Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Friday, April 25, 2014
I was thrilled last year when my quilt won best in show at "Innovations in Fiber Art VI," co-sponsored by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts in California and the Surface Design Association. It was especially sweet because one of the juror/judges was Joan Schultze, one of my idols from way back.
And I was pleased again to learn that the Surface Design Journal, SDA's publication, was going to review the show. So when the magazine came this week I quickly skipped to what they had said about my piece:
"Given the Innovations title of the exhibition, it is interesting that the Best in Show Award went to Kathleen Loomis of Kentucky for Crazed 16: Suburban Dream, a pieced and machine-sewn patchwork wall panel of striped commercial cotton fabrics. No doubt a visual tour de force, this complex mosaic of small squares and rectangles builds a sense of movement that captures the obsessive-compulsiveness of quilting -- but does it represent innovation?"
The reviewer's comments brought to mind those made by Pauline Verbeek-Cowart, one of the 2011 Quilt National jurors, who wrote, "Not a single entry in my opinion represented that leap into new territory, or challenged conventional notions of the medium and stood as a radical new approach. ... I was hoping for some sort of embrace of these new materials and tools. I was prepared to see digital embroidery, laser cutting, conductive thread and light-emitting diodes (quilts are layered; there are pockets, perfect for hiding and holding wires and batteries), or photochromic pigments. These are just a few of the materials and processes that fiber artists are exploring at the moment (and have been for years)."
Well, if they've been exploring this stuff for years, how innovative are they? Haven't we been seeing digital embroidery on quilts for decades? The quilt/art world is admittedly slow to embrace new techniques and materials. I still laugh that in 2003 Quilt National gave its award for "Most Innovative Use of the Medium" to Michael James for a piece that was produced on a large-format printer, decades after people had started using phototransfer in quilts. But is this bad?
I'm not sure I would be thrilled and inspired to see a room full of fiber pieces that light up or change colors or conduct electricity. I suspect the ratio of gee-whiz to art would be higher than I normally enjoy. Just as painting is not dead, traditional fiber formats still have much to endear them to artists.
True, many shows have "innovation" or a variant in their titles, and many more announce in their call for entries that they want new and innovative work. I suspect this is a knee-jerk reaction because it seems like a good thing to write in the brochure. (I've probably done it myself, because I've been tapped to write a bunch of brochures and news releases and juror statements.)
I agree that new formats and materials should be welcomed in fiber art shows. I am happy when shows rewrite restrictive rules to be more inclusive and less quilt-police-like. But encouraging the new shouldn't mean dissing the old. (Here's what I wrote about Quilt National last year, along the same lines.)
Am I just saying this because I love and work in a traditional format? I don't think so. I believe that when you choose to work in a "materials-based art" you do so because something about that material -- and its traditional, more functional history -- calls to you. If so, then materials-based artists -- whether in fiber, ceramics, glass, metal or wood -- may be less inclined to go full-out avant-garde than artists who paint, sculpt or work in video, sound, chocolate syrup or other inherently radical fields. But hey, it seems to go with the territory.
I further believe that if you choose to sponsor or jury or review a show of materials-based art, you should respect that traditional history and recognize that many of the practitioners don't want to escape it quite yet, and that's not necessarily bad.
What do you think?
Thursday, April 24, 2014
Oh, I am so out of it, and every now and then I am dramatically reminded of that fact.
This week's newspaper includes the "Derby Style Survival Guide -- Tips and tricks to get you through Derby." That's the Kentucky Derby, which occurs every year in our town, and the news media subscribe to the fable that everybody goes to the track, all dressed up. This is similar to the media fables that everybody gets all dressed up for New Year's Eve and that everybody hosts a big party for Super Bowl.
Although I neither attend the track nor get dressed up, I did read the Survival Guide to find out what I am missing. And found lots.
To prevent my high heels from sinking into the grass or between the cobblestones, I should buy some little plastic caps to put on the heels. For only $100 I can get 12 pairs in various sizes and colors, in case I don't know yet what shoes I'll be wearing.
And I further learn that if I go to the track two days running, I need to wear different shoes, because fer sure I'll get blisters and "there's nothing more excruciating than slipping the same pair of shoes with the same pressure points over yesterday's sensitive spots."
