Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Daily Art Challenge -- Beth Haendiges

Another of the people who took up the daily art challenge in my local fiber art group was Beth Haendiges. Beth works in mixed media and collage, and her daily art was also largely in this category, although she also did some needlefelting and embroidery. Her plan was to make a piece every day at artist trading card size.

Beth started with a one-month commitment and subsequently renewed her vows. “Doing the art every day, I’d pull out of whatever funk I was in,” she said. In addition, she regards the small pieces as aids for future art brainstorming. “This is my idea box.”

I like the concept of an idea box! I think I like it even more than a sketchbook because a box full of separate cards can be dealt out and arranged differently every time you play with them. We all know how things take on different aspects depending on what they’re standing next to – every time we repaint the living room I rearrange the artwork, and when that happens I always see something new in pictures I’ve owned for years. With your idea cards in a box you have the ability to pull out one at a time for contemplation, or pull out several and experiment to see if you find any synergy.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


May 23 -- serviceberry

May 24 -- no parking

May 25 -- backhoe

May 26 -- on the overpass

May 27 -- flowers at dusk

May 28 -- eremurus

May 29 -- Chevy pickup

My new toy

Perhaps you have noticed how in the last couple of weeks my photos have gotten kind of awful. I have been noticing for several weeks that my beautiful little camera has gotten cranky. Some days it refuses to be reset from no-flash to flash, or it tells me it’s on flash but isn’t. Some days it refuses to do macro focus. More worrisome, it’s been getting harder and harder to simply take photos that are in good focus.

I know that the heart of point-and-shoot cameras is the microprocessor that reads the scene and adjusts the focus and exposure time (do they still call it exposure, now that there’s no film to expose?). I have also realized, as I’m taking more photos and trying to do a better job of it, that you often have to fool your camera into doing what you want. For instance, when shooting a scene with a bright, light object in a dark ground, you have to aim to get some light and some dark in your little central viewfinder box. If you have only dark in the viewfinder, the picture will be too light and washed out; if you have only light, most of the picture will be dark and unreadable.

But lately my camera has been behaving badly even on scenes that should be no-brainers. Here are a couple of pictures that should never have come out this way.

I’ve been taking five or six shots of everything I do, hoping that one of them will be good enough to use. Finally it seeped in to my retailphobic brain that it was time for a new camera. I had been resisting because I love everything about my current camera (except for the fact that it doesn’t work). It’s tiny enough to go in my pocket, very important since I haven’t carried a purse in years. And I understand how it’s organized. The older I get the less I want to take the time to learn new operating systems, whether they’re on my camera, my computer, my sewing machines, my TV or my one-way street traffic pattern.

Fortunately my sister is my polar opposite when it comes to retail, and during her visit last week she dragged me out to spend some money. After she spiffed up my wardrobe she helped me buy a new camera that is – wonder of wonders – a new-improved-but-hardly-changed-at-all version of my old camera! And then today I attended the two-hour free class that came with the camera (one advantage of patronizing your local camera store instead of buying online). Already I have learned about features that I think were on my old camera(s) but I never knew existed, let alone how to use.

And I learned that much of the beautiful photo quality that will come with the new camera will be wasted on my blog viewers, and in fact on myself, since I generally enjoy my pictures on the computer rather than printing them out. (This practice was frowned upon by Neil, our instructor, who pointed out that not only are prints the best way to look at images, but they are by far the best and most reliable method of long-term storage.) Nevertheless, even us quality-deprived folks who will look at the images on screens should be able to tell the difference between in-focus and not-in-.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to use the new software so I can get the photos from the camera into the computer.  Surely I can achieve marginal competence on that within this century.

Friday, May 28, 2010

April quilt date report

Here’s another reader who tried the April quilt date of piecing very thin lines – and even had a second date. Linda Laird tried the technique on two challenge pieces.

The first is a 16" x 16" quilt for Sue Bleiweiss' internet challenge group, on the theme "Passages". Linda used straight cuts, and varied the widths of the pieced-in strips. By using different colors for her strips, she highlights the over-and-under "weave" effect of the piecing, which tends to disappear if all strips are the same color.  I particularly like the way the lavender strip disappears for a while just above the center of the quilt, due to the stagger of the reconstituted slices.

