Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Calculus and Art Quilts

I’ve been focusing so much on writing this year, I fear I’ve not been making anything like the number of quilts I should.  Now I notice I used the word “should”, the old convent school upbringing rearing its head again!  So should one give oneself a goal for number of pieces per year?   Or,  is it good from time to time, to take a sabbatical and go and do something completely different?  I know the typical university sabbatical was after 7 years of work (hence, I presume, the word sabbatical – the day off for contemplation and assessment).  And, very often, the sabbatical has been used for writing.  Writing produces a clarification of thought, an ordering of ideas – (one hopes!) -  since it would be difficult for others to follow the stream of consciousness knight’s move thinking that most of us indulge in! 
pumpcourt I’ve written a couple of books, mostly centered on my own creative processes, which are going through the lengthy editing process so necessary for polishing!

In them, I feel like I’ve been able to order my quilts so far and see how I progressed from one to another, gradually clarifying the way I design and think about designing and then constructing the work.   So where to go from here? Maybe I should take up palm-reading, or tea leaves would probably be more appropriate given my addiction to that beverage!
I’ve also written a third online class which is in the process of being edited right now; it even features short clips of the author in the studio – on the Tube!
I’m currently  taking a class called Calculus for Poets; the teacher began by asking us why we were doing it and several people replied because they’d always wondered what calculus was and why students found it so hard. That was definitely one of the reasons I started to study composition and design – why did people have so much difficulty with this?  In the calculus class we’re beginning by looking at the kind of problems that would be easy to solve  if  we knew calculus, and are very difficult to solve without it.  Almost an exact parallel to my dilemma in the first (and only) improvisational quilting class I took about 20 years ago.  I remember feeling that I was like Archimedes using the Method of Exhaustion to figure out the answer to the compositional difficulties and that I was ready for a class with Newton who might have the right formulae for me!  No I don’t think the online classes and the books I’ve written are quite up to PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica :) (though strangely enough the quilt above is based on a 17th century street in York) but I do enjoy being able to think clearly about things if and when I want to.
The calculus professor told us that, teaching at the university for 34 years, he continually dreamt up new courses that would be a challenge for him to teach.  He said this was a good way to keep up his own enthusiasm and learning, to enjoy new brain activity for himself.  Fascinating!  I never thought that teaching being the best way to learn would also be true of mathematics professors.  In all fields, therefore, the joy of art (of mathematics or of quilts) lies in conquering new ground: I’m setting forth today!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!  And many many thanks in advance for commenting – it’s all reinforcement you know!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Reading Catalogues

I do love visiting a good art show – preferably a solo show – and reading the catalogue  if there is an intelligent, thoughtful and learned essay. I recently attended a retrospective show of the various ceramic series of Ann Mortimer at the Burlington Art Center in Ontario. In the show were 5 or 6 different series that Mortimer had explored in depth: one of ceramic umbrellas, another of bird shapes, and a third of trompe l’oeil wall pieces.  Ann Mortimer writes:

“I have long investigated a single shape and have discovered that it can be suggestive of a bird, a fish or an organic form.  When penetrated and altered, it has become a planter, a vase or a teapot.  Sections may be joined to present new interpretations. The form may be altered when soft or sandblasted at different stages.  It has been exhibited singly,  in pairs or in larger groupings.  Surfaces have been unglazed, smoothly glazed, highly textured or covered with hand made papers or lustres.  Wood, salt, electric gas and garbage firings have all added to the variations.”

Working in a series, the artist aims to communicate an idea but also to explore it in full for themselves. Jonathan Smith at the University of Chicago feels that there is a subtle difference between “working a theme” and “working in series”, the serial work being a much more tightly constructed idea. Degas’ theme was the ballet, Monet painted a series about the light on the haystacks working on different canvases every 30 minutes or so as the light changed. Monet wanted to discover in full the shifting nuances of light on the haystacks; he also explored the same phenomenon on Rouen cathedral, rows of poplars and waterlilies.

