Monday, September 30, 2013

TMI -- art label department

Elizabeth Barton left an interesting comment on my post last week about Quilt National.  She wrote, "I thought there were far too many quilts that depended on photographs printed onto the fabric -- even to the point of the company printing the fabric being mentioned in the descriptive labels!"

Her point was different, but I glommed onto her mention of Spoonflower on the labels.  I've been noticing similar practices in several art shows I've attended recently, and I find some of them highly annoying.

My top peeve is a list of materials beginning with the words "art quilt," especially in shows where everything there is a quilt.  "Art quilt" is not a material; arguably, "art quilt" is not even a valid category (do we see a lot of "art paintings" or "art sculptures" in galleries and shows?).  And why you should say it in a list of materials and techniques is beyond  me.

My second peeve is a list that includes brand names, including but hardly limited to Spoonflower.  I've seen labels talking about Thermofax screens, Cherrywood and Lunn fabrics (why not Gingher scissors, Olfa rotary cutters, or Bernina sewing machines?  why not Aurifil thread or Warm & Natural batting?  why not Clotilde pins or Homasote design walls?)

Nor am I wild about process descriptions that tell you everything but whether the artist stopped in the middle to take the laundry out of the dryer.  Like "words/phrases cut from magazines, glued to paper, scanned, printed onto fabric" or "pastel drawn from life, repeated applications of fabric and paint" or "silk thread on the surface and lingerie thread in the bobbin" or "fabric 'aged' by the artist over a winter in my back yard."

I don't like to see process descriptions like "cut intuitively" or "using my digital photos as inspiration."   Isn't practically everything an artist does in some way intuitive?  Doesn't every work of art have an inspiration?

If I have to generalize, these over-elaborate descriptions seem to combine the worst elements of narcissism and insecurity.  The former, because it implies that viewers yearn for more, more, more information about the artist's every breath.  The latter, because it implies that the too-eager artist has to prove that every step she took is indeed legitimate.

Part of the problem is that quilt and fiber shows often conflate lists of materials (the standard element of descriptive labels for every art medium) with lists of techniques (of particular interest to fiber artists and aficionadas, because there are so many techniques out there and it's not always apparent which ones were used).  So one kind of list (commercial cottons, bamboo batting, silk thread, etc.) oozes seamlessly into another (arashi shibori, hand embroidery, quilted with a long-arm sewing machine).

This quilt show practice of TMI may serve one purpose -- telling aficionadas everything they want to know about how a piece was made -- but not another -- acting like we're part of the larger art world.  And arguably catering to the aficionada's desire for info on technique may just hold said aficionada back from appreciating the art aspects of the work.

When I go to museums I see labels that simply say "oil on linen" or "bronze" or "painted wood" or "matériaux divers," and they seem classy and sophisticated.  When I enter quilt or fiber art shows I describe my work as "machine pieced and quilted," or if required to state materials, I'll add "commercial cottons."  When I enter all-mediums art shows I just say "fiber."  Maybe that's too bare-bones, but I think a bit less information is sometimes more powerful and intriguing than too much.

What do you think?

at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

short and sweet!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Life imitates art 4

at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Frederic Edwin Church, The Iceberg, 1891

in the Weddell Sea

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Quilt National -- where are the pieced quilts??

I missed the opening of Quilt National this year, but was able to visit Athens last month and catch the show before it ended.  Unfortunately, if you miss the opening weekend, photography is verboten, so I can't give you a detailed review of the show.

Martha Sielman had an excellent article about QN in the latest SAQA Journal, and in case you missed it, I'll give you the recap.  She noted several trends in this exhibit:

Hand stitching: almost 20 percent of the pieces in the show were hand quilted; others used hand stitches as design elements.

Subdued palettes: at least 35 percent of the quilts were primarily neutrals, and many of those in color used muted tones.

Photo transfer: in more than 20 percent of the quilts

Machine stitched "drawing": like this wonderful quilt by Paula Kovarik, where the drawing is done through all layers.

Paula Kovarik, Round and Round it Goes, in QN '13

Sheers: lots of tulle and other sheers for color effects; a few quilts using transparency and shadows.

