Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The artist as flaneur

gws entry driveway

In a recent (May 11) AinA, I read a very interesting article based on a discussion with 5 artists about the nature of their non-art activities. They were asked: What helps to nurture creativity? What influences your work?

Most artists find that their ideas and energy ebb and flow – when the tide of creativity is rushing in, you’re flying along on the crest of the wave not noticing anything except the movement and the exhilaration. But then when it draws back, you’re dragging, every pebble niggling, reminiscent of Matthew Arnold’s experiences on Dover Beach:

“You hear the grating roar
of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
at their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
with tremulous cadence slow, and bring
the eternal note of sadness in.”

Well – perhaps not that bad! At least not for most of us!

gws entry Sw park with fence

In a panel discussion: “Parallel Practices: When the Mind Isn’t Focused on Art” at the College Art Association’s annual meeting in NYC, Douglas Dreishpoon asked established painters and sculptors

Petah Coyne, Philip Taaffe, Kija Celmins, Robert Gober and Janine Antoni what they did when they were not making art. What do they do when ideas seem to dry up?

They all find it helpful, they said, to have quite different activities – things that don’t relate to art at all but, surprisingly, are able to inform their work “in unexpected ways”.

Of course there were several of the “usual” activities: reading, dancing, gallery visiting etc, but others less common are more ingenious.

Petah Coyne finds “wandering” helpful. She defines this as “visiting new place with your eyes wide open and your senses alert”. Sometimes she sees odd things e.g. an apparent pile of rubbish bags which turned out to be a “house” built by a homeless man, which later lead her to think about sculptures which could incorporate a similar hidden unexpected presence.

Vija Celmins gardens and reads – she especially loves mystery writers like Henning Mankell – so good to learn that reading mysteries can improve one’s art! I’m off to the library!

gws entry pond

Janine Antoni states that she has always had a “parallel practice” which permitted her to explore ideas freely,she felt, because she wasn’t putting pressure on herself to produce. In her parallel practice she explores similar concepts but in a very different medium. This was fascinating to me because I’m learning to paint in watercolors and I’m finding that one is attempting to solve similar problems in composition but in a much shorter time that that involved with art quilts. So I can explore an idea pretty quickly – though it may take me 50 watercolors to get it right! However, Antoni has taken this to a very high level, she writes: “.. the elusive content I sought resonates in the gap between one form and another… by exposing the limitations of each form, I could mine the possibilities that exist between them” and that’s why she has chosen to vary the mediums within which she works. It’s great to be able to justify playing with different mediums in the way!

Antoni has found that dance is the perfect way to explore some of her ideas further. Her subject is the body and she feels that her “kinesthetic exploration” can reveal hidden and undiscovered ideas that do not surface with a more cognitive approach. Thinking about a problem often leads to rehashing old ideas, she feels, and she’s often been surprised to discover a solution through movement. It’s a fascinating concept…I wish she were here so I could ask her whether it was the solution to a compositional problem that the movement solved, or rather that it helped when one was stuck for ideas. I have always found that an activity like walking can help one to think more freely round and about a subject.

She feels that people tend to have a preferred sense for experiencing things: some learn better visually, some aurally, some via movement, many through different combinations. It’s curious to me that many motor skills are taught aurally, when you wonder whether or not some way of putting another’s body through the actual feeling of the movement might not be a better way to learn.

Philip Taaffe (he does those wonderfully complex pattern-like paintings) describes thinking about his “patterns and rhythms” as sometimes so difficult that he diverts himself, takes time off from the problems, by shooting pool or playing chess. The complex spatial problems of a game of pool (billiards), relate significantly to his painting and can help him to solve difficulties there too. Old silent black and white films with their complex shifting rhythms of light lead to a free floating contemplation of visual possibilities. He notes that “seemingly random and significant” events can surprisingly inform his work. He calls this an “ingathering of memories” that one takes to the studio. Reading philosopher Bertrand Russell’s essay “In Praise of Idleness” led to a key realization that no knowledge is wasted however apparently insignificant and that there is a “sanctity” to idleness. He wonders, in fact, if “unemployment is the job of the future”. How will people learn to cope with this? The pressure to succeed can lead to needless misery, the idea that you should work hard and make a lot of money may not be the best way to live. He thinks we should consider working less, enjoy life more and learn how to appreciate art!

