Monday, February 28, 2011

Holding it all together

look, Ma, no pleats!  the best-looking quilt back I've ever made

I wrote yesterday about machine quilting being a great joy and artistic opportunity, but at the same time a physical challenge and pain in the neck. Some people commented about using lots of pins, or basting, or using adhesives to hold the layers together and make the task easier. 

I have some thoughts on that subject!! I think I've tried every approach known to mankind, and none is ideal, at least for me. Let me run through the list...

Basting is the classic way to hold everything together before you quilt, and it's traditionally done by hand.  I've heard of people who spread the layers out on the floor to baste, or who pin everything on the design wall and work from the top down so gravity helps.  I've done hand basting, but I always work on a big flat table.

The problem I've had with basting is that my quilts are very intricately pieced, and every seam has the potential of coming a little bit farther apart as you work on it and stitch over it.  You can see this happening just by pressing a quilt top -- you may think you have it pressed flat, but if you go back and press with more enthusiasm, you can usually open the seam just a hair, and thus make the top just a hair wider.  That may not be a big deal if you have only three seams per foot of quilt top, but what if you have 60 seams per foot?  When each one opens a hair, the whole top is going to creep a significant distance outward.

And if your top was basted to the underlayers, it's going to create a bubble, because the batting and backing have no seams to open farther.  Heaven forbid you baste your top, it creeps, and you blithely sew away without noticing what's going on -- you'll stitch a pleat into your quilting.

Interestingly, basting can create the same problem in reverse -- if you don't have your backing pulled absolutely taut, you can get pleats on the underside where the bubble hits the basting line.  I've done that more frequently than I can count, because you don't realize what's happening unless you check the back of your work after every line of stitching.  I hate to have to do that, because it's time-consuming and also hard on the back and shoulders to have to lift the quilt bundle and flip it over for inspection.  But I do check every now and then, and I find that if I use a drapery-weight backing it behaves better than a lighter fabric.

So bottom line, I generally don't baste, because after I've quilted a foot or two I usually would have to take out the basting and start over.  Not worth it.

Pinning is an alternative to basting, with the twin advantages of being a lot faster, and easily adjustable if you find a bubble developing.  It's my default method of holding the layers together.  The big disadvantage is that pins can stab and scratch until you look like you've gone ten rounds with a mountain lion and you can even bleed all over your quilt. 

Why not use safety pins, you ask.  Because they take a l-o-n-g time to put in, and it's hard on your hands even if you use one of those spoon doodads, and they take a long time to remove when you need to reposition and re-press your layers.  (Which I think you need to do several times in quilting a large piece.)

Spray adhesives are popular with a lot of quilters but I have never had good luck with them.  The first time I spray-basted a quilt I cheerfully free-motioned for hours, so pleased with how quickly and smoothly it was going, and never even looked at the back until I was half done.  When I did I just about died -- the layers had shifted despite the glue, the back had all kinds of pleats and misshapings, and was a total mess.  I tried again several times, following the advice of my glue-loving friends, with more spray, different technique, different brands, letting it rest a few minutes, every variable I could think of, but never had much luck.  I ended up using pins in addition to the spray, which seemed dumb.  Besides, I didn't like breathing the fumes or dealing with the sticky film that ended up all over my work table, hands, etc.

Fusibles are another variation on the theme of adhesives.  I once bought a fusible batt for a huge quilt, and spent all day with my iron trying to get the layers to stick together.  This glue worked better than the spray adhesives, but I still noticed that the top layer was creeping as I stitched, and three or four times I had to lay the quilt out flat on the worktable, separate the "fused" layers, smooth it out again, reposition everything and press again.  The fusible worked even less well the second time, so I ended up pinning in addition to fusing.  Sorry to say I bought two of those batts, and there's still one in a closet that I have no desire to use.

I also tried putting fusible web between layers of a quilt to hold them together, but that didn't work either.  Again, the top crept ahead of the batting and backing, and the parts that did fuse together just made it harder for me to remedy the situation in midstream.

