Friday, August 31, 2012

Fringe benefits

I wrote yesterday about a beautiful prayer shawl or tallit that fiber artist Felice Sachs made for Ellen Shaikun, using blouses that belonged to Ellen's late mother.  I was privileged to be present when Felice and Ellen brought the last and most important part of the tallit into being.

That's the tzitzit, the ceremonial fringes that are attached to each corner of the prayer shawl.  Deuteronomy instructs, "Make tassels for yourself on the four corners of your garment which you use for protection."  Obeying this command, Jews tie fringes to their shawls following strict procedures that Felice calls "ritual macrame."

The first step is to put a hole in each of the four corners of the tallit to hold the fringes.  Most tallit simply have punched circles, as shown above.  But Felice put a buttonhole salvaged from the blouses in each corner.

To make the fringes, you buy a kit with special wool yarn, usually made in Israel, cut to specific lengths.  For each corner you make a bundle of four strands, with one extra long strand called the shamash, the "leader" or "protector."  You thread the four strands of yarn through the punched hole, even it out (the shamash will hang much longer than the other seven strands), and tie a square knot with the two sets of yarn.

After the knot is tied, you hold all the strands together in a bundle, separate out the shamash and use it to wrap around the bundle.  To begin, you make seven wraps around the bundle, then separate the strands into two sets of yarn, incorporate the shamash into one so you have four strands in each hand, and again tie a square knot.

You repeat these steps -- winding, then a square knot -- four times.  The second winding has eight wraps, the third has 11 wraps, and the last one has 13 wraps.  Finish off with a square knot and you're done.

Ellen wanted to tie some of the fringes, of course, and found it easier when Felice held the bundles taut; four hands work better than two when doing complicated wrapping and tying.  Each time a set of wrapping was finished, they would carefully count the wraps to make sure the number was correct.

The numbers of cords, knots and wraps are symbolic of many things from Scripture and tradition.  For example, the four fringes symbolize the four corners of the earth; winding symbolizes the unity of God; the number of cords and wraps adds up to the 613 commandments in the Torah.

No sooner had Ellen finished the last knot than she was off to synagogue for evening services, almost at the end of her eleven-month ritual of mourning her mother with daily prayers.  It was exciting to see her with her new tallit, wrapped again in her mother's arms.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sewing memorials

My friend Felice Sachs has kind of by accident developed a niche specialty in fiber art: she makes memorials out of the clothing of dead people.  She's done several projects, making quilts, blankets or wall hangings as keepsakes for bereaved wives and children.  Just this week she finished up her latest commission: a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl for a woman whose mother had died.  Traditionally only men wore tallit, but in recent years Conservative and Reform Jewish women have taken to wearing the garments as well.  But rather than simply buy commercially made shawls, many women make their own or have them made in a more feminine style.

I saw the project halfway through, when it was just pinned to a backing and not all of the decisions had been made about how to finish it.  It was stunning and I asked Felice if I could write about it when it was completed.  Felice and her client, Ellen Shaikun, graciously agreed to share this beautiful piece with me and with you.

Sometimes Felice's clients bring over huge piles of clothing and let her choose which ones to use in the memorial.  Other times they talk together about which garments are most evocative and what they should do with them.  This time Felice and Ellen decided to use five old blouses to make up the tallit.  Felice had the brainstorm to cut off the sleeves and position them on the shawl so the arms are metaphorically embracing the wearer.

Fortunately the five blouses were color-coordinated -- four neutrals and one gorgeous dark orangey red -- so the project had harmony from the get-go.  One of the blouses was voluminous, providing enough lace and lacy edging to fill in the ends of the shawl.

Even though she cut each sleeve into two parts, that wasn't enough to make up the finished design, so Felice constructed some faux sleeves from the rest of the blouses, and put faux button closures on some of the sleeve backs that didn't actually include plackets or buttonholes.

Here's Ellen wearing the tallit.

But there's more.  You'll notice the ceremonial tzitzit fringes on the four corners of the tallit.  They are the most important ritual element of the prayer shawl, and tomorrow I'll show you how they are made.

