Saturday, May 14, 2022

Feeling trapped

I've been painting fish for several weeks in my daily art project.  Since fish live in water, and since I am intrigued by the washy effects of wet-into-wet painting, I've been doing a lot of experimenting with making the fish blurry, as though seen through the water.

I've enjoyed this series, although I think it's about to end, because I have other ideas to explore.  But a strange thing happened with the fish this week.

We have been tied up in organizing a family transition, as my sister-in-law is going to move across the country from a single-family home on a multi-acre lot in the exurbs to a senior living center here in Kentucky.  We are her closest family, and it's time for her to come to where we can support and help her.

We visited four, count 'em, four places yesterday, which is at least one too many, if you're planning a similar emdeavor.  But fortunately, we found one that looked pretty good, and this morning we went back for a second look and more gory details.  I think this is going to happen -- as soon as the minor tasks of selling a house and moving across the US can be worked out.  Things will be better for everybody once it's done; just the doing will be hell on wheels.

So back to my fish.

I was going to be the get-it-done, voice of reason on yesterday's expedition.  I was familiar with three of the places we visited, because two dear friends, now dead, had lived there.  I had set foot in these three establishments dozens or scores of times.  I knew that my husband and his sister were emotionally fraught by this task, so I was going to be the one who would guide and evaluate with a slightly more objective and detached view.

But as the day wore on, I found myself un-detached, and unexpectedly feeling trapped and claustrophobic.

The fish told the story -- when I did my painting last night the fish ended up in a box.

And this morning, before we headed out for the second visit to the best place, the fish ended up in a trap.

I'm a decade younger than my husband and his sister, so I have known forever that it's likely I'll be the last one standing, the one who does the caregiving and the support at the end of life.  But something about visiting these places made me painfully aware that we're all getting older.

I have sworn that I will never enter an institution when I get old; instead I will die in my own home if it kills me (thus cleverly avoiding the issue of what to do with my studio and my stash and my collections of stuff that I intend to turn into art.  Let my kids deal with that after I'm gone.  And sure enough, just walking into these places -- even the best, most pleasant of them -- reminded me of why I have sworn this oath.

I think the place we have found will be the best solution for my SIL.  It will allow her to easily make friends in a city where she has never lived, thousands of miles away from her present home.  It will give her support and infrastructure so she won't have to lean on us for everything.  It will provide access to dozens of activities and lots of companionship that she could never get in a regular old apartment.  I'm not sure why I'm feeling trapped instead of happy.  (Actually, I guess I'm happy too, but the fish certainly aren't...)

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Sanford Biggers at the Speed, part 3

I've written about the Sanford Biggers show in two previous posts.  Time for a wrap-up.

The piece I liked best in the show was a Tumbling Blocks quilt, with a minimum of paint, overlaid with a dramatic horizontal flame of orange-and-black chevron print.  A little bit of black paint made a curvy outline over the old blocks, a sort of half-silhouette of a key shape.

Sanford Biggers, Quilt 17 ( Sugar, Pork, Bourbon) 

My second favorite was a collage of old quilts, plus a section of curvy stripes made from sequins on a black painted background.

Sanford Biggers, Transition

I liked these quilts because they thoughtfully used large patterned shapes to contrast with and complement the smaller patterns of the vintage pieced quilts.  In both cases there was artistry in the composition and care in the construction.

Sadly, I did not see those features in most of the quilts in the exhibit.  The artspeak at the entrance to the gallery tells us "the quilts signal their original creator's intent as well as the new layers of meaning given to them through Biggers's artistic intervention."  I searched in vain for the new layers of meaning in most of the pieces in the show.

As I mentioned in my first post about this show, I walked in the door as a Biggers skeptic, based on a bit of past knowledge of his work, but would have liked to like this show.  Instead I was surprised at the strength of visceral discomfort that hit me in only the first two rooms of the gallery; all those beautiful antique quilts deliberately messed up with paint and tar to no apparent purpose.  Perhaps it wasn't the defacing per se that bothered me -- I've been known to repurpose old quilt bits myself -- but the slapdash quality of the defacing.  

I went to the museum with two friends, one an artist, one not.  When we compared notes all three of us just wanted to get out of there fast.  I wasn't there long enough to discover exactly what made me so unhappy, and for that I apologize.  

The show will be up through June 26.  I'd love to hear what other people think of it, whether I'm alone in my unease.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Sanford Biggers at the Speed, part 2

More comments about the Sanford Biggers show.  Not everything in the show featured messy paint applications.  One of the quilts, stretched on a wood armature, had dramatic holes, bordered with black organza to give a striking shadow illusion.

Sanford Biggers, Ecclesiastes 1 (KJV)
A similar see-through illusion appeared in an assemblage of six framed quilt sections, with some two-layer areas where the semiopaque frosted plexiglass was cut away to reveal a quilt about a quarter-inch behind.  

Sanford Biggers, Nyabinghi, detail below

Two of the quilts, both Tumbling Blocks, were overlaid with sequins and lame, glittering under the gallery lights.  No paint drips on these, just fabric collage.  

Sanford Biggers, Ooo Oui, detail

Sanford Biggers, Ooo Oui

Several pieces were made by stretching quilt sections into wood-framed constructions.  The first one we saw as we came through the exhibit was intriguing, made in part from American flag-motif quilts. 

Sanford Biggers, Reconstruction, detail below

But the next four or five, the same concept with slightly different construction shapes, all kind of looked alike, and the fact that they were hung too high on the wall to see most of the surfaces made them easy to walk past without stopping to look. 

Maybe I would have liked them better if all the "construction" pieces had been hung together for comparison, but they weren't.