“Learning to be in the world, as a finely tuned observer, is a profound lesion that art can help us with. Artists are still the flaneurs of our time. Our responsibility is to teach others how to live in the moment without feeling guilty about it”.

Maybe we’re going to come into a new age, where striving to get higher and higher returns and “quality controls” are seen as archaic and irrelevant goals – instead thoughtful observation of our world and its beauties and careful planning to preserve them on every level will become paramount. The artist as CEO!!

If you have been, thanks for reading!  And do comment on what non-art quilt activities you have found helpful in informing your work.  Elizabeth.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The quilts were hanging in the library for 16 years

Sixteen years ago I was awarded a small grant to hang a couple of art quilts in a public building in town.  I was lucky enough to find that the then  new public library was very happy to accept them.  They’ve hung above the main stairs up to the fiction section all this time and it was a lot of fun to see them on my frequent trips to the library.  Also, if anyone asked what I did, I could say “have you seen those quilts in the library?”  Recently I noticed that there were grey ridges of dust wobbling on the edges of the quilts about to create a dust storm on unexpecting patrons below and so I asked if I could have the quilts back for cleaning when they moved them in order to renovate (massive exciting extensions and renovations to a public library!!) the building.

I brought them home and literally threw them into the washing machine – (well, one at a time, “hand wash” and Synthrapol – to be accurate!) then hung them out on the line to dry.  Yes, they are a little bit faded, but not much…more so on the commercial fabric I was using at the time – especially a particularly nice sponge print of Nancy Crow’s line of fabric.  But I think they look pretty good and will be fine to be rehung when the renovation is complete.

Here is Stanley St, 16 years ago (professional slide)  on the left…and now(snapshot on the living room floor…) after washing on the right. 

stanley st from slide




stanley st from lib








Strangely enough I didn’t ever photograph the other quilt all those years ago!  But it was one of a pair that were very similar (the other one is hanging in Harstfield Atlanta airport, Gate 29 – or will be when they have completed their renovations).  They were made with the same fabric, the small details were different, but the overall plan very similar.

On the left the other original, on the right the current view after washing.

guildhall 2 72ppi

guildhall library now








For 16 years of faithful service to the public, I don’t think they look too bad!  So much for all those snobby folks who say no one will buy a fabric piece because it doesn’t last.  These pieces lasted longer than the rest of the decor in the building!!  Furthermore, how many paintings or sculptures can the maker carry home and chuck in the washing machine?!!

There’s no doubt about it: fiber rules!

If you have been, thanks for reading!!!  Elizabeth
Ps I sure wish that time had had as little effect on my exterior!!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Purposes of Art as seen in Art Quilts

and the pink blob….

An art work is not just an object on a wall:
it is also a way in which human beings find meaning; it is a way in which they create their world”. (Tony Godfrey).  
  I read this quote and began to cogitate about art and its purpose in our lives.   Looking at beauty and grace makes us feel good and I think good art gives us a sense of the beauty that is to be found in the world. 
Agnes Martin wrote:
When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life.

And  Jan Myers-Newburys’ response to Martha Seilman’s question as to why she made quilts was:
I would like the viewer to find beauty in my work, and to understand the great pleasure I derive from the act of making each quilt. 

grasses by stream

Jan’s work is definitely beautiful, gorgeous in fact, and makes us look again and again at it and then later we see more beauty in nature: wild grasses in ponds and roadsides.



driveway trees summer 300 Katharine Allen’s and Barbara Watler’s work with leaves and trees have a similar effect.  Later we look more closely at the patterns of leaves…


But what about work that doesn’t speak initially of beauty? Works that leaves us with questions like “why would she put those pieces of fabric together?” What can that work do for us?  to be honest, I often find it difficult to figure out.  If it’s not going to add beauty and grace to my life, why would I want to hang it on my wall?  why would I want to look at it more than once?  I can certainly see the purpose of art that delivers a powerful message (like Guernica), art that makes us think (should we really be doing this?  whatever the “this” is!).  But I think art like that is difficult to make and get the point across in an effective and memorable way.  And I have seen very few art quilts that have ever had that kind of impact on me.