Update:  I've linked this to the weekly show-and-tell at Off the Wall Fridays.  Check it out to see what other fiber artists are up to this week.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The next destination

For the last couple of weeks I have been following along with one of my internet friends, Margaret Cooter, as she prepares for her thesis show at the end of an MA course in book arts.  I have been so impressed by the artistic quality of her work, and by the intellectual rigor with which she is articulating her vision and how the individual pieces fit in with her overall worldview.

I'm also cognizant of a potential obstacle in her very near future: what to do next.

I've been reading "Art and Fear," a classic book on the many, many ways that artists shoot themselves in the foot.  The authors talk at length about people who quit.

"But curiously," they write, "while artists always have a myriad of reasons to quit, they consistently wait for a handful of specific moments to quit.  Artists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is already doomed to fail.  And artists quit when they lose the destination for their work -- for the place their work belongs."

I find the second of those descriptions most relevant to my current thoughts.  The authors note that artists often hit the wall right after a significant accomplishment: a big solo show, a major commission, writing a book, and more to the point, graduation.  For months if not years, they have been working toward this huge goal, and now that it has been reached -- nothing is left.  The goal has been so all-consuming that it has consumed not just the person's time and energy but her creativity.

I know several people who worked diligently toward a degree, put together an impressive thesis show, and since have done not much.  Instead of a gateway, the degree became a gate, which has apparently taken too much effort to open.  I'm thinking about the same potential situation in my own life, now that I'm on the absolutely last steps toward completing the Quilt National entries that have occupied me all spring and summer.  And I know from reading blogs and emails that a lot of other people, having worked very hard toward QN and Fiberart International, are at the same point.  A few have confessed that during the long mindless hours of quilting they've been having doubts as to whether their work has value and whether they should be doing something else.

So what next?  Of course, once you finish a huge task you allow yourself some relief.  Yesterday, in between working on facings, I indulged in a couple of hours cutting up an old book for found haiku, and vacuumed the studio.  I went to bed early and read a trash novel.

But I'm already planning my next art project.  I'm very fortunate to have a bit of creative energy left over at the end of this long marathon.  I wish the same for all of you who are about to close the door on one chapter of life and open the door to another.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Work of art

I'm finally at the tail end of what has been a long summer chained to the sewing machine.  I've made four large quilt tops and quilted three of them, often in nine- and ten-hour days at the machine.  While I have on the whole had a good time, else I would have gone to Scandinavia with my husband and son instead of staying at home to sew, there were many hours in which it seemed a lot like my previous life of paid tedious labor except without the pay.

I continually had to bribe myself to stay at work.  "Finish this section of piecing and then you can work on your blog."  "Quilt as far as the row of pins and then you can stop for the night."  "Sew till the opera is done, then you can eat some watermelon and read the newspaper. "  "Get the entire worktable cleared off and then you can check email."

great! now I can go check email!!

I would find myself inexplicably away from the sewing machine.  One minute I was sewing away like a good girl, the next I was taking the clean laundry out of the dryer and folding it.  Or I was in the kitchen fixing a little snack.  Or I was playing spider solitaire.  How did I get there?  Why did it take so much effort to pry myself out of these other places and get back to the studio?

This doesn't happen so much when I'm piecing.  By contrast, I often go into a zen state in which time passes without my noticing, when I suddenly realize it's way past time to fix dinner or go to bed.

For me, the quilting is work.  It's physically taxing, it's relatively mindless, and it goes slowly.  I need something to think about (because there are no decisions to be made) and to distract me from wanting to go eat watermelon and do a sudoku.  The finishing -- blocking, trimming, sewing in facings and sleeves, is work, too, but that's a mere fraction of the time it takes to quilt, so I don't mind it quite so much.

Last week I was with a bunch of artists talking about work.  We discussed how we all embrace our respective processes, whatever they are, and we make art because we love the making.  But we agreed that some parts of the process are more fun than others, while some parts are just plain work.  And we agreed that depending on the medium and the process, we all have different moments that seem more like fun, and that seem more like work.