So dozens if not hundreds of quilts later, here's my expert opinion: pin only as much as necessary, and remove the pins as soon as possible.  Once you've got the center of the quilt established with a couple of rows of stitching from top to bottom (or side to side), work outward using your hands as the main tool for keeping the quilt in order.  Smooth the quilt tautly away from the last row of stitching as you sew the next row.  Every foot or so, take the whole package to the work surface, separate the three layers, press the backing perfectly flat, then flip the quilt and smooth the batting and top over it just as you did at the very start.  Press the three layers together enthusiastically, carry the bundle carefully back to the sewing machine and do another several inches of stitching.  If you want diagonal quilting lines, postpone the bias stitching if possible till the package has been stabilized with horizontals or verticals.

The same principles apply, with minor changes, to free-motion quilting.  Work from the center out, press frequently, use your hands obsessively to smooth the fabric away from the needle and feel whether the layers are staying in place as you stitch.  Check the back of your work even more frequently than if you're using a walking foot.  If you notice any bubbles, top or bottom, as the layers develop different profiles, place your hands flat to frame the bubbled area, and pull it as taut as possible as you stitch.

If you inadvertently get a pleat on the top of your work, rip it out and sew again.  But if you get one on the back, you can always sew a label over it.

Photo du jour

signs of spring

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bad moments in quilting

I have a love-hate relationship with quilting.  I love it because it adds such texture to my pieces, and because I can draw with the quilting line in ways that I can't do with a pencil.  I love the intellectual part of quilting -- deciding the overall pattern and concept for each piece, and exactly where to place each line, how far away from its neighbor, whether to cross another quilting line or not, whether to cross a seam line or not.

But I hate it because it places such physical demands on me when I work in my favorite scale, namely huge.  I have quilted four or five pieces in my lifetime that were about seven feet square, some with free motion and some with a walking foot.  (I don't now and will never have a longarm machine; this is all done on my plain old Bernina, not even the long-harp Bernina.)  Quilting big pieces on a home sewing machine gets you primarily in the shoulders and the upper back; after a day of work you're ready for aspirin and three glasses of wine.  It's kind of like wrestling an alligator for six hours. 

But the piece I'm working on now isn't that big -- less than five feet in either direction -- so it shouldn't be that big a deal to quilt it up.  And indeed, the project has been going speedily and efficiently, until this evening.  When as I shifted my hands to guide the folded-up quilt bundle under the presser foot, I came upon a wad of fabric that most definitely didn't belong.  Turned it over, and here's what I found on the back:

Well, oops!

I always leave a few extra inches of backing and batting around the edges of the quilt, because the top has a way of creeping outward as it's stitched, and it's no fun to have the top become larger than the underlayers.  As long as all the fabric is pinned or basted or clipped in place, it's fine, but as you get out toward the edges, with bad management you can let it loose and it often gets into trouble.

Fortunately this gaffe was about as easily remedied as could be, requiring me to rip only six inches of one row.  I was back in business in less than fifteen minutes.  I've done a lot worse, once requiring a whole day to rip out what I did wrong.

By the way, you may have noticed several rows of stitching farther toward the edge of the quilt than the troublesome one, and might wonder what order I am quilting in.

From the standpoint of a perfectly flat quilt, with no wrinkles, pleats or bulges, I want to start in the middle of a quilt and stitch outwards, each row in order, then flip it around and stitch outwards toward the other edge.  But on this quilt I'm changing colors of the top thread, so I'm quilting rows as much as an inch or two apart, then going back later and filling in with another color.

After I got myself out of trouble, I quilted for a few hours more, and have finished all the vertical stitching.  Tomorrow I'll start on the horizontal part of the grid, which will be much easier, now that the entire quilt is stabilized -- no pins to attack me, and after I trim the edges, no loose expanses of fabric to sneak out and get themselves into a wad. 

Photo du jour

solid geometry

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

I'm shocked! Shocked!

Today the Quiltart list is in a tizzy over reports that the Mid Atlantic Quilt Fest, a big show in Hampton VA, displayed a quilt that portrayed -- gasp -- a naked, pregnant, homeless woman sitting cross-legged in a cardboard box, displaying her privates.  Seems that a couple of women visited the show, saw the quilt, and apparently were upset enough to call the local TV station, which of course showed up, eager for a hoohah. 

Fortunately for the cause of decency, these women, rather than move their scandalized eyes along to more comforting works, forced themselves to stand there until the TV people got there.  And apparently while they waited they raised enough ruckus that the show managers asked them to leave the premises.  The show guys left when the TV folks arrived (good move) but the ladies proceeded to tell all.