Next, it seems there's a size limit on purses brought into Churchill Downs -- 12 inches maximum in any direction. That strikes me as plenty, since I typically don't carry a purse at all, just a little pack with my credit cards and some bills. But if one cubic foot of stuff isn't enough, I should put the extras into a plastic bag and have my husband carry it in with the food. (Oh wait -- I have to do food too?)
So what am I supposed to be carrying? Among other things, a rolled-up plastic poncho or clear garbage bag in case of rain, band-aids for those blisters, blotting paper (smaller than a compact and "much prettier than powdering all day long"), makeup, aspirin, sunscreen, and individually wrapped Shout stain remover.
But all that pales in importance before THE HAT. Or rather, the fascinator. I had never even heard the term "fascinator" until last year when the newspaper started writing about Derby fashion, but now I know that it's one of those frou-frou things you wear on your head, bigger than a barrette but not big enough to be called a hat. There's also something called a "hat-i-na-tor" but that's too complicated for me to even think about.
Now I learn that "the reason some women don't love fascinators is they don't know how to wear them." I can identify with that. The wrong way is to slip is on like a headband. The right way is "to place the headband down into your hairstyle." And for only $3.49 I should buy a pack of hairpins to keep it there.
In my household we observe Derby Day in a different way. Traditionally in Kentucky you plant your tomatoes on Derby Day, although my husband is in charge of that so I don't need a special outfit. I usually take a walk (with a real hat, not a hat-i-na-tor, and with low-heeled shoes that don't give me blisters) and work in the studio so I don't have to worry about carrying a purse or my cell phone being charged, not to mention that blotting paper. At 5:30 we gather in the TV room with drinks to watch the race, and if I spill some on my shirt I don't worry whether I have any stain remover in my plastic baggie.
Life is better in the slow lane.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Monday, April 21, 2014
From "The Shape of Content," by Ben Shahn, 1956
Such prevailing values exercise a powerful effect upon art, both in the making and in the judging. Consider, for instance, our own highly cherished concept of freedom. It is our proudest value, the one for which we are ready to sacrifice everything, so that we find ourselves inclined to sacrifice liberty of speech and even liberties of action -- lest we be even suspected of opposing freedom. The concept of freedom in art takes interesting forms: freedom of execution, for instance, is a basis for evaluation. How often do we read the critical comment that this or that work appears "labored." And on the other hand, the calligraphic, the easily brushed style is highly admired; it has a free look about it. Extreme care is "tight" and not good; extreme freedom is "loose" and considered desirable. Art becomes increasingly free; it has freed itself of craft, freed itself from academic discipline, freed itself from meaning in many cases, and freed itself of responsibility. In some of the recent phases almost the only ingredient left in art besides paint seems to be freedom.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Having done a good job yesterday of putting forth why prayer flags are bad, let me do the other side of the coin today. I checked into some of the recent blog posts about how prayer flags are being used in real (non-Buddhist) life and discover that they're being used as little banners or cheerful signs rather than having much religious or symbolic significance. They're being hung over sickbeds or outside houses, conveying good wishes to people having difficult times.
And what's wrong with that? Nothing, except maybe the name "prayer flags."
I've made little doodads for similar occasions, sometimes tiny quilts and sometimes collages. They're perfect for times when you want something more than a card to say thank you or happy birthday or get well.
If people called these little doodads "get well flags" or "wish pennants" or something, I would have absolutely nothing to quibble at. In fact, I would cheerfully sign up for a blog hop or whatever to show some that I have made, and suggest ways that other people could make some for their own friends. But something about the term "prayer flags" strikes me as inappropriate, not least since prayer may or may not be a part of the package. It's just as inappropriate as if people in some non-Christian culture were to wear cute necklaces that they called "rosaries" or in some non-Jewish culture were to wear little knit caps they called kippah or yarmulkes.
And finally, let me walk back some of my comments from yesterday's blog post, when I was complaining that when you appropriate images or symbols from another culture it can't lead to good art. I still stand by that statement, but I was probably too harsh in discussing the prayer flag trend in terms of art, just as you can't use the term art when discussing much of the stuff described and sold to or made by fiber craft enthusiasts.
