Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Art Quilt Portfolio, The Natural World: a review


Announced by a rather splendid peacock on the front cover, Art Quilt Portfolio: The Natural World is a 192 page feast of color and nature. Curated by Martha Sielman, but not wearing her SAQA hat! There are nineteen featured artists with several pages of quilts and text for each one. Each section is followed by a 10-20 “gallery” quilts. The sections are: flowers, birds, water, animals, leaves, insects, trees and natural textures. The featured artists are: Judith Trager, Paula Chung, Ginny Smith, Ginny Eckley, Sally Dillon, Karen Miller, Cassandra Williams, Betty Busby, Annie Helmericks-Louder, Dominie Nash, Katherine Allen, Annemieke Mein, Melani Brewer, Ruth McDowell, Elaine Quehl, Dottie Moore, Nancy Cook, Barbara McKie and Patricia Gould. A fine galaxy of talent! The range of quilt artists is great and there were several wonderful people of whom I was unaware. It would have been good to include website and blog urls, by the way, so further reading would be easy.

Artists were selected following a call for entries to all quiltmakers and considerable research through online and in print images. Sielman stated that she “looked for artists who had a mature body of work that fit the theme”. The “gallery” artists were chosen both to complement the main theme and to add to the variety. All but two of the featured artists in this volume are American; however, in the next series, People and Portraits, there is a more international mix, with 8 countries represented among the 21 featured artists.

There is an excellent introduction by Martha Sielman – which I suggest you read before diving straight in to the pictures…it’s good to know that background of the writing of the book and some of the artists’ comments and processes. Each artist has written fairly extensively about their inspirations, education and working practice and it’s very telling to read their own words and hear their own special voices. Also quite intriguing to learn something of their lives: I’m envious of Judith Trager’s 96 (!) cousins when I don’t have even one. Maybe she could spare a couple!

Many of the artists give excellent pieces of advice and while their comments are summarized under clear paragraph headings, I would have like a little more continuity between the artists, since the paragraph titles were somewhat various and arbitrary. Perhaps Martha could ask the artists in future volumes to organize their comments into the same sequence and the same topics? Obviously each artist could write more, or less, under each paragraph but it would give consistency. Then you could compare inspiration, working methods, background, general advice, education and so on.

The design of the book is nice and clean – virtually no unnecessary “designer touches” which invariably can reduce a worthwhile book to a cheap magazine. However, the best use wasn’t made of every page…trying to fit two or three small images to a page often left unused white space sometimes quite awkwardly placed. Better to go with one big image per page unless there was some compelling reason to do otherwise. Several times I thought – if only the text had been at the bottom instead of side by side with the image, the image could have been bigger. The pages with one big glorious image are wonderful. I do also applaud the neat, unobtrusive and very complete amount of information that is tucked in beneath each image but I don’t like the unnecessary lines (on just a few images which is odd) with dots indicating to which picture the text belongs (p53 is an example) – but it’s a minor point.

If I had a complaint to make it would be that though the color and the imaginative representations in most of the quilts are excellent, the compositions are often quite dowdy! Making a wonderful picture of a bird, flower or animal and then surrounding it with awkward lumps of fabric to fill out the space makes ordinary what could have been extraordinary. Obviously this isn’t true of all by any means, but, as you look through, lack of training in design, whether formal or informal, really shows.

13 blackbirds

An interesting gallery section is 13 ways of looking at a blackbird – the title taken from the series of short poems by Wallace Stevens. The pieces in this section are from a group of artists who got together to make work reflecting the poems. It probably wasn’t possible for the whole poem to be printed in the book – so I’ve included it below since, according to Wikipedia, the poem is in the public domain. It was published in Stevens’ first book of poetry, Harmonium, and consists of thirteen short separate poems in which blackbirds were mentioned. There’s a lot more information about Stevens here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirteen_Ways_of_Looking_at_a_Blackbird

For the most part the images of the featured artists are superb but I would have loved some details!! Especially of amazing piecing like that of Ruth McDowell, or the hand stitching in Dominie Nash’s work – and others. And some of the “full” pictures are really quite small. Some of the “gallery” images are worthwhile including, alas others not so – presumably added to show the breadth of the field? But is it is good to include weaker work just to show the range? Better work could have had more space – bigger pictures.

