Thursday, July 29, 2010

Quilts Japan Prize

Last spring I was honored to receive the Quilts Japan Prize at Quilt National '09.  This marvelous award is given by Nihon Vogue, a publishing powerhouse in Tokyo that is largely responsible for the popularity of quilting in Japan.  A Quilts Japan Prize is awarded at Quilt National, and also at Quilt Visions, as a way to strengthen the connections between US and Japanese quilters.  The award: a trip to Japan, during which the recipient teaches a workshop.

I'm in Tokyo now, having a wonderful time.  My workshop on piecing very fine lines was sold out shortly after it was opened for registration, so there ended up being a second workshop the next day.  Both sessions were lots of fun, and I was so pleased with how quickly people picked up on the technique and made beautiful study pieces.

I want to stop and give a little shout-out to Nihon Vogue, because I was so impressed by what I learned about their history.  The company started by publishing knitting patterns, in book and magazine form (and they still have a huge business in this area), but in the 1980s Mr. Tadanobu Seto, the company founder, became aware of quilting and realized that it had a huge potential in Japan.  He branched out into quilting books and magazines, and was rewarded by a growing popularity for the art form.  Nihon Vogue (pronounced Nee-hon Voe-goo) also sponsors the prestigious Quilt Nihon show.

In 1994 Mr. Seto decided to sponsor the Quilts Japan prize, with the idea that it would be given five times at Quilt National and five times at Quilt Visions.  But at the end of that time, everybody was having such a good time that the prize was extended and has been given six more times (Velda Newman will be number seven, when she receives the award at Quilt Visions this fall and will be in Japan next year to teach).

I'll write lots more about the workshop, and my adventures in Japan, in later posts but for now, let me say how honored I am to have received this wonderful prize, and what world-class hospitality the Nihon Vogue people have provided to me this week.  I've wanted to come to Japan for many years and this has been my dream come true.

The typographic observer 2

bait and switch

Friday, July 23, 2010


July 18 -- Star-Spangled Banner

July 19 -- print shop

July 20 -- church and state

July 21 -- rainy day

July 22 -- eggplant

July 23 -- zucchetta vine

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A tale of two cities in three acts

Act 1 -- 1971, Berlin

We lived in Germany, where my husband worked as a civilian reporter for Stars & Stripes, the US military newspaper. In the Soviet system, the job description “reporter for military newspaper” was a euphemism for “spy,” so they thought the same applied on the other side. Although ordinary Americans, including GIs, could enter the East at will, we were not allowed to travel anywhere behind the Iron Curtain. No visits to Hungary or Poland, no stroll into East Berlin. Through severe machinations involving the issuance of new passports, we managed to sign up for a half-day guided bus tour to East Berlin.

On the bus we headed for Museum Island, the site of the famous Pergamon Museum, built to house the magnificent relics taken from the ancient Greek city of Pergamon after it was excavated by German archaologists in the 1870s. Ken, who had loved archaeology since boyhood, could hardly wait to get inside and see the goodies. But wait – we couldn’t actually get off the bus. In fact, the only place we were allowed to set foot on the ground was at a cheesy tourist site where we had to spend the money we had had to change into East German marks.

PS -- Ken pined over his missed opportunity for 39 years. I cannot estimate the number of times he regretted not going to the Pergamon, and the number of times he observed that if we ever visited Berlin again that would be his priority sightseeing target.

Act 2 – 2008, Pergamon

We signed up for a tour to Greece and Turkey, mainly so Ken could visit more archaeology sites, including Ephesus, Troy and – yes – Pergamon! Pergamon, in western Turkey, was a pretty impressive sight, but of course all the good stuff was in Berlin, leaving a lot of ruins for the tourists.

In the day, Pergamon had the second best library in the Greek world, with 200,000 volumes, at least until Mark Antony gave it to Cleo for a wedding present.

In addition to the archaeology, the overwhelming memory of that tour was the temperature – the Mediterranean was in the midst of a two-week heat wave, and it was over 100 degrees as we strolled up the acropolises with only the shade of an occasional column to relieve us. White marble, the construction material of choice for Greek cities, reflects a lot of heat, so you got toasted from the sides and below as well as above. The high point of many an afternoon was getting on the air-conditioned bus, and of course a cold beer at the earliest opportunity.