We don’t want the beauty to be predictable and insipid, however;  a cloying prettiness that cheapens the very idea of beauty is not satisfying to the palate with any experience at all.   Of course there are a lot of undiscerning palates out there as many (but not all!) Viewers’ Choice awards suggest!!

And what about abstract art?  Art that comes more from within than without, art that is not driven by a response to the beauty of nature?  Can abstract art portray beauty and emotion? I think it can, but  as I look at it I wonder about  the maker’s intention: I want to get into the artist’s head and see and feel and know what they were experiencing that drove them to make this work and I’m unsatisfied if I see and feel that there’s nothing there. It doesn’t have to be emotional content of course, a keen intellectual curiosity is fine – such as that engendered by the puzzle maze quilts of Ellen Oppenheimer. Paula Nadelstern gives us a double treat: we can intellectually analyze the complexity of the kaleidoscopic image and also bask in its beauty.

Art should have an impact, it’s important that the  work has presence. You know how forgettable some quilts are – you go to a show with a friend – or sit and look at a catalogue together over a glass of wine (yes I do occasionally drink something other than tea!) – and you realize that as soon as you see some pieces, they disappear from your memory – just no impact at all. Bland, vapid, predictable, wallpaper, flat, uninspired, totally unmemorable. When I was a child and sick in bed a great deal I would search the wallpaper for the place where the patterns went wrong!!! Now that would have been interesting! One place where the little pink blob was yellow, or a square, or even missing altogether! (I knew you were wondering when that pink blob would appear!).

You need a little tension, something slightly off, something to tease your mind. Too perfect and balanced is not good. No heart. I was fascinated to hear the same thing from the So You Think (tv show) judges: they criticized one of the dancers auditioning for the show as being too smooth, too perfect. A perfect white sauce on white fish with mashed potatoes all matching. The Japanese (of course!) have a word: WabiSabi (?) which indicates this quality of a piece. The little bit of crookedness that means a human being made it, the sense of incompleteness, something still to be seen.

So, when next you enter your sewing room (or studio – and, by the way,  don’t you think it is so idiotic for people to be comparing and voting on and photographing studios???? is this about art or is it about real estate!!! I will never buy a magazine that writes articles about the artist’s lavatory instead of his/her artwork!)…
eniow….when next you enter the place where you create art work, think about why you are doing it:  Beauty? Impact? Mystery?Feeling? A way to find the meaning of it all? and let me know!

And, watch out for those pink blobs, by the way….
If you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Purposes of Art or Who Stole the Pink Blob? part 1

What is the point of making  art? What is the point of viewing it? Art is a two way street. We make it, we see it.  We see it, we make it.

Art is described as a medium for exploration, expression, finding meaning in the world, creativity, showing and revealing beauty and telling stories, is a basic human need.

NY painter Verne Dawson states  art “ is a primary activity, somewhere between whistling and scratching. It’s an extremely efficacious and enduring method of communicating simple as well as complex ideas. For me, its also a means of expressing love of life and love of creation. ”

How successfully can we communicate through cloth?  As someone who has made both representational and abstract work (nearly always abstracted from, rather than a formal arrangement of abstract geometric shapes) I’m intrigued that I prefer  the abstract quilts in most quilt shows.  However,  when I come to my own work, I usually prefer the more representational ones. I think this is because I find I want to communicate something in my work and I find it very hard to do that abstractly. And from reading about art, like the painter’s comment above I find I am not unusual in wanting to communicate?

Obviously “pure” emotion  can be conveyed abstractly – different shapes, different value patterns, different colors and qualities of line especially, can convey different feelings. Curving lines and pastel colors suggest peacefulness. We can heat that up into warmer emotions by rounding the lines more and increasing the temperature of the color!! Of course if we make the lines harsh, jagged and diagonal and heat the colors upto red and orange and intersperse with black, we’re into a different mood altogether! Everyone knows that Rothko was in a very depressed state (and did soon after commit suicide) when he painted the black on black panels for the Menil chapel in Houston. Depression is definitely grey or black. Though the reverse is not true – this is a case of all As are x, but not all Xs are A!! (which so many newscasters, chat show hosts and socalled image makers conveniently forget).