I was also sorry to see that Elizabeth Brimelow, who has made some of the most amazing works about the natural landscape I've ever seen, was reduced to one small image in a gallery section. Likewise some other people who have made stunning quilts, e.g. Leslie Gabrielese, Dianne Firth and Nancy Erickson.  However I was told this was because all of these artists have been  featured in the two Masters books which makes sense.

And I do feel there were too many digital photos on fabric...the day when these were wonderful has passed! Plus, there was a little too much emphasis on realism without obvious intent at communicating personal emotion, especially in the gallery sections.

Edit edit edit!! is the key to good crisp meaningful writing (which of course I should say to myself!)…I saw lots of examples of trite statements that could well have been omitted. And the thing about a book of images is that you want really want the pictures to be the stars while also having all the key information very succinctly given in a well organized manner.

Overall however, it’s a lovely book with a wide range of work and much of it not seen before, a great addition to one’s art quilt library – I look forward to further editions in this series. The next one is People and Portraits, which will be published next spring.  If sales go well, then the 3rd volume will be Abstracts and Geometrics after which (with luck!) will be Landscapes/Cityscapes and a 5th volume on Commentary (political, social, economic).

I’m very happy that books of quilts are now more like books of paintings – lots of images, some commentary and no need for pathetic little projects to keep the little woman happy and out of mischief!

Take a look! See what you think – me? I’m off for mischief!

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

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mile High Workshop

I just returned from a super week in Denver, Colorado.  One of the best things about being an (occasional!) workshop teacher is that I get to visit really interesting places (I’m afraid there’s no point in inviting me to Boondocksville, Nowhere Land!).  I’d never seen very much of the USA before I started teaching and it’s exciting to have several new places on my list this year.  First up was Denver, Co which has a giant league of quilters – 300 art quilters.  Members attend meetings from as far away as Montana and Wyoming – now that’s dedication!

denver dawn

This was the view outside my hotel window the first day of class.  What a perfect color scheme of cobalt, amber, pink, grey and black with even a little touch of an apple green.







denver carpark012 004


Even the car parks have a glorious view in Denver…this is the scene as we drove up to the venue, a huge beautiful church hall.






The workshop was Working in a Series – here am I in full spate expostulating as is my wont!

EBarton and group Notice, nobody is asleep….yet!

EBarton and JHerman

Describing something to Jean Herman who is working on a large cityscape….below Gay Lasher was cutting out strips for her series on Conversations.

GLasher piecing









PJoy describes process





while Patti Joy talks about how she’s going to resize her series of 3 pieces based on a visit to island of Lewis in Scotland.

And below is the sculpture of a happy quiltmaker! yahoo!

It is outside the new and absolutely stunning Clyfford Still museum which I had the great good fortune of visiting after the workshop – thanks to a lovely lady in the group! 

denver dancer




This is a view of the inside of the museum – fabulous, rich and spare, complex and simple and oh so generous in spirit!

denver 2012 010








What a great trip! Thank you so much to the Front Range Contemporary Quilters for inviting me to visit your beautiful city – and – for arranging for me to spend time with so many of you.

and now I’m back home…until the AQE/SAQA/SDA opening and conference in Philadelphia – more great inspiration I’m sure.   See you there!  Elizabeth

workshop photos courtesy of Linda Strand, Exhibits Chair, Front Range Contemporary Quilters, thank you, Linda!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Artists, children and retirees

quilts jan 2011 003 What do they have in common? 

I was reading a book by Penelope Lively (an author new to me, whose writing I love and (hooray) she’s written loads of books! also,  judging by her photo on the dust jacket,  she looks good for a few more!  Eniow, I was reading a book called Spiderweb about a retired anthropologist, in which the main character muses that there are significant similarities between children and retirees in that they do (or should do!) live for what each day can bring.  It struck me that the same holds true for artists. Little children do this naturally, of course, there is no yesterday  that one is regretting and rethinking, no tomorrow that has to be planned for or worried about.  It is just today.  cvt I like to splash

3 hikers clowning

As a (semi!) retiree I have to keep reminding my self to enjoy each day, each minute for what it brings instead of always “looking forward”.  What are the joys of winter, of spring of summer and of fall?  What is the joy of this particular hour on this particular day in March 2012?  What is special about this moment that I  should especially savor (instead of just gulping down looking ahead to the next thing) now that I’m out of the hurly burly of deadlines and schedules and calendars and into my own clear (alas,  though, too easily muddied!) space.