My friend the paper artist wrote me afterwards, "thinking about your comments about the part of our art-making that is "work:"  for me it's when I must glue cut paper elements to a surface.  It just takes a lot of concentration, time and care, no emotion, no intellect to speak of, no woo-woo from outer space."

For painters, I suppose it might be stretching the canvas or applying the seven coats of gesso; for ceramists, I suppose it's cutting and smacking the clay to get out all the bubbles before you can start to sculpt.  Another fiber artist friend was complaining to me about the long stretches of her process where all the decisions have been made and she just has to sit there and knit stitch after stitch after interminable stitch.

But that's OK.  I tend to think -- my protestant work ethic rearing its head? -- that if we didn't have to put in the work along with the moments of sheer joy and inspiration, the end product wouldn't be nearly as good.  Unearned income just doesn't seem as precious as that made from hard work.  The challenge is to remember, during those hours of work, why we're doing it, what vision we are trying to make incarnate, maybe also what we'll do different next time...  And to come up with plenty of bribes to ourselves to keep the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair.

I guess there's a reason why we talk about "works" of art rather than "whimsies" or "games" or "woo-woo from outer space" or even "gifts from God."

Friday, August 24, 2012

From Corporate America to art

Yesterday somebody posted a question to the SAQA email list that sparked much discussion.

"I'm in the midst of a career transition, and am considering all kinds of new paths to take.  I've been a graphic designer most of my career, working primarily for publishers and design consultancies.

"However, my first and truest love is visual arts. I studied painting and printmaking in college, and I have a decades-old dream about finding a place out in the country that has an outbuilding I can convert to a studio, with room to do fiber arts and mixed media works on paper. To finally be able to say that I'm an artist whenever anyone asks me what I do.

"Has anyone here transitioned from Corporate America to fulltime artist?"

Having spent my previous life in Corporate America and my current one as fulltime artist, I thought I might have some insights for her.  In addition, one of my avocations is career counseling.  So here's my answer to the writer, in hopes that she might find it helpful and some other readers might find it interesting:

I infer that your "career transition" means that you need another career, and that you are considering fulltime art as a way to make a living.  That means your task is very different from the person who is retiring from corporate life and can do art as a labor of love.  So if you are going to do this as a business, you need a business plan.

You need to figure out what you can do that will bring in revenue, and how much of it you will have to do to bring in sufficient revenue to meet your needs.  You don't have to just make and sell art to get revenue; you can also teach, write or do art administration.  You'll have to do research on which of these activities seem possible in your situation, and how much money you could reasonably expect to make per hour, per work or per whatever other measure you would like to use.  Also take into consideration that in any freelance business, you generally can devote only about half your time to revenue-producing activity; you also have to market yourself, find and cultivate potential customers, keep track of your finances, maintain your website or other public presences, do paperwork and other tedious chores. 

What concerns me about your question is that you seem to have a wish more than a business plan.  You talk about a dream about a certain way to live and a certain way to describe yourself, but not about what you might do to earn money.  

Realistically, unless you have been selling art consistently and profitably in the last couple of years, you should probably not expect to do much as you embark on your new path.  Even established artists who were doing quite well financially until the economic downturn are finding it extremely difficult to sell in the new climate.  Many artists I know, in all mediums, believe that the whole paradigm of non-billionaire people buying art has changed, perhaps permanently.  

Unless you have very good reason to predict that you can buck this tide, you should probably look to other ways to earn money.  But again, unless you have a solid reputation as an artist it will be difficult to count on making money as a teacher or writer.  Especially in fiber art, the market is crammed with workshops, books and magazines, and even if you are successful in establishing a foothold as a teacher, it will take time to build up enough business to support yourself.

If this sounds pessimistic, I'm sorry.  The world is tough these days and it's hard enough to earn a living at established and traditional vocations, let alone from those based entirely on discretionary spending.

But let's look at the bright side.  Your dream is to find a place in the country with a studio, to make art and to call yourself an artist.  None of these aspects of your ideal life depend on this stuff constituting an actual business.  Perhaps you would be happier if you found a day job in another field, one that you could leave at 5:30 every night, and come home to evenings and weekends of making art.  You could make some money on this "second shift," and if you were very fortunate, you might be able over time to grow this into a fulltime business.

