Sunday, November 14, 2021

On the Road with Marti

One last post about my friend Marti Plager, who died last month.  She and I loved to take road trips together -- to Houston for the big quilt festival three or four times, to Quilt National four or five times, to Pittsburgh for Fiberart International, to Philadelphia for the international SAQA conference,  to Paducah several times for the quilt show, and to a whole lot of workshops, museums and galleries.  

Fifteen years ago I wanted for some reason to enter an art show at the Kerouac Center in Lowell MA.  The artwork was supposed to  have something to do with Jack Kerouac, and I really didn't know or care much about him, so I figured I needed a gimmick.

I did some research and found that when Kerouac sat down to write his famous "On the Road," he had a roll of newsprint wide enough to fit in his typewriter and very, very long.  He started writing at the top of the roll and just kept going.  So I thought I could come up with a roll of Kerouac-style writing too and get into the show. 

I called my piece "On the Road with Marti" and it is a lot of stream-of-consciousness-type reminiscence of some of the many road trips that we took together.  It's too bad the manuscript ends in 2006, because there were many, many more trips that didn't get documented.

I used a typewriter font, printed the manuscript onto rusted muslin, added cross-outs and edits by hand (as writers did in the olden days of typewriters) and quilted it into a scroll.  I don't know what Kerouac lubricated his road trips with, but Marti and I always used red wine, so there's a wine stain too.  And it got into the show.  

Saturday, October 30, 2021

How Marti saved me from the quilt guild ladies

I wrote about my dear friend Marti Plager, who died earlier this month, and promised to tell you how she singlehandedly set me on the path to quilting as art. 

In the mid-90s we had both been members of a big local quilt guild, but neither of us really felt at home.  It was the kind of guild where people would give show-and-tell of their latest quilt, and the first question was invariably "what pattern did you use?"  Those of us who did our own designs were regarded with suspicion if not downright disapproval.  Finally Marti decided she had had enough, and quit the guild.  I was reaching the same conclusion.

Marti and I didn't know one another except as faces in the crowd, but she had paid particular attention when I had show-and-tell of a quilt I had made for a contest sponsored by Quilter's Newsletter Magazine.  The contest was called "Rhapsody of Roses" and the rules called for at least one rose on the quilt.  I figured that the vast majority of the entrants would have beautiful roses all over the place, and I couldn't compete with beauty, nor with realism.  So I deliberately went in the other direction, and came up with a quilt that was almost all thorns, with one little rose in one corner.

Rose Among Thorns

sorry for the wimpy color -- this is a digitization from an old slide; the quilt is gone now so this is the only image I  have, unless I can find my copy of the QNM where they printed the contest winners

I explained my thought process to the guild, and showed my finished quilt.  I can't remember whether this occurred before or after the contest was judged, and I got the award for "best interpretation of theme" (a decision that still mystifies me...)  The guild ladies were not impressed, but Marti was.  A few months later she called me, reminded me who she was, and said she was getting together a small group of quilters who were doing original designs and aiming for art rather than bed quilts.  Would I like to join them?

Yes, of course, and for more than two decades this small group, with slightly changing membership, was my closest and most important support as I learned to become an art quilter.  Not only did I have to up my game technically and artistically, I had to learn how to enter shows, how to get my work photographed, how to ship quilts here and there.  

I suppose I could have figured out this stuff by myself, but it was so much easier and better to do it with friends.  Most important, we came to trust each other enough to both give and receive criticism and suggestions without being defensive (or offensive).

Over the years I've participated in many a discussion of support groups, and so often it ends with somebody else saying "I wish I could find a support group like yours."  Often people try to get with others, but find that the others are too judgmental, or too critical, or too arbitrary in what they like and dislike.  Or on the other hand, the others don't have high enough standards or work hard enough or are too easily distracted by distractions.  I never know what to say to these people except to keep trying; if one group doesn't work, maybe another will.  Or maybe if a group doesn't work, you can tweak the ground rules or the membership list and hope that in time the group will get better.

Rose Among Thorns -- detail

Our small group only did two joint projects in two decades.  Once we were asked to prepare a table setting to showcase the dinnerware made by a famous ceramist; we dyed and printed a fabulous tablecloth, napkins and placemats.  Once we ordered four dozen blank silk scarves and did a round robin in which each scarf was dyed or painted or printed by four different people.  The consensus was that we had fun but that wasn't what our group was about.

We didn't talk much about our families or our jobs, just the art.  We didn't have refreshments at our meetings.  We chose the next meeting date based on when everybody could be there, and somehow we almost always stuck to it, with all of us in attendance.  We all grew immensely as artists during our time together.  I don't believe I would have accomplished half of what I have done without that group of friends, and Marti was the one who started it all.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Memories of a dear friend

I've had a deep loss this month with the sudden death of my friend and art pal Marti Plager.  Not only was she my oldest continuous constantly-in-touch friend -- dating back about 25 years -- she opened the door for my development as an artist/quilter.  If you've ever done workshops at the Crow Barn or Arrowmont, or attended Quilt National or Paducah or Houston or Form, Not Function, or gone to a regional or national SAQA or SDA meeting, there's a good chance you met Marti somewhere along the way, because she was not one to let any person in the same room with her go unmet. 

