Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Quilt collector extraordinare

Just read an obituary on Eli Leon, one of the most famous quilt collectors of recent times. Starting in the 1970s he bought quilts at flea markets in California, and soon specialized in African-American quilts, drawn to "their irregular, improvisatory patterns."  His most important discovery was Rosie Lee Tompkins, whom he met at a flea market and who became famous thanks to Leon's buying her quilts and putting them into shows he organized.  Eventually she was hailed as one of the outsider artists who "have altered the shape of American art history."

New York Times

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Three Sixes

Leon also organized many exhibits of other quilt artists and wrote books about African-American quilts. 

Whenever I read about outsider quilt art -- Gees Bend comes to mind -- I am bemused at how the mainstream art world is eager to embrace improvisational, unpredictable quilts (or paintings or sculpture) made by marginalized people, but at the same time eager to ignore equally exciting quilts  (or paintings or sculpture) made by mainstream artists.  Nancy Crow's quilts are every bit as nontraditional and wonderful as Rosie Lee Tompkins', and yet Tompkins gets into the Whitney Biennial and Crow doesn't.

(By the way, Crow credits a glimpse of a Tompkins quilt for turning her away from the highly structured patterns of her early work into the improvisational style that she has used for several decades.)

It's as though you need the back story of poverty and isolation, perhaps a little mental illness, to make your work "authentic" before the mainstream art people are willing to call it art.  All the better if that back story involves picking cotton (the original Gees Bend exhibit and its book/catalog had lots of evocative photos of sharecroppers toiling in the fields, displayed next to the quilts).

I don't begrudge Leon or any other collector the right to decide what to collect, but I feel sorry that a guy who fell in love with quilts with "irregular, improvisatory patterns" didn't also look a little more widely at other people making such quilts.

Meanwhile, what's not to like about a guy who owned 3,500 quilts, loved them dearly, and worked tirelessly to promote and show them.  We need lots more like Eli Leon.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The prettiest Easter eggs you'll ever dye

Maybe you read my blog post a year ago when I wrote about "tie-dyed" Easter eggs.  My daughter-in-law bought a kit with this fancy title and Isaac and I had a fine time working (or I should probably say playing) with it.  But I'm here to tell you that you don't need a kit to make the most beautiful eggs I've ever done.  Just buy the cheapest kit with the color tablets and mix up a cup of each with vinegar, maybe with a little less water than you would use if you were going to immerse the eggs.

Here's the trick: cut a couple of four-inch squares of plain white fabric.  Wet the fabric and wrap it around an egg.  The bunched-up layers of fabric that ensue when you close it up are what will give you the gorgeous patterning of the egg.

Hold the wrapped egg in one hand or place it on a plate or in a cup.  Using an eye dropper or a spoon or even your fingertip, deposit small dollops of dye onto the wet fabric.  Best results come when you use two or more colors, distributed around the egg.  The colors will instantly spread on the wet fabric and ooze into one another.

When you unwrap the egg, you'll find gently blended colors, separated by jagged spears of white where the multiple layers of fabric made a barrier against the dye.

You can rinse out the fabric between eggs, but we decided it worked just as well to just wring out the fabric and re-use it a couple of times.  No matter what we did and how casually we splatted the dye around, the eggs were gorgeous.

So if you have a four-inch square of fabric lying around, have at it, and Happy Easter!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Thursday, March 22, 2018

An altered book 1, and happy birthday!

Quite a while ago a friend gave me a book and said "this looks like something that you might like to work with."  It's a strange book, beautifully printed on excellent paper.  Each two-page unit is not printed front-and-back on one piece of paper, but on the same side of a long piece of paper that is then folded on the outside edge.

Even stranger is the content.  Each eight-page section of the book has a single graphic theme, after which it switches abruptly to a totally different theme.  Many use collage, some use computer-drawn graphics, some human-drawn graphics in various themes.  Several of the sections include text that reminds me of my found poetry, pasted up in ransom-note style, some in French, some in English.

Sadly, many of the drawings and text are kind of sophomoric, the kind of drawings and remarks that I recall from seventh grade when there were 12 girls and 20 boys in our class, and the boys delighted in making rude noises and crude gestures behind the teacher's back.  My challenge to myself was to embrace the good parts of the book -- its gorgeous paper and printing, and many of the non-scatological illustrations -- but obscure the outrageous parts.

The book sat around for a while as I pasted a few things in, but it wasn't until my recent week on retreat that the project took wings.  Most of my work during that week consisted of sorting through piles and boxes of paper, deciding what I wanted to save and organizing it.  I realized that I was coming across a lot of bits and pieces that were too special to throw out, but didn't really go into any conceivable art project.  So I started to paste them into the book, and it started to take on a most engaging personality of its own.