Meanwhile, why not call yourself an artist if that's what you dream of doing?  You don't have to produce your tax returns to do that, you just have to make art.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Monday, August 20, 2012

Done piecing again

Yesterday afternoon I finished piecing my third top intended for Quilt National.  In the last two weeks of serious daily sewing I went through the usual cycle of emotions: exhilaration when a module was finished or when I cut strips to start a new area of piecing, frustration and fatigue during the seemingly interminable stretches of sewing, sewing, sewing.

August 6

August 13

But now it's done.  I took a rest for the remainder of the afternoon; cleaned up my sewing area and my big work table, folded up the orange fabrics and put them in their drawer, hung the top on the design wall for a bit of satisfaction before I start quilting.

I have worked on this top for 19 days, more slowly than it probably took to make an equivalent area of piecing in previous quilts because I deliberately made my pieces a lot smaller than I have in the past.  There were moments when I despaired -- would I ever finish?  There were moments of disappointment when I visited a fabric store to buy more of a fabric I had run out of and found none, moments of triumph when I found it at another store, and moments of delight when I found new fabrics to add to the mix.

The last seam!

Today I will sandwich the top and start quilting.

UPDATE:  I've also linked this in to a new feature on Nina-Marie Sayre's blog in which every week artists are invited to show what they're working on.  Check it out to see what a lot of others are up to, with pictures, of course!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pennies from heaven, aka creativity

This week our local fiber and textile arts group heard a presentation on creativity by Dr. Annette Allen, a poet and professor of humanities at the University of Louisville who has studied creativity in many different artistic disciplines.

Many of her comments struck chords with me and other listeners, since we have all wrestled with the issues of how and why we make things and why some times it's easier than others.  I was taken by her remarks that creativity has been a subject for argument for millenia.

Plato thought that creativity or inspiration came from outside the individual -- from a muse or a divine power.  He sometimes described this as "divine madness" and believed that works of art are unpredictable.

By contrast, Aristotle thought creativity or art was mainly a case of craft at work.  Creation is a straightforward process of making a plan and then executing it upon some material.  It's a process that can be explained in terms of psychology and nature.

Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, 1653

Dr. Allen asked us which camp we fell into, and the group consensus seemed to be somewhere in between. We believed that there is often a spark of inspiration that comes from somewhere outside ourselves, but that you do have to sit there and do the work.

I think I'm way more toward the Aristotelian end of the spectrum.  I may have had one or two Platonic moments when inspiration struck, seemingly from the blue.  But upon closer examination, in retrospect I realize that the "inspiration" was just a happy combination of subjects I'd already been thinking about, techniques I'd already been exploring, skills I'd already developed.  Then one day, it all came together.

It seemed like magic, or divine madness, or whatever you want to call it, but never would have happened without the groundwork.

I've often thought that luck, like divine madness, is overrated.  If the pennies start falling from heaven, are you going to be standing there with a bucket, or are you going to be inside lying on the couch watching TV?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why I blog -- part 2

Cathy's questions went on:  "What motivated you to start, and what keeps you going?"

This question needs a long answer.  At the beginning of 2010 I had decided that my daily art project for the year would be to take a photo every day.  I'd done daily art projects for most of the past decade, and had become more interested in photography since I began carrying my camera along on long walks.  So on January first I started taking photos, choosing the best one for the day, and putting them into a folder on my computer.

January 1, 2010

Later that week a dear friend came to visit me and after I described my new project and showed her the first half dozen photos, she asked me what I was going to do with them.  I said I didn't know, maybe print them all out and bind into some kind of book, maybe something else, but I didn't have to decide just yet.

She said, "You need a blog!"

I said, "I have no clue about how to do that."

She said, "Well, I'll show you!"