The second was made for the San Diego Quilt Show. Linda explains, “The theme is ‘Calm,’ and the blue-green batik in the horizontal stripes is the challenge fabric. I cut these strips on the bias to see how much curve I could get before the background fabric bubbled. I also pieced the background fabric from torn length-wise strips, and then ‘pierced’ thru it with the straight cross-grain strips.”

Good work, Linda! I love seeing how different people take the same basic concept and go in different directions.  Thanks for sharing.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Vermeer and me

I was watching a program on Vermeer while quilting this afternoon and was intrigued with the commentary that several of his paintings are among the earliest depictions of people in concentration – not displaying overt emotion but clearly and seriously involved in their work. The commentators said this perception was particularly true when Vermeer showed people in artistic endeavors, such as the lacemaker or the painter.

I found these comments apropos because I was having quite the opposite artistic experience as they spoke. I was having one of those days in which practically every minute was punctuated by the strong desire to go get something to eat, or check my email, or see if the clothes in the dryer were dry yet.

Frequently I do have minutes, and hours, and full days in which I do achieve that blessed Vermeer state of engagement with my art. I have been known to sit for hours and put half-inch squares of fabric in place with tweezers and realize, with a start, that good heavens, it’s midnight and I’ve been here since I got up. (Those experiences occurred when my husband was away and did not remind me that it was dinnertime.)

During those zen states, or from now on I guess I will say Vermeer states, time stops ticking away; it is only me and the art, and the joy of developing the idea and then making it happen. Life is really good on those days.  I can easily get into Vermeer states with piecing, with calligraphy, with collage. I get them less frequently with quilting, which to me is the work where piecing is the play.

And quilting is what I am doing today, or at least what I was doing before I gave in to the strong desire to go write something in my blog. I’m quilting parallel lines with a walking foot on a large work, and I’m only on my first set of lines. When I get to the second set of lines, crossing the first to make a grid, it will go faster because I won’t have to worry about keeping the yet-unquilted parts of the layers in place. And with the second set of lines, all the pins will be gone so I won’t be stabbing myself.

But right now the quilt is fighting me. After each row of stitching I have to heave the bulk of the quilt back behind me, straighten the bulk of the roll a little bit, decide whether I’m going to hold the roll over my shoulder for the next pass or fold it out of the way to my left. I haven’t timed these steps, but I suspect that I spend more time moving and preparing the quilt than I actually do sewing it.

On days like this I wonder whether it’s a good idea to make art fulltime. But then I remember one of the pop-psychology truisms that really make me mad. It’s the glib remark, “Find work that you love and you'll never work again.”

I think this is simplistic and wrong. You can love, love, love your work and there will be many a day -- perhaps most days -- when you simply do have to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and WORK. Like today. If you go through your life just loving what you do, I wonder whether you will ever do excellent work. If you only want to love, not work, then what happens when the first thing you try doesn't come out very well?

Same with love, for that matter. You may love your husband (or mother or child or any significant other) as much as possible, and there are still going to be times when you have to really work at keeping the love going.

Perhaps what grates on me about this slogan is the implication that "work" is bad, and thus "never working again" is good. Au contraire, work is good. Without it nothing is ever accomplished. Vermeer knew that, and I do too, dammit, so I will be going back to the studio in a minute and keep working on that quilt. Well, more accurately, right after I find something to eat….

Monday, May 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Today would have been my mother’s 95th birthday had she not died in 2008. I want to take a few minutes to tell the world how great she was.

If you read chick lit or women’s magazines you would think that every woman in the world has unpleasant issues with her mother. That wasn’t true with me. Outside of the usual teenage conversations about you aren’t leaving the house wearing THAT or get off the phone this minute and clean your room or the usual adult recriminations about why didn’t you let me go to MIT I could have gotten in on the ground floor of computers and be filthy rich today, I don’t believe we ever had a serious disagreement in our lives.

In the 50s and 60s when feminism hadn’t been invented and women were still hobbled by limited expectations, my mother (and father) never once intimated that there was anything in the world I couldn’t do. (Except go to MIT, which Mom did have a point about, namely that I had skipped grades and maybe was too young to go away from home just yet.) My mother never once in her life told me that I should be worried about never having a date, or that it was time I start thinking about getting married, or did I really want to marry a guy that much older than I was (yes, I really did, and we celebrated our 40th anniversary yesterday) or that I should get pregnant so she could have a grandchild already, or that I should stay home with my adorable little boys instead of going back to work or that I should visit her more often.

