Wednesday, January 15, 2020

By their stash shall ye know them

Many of my friends know about my never-ending conceptual art project that I have been calling "mile-o-crochet" even though it will probably not get to be a mile long.  I'm using up leftover yarn to crochet a series of l-o-n-g strips that have no purpose at all except to be rolled up into cakes.  As the word has gotten around, I have become the recipient of many bags of yarn bits.

Today I scored seven bags of stuff from a friend of a friend, and spent a couple of hours sorting it into piles -- worsted weight for the mile-o-crochet, delicate baby yarn, other sport-weight yarns, rug yarn, needlepoint wool, novelty yarns for fancy knitted scarves, a pile of miscellaneous for art, and a little bit in the wastebasket. 

I know the donor of this stash must feel great thinking that the leftovers from decades of handwork will go to a good cause.  I wish I could assure her that it will happen -- I will definitely make the mile-o- and the baby afghans, but since I no longer do needlepoint and don't really know how to knit, I will take the rest to my fiber art group grab bag tomorrow and hope that somebody else will grab.

But what struck me as I sorted through the bags was how much of this woman's life is revealed by her stash.  From the envelopes of patterns she ordered, I know her maiden name, her mother's address and one of her still-in-town-but-my-own-place addresses before she moved to Louisville.  (Note to those in witness protection: go through your bags of yarn carefully before de-accessioning.)  I know that in the 70s she made a bazillion crocheted caps -- or at least she bought or cut out a bazillion patterns for crocheted caps.

I know that she drafted her own patterns for needlepoint, often making personalized belts and other stuff with appropriate symbols, logos and lettering. 

I know she bought a lot of rug yarn, and at least three rug hooks, but never made the rug(s).  I know from a note on the bag that her mother liked to knit and crochet stuff for the church bazaar, like this crocodile/hot mitt.

Here's a giveaway thimble marked "Don't get stuck.  Re-elect SENATOR JOHN SHERMAN COOPER", which my husband says might be worth some money to a collector of political memorabilia, as Cooper was a nationally prominent Republican who served on the Warren Commission.  She herself was active in politics, once running for judge (a crochet pattern written on a piece of her campaign stationery).

I've always liked working with leftovers and hand-me-down projects.  Knowing that some other woman once sat in the evenings making something useful and beautiful out of this yarn, this canvas, this fabric, gives me an energy that I don't get from virgin materials.  I'm not a woo-woo person, but I do think there's an aura to pre-owned and pre-used things -- usually a good aura that I seek to capture and amplify with my own subsequent work.

Sometimes the other woman is one I love -- my grandmothers, my mother, my sister.  Sometimes she is totally unknown to me and I can try to imagine her as I stitch.  Sometimes I know who she is without having ever met her -- in many cases, the mothers or grandmothers of my friends.  In this case, it's a woman whose husband I ran into occasionally in my long-ago reporter days, whose name is familiar to me but whom I don't think I have ever met.  And yet her life is now a little bit entwined with mine. 

I hope this doesn't sound creepy, like I'm stalking her.  But since I know who she is, maybe I will call her up, thank her for the stash and see if she wants her John Sherman Cooper thimble back.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

I knew I would use this someday...

A long time ago -- 20 or 25 years?? -- I acquired a batch of Melody Johnson fabrics with Wonder Under already applied.  I have no recollection of how they came into my possession, although I took a workshop from Melody once at the Lancaster quilt show.  But none of the pieces strike a chord, and the designs that were already cut and put together don't seem like the kind of designs that I would have made.  I know I have never made a quilt with these fabrics.

Maybe one of my quilt pals passed them along to me, knowing that I'm a sucker for bags of bits and pieces.  In any case, they have sat in a neatly labeled shoebox in my studio for decades.  Even though I hate fusing, I didn't want to throw them away, because you never know.

And today, I knew!

I wanted to make a postage stamp quilt with letters of the alphabet, to replace the one that I just sold in December.  But I remembered how fiddly it was to make that quilt, and then -- strike of lightning -- remembered that box full of beautiful hand-dyed fabrics all ready to fuse.

Striped Alphabet -- gone to a good home
So I spent an hour or two cutting out the letters, but then instead of painstakingly holding each bit in place with tweezers while feeding them through the sewing machine, I just fused them to the background and proceeded to zip through the actual sewing at 60 mph knowing nothing would slip out of place.

What is the moral of this story?  To throw nothing out, because you never know?  To label your boxes clearly so you can find them 20 years later when inspiration strikes?  To keep your mind open to methods and techniques that you generally disapprove of?  All of the above?

(And if you think I'm going to throw out all these tiny bits and pieces, some smaller than an inch, you're wrong.  Because you never know.)

Monday, January 6, 2020

John Baldessari, R.I.P.

I was sad to read in today's paper that John Baldessari, one of the greats of conceptual art, died last week.  I've seen and admired many of his works in various museums over the years, but the one that made the greatest impact was one that I saw at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles almost exactly ten years ago.

Here's what I wrote about it in my blog on January 24, 2010:

"Finally, my nomination for the most startling art I've seen all year (I know, it's still January....).

John Baldessari  "Two Highrises (with Disruptions) / Two Witnesses (Red and Green)

At first glance you think "just another 9/11 riff" but then you notice that it was made in 1990.

