Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Uninvited critique (or criticism)


Interesting discussion going on last week on Nina-Marie Sayre's blog (which I check out every weekend to see what other fiber artists have been up to).  She talked about critique and how it's better to ask for comments from people whose work you respect and whose design esthetic you share.  That makes a lot of sense -- who cares, for instance, whether Jeff Koons likes your work?

Then the subject changed from invited to uninvited comments, and Nina-Marie wrote, "When someone offers an unasked for critique I paint a small smile of interest on my face and immediately stop listening... maybe nod a little -- offer a little humph and ignore it all.... Hurts no feelings -- yours or your well meaning critic's."

Here is where we part ways, because I think you should listen to what people say about your work. Isn't that a large part of our motivation to make art in the first place, to get other people to look at and think about our work?  Why would you preemptively decide to ignore what somebody has to say, without first listening to it?

But what if this is an idiot talking to me, you reply.  Why should I waste time listening, especially if the idiot is going to tell me everything is wrong with my piece?

So how do you know this is an idiot, I reply.  How do you know what the idiot is going to tell you?

Sure, if it's your jerk sister-in-law, perhaps you do know in advance she's an idiot and what she's going to tell you.  But if it's a relative stranger, you have no idea whether her ideas are good or bad, or what she might see in your work.  Perhaps her comments will be valuable, helpful, right on the mark.  Perhaps she will even buy the work or offer you a gallery show.

If it turns out this person is less knowledgeable, sophisticated and art-savvy than you are, she still may have comments worth listening to.  For instance, I once was working on a series of small pieces that I had given what I thought were sublimely witty titles, not only witty but enhancing the political meaning of the work.  When I showed it to some other people, they told me the titles were confusing and led them to think the wrong thing about the work.  My first response, of course, was to tell myself these people were less knowledgeable, sophisticated and art-savvy than I am, and they just weren't sharp enough to perceive my sublime wit.  My second response, which took a while to kick in, was that if the titles were confusing people I ought to change them; I didn't need to shoot myself in the foot.

In public settings -- your booth at an art fair, or the reception where your work is in a show, or show-and-tell at your fiber art group -- I think it's always good practice to engage the viewer/commenter in conversation.  If it's apparent the person doesn't know quilts from shinola, you can explain how you made the work or what meaning you intended to convey.  If you can do this without being patronizing, you will have educated somebody a bit, and perhaps impressed her with your knowledge and vision. Who knows, she might even want to hire you to give a lecture or teach a workshop.

It's a talent, or perhaps I should say a skill, to talk about your work without coming off as conceited, condescending or foolish.  If you're going to regularly take your work out in public, cultivating that skill isn't a bad idea.  For instance:

If the person says something wrong, correct her false assumption gracefully.  Q: Do you have a quilting frame?  My grandmother did that.   Wrong A: No, can't you even tell the difference between hand quilting and machine quilting??  Better A:  Yes, my grandmother had a quilting frame too, but I don't do hand-quilting -- I think it's too time-consuming.  I work with a sewing machine and that way I can do several quilts a year instead of just one.

If the person asks a question about what you consider an unimportant detail, use it as a bridge to talk about what you consider important.  Q:  How long did it take you to make that quilt?  Wrong A:  All my life.   Better A:  Well, several months on and off.  This is kind of a complicated process, because each of these fine lines is sewed in separately, so there's an awful lot of sewing to be done.  But I look upon the tedious work as kind of a metaphor for life -- each day is mostly like all the rest, but eventually they all coalesce into something that has meaning.  I think all my work is about that.

But what if, after you've listened politely, the uninvited comment is really stupid and even insulting?  First kick the tires -- is there a germ of truth to it?

A famous story in my family has to do with my grandmother, who arrived one day for a visit.  After 500 miles on the road, she walked into the living room, paused where we kids were lined up for kisses, looked over our shoulders at a new painting that had just been put up on the wall, and announced, "That's upside down."  We've been laughing about that story for five decades, as an object lesson in making snap judgments with no valid reason.

But when I eventually inherited the painting from my parents, I tried hanging it upside down, and decided I liked it that way.

what do you think?  upside down or right side up?


