Act 3 – 2010, Berlin

The first stop on our marathon culture week in Berlin was – what else – the Pergamon Museum! We flashed our three-day museum pass and walked into the huge room built to replicate the Great Altar of Pergamon (2nd century BC). And almost passed out from the heat and humidity. Although in our observation German museums generally provide some minimal climate control, aka air-conditioning, where paintings are involved, there is apparently no such requirement for archaeological finds (and certainly no sensibility for visitor comfort).

The Great Altar of Pergamon

Europe was again in the midst of a heat wave, and it was nearing 90 that day. Inside the museum it seemed even hotter. It was just like being back in the real Pergamon – hot and full of tourists – except there was a roof and no ocean breezes and you did get to see the Great Altar. And just like in the real Pergamon, the high point of the afternoon was a cold beer at the earliest opportunity (sorry, no air-conditioned bus).

PS – Ken decided maybe those 39 years of pining over the Pergamon Museum had been in vain. We thought the Great Altar was a little underwhelming. What we really liked in the museum was the Ishtar Gate, formerly resident in Babylon. Enough of this archaeology stuff – on to the art museums.

Ishtar Gate

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Greenland on my mind

Several years ago, coming home from Europe, we were able to see the very tip of Greenland from the plane. I was enthralled by the sight of huge black cliffs rising sheer out of the ocean, making a maze of fjords and passages. The sight was magical enough that I resolved I would go there again, this time at sea level.

In 2003 we went on a cruise/tour to Greenland that was one of my top ten travel adventures. We flew over the ice cap. We visited the site where Eric the Red, exiled from Iceland after he committed murder, established a settlement in the early 900s. We visited the capital city of Nuuk (Greenland is part of Denmark but has home rule and is looking for eventual independence) and then sailed around the southern tip of the island, through the very fjords that we had seen from the plane, and back to Iceland.

Viking house ruins at the first settlement site

National Cathedral, Nuuk

This week we again came home from Europe and saw Greenland from the plane – a much better view than on our first flyover. The black cliffs were just as dramatic, but I think we were a bit farther north and thus saw a lot more of the island. And it was clear enough to see icebergs, glaciers and the vast inland ice cap.

On the airplane I found a magazine published by the Greenland tourist bureau and spent an hour reading their propaganda designed to make me want to visit. It worked!! And then to top it off, I got to see it again, if only from 35,000 feet. I’m ready to go back in a heartbeat.

View from sea level

Just to make this art-related, if anybody wants to take one of these photos and make art from it, you have my blessing.  Just show me what you make, so I can stoke my wish to go back.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Several things I love about Germany (and wish we had in the US)

Public transportation!!! Trains and buses go everywhere, all day and all night, pretty much on time. It’s easy to bring your suitcases, your baby stroller, your bicycle with you. The bus stop signs tell you exactly where the bus is going; usually an automated sign on board tells you which stop is next. The intercity trains let you off at the Hauptbahnhof, which is right in the middle of town. What could be easier?

Breakfast at a German hotel looks like lunch, with meat and cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, sometimes smoked salmon or trout, sliced paper-thin and arranged with artistic perfection on the platter. Great bread and rolls, and I don’t mean Wonder Bread or doughnuts. If your hotel doesn’t include breakfast, you can go to the supermarket and choose from the twenty or thirty kinds of sausage and cold cuts in the deli case.

Six-dollar gasoline – combined with public transportation, it makes people far more responsible about energy use. Yes, you still see BMWs going 110 mph on the autobahn, but you also see small cars, small trucks, and people making their way on foot, bike or bus.

The car for those who don't like to parallel park (note absence of driver; it's already parked, not backing in)

A Tourist Information office in practically every town, to give you maps and brochures, of course, but also to book you a hotel room.

Dual flush toilets – the big button gives you a big flush, the little button gives you a little one.  And telephone showers, now that the technology has improved.  On previous visits to Europe I remember these less than fondly; there was never enough water pressure to rinse your hair, but enough to make the shower head twist in its holder and spray against the wall, not against your body.  But something has changed and now they're pretty fine; also great for washing your shirts in the bathtub.

Bike-friendly infrastructure, with a system of bicycle lanes and paths, lots of parking, and universal public acceptance. Similarly, pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, with wide sidewalks, paths and street crossings – and traffic stops when you step into the crosswalk.

Bikes in the red lane; pedestrians avoid it lest they get run over.

