Tuesday, January 31, 2012

More on Teachers: Socratic or Sophist?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA          City of Garlic and Sapphires (60 x 60)

So many quilters I know take lots of classes and really look forward to them as the highlights of their year.  They certainly are tremendous social events, it’s great to be in a room full of high energy folk all doing the same thing and that activity being one that they all love to do.  Where else in life d’you come across that?!!

But what else do people hope to get from their workshops?  Certainly a new technique is one thing, a new process,  an actual object, something you can carry home with you (the thousand dollar pot holder!), but how do these really help you to draw out of yourself your own creativity?

In Ancient Greece, Socrates described education as the drawing out, or leading out (from the Latin e (out of) ducere (lead) ) of that which was already within the student:
"I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think."

Of course, this comment (though apt!) is wildly out of context and his pupils already had a lot of basic skills and he was teaching philosophy not quilt making!!  Though maybe the world would be very different if our “leaders” (generally leading us into trouble rather than out of it, alas) did get together to make quilts.

In Ancient Greece  (about 5th century BC) there were also peripatetic teachers known as Sophists whose aim was much closer to that of many colleges today i.e. to teach students the  knowledge and skills needed to obtain power, money and high political office.  Commanding high fees from their students, they promised them they would impart to them the skills to be successful and productive.

So  should the quilt teacher in planning his or her workshops  be thinking along Socratic lines, or Sophist ones?  Should workshops be about encouragement, support and fun?  Should they be about drawing out of the person that which is already within her/him?  Or should they be teaching the students to make quilts like their own award winning work? (with the unspoken promise that thereby they will be gaining the skills to get a quilt accepted into Quilt National or Paducah or Houston.)

Let’s look at what some art teachers have written (I hope quilt teachers will write in with their opinions!):

Robert Liberace feels that it is essential that teachers help their students to learn the ideas and traditions of the great artists of history “as a path to creating the most interesting and relevant art – for the powerful ideas of the past can point to revolutionary ideas today”. Certainly all those students who learned about the improvisational work of the Gee’s Bend Quilters, the Oakland quilters, Anna Williams and the African banner makers in Benin and adjoining countries,  and aboriginal cultures did exactly this.  They took older ideas and with them created quite revolutionary quilts.  People in small country towns and guilds are still horrified by them!!  Those “old” ideas definitely formed a path to quilts that are extremely interesting and relevant. I, myself, was being quite stultified by the repetition of symmetrical tradition in dull calico prints and was very happy to be lead out of that dusty hidebound arena!

Susan Lyon, on the other hand, stresses preparation when she teaches.  She feels its important to approach your work with “good habits, to guard against mistakes” – this does sound a bit  like my Catholic school education! But, as she points out, preparation at the outset will help considerably to avoid waste, frustration and loss of time when you have to fix basic mistakes as you reach the end of a project.  The “good habit” of looking before you leap shouldn’t stifle creativity if, in that looking, you allow yourself wide open thinking eyes!  She observes that “most students want to jump right in, without patience, without deliberate thinking”. In a culture which largely encourages buying on impulse and rote learning you can certainly see how this happens.  However, I find that while some students in workshops are really impatient to get cutting and sewing, others are hungry for a more reflective approach, they would like to know what they are doing.  For myself ,it was the continual frustration of having to undo, of bouncing up and down to the design wall trying this color and that and the other, that led me to consider that there might be another way.

But we must not be so cautious that we proceed only upon the well trodden path.  Sharon Sprung thinks that it is most important to help the students gain  “respect for the somewhat ineffable but critical Art of Seeing – to encourage an inquisitiveness into both the known and unknown – and to make a commitment to hard work, risk taking and tenacity”.

So, which do you prefer in your teacher?  The Socratic approach – a thoughtful drawing out of what lies within you  and being able to evaluate it along logical and critical lines?  Or, the Sophist premise that if you gain all the techniques and processes you will have the tools to reach the top? It’s a puzzle!  Do write and let me know what you think, and also your feelings about what you see happening in all this quilt teaching that is going on.

As always, if you have been, thanks for reading!  And, by the way, the quilt at the top is based on my thinking about my images of Oxford, a major city for education and industry and is based on a particular process (deconstructed screen printing) – an amalgam of both thought and technique!

The comments from art teachers were drawn from an article in the February 2012 issue of International Artist.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What does the teacher aim to do?