Recycled materials and found objects: most notably, the best in show was covered with stuff (yet it was one of the few quilts with embellishments).

But what struck me most about the show wasn't mentioned in Martha's article: the near-absence of the pieced quilt.  For this discussion, I define pieced quilt as one where the design and composition is achieved wholly or predominantly through piecing of fabrics.  To fit the definition, it has to be traditional piecing: no raw edges, no fusing.

That leaves out quilts that achieve their design through applique or collage of pieces of fabric, and those where surface design does all the work.  So, for instance, I didn't count Jan Myers-Newbury's magnificant shibori quilt as a pieced quilt; even though she has pieced different fabrics together, the design of the quilt comes primarily from the shibori.

So applying my definition, I counted only two pieced quilts in the entire exhibit, out of 85 total.  And this was disturbing.

You know that I make pieced quilts, so seeing only two representatives of my own kind of work in the pantheon of contemporary quilting made me feel marginalized and left out; like trying to be an Abstract Expressionist when everybody else had moved on to Pop Art and minimalism.

And this disturbs me.  I like the fact that the quilt world has been so adventurous in trying and accepting new techniques and approaches.  In particular, surface design has become so important and exciting in the last two decades.  But have we gotten so enamored of the new that we have totally disrespected and discarded the old?

I know that the results in any given show primarily reflect the likes and dislikes of its jurors, but they also reflect the zeitgeist of the larger art community.  And in a show as influential as QN, they also help shape the zeitgeist.  That's why it's so worrisome to think that pieced quilts, the foundation of our collective quilting sensibility, are so easily relegated to the margins of the premier venue for our art form.

It's not because pieced quilts are traditional and the art form has moved on -- piecing is simply a technique, and can be used to convey images and messages just as new and edgy as anything you'd find in phototransfer or other trendy technique.  And it's not because this pool of entries had no decent pieced quilts to choose from; forget about my own, but I know more than a dozen fine artists who submitted wonderful pieced quilts (I've seen many of them) that were rejected.

If indeed the pieced quilt is becoming passe, what does that mean for the art quilt community?  One possible moral of the story is that the basic techniques aren't good enough any more -- you gotta have a gimmick.  I don't see that as a desirable outcome.

Another possible reading is that piecing is going to become a lost art form, at least in the "art" part of the quilt world.  If piecing lives on only in the realm of the state fair and the quilt police, will it drown in the tedious tide of quarter-inch seam allowances and matching points, and lose all the wonderful vitality that it has achieved in the last thirty or forty years?

I hope I'm overreacting.  I hope pieced quilts will come back to QN '15 with a bang.  But I worry.

What do you think?


Monday, September 23, 2013

Doubling down

I was thrilled to learn on Friday that one of my quilts has been accepted into Fiber Art VI, the biannual exhibit at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts in California.  It's cosponsored by the Surface Design Association and the wonderful fiber artist Joan Schulze was one of the jurors.  Only about 10 percent of the entries were chosen for the show, so it is quite an honor.

I don't want to bite the hand that just fed me such a treat, but I was unthrilled to notice that of the 54 pieces, 13 were multiples.  That is, five artists had two works chosen for the show, and one had three works.

As it happens, the same thing happened at Fiberart International, the big triannual show held in Pittsburgh this summer, and again at the smaller show of my local fiber art organization -- some people had two or three works accepted, while many others were turned away empty-handed.  I was a bit embarrassed to have two pieces in our local show, while other fine work was rejected.  At least my two pieces were somewhat different from one another, which made me feel a little less guilty.

Postage 7: Tower of Babble (detail)

War Zone 7: Intercepts (detail) 

This practice is particularly annoying if the multiples are almost the same, close variations on the same theme.  Yes, I know that when artists work in series there are always subtle differences between works that seem very similar, and it's often challenging and rewarding to look at them closely to compare and contrast.  But I think the place to do that is in a solo show, not in a group exhibit that purports to show a wide range of artists and works.

As a juror, I've sometimes chosen two pieces by the same person, but only if the field is thin and we really needed more pieces to fill the space.  I have a hard time imagining a situation where I would choose multiples when other worthy pieces were turned down.

