Friday, November 30, 2012

The typographic observer 10

Typographic observers often refine their eye by hand-setting type, a process in which you have to read in mirror image.  But some words require little translation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Back from hiatus

Several years ago, when the terrorism witch hunts were more heated than now, I started to make a quilt prompted by the huge program of warrantless wiretapping of everything and everybody in sight.  I called the quilt "Intercepts" and it consisted of a bazillion bits of speech, in different languages, most of them so fragmentary that you could have no clue as to what you were overhearing.

My plan was to cover a very large piece of fabric with these intercepted messages, then sew and sew and sew and sew over the top of it to hold everything in place and evoke the complex web of connections between people in a global communication system.  I delved into my boxes of selvages for a lot of the messages, and found many others in fabric that I have bought over the years with type and alphabets.  I also lettered a lot of them myself.

I had a lot of fun composing the little bits into an overall array, and worked systematically to keep the pieces perpendicular.  I sewed for a long time. The quilt was going to be about 55 inches square, because that's how big my base fabric was.

I was pleased with the piece and thought it would be successful, but after a while I stopped.  I can't remember what distracted me, but one day I packed everything up neatly, put it in a box and stowed the box in my closet.

Years passed.

Last week I was reading about the new SAQA show called "Text Messages."  Each quilt has to include "at least one visible letter or word."  All quilts must be 24 inches wide, but can vary in height from 24 to 60 inches.  This call for entries seemed to have my name on it, because I love art with text, and have made many pieces with letters and alphabets.  But I have a bunch of other projects looming in the next couple of months and didn't have time to embark on anything major.

It occurred to me in the middle of the night that the quilt I had started long ago might be dusted off, completed and work for this exhibit.  I couldn't remember exactly how far I had gotten before stowing the project away; maybe I was halfway there.

To my delight, I found the box, right where I expected it to be.  When I unpacked it, it looked just as classy as I had remembered it, which isn't always true in work you put away a long time ago.  And guess what: it measured somewhere between 24 and 24 1/2 inches across!

So turn it 90 degrees, cut off the extra base fabric, and it's almost done.  I guess the gods of artistic creation want me to finish this piece and enter it in the SAQA show.  Now I'm just sewing and sewing and sewing to fasten the intercepts into a global web.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thursday, November 22, 2012


It's Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a holiday that many people have patriotically proclaimed to be unique to America, totally ignoring the harvest festivals that have been celebrated by practically every civilization and nation since the invention of agriculture.  But it is a lovely holiday, one that supposedly focuses our thoughts on just how much we have to be thankful for.

This being a blog mostly about art, and specifically needle art, I'll confine my recitation of thanks to that area.  Today I'm thankful, among other things, for the sewing machine, and that the models available today are run by electricity, unlike the treadle machine that my grandmother used (until my grandfather added an electric motor to it).  I have hand-pieced and hand-quilted enough to know that I greatly prefer to do neither; without the machine I would not make quilts.

I'm thankful for batting that I can order in a huge roll that's delivered to my door every couple of years, so that I don't have to pick the seeds out of the cotton bolls before making a quilt.  I'm thankful for all the high-quality fabric now available -- such a contrast from when I started making quilts and you were lucky to find a few insipid pastelly calicos, not to mention from when our grandmothers had to make clothing and quilts from feed sacks.  I'm thankful that I can afford lots and lots of fabric, that I don't have to restrict myself to scraps as so many of the earlier quilters did.

I'm thankful for the thousands of weights and colors of thread on the market, perfectly designed for exactly the machine and technique I want to use today, and that I can afford to keep drawers full of different kinds at hand.  I'm thankful that needles, too, come in so many different shapes and sizes, and that I don't have to guard just one to last me all my life.  (Although I've kept my favorite needle around for years despite the subtle bend at its waist.)

I'm thankful for rotary cutters and cutting mats.  I could never have made my beloved improvisational quilts without them -- or perhaps it's more accurate to say I would never have made them.  The rotary cutter, with its ability to "draw a line," transformed the mindset of our generation of artists and we'll never be the same, fortunately.

I'm thankful that quilts moved from the bed to the wall about 30 years ago, at the hands of a few visionaries, and for the subsequent explosion of interest in this art form.  I'm thankful that we have the myriad of shows, books, workshops, magazines and blogs devoted to the quilt on the wall.  When I started making quilts, self-taught, I could never have imagined the wealth of resources that would grow up from nowhere to guide, influence and sustain me and others who share my love.

I'm thankful that the community we have built around this shared love is so supportive and inclusive.  Sure, we complain about cliques and prejudices and bemoan the authors, teachers, jurors and curators who like stuff that we consider beneath us. But on the whole, the world of quilts as art is a pretty comfortable place to reside.  I often hear artists in other mediums gasp in astonishment over all the opportunities open to us that do not exist for painters, sculptors or whatever.