As with many women married to high-achieving men, my mother was an enabler in the very best sense of the word. She took care of Dad and us three kids, and her parents and mother-in-law as they aged, and people at church or next door who had fallen on hard times, and sent money to FINCA to help women in third-world nations. That’s not to say it cramped her style. Sometimes when we kids were in the teenage vicinity, Mom would announce at the dinner table that day after tomorrow she was going to Michigan and visit her parents for a week or so, and if anybody needed anything done before she left, speak up now. And then she would do everything everybody needed, and hit the road.

Earlier in our lives she would pile us in the car and head for Michigan by herself, 800 miles in two long days. We’d stop to heat up my brother’s baby bottle on the engine, and I would feed him as we drove. Once we got an hour up the road and realized the car had a carbon monoxide leak, so Mom found a garage to fix it. (Had Dad been along, it would have probably worked out the same way: Mom would have found a garage to fix it.) That was the quintessence of her approach to life: if something is broken, don’t panic, just fix it.

I have probably been in a beauty parlor less than a dozen times in my life, because my mother always cut my hair, even when I lived in Europe (I came home every now and then) and when we lived 400 or 800 miles apart. Being 400 or 800 miles apart did stop Mom from providing me with regular childcare, although she was happy to let me park our first son with her for three months (age 18-21 months) while we toured Europe, and to let both the boys stay with her for a week here and there if I needed to take a long business trip.

Whenever I called to tell Mom what I had been doing recently she was all in favor of my doing it. When we got married and almost immediately moved to Europe for three years, that was great. When I went back to work, that was great. When I changed jobs that was great. When I took up quilting seriously that was great, and so were the quilts I made. When I retired and said I was going to make art fulltime that was great.

She raised us to be tough, self-sufficient, resourceful, responsible, proud and unafraid.

Just to make this art-related, here’s a quilt that I made several years ago that features my mother. It was part of the “I Remember Mama” exhibit in Houston and Chicago and the book of the same name. It commemorates the important place that textiles had in the lives of so many women in the past – sometimes as place markers of drudgery, sometimes as occasions for beauty and creativity.

Household Textiles, 81 x 55”, 2003

Happy birthday, Mom, and thanks for everything. I miss you.

The Daily Art Challenge -- Alyce McDonald

Another member of my textile group who accepted the Daily Art Challenge was Alyce McDonald, who usually works in collage and assemblage. She decided to do a series of small collages on 5x5” stretched canvases. These are too elaborate to complete in a day so she determined to do one every week; she ended up with 15 of them.

Each of the pieces features a number, some more prominent than others in the composition, but the numbers are arbitrary and don’t correspond to the week.

Alyce says, “I enjoyed it, but I would not do it again! Somehow it takes my brain away from what I should be doing.” I can sympathize with that feeling; I too have very strong notions of “what I should be doing” and often feel guilty when I do some other (lesser?) form of art instead.

I know that great artists are focused on “what they should be doing” to an extent that most of us schlunks are incapable of, or perhaps more accurately, an extent that most of us don’t want to go. I choose to do other things in life – volunteer work, walking, cooking (and eating), the opera and orchestra, travel, computer games, writing this blog – that take me out of the studio. I don’t really feel guilty about most of those activities taking me away from “what I should be doing,” even though I know I could make a lot more art if I would turn off the computer and go down to the studio. But I do feel guilty to some degree when I manage to deliver myself to the studio and then, instead of working on my serious pieced quilts, spend the day making collages or calligraphy or baby quilts or grab bag challenge pieces.

Yes, we’re told it’s good for an artist to play every now and then, that it opens the mind to serendipity and gives permission to make mistakes and invites new ideas and approaches. But we also are aware of the ticking clock. Terry Jarrard-Dimond recently had a long interview with Nancy Crow on her blog, and asked her, “If the good fairy showed up at your house, what one wish would you have granted for yourself as an artist?” Nancy said, “More time, 40 more years, 40 more years of physical strength and a brain to match.”  Those of us who, like Nancy, are actuarially unlikely to get 40 more years, can especially second that motion.