Snow had fallen overnight and the steep hill leading to our cul-de-sac was impassable.  We certainly weren't going anywhere for a while, so we sat at the computer and she patiently walked me through every step of the way, from choosing a title to setting up a design template to deciding every detail of how the blog would operate.  By that afternoon, I had posted the first week of photos, along with a discussion of why I love daily art and why I chose this project for the new year.

Amazingly, several people read the blog post and left comments, which is like the rush from one's first experience with addictive controlled substances.  Oops, you're hooked!

At the start I didn't have any concept of what the blog might contain except for my daily photos.  But soon I realized I had something to say about another subject, and wrote about it.  A couple of weeks later we went on a museum trip to Los Angeles and I figured I'd write about the art we saw.  And so I oozed from a daily photo blog to a blog about many aspects of art.

What keeps me going?  Again, there's a back story.  When I retired from my day job in 2000 I resolved that I would now be an artist.  I spent most of the decade turning that boastful bravado into reality, and realized that I had developed a whole lot of opinions, expertise and insight that probably had some validity.  I had always been an active participant on the Quiltart list, sharing my thoughts on a wide variety of subjects with 2,000 or so of my closest friends, and moving those ideas to a blog was an easy transition.

But it all boils down to one thing: knowing that somebody out there in cyberspace is reading.

You hate to admit that you're a whore for comments, but it's true.  I have spent more than 40 years writing things that have been cast upon the waters, whether in a daily newspaper, a corporate newsletter, an email listserve or now a blog.  No matter what the medium, you always wonder whether all your hard work has been in vain, whether your ideas have actually connected with another person out there.  I suspect I've connected with tens of thousands of people over the years, but the evidence of that is skimpy.  I saved every one of the (relatively few) compliment letters that came to me in my journalism and corporate communication careers, but if they numbered more than 100 I would be surprised.  I do know that almost 2,500 people have left comments on my blog in the last two and a half years, which makes me feel both proud and humble.  

I bet that every other blogger will, if put to the third degree, agree with me that comments are the food that sustains us.  I try to be as generous in leaving comments on other blogs as I can, knowing that we all write to connect with other people.  And I will admit that the first thing I check in the morning when I turn on my computer is the comments page, to see if anybody has responded to what I have posted recently.  If this makes me sound like Sally Field before the Oscar was awarded, then so be it.

I write because I must, but I write for you.  I am profoundly grateful that you read it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Why I blog -- part 1

Yesterday Cathy Barger, a fiber artist in New York, asked on the Quiltart list why people blog:

"Is writing it something you look forward to, or is it a chore that you "have to" do, or is it just something you do regularly (though not necessarily daily) like brushing your teeth or getting a haircut? Do you fret about it, or is it a pleasure, or both?

"What motivated you to start, and what keeps you going? Do you have multiple blogs, like one for thoughts & photos of family & pets, another for your political opinions, and a separate one for quilting, art, creativity, etc?

"What do you get out of blogging? I can understand how it would help your related business, if you have one, either directly (people you reach via your blog buy your work, or hire you to write for their publication, etc) or indirectly (your name gets "out there", people feel like they know you), but is that the main purpose for you doing it?

"If you decide to take up blogging on a fairly serious scale, how do you build up your readership to a point that makes it feel worth the time and commitment and effort to you, so that you don't feel like you are putting out all this effort and it amounts to nothing more than spitting into the wind?"

Since I'm a pretty active blogger, her questions made me think, and I decided to answer them here, because you, my precious faithful readers, are the main reason I continue to blog.  It may take more than one post to work through Cathy's good questions, but I welcome the opportunity.  I've known for a long time that articulating and explaining something that you do naturally is an excellent way to clarify your own thoughts and come to a deeper understanding of yourself.

So question 1: Yes, I look forward to writing.  I've spent my whole life writing one thing or another, a talent/predilection that probably came in the genes.  At school I always figured that writing well was an automatic extra letter grade -- if I knew the material at B level, the essay questions and term papers always brought it up to an A at the end.  (One reason I didn't star in physics -- too few essay questions.)  Then I was a newspaper reporter, and segued into corporate communication for the remainder of my career, always writing, always writing.