You can imagine the comments.  "Disgusting doesn't even cover it!" one woman told the camera. (Do you wonder what is even worse than disgusting?  Read on...)  "It's embarrassing!!"

"It shouldn't be pornographic and it is!" another one said.  "We come and we see this where a woman's body parts are exposed and I'm highly offended."

A third woman played the trump card: "There's children that come in here."

Well, now you want to see the quilt, don't you, and not with a big gray oval concealing the good parts, as on the TV station's site.  (Funny, isn't it, that they didn't feel obliged to gray out the woman's breasts or fetus?  Guess those impressionable children are OK with some exposed body parts, just not all of them.)

The artist is Kathy Nida and the shocking quilt is called "One Paycheck," as in one paycheck away from total ruin.  It's part of a SAQA exhibit on homelessness that has been traveling for several months already.  You'll find it halfway down this page at her website.  Process note: you'll have to type in the words "I am over 18" to get on the site.  And if you scroll one quilt past "One Paycheck," you'll find "Sediment," which is on display in "Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie," which I have been writing about this week.

The big quilt shows such as the Mid Atlantic Quilt Fest haven't always been known for their willingness to display controversial art, probably because they know there will always be some prudish person eager to be shocked in front of the TV cameras.  Several years ago the big Paducah show gained more notoriety than it wanted by refusing to accept a quilt entered by the guy who had won best in show the previous year.  In keeping with the theme of holidays, that year's chosen "special topic," the quilt showed happy skeletons dancing around in a Day of the Dead celebration.  Apparently what was so shocking was that the quilt was about people who had died of AIDS.

But it's not just nicey-nice quilt shows that sometimes try to avoid anything that could remotely be considered as controversial; big-time art venues do too.  In December the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, yielded to pressure from various conservative politicians and groups and removed a video by David Wojnarowicz that showed ants crawling over a crucifix.  Again, the subject of the video was people who had died of AIDS. 

So my hat goes off to the Mancuso brothers, proprietors of the Mid Atlantic Quilt Fest and several other big annual shows in other parts of the country, who (a) accepted the SAQA exhibit and (b) kept this quilt on display even after the TV crew started looking for controversy.  "It's textile art," Peter Mancuso explained to the reporter.  Good for him.

Photo du jour

palm grove

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Form, Not Function 2

Best in show at "Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie" went to Barbara Watler for her work "Red Bioluminescence."  And an impressive work it is, with delicious dyed organic forms, echoed in hand-stitched radiating zigzags that constitute the quilting, and covered with zillions of tiny french knots.

Barbara Watler, Red Bioluminescence (detail below)

Perhaps because hand embroidery was the first needle skill I ever learned, I have a soft spot for it on quilts.  This is a fine example of how hand stitching gives texture and emphasis to beautiful surface design.

I have to confess, though, that had I been judging the show this quilt would have had a run for its money from Vallorie Henderson's exquisite felted and stitched piece.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Vallorie, too, because many years ago she taught me how to do wet felting (my workshop piece remains the one and only wet-felting I've ever done, but that's another story...).  This piece is simply stunning, with subtle, glowing colors and wonderful texture with little pleat/folds. 

Vallorie Henderson, Wooded Stream (details below)

I think this is the only framed piece in the show -- the question of how best to display fiber art is eternal, but quilts are more commonly shown flat against the wall with a stick-and-sleeve -- and the frame shows it off to perfection.

Two excellent pieces, either one worth a blue ribbon in my book.

Photo du jour


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Form, Not Function 1

"Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie" is an annual juried show in New Albany IN that I have had the pleasure of being very closely associated with since its inception eight years ago.  Five years ago after we spent the day hanging the show, I commented to the others in the room that I was pleased to see a couple of quilts with somewhat edgy political messages.  It's long been one of my favorite rants that a lot of art quilts are just too darn nice, portraying a lot of sweethness and light and few darker thoughts or concerns.  So the others rolled their eyeballs waiting for me to carry on again on that subject.

Which I did for a bit, but then had an idea -- that perhaps I should put my money where my mouth was.  And since one of the people in the room was the director of the Carnegie Center, she was very happy to stick her hand out, take the check I wrote, and enable me to give an award for Political and Social Commentary.  And I've continued to do it every year since.

