Friday, August 14, 2009

Surface Seduction Revisited

How great to get such a reaction to my blog on beginning quilts “with the fabric”!  Both agreement and disagreement open up a debate and thinking in all directions.  There  was a straightforward question which I’ll answer first and then I’ll comment on some of the many ideas that were raised.

What led you into surface design?   I was intrigued by surface design long before I made quilts – back in the 70s I was screen printing designs onto clothing – I remember some jeans I made with wild flowers growing up from the hem and a skirt with a border of trees and their roots – all very meaningful of course!
I began making quilts after moving to the US and wanting to join in a group to get to know people.  But after a few years I realized I wanted to be in control of the whole process – not just rearranging pieces of fabric designed by someone else.  I don’t dislike commercial fabric prints – when used well by people like Nancy Halpern or Ruth McDowell or Paula Nadelstern (on CBS Sunday Morning this weekend) or Nancy Crow’s early work – but wanted to explore making my own fabric.  They succeed because they use the colour, value and texture of the fabric rather than letting the design of flowers, plaid etc overwhelm them.  Also they all isolate the particular small sections of the fabric that support the meaning of the quilt – whatever it is they want to communicate.  If you’re working with commercial fabric I would look to these amazing artists’ work very specifically, analyzing just how they are using other people’s fabric successfully.

Look at this picture (Thanks to George Rybicki for taking the photograph) of a Nancy Halpern quilt:


See how she has used the value, the temperature and the texture of individual pieces of fabric to create an interesting pattern across the piece which was based on a photograph of leaves floating on water.






I was struck by how many readers wrote about having also had to battle with not allowing the fabric to dominate the piece:
    “having struggled with not allowing method to oust meaning (and often losing the struggle)
   it was so incredibly difficult to get work that went beyond the fabric or the technique .”
  “I often get stuck when using my own dyed pieces because it's hard to move beyond the "seductive" surface to see what greater meanings there are.”

I’ve lost the fight with the siren myself chimney many times
– here’s an early quilt that really was about
the lovely bit of blue and white screen printing in the centre!


Several people wrote about intent – whether it’s of importance or not, whether “to make a beautiful thing”  gives sufficient  meaning to a piece.    The painter Agnes Martin summed up the need for beauty: “All art work is about beauty.  All positive work represents beauty and celebrates it”.    I know I want my quilts to be beautiful and satisfying….but I also think that true beauty is not a shallow meaningless thing:  I was very interested to read in Nancy Crow’s artist statement that she felt that:
The purpose of my quilts is to make something beautiful for me but at the same time they are a means of expression representing my deepest feelings and my life experiences. In addition, my quilts are all about how I see color and color relationships; how I see shapes; and how I see line and linear movements. They are also about complexity, sadness, and hope.
Beauty is rich and meaningful when the piece is personal, when it is a strong arrangement of those basic elements of color, color relationship, shapes, line and movement, and when it conveys a mood that reaches your emotions as well as your visual cortex.  

Even a piece that is more decorative in the sense that it conveys a simple delight in a bunch of flowers , for example, is stronger if it actually communicates the maker’s real honest delight in the flowers:   warming, spirit lifting, energizing!!   I like my flowers to be fresh! not stale.  

Some said that they felt that fabric could be a good starting point for inspiration:  a start, perhaps but not an end.   We can make a piece about a tree or a pair of shoes or a flower – or as  choreographer Mia Michaels did in the show So You Think you Can Dance –  a bottom (UK) or butt(US)!    But the piece to be strong should not be literally about the object but instead about how you feel about the object – what is it that you personally want to tell me that is unique and exciting about that object? It’s the admiration of the object, the playfulness, the elegance or the movement, the power or the glory.  The meaning of the piece can be anything!  Anything that you’ve noticed and want to communicate, or an idea that you just want to work out for yourself.  But I do think you should know what it is…if it’s totally inchoate, then the work will be too – and how then can you judge if you reached your goal?

I definitely agree with the person who compared the descriptions of work in catalogs (“made from cotton, discharged and hand stitched”…etc) to the ingredients in a recipe.   Our art quilts arn’t made from recipes!! (despite cooking workshops!).    And  I do dislike having to suggest that they are - when filling out an entry form.  “Oh yes, this picture is made from paint”!   “This sculpture is made from stone.”   No, it’s made from the mind and heart of the artist utilizing a particular medium

Another question that was raised was whether surface design is an art form?   I would respond is painting and dyeing an art form?  Is mixing dye an art form?  These are techniques that can lead to art….or not.   Complex cloth as defined by Jane Dunnewold is more than a bolt of fabric – yards of stripes or dots.  The colours are contrasted in value, temperature, hue and saturation, the shapes and lines contrasted in their boldness or softness or angularity, the images simple or layered as relating to the meaning that the maker wishes to convey.   Clearly the goals for such a piece of cloth are the same as for any other art piece – that the piece should work as a whole but have areas of contrast, that there be rhythm and movement and a balance of proportion, that there be sufficient elements to convey the feeling, but not cluttered to the point of chaos.  I was so pleased that Jane herself added a comment:
Art cloth isn't just throwing a bunch of processes at the cloth and then sitting back to admire it. The same rigorous standards that apply to any well crafted work of art apply to art cloth...and you can quote me on that if you want to! I think too often people feel they have more license to "play" on an art cloth surface, and the result is a disjointed piece that doesn't fulfill its potential. Part of the message I am always trying to get across in my own teaching.”

I feel that some of my better pieces have actually come about when I’ve considered what I was going to used the fabric for before I made it.   I’ve always loved being on or in water…and wanting to make a quilt about a particular boat trip to a island bird sanctuary, I printed water fabric in as many different ways as I could.  I was thinking about the photographs I’d taken of the many moods of the water we’d experienced on that trip and tried to put them into each piece of cloth.  It’s one of my favorite quilts.

Finally several people alluded to the necessity of Work! 

“But whatever it involves WORK “
  “I have found out lately (and struggle with regularly) is that good design takes time, patience and persistence. Its not something that will be magically found by putting on more layers or embellishments.”

And, having said that – I need to!
So, if you have been, thanks for reading! and do please keep the comments coming….


1 comment:

Crazy for Art said...

I think you're right in saying that sometimes people don't make "meaning" from random surface design. I think, it would, as you said, make sense to have a general idea in mind while creating the fabric. You gave us all something to think about!