Sunday, March 31, 2013

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


I’ve recently become aware of a movement whose name makes me gag – “craftivism.” Yet the underlying concept is worth exploring. It’s an umbrella term for many kinds of art and craft activities designed to promote good in the world. It’s as current as this week’s New York Times, as intellectually rigorous as my art history graduate seminar, as close to home as my fiber-art friends.

As I’ve read and heard about such activities from several different sources in the last couple of weeks, I think it’s time to think about what they are and how they fit into the art and craft scene.  These projects seem to fall into three major food groups.

First, charitable contributions or services, such as making scarves, toys, mittens, hats and afghans for soldiers, cancer patients, women’s shelters or the homeless; or teaching people to knit. This concept is as old as the hills (your great-grandmother might have knitted socks for soldiers in World War I; her grandmother might have done the same in the Civil War) but seems trendy with its new name.

Second, consciousness-raising display, making or doing something that will get people to think about political or social issues. In some cases, the audience is small and accidental; for instance, the Counterfeit Crochet Project encourages people to crochet and use "designer bags" as a commentary on brand identity and globalized marketing and manufacturing.

In other cases, the product is considered high art. For instance, textile artist Kelly Cobb enlisted an army of farmers and craftspeople to make a suit from products raised and produced within 100 miles of Philadelphia; it was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Yarn-bombers covered a WW2 combat tank with pink squares to protest the war in Iraq; it was parked outside the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Center in Copenhagen.

Third, making things to sell.  This seems to break into two sub-groups.  

One seeks to make existing products more ethically or cheaply.  For instance, Blackspot sneakers, made from hemp and recycled tires, are made in fair-trade factories and sold through independent retailers, sans marketing hype.  Ethical Metalsmiths make jewelry using only socially and environmentally acceptable materials (no conflict diamonds), and recycle the metals and gems from old jewelry.

The second uses craft to help disadvantaged people make a living.  Not a new concept -- perhaps you remember the Freedom Quilting Bee, founded in Alabama in 1966 as part of the civil rights movement; rural black women made products to sell and the next thing you knew, we had the Gee's Bend extravaganza!  Professional craftspeople are often enlisted to go to remote areas and help the locals improve their skills and design products that will be more appealing to potential buyers.  For instance, my friend Philis Alvic, a weaver, has worked with craftspeople in a dozen different countries from Nepal to Tanzania to Peru.

Some of these projects seem like no-brainers (ladies who quilt, sew and knit have been making and donating things forever).  Others seem kind of cerebral, a variety of conceptual art, and still others seem like great ideas for collective action but hard to incorporate into one's personal agenda.  I'll be thinking more about this subject -- and if you have thoughts, please share them!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Monday, March 25, 2013

Found pennies -- success!!

A couple of weeks ago I was whining about how many times I had to try to get my found pennies to hang nicely in a grid.  I realize that I have never reported back on how that worked out.

Fortunately, it worked very well.  Here's the finished piece, casting beautiful shadows under the multiple gallery lights.  I think it's probably the best piece in the show, from a purely aesthetic viewpoint.

I'm also happy to report that somebody liked it well enough to buy it -- and best of all, it's somebody who had been reading about the difficult genesis of this piece on the blog.  So she'll always know how much I wanted it to come into being.

Update: I'm posting this to Nina Marie's weekly blog roundup -- check it out to see what other fiber artists have been doing this week.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Photo suite 65 -- taking the gloves off

Most of the gloves abandoned on the street are work gloves, fungible in the extreme.  But now and then I find gloves that surely were survived by a grieving twin and owner.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

My book is art 3

I wrote earlier this week about how Keith Auerbach took pictures of my 15th century book and through the magic of Photoshop transformed them into a series of art prints now on display at Pyro Gallery in Louisville.  Now in a circling back home, I have taken one of his prints and turned it into my own version of art.

Keith had hundreds of postcards for his show that the printer had done wrong and could not be mailed, and he offered them to his friends.  I took a pile and decided to slice them into bits and reconfigure them -- exactly as Keith had done with the photos of my book.  But my reconfiguration was a version of my old favorite "postage stamp" quilt.

For years I've been saving all the announcement postcards I get in the mail for art exhibits, and thinking of sewing them together into a postage stamp array.  This project was a dry run, much smaller than I envision the work of my dreams.

I learned that using paper is in some ways easier than fabric (you don't have to first stitch the little "quilts" together, and you don't end up all covered in bits of thread and fraying fabric) and in some ways trickier (if you run out of thread or make a mistake, you have to carefully fit your needle into the pre-existing holes).  And I learned that the glossy finish of postcards makes the finished product very difficult to photograph, so if I ever make the work of my dreams it may have a hard time getting juried into anything.

But meanwhile, I enjoyed taking the process of cutting, multiplying and reconfiguring one step farther.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sign of the week

Happy birthday to my favorite (and only) brother!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My book is art 2

Well, I think my book was art all by itself, but after I lent it to Keith Auerbach it took on a new and wildly different life.

He told me that after he brought the book home with him, he was afraid to open it, lest the spine be broken or a page fall out.  (Not to worry; the book is a lot tougher than that, and I suspect it's been through plenty of handling in its half-millenium of life.)  So first he just stood the book up on the scanner and took pictures of the edges of the pages.  Those scans became the basis for several prints, which are now on display at Pyro Gallery in Louisville, through March 30, and I am so pleased and proud to have helped in a small way to bring this body of art to fruition.

Keith did finally open the book, but only a little ways, and scanned in about half a page.  But that half-page was enough to yield several other prints.

The magic of Photoshop is a secret to me; I purchased the program several months ago but have yet to spend the time to learn to use it.  But seeing what Keith has done with my book and other source material makes me jealous.  This is so different from plain old photography that it hardly qualifies to be described with the same word.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My book is art

I've written before about how my friend Keith Auerbach does magic with Photoshop, turning scans of humble objects into intricate and wonderful compositions.  Several months ago he mentioned that he was fascinated with scanning in bits of text from old books, and I offered to lend him a book that I inherited from my father to play with.

Here's the book in its protective quilted cover, which I made for Dad many decades ago,

and here it is unveiled.  It was printed in 1493 in Bologna, thus qualifying it as incunabula, any work printed before 1500.  It's a theological treatise, in Latin of course, by a prominent cleric named Matthaeus Bossus.

Inside, the typography is stark but beautiful.  Unlike the early books printed by Gutenberg and other Germans in the "black letter" face resembling contemporary German handlettering, this one uses a Roman typeface that is perfectly readable.  It has occasional ornamental capitals in red or blue, added by hand with ink after the book was printed.

by contrast, a page from the Gutenberg Bible; the early German printers thought that people would shun their books if they looked too different from the handwritten manuscripts of the day

And it had bookworms at one point in its long life.

Tomorrow I'll show you what Keith did with the book.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A reader writes in

The main reason people write blogs is to connect with others out there in cyberspace, and it's always great to hear that in fact you have made a connection.  I got a lovely email from a reader the other day and wanted to share it.  It's from Kathy French, a quilter from Michigan:

Thank you for your inspiration and tutorial on skinny lines.  I found you early last summer when I happened upon "And Then We Set it on Fire" and you were the featured artist.  

I love the skinny lines and immediately began playing with them.  Although my work is nowhere near as complex as yours, it is a direct descendent of yours!  I took the two pieces I made and used them in a medallion quilt that I made at Gwen Martson's Beaver Island Quilt Retreat last October.

Many of the class members couldn't believe I actually pieced these lines -- they had to look in the back.

To which I respond that I'm so happy to find a connection, and that my work gave somebody a good idea.  And I like the rest of the quilt built around "my" part, too!  Thanks, Kathy.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Friday, March 15, 2013

Back in school -- reflections on feminist art

Another paper written for my art history class:

OK, I’m going to show my age. I was there for the dawning of the Second Wave of feminism, raised in the postwar age of stay-at-home moms doing housework in high heels and pearls, hitting the workforce and marriage just about when women were starting to question their cultural expectations and limitations. I was just as mad as anybody at the dawning realization that the status quo just wasn’t fair.

