Friday, April 29, 2011

Art vs Eating Out



Funny how things come together…in the last few days I chatted to gallery owners, I read a contemporary blog on the internet, and perused an old book and got the same message from all. Not a happy one, either.

As I talked to the gallery owners, who havn’t been able to sell any of my work and precious little of anyone else’s, they all said business is dire, maybe things will pick up, it must be the recession. Well maybe…but maybe not? Perhaps we blame too many things on the recession.



In his blog Charles Lewis discussed whether art galleries were a thing of the past. Again the recession is considered to be a factor, but clearly there’s a much wider problem. Most people do not consider art to be important or relevant in any way; few people have any art hanging in their homes – maybe a poster or a calendar or a family photograph at best - but no significant, original, hand made art.

Lewis thinks there are several reasons why art is not selling. One factor is that apparently fewer than one in a hundred persons ever even thinks of going into a gallery. But another is that even if they do venture in, they are often put off by disinterested sales staff and ugly galleries. Now this latter possibility may be true of the more edgy urban galleries, I don’t think it’s generally the case in the kind of galleries that show fiber art. What is more important, of course, is the complete lack of demand, the total disinterest. Now there’s no shortage of people buying anything that begins with an “i-“, perhaps if I had “i-quilts” for sale I’d be mobbed!! People are buying fancy phones, electronic “books” (i.e. very small tv screens with writing on them), large tvs and eating out +++. They are out there, and they are spending money and it’s not all on essentials (though of course I’m fully cognizant of the fact that even essentials are beyond some people’s budgets and I certainly don’t begrudge them the odd little treat).

When we see the frightful homes shown on tv where people drool over granite counter tops (hard to clean), stainless steel appliances (show every finger print), laminated wood floors (noisy, cold and susceptible to spills), and fussy over furnished rooms, you never see any art work on the walls. And the potential buyers never say “oh our Elizabeth Barton quilt would look wonderful on that wall!”. Or anybody else’s work for that matter. It would be lovely if having an art piece as essential as the latest fixtures and appliances!

Lewis also points out that much of the art that is for sale is either very bland, “bright, harmless and decorative”, or is not displayable in a home (imagine trying to cram Tracy Emin’s “Bed” into your living room!, or Rauschenberg’s goat into the kitchen), and is often too edgy and dire. I love Rachel Brumer’s work and her series based on the birthdays of children who died in concentration camps, but could I live with that in my bedroom? I’ve had one of my own quilts up on the wall for a while, it’s based on a burnt out building and while the composition of the beams and empty windows onto the sky really intrigued me when I was making it, I do wonder about the liveability of the colors and textures. I was in fact horrified to notice that I actually had incorporated some of the colours that Lewis finds objectionable!!! (mud and blood!). So “cutting edge” doesn’t sell, but happy and cheerful is so bland and forgettable that no one even looks at it either.

One could blame television (as well as the recession) but I was surprised to come across very similar concerns in an old book (Art and Anarchy) of Reith lectures first delivered in 1960 by Edgar Wind. There are some really striking parallels in what we encounter today with his observations made over 50 years ago.


Wind pointed out how important owning a piece of original art was to a Renaissance patron: for them art was an indispensable as food. Imagine if you walked into a restaurant today and said to the customers “sorry, you can’t eat out for a month, but in exchange you can have a very nice piece of original art which will beautify your home for as long as you want. And it won’t be totally absorbed within a few hours, leaving only unwanted traces of overindulgence around your middle!” How many takers d’you think you’d get? You’d be lynched in seconds!!

Wind felt that if “art were as indispensable to us as it was to them” we would not see the galleries empty. Furthermore, the Renaissance patrons were much more interested in both art and the process of art, would often buy a piece before it was finished and they wished to participate with the artist in the creative process. He stated that “the pressure of our artistic climate is lowered by the absence of an active patronage”. It could be a vicious circle – without patrons, art cannot grow stronger; without strong art, there are no patrons. He also felt that in 1960 the lack of support for art was evident in many ways: little attention being paid to lasting beauty in any area of design. Architecture, streets and roads, green areas, furniture design, all ugly and functional. And today I notice that this is even true with television: if you compare what you see to beautifully designed examples from other countries, many of our adverts are crude and objectionable, if not insulting. No wonder people find composition difficult, their senses are insulted with a constant barrage of egregious visual cacophony!