So I understand that Alyce is happy to be done with her regular art – but I am also greatly admiring of the beautiful little pieces she produced during this challenge. And I should really stop writing and go downstairs and sew on my Quilt National entry.

The Daily Art Challenge -- Joanne Weis

As I told you on Friday, earlier this year I challenged members of my textile art group to make daily art for a month and see what happened. They reported back this month.

Some of them found the project exhilarating; others said they were happy with what they’d made but will never do it again; others made the commitment but found they couldn’t see it through (not because they got hit by a bus, but because they just weren’t emotionally or intellectually engaged).

I’d like to show you some of the pieces that people made for the challenge. First off is Joanne Weis, whose “day job” art consists of silk, dyed, discharged and screenprinted, enhanced with hand stitching. She has lots of bits and pieces of leftover hand-dyed silks and threads available. Joanne has always enjoyed making cards and her daily art challenge was to make a card every day, combining her fabric leftovers with junk mail.

Every day, she would go through the junk mail that arrived and choose a piece with interesting color and design. That would provide her with the color palette for a small collage on a 4x5” folded card. Usually the collage was predominantly made of fabric, with the junk mail in small snippets as accents. She would put some hand stitching on the collage, and finally glue a piece of paper inside the card to conceal the stitching and provide the writing surface.

The first thing that strikes you about Joanne’s cards is the visual impact of her small collages. In some cases the junk mail bits are virtually indistinguishable from the fabric bits, except for the different reflective qualities of the two materials when held at a certain angle to the light. In other cases, especially when the junk mail bits included type, the paper takes a more prominent role in the composition.

The second thing is how nicely the hand stitching complements the design of her collages. Joanne uses various fibers for her stitching, dyeing hanks of thread along with the silk fabric so they coordinate. The thread turns out to be ever so slightly variegated, and her stitching plays a major part in the overall effect of her larger works. For the daily art cards, she left all her knots and thread ends on the top of the work so the inside of the card was kept clean for writing.

We know we’re supposed to think more about art than about technique, but you’re also struck by how beautifully Joanne has adhered her materials to the support paper. She used MistyFuse to paste down the silks, Elmer’s Glue for the papers, and Elmer’s glue stick for the inner paper liner.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


May 16 -- smoke tree

May 17 -- paddle ball

May 18 -- election day

May 19 -- by the railroad tracks

May 20 -- arch

May 21 -- before the storm

May 22 -- party time

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Daily Art Challenge

The first post I ever made when I started this blog had to do with “daily art,” my own name for the practice of an artist committing to make a certain piece of art every day (or week, or whatever). Part performance art, part self-discipline, part the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, these commitments can lead to world-class art (see On Kawara or Nancy Chunn, below) or to a daily warm-up for “real art” or to anything in between.

Since January 1, 2001, I have gone only one year and three weeks without a daily art project, and during those interim periods I found myself distinctly itchy. I have asked myself many times what I like about these projects and it’s hard to answer.

2001: A Quilt Odyssey
My first daily art project: a square for every day in the year

In part I think that the sheer cumulative weight of the daily bits gives substance and gravity to whatever I produce, much as I think that working in series with larger pieces makes sense artistically. I also think that the inexorable nature of the project adds a layer of interest for the viewer; it’s a little bit more impressive if they know that you did this every day even if you were sick, even if you were in Europe, even if it was Christmas.

In part I like the fact that I embark on a journey without knowing exactly where I’m going. If by chance you look at the first week of my 2010 art project, which involves taking a photograph every day, you will see that my captions were long and clunky; very soon I changed that approach and now am using shorter, more evocative words to complement the photos. That’s just a tiny example of how with the best of intentions you can head off in a slightly wrong direction and make course corrections later on, without compromising your original rules.

In February I made a presentation to my local fiber art group (Louisville Area Fiber and Textile Artists) about daily art, and challenged people to try such a project for one month. Yesterday people reported back and showed what they had done.

I’ll write soon about some of the pieces that they showed. For today, I’ll share a bunch of links to other artists who have done daily art, which I gave out at my February presentation, for your entertainment and possible inspiration.