I just read a very interesting article in International Artist, a magazine written by practicing artists in most traditional media around the world.  At a large conference, artist teachers were asked what they felt were the most important things to tell their students about art.  Many of them at first responded with “traditional knowledge” – the craft of painting.  Looking at the roster of classes at any big quilt conference, you can see that this is the focus of many quilt teachers too.  Piecing, applique and machine quilting are always very popular. Basic dyeing and fabric painting also. 
unicycle Nearly all the art teachers felt that, whatever the medium, drawing skills were essential – I made a mental note to try to include some drawing practice each day!  If only I could draw while I walk or bicycle!!  Maybe I could go on a total liquid diet and draw and suck up nutrients at the same time!! 
An interesting comment by artist Michelle Dunaway was that she felt that teachers often overlooked the thinking process that she felt it was necessary for an artist to maintain while creating.  She states that: “the artist must balance passion and patience while [working].”
In his book The Art Spirit (well worth reading though not I think at bedtime unless you are an insomniac seeking a cure!), Robert Henri wrote: “the brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the artist at that exact moment into the work”. Have you ever noticed this?  If you are deeply into some strong emotion (even that rendered by listening to a powerful audiobook) somehow it imbues itself into the quilt you are making.  I could never look again at a quilt I made while listening to Schindler’s List and was very glad when somebody bought it!  Somehow I had unconsciously included all the anguish and fear into the piece.
Dunaway feels that you can often screw yourself by being too worried about a piece as you are working on it, your worry, tension and frustration will then appear in the work.  If you can think in a more orderly and harmonious way, then that would be reflected.  Hmm!  I think I want to make a wild scrap quilt, I’d better play my CD of Carmina Burana !!  
More on this topic later, as  the computer is in demand by the chef!  I’d love any art quilt teachers reading this post to give their views as to what they try and do in the classroom.  All comments very graciously accepted!  And, if you have been, thanks for reading.   Elizabeth
P.S. my class Working in Series begins at quiltuniversity.com this Friday, there are still a couple of place open if you're interested.  This class is aimed at helping you find your own voice in your quilt making.  Don't worry if you would like to take it but can't now, I'm sure they'll be offering it again  later this year.  See you in class!!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

To design or not to design, that is the question! Shakespearian advice for quilters.

fall pics j's camera 010

You start thinking when hiking in the woods and one thought that came to mind on a recent hike (High Shoals falls in N. Ga) was that I get the impression from chat groups and blogs that when it comes to an art quilt, quilters either have to have no design in mind and work “intuitively” or they “over design” it! But, to me, both charging right in to cutting and throwing up fabric on the design wall, and sitting down with graph paper ready to draw out a full cartoon, have advantages and disadvantages.

Yes, it’s lovely just to go into the studio, see all these luscious colors of fabric just begging to be chosen for the blade! Slash, slash and up she goes! “Need a bit here, let’s see now, aha! That bit of pink would look good next to that dusty green. And now for a little black just to set them both off. And then there’s that gorgeous flowery stuff I just bought, I should have a nice piece of that in the middle, it’s so beautiful it will just make the quilt”.


Well, you can have a lot of fun and you might get some spontaneous combustion some where! Your piece will definitely be nice and loose..it will have energy and pizzazz and it will look like no other quilt out there! But it could also look like a fabric store that’s been hit by a tornado, or be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. (and we know what kind of tale that was!)

So what if you over design your next quilt? What if you draw out a precise diagram, get it kinkily enlarged to full size, decide exactly which fabric will go where and make sure you don’t have too many fabrics and that they all match?

Then you have a stiff and lifeless piece, precise yes, those quilt Nazis would love it I’m sure, with every I crossed and every T dotted (never play completely by the rules!). Paint by number, without spontaneity, without serendipity, without tension and those little bits of unpredictability that just lure the viewer in closer and closer.

On the other hand your quilt will have a definite direction, a clear meaning; it will be strong and well organized. You will communicate that which you wish to communicate! But it may be something up with which we could not put!!

.2004,nov c


I do think, however, that there is a happy medium between these two extremes that allows you the best of both and reduces to a minimum the worst features of each. Think about how an architect would set about planning a house. Or a gardener planning a garden. Decide where the big shapes will go – the different rooms, the number of levels, the vegetable patch, the main trees and so on, but don’t specify which ornament will go on the mantelpiece till you have it in front of you! Know that you’ll have a bed of low growing plants in a light or dark color, but wait till the garden as a whole is ready before deciding exactly which flowers and colors will give you the right mood and feeling.

Use your head to build the main skeleton to plan; add the details (the flesh!) spontaneously as your eye and heart tell you they are needed.

Now Hamlet didn’t have a compromise position between life and death – basically you’re one or the other – like being pregnant. But as quilters we can reach a compromise between too much design and too little. And hopefully we won’t reach the end of the play with all the main characters (or quilts!) completely dead.

If you have been, thanks for reading!! Shakespeare has a lot of good advice for quilters if you look for it!! Elizabeth

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Keep it Clean: tips for using a design wall

I think most art quiltmakers now use a design wall – composing their images vertically, since it is easier to get a clear view of how the piece progresses by being able to step back from the wall.  This was never possible when working on a table unless one had the power of levitation!  Which, alas, I do not!

