Thursday, April 9, 2015

What I learned from my failed series

After I had abandoned several series over the course of a couple of years, I decided I was coming at it the wrong way.  Instead of looking for a striking visual image, which might very well fail to have meaning, I would start with the meaning and search for a way to portray it.

That method had served me well in guiding my long series of quilts about the World Trade Center and the war in Iraq.  So I tried again.  I decided that one of the major ideas that kept recurring as I contemplated the world was the sense of losing control.  Our environment was becoming more polluted, our infrastructure was going to pieces, our political system was becoming dysfunctional, the weather was becoming more erratic.  I used the word "disintegration" as a heading for all these concerns.

During a two-week workshop with Nancy Crow in 2007, I had a breakthrough, making several small studies exploring various ways to express disintegration or chaos.  At least four of the pieces on the wall eventually turned into finished quilts, leading to at least three separate series.

I don't suppose this method would work for everybody.  I have always recognized that my visual art starts with words rather than images; my "sketchbook" consists of a verbal description of what I want to accomplish.  I rarely know what a piece is going to look like until I actually make it.

But it has worked for me: start with the meaning, find the visual.  If you operate the other way around, start with the visual and find the meaning.  In fact, I have used this thought process to talk with artist friends who feel stalled in a series.  I ask them, What is this series about?  Why is that important to you?  What aspect of this quilt signifies the meaning (is it the color, the line, the composition, the character of the surface design)?  Is the meaning coming across the way you intend it?  Then circle back to the visual:  If you did different things with the composition (or color or whatever) would that change or enhance the meaning?

Your mileage may vary, but if you're looking for a new series this approach may be worth a thought.



  1. Thanks for this post, Kathy. I too find that my sketchbook has a lot of writing in it as well as sketches, and I've always felt a little bad about that. It's good to hear that I'm not the only one who starts with a concept or feeling and then looks for the visual equivalent.

  2. I find it easier to work from an idea rather than anything visual so reading your musings strikes a cord with me.
    Irene - from a wonderfully sunny day in Northern Ireland

  3. Kathy, how very generous of you to share your process, especially what you consider wasn't working. Everyone is very quick to share their successes but not always so quick to share what they personally considered the not so sucessful

  4. I think as well as starting with meaning, I have learned that I don't do very well coming at a work with what I perceive would be meaningful to someone else.

    I need to do the research, think the thoughts and come to a place where I know more about a thing until it is meaningful to me. or don't do it!