On Kawara (famous!!) -- send a postcard every day

Nancy Chunn (famous) -- draw on front page of NYTimes every day for a year

Jeanne Williamson -- quilt or mixed-media weekly – new format and rules each year

Terry Jarrard-Dimond -- surface design for quilts -- weekly in 2009 / now monthly

Linda McLaughlin -- daily photograph

Elizabeth Perry -- daily sketch

Leigh Bunkin -- daily drawing for a year

Todd Smith -- climb a tree every day

Brad Liening -- daily poem

Charla Muller -- daily sex (wrote a book about it) -- this one is on my list both for comic relief and for the rigorous thought process she used to define her commitment, not all that different from defining your daily collage or quilt block

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I was thrilled and honored to win the Quilts Japan Prize at last year’s Quilt National, an award given by Nihon Vogue magazine to commemorate the ties between US and Japanese quilters. The award is a trip to Japan, during which I will teach a workshop.

The trip occurs in July and for the last several weeks many, many emails have been exchanged working out the details of the workshop and its publicity. I wanted to teach my technique for piecing very thin lines – the same one that I introduced to you as the Quilt Date for April. Imagine my surprise when the Japanese organizers asked whether I could teach this as a hand-piecing project rather than using the sewing machine! “We Japanese quilters love our hand piecing,” they wrote me.

After some contemplation of alternatives, I told them I could teach it to hand-piecers, but we will have a few sewing machines in the room as well. (My suspicion is that after people hand-piece a couple of very thin lines they may decide that now is the time to get over their sewing machine anxieties.)

Since my total lifetime hand-piecing experience has probably involved about one yard of thread, I thought it might be a good idea to test-drive this concept before I get to Japan. So yesterday I spent the day with the Piecemakers of Lyndon Baptist Church, a delightful group of ladies who all have far more hand-piecing experience than I will ever have. We all made samples with very thin pieced lines.

As you might expect, we all learned a lot from the experience, and probably I learned the most. Our first realization was that when you hand-piece a 15-inch seam it is prone to pucker and ruffle. We talked about that and decided that hand-piecers rarely make seams that long; they’re far more likely to work with small blocks and with shorter seams, there’s less opportunity for the two pieces of cloth to get out of synch with one another. Solution: we stopped every now and then as we sewed to smooth and tug on the seams to keep them straight, and the people who were sewing 20 stitches to the inch, secured with backstitches, lengthened their stitches a little so the seams didn’t tighten up.

My second realization was that my process for keeping everything in place while machine-stitching didn’t work with hand-piecing. After you get your two pieces of fabric in place to sew a seam, the machine-stitcher will start at the left side and sew toward the right (actually, you will turn the whole package 90 degrees and sew from top to bottom). But the hand-stitcher will start at the right side and sew toward the left. So my well-planned organizational method of which side you stitch first and how you mark your edges to keep things in order was literally topsy-turvy. The one left-handed piecer in the group was the only one who was able to sew the seam the way I told her to.

My third realization -- the most serious – was that hand-stitched seams come apart far more readily than machine-stitched. So when I sliced across my previously-pieced strip to insert a second strip, the first set of seams entirely lost their footing and came apart. On my own sample I stopped and resewed the first half-inch or so of an opened seam before I stitched the crossing seam, but I missed another seam that had also lost its firmness. I didn’t discover that one until I had completed the seam and pressed it, and then realized my error. In real life I should have ripped back the second seam, repaired the first one, then resewed the second one, but this being a practice piece I just muttered. All of a sudden those 20-stitches-to-the-inch-plus-some-backstitches ladies didn’t seem so misguided after all.

Note how the seam at the bottom has gotten much wider than it should as the cut thread lost its tension and allowed the fabric to spread apart and the stitches to hang out.  Nasty!
This is a problem that I will have to think about a great deal before I hit Japan. Shall I tell people to slice their work open, then immediately add new stitching to the ends of the cut seams to secure them? Should they stitch along the cut edge for an inch to secure the ends? Or could a judiciously applied pin or two hold things together long enough for the new seam to cross the first one?

Any hand-piecers in cyberspace who have experience in this sort of thing, please feel free to send me all the advice you can think of!!