My wall is like any other: a layer of foam insulation (that pink stuff about an inch thick that is sold in home improvement stores) which is very easy to pin into.  Some, I know, use a tougher kind of board but my fingers would never permit me to pin into it.  Plus, the foam board is really easy to nail to a wall not requiring many nails to hold it up.  Or you can even just prop it up, if you can’t install it permanently.  You then cover the foam with flannel, or batting or polartec or felt – all materials with some surface hairiness that will “hold”  small pieces of fabric against the surface without pinning.  Though, I would suggest that if you are likely to switch a fan on you do pin the pieces down – unless you want to see your beautiful design disappear in a fabric snow storm!!  I’ve been blessed with several such storms!

Before I start pinning up any fabric, I like to outline where the quilt is going to be.  I just use the selvedges I’ve ripped off the fabrics, and I hang a little weight on the vertical lines so that they are straight, and check the horizontal edges with a spirit level. I like to keep things squared up right from the start so I don’t lose too much to squaring up later when everything is sewed together.  And, also, I find that looking at those four edges I can visualize my idea within them.  I can judge whether the scale and orientation look “right” for my idea. 


on the left, I see a scene like a waterfall, or maybe a tall skyscraper, or a Japanese scroll kind of design….whereas on the right the shape is reminiscent of a more traditional landscape or abstract quilt design.   IMG_0132


If you were going to make a diptych, you could outline both shapes and see how well they looked together.  Or, you could set up a quartet of four little squares perhaps for some flower studies.  Getting those first four edges in place and “right”  is the first step in composition, and an important one.  Furthermore if you’re finding it hard to get started, this is a good way to ease yourself into composing mode!




Once I’ve got my piece up, I like to isolate it with strips of white fabric – I find that if I look at it all cluttered as on the left, I can’t really judge it correctly.

I find all that Stuff most distracting – somehow it adds itself into the picture – I’m amazed at how cluttered most people’s design walls are – mine amongst them!  So when I need just to see the piece and nothing but the piece, then I set out those strips.



On the right, you can see I put my strips out and then started adding on some more elements, so even though I’ve got most of the clutter out of the way I still can’t see the piece how it actually will be when it’s finished..the narrow bits that extend off the edges of the quilt are in my view and therefore in my mind.





So I think it’s important to take the time to replace the strips so only the actual proposed quilt is visible: okay…now I can see the piece and it can breathe!

Of course you can always take a photograph, run to the computer with the camera, hook it up, extract the photo and in Photoshop (wait till the program boots) crop off the extraneous distractions…..and I do that too!  But keeping that clear space around the image I’m working on, helps me to focus on it, to see if the balance of images is right, where my eye goes  and all those other things AND keeps my head clear.

Go now! and tear some long white (or black, as the mood takes you!) strips and try it!!  And, if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

PS – if you have any helpful tips that will make composition and construction easier, do please comment!! thank you.  or if you just want to tell a funny story….or anything else!!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Inspired to Design


Inspired to Design is the title of my (4 lesson) class that starts this week at Quilt University and I’m looking forward to that first day when I hear from people all over the world!  I think it really does take inspiration to start designing!! I just don’t know how people manage it when faced with a blank wall, a blank canvas, blank sheet music or a blank monitor!!  I don’t think it’s so much that there isn’t a rich internal life going on – whirling thoughts in every direction -  but rather being able to focus them.  That’s what the inspiration does: it enables you to focus on one place, one mood, one panoply of feeling, one idea.   Something that is amorphous and complicated is less compelling than that one simple thing that you’ve seen and want to show others.  This can be abstract, or representational, it really doesn’t matter.

framed allatsea 72dpi

Isn’t that a fabulous view at the top of the page…it’s taken through an open window by the way…I love the sense of distance, the ripple on the waves and the clouds sitting on the horizon.  I tried to distill those ideas down into the small composition on the left.






I got a bit more complicated in the image on the right as I added into the composition the little cluster of cottages  - it was from the window of the one at the back that I took the first photograph.

In my class I talk about different ways you can interpret a picture and arrive at a number of different designs.  I’m on hand to help you (via your monitor!) at all times as you focus, design, cut and stitch.  I try to be the little teacher in the box in the corner of your studio or sewing room that you can get out and consult at any time you want!!

I realised I had so many ideas about the topic of designing quilts based on one’s inspirations that I’m currently working on a book about it; I’ll keep you updated on my progress in the class!! Focus focus focus!  That’s all I need I tell myself! My New Year’s resolution!

See you in class!  And a Happy New Year, here’s to new beginnings!            Elizabeth