German beer – there are over 1200 breweries in the country, and the Purity Law of 1641 strictly regulates the quality. Usually tap beer comes in a labeled glass, thus enabling scholarly documentation of one’s drinking adventures. 

Really old buildings everywhere, and not just those protected by a historic preservation law. People continue to use old structures, modernizing them as needed, rather than tearing down perfectly sound buildings to build newer, bigger, more ostentatious ones.

Language capability – many Europeans start their second language in grade school and it’s not uncommon for people to speak three or more languages at least at survival level. Since English is usually the first one added, life is easier for American tourists. But more important, having more languages makes people far more empowered, more cosmopolitan, more knowledgeable about other countries and cultures, more suited to live in a global society.

Several things I love about the US (and wish they had in Germany)

Free water, with multiple ice cubes floating in it, brought to your table automatically when you sit down.

Free restrooms. I know it’s hard to find a facility if you’re strolling around Times Square but the US is pretty well served, plumbing-wise, in places like highway rest stops, tourist offices, department stores and railroad stations (that’s assuming you live in a place that has a railroad).

Handicap access (many German museums have places accessible only by stairs, as do almost all restaurants, and the restrooms are often in the basement). 

Serious air-conditioning.

Advice to a confused artist

Today on the Quiltart list somebody wrote a long, discouraged message about her future. “I am really at a loss as to go about BEING an artist and having hopes of being successful at it,” she wrote, then went on to share some of her confusion.

“I was a member of a local art guild and showed at their big fall show and sold quite well BUT since this area is rural, my prices weren't very high. In fact, I was told to at least double my asking price when I sent a piece to a show once. So, I thought maybe I should try to get my art somewhere where I could ask for higher prices and began entering some of the national shows… Most of the time, I've been successful at getting into them and I sold one once from the Chicago IQA show...

“Seeing what the exhibits will be in Houston this Fall, I noticed SAQA is well represented. Am I the only one, or does it seem like it's mandatory to be a member of SAQA now to get any advanced information for shows?

“I never joined my ‘local’ guild because it's 1 1/2 hour drive away and I wasn't sure I wanted to join a guild that is mostly traditional and be the odd person out. Maybe I do need to start trying to connect more locally and try to fit in a bit more.

“Of course, all this costs money. Memberships in the guilds, IQA, SAQA, then entry fees for each show... it adds up and, at this point, it's adding up to a nice hobby but not much of a profession. I know I have to get my art in front of people to sell it, but I sure don't know where the best place is for that to happen…

“How much time do I have to put towards this? I work. I have kids that are active in different things. I feel good if I have time to make art, let alone try to market it. I know the day will come that I can devote more time to my art, but I don't think I should wait to create when I'm an empty-nester.”

I’ve heard this kind of anguish before, and not just from art quilters – the cry of somebody who doesn’t know where to start in getting out of a situation they are unhappy with. For some reason this message struck a chord and I thought I would respond at length, not just to the person who posted but to everybody, because only the details are different from the situation that everybody else is in to some degree or another.

So here’s what I have to say to the confused artist. Before you can become successful you have to define success. It seems that you define it as selling your work and turning your art into a paying job, so to speak.

If that's the case, you need to decide where is the best place to sell your work. What places could you sell locally or regionally? At a guild show? (That's once a year -- is that enough?) At a gallery or gift shop? In a restaurant? Through a real estate dealer? Via commissions? For this approach, you need to focus on building a local reputation so yes, you might want to join your local guild -- not so much for artistic inspiration but for networking. And you might think about doing things like giving talks to local groups or approaching the school to be an artist in residence, not to mention schmoozing any rich people you can find. Also for this approach you need to determine what kind of art will sell, and perhaps that will mean you make art on a production basis, lots of little blue quilts with birds (even if you hate blue), art that you think people will buy rather than art that you want to make.

Maybe selling locally is only a start, because you can't get enough money, and your ultimate objective is to sell on a wider geographic scale. In that case SAQA would probably be a great resource for you, since that organization is focused on selling members' work and encouraging collectors to buy quilts. In this case you will probably want to enter as many big shows as possible, not that you will sell a lot of pieces from shows but your resume and profile will benefit. And you should have a website and explore online sales opportunities.

No matter where you want to sell, you need to have a financial target in mind. If you want to make $50,000 a year from selling your quilts, you’ll need a different plan than if you would be happy to make $5,000. Of course you won’t make as much when you start out, so maybe you set a sliding target, $1,000 the first year, more in later years.