Now there is also a lot in Wind’s lectures that we might disagree with, or at least shake our heads in wonderment – for example the assertion that artists who create very large works do so to verify their own existence. Well….some maybe! Although…now I come to think about it…..

The problem of general disinterest in art, alas, is therefore longstanding, but does that mean we shouldn’t make it? In a recent radio broadcast (kindly sent me by a reader), participants discussed (amongst many other things) what made us happy. Apparently current research focuses particularly on two main things: relationships and being able to make things. As quiltmakers we are so fortunate in having both right within our grasp! And if only 1% of the population would ever be interested in what we made…well that’s still a heckuva lot of if we could only get them to stop buying i-products and meals out…..….

If you have been, thanks for reading…and do weigh in (on either side of the scales!) with your comments and ideas. Elizabeth

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sprezzatura! what the succesful art quiltmaker needs.

I came across a lovely new word yesterday: sprezzatura.  (thank you, Bob!)
It’s an oxymoron of a word for it means a well-rehearsed spontaneity, a way of doing things (particularly used these days in creating art) that looks careless, easy and natural but in fact is the result of considerable study, experience and practice.   "Ease of manner, studied carelessness, nonchalance, especially in art or literature"  is how it’s defined in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sprezzatura is an word originally coined by the Italian writer  Baldassare Castiglione  in his 1528  Book of the Courtier.  He defined it as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”     The aim of the successful courtier was to make his actions, however difficult, look almost facile.  The ideal courtier would wish to have all the practice and preparation, the blood, sweat and tears,  hidden.  Not only his  actions, but his words and feelings would be characterized in this way.  Today, however,  it more generally means  "studied carelessness."
iona 3
Castiglione wrote his book as a guide for the successful  courtier: a person whose actions would continue to be desirable and necessary to the court.  The ideal courtier should  show skills  not only in battle and athletics but also in the gentler arts of dance and music.  But this should appear to be achieved without effort, with panache rather than painstaking labour.

The term is now often applied to art and I think it’s a concept that we might well consider as important for art quilts.  If you think about some of the most successful and memorable quilts out there, so many of them have a naturalness to them that is very deceptive.  I think Nancy Crow’s work, which I much admire, is a perfect example.  It looks simple and easy – till you try it!  People try to copy and their work looks stale and clunky.  Look at Dominie Nash’s stills from a life series and you’ll see the sprezzatura.  Everything is in the right place, apparently without effort.

  Unfortunately a by-product of this is that it can lead students to think that if they can’t make such strong work so easily it must be because they have  no talent.  It’s not that they are without the potential to make such work, it’s that the successful quiltmaker is displaying considerable sprezzatura!

Work that does not display sprezzatura  might  show considerable affectation, appear to be mannered and over-worked.  Sprezzatura is very evident in performance art, dance or music, where the musician appears to play a piece so naturally, so gracefully, so easily that one has no idea that hours and hours of practice and experimentation went into it. Let us not be misled by those "fast" "easy" books and workshops:  they can be  very misleading: "you too can make such beautiful quilts "quick!", "easy!"".  It ain't necessarily could be sprezzatura!

Austin Burbridge gives an wonderful  example on his blog: “Sprezzatura is the art of doing a difficult thing so gracefully, that it looks easy. The greatest living exemplar may be Muhammed Ali, who described his style of pugilism as, "Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee.".
Let us float like butterflies as we make quilts that are stinging in their impact!!

If you have been, thanks for reading…and thank you so much to all those who comment..don’t just think!  write!    Elizabeth


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring and the benefits of teaching

 ant jew flowers 7

ant jew flowers 7
Spring  has sprung! Actually here in Georgia, thanks to the global warming “hoax”, spring has been and gone and we are into high summer with mid 80s forecast for today.  So I have been neglecting the poor old sewing machine in favour of composting instead of composing, planting instead of planning and cultivating instead of cutting!