In a series the artist examines how small changes can affect the subject matter of the art work. It’s perfectly good to work a theme, or to focus in more narrowly on a specific aspect of that theme, however Smith suggests that it is the deeper more intense exploration that will get beneath the surface and help the artist (and the viewer one hopes!) develop more understanding of the nature of the subject. How many quilt artists would say today that they are trying to develop a deep understanding of the nature of their particular subject? I must confess I have never heard one say or write that, but I’d love to know if any have. It’s possibly an inchoate activity, a subconscious need to stick with the same thing until you’ve mined it of everything. I think also you would have to be a special kind of person to be able to concentrate on one thing in this way; a particular persistence would be necessary, and a definite maturity plus an ability to keep the details ever fascinating both for oneself and for one’s viewer.

You don’t have to just work on haystacks at any given time, however.  It would definitely be possible to explore a number of ideas at once which would be more engaging and more refreshing to the eye…eschew habituation!   But might it instead reduce the intensity?  The tone of Smith’s essay would suggest that it might.  That it might lead to one missing the nuances….? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone has studied that. what do you feel?

The artist’s life, regardless of medium, is one of alternation between play and intensely focused work. I think both are necessary but, alas (!), a lot more focus than play!

So, what d’you think? Is working a theme sufficient, or do we need to narrow in and really hammer away at making the familiar unfamiliar, bringing a fresh new view to the leaves or the sunset or the geometrical pattern ? Where to go next….. to alter, to divide and rejoin, to group differently….don’t think we can sandblast…but it’s an idea!!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading! Love those comments……


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Creativity: nature and man

canada 2012 010 Back home from my travels and wondering how on earth anyone can ever convey the majesty and breadth of the natural undisturbed landscape in their art!   We stayed on an island where the inhabitants have voted against advertising, chain and discount stores; it’s  a land of small farms, cottages and masses of wild flowers. Nothing better!  Flowers taking over the road rather than trash and traffic! We took the ferry to a land of magic: Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada

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canada 2012 055






Whilst away I read several books on creativity.  For the most part these involve the same anecdotes (the amazing discovery of post- it notes and so on) about inventions for profit and somewhat wordy and domesticated discussions of a few psychological experiments here and there.  I don’t really recommend any of the books; however, there are a  few interesting conclusions.  

Time and time again people say to me “oh it must be wonderful to be so talented!”.  It’s a load of rubbish! there may be a few born geniuses out there, but 99.9% of “creative people were not born with any special talents.  And I definitely wasn’t.   I am, however, persistent (as many have complained over the years! in fact, a lot more than have wondered at my talent!) and one of the statements I’ve seen over and over in the books and articles about creativity is that the ability to persist at a task is one of the most important predictors of success.

Risk taking
We need to be able to allow ourselves to fail, and if we really want to make great work then “Fail Big!” If we limit ourselves to the safe and true, to always following the rules, we won’t create anything innovative at all.

Sharing of ideas
I hate the secrecy that now permeates the business world, the science world and the art world.  If we share and build upon each other’s ideas we will create more work, discover more things, find more answers, develop more amazing ideas.  Even quilt shows have now bought into the for profit world’s secrecy requirements. 
This way of thinking has considerably limited scientific discovery too.  Everyone is fighting for a grant so don’t share your data because it might be your only chance at getting a grant for your lab.  And whatever you do, don’t let anyone see the quilt you might enter the next big international quilt show! God forbid – they might make a better one based on the same idea!

The sharing of knowledge (rather than the greedy hoarding that is rampant when profits are paramount) is what moves the frontiers of knowledge forward – no matter the medium.

Constructive criticism
Being told everything you make is wonderful does not help you to grow as an artist.  Nor does it help children in schools to be given all As for even the most shoddy and shallow work.  When I worked at a university, many freshmen were absolutely stunned that they might need to study to gain an A, why…they’d never studied before!   Alas in art work constructive criticism is one of the hardest things to get.  And that’s why I spend some time on it in my real life and virtual workshops.   It is difficult to know if you’re making progress if an external eye is not available for feedback (preferably two!).