Past winners of the award have been Claire Fenton, Karen Stiehl Osborn, Shawn Quinlan and C. J. Pressma, and I like to think that giving the award has in a small way helped encourage people to make and enter quilts that have something to say about the contentious issues of our society.

But this year there was a wrinkle: the day the awards had to be chosen, I was on my way to Antarctica instead of at the museum looking at quilts!  I delegated the task of choosing "my winner" to Joanne Weis, who was one of the juror/judges of Form, Not Function.

When I got home and saw the show, I was pleased to see that the award had gone to someone I know, Caroline Szeremet, and that I love her quilt.

Caroline Szeremet, Oil Spill 2 -- detail below

The quilt is a whole cloth monoprint and has beautiful detail in the surface design. 

Without taking one iota of credit away from Caroline, I have to say that had I been there to do my own choosing, I would have had a hard time deciding between this piece and one by Shawn Quinlan.  Shawn does wonderful things with found fabrics, and obviously also has great sources for weird commercial prints which he combines in unexpected ways.

Shawn Quinlan, Church and State

Since I like the concept of political commentary in quilt art, I'm particularly happy to see not one but two good quilts in that category in the same show.

Photo du jour

on the dock

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fiber art -- the olden days / lost works

I wrote last week about a huge fiber art piece by Alma Lesch that hung in the lobby of an office building -- until somebody decided to redecorate, and shipped it off to a museum.  My friend Rosemary Claus-Gray commented about another piece from that same era that also got redecorated out of existence, but wasn't so lucky to be sent to a museum.

The work was made by Marjorie Hoeltzel, one of the pioneering generation of fiber artists who worked in the 70s and 80s.  Marjorie is still active and making work -- I admired one of her necktie quiltsat a show in St. Louis a couple of years ago -- but it's hard to find good images of her things on the web.  Here's the only good one I could find.   She explained to me that most of her slides have never been digitized (yet another casualty of changing technology that is making a lot of artwork appear to be lost, even if it isn't).

For a while Marjorie made a series of huge works that consisted of fabric strips "sewed" through wire armatures like giant needlepoint.  They all started when she made a maquette that was shown at an art fair.  In itself it's a substantial piece of art, about 6 feet long by 2 1/2 feet tall. (detail below)

Marjorie recalls: "A local CEO of a large corporation with headquarters in downtown St. Louis saw the work and invited me to construct a piece of large dimensions for a long wall just outside his private office. The finished piece measured 5' x 20' consisting of five panels, each 36" wide and 60" high that, when finished, were bowed and secured to a frame, 5' high and 30" wide. Since this corporation represented several clothing manufacturers, they had boxes of samples of garments that had been slashed for shipping which I tore in strips (along with purchased commercial fabrics) and poked them through, the wire, using needlepoint technique combined with the 'courthouse steps' quilt geometry, each panel a different color.

"Several other commissions followed: one for an orthodontist reception area, three for prominent law firms, and few private homes. However, I missed sewing, and my hands were suffering, so I returned to the sewing machine, and have never regretted leaving this behind (except for the commercial remuneration aspect!)."

Today both the first piece of fiber art and the building in which it was housed have been destroyed.  But Rosemary had the good luck to trade art with Marjorie, and now owns the maquette that led to the series. That's Rosemary's sewing machine in the photo above; how wonderful it must be to have such a piece in front of you every day for insporation.  And how sad it is to realize that this small model, and some slides, are all that remain of a piece of work that must have been glorious in its day.

Photo du jour

on the dock

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

Crowd curation

I've just taken part in a fascinating exercise in audience participation, and you can do it too.  The Brooklyn Museum is preparing for an exhibit of old paintings from India, of which it owns a large collection.  To decide which ones to display, the museum is using an online survey, what it calls "crowd curation."

When you visit the website, you're first given a series of pairs of pictures, and only four seconds to choose the one you think is the most intriguing.  After you go through ten pairs, you're given the option to do ten more, and ten more, and as many tens more as you want (it's addictive).  With such a short time in which to decide, you really can't even articulate to yourself why you choose one over the other, and sometimes neither painting is particularly intriguing.