I’ve also been very busy with two online classes: Inspired to Design and Working in Series, both of which have been very interesting. (see sidebar for more info).   I love the fact that a person anywhere in the world can take an online class; it’s great to gossip with quiltmakers from all over the globe, discussing their challenges and inspirations .  I find that one of the very best ways to learn is to teach.  So, even though I’ve not been making much myself, I’ve been solving (or attempting to solve) many design problems each day for the students in the classes.   They tell me they are keen to get “real critiques” and not just “cheerleading”.  Both the student and the teacher can learn from looking at a design and assessing what is right and was is wrong.   What can be strengthened and what is superfluous and what is missing.  Such repeated daily practice strengthens the critique faculties as do exercises the muscles (well in theory anyway, sometimes I wonder if my muscles are beyond strengthening!).

driveway trees summer 300

Another benefit is that since I’ve been helping others with their designs it has forced me to go back to basics in my own design process.  It is just too easy to skip some of the “boring” steps like making a value plan but it’s so important to be able to find a way through  the trees.  Ignoring values leads to cutting out and painstakingly inserting 45 different possibilities for sky fabric behind your landscape or cityscape!  A significant waster of fabric, time and patience! Now my value plans are only 4 values at best (light, medium light, medium dark and dark), so I’m going to try to improve on that.  You can buy from any art store (there are numerous ones on the ‘net: art supply warehouse, cheapjoes, dickblick, jerry’s artarama etc) a nice little 10 step value finder: it’s just shades of grey on a piece of card with holes cut out so you can view your fabric and the 10 steps at the same time.   The more values you have, the more depth and richness.

all that glitters is not gold I’m also going to be ruthless in getting rid of fabric I don’t use – d’you remember when we all loved the rough muslin look?  with the fuzzy surface?  Now that stuff looks like old flannel, dead and gone.  I can’t believe I really dyed about 2,000 yards of it!!!  It’s great for quilt backs, of course, because it needles well unlike the high thread count cotton I use now which makes the sewing machine needle sound like a drill! Spring is a time for spring cleaning after all!  

I’ve been wondering whether my online texts should be rewritten in the form of a book, but I must admit I am distinctly underwhelmed by the “quilt” books I have seen published.  Most of them appear to be mainly pictures of quilts made by the author and  students with very little, often jumbled, explanatory text.  Is this a formula required by publishers, marketing, and vendors?  Do I want to spend time creating another such? These questions whirl around.  So many possibilities!  And I’d really like to move forward in my own education rather than go round in circles.

So, I have  been  trying to educate myself (yes there will eventually be a class based on this but probably not till next year) on the developments in abstract art in the 21st century.  When I think “abstract art” I always envisage the beginnings of this art form in the mid 20th century, but there have been many different “schools” and “movements” since then.  Some of the new work has an order to it that suggests significant textile origins – it’s time we stole it back!! oh yes, artists do steal! Constantly!!  So on with the mask and the gloves……

If you have been, thanks for reading!!  All comments most gratefully received and it would be lovely to know where you are located – you don’t need to give a name if you don’t wish!  Elizabeth

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Art: a metaphor for being human


Just Us Chickens Trying to Make Sense of it…”

Junot Diaz  (author: Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which if you haven't read you must!!)made some very interesting remarks recently at the university about the importance of art.  Amongst things like finding solutions to environmental problems, alternative energy sources, health care reform, libraries, good education etc etc art is now considered "unnecessary" by so many of our (so-called) representatives, whereas, of course, waging war and making vast profits for the top few is totally necessary.  But I digress!! 
Diaz was discussing the relationship between art and capitalism.  Many school districts have cut all art funding and the nation's children are growing up without any idea of what art is at all.   Art education has been cut "to save money" (money that has been spent on overly luxurious housing, on war, on concrete!, on making sure that the people at the top have vast profits) but such cuts also drastically reduce what is good and rich in human experience.