Ability to “steal” without risk of a lawsuit
Apparently there are lawyers out there who buy up big groups of patents and then troll through looking for those who may have advertently or inadvertently broken copyright.   Don’t you dare include That Mouse in your quilt!  or even the Bear of very Little BRain.
And yet, many great artists have honed their craft by building on other artist’s work: amongst these being William Shakespeare who began writing his plays using Christopher Marlowe’s techniques and basing his plots on published stories!  Bob Dylan also built his songs upon existing ones.  Neither Bill nor Bob could get away with it today, those trolling lawsuit bringing lawyers would be right down on them!  Borrowing is not very helpful, you  don’t grow that way…but “stealing” i.e. making an idea your own and developing it further and further is a time honoured system.  Somebody once told me that I shouldn’t make black and white quilts because a Famous Teacher used black and white in her teaching examples i.e. that teacher now “owned” that color scheme!!!  What limitations we do put upon ourselves!

A culture that supports rather than represses innovation
Alas many of our current educational practices repress.  I remember being surprised at the amount of facts I was supposed to rote learn (and, moreover, categories of facts!) when I first went to a U.S. university. Facts can be looked up (especially these days), thinking, however, has to be honed.

Furthermore, limiting good education to the well endowed few limits us all.

Time to explore process
We need time to explore processes, instead of just being lectured about them or being pressed to produce something.  We need to play!

A people mix
Research show that when people from different cultures mix together, exciting things happen in all fields; let us not barricade ourselves into our homogenous little groups – heterogeneity rules when it comes to creativity!

So, now I’ve saved you from reading all those books, go off and Make Work!! And, if you have a few minutes, be sure to send in your comments.  A blog without comments is a tomato without salt!

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




very little brain but you knw

Friday, August 3, 2012

Entering shows:looking for alternatives

Entering shows has become expensive when there are entry fees and shipping costs to and from..in fact if the entry fee is over $40 I’ve quit entering them.  Also I’m much more interested in the mixed fiber or multi-media shows, I think there is a lot more synergy when quilts are mixed up with other media. So I was very pleased to be asked to be part of a 4 person show “Uncommon Threads” in the Town 220 Restaurant and Gallery in Madison, GA. 


This is an interesting venue: the gallery is actually above the restaurant and is literally a gallery!  So the foodie smells don’t permeate the cloth (I never accept offers to show close to food), and yet the diners can see that there is art work “up there” and hopefully are enticed into going up to see it both before and after eating.




You know the old joke about matching the sofa?  Well I finally achieved it!  I’m so happy I was able to perfectly match that pink sofa!  This Quilt, Steelyard Frieze, goes so well in that location, I hope somebody will buy the quilt and the sofa!!



Another and, I hope,  tantalizing, view from the dining tables!

Interspersed with my quilts are digital pieces from the visiting professor of surface design at the University of Georgia, Jennifer Crenshaw.  Apparently the department has an amazing digital printer – hugely wide and endlessly long.  But I do wonder if having such technology that produces instant results from CAD program to cloth, doesn’t somehow limit the students.  The whole point, to me, about fiber is the hands on aspect.  It seemed as if the professor had never seen arashi shibori, for example, as shown in all three of my pieces in this picture.

Here’s a close up of one of them:

redmorning72 I was wondering if my quilts would look a little hokey next to the sleek digi prints but in fact they hold their own very well.  The digi prof and I loved the juxtapositions so much that we’re thinking about a joint show ……..all we need is the venue!


Jennifer’s work is based on graffiti –  mysterious layers of it, in pink and green and silver, quite beautiful.



And I was very happy that the restaurant had a deep burnt orange wall on which to hang these black and white pieces:


so do please visit if you can – the show is up till October 27, plus there is another fiber show in Madison at the Madison Morgan Cultural Center. 

Look for local shows – low entry fees, no shipping and serendipitous mixes of work……sometimes smaller and more intimate is better.  Places where people linger are good too!

And now I’m off to Canada, though I’m told it’s no cooler there at all – I shall be checking out the local galleries in the Burlington, ON area hoping to come across some fiber, but happy with whatever I find.  A favorite place is what my brother calls Garlic Gardens – actually it’s Gairloch – which is equally odd – why should a gallery in Oakville, On be called after a Scottish loch?  An extremely beautiful loch too,  if you ever visit the west coast of Scotland, and one well worth visiting.  

And, before I deviate even further from the main topic,  if you have been, thanks for reading!

P.S. Last chance to register for Inspired to Design at Quilt University this Sunday – so if you’re interested, check it out!