I don't know what the jurors in any of these three shows were thinking when they accepted multiple pieces from several artists.  But as a viewer, I want to see as much variety as possible in a group/survey show and I feel a bit cheated when I see pretty much the same thing twice.  The next time I'm on a show organizing committee, I'm going to try to instruct the juror to accept one work per artist unless there's a really compelling reason for a multiple.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Good news on the textile front

I don't often recommend you read articles in the newspaper, but yesterday's New York Times had a fascinating, detailed explanation of how some textile factories in the U.S. are actually getting business back from Asia because they can make better fabric and garments, despite our higher labor costs.

The article focuses on a new company making high-end sweatshirts. The company started out using a textile mill in India, but had problems with quality control, turnaround time and bureaucratic hassles. Recently it brought the manufacturing back home to a plant in South Carolina that can actually produce the fabric for less than the plant in India.  Also there are no customs duties and less than a third the shipping costs.

photo -- New York Times
In the Parkdale textile plant, Gaffney SC

Those of us who love textiles and use them in our work should be intrigued by this -- dare we call it a trend?  At one time or another we've all bemoaned the spotty quality in a bolt of fabric, wished we weren't losing jobs to other countries, or worried about the appalling working conditions of overseas textile and garment workers.  It would be nice if we could make more of our precious fabrics here at home.

The key to this resurgence of American textile manufacturing, as with other types of manufacturing, is automation.  The yarn mill in South Carolina featured in the article needs 140 workers to make a quantity of product that would have required more than 2,000 workers in 1980.

I commend this article to you -- if for no other reason than the mesmerizing videos of yarn being spun and fabric being woven.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The new book

My new book -- if it ever gets finished -- is meant for beginning to intermediate quilters.  I have noticed, at the state fair, in quilt guild show-and-tells, in other quilters' forums and in conversation that many quilters wouldn't think of starting a quilt without buying a pattern or finding one in a magazine.  Although they're eager to strengthen their technical skills in sewing and quilting, they're apparently willing to go through a lifetime without ever using their own design skills.

As I write in the book:  Why are so many quilters willing to learn and stretch when it comes to execution, but not when it comes to planning?  I've known ladies who have been quilting for 30 years and turn out exquisite quilts by the dozen, but still use other people's patterns.  No matter how many state fair ribbons they've won, they're still  not confident enough to make up their own designs.

To me, that's sad.  My great joy in making a quilt is not that I've sewed straight seams and gotten it to lie flat -- heck, any Third World sweatshop worker can do that -- but that I've made a pleasing design, and that my quilt is unlike anybody else's.  This part has the creativity and the joy, and I want to do that myself, not buy it from somebody else.

This book is built on a concept: that you can start with a simple, ever-popular traditional quilt block pattern, break it down into its component parts, and then vary the parts over and over for an unlimited source of quilt designs.  The first time I had this insight, it was regarding the log cabin block, but this book is based on the rail fence block.

Here's the traditional rail fence quilt:

Here are a couple of variations:

I suspect that many of the quilters I know personally, including the readers of this blog, are beyond the stage where they need this kind of encouragement and hand-holding.  But maybe you would be intrigued by the thought process that helps you start at a known place and move to somewhere different and totally personal.  And maybe you would like some of the helpful hints on technique.

It's going to be an e-book so I hope it will be accessible and affordable to a lot of people.  I'll tell you more another day.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

For your crabby reading pleasure 1

Most feeble accomplishment of the month, from the university alumni news:

Joe Schmo, G'67, of Van Nuys, Calif., is a freelance writer, and submitted a correction to the area code/time zone map in the SBC phone book white pages that was implemented in the local phone books.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Light at the end of the tunnel

My father wrote more than 30 books in his lifetime, many of which I helped with when I still lived at home.  In those pre-computer days every book had to be typed at least twice (not counting the author actually writing it) and that job went either to me or my mother.  It also had to be proofread (my specialty; I tried to do that job even after I moved away).  At the very end came indexing: a two-person job at first as Dad called out the items and I wrote down the page numbers, then it reverted to me to compile and alphabetize the results.

