Saturday, March 6, 2010

Finding your voice -- part 1

All artists, whether Leonardo or you and I, have the same question - what shall I make art about?

Sometimes that's an easy question to answer - if Francesco del Giocondo calls you up and wants to commission a picture of his wife, and you need the money, you paint "Mona Lisa."

But most artists have to answer the question on their own, and some do it more successfully than others. In today's world, artists try to establish their own voice, an overworked word that encompasses, to a degree, their subject matter, their medium, their style, their theme.

Voice is what enables us to walk into the museum and from across the room distinguish Jackson Pollock from Franz Kline, or into Quilt National and distinguish Pam RuBert from Inge Mardal and Steen Hougs.

I believe that the artist's career goes through three stages. First, you learn the basics -- how to use your medium and your tools. Next, you find your voice. Finally, you make good work.

This is overly simple, of course. All artists change their voice and their focus over time. And many successful artists have multiple voices and multiple bodies of work going on at the same time. But I believe that too many voices at the same time can create cacophony rather than harmony.

For those of us who don't have the genius of Leonardo, who after all was a painter, a sculptor, an architect, a musician, a scientist, a mathematician, an engineer and a writer (among other things), I think we need to limit the number of balls in the air. I have been asking myself for the last year or so whether it's counterproductive to work in two different voices.

My first voice, which I have thought of as my "serious work," consists of pieced quilts, like the one below. They use traditional quilt techniques, feature very fine pieced lines and are heavily machine quilted.

Crazed 7: Flood Stage

My second voice, which I have felt slightly guilty about (because it takes me away from my "serious work," consists of nontraditional work like the one below. It is constructed out of hundreds or thousands of small, messily stitched bits of fabric about the size of postage stamps, held together in a stitched grid.

Spaghetti Sauce

I've had a lot of success with the second voice, winning a big prize at Quilt National and getting accepted into Fiberart International 2010. But I don't want to abandon the pieced quilts, because they represent a huge body of technical prowess that I have accumulated over many years and that I am proud of. Besides, in this day of fusing and surface design, I believe that piecing is an endangered art, and I feel almost a religious obligation to keep practicing it, since so many others are falling away to less tedious techniques.

Recently I came to a realization (rationalization?) that both these voices are saying the same thing. I can describe both bodies of work the same way: they're about a myriad of small bits, joined by fragile connectors. Under that heading I can talk about our decaying infrastructure, or our frayed social bonds, or the stresses on our environment, or the toll of war, all of which I like to comment on.

But I digress. I want to talk not just about me, but about the general process of finding one's voice, and I have some ideas that might help you find your voice, too. Stay tuned. Details at 11.


  1. I like this. It is something I have been thinking about a lot.

  2. Can't wait to hear more.
    I am still learning the quilting basics - the medium, techniques and tools. Definitely the first stage.
    Three years at this now and I am finishing my second quilt. Any tips about getting more prolific while still hanging on to my other job?

  3. Elena, you deserve a thoughtful answer. Let me think on it a bit and write something substantive. Maybe tomorrow?

  4. I'll tune in at 11. I am very interested in hearing more.

  5. Great post, my work is in a change mode and I wonder about what I'm doing. It's good to know we all struggle with this.

  6. Nice piece Kathy. I'm right in there with you. I just wrote an email to another artist friend to support her efforts in broadening her work and embracing change. For me, in the end, it's how I feel about what I am doing both when I am doing it and when it is finished and hanging on the wall. I love both of the lines of work you are doing Kathy and you are right on about their connection to one another.

  7. Great post. Wish there was a seminar or even long discussion on this subject. I know when I walk into a room I can identify Terry's work, your work, Leslie Riley's work from a mile away. Others not so much. I think finding one's voice has a lot to do with bucking trends- for instance, not using photographic images if it doesn't get you where you want to be- even though everyone else is. I think your voice is so much about small intimate pieces and "technical" proficiency. I know that part of my voice- which is still very much a work in process- has to do with technical difficulty- engineering a difficult piece and never using fusibles or overstitching- just figuring out how to do intricate piecing.

  8. I'm glad I surfed over to your post. This is very interesting - Funny, I thought your voice was present in both techniques even before you acknowledged it. I do not think that the piecing technique vs. the applied fabric technique you use are all that different in the artistic expression they create: they certainly say something differently and use a different language, but they convey to the viewer your personal style equally well. Loved the posts that came later as well....