Eventually you will get tired of the speed test, and move on to another section of the survey.  Apparently different visitors get different kinds of questions, but the ones I got asked me to read a paragraph or two about Indian art, and this painting in particular, and then rate the painting on a scale from "meh" to "amazing."  (This is Brooklyn, after all; midwestern museums' scales would probably start at boring.)

The paragraphs were like chatty and informative wall signs; for instance: "In the fifteenth or sixteenth century, a new genre of painting developed that attempted to capture in imagery the moods of famous passages of classical music. The music, known as ragas or raginis, inspired artists to create little scenarios—happy or sad, fierce or quiet, taking place in the daytime or nighttime, the summer or winter—that were illustrated over and over again.  Like many ragini paintings, Dhayashri shows a woman who misses her beloved. Here, the woman (with green skin) paints a picture of her absent lover, hoping that this will magically conjure him up. Her friend sits with her, apparently berating her for wasting her time. Peacocks often appear in images of lonely women because their cry sounds like that of a woman in pain."

The concept of these questions is to determine whether more information makes people like the paintings better.  My own experience would suggest that it does.  Like many visitors to the site, I know very little about Indian art and when you don't know what you're looking at, it's hard to be totally engrossed, even when some of the characters have blue skin or cobra heads or are riding on elephants. 

(A hint as to what this guy is up to might have led me to choose it as more intriguing than its partner.)

I confess that I'm intrigued by the concept of crowd curation more than by most of the paintings that I looked at.  And by the decision of the real curators to put so much faith in first impressions.  We've all been taught to not make snap decisions about what art we like, but to inspect and think before we form our critical opinions.  I could probably write a lot more about that subject but for now, it was kind of fun to  pass instant, unthinking judgment.

Give it a try -- they're looking for more volunteers! 

Photo du jour


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Photo du jour

Ross seal

This sweet little guy was a  l-o-n-g way from his usual home, deep in the pack ice of Antarctica.  Most of our naturalists had never seen a Ross seal (an article I found on the net claims that until the 1970s fewer than 100 people had ever seen one!).  Apparently his ice floe went for a sail and he came along. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Photo du jour

crabeater seal

They don't really eat crabs, just krill, tiny shrimp-like critters.  But early sailors and explorers noted the red stains on their fur and thought crab.  And apparently once a species is named, even erroneously, that's it forever.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fiber art -- the olden days / architecture

I've been reading one of those huge landmark books, "The Art Fabric: Mainstream," that are almost too big and heavy to hold, and that you generally find only in an art library.  It was written by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen in 1980 and is a survey of the first decades of fiber art.

I've written before about another book, "String Felt Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art," by Elissa Auther, that says there were three separate bodies of work or approaches in the 60s and 70s that tried to bring fiber into the art mainstream.  Constantine and Larsen were the prime movers in the first approach, which was simply to curate a huge exhibit (Constantine worked at the Museum of Modern Art) and declare it to be in the mainstream.  Although this was comforting to the fiber faithful, it didn't really work with the Art World Gurus, but that's another subject.

The book I've been reading is one of Constantine and Larsen's subsequent efforts to legitimize fiber by proclamation (note the title).  I've found the book to be challenging, exciting, thought-provoking, slightly disappointing, and dated.  I'll probably write several posts about it but my thought today was sparked by the realization of how much fiber art, in those exciting days of the 70s, was tied to architecture.

Photo after photo in the C/L book shows huge fiber installations in the vast atriums and open spaces of office buildings, hotels, shopping malls, churches and subway stations.  Many of the big names in fiber art -- Sheila Hicks, Helena Hernmarck, Gerhardt Knodel -- seem to have supported themselves largely through such commissions.  On a less grand scale, any of us who were out and about during the 70s and 80s will remember a lot of quilts and weavings hanging in banks, hospitals, office lobbies, places where a huge expanse of stone or concrete needed something to warm it up.

That's good, of course, because it's nice to see artists getting big bucks for big works, and it's nice to have art in public places where lots of people can see it.  But it seems that in a way, such practices somewhat trivialized the art, turning it into decor that could (and should?) be replaced whenever the rugs and sofas got worn.

