Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Small Works

silvery pond 72

Silvery Pond

Having two art shows/sales coming up it’s been fun to switch from oh so serious (and secretive! Glad to get out from under the wraps! ) work for QN to some much more light hearted or experimental pieces. Since generally only small pieces sell, it’s a good opportunity to try a lot of different things without investing too much time in any one idea.

goldfish 72


I also wanted to try stretching work - I have liked the look of stretched textiles for a long time ever since I saw Joy Saville’s amazing work many years ago. She has a most elaborate stretching system that can be totally taken to bits and folded up for shipping – it’s truly wonderful, but I’m sure expensive and complicated. Even the explanation of how it worked had me confabulated! So, I’ve just been buying standard artist stretcher bars – they used to be obtainable everywhere but now I find I’m having to get them online. Don’t know what this tells us about contemporary painters! Maybe they are buying pre stretched, primed canvases rather than producing their own. Which of course limits you to the sizes the manufacturers choose to produce and is the first problem I ran into. I’ve always hated those competitions where you had to produce a quilt of certain dimensions and now I know why!! I find it next to impossible to do this.     on the wire 72

                                                             On The Line

But there are other problems to solve when stretching pieces too. If you use a thick batt, it makes it far too thick for folding over on the corners. Using no batt at all reduces the texture and the substance of the piece dramatically – 3 layers is better than two! And two is better than one! So I’ve experimented with different kinds of batting: thin cotton, wool, split wool and flannel. Also I’ve explored reduced the size of the batt so that it just reaches the first “turn” (as it were) on the frame. I’ve tried hand stitching through the layers and machine stitching. I also tried with and without borders, piecing versus appliqué, and adding on extra elements once the piece is stretched.

spuggies 72


The benefit of small pieces is that you can take the time to experiment in all these different ways and find out what is right for you. The variety of things you can do is vast, but it’s possible to try out many of them and immediately and easily hang the pieces on the wall to see what works best as a finished piece. The other benefit is that nearly everyone I know cannot afford a full sized art quilt. We all know the hours that go into making them, consequently even if you limit yourself to minimum wage you’re up into several hundreds before you’ve barely started piecing, let alone quilting! And yet ordinary folks are more likely to want to buy textile art than major monied art collectors…and, of course, there are a lot more of them!

citylife 72



So here are a few of the pieces I’ve been working on, not sure how to price them yet but will do my best to make them reasonable.

                                                                                                         City Life


And two unstretched small arashi pieces:

arashi squares 72

arashi city 72

Arashi Squares

                                                                 Arashi city

And now to sit back and cogitate a little!  
If you have been, thanks for reading! 
All comments most welcome!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sometimes I just sits….

highland oct 12 I’ve been up in the Smoky Mountains hiking with friends, enjoying the glorious fall weather and trying to totally submerge myself into the sights, sounds, smells of the beauty around me.  As we hiked, we talked about the immense difficulty of just letting go and enjoying – too often your mind runs back to that hovering black cloud of “should be doings” and “must get dones”.  My friend said she actually felt guilty if she allowed herself to sink into the many aspects of pleasure!  And, alas, I know just what she means!  The old man was asked “and what do you do all day?” and replied:  “sometimes I sits and thinks,  and sometimes I just sits”. It’s good to just sit and enjoy it! 

But then when we do get to thinking, what kind of thinking will we do?    Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the two main kinds of thinking which he calls  System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is (more or less) intuitive or automatic thinking and System 2 is focused, calculated, analytical thinking.   System 1 is fast and without conscious effort, System 2 is slow and involves considerable effort.  These two modes are surprisingly relevant to our work as visual artists.  Intuitive thought, says Kahneman, is often marvelous but frequently flawed.  So often our thinking is subject to cognitive biases.  As quiltmakers, we meet that every day when people automatically assume we are little old ladies sitting in a church hall sewing squares of calico together. Their intuitive response is incorrect for they have responded only to the word “quilt”.