So what do we – as the viewer – want from a painting art quilt? When I’ve had a show it seems as if most people are there to find out how I make the quilts and then they dash back home and have a go themselves.  At large quilt shows that have both quilt galleries and vendors you see people take a quick look at the quilts and then shoot off to the vendors – they may come back later for another quick look (was it blue….or pink?) and then zoom off again! This is hardly the behaviour of someone who looks at the art as an image of beauty to be savored and enjoyed. So why do we want to look at art/art quilts anyway? Why do we want to make (or, much more rarely, buy) them?

Well…art does look good on a wall! And we all have walls! but there’s more to it than that…

Tony Godfrey (the author of several books on art) poses an interesting conundrum: “one way for a viewer to experience the [artwork] is to imagine [it] as the [maker made] it…(and vice versa) one way to create an art work is to imagine oneself the viewer”.

I know some people make work totally for themselves and their own use entirely, but I think they must be in the minority: they are the trees that fall silently in the forest. Most of us see ourselves as communicating something with the art, we want other people to see it and to understand what we’re saying/seeing/feeling.

It’s hard for the viewer to do that with only one example from the artist though. For every artist (sooner or later) develops their own “language” and it takes more than one piece to be able to read the language. I remember that when intelligence services were trying to decode enemy signals they always needed more than one example. Strange the connections you make! But these are enduring patterns in human behaviour and cognition, so not so very surprising. Needing more than one example, leads me to bemoan the current tendency of art quilt shows to permit the jurors to select only one piece per artist instead of being able to select the top N quilts entered. I think this started with the uproar when Michael James was a Visions juror and he selected several pieces by the same artists. Apparently everyone was so up in arms and so vituperative, he said he’d never jury a show in that way again!! It’s a bit like the audiences booing the judges on the reality shows for their criticisms. This need for us all to win, for us all to be wonderful comes from current educational practices I assume. And, cynically, I feel those are based on politics. So much cheaper to tell you you are wonderful and you passed all the exams, than actually making sure you got the education such that you could really do the work. “ Just tell them they can do it and they’ll never notice the difference!” Or at least not until after his/her 4 years in office!

This is getting too long, so I’m afraid you’ll have to come back in a few days to find out about the Pink blob!!  If you have been, thanks for reading.  And, as always, your comments are what keep me cogitating …and writing!  Thank you.  Elizabeth

Thursday, June 9, 2011

To be a juror


I was very excited to be asked to be a juror for the upcoming Art Quilt Elements show in Philadelphia next spring.  But as well as an honour, and exciting, it is quite a responsibility.  I want to make sure I have polished up my critical judgment:  that I have a “good eye”  - as they say –  which always makes me think I should have a parrot and a peg leg too!!  But I doubt the AQE ladies would be too thrilled if I turned up like that!

So I started looking at some juror’s statements as to what one should look for.  Obviously a strong composition is a basic requirement. Quilts that are all over the place, that don’t have good strong bones, that just look like they are thrown together would not be something I would choose for a show of this caliber.  Balance is important too: if something is leaning (visually) to the left or right, or has inelegant proportions (unless related to the subject of course), I would not want to include it.  And the piece should be unified, well pulled together, everything important in there, and everything unimportant taken out.

There are loads of quotations from artists discussing the necessity of getting rid of stuff that is not relevant.  It’s not only sculptors who have to discard the extraneous material! The art is in the editing.
”The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials”. (Lin Yutang).

  There should be a clear message, not a confused one.  The message doesn’t have to be world shattering like Guernica  - talking about Guernica, I heard a telling story  recently…apparently during the Occupation of France, a German officer went to see Picasso and there was a photograph of the famous painting lying on a table “Did you do this?” said the officer.  “No, you did”, replied Picasso.  Shiver…

  Well, the message doesn’t have to be of that calibre, obviously, otherwise there would be very little art!  but I think the quilt should clearly say something..   it could be as simple as “look how lovely pink and purple  squares are!” (though I think the person would have to be a Very Good artist to be able to pull that thought off!). What did the maker intend for the piece?  And were they successful in doing that?

