Monday, March 28, 2011

New techniques -- good or bad?

I wrote yesterday about the conversation on the Quiltart list: whether Quilting Arts magazine has lost its focus on art. Some people, including me, thought the magazine has gotten too repetitive, too simple, writing about little projects rather than about big art.

Other list members jumped in to defend Quilting Arts. Several pointed out, and I have to agree, that there are many relative beginners who benefit greatly from a magazine that encourages you to make original designs and experiment with new ideas. And the focus on relatively small work – artist trading cards (2.5 x 3.5 inches) and “inchies” (1 inch square) have been popular formats – is good for people with limited time to devote to art and craft.  Still others regard their work as a hobby rather than a serious vocation or avocation, and are happy to make nice things without worrying about artistic development.

artist trading cards from my past

But one commenter in particular rattled my cage. “Not everyone, no matter how passionately they desire, can take workshops from the best and the brightest in our field to learn the new techniques and get a handle on how to use some of the wonderful new products,” she wrote. “There is a need for opportunities to see and learn how to do some of the newest techniques in our fabulous world of making quilted art. Who is going to dispute that?”

Well, I’m going to dispute it. I would even argue that one of the factors holding us back from greater artistic achievement is the lure of new techniques and products. It’s so easy to equate technique with inspiration, when in reality technique should be so much lower on the food chain.

I read a fascinating and disturbing book last year, “Seven Days in the Art World,” which among other things talked about how grad students and their prof at California Institute of the Arts conduct a critique session. (Click here for a wonderful review/discussion of the book in “Art in America.”)  What comes back to me today is the CalArts guiding principle, “No technique before need.”

I happen to think that’s a dumb principle in many walks of life and art. It’s so much easier to produce decent works of art if you have mastered some basic technique. For instance, if you’re a painter, you can get down to work when inspiration strikes without having to first figure out how to stretch and prime your canvas, and go down to the art supply store and read labels to find out whether you want oils or acrylics. If you’re a quilter, you can get down to work without having to first figure out what kind of fabric to buy, how to piece, how to quilt, how to make the thing lie flat, how to put a sleeve on the back.

That said, I’ll defend the principle as it applies to advanced practitioners. If I really need to screenprint a design onto my fabric, I can learn how to do it. If I need to machine embroider precision lettering onto my quilt, I’ll figure out where to get a machine and how to program it. But if I don’t want or need to do those things, why spend time learning them? That question applies even more when you start talking about products and equipment. Why buy a sewing machine with advanced embroidery or needle-felting capabilities, a package of Transfer Artist Paper or Angelina fibers or a bolt of Misty Fuse, if you don’t need them?

But the desire to learn and buy the latest techniques and products, as the Quiltart correspondent seems to think is essential, isn’t just a way to waste time and money. I think it’s actually counterproductive, even for people who don't consider themselves serious artists.

Why? Because having learned the technique or bought the product, the natural inclination is to use it in your next piece. Your work gets motivated by somebody else’s trend rather than by your own ideas. And your work tends to jump around in response to what was in the magazine this month instead of growing organically out of your previous work.  Devotion to the latest techniques and products is like attention deficit disorder. You never focus on one thing long enough to make it pay off.

I sometimes reflect on what my long-dead grandmother would think if she visited my studio. She would be amazed and delighted at the rotary cutter and its attendant mats and rulers, and at the fact that the sewing machine is computerized and can make a row of zigzags or little flowers. She’d be particularly enamored of the knee lift lever. But that’s it as far as equipment envy.

She might be surprised that my quilts don’t use traditional patterns, but once I explained how in the half-century since her death quilts have come off the bed and moved to the wall as art, I’m sure she’d understand. She might be surprised at my elaborate free-motion quilting, but when I showed her the darning foot she would know exactly how it worked in this context.