Valid intuitive thinking is immensely helpful  in situations were very quick and accurate thinking is necessary – the experienced driver who automatically does the right thing when the car skids – or the nurse who recognizes a presenting symptom and acts immediately without having to say to herself oh that symptoms means X and therefore I must do Y.   People who have had a lot of experience with composition and design are able to take a quick look at a piece and immediately just “know” that the balance is off, or more contrast is needed, or if there were just a touch of blue “right there” it would all pull together.

Such a skill is called “expert intuition” and while it looks like it is an amazing gift or talent,  it’s actually not.   All of us have intuition in some situations and not in others. So, what is it?  Herbert Simon made an exhaustive study of master chess players – people who can just glance at a board and “see” the right move.  They are the ones that play several games at once, walking along the tables where their many opponents crouch fixedly over their boards.  Along comes the expert and flick ,flick, flick ,perfect move after perfect move!  After all his research Simon reported that, as the expert walked along, each chess board “provided a cue; this cue [gave] the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information [provided] the answer.  Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”

Intuition is the result of countless hours of study and analysis (slow thinking) leading to many memories and connections which the “expert”  can access very quickly.  It is not a gift that is given to us (or not) at birth, it is not like performing a magic spell that will happen when we say nan-see-cro! and throw the fabric at the design wall, it is many hours of study and learning i.e. System 2 thinking.  The tennis player perfects their “intuitive” response to a situation by practicing such responses in such situations over and over.

So don’t feel hopeless if it seems as if your intuition is not as effective as the next person’s, it’s  a matter of experience.   If they have more experience than you, they’ll have more memories of solutions to problems and be able to access them more easily.  And experience can be gained…though, as Kahneman points out, it takes work and we do tend to resist it. 

Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.”

I’m sure I’ll want to write more about Kahneman’s work and how it applies to the artist’s task – but do take a look for yourself, it’s a recent book published in 2011, though the research he describes goes back many decades.

And if, you have been, thanks for reading!  And send in your comments!  what role d’you think intuition plays in creativity? 


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Looking for that missing piece?

april 2012 iron horse 029

The old problem: you’ve lost a wallet in a field somewhere – how should you find it? (we’re assuming no tracking devices!!)



Where d’you look for a solution?(there aren’t many at the top of a mast!).  so…do you…
Race around madly?
Retrace the footprints?
Methodically quarter  the area?
Find out how other people have solved it?
Get friends to help you?
Give up and say you never like that wallet anyway?

There are different ways to learn and to find out the answers to those questions as artists we pose ourselves every day. And there are different ways of finding the solution. It’s true sometimes trial and error is best but often a more methodical approach is less frustrating. Let’s take a look at which of the above works best when!

Racing around madly
Believe it or not, I have seen folk doing this – they don’t know what color a certain section of the quilt they’re blocking out on the wall should be and so they run back and forth to their stash trying this and trying that. The pile of discarded fabrics grows ever larger around their feet – but then voila! And eureka! (depending on your preference for French or Greek!) you find the Right Piece! It’s magic, there it is…or …wasn’t this the one you tried in the first place?

Retrace the footprints
I’m very fond of this method. You always begin with a nice cup of tea, then you sit down with your notebook of Past Works…you don’t have such a notebook? Shame on you! Stop all else and start printing them out now..one to a page, into sheet protectors and into the notebook or file folder! My Quilts! (or, if you eschew the Q word: My Art)

Eniow – back to the notebook. Have you had this problem before? How did you solve it last time? What did you think of the solution you arrived at then? How does it look in the piece? Can you try it with the new work on the wall?

Methodical Quartering
Again, a cuppa is a prerequisite! You’re looking for the right fabric for a certain area, ask yourself one by one: what value it should be ? light, medium or dark? What color temperature should it be? Warm or cool? Saturated or greyed colour?  Should the fabric have a definite texture or pattern, and if so at what scale? Or should it be blurry and background in nature?