Diaz said "Art is a metaphor for all that we call human".  Whatever your background, you have to deal with life's many problems, pleasures, challenges and triumphs.  Diaz feels that art is a way for us to encounter life through metaphor: whether painting, sculpture, dance, or writing or any medium.  We learn so much about beauty, culture, balance and expression through seeing art and making art.  Art shows us the problems and the answers.  If you have the opportunity to learn how to make art, you also learn so many cognitive and emotional skills.  How to plan, how to think through, how to express feelings in productive ways, how to dream, how to be creative, how to be patient (yes especially with quilting and the other Slow arts).

Art is not a quick thing; art making, and the enjoyment of the art that others have made, is a  wonderfully slow contemplative process.  This allows time to ponder, to dream and  to plan.  It allows us both to be in the moment and to look ahead and consider where we want to go and discover how we will get there. Without art people look for quick solutions, make impulsive decisions, want everything NOW.  As quiltmakers we learn to enjoy the process, we realise that the quilt that is made in one hour yields nothing like the satisfaction, pride and beauty of the one that takes weeks or months.

I am always saddened when I go into someone's house and there is no art on the walls.  It’s understandable though, for if one hasn’t learned how to enjoy and make art and gain all the many benefits, why would anyone ever think that a home needed art?  Advertising constantly tells us that tv, cell phones and other consumer items are vital to life!   Television with its constant exhortations to consume and buy and make fun of other people and act violently is always in pride of place.  And if we don't like one way of killing or eating or (which is mainly what the people on tv seem to do - in the shows they kill and mock, in the ads they eat and have sex in bathtubs!), then we have 900 other channels to find other ways of doing those activities - except for sex which always seems to be in the bathtub (here in the US at least, may be different in other countries!) - actually two tubs one for each participant - although I must admit the tubs are usually overlooking a very nice view!

bath Sex in the USA

Wouldn't it be better to have a brilliant painting or amazing art quilt on the wall than a talking head full of terrifying hot air  based not on fact but biased opinion?   We all need art - Maslow should have had it at the bottom of the pyramid not near the top!  Making art shows us how to live – especially the textile arts I think.

Well…and what d’you think??  all comments most gratefully welcome!  And, if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

Monday, April 11, 2011

The first cuckoos of Spring!

The first dyeing cuckoos of Spring 2011 were spotted in N.E. Georgia this weekend. 


Here are some examples of their typical habitats…




…. they’ve been nest building…  here are some of the materials they like to gather to carry out their activities and pursuits……as you can see anything goes! 



Dried leaves, lentils…and it’s not easy to make a nest from lentils!   Grasses, bits of cardboard…anything else lying around we can use?







Some examples of completed “bird” work:   on the left a “nest” that has been completely overworked by several birds…abandoned last year and revisited, but we’re still not sure if it will support life. Detail on the right where you can see the material added by some crazed dye hen this last weekend.



These dye avians are very messy; here on the left is a typical example of their detritus.

However, we were pleasantly surprised by the completed arashi nests neatly grouped by our friendly wild life photographer (yes a wild life is led by her, in dreams if nowhere else!).

AND, it is rumoured that the dyeing  and construction of arashi-based quilts  will be explored at Arrowmont this Fall!  A bit late for your average bird…but there’s nothing average about the Dye Bird!

And now back to clean up all those bird droppings….
.if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth
PS  All comments Very Welcome!  This poor old bedraggled motheaten avian does like reinforcement!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Feelings without words

A question I’m often asked  in both virtual and actual workshops  is:
“How do I convey visually what I feel?” 

I think there are both cognitive and emotional aspects to this; they do overlap in some examples, but not all, so I’ll consider them  separately.

First: why you want to make  a piece about this image/idea/event etc?
What aspects of the idea have really intrigued you?
What was it you saw that makes it worth your while to spend a significant amount of time in making it?