The object lesson turns out to be that maybe the snap judgment from the unsophisticated observer isn't so dumb after all.

But if it is, feel free to ignore it.



Monday, March 24, 2014

The artist statement -- TMI?


Recently I caught an exhibit at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany IN (through April 5) that I liked a lot.  It featured two artists who make art out of found objects, aka junk.  Since I like to make this kind of art too, I figured I would enjoy it, and I did.  But my good art friend went to the show before I did and reported back that she was disappointed with one of the artists, R. Michael Wimmer, who makes large assemblages.

Not particularly in the art, if I'm properly representing her opinion, but in the fact that she thought you wouldn't know what the pieces were about without reading the artist statements on the wall.  Without the explanations, she thought, the arrays of different objects looked like so much random stuff.

And yes, the statements were quite detailed explanations of what each element meant to the artist.  I'll show you a couple of examples.






















Part of me appreciated the detailed artist statements.  How many times have you looked at a work of art, fixed in on some detail and wondered what on earth that means?  In some ways it was nice to have the explanations, almost as if the artist were standing there answering your questions.

But part of me wished for a bit more mystery.  Maybe I would have enjoyed attaching my own memories and associations to these odd figures and artifacts.  The titles would have given me a clue, and perhaps that would have been enough to point me in the right direction without hitting me over the head.  Or at least the detailed explanations might have been put in a notebook on the other side of the room, so I could look first and be explained to later, if I wanted.

Now I'll show you some of Wimmer's other works, without the explanations.  You decide whether you like the art better with or without.

Audubon's Habitat

A Child's Dream, A Mother's Nightmare (details below)



Winter Springs No. 5

So what's your opinion?  Do you like artist statements that explain what everything means?  Or do you like the minimalist approach where it's the artist's job to make the art and your job to interpret it?








Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sew-off squares -- the back story


When I wrote earlier this week about two small pieces of art that I made from sew-off squares, Linda left a comment:  "I have never heard of "sewn off squares" and can't figure out what you are talking about."  Since these little bits of fabric and thread are so important both to my art and to my craft, I never want anybody to be ignorant of them and never miss the opportunity to give a lecture on this subject.

When you get to the end of a seam, what do you do?  The duh answer is I lift the presser foot, remove the thing I just sewed, and cut the threads.

Ah yes, but contemplate the disadvantages of that approach.  First, it eats up a lot of thread.  You have to pull out at least two or three inches of thread before you cut it, to make sure the needle doesn't come unthreaded when you start sewing again.  And even when you think you've pulled out enough, you might catch the thread on your shirt cuff button or with a pin in your sewing and oops, your needle has to be threaded all over again.

When you're sewing a dress there aren't all that many seams, so these disadvantages don't mean much in the eternal scheme.  But when you're piecing a quilt with a bazillion tiny bits of fabric, you come to the end of a seam every couple of minutes.  Traditional quilters often bypass the problem by chain-piecing -- that is, when you get to the end of the seam, get another pair of pieces that need to be sewed together and stitch directly from seam #1 onto seam #2.  This works particularly well if you have a lot of blocks or parts of blocks to make on a production line, but at some point you run out of seams and have to take the whole thing over to the ironing board or whatever.

Serious piecers have learned that it's good practice to never cut your thread and leave the ends wafting in the breeze.  So if there's no next pair of pieces to sew onto, you sew onto the sew-off square to secure your threads.

sew from the end of your seam onto the little square

cut the thread between the two pieces of fabric

leave the sew-off square under your needle, ready to sew onto your next seam




I had always known about sew-off squares but never been nuts about them until a two-week workshop at the Crow Barn in 2007.  A whole barn full of quilters were sitting there sewing up a storm, and we got to talking about sew-off squares.  Lisa Call was saying that she religiously uses them, and a few of us who were not as conscientious resolved that we would mend our ways and do it too.

