Monday, April 15, 2013

People and Portraits

Martha Sielman, the executive director of Studio Art Quilt Associates, has embarked on a series of books about art quilts for Lark Crafts, each on a different theme.  Last year her topic was "The Natural World," and this year's book, just out, is "People and Portraits."

In both cases I expected to be disappointed, because representational images are so common in quiltmaking and, in my opinion, generally not very distinguished from an art standpoint.  But in both cases I was pleasantly surprised at the variety and quality of work that Martha put in the book.  It includes long profiles of 21 artists, each with a half-dozen or so pieces of their work, plus work from many other artists in gallery sections of the book.

Each of the long profiles includes a detailed description of how one of the pictured quilts was made, which will be of particular interest to process wonks like me.  The featured artists talk about their inspiration, their background, their feelings about working in fabric.  Martha has wisely allowed each person to talk about whatever is important, rather than trying to pin them all down to the same set of questions.

Pictures of people generally are interpreted by artists in two different ways: as faithful likenesses or as stylized/abstracted versions.  I find myself drawn much more to the stylized side of the spectrum, believing that once you choose to interpret your vision in fabric rather than as a painting or photo you have already committed to a certain level of abstraction, and it's conceptually jarring to pull back in the opposite direction.

One effective approach is to use prints as value:

Margene May, John

Another is to use the sewing machine as a drawing line:

Jean Herman, The Episcopalians

In addition to the usual pictorial approaches of phototransfer and  painting or drawing onto fabric, the book shows many other techniques, including hand-stitching, machine thread-painting, silk-screening and different kinds of embellishment.  Perhaps the most unusual: Mary Pal soaks cheesecloth in glue, then manipulates it into areas of dense and sparse threads to form pictures.

There are a lot of books out there about art quilting, and people who want to keep up with the field have a lot to choose from.  I wouldn't be without the biannual Quilt National catalogs, and I think this series of books is becoming another must-have.  In subsequent books Martha is going to venture into abstract art, and I can hardly wait.

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