And no matter where you want to sell, you have to ask yourself, am I good enough to sell my work for the amount of money I would like to get for it? In other words, do you focus on finding a market for the type of work you are now good at producing, or do you concentrate on growing and improving so that in several years you will be good enough to make a better type of work? There are artists who never get past the little blue quilts with birds, because they manage to find enough buyers with undeveloped taste, and it's easier to keep churning out the birds and not have to think too hard. Of course, that makes it more like working at the garment factory and less like art, but maybe that’s OK with you.

The final question was "How much time do I have to put towards this? I feel good if I have time to make art, let alone try to market it."

That's a huge question. If you want to be successful at a free-lance business, whether it’s art, writing, massage therapy or real estate, you have to put in a lot of time marketing, maybe even half your time. For that reason, a lot of artists have decided to keep their day jobs to pay the rent and do art in their “spare time.” At least that way when you have a weekend to spend on art, you get to actually make art. In other words, maybe you should redefine success for the next ten years or so till your kids get older -- decide that you are aiming toward making quilts, entering shows, and getting better at your art/craft. If you sell stuff along the way that's fine but it's not your primary objective for this stage of your career.

As in every other aspect of life, be careful what you wish for. Think hard on how you define success and what you set as objectives. Only when you have your goal very clear can you decide how to accomplish it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


July 11 -- aerial view

July 12 -- in the cathedral

July 13 -- ready to fly

July 14 -- waiting room

July 15 -- alliums

July 16 -- roadside garden

July 17 -- setting up


July 4 -- in the subway

July 5 -- ducks in a row

July 6 -- modernism

July 7 -- wall study

July 8 -- fruit stall
July 9 -- Fröhliche Weihnachten

July 10 -- strait and narrow

Friday, July 16, 2010

Memories of Wilhelmina

My great-grandmother, Wilhelmina, was born in Germany in 1841. Her fiance died before they could be married and she had a child when she was 20, but she was fortunate to meet another man who was happy to marry her and they had four other children.

Wilhelmina’s brother August emigrated to the US and settled in northern Michigan, and Wilhelmina and her family decided to follow them. They went to Bremen and booked passage but her husband died while they waited for the ship. Wilhelmina buried him, decided to proceed with the journey, arrived in New York on October 20, 1881 on the SS Ohio and made her way with the children to Tawas City, Michigan.

At about the same time her other brother, Ferdinand, and his best friend Wilhelm decided to come to the US as well, and they too went to Tawas City. Guess what! Wilhelmina and Wilhelm met and married and had two sons, one of whom was my grandfather.

I know the details of Wilhelmina’s journey because several years ago my husband found her in the great reference source  “Germans to America,” which gives the passenger lists and arrival dates of every ship that left Germany for several decades in the 19th century. Couldn’t find August, Wilhelm or Ferdinand, or many of my other ancestors in those books, but perhaps their names were misspelled or we had fallen asleep in the library and overlooked them.

A couple of weeks ago we were in Germany and found the little village, Lanze, where Wilhelmina was born. It’s outside the town of Lauenberg on the Elbe River in what appears to be a rich agricultural area. Even today there are barns inside the village, and cows grazing a few feet from the road. I was happy that they were Holsteins, my favorite cow, but not surprised, since after all we were in the state of Schleswig-Holstein.

We had hoped to find a church and cemetery but a woman told us there was neither one. This confuses me – most of the tiny villages in Germany have their own churches, dating back to times when a two- or three-mile trek to church would have been very difficult. Perhaps it burned down? If Wilhelmina's people did indeed make the trip into Lauenberg, here’s the church they would have attended.

Just to make this art-related, here’s a little quilt about my great-grandmother called “Wilhelmina’s Memories” that I made several years ago using a bunch of miscellaneous stuff from grab bags, plus a piece of hand-dyed fabric.

The photo is a flea market find; I don’t have any real photos of her. But to me the quilt suggests the courage with which she made the decision to leave everything behind and sail off into the unknown. Did she bring a few beautiful things, a spool of thread, some ivory buttons, a photo of her own mother? Did she ever wish she could visit the tombstones of the two men she loved and left dead in Germany?


June 27 -- 1599

June 28 -- skyline

June 29 -- Hamburg Hauptbahnhof

June 30 -- everything but Bud

July 1 -- unsmiley guy

July 2 -- war memento
July 3 -- outside the souvenir shop