Thursday, May 6, 2010

Grab bags -- good or bad?

My sister visited me recently and we spent lots of time in my studio making baby quilts for her two grandsons, whom I’ve written about recently. Since my studio is organized on the “in plain sight” plan, this also provided lots of opportunity for her to look at a wide variety of stuff that is piled here and there waiting for art to occur.

She said she would like to do some fiber art when she got home, but had no idea what kind. She was envious of all my miscellaneous stuff and thought that if I would send her a grab bag every now and then, that would fuel her imagination and encourage her to make some fiber art.

I said I would, but I did so with trepidation. Much as I love working with other people’s discards and leftovers, I think it’s hard to get from that point to substantive art. The problem with grab bag inspiration is that the work is usually one-off, and you know my opinion that substantive art is generally achieved by working in series.

True, sometimes artists come upon grab bag troves, for free or at the flea market, that contain enough goodies to sustain a series. We’ve all heard stories about finding a whole carton of old gloves, or thousands of buttons, or a suitcase full of old photos. You can do a lot with dozens of something, exploring new ideas and refining them into a coherent body of work.

My large fiber art group has a grab bag every month and arguably that’s the most popular aspect of our organization, maybe even outranking the programs and workshops. Several years ago I suggested that we should have a grab bag challenge to encourage people to make art with the stuff they brought home, rather than just have it take up residence in a new basement. I like to make a challenge piece every year, since it was my idea, but to me the challenge is how to incorporate grab bag finds into pre-existing bodies of work.

It so happens that I have a flea market trove of old photos that are available for art, and I have used these photos to make three grab bag challenge pieces. The jury is still out on whether this series is substantive or just sentimental, but I think it has potential, and will probably keep it up, if only once a year for the grab bag challenge.

Wilhelmina's Memories
grab bag finds included the green sheer dress with pink carnations embroidered on the hem, the cardboard bottom of a spool of thread, and a lace square

grab bag finds included snap tape, two kinds of loop tape, tape with buttonholes and the buttonhole end of a lace collar

So back to my sister. I promised to send her a grab bag, and I will, but I don’t want to be an enabler of junk art – one-off craft projects that don’t lead anywhere. My sister can do better! I also promised her to write up some distance-learning projects that she could use to explore different aspects of fiber art and see if she can find something that she wants to pursue.

I’ve sent her first learning project, which has to do with stitching. So I’m going to make her a grab bag of threads and base fabrics she can use in this project. Plus some other goodies that I hope won't send her down the road to junk art perdition.  Sure, it might be more flashy to send her a packet of angelina fibers, except that wouldn’t push her in the direction of serious art, and besides, I don’t own any angelinas to begin with, thank heaven. (Talk about junk art!!!) (Apologies to those who make serious art with angelinas, if such folks exist.)

I’ll post soon about the learning project; maybe you’ll find something interesting there too.


  1. I'm not especially attracted to grab bags but I do think working with them might spur some ideas and then it is the responsibility of the person doing the making to carry the ideas forward. Besides, if she is just starting out, and she can work in a series, I applaud her but how will she ever figure out what she really wants to make. If I laid out my learning work you might think I had a personality disorder. Give your dear sister a break and shower her with bags and bags of wonderful stuff. Think of all the room you'll be making.

  2. Yes, but I already have ideas for all that stuff!! And given 150 or 200 years I will probably use it all, and what if I give too much of it away???? What would I do then??????

  3. I'm not a lover of grab bags either unless it is for specific items - like a bag of threads, maybe a bag of buttons, etc - you get the drift! You could maybe start with something like that - a bag of specific items or maybe a bag of stuff relating to a particular colour - one that you know she would like to work with. Then challenge her to come up with a series of work, say 3 items to begin with, then if she wants to go further give her a 'box of boxes' so she can start to collect her own things she likes.

  4. Get to work! You have a few hundred pieces to make. They are waiting for you in the studio;))