Friday, November 19, 2010

Plan B

Memorial Day -- just wait, I'll tell you about it later

I started working on my Christmas ornaments yesterday, which is a bigger project than it may sound like.  Every year I make ornaments for close family and friends, with two rules: they must have the recipient's initial or name, and they must have the year.  When I started, the guest list was about a dozen and I worked exclusively with sewing or enbroidery.  This year the list is above 40 for the first time, and it's getting harder and harder to come up with a design and/or technique I haven't used before.

Ordinarily I get started on this project earlier in the year but this time I didn't.  About a month ago I decided what the plan was going to be, and knowing that, I didn't feel so much pressure to actually make the things.  I bought my materials a couple of weeks ago, and that relieved the pressure even more. 

But when I sat down to work yesterday, it didn't take long to realize that the plan wasn't going to work.  I was going to print onto paper with a block made from styrofoam take-out trays, and acrylic paint.  That had worked beautifully a month ago when I took a workshop, but the paper I had bought to use for the ornaments was too slick, the little "block" slid around and I couldn't get a good impression.

So oops.  Fortunately the workshop had not just involved printing from styrofoam, and I had learned another technique that became my Plan B.  Which I will not talk about, since many of the recipients of these ornaments look at my blog and I don't want to spoil the surprise.

When I told this to my husband, I observed that any fool can come up with Plan A, but it takes talent to come up with Plan B.  And upon reflection, I think that statement is more profound than I realized as it escaped my lips.  How many world-class troubles have come about for lack of Plan B?  For instance, in case they didn't meet us with rose petals on the streets of Baghdad?

But on the art front, how many times has the piece that worked so well when you thought it through lying in bed at 3 am ended up not quite so perfect when you started to sew it up?  How many times have you put something together, pinned it up on the design wall, and realized it wasn't right?  That's why God invented seam rippers, and why we need Plan B. 

You might even say that Plan B is what distinguishes the serious artist from the beginner, the wannabe, the dilettante.  We all start out making things that seem wonderful simply by virtue of being finished, and when we run into problems it's so easy to settle for not-quite-great.  But as the standards get higher, we realize that whipping out the first idea that came to mind doesn't always (usually? ever?) lead to great art.

In my serious art life -- by which I mean the last six or seven years -- I've made only one project that I consider perfect from beginning to end.  It sprang into my mind fully formed, I knew immediately it was going to be wonderful, and I went home and made it exactly as envisioned.  This was my quilt "Memorial Day," which won the Quilts Japan Prize at Quilt National '09. 

Memorial Day (detail) 

I don't expect to have another such experience.  Usually making good art requires work, of the intellectual variety as well as the physical.  But Plan B builds character, and you should be proud of your ability to work through problems and come out on the other side better than when you started. 

Now I'm off to work on those ornaments again, and hope that Plan B works.  If not, on to Plan C.


  1. I can't wait to see what you have come up with.

    Yes, there can sometimes be a vast chasm between mental envisioning and physical reality but when it works, it's "magic".

  2. I make christmas decorations for family and friends as well! This year my sister and I made 60. Hard work but it is always worth it when people see a homemade gift with their name on it

  3. I'm a quilter, but I'm only familiar with basic "traditional" quilting. Your "fiber-art" quilts are very interesting. I love your work. Any chance that you would write about how to go about doing what you do (like your Memorial Quilt and the Crazed series)? I have not seen any of your quilts in person -- even seeing the close-up photos don't give any clues as to how it's done.

  4. Hello, anonymous! thanks for your kind words. I have written about both series of quilts in the past, but you have to work hard to find them in the archives.

    Click on "postage quilts" to read all about Memorial Day and its brothers and sisters.

    The two best posts about the Crazed series are found on April 15 ["Quilt Date for April"] and on September 5 ["What is a series?"]. Hope you find them interesting.

  5. Ah- and when Plan C, D, and E go awry- then you know it is time for Plan T- trashbasket! I still find it take courage for me to realize when all the plans in the world won't salvage a bad piece.

  6. Judy -- I call it Plan P -- when you cut it up and make placemats. I have done that more than once in the past.