Thursday, January 17, 2019

Rising to be art?

A reader's comment: "One of your entries was about how there were many collages and how only few 'rose to be art.'  How did they?  How did you decide?"

Maybe the hardest question for any artist, in any medium, is "Is this art?"  Or as a variant, "Is this art yet?"  We're always evaluating our work for composition, design, craft.  We sketch, we audition, we turn it upside down, we let the piece sit in plain view for a week while we think about what to do next.  In the end it's a matter of judgment.  People without a good sense of artistic judgment, or those who hurry into completion without enough thought, often end up producing stuff that doesn't "rise to be art."

Here are the three collages that I decided were good enough to hang in the gallery, and what I like about them:

Gold Star

Gold Star:  I like the simple, perpendicular composition: a large rectangle of complicated straight-edge shapes hovering symmetrically over a small square and an even smaller star.  That stack is moved a bit off-center and balanced with the tall vertical line at left, and the massing of gray squares at left in the large rectangle keeps it from falling off the page.

I like the simple palette of yellow and gray, and the variety of textures that become apparent when you look at the piece up close -- smooth on the "quilt" piece, rough on the sew-off square beneath, smooth on the star, ridged on the oval bead sewed to the square, ropelike on the twisted cord.

Slick Dude

Slick Dude: I feel a bit guilty over calling this piece "art."  It's almost cute, which makes me uncomfortable, but this guy is so obviously made out of leftovers that he has a compelling personality.

The bit of snakeskin calls out to be part of a living creature (interestingly, Uta used this material twice in her collages, and both times ended up with creatures -- here and here) and the practice buttonholes gave him shifty eyes.  The preexisting hole in the snakeskin made a sneer.  All he needed to be complete was a spiky hairdo.

I liked the background interest of mounting him on four separate panels of linen, joined with subtle hand stitching to give more texture.

Pig Newton

Pig Newton:  I like the juxtaposition of the two varieties of text -- one a replica of the Gutenberg Bible, one a scratch hand-lettered screenprint -- and the serious animals on the background fabric.  I like the red-white-and-blue palette, accentuated with buttons and hand stitching.

I like the composition, the severe vertical of the old text and the flowering vine, lightened up by the horizontal fragment of the hand lettering and the curvy line of bubbly buttons.  The sewoff square at the bottom is almost invisible in the composition, anchored by a blue button, but it plays an important role in keeping everything grounded.

And I like the title.  It might have been more appropriate to call it "Pig Gutenberg," but that would have just been weird, not funny.

Maybe you won't agree with my analysis, and that's OK, but I hope that when you look at these three pieces -- or any other work of art that you're trying to describe and evaluate -- that you will think in detail about what you like (or don't) and why.  That's the most important part of developing and strengthening your own sense of artistic judgment.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What makes it "rise to be art"?

Recently a reader left a comment on my blog:  "One of your entries was about how there were many collages and how only few 'rose to be art.'  How did they?  How did you decide?  I would really like you to discuss this more, sometime."

I had talked about making a fabric collage every month in 2015 as parallel play with my great friend and art pal Uta Lenk.  Each month, we each opened an identical envelope of three or four miscellaneous bits and pieces, and had to use them all in a collage.  The collages, of course, looked very different, but part of the fun was trying to find where the same bits showed up in each piece.

August -- Uta
August -- Kathy

For instance, in August you can find the hand-dyed red fabric in both pieces, along with a shiny ring, a silver button and some red cord.  There's red netting (Uta wadded hers up while I mostly spread mine out) and ribbon with a woven rose (Uta used the back side, mainly pink, while I used the right side, mainly white).

I think my August collage is cute, and indeed, I might even hang it in the gallery to see if anybody needs to buy a Valentine's Day present, but I see it more as a clever challenge to use the random bits than as an intentional piece of art.  You can see how I kind of hid the silver button in the bottom right corner -- not sure whether it would have made it into the composition if it hadn't been in the envelope, and the red ring at center bottom was probably added just to make the silver button look more at home.

April -- Kathy

Here's another that I rate as a clever solution to what was in the envelope: a white lace medallion, some selvages from blue hand-dyed fabric, and four little metal L-shaped brackets.  With the help of a lot of hand stitching, this turned into an attractive floral composition, but it probably would have been better if the blue strips had been ribbons or torn silk or mulberry paper.  And the metal brackets, doing their best in a bad situation, would probably never have made it into the collage if I were making "art" instead of playing a game.

Many fiber artists are drawn to challenge projects in which they are given specific fabrics to use.  Because fabric is so distinctive in appearance, even when cut into smaller bits, it's particularly suited to this kind of challenge.  (It doesn't work in other mediums -- think if painters were each given a tube of alizarin crimson and challenged to use it.  Lame.)  And especially if the fabrics are beautiful, it's hard to resist this kind of temptation.  But the work that results is often identifiable as stemming from a challenge rather than from an artistic vision.

If you're lucky, you can achieve both, and out of my 12 collages, I judge three or four to be pretty good.  I'll show them in my next post.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Last week on Art With a Needle

Following our discussion of leaving comments on blogs, I decided I need to be more rigorous about responding to readers.  Yes, I could email you privately if you leave a comment, but then nobody else would see what I have to say.  So I'm going to try a new plan: on Saturday night I'll try to respond to any loose ends that have come up during the week.