It's not so much that I love to write, but that writing is like breathing.  (Do people say they love to breathe?)  It's my way of figuring out what I think and why, and helping other people clarify what they think and why.  Although it's theoretically possible to write for your own eyes only, I don't know why you'd bother.  I've always been taught that you never sit down at the typewriter (showing my age there) without first knowing who is the audience and what do you want them to know, think or do after they read your stuff that they don't know, think or do now.

what I wrote in my previous life

After I spent my whole career writing about other people's ideas, I took a decade off from writing.  People asked me whether I would be doing creative writing, and I said no, writing was what I did for pay and now I was going to retire.  And I did, except for the usual newsletter- and bylaws-type writing that I got roped into for various causes and organizations.

But two years ago when I got into blogging I realized that for the first time in my life, I had finally developed enough expertise in my own field that I could write about my own thoughts instead of channeling other people.  I could write about art and quilting instead of the technicalities of accounting for pension plans.  What a joy!

I do sometimes find that it's a chore to write the blog, for instance in the days before leaving on vacation, when I need to write several posts in advance.  Even things you love occasionally require seat-of-pants-in-seat-of-chair tedium.   But that's not to say that I don't want to be doing it. 

I'll reflect on Cathy's other questions in a later post, so stay tuned.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Roughing it

Two years ago my sister was visiting me and we decided to whip out a couple of quilts for her two little grandsons.  We finished one top and got halfway through the second but ran out of time.   The unfinished top had some tricky piecing, including a set-in curved seam, and I offered to keep it and finish it as soon as I came back from some extended vacations.  But no, she was in a hurry so she took it home with her.

And promptly misplaced it.  The first top got quilted up and given to the kid, but the second top had disappeared into limbo -- until late last month.  It resurfaced because my sister is moving, and she had finally gotten to the point where practically everything she owns is packed, and this bag of stuff was among the last to resurface.

So I was visiting her last week and she pulled out the quilt, in pieces.  If we finished the top posthaste, her longarm lady could get it quilted before moving day.

We were proud of this top -- we made log cabin squares with frogs in the center.  I had bought the frog fabric 20 years ago, knowing that it would come in handy sometime, and its time had definitely come.

Only problem was how many of the things you usually use to sew were already packed and gone.  I realize how spoiled I am with my studio -- not the greatest studio in the world, but it does have a big pool-table-sized work surface, and a design wall, and a big sewing surface surrounding my machine, and lots of cutting mats.  By contrast, last week we had a sewing machine, one cutting mat with heat ripples, a rotary cutter and an 18-inch ruler.

Trimming the top had to be done in sections as the whole thing wouldn't fit on our cutting table.  And we had to lay the quilt out on the floor.  Just the way I used to in the olden days before I discovered design walls.

But the tricky curved seams of the J went in beautifully, and the top went off to be quilted in a frog pattern.  High time we finished it, since there's now a third grandson on the way!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Embroidery tutorial 6 -- running stitch

This post is indeed about a hand-stitching tutorial, but the student is me.  I was browsing around on the Interweave/Quilting Arts website the other day and discovered a mini-book that's available for free download.  It's called Hand Sewing for Quilters and includes several articles on different stitches.  I glommed onto the article on the running stitch, which of course I have known how to do for decades, but was excited to see how it was used in this particular body of work.

The artist was Julia Caprara, an influential artist and educator in the UK who died in 2008.  I had not been familiar with her name, but a bit of googling revealed that she had inspired and influenced many fiber artists whom I do know.  The article I downloaded was a revisit of something she had written for Quilting Arts magazine several years ago.

Here's the photo that sent me running, so to speak, to my embroidery bag.

Julia Caprara, Goddess Cloth -- Aegean Goddess 

I focused in on the large motif at top center, with the red arc surrounding the blue sunburst.  I've been shamelessly using Julia's techniques in my daily stitching for much of the last two weeks.

The concept of using a bunch of running stitches to make shapes rather than lines is, of course, not new (think satin stitch) but I hadn't thought to use it that way until now.  I love it and hope that after working faux-Julia for a while, I'll be able to internalize the technique and make things that look less Julia and more Kathy.