Saturday, December 4, 2010

Naming your work

Alison Schwabe wrote in her blog this week about naming your work.  She had no kind words to say for people who ask their 2,500 nearest and dearest friends for suggestions on what to call their latest quilt or their new blog, and I tend to agree.  But it seems to me that this loss for words is not so much a sign of mental laziness as a deeper problem of artistic motivation.

Some artists make work out of divine inspiration, or another source that springs directly to their heads without any intermediate thought process.  They show up in the studio one morning, and find themselves painting sunflowers or whatever, and can't tell you why they did so.  I don't want to sound like I disbelieve this -- I'm sure many fine works of art came about this way -- but I do think that in most cases intermediate thought improves the quality of the art. 

Perhaps because I spent my entire life living by the written word, I believe passionately that you should be able to tell people what you're doing and why you're doing it, and if you can't, you probably ought to clean up your act.  I am impatient with people who can't write an artist statement, not with the part about actually writing it, but with the part about knowing what it is they want to say.

I do believe that sometimes you make the work first, before you realize what it is you're saying.  That happened to me once in a Nancy Crow workshop when we were asked to piece a whole lot of strip sets, then combine them into a pleasing composition.  I made a huge, quite attractive composition during the workshop, which I have never quilted up, but then when I went home immediately made two more pieces using the same "recipe."  In fact, they're fraternal twins -- most of the strip sets show up in both pieces.  Those two pieces have had quite a pleasant life out in public: one toured for a year with a Husqvarna-sponsored exhibit and both have been exhibited several times.

Layout 2 

Layout 3

It wasn't until after I made the two pieces, however, that I realized what they were about.  Now I think they are about newspaper layout, the field in which my father was a world-renowned expert.  My artist statement reads, "This quilt represents a newspaper.  The recurring color patterns represent the stories that appear over and over: war, commerce, science, all variations of human joy and sorrow.  Just as we have read these stories before and will read them again, we have used these colors before and we will use tham again."

Before I articulated what the quilts were about, I liked them for their formal qualities of composition, balance and color.  But after I realized their "message," I liked them a lot more; I could name them and they were ready to go out in public.

By contrast, I think many quilters (and perhaps artists in other mediums too, although I don't participate in discussions with them enough to know) never realize what their works are about.  Many years ago I had some correspondence with a quilter who had considerable recognition, having been in Quilt National a couple of times, but complained about not being able to write a good artist statement. I liked his work and thought I would do a good deed and help him out.  But as we wrote back and forth, he never could get past the point of "I have no idea why I do these things, they just happen."  And he was proud of it, as though not being able to identify your intent made you a better artist!

In that case, the work was quite good, and I thought it was too bad the guy couldn't take that final step and tell us what he was trying to accomplish.  In many other cases, however, I am quite willing to believe that the artists have no idea what they're doing.  If they were to tell the truth, the artist statements would probably read "This was an assignment in my workshop with _____" or "I took a nice picture of my garden last summer and thought it would make a pretty quilt."  At least they have the self-awareness to realize that neither of those sentences would look very good in an exhibit catalog.

But if you don't know what you're trying to say, not only do you have a hard time with an artist statement, you may have a hard time even with a title.  Many people who make pretty quilts search for "pretty" titles that sound like excerpts from really bad poems.  And if that's all you're about, then do whatever you like.  But if you are a serious artist I think you should be thinking more deeply about what you are trying to say, and when you figure that out, it will be a lot easier to give names to your pieces.  And maybe it will even be easier to make good work in the first place.


  1. Kathy,
    Would you mind telling me the sizes of Layout 2 and Layout 3? Just wondering as I admire them.

  2. I really enjoyed this blogpost, Kathy. I am fascinated with words and have dozens of pages of single words and phrases listed in a notebook. When I think about, hear, or read a word or phrase that conjures up a strong image, I add it to my notebook as a potential name for a prospective quilt. I have become especially fond of one-word names that have meaning for me but allow the viewer plenty of room for interpretation. I also like to use Italian, Greek, and French translations. For example, I am working in series using a line motif that resembles the silhouette of a simple bar stool. Naming a series incorporating the word "stool" didn't seem like a great idea. However, the Italian translation for bar stool is "sgabello". The word has a lyrical quality that I find very appealing, and I chose it as the name of my series. The inspiration for one of the quilts in this series came to me in a flash. The Greek translation for this occurrence is "kairos" and will be the name of this almost completed composition.

  3. The first step for me is always assigning a 'title' to a piece of work. That is as true in creating playlists/profiles for my indoor cycling classes as it is for my work with fiber. Nothing happens until the piece is named. As a consequence, I don't struggle with artist statements - I often have too much to say about the piece. I think that's also a problem - there is merit in letting the viewer form her/his own 'story', with just gentle nudging from the creator.

  4. I often post pieces that are in progress before I've decided what to name them. A working title happens pretty quickly - I don't tell myself "time to sit down with That Thing and stitch a while" but I try to keep it to myself because it's happened that, as the piece evolves, so will the title. It's interesting how people will seize on an image of a work in progress and assign it a meaning and/or a name, as if I had asked.

  5. The Layout quilts are about 51 inches square, give or take an inch or two. I made them for a special exhibit and that was the given size -- but I don't think either one turned out exactly those dimensions after quilting and finishing.

  6. It seems to me that there are two types of inarticulateness you describe here. One has to do with the piece having an intent that is not generally valued in the art community (e.g., I made this for a class exercise or I wanted to make something pretty for my living room). The maker may well be able to articulate these kinds of intents, but they don't have the kind of "deep" meaning that we often associate with high art.

    The second type of inarticulateness could come from a well of meaning that has not been consciously articulated by the artist, but is present nonetheless. Your example of the pieces from the Nancy Crow workshop illustrate this -- you believe these came from your sense of the newspaper layout you are familiar with from your father's expertise. But this meaning was not in your conscious awareness until after the pieces were complete, even though (perhaps) it was the driving intent behind your design choices. There is now quite a bit of research that supports the notion that many of our decisions arise from motivations or judgments that are outside of our conscious awareness and therefore not easily subject to verbalization. The artist you mention who had so much trouble articulating his vision statement may well have had a clear and consistent artistic vision, but was unable to bring it to conscious awareness. Indeed, in some cases, our beliefs about what drives our decisions may well be confabulated and incorrect. Perhaps in the cases of the inarticulate artist, we can let the work stand on its own and see what it evokes in the viewer.

    I'm a highly verbal person and tend to value the process of articulating meaning and intent through language. So in that sense, I have a similar perspective to yours. But I can understand that not everyone approaches their work through the same process -- some may work from the deep, inarticulate, nonconscious well of finely-trained and well-honed artistic instincts, but have trouble bringing these processes to consciousness and verbalizing them. In such cases, what should the artist's statement look like? Can the omission of titles be valid, or are they always necessary? Is it part of the work of the artist to verbalize their vision, or can they merely present the work to us without linguistic framing?