In 1982 my company moved into a fancy new downtown office building, and as the name tenant, we got to choose (and buy) the art for the lobby.  I wasn't a big fiber art aficionada at that time, but I was pleasantly surprised that the art consultants steered my boss to commissioning a huge quilt/hanging from Alma Lesch, the grand old lady of fiber art in Kentucky.  The piece was 12 feet x 14 feet and weighed 94 pounds!  It consisted of hundreds of individually faced and free-hanging "petals" that were sewed to a backing to make a landscape.

Alma Lesch, Lay of the Land, 1983; details below (some in progress with safety pins)

The hanging gave lots of life to the lobby, but ten years later somebody decided it was time for redecorating.  They gave the hanging to the Museum of  Fine Art in Owensboro KY, Alma's home town, replaced the shiny granite wall (you can see it reflecting the windows behind in the full view photo above) with wood, and bought some truly awful big ceramic vases to put into niches in the new wood.  Yuk.  Sorry to say, the vases have survived 18 years so far and counting.

I wonder if they would have been so quick to trash the art had it been a painting or sculpture (or an expensive vase).  Maybe so -- art history is littered with sad stories of public installations that were destroyed, put out to pasture or plastered over -- but perhaps there's something reminiscent of home dec in fiber art that makes it particularly easy to take it down and start over.

Photo du jour

Adelie penguins

Monday, February 14, 2011

Photo du jour

chinstrap penguins with chicks (two per family)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

Labels, good or bad?

Last night my textile art group had its executive committee meeting and we were talking about our new website, which is nearing completion.  We've got all the public pages up, and now it's time for members to put up their own gallery pages (five images, short bio and/or statement, and links).  The question for discussion: did we have the correct labels for people to categorize their work and viewers to click on to see it?  We had embroidery, quilting, felt-making, etc. etc. etc.

Then I had one of those klong moments in which I had to contemplate putting the label "quilting" on my work for the world to see.  Didn't make me happy.  Especially in light of Jane Dunnewold's recent remarks about the "textile ghetto," I have been thinking about how we artists who work in fiber and textiles so often shoot ourselves in the foot.  Not bad enough that we are branded as residents of the textile ghetto, but now we have to specify what street we live on in that ghetto?

The other people in the room unanimously disagreed.  They thought that when people visit the site, many will naturally want to check out who does the kind of work they're familiar with.  So weavers will first click on the "weaving" category and look at those gallery pages, and maybe if they're sufficiently intrigued and have a few minutes to spare, they'll look at something else before leaving the site. 

I guess that's a valid hypothesis, and I admitted defeat, but I'm still not happy.  Spent some midnight hours lying in bed thinking about this, trying to articulate why.  No answers, but a lot of questions.

Are we trying too hard to be user-friendly to other textile artists and aficionadas, and in so doing clouding our image for art lovers, curators, collectors and others who don't need categories? 

By using labels do we encourage our members to stay on their street rather than explore other techniques, even -- gasp -- non-fiber materials and approaches?

How many categories are too many?  Aggregating knitting and crochet, or collage and assemblage seems obvious, but does dollmaking deserve its own category?  What if somebody joins who loves tatting or spinning -- will we make a new category? 

If I don't label my work as quilting, what will I label it as?  Will I shoot myself in the foot if I don't use any label at all?

Am I being too elitist about this whole issue?  Are most textile makers perfectly happy to be known as weavers or quilters?  Maybe only those of us with too much time on our hands and too many pretensions in our heads can fret about whether and how we fit into The Art World.

Is this all a ridiculous conversation with myself?  Should my midnight angst about how I portray myself as an artist just stay there in the bedroom and not waste the time of a regional textile art group?

What do you think?  As it happens, I'm on the website committee and we're not meeting again for a week.  If anybody has any useful thoughts, I'll share them!

Photo du jour

OK, friends, I've been saving the best for last.  There is nothing on earth so adorable as a penguin, except when they're performing projectile excretion.  We had the pleasure of seeing many, many, many penguins in Antarctica, up very close and personal.

gentoo penguin chick

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Photo du jour

killer whales

The researchers have just used a crossbow to place a satellite transmitter tag on the dorsal fin of one of the whales; with luck it will stay attached  for several weeks and allow them to track the group's travels.

When everything is going bad

A post yesterday afternoon on the Quiltart list got my thoughts racing.  An artist who lives in Italy wrote that last year she started her own business, wanting to teach quilting workshops and sell quilts.  But things have not worked out well.