One of Marti's proudest moments was being juried into Quilt National in 2011.  Her whole-cloth quilt was dyed with flour resist, a technique she used brilliantly and taught in several local workshops.

Another of her great accomplishments was helping to start the juried show Form, Not Function at the Carnegie Center in New Albany IN.  When a tiny group of local fiber artists had a show at the Carnegie in 2003, the museum was surprised and delighted that so many people came in (even if many of them mistakenly expect to see traditional quilts),  Marti and I, along with the others in that show, suggested that the museum should put on a juried show and do art quilts every year.

The first FNF, in 2004, was limited to artists in Indiana and its surrounding states, but quickly expanded to the entire US.  For the first several years, the six members of River City Fiber Artists served as jurors, and we also would hang the shows, back when we were a lot more agile.  Marti was always the one to go up on the ladder.  Today FNF has an excellent national reputation and regularly draws entries from the top tier of quilt artists.

In several workshops with Carol Soderlund in the early 2000s, Marti mastered the art of dyeing, and explored many different techniques.  After good runs with flour resist and screenprinting, she mainly settled on dye-painting.  In later years, after moving to a smaller place with no good wet studio space, she went to her closet and found enough in her stash to make dozens of quilts with intricately pieced bits of her own dyed fabrics, like the one below, in Art Quilt Elements 2016.

You can see a whole lot more of Marti's work on her website.  I'm going to need at least one more post to tell you about my personal connection and how she changed my artistic life.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Lots of comments

There were lots of comments on my two latest posts, and rather than just leave a reply comment of my own, where probably nobody would see it, I'll take this post to reply to everybody. (That's one feature that I like in Instagram: if you comment on a post, and subsequently somebody -- the original author, or another reader -- replies or likes it, the system will tell you, even if your comment was made long ago.) 

I wrote about all the reading that I've been doing since lockdown, and how I have come to like e-books better than paper.  Shasta Matova commented:  "There is a time for both, so I don't try to make a choi8ce, but I too like ebooks especially when the library is closed.  Besides the benefits you mentioned, they remember where you left off and give you definitions for words I don't know."  

Idaho Beauty wrote:  "There are times when (e-book) is the only way I can get a book through my library but I don't enjoy it nearly like I do holding an actual book and turning the pages by hand rather than by swiping (and I do hate that sound that is sometimes added to mimic the sound of an actual page turning)."    

Idaho, I too would go crazy with that kind of sound effect.  I always keep the sound turned off on any kind of device, turn it on only if I want to hear something.  I'm sure there's a way you can adjust the preferences in your ebook to deep-six that feature.  It took me several months before I figured out that I could stop the system from showing me passages that other readers had highlighted!  First off, I don't care what other people choose to read and remember, and second, I was really cheesed at how stupid most of the highlighted passages were.

I also wrote about my newest quilt project, a memorial marker for all the U.S. military dead in Afghanistan since 2001, as well as memorials to those dead from covid.  Robbie commented: "I applaud you for all your effort on these projects!  Hope they can all be displayed and appreciated by so many."  Norma Schlager wrote: "I especially like that you are using uniform material on one side and other fabrics on the back.  Can't wait to see how this one turns out."  Martha Ginn wrote:  "Very appropriately dark, drab and sad -- an apt description of this conflict."

Cindy wrote: "I find your work a lovely tribute to those who are gone.  Not morbid in the least."

Irene MacWilliam wrote:  "I think my mind works somewhat like yours.  I am living in N Ireland and wanted to do a piece in memory of all those who had died in our 'troubles' conflict between 1969-1994... This piece has just been bought by our museum which has a collection to do with The Troubles.  I do a lot of work to do with conflict and how it affects families."   Irene, good for you!  I think that one of the most important jobs for artists is to witness to the stupid and destructive things that people do to one another.

Jenny wrote:  "Lest we forget: Afghan casualties from Western intervention amount to around 240,000 whilst Iraqis account for around 200,000...  a companion quilt perhaps?"  Jenny, you're right, war tends to be far harder on the civilian population who just happen to be standing there in the way than it is on the actual soldiers.  It has always been thus, but with modern weapons the killing power of each soldier is vastly greater than it was in past wars.  I can't imagine how one might go about marking that number of deaths; once you get into five figures the total has outgrown any technique that I might use.

Since I last posted, I've finished all the little bits for the Afghanistan memorial -- 2,461 is the number I'm going with. 

Thanks to you all for reading, and for commenting.  It's always good to hear from those at the other end of the cyber-talk!

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Another Afghanistan quilt

I wrote earlier about a project that I'm working on now, a postage stamp quilt to mark the US military dead in Afghanistan.  But I am reminded of another quilt I made several years ago that is also about Afghanistan.

