Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Can color carry the weight of the composition?

I’ve been reading about Kandinsky who is considered to be one of the founders of abstract painting. At the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of increasingly popular and sophisticated cameras, it was really no longer necessary for artists to make copies of real world events or places. Now they were free to explore other possibilities – of course many did not, and do not! There are large sections of the modern art world devoted entirely to making lush copies of the real world. Looking at a current exhibition going up in a local gallery yesterday, I saw that realism is alive and well in Athens, GA!!

While about two thirds of the quilts I’ve made have been “somewhat” representational – I never aim for realism, rather to communicate the beauty of the patterns I see in cities or buildings or in natural landscapes – about a third have been “abstracted” down so much from the original image that it’s hard to think of them as anything but abstract.

chain cross

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA          strength of quiet windows

Kandinsky was not only a painter but a considerable art theorist – he’s written several books on his theories of art, what it should and should not, can and cannot do. He was very interested in the way that composers of music didn’t find the need to be as literal in their depictions of scenes or events as did (and do) many painters. From his observations that music obeyed certain principles of harmony, he developed his own theory of harmony for painting. He saw both colors and shapes in terms of their harmonic resonance. He wondered how  a specific set of colors could be brought to obey harmonic laws in the same way that notes did? He saw chords in great paintings like those of Rembrandt and when he listened to music he saw colors in chords. This ability (synaesthesia: tending to see colors in connections with sounds, or other cross over experiences between the senses, which we all tend to have a little of: think of a green smell versus a yellow smell!) was highly developed in Kandinsky.

You know how sometimes if you look at something you can’t immediately guess what it is – especially if it’s a detail? Well, Kandinsky noticed that when he first saw one of Monet’s haystack paintings he didn’t immediately know what it was, but he found himself emotionally responding very strongly to the piece. From this he concluded that if one used color and value well, it was possible that specific form was not so necessary, possibly not necessary at all. The power of the color in all its nuances of shade, value, hue and temperature might be sufficient. He felt that the strength of the palette alone could make the picture have a profound effect. Effect and affect, actually!! He later credited this particular experience with the start of his journey to dispense with references to particular objects in his painting.

Well I don’t know if I’m going to completely renounce objects! But it is a very interesting thing to ponder. Out of all the elements (shape, line, texture, value and color) it is color to which people seem to respond the most. And respond to first. You rarely hear someone say “oh I love that quilt because triangles are my favorite shape”!!! I know I have a strong reaction to high versus low contrasts in value – while a Rothko in the bedroom (one of the more cheerful ones, not the gloomy ones that he painted towards the end of his life) would be dreamy, I think a Klein in the breakfast room would get the day started with greater vigor!!!

Kandinsky originally trained as a lawyer - believing one couldn’t make a living in art. How many of us were steered by parents into making similar choices! Actually the nuns steered me away from art when it was discovered I couldn’t spontaneously draw perfectly rendered images depicting “A Day at the Zoo” etc!!! There was, of course, one person in the class who could do that and she was the scale against which we were all measured – and found wanting. Veronica, her name – I remember it to this day!!

Actually Kandinsky’s first experiences of art school (where he went when he was about 30) were not very positive: he complained of having to draw “smelly, apathetic, expressionless, characterless models” in life class! Outside of life class he painted landscapes in riotous colors – now I wouldn’t mind living with one of those! He wrote: “I was intoxicated with nature…again and again I tried to make the color carry first the chief weight and subsequently the entire weight”.

He took the musical analogy even further “Color is the keyboard; the eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key”. I think we can learn a lot by thinking of 2 dimensional visual art in musical terms: setting the overall structure, the mood and the harmonic color of the piece before we start out. And then to start the vibrations!!

Well I’m off to set a kettle vibrating…..next week I’m taking a mixed media workshop which I think will be more fun than theory but I shall continue to peruse Kandinsky! Hope to bring back some pictures and ideas from the workshop.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading – whatever color you did it in! Elizabeth

Monday, June 18, 2012

Recommendations: a book and a workshop

A book

There are quite a few good books on Design and composition – many of them rather turgid (and expensive!) college texts or, at the opposite pole, just full of pretty pictures without much explanation.  A little book that I keep going back to and often recommend is “Picture This: How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang.  Just let me quote you the first paragraph so that you can see how both readable and apposite to quilt design this book is:

“One day I was sketching objects around the house while an old friend was visiting.  He suggested I draw not just isolated objects, but whole views, whole pictures.  The more I drew, the more I knew I was lost”.