"Everything I did seems not to hit, only one flop after another.  Craft fairs went bad.  I had only a few workshops; people want everything for free.  After one year I don't know what to do and I'm getting a bit depressed.  I absolutely need to raise my business this year because of tax issues," she wrote.

I have not tried to make a living out of art or craft, but I spent enough time in the consulting business to give her the five-euro set of questions (because all important problems are solved through questions, not through answers).  But first a word of sympathy/caveat.

This is a rotten time to start a business, particularly one that provides discretionary purchases.  The world economy is not doing well, and people cut back on things they don't really need.  Many small businesses fail, and it may well be that this is going to be one of them.  But let's give it a good try.

The first question for our correspondent: what made you think this business would work in the first place?  You must have had some success in teaching or selling quilts or both, so let's analyze what used to work.  Who took your workshops?  Were the successful workshops short or long?  What topics and venues were most popular?  Who bought your quilts?  What price range was best for your customers?  Where did your customers come from?  Did they come directly to you or through a shop?  I hope you asked yourself questions like this before you decided to start the business.

So what changed in the year after you made that decision?  And can you tell why it changed?

There are several possibilities. 

First, that the bad economy simply made everybody pull back; that whatever you thought you might sell 100 euros worth of, you were able to sell only 60 euros worth of. 

Second, that people bought some of your goods and services but not others.  For instance, they still wanted to learn quilting techniques but not to buy your quilts.  Or they still bought inexpensive quilts but not the higher-priced ones.

Third, that you missed a step in executing your business plan.  For instance, you might have not signed up for as many craft fairs as you had intended, or couldn't find appropriate space for enough workshops, or didn't have your quilts in as many shops as you wanted.  Or maybe you didn't do a good enough job of scoping out what items would sell at craft fairs, and showed up with things that were too expensive or the wrong color or not trendy enough.  Maybe you didn't have enough money, so you couldn't rent decent space, enter enough fairs, buy enough fabric, advertise, stock enough inventory or whatever else you should have done. 

Often the missed step is not doing enough marketing; the general rule of thumb is that for every hour you spend making/teaching/writing (that is, actually producing the goods and services you have for sale) you need to spend an hour marketing, selling, and supporting the business.  The silver lining of a slow business is that you should have more time for marketing, so it's really important to prepare a list of marketing tasks.  On days when you feel depressed and want to stay in bed and read a book, force yourself to choose one or two tasks off the list and do them.  On days when you have more energy, try to do several tasks, and think of new ones to add to the list.

After you have identified what has changed in your business in the last year, you may be able to figure out why you are not doing as well as you want.  I would also ask you questions like this:  Is there any one segment of your business that is doing well?  If so, maybe you should concentrate on it for the coming  year.  Which segment or product has the highest profit margin -- that is, profit compared to the time and materials you invest in it?  Maybe you should try harder to promote that item.

Look closely at your price and cost structure for the different activities you do.  For instance, maybe you could get more people to attend workshops if you charged less; you'd make less per person, but maybe you would come out ahead in the long run.  Or maybe you should find a less expensive place to hold the workshops.  Maybe you could offer a free workshop after somebody has taken one or two paid classes. 

Often small businesses can save themselves with a better focus on what is profitable and what is possible.  With any luck you can identify a product or service that is both profitable and possible.  If not, find one that is profitable and try to figure out how to make it possible -- or vice versa.  Do your best for two months to market that product aggressively and see how your business responds. If it doesn't, then focus for the next two months on another product or service.  If that doesn't respond either, then maybe it's time to admit defeat and go back to making art in some way other than as a business.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Photo du jour

killer whales

Four curious whales approaching the zodiac boat of the whale researchers. 

Art in prison

If you need to lock people away in maximum security, one ever-popular approach is to build a prison at the end of the earth. The British did it in Tasmania, the Russians did it in Siberia, and the Argentinians did it in Ushuaia, at the very southern tip of the continent. The Ushuaia prison is now being used as a museum, and it’s one of the strangest places I’ve had the pleasure of looking at art.

Most of the huge building is used to document the history of the region and the prison, complete with creepy life-size papier-mache figures of famous inmates.  One wing of the prison has become an art gallery, and some of the larger paintings got their very own cell for display.