Again, it's nomenclature -- maybe if magazines promoting wish pennant challenges wouldn't use the word Art in their titles I wouldn't be roused so frequently into crabbiness. What most quiltmakers produce is decorative craft, even fine craft, but it's probably not art, certainly not High Art. If we could all agree on that we (and here I mostly mean I) wouldn't get caught in the quicksand of trying to apply the standards and expectations of High Art to stuff that isn't in the same ballpark.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
The Quiltart list has been abuzz with discussion of prayer flags, a discussion that I kind of started. Somebody had posted to the list about a project having to do with prayer flags, which elicited a few comments. But then I happened to be browsing in one of the online fiber art shops and discovered a bunch of prayer-flag things for sale -- magazines, books, kits to help you make prayer flags. Apparently one of the quilting magazines had sponsored a challenge in which readers had to make prayer flags. There's even a blog devoted to a "prayer flag project." And I was mystified.
I wrote back to the list: "So what's with the prayer flags? ... Is there a sudden nationwide Great Awakening of Buddhism? Or is this some kind of trendy appropriation of some other culture's sacred objects because they're small, cute and easy to make? Next year will everybody be making (and buying kits for) little slips of paper to leave between the stones at the Wailing Wall?"
In the ensuing discussion, somebody commented that she asked several of her Buddhist friends whether they were offended by non-Buddhists making prayer flags, and the answer was no. In fact, she wrote, "the spreading of beauty, and the dialogue that may be generated by the creation of a prayer flag, would be a positive impact."
I think that's a remarkably generous response from members of a group whose religious artifacts have been hijacked. I'm not sure we'd see similar tolerance if, for instance, people from other cultures -- or even from our own culture -- appropriated Christian symbols and practices. Heck, we already haven't -- look at the outraged response when Chris Ofili made Madonnas supported on feet of elephant dung or when Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix submerged in a bottle of urine. And that happened even though arguably the artists were treating the religious symbols with respect.
Another post to the Quiltart list said, "It never occurred to me that a sacred image, used in a reverential, thoughtful way could ever be offensive." Obviously it can (Serrano describes himself as a devout Catholic but his work has been destroyed several times by people who said they were offended by it), but that's the subject for another discussion. My question is whether the prayer flags are actually being used in a reverential, thoughtful way.
But avoiding offense is only one reason to be cautious when appropriating the symbols and sacred things of another culture. The other reason is that it's often a sign of artistic bankruptcy.
When an artist uses a preexisting symbol, image or concept in his own work, it should be for a reason. If you use something from your own cultural heritage -- let's say, for instance, a quilt -- it's generally because you're wanting to comment on how that heritage has affected you, how it has changed or not, or how it relates to today's society. If you use something from somebody else's heritage, viewers will justifiably wonder why you have chosen it as part of your message.
That's my problem with a lot of the mixed media work seen in the craft magazines, especially in theme challenges. When readers are asked to make prayer flags or shrines, or to make collages using birds or 1930s luggage labels, they are in fact being asked to adopt images and practices that mean nothing to them. And when you make art based on arbitrary images and concepts that mean nothing to you, how can it be good art?
Years ago there was an equally spirited discussion on the Quiltart list about people who make art with trendy images such as mushrooms, butterflies, frogs or whatever the tchotchke du jour happens to be. People commented that there's nothing wrong with that if you really like mushrooms, butterflies, etc. I suggested at the time that if a student of mine showed up wanting to make art with butterflies I would probably ask her: How long have you been using butterflies in your art? What does the butterfly mean? Is the butterfly you? What's this butterfly doing? Is this artwork optimistic, pessimistic, fatalistic, cheerful, sad, or what? Has your treatment of the butterfly changed since you have been using it?
I suggested that answering these questions (or not) would quickly separate the artist who is validly using the butterfly from the dilettante who has just grabbed up on the cutesy little doodad of the moment. But meanwhile I'm skeptical of the prayer flags, and unhappy with the entrepreneurs who encourage people to use them in faux art and sell kits to help with same.