One such opportunity that I am particularly thankful for today is the internet, which has enabled me to write this blog and stay in touch with so many friends and colleagues.  Many of you I have been fortunate to meet in person, many of you are cyberfriends of long tenure, and many of you are total strangers.  Yet from every one of you I value your support, love your comments, appreciate your reading.  Thank you for making my life so much richer.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Crabby about craft

One of the popular fault lines between traditional quilting and what I hate to call art quilting is the issue of craft.  Traditional quilters, so the cliche goes, care far more about perfect workmanship than they do about design, while artists supposedly are willing to settle for inferior technique.  I don't think that's a fair generalization, and exhibit 1 for the prosecution is not, as you might expect, evidence of superb craft from art quilters.  No, today my gripe is with inferior craft among the traditional crowd.

I showed you some photos a couple of months ago of a quilt that my sister and I made for her grandson. She had it quilted by a longarm lady who worked with her local quilt shop, but it came back to me to put on the binding.

The last time we had such a situation, I was crabby with the longarm lady because the quilting stopped so far from the edges of the quilt.  I had to spend an hour meandering swoopy curves to fill in the outer three or four inches before I could even start on the binding.  This time the flaws were somewhat different.

 Yes, there were places where the quilting didn't come very close to the edge, but I used the largest empty area to put in our initials and let the rest stay unquilted.

I wasn't happy with the pleats caught into the quilting, or with the bearding on the back.

And then I realized that the backing fabric looked awfully familiar.  Sure enough, it was the same 90-inch- wide fabric that I had bought some years ago at a quilt show from a vendor who specialized in longarm quilters.  I used it as the back of a huge quilt that's now touring in the Color Improvisations show, and in fact had used a few leftovers from that fabric on the front of this new quilt, which you can see in the photo with the pleat.

With the earlier piece, which I free-motion quilted, I had a terrible time with skipped stitches, which I attributed to the backing fabric.  I suspect it's a tightly woven fabric with a lot of sizing, which should be great for longarm quilting, but it sure didn't work out very well on the baby quilt.  Or maybe it was a dull needle.

I'm disturbed when the purveyors of a service that should be of the highest quality let you down.  And I'm sure it's not just my sister's jobs that got done with not a lot of attention to detail.

Perhaps some of the problem comes with the computer programs that guide the quilting -- the program doesn't know how to take special care at the edge of the quilt to make sure the stitching goes all the way out.  One might think that's what the longarm lady could tend to personally, but not this time.  Or the last time.

Perhaps it's a flaw in preparation -- an extra couple of inches of waste fabric could have been stitched around the edges of the quilt to stabilize them in the frame, thus preventing pleats at the corners and allowing the computer-driven stitching to extend beyond the edges.  (It's much easier to apply binding if the top is quilted all the way to and off the trimmed edge, rather than ruffling out in the last inch or so beyond the stitching.)

Perhaps this is just a mediocre quilter, unwilling to take the time to get the details right.  But if so, she's enabled by the quilt shop that keeps recommending her to their customers.

I don't know enough about longarm quilting to put my finger on the problem, but I know enough about craftsmanship to be disappointed.  Since so many people outsource their quilting, I wonder whether there's a whole world full of quilts with pleats and bearding and ruffles.  If so, then maybe over the years that old cliche about traditional quilters having such great technique will go away.

But to end on a cheerful note, I was happy with the quilting pattern -- a frog, to echo the frogs at the center of each log cabin block.  And once or twice, the quilted frog was perfectly positioned outside the printed frog!  Maybe the longarm lady was attending to detail after all.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


If you have listened to much classical music, you're probably familiar with Haydn's Farewell Symphony.  It's a clever piece in which one by one, the musicians stop playing, put their instruments away, and leave the stage.  Finally there's only one violin playing, and when he finishes, he blows out the candles and leaves too.

It was written as a not-so-subtle hint from Haydn to his employer, the Prince of Esterhazy, who had packed up his entire court, including the orchestra, to spend the summer away from Vienna at his country estate.  Months passed and the employees were getting really antsy to go home, but the Prince apparently was having a good time and not yet ready to change his venue.  The farewells in the symphony were code for "Hey, boss, enough already!  It's time to get out of here!!"

It worked, and the Prince dismissed the players to go back to town and their families.  But meanwhile, Haydn had come to terms with the isolation.  Because he was totally out of touch with the sophisticated music world for those long months, he later wrote, "I was forced to be original."

While many quilters were in Houston earlier this month, and now are blogging about all the neat things they've seen, I've been home, thinking about that remark by Haydn.  I love to go to quilt shows, museums and galleries, each with its particular set of attractions.  I always come home with my head spinning, full of ideas and connections, on an adrenaline high.  But it's a tossup whether that energy will translate into a burst of productivity in the studio, or leave me too excited to accomplish much of my own work.

I think it's excellent advice to artists that they should look at other people's art, and that they should seek out companionship and support from other artists.  I do a lot of that myself, whether in person or indirectly.  Technology and the internet have made it possible to be in close contact with artists around the world, whether you make them your virtual friends or simply keep up with their work.  And the old-fashioned ways such as library books are still as valid as ever.

But maybe there comes a time when you have to just go into your studio all by yourself and make art.  For all you lucky enough to go to Houston this year, that's your challenge.  For those of us who stayed home, that's our challenge too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The New Guy is here!

The new baby finally arrived yesterday evening, and his name is Luke.