I'll give you the wrap-up report in my next post.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Sanford Biggers at the Speed, part 1

The current blockbuster show at the Speed Museum is by Sanford Biggers, an African American artist whose shtick is to paint on top of antique quilts.  I have been somewhat familiar with his work for several years; in 2017 one of his quilts was in another show at the Speed, and I wrote about it in a blog post.  

I found some things to like in that piece, but I had two big reservations.  First, Biggers made a big deal out of the false story that quilts were used as secret signposts along the Underground Railroad.  Second, it hurt to see a beautiful antique quilt in fine condition used as a canvas.  Surely he could have found a beat-up quilt to paint on!

So I approached the new show with some preconceptions, but resolved to keep an open mind.  I lingered over the artist statement at the entrance to the exhibit, interested to note that he has backed off from his fake-history Underground Railroad statements.  In 2017 the wall tag read "Some quilts were used as signposts for safe houses..."  Five years later, we read "he was intrigued by the heavily debated narrative that quilts in some way doubled as signposts..."  That's progress, I guess, and maybe in five more years he will acknowledge that this narrative is not heavily debated at all, just carelessly repeated by ignorant people.  

But enough nitpicking, let's look at the quilts.  I didn't keep a tally, but it seemed that most of them were in pretty good condition and were simply painted upon and hung on the wall without additional support.  Some were in poor condition, and augmented by patching in pieces from other quilts, or collaging swatches of unquilted fabric, including several kimono pieces, on top. 

Sanford Biggers, Hat & Beard, details

Sanford Biggers, Hat & Beard

Most of the quilts followed the same recipe: start with a quilt or quilt collage, paint loosely over the top, let the paint (or sometimes, tar) drip and blob.  Some of them had intricate and meticulous stenciled designs, but almost always some area of deliberate mess.

Sanford Biggers, Quilt 30 (Nimbus), detail below

I can't describe the whole show in just one blog post, and probably not even in just two.  So stay tuned and I'll have more pictures and thoughts soon.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Voice from the past

If you were reading my blog (or if you were reading the New York Times) during the summer of 2020, you may remember the silly series called Designer DIY that ran off and on in the Times, in which famous fashion designers came up with adorable sewing and craft ideas for readers to do at home.  Mending and embroidering garments were popular repeat subjects, but making flimsy "jewelry" and handbags also showed up, as well as making a dress out of a pillowcase.

One of my favorites was the feature in which you were instructed on how to embroider your name on your sock.  You were told to use an embroidery hoop, and here's a helpful drawing of work in progress:

from NYTimes Style section

You (unlike the artist or the editor) will notice, of course, that it will be impossible to put the sock on your foot, since the sides of the sock are now sewed together.

I came to love these features, because it enabled me to write snarky comments about how lame the ideas were, and more egregious, how awful the directions were.  If you have 15 minutes to fritter away on the internet today, you might want to read or reread these blog posts, guaranteed to give you lots of laughs.

The posts led to a bunch of comments from my readers, many of whom urged me to write the Times and tell them how awful the series was.  So I did.  Sometime in the summer of 2020 I wrote a long letter that spelled out all the things that they were doing poorly, and urging them to clean up their act.  

I wrote, in part: "If your purpose in this series is to win brownie points in the fashion community and give some designers a bit of free ink, then you have probably succeeded, especially among readers who don’t actually try to do the projects. But if your purpose is to give your readers projects they can succeed at and feel proud of, you are failing miserably. I suspect that the great majority of readers who do the projects are also failing miserably, which I can’t imagine is building warm feelings toward the Times.

"Perhaps things would work better if you let the designers come up with the ideas and let somebody who does actual handwork write the instructions. Better yet, let somebody who does actual handwork come up with the ideas too, so you could present projects that are doable and attractive." 

I received no response, until this morning!

When I found an email, saying "Thank you for contacting the newsroom of The New York Times.  We appreciate readers who share their feedback and help us report thoroughly and accurately.  Someone will read your note shortly, but because of the volume of notes we receive, we cannot respond individually to each one."

I am so gratified that someone will read my note shortly.

Meanwhile, if you want to embroider your sock, please use a darning egg, not an embroidery hoop.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Another painting motif

I wrote in my last post about the lake motif that I've been using in my daily painting.  Another motif that I've used several times is a hand.  Simplest execution you can imagine: trace around the hand, fill in with color.  

I've been using this motif to experiment with color: not so much which two colors will go well together but how to lay down the color within the hand and in the  background.  I don't want a flat, uniform coat of paint; instead I'm looking for ways to vary the tones and achieve an interesting texture.

Because I don't wash out my paint palette dish at night, I always have five or six dried-up blobs of paint in different colors ready to be reconstituted.  I tend to mix up a supply of my main color, then vary the strokes by occasionally dipping into one of the side colors.  Sometimes the colors blend smoothly, if they aren't too different in value and if the first color has stayed pretty wet before the second one comes on.  Other times there are distinct lines between one color and the next.

I find that I like both approaches.  I also like varying the shape of the hand, either by moving the fingers or cropping the shape on the page. 

When my granddaughter was visiting one day I showed her my hand paintings and she let me trace her hand a couple of times.

I am also using these motifs as a way to practice carefully laying down the paint.  I don't paint a background first and then put the hand over the top; instead I paint the hand first and then paint the background color exactly up to the edge, trying to leave no bit of white between the two colors.  It's improving my hand control!

When I showed these paintings to a friend, she suggested that I try to make my depiction more realistic by shading to show dimension.  I thought about that for a while, but then decided that I like the flat look, at least for now.  Maybe after I've gotten more comfortable with the paint I can circle back and focus more on the "drawing." 

(I even thought about extending this flat approach to other mediums, cutting hand shapes out of patterned paper or fabric and collaging them.  Might hold that thought for another day!)

I'll show you my next recurring motif in another post.  Meanwhile, you can see all my daily art on my daily art blog.