As a result, I know a bit about the pressures of getting a book actually finished.  It often seems as though the last 2 percent takes as long as the first 98.  But the book I'm laboring to finish right now is unlike anything Dad and I ever tackled.

Because this one needs pictures.  Sure, Dad's books had pictures, but they were acquired the old-fashioned way, by finding an image somewhere and having the publisher get permission to reproduce it.  Mine are acquired the hard way, by sewing a quilt and taking photos of every step.  And this is REALLY the hard way, because I take my own photos, and taking a decent instructional photo of yourself sewing is tricky.  Among other things, you can only have one hand in the picture!

My friend Marti served as hand model for this tutorial on rotary cutting.

I thought I was pretty much done a month ago when I sent off a reorganized draft.  I had given lots of info about almost every phase of piecing a quilt top: how to cut, how to sew, how to press, how to join the blocks.  Also material on finishing your quilt: blocking, squaring up, trimming, applying a binding or facing, making and attaching a sleeve.

Notice anything missing there?  Right, nothing on quilting.  I had fervently hoped to not discuss this subject; after all, it's supposed to be a book on making quilts without using somebody else's patterns.  At the first, I hadn't expected to make this a technique book at all, just focus on design.  But the few helpful hints I threw in seemed to take on lives of their own, expanding into fullblown instructions.

Damn, guess I have to write about quilting after all, to make the story complete.  I have plenty of photo tutorials in the bag about straight-line quilting with a walking foot, but nothing about free-motion.  So here I am doing one last quilt (I hope!!) to illustrate all the steps of sandwiching, quilting and trimming.

Am I almost finished?????  I really hope that light at the end of the tunnel isn't a train.

Update:  I'm linking this to Nina-Marie's blog; visit her to see what other fiber artists have been doing this week.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Paris museums 14 -- Rodin spinoffs

Although Rodin never installed his massive Gates of Hell doors at the museum that commissioned them, the project was a fertile ground for many other sculptures (the Gates themselves showed up in several places, just not where they were originally intended).  Most famous is The Thinker, but other bits also stepped out and became free-standing pieces.

Rodin, Le Baiser, 1881-2

This one, representing Paolo and Francesca, doomed lovers from Dante's Inferno, appeared in early maquettes of the Gates.  Rodin decided they were too happy for their surroundings, and took them out of the final version.  But never one to waste a good concept, he rendered them in terra cotta here and eventually in a larger marble version.

Rodin, Les Trois Ombres, 1902-4

My favorite spinoff is The Three Shades, who stand at the very top of the Gates, pointing to the ominous words "abandon hope, all ye who enter here."  They're actually identical triplets, each one cast from the same mold, but turned so that they each seem different.  The telltale of identical casting is to look for some distinctive mark or blob (perhaps deliberate, perhaps a trace of the casting process) and see if it's replicated.  Here I noticed a big welt on the back of the left calf, the same on all three guys.

Since learning more about Rodin's many multiples, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of bronze-cast sculpture, where the artist isn't closely involved in the actual making of the work.  He may hover about the foundry (or in Rodin's case, send helpers to check on the casting) but it's not his hand any more at the end of the process.  Did it make the sculptor nervous to turn over his baby to somebody else to finish?  Was it exhilarating to order up dozens of Thinkers to populate the world?  (Just like The Boys from Brazil.)  Why do I lose respect for some artists who outsource the making of their work to others, but not for Rodin?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fiber art in Paris -- it's everywhere

You don't even have to go to a museum to find fiber art in Paris.

Yes, all these objets d'art are crocheted.

Seen in a disembodied shop window (not one in the front of a shop), so I couldn't tell what kind of shop it belonged to.  I hope it was a flea market.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Bad moments in dyeing

My friend Marti works with dyes all the time and usually batches her fabrics under an electric blanket, as do countless dyers around the world.  That's one of the time-tested methods of keeping the dyes warm enough while they react with the fabric.

But she had never come up with this result before:

The swooping curves follow the electrical wires in the blanket, and the dye was apparently so sensitive to heat that it struck the instant the blanket heated up.

Not at all what she had in mind.