For example, if I look at a cityscape I might be fascinated by the interlocking shapes, or it may be the overall grid patterns of windows, or it could be the interaction of negative and positive shapes, or it could be the outline against the sky, or it could be how there are trees growing happily between the buildings, or it could be the sense of outside/inside, or the contrast of old versus new…or..or…or…  Each of these observations would yield a different piece.  If I tried to put them all into one piece (which I have tried to do!!) I generally end up with a bit of a mess.   Knowing what it is that I want to highlight helps me to focus the quilt. 

I imagine a photographer would be faced with a similar question.  I’m sure they just don’t head out into a city and snap away, they’ll have something in particular that they’re looking for and want to reveal with their pictures.  I think this is true if your starting point is a real image like a city, or a piece of fabric. 

And, if fabric is your starting point, then (either consciously or unconsciously, but I personally work much better when conscious!) you’ll be thinking:  what do I really want to bring out, reveal, highlight, focus upon, explore etc in this fabric?  It might be the color, the markings on it, or  the  actual shape that you cut out or other things entirely…but if you know what it is, the chances are the piece will have more direction and be more pulled together.

I always like to suggest before beginning to make a piece about a bird or a building, a box or a behemoth (not that I have met many who want to make quilts about behemoths!) that you ask yourself “why?”  What is it about this landscape, or this visual puzzle, or this group of people that really intrigues you?    I’ve recently started a new landscape piece based on one of my watercolors and I loved the landscape because of the way the folds of land interlocked, so I know I want to feature that, I also like the way the light caught the top of a distant hill and I’ll make that my focal point.  I also want to bring out the depth.

Second:  What are your feelings and how d’you convey them?
Two steps here: first you have to know them, then figure out how to convey them.
An example: I want to make a quilt about April.  What I love about April is the freshness, things springing up, the shadows still cool but the sun quite warm.  I want to show those things in my piece.  So I want to show “fresh”, “cool/warm contrast”, “growth”.  It’s also a month where I feel most in harmony with Nature. Partly I think that old childish thing of one’s birth month feeling “special” but also that my favourite colour (chartreuse) is very evident this month. I’m sure there are other reasons too: like chocolate!  The celebrations at the end of Lent: Easter eggs, a three week spring break (there were three terms when I went to school), the new growth everywhere, walks in the countryside etc etc. 

So how can I show those feelings?  In 2d art we have 5 basic tools:  line, shape, value, colour and texture.

So, what colour is fresh? That’s pretty easy!  it’s definitely not brown or grey….Green!  
How do I show a temperature contrast?  warm and cool colours placed side by side.
What kind of line is fresh?  straight, diagonal, curving, spikey?  for me, spikey has it!
What shape is fresh?  A bud like shape…
What value is fresh?  contrasting values with a lot of lights.
what texture is fresh? I think fairly detailed not flat.

What lines are harmonious? Lines that repeat in a gentle rhythm.
What shapes are harmonious?  Shapes that repeat, that are comfortable and fit together.
What  colours are harmonious? Adjacent ones, with just a smidge of a complementary to bring out the freshness !

And so on working through all my feelings.

I’ve got a couple of examples below:


A quilt about April: spikey new growth in my favourite greens; the river…because we always went for a walk beside a river if we could (love country walks), repeated shapes and lines for harmony.  Soft reflections, and an adjacent colour scheme. Spikey lines!




The quilt on the right is quite different: I wanted to bring out the coziness of these old houses in my home town and how they comforted me:  so I chose warm brown and gold colours, soft curving lines, and strong reliable grids.  I also wanted to show hope, and I felt the lighted windows against the dark would definitely convey that.


So, the next time you’re making a piece, examine your feelings first!  Then decide what kind of lines they are…what kind of shapes, what colours, what textures…  There’s a very nice little book about all of this called Picture This by Molly Bang if you want to get further into it.  However, just running mentally through how you would picture any particular kind of feeling is a great exercise and can be done anywhere!  Just like Kegels!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading! 
And do write and comment and tell us all what colour, shape etc your feelings are!  Thank you, Elizabeth