I remember feeling just like this when I first started to design my own quilts having got totally fed up with those horrible “sampler” quilts we all made back in ‘80s!  Whoever dreamed up that idea should be shot!  It was impossible to make a quilt that was a whole design, it was always just an assembly of (largely unrelated) parts.  Very frustrating to put all that work in and then just see this mishmash of shapes and things.  I remember taking a workshop from a Big Cheese in the hopes of getting the information I needed but being told, oh just do it intuitively!  Well my intuition just didn’t do it, however hard I wished it to.  In the same way that I couldn’t play the Chopin nocturne I’d love to be able to do, or speak the language my immigrant friends all chattered away in! I was never one of those people who could dress themselves in a few bits and pieces and look totally amazing and pulled together.  Instead I was much more of the bag lady type!

So I began to read, to kibbitz in art school, to take art classes and to visit museums and galleries and copy “pictures” in the hope of figuring out just HOW it was done.

Here is Molly Bang on the same journey trying to learn how pictures work:

“I took a painting course…I read books on art and on the psychology of art. I went to museums and galleries to look at paintings and try to figure out what I felt about them and what the paintings were doing.  Lastly, I taught pictures to [third-graders] hoping I’d learn something working with the students”.

And working with the children, finally, she came up with ways to make pictures: comforting pictures, scary pictures and so on gradually figuring out how certain elements in pictures affect our feelings.  In the book she tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood, showing how certain colors and shapes and arrangements of value can express the emotions of the characters.  It’s a deceptively simple little tale and from it you can learn a lot! I definitely recommend it!

A workshop

Jan Myers-Newbury is teaching a shibori class at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN this summer, mid July.  If you’ve never been to Arrowmont, you should! It’s a really wonderful arts and crafts school – I’ve taken about 15 workshops there over time, and have taught there about 6 times myself (my 7th time will be next year: Abstracts Quilts, Dyeing and Design – mid August I think though I’m looking at several possible dates).  I’ve taught quite a few places now and Arrowmont has the best facilities for surface design of anywhere.  The really fun thing, though, is that there are about 10 concurrent classes, all in different mediums.  You can breakfast with woodworkers, eat lunch with painters and dine with ceramicists! and that’s just the first day!  Many of the studios are adjacent to a really nice gallery space and it’s lovely to walk through the show everyday and really get to know some of the work. 

Arrowmont gets some of the best teachers around because of its reputation and its facilities.  The food is really good too!  And they have a great range of accommodations so you can “slum” it in a dorm or have a private room with bath, or anything in between.  My favorite was always the old cottages, historical dwellings with lots of atmosphere. It’s in the Smoky Mountains and the scenery is lovely, and it’s generally a lot cooler up there than down on the plains.  Totally recommend it, no reservations!  And yes, they do have air conditioning!

I took Jan’s shibori class years ago and it was a great deal of fun; I’d love to do it again because her new work shows that she has developed some powerful new methods…but alas I have something else going on that week.  I would definitely recommend the class if you’ve ever wanted to really dig into arashi shibori techniques – Jan is the expert on this.  Just take a look at her website! Her work is breathtaking.  I know nobody else who can get that degree of color and depth into their quilts.  Amazing.  Try it! Plus she’s a very fun lady!!

so – d’you have any great recommendations?  if so, I’d love to hear from you – whether it’s art books or mystery books or workshops or even how to overcome the “bag lady” look! 

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A trashy piece

Well, of course like all of us masochists, I have been slaving away in secret, in the basement, behind darkened windows with metal detectors on all doorways making a couple of pieces bound to wow the judges for “that” show!   the one that requires only the freshest of works, untouched by any human (or probably even animal for that matter!) eyes except those of the maker…..

Working R&D in such secrecy has a kind of industrial feeling, like some new drug or amazing machine that “they” might “steal” from me!!  I’m afraid I can’t even speak about the colour or the name of the pieces!  Actually, I’ve decided to make only two because I think two is enough to show that I can make more than one quilt on the same theme and, furthermore, every time I’ve submitted three to anything, I’ve thrown in a third sort of make-weight study piece and so many times that little squitty thing not worth anything, no blood, sweat or tears invested in it, has been the one chosen to my eternal embarrassment!   So the major research stage is now complete, and just the busy work of development remains.  Which is mainly handwork – – now to be done in slow stages due to a couple of fingers deciding it was time they would retire from the game, even though I havn’t!  I am slowly learning to stitch with my non-dominant hand, and it’s actually working.  Though down the line I don’t know if the toes could manage it!

cement works


So my way was clear to accept an invitation from the local “alternative” gallery – which, as it happens, sits right next door to the famous Athens Cement Works featured in at least three of my quilts – see left!     One of three pieces, I may say, that were rejected by the last lot of jurors for “that show”!! 

But we won’t dwell on that – especially since I have a cupboard full of the poor rejected things! 