Once you have established the above facts then you can address the stash – which (I hope) is sorted out clearly so that a limited number of candidates for the missing piece can soon be found and assessed.

Find out how other people have solved it

The training of your eye is essential both to really see what other artists are doing and have done and also to create fresh work of your own. Knowing what has been achieved helps you to find your own solutions much more quickly. It’s important to develop what is known as “the cultivated eye”. See as much art as you can. Look to see how the Grand Masters have solved problems like yours. A wide knowledge of art will always help you find a solution to your problem today. If people ask me what they can do to improve their work: obviously practice it, but also know the field – especially modern art where artists have set themselves all kinds of problems to solve.

Intuition is the result of relaxing one’s critical eye, getting into the zone and a lot of experience. If you have a lot of experience, then I suggest you switch on some music, relax, lie back and look around you and see what catches your eye as being the Right Piece. Intuition is the apparent ability to understand something immediately and to find a solution to a problem, without obviously conscious reasoning. It is accepted generally to be a right brain activity therefore switching off one’s critique will help!

The reliability of intuition, however is dependent upon both knowledge and experience of similar situations. Someone who has a great knowledge of gardening may just “know” what a certain plant needs in order to thrive without having to figure it out. A busy doctor in the emergency department (medicine still being more art than science!) will “know” instantly that this patient has a case of X disease even before the tests come back. More knowledge doesn’t always mean a better answer of course, but the likelihood of its being so is much greater.

Get friends to help youAQN
Well of course the Beatles knew that “a little bit of help from my friends” would get you through a lot of problems. And many have found that critique groups, formal or informal are a great way to problem solve. When someone other than yourself looks at your work they only see the work, they don’t see the frustrated hopes and dreams, the various things you’ve tried and failed, the wrong directions you have taken. They can just look at what you’ve got so far in much purer design terms.  They don’t have the dross blurring their vision (nothing like a choice mixed metaphor!).

Give up and say you never liked that wallet anyway
There’s nothing wrong with this – as long as you don’t do it every time!! Some ideas just aren’t strong enough to make it all the way through. But most will, with a little bit of time and coaxing. Listen to yourself if this is the answer you come up with. Is this your usual way out of design difficulties? If so, then seek an answer above…if this is a fairly rare occurrence for you and you feel you started a piece for all the wrong reasons - a group challenge you really didn’t want to do , a red piece when you’re in a blue mood and so on, then stuff the whole thing into the thrift store bag and have done with it!

I do hope you find your wallet! If it’s a nice sunny day – it’s glorious here – maybe give up the search for a while, stretch out on the grass and contemplate nature….. So if you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth

PS after 14 million pieces of spam and emails from readers saying they were getting spam as a result of reading my blog, I have had to put back on the step of typing out a few numbers and letters from a photograph before you comment.  But believe me doing this will only increase your visual intelligence!  So – please, feel free to comment!

Monday, October 8, 2012

On the Road

wa columbia river Columbia River Gorge (with de Lauriens for the car buffs!)

Apologies for sparse blogging.  I’ve been on the road and have seen wondrous things!  First a trip to teach a 2 day workshop and give a lecture in Portland, OR and then for a week’s workshop in Cape Cod.  I never realised that being a quilt teacher would lead to so much interesting travel: from the top left hand corner of the nation, to the top right, next to the bottom right and then to the bottom left…..sounds a bit like knittingcape cod oct 2012 067!

Alas, two days in OR/WA was insufficient for people to actually make any quilts though a lot of excellent designing went on.  And I was totally vindicated, both there and in Cape Cod, in my belief that quilt makers are more interested in actually learning  about making their designs stronger than in blindly buying up more products.  (Years ago I was told at a venue to stop teaching and allow the students to sew up their fabric so they could go and buy more – what an insult to those students!).  In my teaching the last few weeks, I was reassured that Information is just as (if not more than!) important as fabric and various other notions.  Of course, one can witter on for far too long and it’s important to be succinct and to the point!  I remember one class I took where the teacher spent all morning every day for 5 days on obscure principles of a little known form of yoga!  It didn’t improve my work one bit!  