And what else?  One statement (alas of unknown origin!) really struck me: 
“I’m looking for discovery when I’m jurying; something different, something mysterious”.  
Some mystery, is I think, important – not confusion…but something that hints at greater depths and meanings.  I’ve bought quite a few art pieces in my time, and also not bought ones I wish I had.  And some of those I can remember so clearly – because of the mystery.  I remember a little dark painting of a shopkeeper holding up a bird cage – just what was that about?  I do wish I’d had the cash to buy it and enjoy the puzzle every day!!   Some ways in which artists install mystery is by using  lost edges or  by not spelling out every last detail – no ,you don’t have to show every window in the house!  Or,  marks that could be one thing, or maybe another….writing that you just can’t quite read (though I think you have to be careful with that one because it’s getting a bit over used).

Edrith Huws wrote:
“It is splendid if there is some inner tension, a hint of disorder being controlled.  that to me is the essence of an aesthetic experience.”
There are many technical way to convey this: rhythms that are syncopated or slightly broken rather than the obvious dum-dum-dum-dum of the funeral march, or slightly unexpected colour combinations.  Balance without rigid symmetry, lines that show the mark of the hand.  Homeostasis=couch potato!  And we know how interesting they are!

And also, of course, are those things that you do not want to see: stale copies of other people’s imaginations, cheap tricks and gew-gaws, the 500th piece in a series that was successful for the first 50 or so but now is so familiar you could make doormats out of it.

So, now is your chance to tell a juror what you think they really should be looking for!!!  I will read all suggestions very carefully!  and thank you, in advance, for taking the time to comment.  Comments are the blogger’s reinforcement, you know, without them the blogger would simply dry up and wither away…(hm, that makes me think it might be time for a nice cuppa tea!).

If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

PS the quilt at the top, Strange Beauty,  was  my entry in the last AQE.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


I’m thinking of taking the axe to this quilt:

Window Seat 30"w, 37"h

I love its graphic nature but never felt it really worked in totality….plus I’ve just agreed to make itsy bitsy pieces for a local Art charity auction thingie (and don’t we get sick of requests for these!).  Usually, if I think it’s a very worthy cause and I feel guilty (they’re good at that!) because I’ve benefited from the facility myself, and with my education (12 years in a convent school), I know guilt must be expiated (!), I send a piece.  So Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts and Penland School of Crafts both got big pieces from me this year – and last year  and, come to think of it, the year before that too…at this rate I won’t need to worry what happens to my quilts when I pop me clogs! 
And then, a local (Athens, GA) art venue (Athica) put a nice little twist on the sale of the art.  All the pieces are to be the same size (a half sheet of paper, i.e.  5.5”  x  8.5”) and will be anonymous.  The artist will sign the piece on the back.  You won’t know who made the art until you purchase it!!  However, there will be a full list of the artists participating in all the publicity, so you can have fun finding out which is who!!!  I'd love to see this done in the art quilt world!!

I’d just turned down several other requests so the old guilt thing was feeling pretty active and I really like the idea of seeing all the work pinned up together on one wall and trying to figure out who did what, so I set to and made three little pieces and they came out so much better than I ever expected.  I never thought I could make a “quilt” as small as this that would have very much presence at all but I’m quite happy with these.

And so now of course, I’m sharpening my cutting tools and have the quilt at the very top of the post (Windowseat) laid out on the (ha!) CUTTING table!!!!  (so well named!).   Not quite sure how it’s going to be butchered just yet but I feel there will be some prime cuts available very soon!!  and I’ll post them in the “pages” that are linked at the top of this blog.

Sorry for sparse cogitations recently, too much family stuff and teaching stuff!
Just havn't been able to sit and think much, or even just sit for that matter!  And, if you have been, thanks for reading! And let me know if you're interested in a "cut"!!