And that leads me to art – as an artist wishing to communicate an appreciation of beauty (or other emotions) I have to be aware of what I’m experiencing.  The work needs to be fresh and personal; if I just rush into it going through the motions – oh I must get this finished for the next challenge, or the next show etc – then it’s likely I’ll be unable to add the savoring of experience and the simmering of thought that makes it Real (rather than copied, trite and stale) Art. 

  Stopping and smelling the roses (or at present, the daffodils!) takes surprising concentration, we have been so conditioned to rush rush rush.  Instead I must think about it, make myself stop and do it.  It’s necessary for the successful life as an artist or an old lady or both! so please, don’t just rush through your day, breathe, experience, savor and think!Dafodils farndale And, if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

PS and by the way, some kind (and, I hope, discerning!) soul has nominated me for a “best teacher” award, so if you’d like to vote…there are, in fact 27 nominees!  also several other “best” somethings…go to this url:


and your comments are always welcomed and considered!  thank you.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Eight steps to overcome Quilter’s Panic

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         D’you ever panic when you're working On the Wall?  I know I do!
Even though I nearly always have a value sketch and a good idea of what I want to convey, plus a color scheme and a pile of sorted fabrics....still, as I start to block out the piece, the doubts start mounting...does this go? does that? Oops! I don't have quite enough of that, oh the other is too bold…
8 steps to overcome quilters' panic!

Step 1: Nerves. Make a cup of tea and steady your nerves. Don’t PANIC!! Don’t be impatient. Don’t be despairing, or self defeating, or foolishly optimistic ( as in “it doesn’t look good now but wait till I get the embellishments on!”). Give yourself time to solve the problem. Solving problems is good for the brain – how wonderful that now you have this great grey cell building exercise to do!!

Step 2. The Plan. Am I actually following my plan? If the basic structure of the plan was okay and every time I looked at it I felt excitement at the thought of making it, then perhaps I’ve strayed from the plan. Are my proportions different? Are my values different? Have I inadvertently changed my color scheme? If you didn’t have an actual plan, what was your intention with this piece? What were your thoughts at the outset? Can you go back to that point and retrace your steps to see where you went off track?

Step 3. An AB (aka awkward buggar). Every time I started a new job or joined a new group I always looked to see if there were an AB who was the reason things didn’t flow well. A thorn in the side, a stone in the hoof, a jam in the drain etc. Look for something awkward and out of place? Something that sticks out and doesn’t go with everything else (could be an odd shape, an odd line or color etc).


Step 4. Too much. Is it too much of something? Sit down, take a long hard look. What actually is it that bothers me? Is something too strong?, a too obvious texture, a too saturated color, too large a shape? Too bold a line?  Try removing the offending object – replace with something a little bit more subtle, less noticeable.

Step 5. Too little. Is it too little of something? No excitement, no pizzazz, no tension.
The piece looks boring! oh no!!  I go back to my source material - did it look boring? If it didn't what have I missed when blocking it out? What wild card could I add to the mix to jazz things up a little?

Step 6. The star. Is there a star? Or is it all chorus without a tenor? (or soprano!). Where is the focal area? Have I emphasized it enough?

Step 7. Step by step removal. Start taking pieces and sections off, review as you go. Very often you get back to the exciting, but yet still balanced and coherent, place where things were going well. Put those unwanted pieces to one side and tell them firmly to stay just where they are! Try not to repeat the same mistake, begin adding pieces at a different point, jump shift yourself into taking a different route.

Step 8. Give it (and yourself) some time. If the above steps have not yielded the solution, leave it for a while….move it to a side wall that you can occasionally glance at. Remember not everything works and if you think everything IS working you are probably wrong!

If you have more ideas to add to this list….or any comments at all, I’d love to see them!!  In any case, if you have been, thanks for reading!  and now….to panic!    Elizabeth