The docent thought the 'twin towers' were a small model made for low-end movie special effects, but didn't sound 100% confident in her story.  Who knows!  Baldessari made the piece for an exhibit on relationships, and apparently the couple on the top were supposed to be the main subjects of the picture.  Today, of course, we are riveted by the burning towers.  MoCA has only recently put the piece on display for the first time since 9/11."

I've thought about this piece many times in the ten years since I saw it, and how often can you recall a single work of art with that kind of lasting impact?  Professor Baldessari, we'll miss you.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Day One of daily art 2020

During the last week of the year I always angst over what project to adopt for my new daily art.  Sometimes I have made my mind up only in the waning hours of New Year's Eve, but this time I was pretty sure for the last month or so that I wanted to continue my calligraphy for another year.  I have truly loved this project and feel that I have only begun to explore the possibilities of writing-as-art.

Unfortunately, when I was in the craft store in early December I didn't think to stock up on sketchbooks for 2020, so yesterday I had to make a fast run -- and discovered that the kind I have been using all year was not on the shelf.  The whole store kind of resembled a post-holiday war zone, with half-empty shelves and display racks moved for renovation, so I probably should be glad I found any sketchbook at all.  But I will be starting the year with 70-pound "artist paper" instead of 80-pound "premium artist paper."  (Probably won't notice much difference.)

I very reluctantly decided to abandon my daily miniatures with the end of 2019.  I have truly loved that project as well and looked forward to making a new little piece of art every day.  But I realized that documenting and cataloguing the miniatures was taking up a lot of time.  Between the writing and the miniature I was probably averaging at least a half hour a day, and although I had the constant fun and exhilaration of making art, I found it hard to concentrate on "real art" last year.  So with a solo show to put together in June, I am bidding the miniatures good-bye, at least for a while.

Some might ask whether I couldn't just make miniatures without having it be an official Daily Art, and dispense with the tedious documentation.  And of course I could, and perhaps I will, although it will be an entirely different project.  I have learned in two decades of daily art that the documentation and organization is half the fun, and at least to my mind, an essential part of the character of what I produce. 

So here's my last daily miniature, a two-faced Janus: 

And my first calligraphy of the new year, the beginning of the Ode to Joy -- the same text that I used to start last year, and returned to so many times in between.  What better sentiment to grasp as we move forward in fraught times: All men will become brothers where thy gentle wings stay. 

Happy New Year, and let's hope for lots of art and joy ahead.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

End of the year on Art With a Needle

Maybe you noticed that there has been no "last week on Art with a Needle" since before Christmas.  That's because we have been on vacation and who wants to write blog posts when you can be walking on the beach (or fixing meals for your adorable grandchildren and their adorable parents).

For more than thirty years we have been going to the beach in South Carolina at or near Christmas, not every year, but regularly enough that we notice when a favorite restaurant closes or a favorite grocery store changes ownership.  Some years it's pretty warm, other years pretty cold, but usually it's warmer in South Carolina than it is at home and we feel lucky.  In earlier years we shlepped the kids to all the obvious tourist attractions in and around Charleston, but lately we never seem to do much except walk on the beach.  Or, this year, play cards and board games while it rained six inches in one day and walking on the beach didn't seem like such a good plan.

But the storm ended, the sun came out, and a big storm means a bumper crop of shells and what my daughter-in-law calls "sea junk" to pick up.  Sometimes we leave our sea junk artfully arranged on the railing of the rental porch.  Sometimes we bring it home, whereupon we throw it out.  Other times we bring it home and stash it in the work room where with any luck it does not stink the place up.  But this year, I processed the smallest bits of sea junk to make daily miniatures (and brought the larger bits home, where with any luck.....).

Just before we left I wrote about helping Isaac make a pillow to give to his dad.  Bethany left a comment: "I have a little grandson that will be very happy to see Isaac's pillow -- he loves to sew with me by hand and at 5, he is almost ready for lessons."  Well, your little boy is doing it the opposite way from Isaac, who learned on the sewing machine first but isn't much interested in hand-stitching.  If you're thinking about graduating him to the machine, you might want to read some of my past posts about teaching kids to sew.

It's getting late in the year, but I'm still hoping that Sharon Buck will send me her street address so I can send her an ornament!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Kid at the sewing machine!

Isaac accompanied his mom to the fabric store last week and saw some fabric with deer.  He wanted to buy it and make a pillow to give to his father, who loves to hunt.  So he came over yesterday to sew.

Although Isaac has been using the sewing machine for four years now, it has always been collage/applique.  All he had to do was pivot the fabric to point in the direction he wanted to sew, and pedal-to-the-metal.  We never cared whether the stitching went right down the middle, or if it caught the entire piece being attached, as long as the seam didn't run off the edge of the base fabric.  He had never attempted to sew a straight seam, nor keep the raw edges to the inside.  So this project was going to be a challenge.

Fortunately, he rose to the occasion.  After all, he's nine years old now!  I cut out the squares of fabric in advance, then put a piece of blue painter's tape on the sewing machine table so he could maintain a half-inch seam allowance.  I marked the corners with a pencil dot so he knew when to stop sewing and pivot.  But he did all the rest.

The hardest part came at the end, after we turned the pillow cover inside out, stuffed it and pinned the last side closed.  It took help to hold the foam rubber away from the pillow edge so the gap could be neatly stitched shut.  But we managed that part too.  Here's Isaac with his finished present: