Sunday, December 30, 2012

Photo suite 53 -- Boa viagem!

On New Year's Day 2012, we were in Santarem, Brazil, several hundred miles up the Amazon.  I began a year of  "photo suites," collections of related pictures that seemed to say more in chorus than they could say alone.  I've had so much fun with this project that I will be continuing it next year.

Meanwhile, back in Brazil, the mighty river is the main transportation artery for the entire region.  Hundreds of little boats go back and forth carrying passengers and cargo.  On the dock in Santarem, you can buy a ticket for any place you want, with your choice of competing carriers.

As the year is about to end, and a new one awaits just around the bend, I wish you boa viagem for all your future voyages, whether in reality or in your imagination.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The challenge of challenges 7

This series of posts on challenges has finally made its way full circle back to where it started: my response to a new SAQA show that will be called "Text Messages."

SAQA has been particularly energetic in the last year or so in organizing theme shows that will travel around the country and be documented in catalogs.  I think this is an excellent idea and at least in my book, the most valuable service the organization provides to its members.  I have read many calls for entries for these shows and decided not to participate.

For instance, the "Beyond Comfort" exhibit had to do with "new technologies, techniques and materials."  Not my thing.  "Layers of Memory" had to do with memory, a subject I had worked with in 2001 and 2002 (my company had offices in the World Trade Center and I spent a lot of time in that building, so my response to its destruction had a lot to do with my own memories) but which I was no longer actively exploring.  "Art Meets Science" and "A Sense of Humor" didn't strike any chords.  And several other shows just didn't relate to what I was interested in.

But "Text Messages" is a subject that calls out to me in 144-point boldface all caps.  I could probably write a book about my affinity with text as a visual artist -- and now that I mention it, maybe I will write about it for you in the coming weeks.  For now, let me say that text, in the form of letterforms and alphabets, has been a huge element in my work for at least a decade.

So the thought of making quilts with "actual or implied writing" struck so close to my heart that I had to do something to enter this show.  I wrote last month about quilt #1, which I began several years ago and hope to finish in the next couple of weeks.  Now I've almost finished quilt #2.

I came to be the owner of a large piece of fabric covered with black printing on white background.  I think it had been a curtain in its first career, because of the hems and the permanently embedded creases, and I have no recollection of how it came to me.  The printing was attractive but apparently the writing was commissioned from terminally stupid Valley Girls.  So if I were to ever use the fabric, I'd have to cut it into small enough pieces that the words wouldn't be embarrassing.

Well, not to worry -- my current "Crazed" series of quilts, now up to #20, uses fabric cut into small pieces, generally no larger than postage stamps.  I have been wanting to do more with pieced fine lines cut from striped fabric.  I have used striped lines -- actually they look more like dotted lines when they're less than an eighth-inch wide -- in five quilts so far, and don't think I've even scratched the surface yet.

So it was totally comfortable to make a quilt using the printed text as background and striped fabrics as pieced-in lines.  The fact that it met the criteria for the SAQA show was almost incidental.  Here's a detail shot:

Crazed 20: Print on the Dotted Line

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas ornaments -- the reveal

 I wrote several weeks ago about how I got my Christmas ornaments done this year at a shamefully early date -- all but a couple were finished by Halloween.

Here they are awaiting distribution.

The secret ingredient is PVC pipe inside to give the crackers their shape.  (They're called crackers because in England, candymakers would package their goodies inside cardboard tubes loaded with a bit of explosive substance.  When you pulled on the ends, the package would CRACK! open.)

PVC pipe has to be one of the least expensive building materials around. I got eight feet of it for about $4.  The fabric for the wrapping came from an old upholstery sample book (free) and the laces, ribbons, decorative braids and faux holly berries had all been sitting in boxes and drawers for many years waiting for their moment of glory.

Every year the ornaments constitute a new challenge: finding a design that is different from all those that have gone before.  If I'm feeling ambitious and the creek don't rise, I may come up with an idea as early as summer.  If life intrudes or inspiration eludes me, I may be madly sewing or glueing on Thanksgiving weekend.

As the list has grown, so has my investment of time, but I can say that the hours I spend each year on this project are sweet.  As I embroider the names I think of the people and what we share.  Adding a new name to the list is an occasion of joy -- this year, a new baby, the pale-blue Luke at front left -- subtracting a name is an occasion for remembering.

My wish for all of you is that today will be a sweet day of joy and remembering.  Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2012

The challenge of challenges 6

Last year I was intrigued by another challenge: SAQA was sponsoring a theme show called Seasonal Palette.  For this show, you submitted a proposal, and if accepted, you would make a quilt to specific size requirements.  The proposal had to name which of the four seasons you wanted to depict, and what color palette you would use.

The instant I read about this challenge I wanted to respond, and I knew exactly what I wanted to make.

I had traveled to Antarctica earlier that year and came back with my head spinning with ice images.  I even wrote in my blog when I got home about how vacations often inspire big steps forward in an artist's work.  I wrote, "I'm going to contemplate ice and what aspect of it might be intriguing enough to work with."

Truth be told, I didn't contemplate it all that much in the months ahead as I got busy making other things.  But when the Seasonal Palette challenge came along, the ice quilt suddenly jumped from my remote to-do list onto my immediate to-do list.  And I knew what it was going to look like: it would be one of my Fault Lines series, in which fine pieced lines fracture the surface -- because that's what icebergs look like, all fractured and beat up.  The surface would be white and blue; the fine pieced lines would be black or gray prints to represent the glacial dirt that surprisingly marks even the whitest ice.

When my proposal was accepted for the show, the quilt practically made itself, because it had sprung fully formed from my existing work.

Big Ice, 32 x 78", 2012

My rule about challenges had produced its first success: I had made a quilt that was 100% comfortable within my existing series, and it took that series forward.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The challenge of challenges 5

After I realized how I had used challenges as a crutch for many years, I soured on them.  The dog would still salivate when the bell was rung, but I was able to restrain it from biting.  I knew that challenges would be the quilting equivalent of daily sudoku -- fun, intellectually stimulating, but in the end, irrelevant to the art I felt I should be making, my "real" art.

I made a rule: I would respond to a challenge or a theme show only if I could make work that was already on my to-do list.  In other words, it would have to be a natural extension of an existing body of work, and explore something that I hadn't already explored, or that I wanted to explore further.

The first occasion I had to live by my new rule came in 2008.  My small quilt group had a show that was going to be called "At the River's Edge" and I couldn't think of anything I'd made that would fit the theme.  My most recent work included this piece:

One day as I was whining to the group how I had no river quilts, no ideas, and precious little time before the show, somebody joked that if I was really desperate I could flip the quilt 90 degrees and call the blue a river.

Well!  Maybe not a joke after all!

I did flip the quilt and named it Low Water.  I recalled that the red-brown area of the quilt had been suggesting parched, cracked, dried-up dirt all along and it wasn't a stretch to think of the blue as water.

Crazed 6: Low Water, 34 x 45", 2008

That immediately prompted a companion piece, which I named Flood Stage.  Here the river is almost escaping its bounds, lapping enthusiastically against the bricks.  I knew exactly how I wanted to make this quilt, because I had already resolved that in the future I wanted to use different colors of similar value, and try using small print fabrics as my fine lines (to date, I had only used solids).

Crazed 7: Flood Stage, 36 x 57", 2008

I loved both quilts, and was pleased that the theme show made them happen.  And I felt so happy that I hadn't spent months making quilts that didn't fit into my current series.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A little help for my friend

Some time ago the German magazine "Patchwork Professional" had a feature about the Color Improvisations show that has been touring Europe for the last two years.  I was asked to provide a tutorial article on the fine-line piecing technique used in my quilts in that show.

Whenever you write a tutorial you're casting your bread upon the waters, with faith that somebody out there will read it and with any luck, find it interesting and/or helpful.  But in most cases, if that happens, you don't know it.  So it's always a pleasure to learn that somebody did read and enjoy.

Last week I was delighted to hear from Regine Daldrup, a German quilter.  She said that this spring she visited the Lyonel Feininger Museum in Quedlinburg, near Leipzig.  "I love his kind of painting very much," she wrote.  "Thinking about how to quilt in a similar way I remembered your fine lines and now I want to show you my quilt ala Feininger."