And this is the most important part – as she looked at my quilts, she wouldn’t find any technique that she didn’t understand perfectly. It’s just piecing, and quilting. She did those things a hundred years ago, and I’m doing them today. I don’t think much about technique any more, just about design and meaning. And that’s what I wish more of for my fellow citizens of the fiber art world.


  1. Kathy, Your blogpost took my breath away. It's where I am right now and where I want to be -- steeped in the traditions of this art form but interpreting it in ever new and contemporary ways.

  2. Here's what puzzles me about what you've written. If you have moved beyond wanting or needing to learn more technique to make the sort of art that you want to make, then why are you fussing about Quilting Arts providing technique information to those who want it? Isn't your option just to not read Quilting Arts, and instead going to make your art and avoid the stuff you find a distraction? I love QA -- but to be honest, I don't think it's ever been about "big art," as you refer to it. That makes me wonder if YOU were in a different place when QA was young, so that ideas or work that seemed "big" to you then now seem familiar and simple.

    I get your concern that it's all too easy to be diverted from focus on art by the appeal of new gadgets and techniques. But you seem to forget that what might be distracting to you might be exactly what someone else needs to take her art in the direction she wants. Maybe that new technique is exactly the way she can put her artistic vision onto fabric.

    I also think that someone who is driven to make art is going to make art, period. Maybe she'll try some new techniques and supplies from time to time. Or maybe she'll stay with the processes she's always used and with which she's grown comfortable. But really, if one's inspiration is threatened by QA being out there helping people to see new uses of fabric and thread, and helping people to learn how to experiment with them, can the inspiration to create art be that strong?

    Here's something else that your post makes me think about. I truly do understand that you are exploring the distinction between taking process to serve your art, and having process BE the art experience. But I think you need to remember that one needs a certain amount of comfort with process before one can turn the inspiration into art. For example, even if you have a brilliant idea in your head, you have to learn to write before you can create a great novel.

    So if you diminish the value of remaining open to learning new ways of doing things, and/or diminish the contribution of those who make those new ways available, then you run the risk of missing out on avenues that could make your vision truer. You might be handwriting your novel while using a computer might make you more efficient. You might be hand-piecing and hand-quilting and shaking your head over those crazy people using new-fangled sewing machines.

    Certainly it is possible to grow beyond the stage of needing to learn more -- your need is to just DO more. But because you are at that stage, it doesn't mean that everyone else is.

    So I come back to the fact that it's up to each of us to do what she needs. You need to do art, so do art. Others are learning, or even if experienced, find that learning opens their inspiration and helps them hone it, rather than distracts from it. And for those others, there are folks like Pokey who offer great information in an accessible way.

    We're given tools, and we can choose how to use them.

  3. Thank you Kathy and Diane, something to think about again. I'm having a wobble myself about the same sorts of things at the moment, and if it's ok with you Kathy I will put a link from my blog to here? Annabel

  4. Thanks Kathy, well written as always. I don't think, as Diane said, your 'inspiration is threatened by QA' any more than mine is. What I found interesting about the entire thread on the list was how many art quilters didn't get it. I just have a different opinion about a subject that morphed from my displeasure about a single TV production to thinking that I was personally bashing Pokey.

    When I stopped lusting after each and every issue of that magazine and took it off the pedestal of being the final word in quilt art, my art has been exploding. I don't chase down all the matchy-matchy fabrics or newest tools featured in the magazine. I use the inspiration that comes from within and use up what I have in my studio.

    Do I make traditional bed quilts? you betcha, not many any longer, just for new grandchildren....but I don't worry about a perfect seam since just like my wall art, I want it to be used and loved.

  5. Thanks to everybody who read this post, thought about it, and responded. Annabel, of course you may link to this – as may anybody who ever sees something they like or hate here.

    Diane’s comments in particular raise a lot of questions that I would like to respond to at more length. Hold those thoughts; I will try to post again later today.