Sergio Bocaccio, Regata 69

In places like Ushuaia you don’t get famous artists in the gallery, but many of the works were quite pleasant and I enjoyed the paintings a lot more than I did the gruesome reminders of the prison’s first life.

Sergio Bocaccio, Barrenada

Ana Kijajo, El mar II (reminds me of Franz Kline)

Monica Dal Maso, Lugares exoticos (Exotic places)

Hugo Caballero, Ciudad de la alegria (City of joy) (reminds me of a quilt)

And here’s my favorite little “is that art or is it lunch?” moment. It must be art, because they were made out of something hard and painted.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Jane Dunnewold extravaganza -- part 4 -- bad screen printing

A week or so ago I took a workshop from Jane Dunnewold on screen printing, which taught me just enough to be dangerous.  I am wary of learning new techniques in one's later years (artistic years, not necessarily calendar years).  Not that learning is bad, but once you have achieved sufficient mastery of some techniques, and are busy on a body of work that uses them well, you may be better off just staying in your studio and using the skills that you already have. 

The alternative -- learning a new technique or buying a new piece of equipment -- can distract you, break your artistic focus, and set you off on a course where instead of making substantive work, you play with your new toy, trying to master the skill and meanwhile making lots of practice pieces that you can't yet be proud of (aka procrastination).  I've generally tried to resist this temptation, but the prospect of spending three days hanging out with Jane won out and I found myself in possession of two screens, a squeegee and a flour-paste resist recipe that allowed me to make great scratchy letters.

In the workshop I made a bunch of copies of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, simply because I have always loved the words to this majestic and thrilling poem, and I happen to know all three verses by heart, convenient when you want something to write and you're away from your reference materials.  But that got me thinking about the Civil War and prompted an idea and next thing you know, I was mixing up a new batch of flour paste at home to write the words to Dixie.

So back to the part about being dangerous.

I am itching to make something substantive.  Since I finished my three Quilt National entries in August, I haven't found anything to sink my teeth into.  I have made four decent pieces, but none sent me wildly off to do another in the series.  I toyed with several ideas but again, none generated enough enthusiasm to get me into the studio.

I loved the flour-paste writing, and the Civil War idea, and got up Friday morning knowing exactly what I wanted to make.  Only problem, I am really bad at screen printing, despite Jane's masterful teaching.  I can make a screen, pour out some paint and pull the squeegee across it, but haven't put in the hours to learn how to do this well.  My few prints look pretty bad, complete with smudges, smears, areas that have too much paint and areas that have too little or none at all.

Then to top it off, when I went to wash out the prints I had made in the workshop, the paint smudged (we were working in tempera paint, not fabric paint, so we knew it wasn't going to be permanent, but many people got better results from their washouts than I did).  And when I made the new set of prints at home, I ended up with awful impressions (I think I inadvertently moved the screen between passes of the squeegee).

So what should I do?  Slit my wrists?  Hold that thought for three months while I embark on a crash effort to improve my printing technique?  Some people might take that approach, but I am hot to make a real quilt, good enough to show in public, and I want to make it NOW. 

As I was ironing out my Battle Hymns and noticed how the paint had run in the wash, my first thought, being Grandma's good little perfectionist girl, was dismay.  But then I realized I kind of liked the messy, edgy, worn effect.  It went with the messy, edgy, worn quality of the writing itself, which was why I was so drawn to the flour-paste technique in the first place.  And after all, I want to portray the awful reality of war, not parade ground spit and polish.

Then I got to thinking about bad screen printing as a technique in itself, and how it worked so well for Andy Warhol.  It fit his message, too, conveying the raw, sloppy, crude quality of tabloid journalism, the perfect way to portray electric chairs and murder victims. 

I decided to use the messy prints, just as they are.

So what does this mean to my screen printing career?  Will I ever use it again?  Will I ever put in the hours to learn to do it right?  Is it a good idea to use a new technique before you know what you're doing?  Will Jane disown me as a student?  Is Grandma turning over in her grave?  I don't know. 

I do know a couple of things.  First, that I think bad technique is working for me, in this particular situation.  Second, that it's not at all distracting (aka procrastination) to learn a new technique if you bypass that nonproductive mastery stage and cut to the chase.  I'm sewing up a storm and feeling great about it.