Jenny wrote:  "I like text too and I enjoy experimenting with changing and distorting it.  Do you know the work of Idris Khan?"  No, I didn't know about Idris Khan but a fast google makes me want to spend more time looking at his work. 

Sandy inquired about my cataract surgery -- it's scheduled for this coming Wednesday.  While I don't look forward to the long interim before both eyes get fixed and new prescription glasses are ready, I really need to do this, so let's get on with it!

Vivien wrote:  "I'm encouraged to read that you think a blog is still a viable way to connect with others. For so many it seems to have had its day and folks are onto the next big thing."  Yes, I've noticed that blogs are becoming less popular and certainly less trendy, while many people have moved on to Instagram and Twitter and who knows what else.  But the blog still works for me.  I like to talks about things in more depth and with more thought than you can do on the newer platforms.  If communication without hashtags cuts me off from much of the great world population, so be it.  I'd rather have 363 people who read than 30,000 who like pictures and 140-character remarks.

And I'll also show you my favorite miniature that I made during the week. (I've decided that's a more dignified way of referring to my second daily art project than saying my favorite piece of stuff that I put in a plastic bag.)

This one features half a sparkplug (I think) that I found on the street, dolled up with a bead and a blue holographic thread topknot.  For scale, the little plastic bag measures 1.5 x 2 inches.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Calligraphy -- a funny new alphabet

Looking through my inspiration book I saw an almost-illegible alphabet in which the letters were squashed together horizontally but stretched out vertically, and decided to give it a try.  In the book, the writer allowed the S to break the rules, letting it swoop out several times as wide as the other letters, so I thought I'd try that too.  And because I like the way I draw a capital G, I decided to let Gs break the rules too, whether capital or lowercase.

I liked the way the letters formed patterns as they extended in stripes across the page, and how the S and G rulebreakers brought some air to the pattern.

Another day, I decided to make the S skinny and just leave the G fat.

One day I made everything skinny.

Then I made the G skinny and the S fat.  This is definitely the best one in the series.  Making the lines closer together gives a more cohesive look to the page.  I could easily keep working with this style of letters, practicing how to keep a more uniform slant and maybe ruling the left margin in advance.  But it's time to move on!

All my daily arts are posted to my other blog.  Here's the link to the calligraphy project.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Daily calligraphy -- how it's going

It wasn't until the fourth or fifth day of my new daily art project that I realized: the choice of what I was going to write was just as much an artistic decision as what pen and what style of lettering to use.  I started out the year with the first lines of Ode to Joy, because I always use that text when I need to write something.  It's one of the few poems that I can recite substantial parts of in German, and I love the idea.  The next day I wrote from the Battle Hymn of the Republic; again, because I know the words to all the verses by heart I can do calligraphy even if I didn't bring a book along to copy from.

The third day I decided to copy from a book I had just finished reading -- and I highly recommend it: Educated by Tara Westover -- and realized that if I write from every book the day I finish reading it, I will have a journal of what I read for the whole year.

But what to write on the fourth day?  When I do calligraphy I like to write something meaningful and intriguing, because I'll be going slowly and focusing on the words as well as the drawing.  Song lyrics and hymns always work, probably because it's easier to remember the words of a poem if they're set to music.  So I wrote from a Christmas hymn, Joy to the World.

The fifth day I wrote from the Gettysburg Address, always a favorite.  The last time I remember doing this in calligraphy I miraculously got the whole thing to fit perfectly on a 6x8 card; this time I ran out of page before I ran out of address.

I promise not to bore you with any more of what I'm writing this year.  Insofar as I report on my progress, I'm going to talk about the drawing, not the text.  After two days of free-form writing -- nothing special, just my usual "arty writing," I decided I needed to be more adventurous and look for specific inspiration to emulate.  I'll show you that in my next post.

Ode to Joy, with a brush

Battle Hymn of the Republic, with a Micron brush pen

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Daily art for 2019

My daily art project for this year is going to be called "calligraphy" (literally, beautiful writing).  I can cite three important reasons for this decision.

First, for many years I have been influenced by Laurie Doctor, a wonderful teacher whom I have studied with several times (look here and here for posts about her).  Every time I think about what I learned from her I'm inspired.

Second, my dear friend Uta gave me a book about a year ago called Schriftspiele: Experimentelle Calligraphie.  I've looked at it a lot but never sat down to emulate and learn from it.  It's in German, so I'll have to brush up on my vocabulary if I want to read the text, but even without the explanation, what the artist (Denise Lach) is doing with her calligraphy is wonderful.

Denise Lach

Third, my art pal Bette told me a couple of months ago about an artist from Iran, Golnaz Fathi, who does calligraphic art.  The minute I saw her work I knew exactly what to do for daily art in 2019!

Golnaz Fathi

And that is: I want to write/draw/mark with ink in a sketchbook.  Sometimes it will resemble writing but it won't always be readable or legible.  I might want to use pens as well as brushes.  I might want to use paint as well as ink.  I might want to draw lines that don't contain letters.  But I hope that over time the daily sketches/drawings/writings/marks will start to develop their own cohesive character.

As Justice Potter Stewart famously said about obscenity, "I can't define it but I know it when I see it!"  That's what I say about my daily art intentions.  You gotta have a label, though, and calligraphy may be as close as I can get.

I'll keep you posted on what I come up with.