  6. As I see it, fluency with your chosen techniques and materials may not be "necessary" for the artistic expression of ideas. But the struggle to achieve a desired effect when you're not fluent can be like trying to write poetry in a foreign language. For a lot of fiber artists, technique is the vocabulary with which we achieve expression of the ideas that drive our work.

    That said, I agree with Kathy that always focusing on the newest, latest shiny technique to try or product to buy can do more to distract than inspire. But the culprit then isn't a magazine: It's the choice of the individual, a choice often driven by a lack of confidence and/or desire to express on a deeper level. And sometimes that confidence/desire can be nurtured by (yep, you saw it coming) a magazine.

    So I think this discussion is a great reminder to those with magpie syndrome to not spend all their time in pursuit of shiny distractions. But at the same time, I'm glad there is a magazine to encourage, nurture and inspire.

    Thanks, Kathy, for another thought-provoking discussion.

  7. I think maybe Janice has crystalized an idea for me -- perhaps the issue is that even "advanced practitioners" have fallen under the misimpression that QA (or anything else in print) is "the last word" in fiber art. It's not QA's fault if artists get hung up on QA and can't see around it to their own vision.

    It's up to each artist to choose how to you (or whether to use) that resource. There does come a time when each artist has to just put the resources away and work with her media.

    And, btw, Kathy, I didn't mean to suggest that you personally were threatened by the existence of QA (if that's how it sounded) I meant "threat" in the sense that I thought you were arguing in a larger way, that having QA's presenting new ideas and techniques and products somehow got in the way or obstructed people's individual progress.

    This is a fascinating subject to contemplate. Thanks for opening it up.


  8. I used to be seduced by the new techniques, materials, and products. Most of it was driven by my quilting friends who owned quilt shops, who took lots of classes with different teachers, road trips to Paducah and Tahoe, and the guild who encouraged us to take all the workshops of our featured speakers. Then the quilt shop closed, and I stopped taking road trips and all those classes. I started studying composition, and took a few art classes. I now see art quilts, paintings, drawings, and sculpture with a different set of eyes. All those years of workshops, guild classes, and trying all the new techniques and materials in books and CDs just delayed me from learning the fundamentals of making and appreciating art. I'm now inspired by excellent use of value, good composition, amazing color and transparency, beautiful lines and shapes, tension and relationships between elements, and the mood or the message being conveyed in the artwork (the conversation with the viewer). New and fresh is great, but the piece should still have these qualities of good art. Occasionally I see some of this in Quilting Arts. I don't see it at all in the TV shows. But I'm at a point where I want to explore the art aspects of making quilts, using the dependable old piecing skills I've had for decades. So I look at Quilting Arts, put it down, and go back to exploring art with my techniques and materials.

  9. It seems to me that an aspiring artist needs to know "the rules" about line, shape, form, space, value, and texture and how to break them for effect. If a person doesn't know these, they aren't going to improve the delivery of their artistic message no matter how many Sparkly Fabulous New Techniques they learn.

    Unfortunately, The Sparkly Fabulous Company doesn't care whether people know jack about art or anything else. They just want to sell Sparkly Fabulous supplies. And they pay for magazine ads.

    I remember that QA has in the past done some interesting and useful 'here's the rules' articles for those of us that studied business and economics rather than art in school, but pretty much no company is going to sponsor 'the rules' when they can get some person to make a Cute Project with lots of their stuff and get 5 how-to pages in a magazine. That's marketing gold. Art 'rules' aren't nearly as sexy.

    As far as QA goes, I have mostly been just looking at the pretty pictures. I don't actually do all those projects. Sometimes they just seem like an excuse for me to spend $$ and I resent that. Perhaps I haven't read closely enough, but I've never noticed any suggestion of how the Sparkly Fabulous product in the articles can help express an idea.

    Plus, as far as ideas go, I strongly suspect that most people don't have any ideas they are looking to express. They just want to have the latest and greatest and make a Cute Project for their friends to tell them how *Creative* they are. But that might just be me being cynical.