in pink, mauve and soft lemon with extra glowing windows in the olde logge cabinne!!! I often think those folk must have had a huge electricity bill to get all those lamps so bright !

In your industrial landscapes you removed insignificant details.
One of the jobs of the artist is to remove the insignificant, to present the idea in its cleanest, most precise, most concise form. I don’t agree that more is more – except for novels from my favorite writers! One of the problems with many quilts today is that people put Too Much in…I used to do that too, and some!...but was lucky enough to have several people comment on it. I once did a critique session for a guild in Alabama – they brought pieces they were having trouble with and I lead a discussion as to what would strengthen the work. In the majority of cases, it was Getting Rid of Excess Baggage.

Some body else commented on this same problem: I reach a point that I like it, sew it together and put it away to revisit later. And this is when the trouble begins, because then I want to improve it more, to perhaps cut it up, add another figure. How do we know when to stop?
This is a dilemma faced by watercolour painters – for once something is added, it can’t be taken away – at least as fiber artists we can do that! And oil painters can just paint over the top – Howard Hodgkin just paints on and on and on…layering for months – sometimes years! But a watercolourist has to know when to stop.
Two responses: one, slow down dramatically toward the end…and evaluate every step…stand well back from the piece (or get a photograph onto the computer, I find that helps me the most)…and
secondly, stop before you think you should.

I’m currently reaching that stage with Industrial Landscape #6….my sketch has a Lot more details in it, but the piece is looking so good on the wall with only about half those details that I’m just creeping along very tentatively at this point, and may stop very soon. We don’t need to follow the plan right to the end! Think, think!!!

A very different point was raised by Nina:
I would like to know how you decided to change the scale of the pieces in the Industrial series. Why was the last one so large? Did you feel like it added more to the subject matter?
A good question because it makes me think!! And I would say the reason was (and this is where the value of working in a series comes in) because I would have liked the others to have been bigger…when I saw the steel mill across the water for the first time, I was struck by the immensity of it, how much land it took up, also by the beauty. Beautiful because the structures were very intriguing shapes, and yet they all fitted together. I felt that I hadn’t conveyed that tremendous width.
As I make each piece, I’m also thinking about the next one – what did I feel or see that I’ve not yet been able to convey….

And finally thank you to Olga who reminded me of Bernd and Hilla Becher's photographs which I had seen in AinA some years ago and may have had their inspiration just quietly percolating away….to be triggered by the catalyst of sailing in Hamilton Bay last summer.

I’ll do another post about your comments in the future – it has been most enjoyable talking to you this morning!! But now it’s time to hit the (design) wall!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Is beauty necessary?

I was watching a video yesterday of potter Eva Zeisel talking about her long life as an artist and she said she had always engaged in a “playful search for beauty”. It had been one of her main goals.

I started thinking about whether art should be beautiful and whether one should be working playfully. In the richest sense of the word “beauty” (not the worn out trite usage we’re so familiar with!) Art should be, I think. Beautiful or, perhaps, shocking – but even the shocking must engage the eye, must lead it around the image or form seductively inviting us to stay the course. If you just looked at Guernica formally – as a pattern of neutral tones, blacks and white without the meaning being read, you could see that it is a beautiful painting.

Everyone loves to look at beautiful scenery, would love to live in a beautiful house, or be with (or be!) a beautiful person (and by that I don’t mean looks!)…so it would make sense we would like to look at beautiful art.

Beauty is not trite, pallid, commercialized, pastel, greeting card taste – that is mere prettiness and can hold one’s attention momentarily. If that. Which reminds me of a story I love to tell (two nations divided by a similar language) – when we got on the plane to emigrate to the USA, the pilot said “Hi, folks, we’ll be in the air momentarily!”

to the Americans on board, that meant we’d be leaving soon,

to the Brits it meant we’d be in the air for a moment and then down again!!

Colours, shapes, lines etc don’t have to be “pretty” or “sweet” to be beautiful; music played in a minor key can be just as (if not more so) beautiful than a major one. Nobody wants to listen to a harsh monotonous banging noise, but something that engages our spirit makes us feel good. Feeling good leads to better health!!!

Beauty can be fresh, or mature, bold or soft, quiet or loud, startling or soothing. Many things! I always think about poor old Bilbo (0r was it Frodo?) talking about his pocket contents: “Lots - and nothing at all!” Art is lots of things (decoration, communication, information, honour, inspiration), but it has to be one thing first: something that holds our attention, something we desire, something that can lead to immortality? Well, perhaps no, but longevity certainly! Think about the things (landscapes, skies, pictures, photographs, music). What is about the ones that stay with you? What qualities do they have?