Here's Regine's quilt:

I have seen and admired Feininger's work in many museums but had never identified any parallels in my own work.  After getting Regine's email I did an image search and reminded myself of his characteristic style.  Sure enough, he frequently fractures his surfaces with diagonal facets and I could see why fine lines would be a good way to represent his work in fabric.

 Lyonel Feininger, Still Day on the Sea, 1929

Lyonel Feininger, Harbor Mole, 1913

Lyonel Feininger, Cathedral, 1919

I think Regine did a great job of capturing the famous artist's feeling while still producing a work that is very much a quilt.  I'm happy to have provided a bit of her inspiration.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Photo suite 51 -- nice ladies' rooms

Ephesus, Turkey

Logan Airport, Boston

Dairy Barn, Athens, Ohio

Pergamon Museum, Berlin

The Acropolis, Athens

Todos Santos, Mexico


Friday, December 14, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Twelve twelves from my studio

 Happy 12/12/12!

12 new skeins of embroidery floss

12 pieces of old type

12 pens

12 sew-off squares

12 bobbins

12 pins

12 hand-dyes

12 packs of 100% cotton rickrack

12 spools of metallic thread

12 keys found on the road

12 woven trims

12 braided cords

but no partridge in a pear tree

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The challenge of challenges 4

When I was a novice quilter I loved challenges, for a couple of reasons.  First, I like assignments and rules and constraints; I enjoy the intellectual challenge of working within bounds.  I also like the way that higher levels of computer games get more difficult.  When I write poetry I like to make it rhyme and fit within traditional forms rather than just flop along free-form.  And I really love taking standardized tests.  I know that makes me weird, but so be it.

Second and perhaps more telling, I often found it it easier to work on an assignment than to come up with ideas on my own.  As I recollect my early days as a serious quilter, what comes to mind is how I decided what to make.

Mostly I got ideas from quilts I'd seen in books and magazines.  I never copied them exactly, but I would use them as prompts.  In truth, I had lots of ideas floating around in my head, but I didn't know how to access them except with outside stimuli such as seeing somebody else's work or the rules of a challenge.

With such help, I would snag an idea, formulate a plan, and make a nice quilt.  When it was finished, I was back to zero, searching/waiting for the next idea, which came from somewhere outside.  Challenges were welcome, because they would often prompt the next quilt.

In retrospect, I recognize this as a highly inefficient and uncreative modus operandi.  In retrospect, I think the turning point in my artistic development came when I started looking for ideas not in the wide universe but within my own history, my own body of work.  At a point, the quilts started talking to me.  They told me what questions they had, still unanswered, and asked me to go back and work on unfinished business.

In effect, my work had started posing its own challenges.

Monday, December 10, 2012

When bad things happen to good products

I've been buying Red Heart acrylic yarn for four decades, give or take.  It's my go-to yarn for crocheting baby afghans, which I do in quantity, partly because it's totally machine washable.  I've bought it by the bushel, in many different colors, and enjoy the flexibility to mix and match from different skeins in the same project.

In the last couple of years I haven't been doing as much crochet as I used to do; I've been making a lot more hand embroidery projects that occupy my TV watching and family conversation time.  But I have noticed that the occasional skein of Red Heart seems to be stiffer and scratchier than the yarn I'm used to.

Last week, though, I got a stark object lesson in the degradation of one of my favorite brands.  My friend had bought a couple of skeins to knit a sweater for her grandson, and when it was time to sew the pieces together, to her dismay, here's what the sleeves looked like:

The bigger one was stiff and scratchy, while the smaller one was softer.  Although she hadn't noticed it while she was knitting, when we compared the two yarns we could tell the difference by feel.

Ironically, this yarn is sold under the rubric of "No dye lot," so you can theoretically buy multiple skeins of the same color and not have to worry that they won't match perfectly.  Well, the color was the only thing that did match in this project.

Caveat emptor.  Red Heart has tainted a previously fine product.  If you buy it, give it the feel test, especially if you're buying more than one skein.  If you have a choice, go for the softer "original" version.  The stiff, scratchy yarn isn't quite as nice.