But I never thought – and to this day, do not think – that the way to protest maltreatment at the hands of the chauvinist pig male establishment is to maltreat yourself.

In many cases, early feminist artists took this maltreatment quite literally. Valie Export walked down the street in different kinds of creative undress, inviting people to feel her up. Marina Abramovic invited spectators to savage her with knives, thorns and loaded guns while she sat motionless for six hours, and they took her up on it.  Yoko Ono allowed spectators to cut her clothing off while she too knelt motionless.

Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0

In other cases, feminist artists settled for simulated maltreatment. Ana Mendieta reenacted a brutal rape of a woman in her community, and made numerous photo images of herself, both clothed and nude, covered in blood (at least the blood was not her own). Carolee Schneemann allowed snakes to crawl over her naked body.

Ana Mendieta, Body Tracks

And many feminist artists simply offered their own naked bodies in provocative contexts to challenge the traditional view of the passive female nude, laid out for the pleasure of the male viewer/consumer. Some upped the ante by featuring female genitalia in prominent roles, either their own or false, For instance, Hannah Wilke made little genitalia out of bubble gum and stuck them to artworks on paper or to her own face and body. Francesca Woodman stuck masks and photos between her naked, spread legs. Carolee Schneemann extracted a long scroll from her vagina during a performance.

Hannah Wilke, SOS Scarification Object Series

Francesca Woodman

While agreeing totally with the feminist perspective that the art world has historically given women the short end of the stick, and something should be done to challenge this practice, I have a hard time understanding the concept behind giving yourself the short end of the stick in protest.

By contrast, I feel a great deal of sympathy for feminist artists who try to put the show on the other foot, by giving men a frisson of what it might be like to be seen voyeuristically as a sex object. Artists such as Joan Semmel and Anita Steckel painted heterosexual sex from a female perspective, celebrating the activity but presenting it for the benefit and pleasure of the woman, not the man. Perhaps male viewers felt a bit uncomfortable at their depictions of erections and penises, and if so, that was exactly what the artists wanted to accomplish.

But I confess to bewilderment over how putting your body forth as a sexual display to shock, disturb and titillate viewers is a large qualitative improvement over allowing some male artist or pimp to do the same. (I had a hard time finding images to illustrate this post that were at least sort of fit for public consumption.  A half hour on google with the artists I have mentioned will probably be plenty to ruin your breakfast.)

Artists of both genders have always felt free to use shock value as a step toward acceptance (or at least recognition) by the art establishment, and the greater the public outrage, the greater the artist’s satisfaction, emotional if not financial.  I can also see the temptation on the part of young, good-looking women to capitalize on their looks; if over the centuries men have made money off the nubile bodies of women, it’s nice for women to bypass the exploiters and make the money themselves, especially if that also provides a ticket to the higher levels of the art world. But as a card-carrying feminist I wish these artists had chosen a mode of expression that could stick it to the man without treating themselves as meat for the man’s gaze.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Text Messages -- results in 3

I've told you about my two quilts that were rejected from the SAQA Text Messages show; now here's the good news.  The third one was accepted.

I wrote about it last fall when I started working on it.  The SAQA people have asked us not to show full view photos of the accepted quilts until the show goes public in Houston next fall, so I'll just give you a peek at the detail shot.

Crazed 20: Print on the Dotted Line (detail)

As you can see by the title, this is the 20th quilt in the series, all made with tiny bits of fabric separated by fine pieced lines.  I was wondering last summer whether this series had run its course, whether I could think of something new to do with the same idea and whether I even wanted to go back to the same well again.