If it’s beautiful, we’ll look, we’ll engage, we’ll stay, and we’ll remember.

And now to try to reach that creative goal…playfully!

If you have been, thanks for reading!


Monday, February 2, 2009

Industrial Landscapes

Just finished the 5th quilt in my Industrial Landscape series based on the steel mills in Hamilton, Ontario - I'm sure other steel mills are just as interesting, by the way!! but the Hamilton ones stretch all along the very edge of the bay at the western edge of Lake Ontario - so there's a juxtaposition of industry and nature that is shocking, dramatic, startling and fascinating.

Rusty Answer

This is the one I first started, it has masses of handstitching in front - that's what all those little orange dots are!!
Actually it took me so long to stitch that I got the second one completed first! It's below:

Strange Beauty

I had it printed onto a small magnet, which I'll send to various collectors so that they think of me every time they make a cuppa tea or get a cold one outa the fridge!!!
The third one, seen below, is a close up, I was interested in getting a lot of texture into this one.

Heavy Metal

The 4th was somewhat ironic - I wanted to portray the griminess of the reality in soft pretty colours -

What pretty Smoke!

and now for the 5th one!!

Steel Yard Frieze
This one came out quite wide (70") so will cost me a fortune to ship to shows, I'm hoping I get a call from Hamilton Mills!!! with this one I was thinking how the stretch of the mills buildings along the lake's edge and the flattening because of the distance from which I was viewing it (sailing!) made it look like one of the old friezes you see on Greek Vases, or temples. Again, a somewhat ironic note!!

And now I'm working away on the 6th piece which is developing a rather heraldic look so I think might be titled Heraldic Ambivalence - watch this space!!

These, and other previous industrial pieces, plus sizes can all be seen on my website, please visit!

And if you have been, thanks for reading!

PS I'd love comments as to which you like best and why.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Using Photoshop to help create design possibilities

Value sketches are so important both for the quilts and for the watercolors that I do. Two people responded to my request for value sketches!!! (see below)

If you try out several different value studies, you can then pick the one that’s most interesting, and also the one that best reflects your theme.

Whitney had looked at many “Old Masters” and analyzing their compositions in terms of 3 values (light, medium, dark) came to the conclusion that there were 5 variations that seemed to occur very often:

a dark shape with a medium background,

a light shape with a medium background,

a large dark and a small light shape with a medium background

a large light and a small dark with a medium background

a gradation of values from light medium to dark across a light background.

But, as the mathematically inclined have already figured out, there are several more possibilities!

One thing to remember is that a piece is both more cohesive and more interesting if one value is dominant, and another used very sparingly as an accent (obviously that works better with the lightest or the darkest value).

I like to use Photoshop when working out compositions – you can use it to assess values but also in many other ways: crop a piece, to enlarge horizontally or vertically, to flip images, to repeat images, or layer them. Generally I make a line sketch, scan it into Photoshop so then I can resize at will, crop as needed, print out several copies and then shade them in different value variations. For simple reversals of values, use Ctrl-I – a marvelous command which instantly reverses the values. It would be good if there was a command that would print out all possible value variations for you!! You can use the fill tool but it's a bit laborious I think, though it might be interesting to use it for whole areas!! hmmmmm, now there's an idea!!

Nina sent these two images:

- she has changed a very small section of the values only, but if we look at one inverted, what a different impression we get!

I wouldn't suggest leaving the face that dark of course but the lovely soft background would make a much lighter value face glow!

On a two value study, there’s a very different mood with each variation:

Here are Nina's hand studies alternated:

Using the photoshop move tool you can build up an image;If you use transparent layers, you can superimpose and create a whole forest of hands!!

Here is the same image shaded two different ways from Jackie: you can see that a different mood is indicated quite clearly by the different shading:

Taking an old image of mine (the quilt I made from it is at the top), I first changed the shape to a square

then cleaned out areas I didn't like and flipped it horizontally:

then doubled with a reversal,

then layered 3 images:

Lots of fun!!! I just keep generating images, what if I try this? and How about that? at this point No Editing...

once I have a lot of ideas, then I try them out with different values, then I pin them all up on the wall and live with them for a while, gradually removing those that are boring, or awkward. and that's just the beginning of the design process of course, sometimes more ideas come to mind, frequently as I begin to block out the quilt, I'll make more changes...

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