One of the ladies in the picture above told me she was 82!  That’s so wonderful and so Encouraging – we’ve all got years left to create art quilts! An art form that will last us all our lives…with endless new possibilities.

Here are some of the very varied (isn’t it wonderful when every quilt in a workshop is different?) quilts that were being designed and put together on Cape Cod:

cape cod oct 2012 067

I love this chair by Meredith – it has such character and warmth.  You can tell it’s been through a lot..but is still willing!  Her choice of colours really makes it glow.

cape cod oct 2012 068




                                      Ina’s scene of the old town of Vilnius also glows with life and warmth – it has such a strong underlying structural value pattern that supports all those bright colors.


cape cod oct 2012 069


Liz is working on the second of her polk weed series.  Her work shows that this overlooked and undervalued plant will surprise us all with its hidden strength,  and beauty. 




cape cod oct 2012 071


cape cod oct 2012 072

I love it when family members take a class together.  these two quilts are by a mother and daughter.  It’s fascinating that they chose a very similar subject: looking up…Julie took many photos of a wonderful nearby tree and particularly liked this view upward (there are many more pieces to add).  Linda worked from memories of living in New York city and looking up at the towering skyscrapers….

Both achieved a great sense of height and depth in their work using a combination of perspective, and contrasts in the basic elements.


cape cod oct 2012 073


Karen’s serene image of the beach looking toward the distant sea also has a lovely depth to it.  Apologies to Karen..the piece is actually cooler and bluer..than in the picture…and yes I did tease her about the little orange “sun” – a pin head.  Oh that the manufacturers would make pins with colorless heads!


cape cod oct 2012 074


How lively  are Betty’s potato vines!  you can just see them dancing in the wind.  Her series of little quilts really brings out their beauty, their variety and their joi de vivre!


cape cod oct 2012 075


Constance’s barn is only partially complete in this photo – there was much more to come.  She chose a square format to emphasize the solidity and reliability of the old much loved family barn.  Like several other folk, Constance took the extra step of going back to the source for more photographs – different views, different angles, different lights…it is so important to do that, to really know one’s subject.

cape cod oct 2012 076


and here are Mary Lou’s pieces!  the foliage of Florida in all its lush tropical glory….doesn’t that come across so well?  I think the one on the right is particularly strong with the complementary colour scheme and the bold use of positive and negative shapes.


cape cod oct 2012 077

cape cod oct 2012 078


Sandy made at least 5 quilt tops in her peapod series…and they’re bursting with life!  Great graphic shapes, power, strength and movement.  I can see a solo show!



cape cod oct 2012 079


Sharon also created a wonderful sense of depth with her rock formations – plus I love all those skinny black lines, they give a fascinating calligraphic look to the piece.


cape cod oct 2012 080


this photo doesn’t do justice to Elaine’s design since there is to be another large shape on the left…again she has achieved great depth, subtle color scheme and in her abstracting of the shapes a lovely sense of mystery…these floating gems are actually fungi…they look like pearls!

And talking of floating…photo

look at Linda G’s wonderful guitar floating out notes across the waves…this idea is so imaginative, I’m really looking forward to seeing all the rest of the series.


As you can tell, the two workshops have got me energized and I’m so keen to Make My Own Stuff now!!  No more workshops for a while, I’ve got to focus. But I do feel that as a teacher, one gets to learn just as much as the students…especially about the importance of Not Panicking!!

If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

PS very happy that I was lucky enough to be one of the few who got into Quilt National – and there is luck involved because there are many many wonderful pieces that are entered and sadly not enough room to hang them all in the Dairy Barn.  And in only two years we’ll all be going through the process again!