Most of the ladies started with fabric that was about 15 inches square. It took us about an hour to piece in one thin strip, then cross it with a second one – four lines of stitching, plus some time for pressing and thinking. At that rate it would take a long time to piece an entire quilt, so I suspect the Japanese students will have to use this technique more sparingly than I might do myself with my sewing machine. But knowing the Japanese artistic sensibilities, their lines will probably be far more elegant than mine.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


May 9 -- under the expressway

May 10 -- pink garden

May 11 -- brick street

May 12 -- still life with thread

May 13 -- fallen

May 14 -- passing train

May 15 -- looking up

Quilt date for May

I’d like you to meet the quilt date for May – his name is Trey. I don’t think he’s exactly a technique, more an approach to combining fabrics and colors for design purposes. I met this guy as an exercise in a Nancy Crow strip-piecing workshop. She had us make strip sets with three pieces, either black-white-black or white-black-white. Within each color combination we would make several sets of varying widths. Then we would slice the strip sets crosswise and recombine them.

It was amazing how many different variations you could come up with using this approach. At the time I was so firmly tied to the traditional concept of making quilts from rectangular blocks that I could do nothing else with these strips, but I was struck by some photos that Nancy showed from a recent workshop she had taught in Europe. She told us that students in Europe tended to be more sophisticated about art and more willing to let their imagination run free, and sure enough, many of their compositions were not at all block-based – they went off on diagonals and formed irregular shapes and did all kinds of things that I couldn’t make mine do.

I did immediately make one major piece using this approach, using commercial solid colors. My strips sets were either dark-light-dark or light-dark-light, and I arranged them to make a dark shape on a light background.

Hot L Baltimore

Some years later I returned to the concept of the three-strip block to make a series of quilts using my dyed, discharged and painted fabrics. I had accumulated a huge box full of interesting fabrics that I could never figure out what to do with. The surface design was beautiful, but not striking enough to let me just plonk it out there as a whole-cloth quilt. But I didn’t want to cut up the beautiful fabric into small pieces and lose everything that made it special.

Finally I figured out that cutting medium-sized pieces was a good way to split the difference. The blocks in these quilts are about 7” square.  Most of the blocks consist of three strips, cut from longer strip sets.  The occasional accent block is made from a single fabric rather than three strips. I liked this approach because it showed off my interesting fabrics, yet the three-strip organization gave some cohesive structure to the quilts.

War Zone 1: Firefight

War Zone 2: Desert Storm

If you’d like to get to know Trey, your first date might be any of these three variations: black and white, dark and light colors, or interesting surface-designed fabrics.

When you make strip sets, you need to be careful in sewing and pressing so they end up straight instead of curved. A curving seam usually means that you have pulled on your top strip as you sewed. Your first clue might have been that you started with strips exactly the same length, but when you got to the end of the seam the top strip extended a half inch or so beyond the bottom strip.

One way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to pin the strips every ten inches or so. Another is to concentrate on how you are holding the top strip – don’t put any tension at all on the strip, just position it properly side-to-side, let it fall onto the bottom strip, and let the machine pull both of them simultaneously under the needle.

When you press your strip sets, pay attention to laying them straight on the ironing board and make sure they don’t curve under your iron. You can even correct a little bit of sewing curvature by careful pressing.

Make several strip sets at least 12” long in different combinations of colors and widths. Then slice them into pieces and arrange those pieces into blocks or shapes. You’ll want to use your design wall to try out different arrangements.

For the first date, make your strip sets approximately the same width. For instance, you could have some sets with three 2-inch strips, and some with two 1-inch strips and a 4-inch strip, but they’d all be about 6 inches wide, so you can easily sew pieces together into a square or rectangle.

Some possible arrangements include:

Blocks in rail-fence arrangement (this photo shows both Y-O-Y and O-Y-O, but you could use blocks from just one color pattern)


Nine-patch blocks

Diagonal slices

If you like this technique, here are some ideas for the second date:

• Do the same thing on a larger scale than your sample.

• Change your color palette – if you tried black and white, add some color; if you tried monochrome, add another hue or try another color.

• Change your scale – make larger or smaller strip sets.

• Combine different widths of strip sets or sizes of blocks.

• Or anything else that strikes your fancy.

Let me know how it works out. If you want to send me a picture of what you made, I’ll post it.

Have fun!