Monday, April 14, 2014
So Quilting Daily, the emailed newsletter from Interweave Press, is daring us to write the story of our first quilt. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I will take up their prompt and take you back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when I was still in high school.
I had started sewing my own clothes, and got the idea to make a quilt from the leftover bits. I can't say why I got the idea; my grandmothers had both quilted, but apparently looked upon it as work rather than creativity and neither one of them thought to pass the skill on to me, even though they had been enthusiastic about my embroidery and garment-sewing. But somehow I had come to know that you could stitch fabric down to a ground, and maybe put some embroidery on it, and eventually you would have a quilt.
This was pre-polyester, so at least my first quilting attempts did not involve double knits. My leftovers were cotton, many of them in a weight that we would today call quilting fabric, although there were some heavier ones in there. I was especially fond of a fabric called Kettle Cloth, resembling homespun with some slubs, but more firmly woven. It made fabulous dresses and I had used it in many different colors (interestingly, I only saw one printed Kettle Cloth in all the years it was on the market, and some of it is in the quilt).
This was also before the quilting craze hit the U.S. and I had no books or magazines to provide helpful hints. So, for instance, I used 5/8" seams, just like in garment sewing. And despite my math proficiency, I somehow hadn't figured out that it would be a good idea to make all my blocks the same size. But eventually, over a period of several years, I accumulated enough scraps, and enough blocks, for a quilt, and got them sewed together.
I did lots of embroidery, and sewed on bits and pieces of upholstery trimming and other miscellaneous fabric-like substances.
Decades passed. We moved. I noticed that the quilt was covered in dust and worse, so I threw it in the washing machine. Oops. Mattress ticking shrinks about 10%, while most of the rest of the quilt didn't. And since it was tied, rather skimpily, the new effect featured bulges and droops. After I kicked myself for a while, I decided the quilt was still beautiful and hung it back on the wall, droops and all. And you know what? The light wasn't very good in that room, and nobody even noticed the droops unless I masochistically pointed them out.
More years passed. I inherited a huge painting from my father and the quilt wall was the only place to put it. I took the quilt down, inspected it, and decided it needed a second life. So I washed it again and took it apart. Note to self: don't use decorative stitches if you plan to unsew later -- the stitches were so close together I couldn't get a seam ripper in. It took weeks of TV watching and cussing to get the facings off.
The flannel "batting" layer had started to disintegrate, so I pitched it. The mattress ticking, which I had also enhanced with additional decorative stitching, still looked fine (although it was several inches smaller than the quilt top). And the quilt top itself still looked great -- at least from the front. From the back, it's obvious that I didn't waste any time worrying about workmanship, pressing, or other such niceties.
Update: If this turns out to be the best first-quilt story in the bunch, here are the five books I want from the Interweave store (which by the way has a bunch of nice marked-down books that you might want to check out:
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
I like color palettes with some value contrast -- not that every palette has to have dark-dark and light-light, but there should be something different from the rest to give it some zip. Here are some game board palettes that got good marks from me on that score:
A nice set of gradations, ranging from yellows down to browns (a real pain for a game player, because it's too hard to detect the differences among the browns, but nice for an artist). Give it an A.
Three nice darks, one medium, one medium-light, one light-light -- this palette covers the waterfront. My only quibble is with the blue in the septagon. Is it too bright for the rest of the colors? Is there enough difference between it and the slate blue? Maybe a B.
Of course what we like most about this palette is the red apple, but notice how the orange stars set off the cool colors. Love the slightly grayed blues (clear blues can be kind of blatant) and the greenish brown. I give it an A.
Two red apples to love in this board, but even without them it's a good combo of the three secondary colors. All the secondaries are slightly muddy for a similar character, and the warm whites make a good counterpoint. Another A.
Again, secondary colors always play well together (only two this time), and these are all a bit grayed for a similar character. My favorites are the lavenders, and the dark purple gives a nice low note. This one gets an A too.
More palettes tomorrow. Tell me what you think of this exercise -- I think it's a good way to train your eye (of course you can do the same thing by looking closely and evaluating people's wardrobes or bookshelves). Do you agree? How do you exercise your eye?