Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Six degrees of influence

I've been following Judy Kirpich's blog with great interest for the last two weeks as she has attended the master composition workshop at Nancy Crow's Barn.  This is the first master composition workshop in years that I have missed, and I was jealous of Judy and the others who had two excellent weeks of work and inspiration together.  Reading her posts brought back many of the feelings and ideas I've had from my years as a workshop junkie.

What makes workshops different from -- and arguably better than -- just locking yourself in your studio and sewing fourteen hours a day?  Well, on the most elemental level, you're unlikely to lock yourself in your studio and sew fourteen hours a day for two weeks.  Life intrudes.  One of the attractions of workshops is that you have fewer distractions, and peer pressure tends to keep you productive, and it's just so nice to be in a gorgeous space with a huge design wall that you'd really rather sew than watch Dancing With the Stars.

But on a higher plane, workshops are good because you put yourself in contact with other people in a concentrated, exhilarating situation.  You're exposed to other ideas, other techniques, other ways of solving problems, and those other people in turn focus on your work to offer critique and commentary.  We have paid to tap into the teacher's brain at a workshop, but we also get the opportunity to tap into our fellow student's brains by talking with them and seeing their work.

Like so many other blessings, this one is mixed.  Specifically, where does influence (good) become copying (bad) or even theft (awful)?  How do you process other people's ideas into your own work without pissing them off and/or violating your own principles?

At one end of the workshop spectrum is exact copying of somebody else's idea, whether it's using the teacher's pattern or process (think Ricky Tims' convergence quilts) or going home to duplicate the quilt of the person who sat next to you at the workshop. 

At the other end of the spectrum, there's the wonderful state of "influence," in which you take home not the pattern but the outlook.  For instance, I have been profoundly influenced by Nancy Crow because she taught me to focus, to work large, to be a more careful and rigorous critic of my own work, to be willing to rip out and redo the part that's close but no cigar.  My mindset resembles hers, thanks to her teaching, but I don't think my work does.

Somewhere toward the good end of the spectrum is another variety of influence, where you adopt some of another person's signature elements without adopting her imagery or ideas.  For instance, if you go to a workshop with a suitcase of commercial solid fabrics, and while you're there you lust over the beautiful hand-dyes brought along by the other participants, and decide to dye your own fabrics in the future, I wouldn't call that copying.  If you admire how somebody else uses odd shades of brown so masterfully, and realize that you shy away from brown, and resolve to learn to use it more confidently, that's not copying either.

But as you move a little farther down the spectrum, it may get harder to decide what's appropriate and what's too much in the way of influence.  I have always been struck by the generosity with which people at Nancy Crow workshops are willing to show and share their techniques and tricks.  I remember watching with awe as Lisa Call showed us how she quilts huge pieces, turning the work 180 degrees every half-minute or so, and as Bonnie Bucknam showed us how she quilted a huge piece in free-motion while recovering from knee surgery -- prctically immobile with her bad knee up on a pillow!  I remember Jayne Willoughby Scott showing me how she insets huge, narrow curved strips into her work, and Jan Myers-Newbury teaching us to inset-piece a perfect circle.  We've often stopped for impromptu tutorials as people show their finishing techniques or explain how they achieve a complicated effect. 

I think people who share their knowledge so openly probably do so with the realization, if not the downright expectation, that those who watch may want to use something of what they've learned.  But every now and then you run into somebody who is happy to show their work, yet flashes a warning on the bottom of the screen: don't try this at home.  That mystifies me.

Recently I heard a sad story about another Nancy Crow workshop, in which one participant showed her work to the others, who admired her beautiful machine quilting.  One person, who is no slouch at machine quilting herself, particularly liked an effect in which areas of horizontal lines were juxtaposed with areas of "bubbles."  They talked; the observer said she would like to try that herself and would the presenter mind?  The presenter said OK, but only if you write on your label that you got your inspiration from me.

Which the observer did.  But then, months later, the presenter noticed a picture of the quilt on a blog, and insisted that it be removed because SHE hadn't been given proper credit!  Well, news flash, the juxtaposition of two different quilting patterns was invented considerably before this person ever picked up a needle, and she didn't even invent the juxtaposition of horizontal lines with bubbles. 

Exhibit A for the defense, your honor, and I'm not claiming that I invented it either.

Kathleen Loomis, Fault Lines 4, 2009, detail

I just don't see the point of showing people your work, accepting their compliments, giving them permission to use your ideas, and then getting upset when they do.  The only way to keep your ideas safe from "theft," if that's the way you look at it, is to keep your artwork safe at home and never let anybody see it. 

I do understand that sometimes outright theft does occur -- if people copy your design line-for-line and enter it in a show, or make a carpet out of it, or put its image on coffee mugs and sell them.  I once juried a show where an entrant submitted a quilt that was a virtual copy of the best-in-show winner from the same show, two years back!  But that's not the case when somebody looks at your work and gets an idea from it.  I wish we could be more thoughtful in distinguishing among these various degrees of influence.

I'll be writing more about this later in the week.  Meanwhile, what do you think?


  1. This is an excellent topic for discussion. On more than one occassion I have seen work which has been accepted into national competitions which I knew were exercises presented by an instructor in a workshop. The results may have been especially successful but they were still exercises. The maker had not taken the exercise one step beyond the instructions but somehow convincenced themselves the work was "original". While this is not acceptable, the person who lifts work directly from other people is an even bigger transgressor and with the world wide web it isn't too hard to know when that is happening. Sharing techniques is great but we all have to be responsible for making sure we take the technique and make it our own just as our work as a whole must be our own.

  2. Kathleen, love your lines and bubbles. I'll definitely be using them soon (!)
    Seriously, you write very good, thought provoking posts, which I enjoy reading.
    I'm a workshop junkie too, but always mention my sources.
    One quilt, a couple of years ago, one judge's comment, from what I remember - too many conflicting techniques tried in one quilt. It made me laugh, because it was so true and I knew it. When I stop enjoying myself, will be the time to quit. Life's too short.

  3. Kathleen,

    Should be included in a Guide to Workshop Etiquette!

    Judy B

  4. Kathy- one assignment that Nancy gave us was to give a presentation on derivation. Only 6-7 people elected to give the presentation- and they were in many ways the highlight of the workshop and gave us all hours of discussion. I broke it down into 4 categories: Influenced by, Derived from, Appropriated by, and Copied. And I think there are subtle differences between these four categories and lots of overlap as well. Petra- gave a fascinating breakdown of all of the positive synonyms associated with "derivation" and all of the negative one. It was a fascinating approach.
    One conclusion that we all came to was that it is impossible to "own" a shape or a technique and what was so fascinating about the workshop was that there were at least 6 or 7 women who were working with circles- myself included- and each one of us had a completely different take on it. All imbibed with our own voices.
    When you expand our worlds to include the larger world of art- well if we were to all try to avoid those who have influenced us- our canvases would be blank. That might mean that Ellsworth Kelly owns tension and juxtaposed shapes, Rodchenko has the corner on intersecting lines and planes, and all of us working to master figure and ground would never be able to look at Braques, Gris or Schwitters.... you get my drift.
    I could go on like this for hours (and did in the class). It was fascinating.