As the sewing progressed, it didn't take us long to see that you could make little patterns on the sew-off squares by putting a bit of contrast fabric under the stitching, and by the end of the workshop we had accumulated quite a pile of the little compositions.  My partner in resolution, Barbara Bugliani, eventually turned her collection of sew-off squares into glamorous scarves.  I took another tack, sewing hundreds of them into what I call "grids in space," held together only by threads.

I call the quilts in this series "Postage" because the little sew-off squares are about the size of postage stamps and remind me of a precious time in my life, the six years in which I sent a postcard to my mother every day.  But I'm also using the sew-off squares in other forms of art.

used as texture in a collage



















Here and here are some old blog posts in which I showed other projects using the sew-off squares.


Amends, 2013


Keith Auerbach, Woozelated Sew-off Squares, 2011


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

On retreat 4 -- surface design


One of the people in my retreat group was getting ready to teach a class in simple surface design techniques, and was making a few more samples.  Although our house was nicely set up for quilters, it didn't have any facilities for wet work, so Pat just used Dye-Na-Flow (actually a fabric paint, not a dye, thus requiring no rinse-out or washing) in some shallow pans.






















The next day we helped her brainstorm about what I call the classic dilemma of surface design: how to use the beautiful fabrics you have made.  You don't want to just make them into a whole-cloth quilt or hanging -- they usually need something more to transform them from yardage into art -- but on the other hand, you don't want to cut them up into small pieces or do anything elaborate on top of them that would obscure your beautiful shibori or other patterning.

Pat had a lot of ideas of how to use fancy fabrics in representational quilts, but hadn't worked much with abstract designs.  On the other hand, I spent a lot of time several years ago experimenting with dye, paint and discharge, and ended up with boxes full of beautiful fabrics that I tried hard to use in abstract quilts.

So I showed her a couple of my favorite semi-traditional blocks that work well with hand-dyed and patterned fabrics.  The pieces are big enough to showcase the beautiful fabrics, but the piecing gives some complexity and added interest.

Both of these blocks are riffs on the traditional Rail Fence block, which coincidentally is the subject of that book I've been trying to finish, so it took very little thinking on my part to whip out a couple of samples for her to take to her class.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On retreat 3 -- mindless sewing


The book that I have been working on for a long time is finally approaching the finish line, despite my efforts to prolong the process.  On what was supposed to be a final edit, I thought of something brilliant that just had to be included, and then had to make up a couple of sample blocks to illustrate it.  The blocks were so pretty that I decided to make some more and sew them into a quilt.

It took two afternoons to make the quilt and one more day to quilt it, but I saved the binding to do at my retreat.  A quick sew, and it was done!

I just love to finish quilts with bindings -- it's such an easy process, and so neat and clean.  Too bad I believe that quilts intended as art suffer from bindings (makes them look too much like traditional quilts) and as a result, I feel compelled to finish mine with facings.  They look fine, but I find the process a bit more tedious and time-consuming.

So it's a pleasure to make the occasional piece that can be finished with binding.

Here's the quilt.  The purpose of the exercise was to show how to sew a block with wonky, wedge-shaped blocks set on a diagonal and still have the fabric grain parallel to the sides of the block.  It's a clever sewing process, if I do say so myself, and particularly appropriate to plaids (which I had two big boxes of in my stash).




Monday, March 17, 2014

Sew-off squares to the rescue


Longtime readers of my blog know that I am enamored of sew-off squares, those little bits of fabric that you sew onto at the end of a seam to make sure your needle doesn't come unthreaded.  For me, they're both an essential sewing technique and an opportunity for small-time creativity.

Depending on what fabrics I'm working with and what color thread is on my machine, the squares end up with quite different characters. I produce these things by the dozen as I do complicated piecing and quilting (practically every seam needs to be sewed off) and stash them in plastic bags. When I needed to make two small pieces for a sale to benefit our local visual art association, I pulled out my bags.

My two pieces used quite different approaches.  For the first one I gathered squares that had been heavily stitched, so densely that they almost became monochromes, obscuring much of the underlying fabric.  I thought they looked rather painterly, especially when placed close together.

For the second piece I chose squares that were not so heavily stitched, and found nine made out of related fabrics (leftovers from two huge striped quilts made two years ago) to arrange into a nine-patch composition.  I sewed them to a linen backing and mounted that to the canvas.