This quilt convinced me that I did -- and I got enough energy out of making this piece that I think I'll make at least a couple more before moving on.  I started this series in 2007 and the following year I thought maybe I had done all I could with the concept.  Since then I have been continually surprised and pleased at how the muse keeps coming back, even when I think she has deserted me.  Obviously she just needs a little vacation every now and then.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Text Messages -- results in 2

I wrote yesterday about one of the quilts that was rejected from SAQA's Text Messages show.  Here's another one that shared the same fate.

I had a big piece of fabric with words all over it; my sister had used it as a curtain for some years and when it was time to redecorate she sent it to me.  I loved the typography but hated the words (really stupid) so I wanted to cut the fabric into really small, unreadable bits.  I got the idea to make a piece in the style I call "postage stamp" quilts -- a bunch of miniature quilts stitched together into an open grid.  In this piece, the "postage stamps" were about 1 1/4" tall by 1 3/4" wide.

I've made six quilts in this style before, so I have the process pretty well under control.  This one is the smallest ever, so it wasn't that hard to do (in fact, now that it's been rejected for this show, I may be tempted to go back and make it a lot wider than 24", SAQA's requirement).

I realized as I was submitting my entry that the contest rules required each piece to have a 4" sleeve at the top.  This piece doesn't, because it doesn't have a solid area to attach a sleeve to the back of.  Instead it hangs from a rod.

Postage 7: Tower of Babble

Maybe that's why it got rejected from the show, and if so, I certainly deserved it for missing this point in the call for entries.  (But I have to wonder why SAQA, willing to expand the definition of "art quilt" last year to include many types of work that aren't exactly like traditional quilts, wants to be so rigid in its rules for how work is hung.  I wonder if the efficiency of having a whole show full of quilts that can be installed with identical hardware is worth the potential loss of creativity in barring work that is different from the traditional norm.)

Well, no hard feelings -- this quilt, too, will have its day, just not in this show.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Text Messages -- results in

Just when you think you have made a resolution, something comes along to make sure you don't keep it. Perhaps it's a bag of Cheetos that arrive from the grocery by themselves, when you were trying to avoid junk food.  Or my story for today, perhaps it's a call for entries from SAQA for a show that you can't possible pass up.

I was kind of down on piecing last fall after my summer-long marathon of getting three huge quilts ready to enter in Quilt National, only to have them all rejected.  I wanted to work on something different, maybe collage or calligraphy.  I enrolled in an art history class.  I committed to a whole new body of work, not in fiber, for a show.  I could happily envision a long time away from the sewing machine.

Then SAQA called to me.  They announced a new traveling show called "Text Messages," in which you had to have at least one letter or word on the quilt.  I have loved words and letters all my life and have used them in my art many times in the past, and I found it effortless to crank out three quite different quilts to enter in this show.

Here's one that got rejected, and its long story.

Several years ago I was working on a series of quilts about the war in Iraq.  In addition to the death and destruction of actual combat, I was concerned about threats to our personal liberties at home, thanks to the absurdities of security theater at the airport and widespread wiretapping of phone and electronic communication by citizens.  I wondered whether the wiretapping would actually accomplish much, whether the fragments of overheard messages could ever make sense.

I started a quilt that was going to be entirely covered in appliqued messages.  Many of them were cut from selvages, always a good source of words.  Many came from fabric that included writing; I've been collecting this stuff for years.  And many I just printed out or wrote with Pigma pens onto fabric.  I finished perhaps a third of the piece and for some reason got distracted, folded it up and put it away. The box was well-labeled and every month or so I would come upon it and think that I really should get it down and finish it some day.

But it wasn't until SAQA's call for entries that I opened the box -- and to my immense surprise, found that the finished part of the quilt was 23 1/2 inches long.  The SAQA quilts had to be 24 inches wide, by whatever height we wanted.  So by flipping the quilt 90 degrees, slicing off the unfinished expanse of denim, and adding a half-inch worth of additional words, I was almost finished!!

A whole lot of additional sewing over the top of the piece, holding down the pieces in a dense net of stitching, and it was done.

War Zone 7: Intercepts

Too bad the juror didn't like it enough to accept it for the Text Messages show.  It will get out in public somewhere, someday.