In 2015 I had the pleasure of attending and teaching at a big quilting show in Prague, along with my dear friend and art pal Uta Lenk.  Uta had arranged for the show to display a bunch of quilts by International Threads, a group of quilters from four different countries (US, UK, Germany and Israel).  After I said I would come to Prague, she promoted teaching gigs for each of us, which didn't make us rich but did pay for our hotel rooms and a bit of spending money.

Uta in the International Threads exhibit

In between teaching and hanging around our exhibit, we hit the vendors, and discovered a booth selling embroideries made by women in Afghanistan.  We were intrigued by the work, and when we found that many of the embroideries were made by the same woman, Nasrin, we decided to buy eight of them for the members of International Threads, which would be the theme for our next project.

I chose the embroidery with the most abstract and geometric design, and when I made my quilt, I echoed the gray-blue-turquoise-white palette, the bold zigzags and the half-square-triangle sawtooth edging, adding some yellow to pep up the composition.  I called the quilt "Nasrin's Magic Carpet."

With Afghanistan in the news again, I thought it would be a good time to pull out the quilt again and put it up in public.  It's hanging at PYRO Gallery right now, through the end of this month.  And of course I thought about Nasrin and her friends and family, wondering how they have survived through six more years of war and oppression.

After Uta and I bought the embroideries we sent them to our fellow members and I copied from the package the name of the nonprofit that distributed them: The Guldusi Project of Embroidery.  When I looked it up on the internet this week I learned that the organization was begun in 2002 by a German artist.  They have embroidery projects in several rural Afghan villages, and when I paged through the website I was excited to find exactly the kind of embroideries we had bought.

Uta's Nasrin square

You'll notice that the center portion of each square is a kind of mesh, the kind that's used to make the eye holes in a burka. The website confirmed that this type of stitching is called tsheshmakdusi (tsheshmak = eye, dusi = embroidery) and only a few women in a village in Laghman Province use this stitching in their work for sale.  This had to be the source of our Nasrin squares.

Red pin marks Laghman Province

And yes, when I looked through the thumbnails of work on this page of the website, I found one using the same palette, chevrons and sawtooth border, that was labeled "03Nasrin."  Unless there are many women with the same name doing very similar embroidery for the same nonprofit organization, this is indeed our artist.  At least, that's what I'm going to believe.

Uta has also been remembering her Nasrin quilt recently; check it out on her blog. 


Thursday, August 26, 2021

Afghanistan memorial

I have never been one for working on just one project at a time.  Some of my art friends find focus by finishing up one thing before starting on the next, but that's way too controlled for me.  I like to have several things going at once, picking up whichever one is closest to hand without walking up or down the stairs, whichever one is most conducive to stitching while talking with family and friends, whichever one fits my mood of the moment.

I've posted several times about my coronavirus memorials, marking each death in Kentucky with a french knot onto a roll of vintage bandage gauze.  I finished the 2020 memorial a few weeks ago (2,662 dead) and almost immediately started on a 2021 version (7,575 dead and counting as of this week).  I've finished January (1,083 dead) and am almost done with February (892 dead).  But the small scale of the knots got to be tiring, and I yearned for something bigger, faster, and involving the sewing machine.

So for the last few days I have been working on a new project, a memorial for the U.S. military dead in Afghanistan.  Longtime readers and pals will know that I did a similar piece in 2008 counting the U.S. military dead in Iraq, which traveled extensively with Quilt National '09 and is now owned by the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln NE.  It had a flag for each death, referencing the flag-covered coffins that came home from that war.

Memorial Day, 2008, 86 x 100"

This one will be similar in format -- a single little quilted rectangle for each of the dead, held together with stitching in space -- but different in materials and concept.  

Memorial Day, detail
The brother of one of my dear friends and art pals was a career Navy man, serving as Chief Surgeon for the group of ships supporting the Theodore Roosevelt in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq war, and then on the ground in Afghanistan at the hospital in Kandahar.  After he retired a few years ago, he decided to divest his old uniforms, and through his sister, they came to me for purposes of art.

At first I wasn't sure what to do with them but with the impending end of our Afghanistan adventure I thought that war needed a memorial as well for the troops who served and died.  Cutting up the camouflage uniforms will give me the fronts of the small quiltlets for this memorial; the backs will be made from a large variety of fabrics, to remind us that every one of those uniformed dead was an individual, a person with hopes and dreams too soon cut off.

The death count is suprisingly inexact, (perhaps because so many of our military and support activities were outsourced to contractors and it's hard to tell who's military and who isn't)  and there will probably be a few more in the coming days and weeks as we attempt to make a final exit, but it's somewhere in the vicinity of 2,400.  A lot fewer than in Iraq (4,431 dead since 2003; there were 4.083 when I made my Memorial Day quilt in 2008).

This compulsion to count the dead probably sounds morbid and obsessive.  I don't think I'm particularly preoccupied with death, certainly not in my daily life, where I have been blessed not to be closely touched by the coronavirus or the war, and where I've lost only one close family member in the last decade.  But the historian and journalist in me always wants to find out the facts and write them down, and the soldier's daughter in me always wants to remember how war is not glory, it's hell. 

I'll write more about this project soon, because working with the uniforms has proven to be quite a surprise.