The gimmick of the sale is that all the works were the same size (8" square) and were hung anonymously; people only found out who did their art after they bought it.  I checked out the sale a half hour after the doors opened and was very pleased to see that one of my pieces had already sold; not sure what happened with the other one.






Saturday, March 15, 2014

On retreat 2 -- found haikus


I have written in the past about my practice that I call found haiku, where I search some preexisting text for phrases that fit the haiku rule of five-seven-five syllables.  I've done several series in this vein, including haiku found in book reviews, junk mail, romance novels and newspaper stories.

At the moment I'm still working with the book reviews (although I think that project is nearing its end) and with a similar series, art reviews.  In both cases, I make myself stick with the spirit of the original review; if the reviewer hated the book or the painting, I won't take favorable words out of context, or lift a comment that actually pertained to another book or painting.

I am having a great time with these projects.  I have been drawn more and more toward text in my collages, realizing that I love the counterpoint of words to the images.  (That's probably why I also like surrealism and conceptual art, because words are right up there with the visual aspects.)  Although I have toyed with writing poetry, I do much better "finding" poetry in other people's texts.

Not that it's easier -- you can't believe how much I have to search to find some of the lines.  My rule is that the entire five- or seven-syllable phrase must be found on a single line in the newspaper, so the narrowness of the columns acts as a handicap.  (For instance, I would have loved to use the "Hawthorne-like allegory" in the last paragraph of this review, had it not jumped between lines.)

It  takes some time to find and process a review haiku.  First, of course, you have to read the whole review, then find a bunch of five- and seven-syllable phrases, arrange them into a poem, and finally paste the whole thing up.

The art reviews involve another complication in that sometimes you find one review on each side of a page, so there's some back-and-forth, marking which phrases and photos to save and making sure the perfect phrase isn't smack in the middle of the perfect photo.  And unlike the book reviews, which I often read simply to find my poem, I am deeply interested in the subject matter and read every word carefully, even reviews without a picture small enough for my little book.

Although I can do a collage and carry on a conversation at the same time, I need to concentrate to do the haiku, and often I just tear out the whole review (or in the case of the art reviews, the entire Friday arts section of the New York Times) and stash it to work with later.

The pile has been getting high in the last several months, and I wanted to attack it, so I took it with me to the retreat.  And on the second day I managed to do 10 book reviews and 23 art reviews.  This was a lot of reading, a lot of syllable-counting on my fingers, and a lot of cutting and pasting.  I didn't exhaust the whole pile, but put a big dent in it.



Friday, March 14, 2014

On retreat 1 -- filing

A bunch of us decided to spend three days at a quilt-retreat place about 25 miles up the road.  Originally it was supposed to be an organized workshop but that fell through, and we just brought whatever we were working on.  I toted my sewing machine in the hopes of getting started on a new major quilt, complete in my head but not even the first piece of fabric sewed in the flesh.  But first, I had housekeeping to do.

Since I have been doing daily collage for 15 months, I have accumulated many pictures and bits of interesting paper, mostly cut from newspapers and magazines.  At first the pile of unused clippings lived in an envelope, then it graduated to a box.  Several months ago I started to sort them into categories in file folders, and the number of folders increased, as did their girth.

About two months ago I rejiggered my office, turning my desk into collage central and storing the file folders upright.  But following a marathon reading jag in which I disposed of a month of old newspapers, the resulting clippings had not yet been filed.  I brought the pile of clippings and the folders with me to the retreat and spent the first day sorting and filing.






















In a way it seemed silly to sign up for a retreat -- a dedicated time away, without distractions, in which to make big progress on a big project -- and spend it on filing.  But perhaps filing is exactly the kind of big project that needs dedicated time without distractions.

When you're working on a big project, the adrenaline helps keep you in the studio.  But when you have four hours of filing, and not enough room on the desk to make ten separate piles, it's oh so easy to be distracted.  Especially when your computer is three feet away and the chair seems to want to roll off to the left and check email or play sudoku.