And here's the perfect baby quilt.

Aren't you impressed?  That in less than twelve hours I have not only whipped out something with his name on it, but gotten it quilted and bound!

I wish.

Faithful readers of this blog may think this looks kind of familiar, and that's because I showed it to you a couple of years ago.

The quilt was made about ten years ago for another Luke, who lives in Australia.  It was one of the first pieces I made with my own hand-dyed fabrics, right after I learned about dyeing.  I still like the colors, the design, and the quilting (which I have no recollection of doing, but apparently did a pretty decent job of, combining free-motion spirals on the large empty blocks with diagonal grid checkerboards on the four-patch blocks).  Unlike many pieces that I made early in my quilting life, I'd be perfectly happy and proud to give this one away today.

But New Luke will just have to wait a bit for a big present.  (Heck, his grandmother and I just barely finished the quilt we made for his big brother, age four, so you can see that deadlines are somewhat flexible in this family.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book review haiku

I've written several times about my continuing fascination with "found poetry" -- phrases cut from books and magazines that are rearranged to make poems.  I particularly like finding/making haiku, the Japanese form in which you count syllables rather than following meter or rhyme. The poems are small, thus particularly appropriate for a technique that requires the entire line to be cut from a single line of printed matter. Since newspaper columns are only two or three inches wide, short phrases are about all that you can expect to find.

In the last several months I have started three different found haiku projects.  I've written before about finding poems in junk mail.  But I'm also using art and book reviews found in the New York Times.

The Times runs book reviews almost every day in its arts section, and most of them follow the format of showing a little thumbnail of the book's cover along with the book info such as publisher and price.  I paste the thumbnail box at the top of my collage, and put the poem beneath.  As supports, I use cards from an old library card catalog, salvaged when they went to computerized records.

I have been pleasantly surprised at how in 17 syllables it's possible to come up with a fairly decent plot summary:

recent immigrants
ambitious but good-hearted
clawing their way up

long, glory-stalking
master conniver

his health, his marriage
habit of swimming naked

Bread. Cheese. A beret.
thugs sic dogs on a gay man;
later, Russian troops

Chief Justice Roberts
a powerful intellect
playing the long game

And sometimes, a critical assessment:

much flab and fatuousness
it's entertainment

willfully banal
not only disappointing --
it's oddly bloodless

often tedious
illustration of these woes
almost blow-by-blow

At some point in the future I plan to bind the cards into a book; not sure exactly what that might look like.  Right now, I'm just trying to get them found and pasted up.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Earlier in the year I posted a photo suite of front steps that had been painted in many colors of the rainbow.  Unfortunately, it was missing purple and orange.  I have been looking for those colors kind of half-heartedly ever since, but recently I was looking through some old photos and decided I had to step up my efforts to plug the gaps in my collection.

So the other day I was walking with a friend and I mentioned to her that if she ever saw purple or orange steps, would she please remember where they were and let me know.

Not two minutes later, what did we find:

We hadn't even finished congratulating each other and marveling at how quickly we had solved that problem when we found another one in the next block:

An embarrassment of riches! But still no orange.  (The pumpkin doesn't count.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

We, the people get our day

Today I will be out of pocket until just after sundown.  Starting well before dawn, I will be spending  13 hours participating in the most sacred activity of my belief system, the apex of its liturgical year.

I will be a polling place worker on Election Day.

While I share with many of my fellow Americans despair and frustration over the degradation of our political process, I love my country.  I revere its democratic laws and traditions.  I regard its Constitution as the highest and best incarnation of political idealism in history.  And I believe that when we vote, we honor everything that we hold dear.

Voting is a rite both symbolic and substantive.  On 364 days of the year, Mr. Billionaire has a far louder voice in the public policy debate than you and I do, but today he stands in the same line and uses the same pencil as we do, and you and I can outvote him.  We may not be able to stop the K Street lobbyists, the frequently cynical and occasionally venal politicians, or the noxious campaign lies and pandering, but we can elect people who will push and pull the nation in the direction we prefer.

I wish we could rise up and overturn the Citizens United decision, whether by constitutional amendment or a more enlightened Supreme Court.  I wish we could replace the electoral college, carefully designed as a storm barrier to protect the presidency from unmitigated democracy (and unfortunately, continuing to perform that way centuries later).  I wish we could energize the young people of this nation to exercise their voting power and stomp on the selfishness of the geezer generation, we who are so willing to defend our hard-won Social Security and Medicare by throwing the kids out of the sleigh.

Not sure those things will occur in my lifetime, but I still have hope that our system will wake from its slumber and return to its glorious roots.  It's hope in the future, and faith in the underlying soundness of our Constitution and our nation, that gets me out of bed at 4:15 AM to spend the day at the polls as an acolyte in the sacrament of our democracy.

I hope that every one of you who is able to, will vote today.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Junk mail haiku 4

Last week I showed you some of the haiku poems I've been finding in our junk mail.  To finish up this train of thought, here are some that might actually approach actual poetry.  Maybe they have intriguing imagery, maybe some nice alliteration and rhythm, maybe some enigmatic juxtapositions that make you smile and think.  When I find one like this I'm particularly happy.