Alas, the alternative gallery did not want my industrial quilts either. They wanted artists to accept the challenge of making something “arty” from trash that they would select!  It was a bit like that reality TV show about artists in NYC (think it was called Work of Art) except that the prizes were a great deal less!  Four of us (me with my roll of duct tape and three blokes wielding welding tools, table saws and oxyacetylene tanks) were each given a large pile of rubbish and told to Use It All!!!  We had 48 hours to do it, fortunately not in the same studio!!!  My “haul” was a huge roll of  plastic blue leatherette, pieces of plastic brown leatherette, various forms of stuffing, abut 50 old maps, a great roll of that silver pimply insulation stuff you use to keep the sun out of your car, a bag of old ties, an Ikea window blind and some smaller bits of nameless rubbish.   You could add nothing except ways of fixing things together.

At first I thought obloodyell what have I got myself into?  But as I worked on it, I realised it was fun – moreover I could take the covers off the windows, take photos and within 48 hours share the whole thing with a bunch of fellow idiots…oops, artists…..and passersby! Even Uncle Tom Cobbley!

So this is my piece: introducing Sir Sylvester Skinnyshanks – about 5’10” :sir sylvester skinnyshanks Isn’t he lovely?  Very nonchalant!   And these were the pieces my fellow compatriots produced:

upcycle doug

Made by Doug M who told me a hilarious story about making a pair of metal dogs for the Atlanta airport, complete with all anatomical doggie requirements….they were installed and admired and then the next day he received several urgent phone calls!  An operation was requested!  Not only did he have to remove (with the oxyacetylene torch no less) both the offending orbs, but also considerably reduce the size of the organ, a sort of reverse vi-agra!!   

Next was Reid’s piece: upcycle reid

apparently he added the pennants as a nod to Sir Sylvester when he saw a preview photo!! 

And the winner was Joly:

upcycle winner



a nice conceptual piece – he took the wood and the glass and the paper he was given and smashed it all to pieces, “ground to oblivion” and then layered it into two large glass jars (part of his trash) like those old sand jars we used to get at the seaside.   A great conceit!

Don’t think his prize was a show at the Brooklyn Art Museum though!   WE all got certificates for a local restaurant….something the dairy operation could consider of course.  A pint of milk for all the runners up!

Sometimes you’ve just got to do something daft!!  to break out of the severe stern secrecy of the “Major Work”…..

of course I only have two actual “serious” pieces I’m planning to enter that show…I wonder how Sir Sylvester would feel about mucking out a barn?!!

If you have been, thanks for reading!!  And don’t take it all too seriously!


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Updike’s search for beauty in art

I’ve been meaning to read Updike ever since I asked one of my favorite authors, Ian McEwan who his favorite author was and he replied: John Updike. Since I also love reading about art – often laughing out loud at the hilarious reviews like “he must have painted this while falling downstairs” – I was thrilled to discover that Updike had written several essays about art in a book entitled Just Looking published about 30 years ago – AND it includes pictures of most of the art he writes about. This is a book to be enjoyed on many levels.

Here he is writing about his first impressions as a young man of his visits to MOMA:

“Gaiety, diligence and freedom, a freedom from old constraints of perspective and subject matter, a freedom to embrace and memorialize the world anew, a fearless freedom drenched in light: this was what I took away, each time, from my visits.”

This kind of transformative experience is what we all hope for (well I do, being largely an optimist!) when visiting a museum. His was a pursuit of beauty:

“..the pleasures of the eye, which of all our sensory pleasures are the most varied and constant and for modern man, the most spiritually pliable, the most susceptible to that sublimation called, in pre-modern times, beauty. “

As a result of his early visits to the museum (though alas not later) he felt “That beauty and its fanatic pursuit persist” within the art world.

He made a pilgrimage to visit every Vermeer hanging in a public museum – thankfully for him(though alas, not for the art world) there are but 40. These paintings, he felt, are “the loveliest objects that exist on canvas”. What a wonderful pilgrimage, to travel round the world to find the loveliest paintings! I wonder whether in a few years admirers will travelling to see the loveliest quilts! It would be excellent to think that someone somewhere is making work that will stand the test of time as well as Vermeer. Not that he did very well in his own time. He was an art dealer and supported his family of eleven children by selling other painters’ work as well as his own and by acting as an art consultant. When he died, his widow used some of his paintings to pay off the bills and others were sold for very little.

And so it goes!

Updike writes a wonderful description of his visit to a “blockbuster” Renoir show at the Boston Museum of Art where ticketed patrons had to queue for some time to get in to see the show:

“Half of the males looked like George Bush at assorted points in his evolution wearing end-of-summer suits and that blinking, stooping air of wry martyrdom with which Boston-area men escort their wives to cultural events’ and the other half looked like post-Howl Allen Ginsberg, outfitted by L.L. Bean.”

And he finishes the description with this hilarious line:

“It is no small compliment to Renoir’s vitality to say that he wasn’t trampled underfoot”!

Would that there were authors writing so elegantly about visiting quilt shows!
Well, I’m off for a cuppa tea…..if you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth

PS Do recommend any art essays that you’ve come across that are as well and as interestingly (and jargon free!) written as these by Updike.