I added some maps, of course, and photos that I had cut out for collage but seemed to want to play right now.  A wine label that I had peeled off and saved for many years, memorializing a great time with my brother in Australia (I don't remember that specific bottle or the specific occasion, so it's an archetype for so many good times and good wines -- and by the way, happy birthday to my favorite and only brother!)

A newspaper clipping, decades old, that I had saved because it is so concisely meaningless, and deserves to be saved forever.  A certificate of weevil-free sweet potatoes.

Travel brochures from Prague, advertising the medieval torture museum and the Kalashnikov firing range (or you can buy the Bullets and Karts combo, going next door to drive go-carts after you shoot).

Handwritten labels pinned to doilies that appeared in the grab bag.

All kinds of miscellaneous that I didn't want to throw away but also didn't want to keep moving from pile to pile, looking at them every couple of years and saying "oh yes, that's nifty."

The book isn't going to be just a scrapbook of random stuff; I hope it has some mildly artistic moments.  I'll show you some of them in a later post.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Serendipity today

I'm a huge believer in serendipity, aka never cleaning up your studio too much.  So many times I have found a piece of fabric or a button or a paper or a piece of rusty metal lying around and a few minutes later realize that it's just what I need for a piece of art in progress. 

The latest recurrence came about as I was sitting at my worktable cleaning up, and what appeared from under a pile of stuff but an empty slide mount.  I do have a box full of slide mounts that it could have been filed into, but that would have required me to get up, find the box, open it up, put it back.  Seemed like an awful lot of work for just one little piece of plastic -- simpler to just use it!  And anyway, I needed a break from all that cleaning up.

So I took some thread that was also sitting on the worktable and warped up a little loom.  What to put on it -- beads? thread of a different weight or color?  Plenty of stuff was within reach. 

Including a leftover bit of map from a collage.  I cut it into narrow strips and used that as the weft.  The weaving was fiddly because of course I didn't have heddles or any other mechanism to make a shed, so each thread had to be pulled up with tweezers for each strip of map.  But it was a nice zen hour, lost in the process (which after all, is why we've all become sewists and textile artists, isn't it?).

I'm making this my daily map.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

On retreat 2

Those of us on retreat last week had a lot of fun watching Cindy Rollins made felt.  Her first project was to make a pair of slippers, and we made her call us over to watch each time she did a new step in the process.

First, she made lasts for the slippers.  She put on a pair of throwaway socks and proceeded to apply many layers of duct tape over her feet.  Then she cut through the whole contraption, removed each one from her foot, taped it back together and stuffed it with plastic bags.

She marked the forms with the height she wanted the finished slippers to taken.

Then she started to lay small patches of wool roving onto the forms, gradually building up several layers of felt.  She massaged soapy water onto the slippers as they developed, wrapping them in nylon net so she could work them vigorously without the wool coming off into her hands.

Eventually she encased the slippers, still on the lasts, in bubble wrap, tied them tightly in a pair of old knee-high stockings, and put them in the dryer for one last round of heat and agitation.

Everybody there gathered around to see each step of the process.  We were impressed by how neat Cindy had managed to be while doing wet felting, with all the mess contained in a big plastic tub and a lot of old bath towels pressed into service to keep things dry.  And of course we all wanted a pair of slippers!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On retreat 1

Twice a year, a handful of people from my local fiber and textile art group go on retreat to a quilters' getaway venue about a half-hour up the road from us.  It isn't all that far away -- if you have to go back into town for a meeting or a funeral or a dentist appointment, you can -- but it's a world away from home.  Recent retreats haven't been all that wonderful for me; on the last one, I got sick and had to come home early, and a year previously, I fell on the first night and broke a toe and spent the whole time in pain.  But this time was great for me.

You can read about some of my other retreat experiences here and here and here and here.

The ladies who typically come to this venue are traditional quilters.  Occasionally some of them who are working at the next-door facility will drop by for a visit, and we can always detect their slightly uneasy smiles covering up the thought "what the hell is going on here anyway???"  Because we rarely have more than one or two people making quilts, and those quilts aren't usually traditional in any way, shape or form.

So this year, we had people doing felting, hand-stitching, machine-stitching, assemblage, sketching, and yes, quilting.  One of my fellow retreatees, Beth Schnellenberger, wrote about the week and said that the mediums being practiced included "organization."  I had to laugh, because that meant me.  And if organization is indeed an art form, I'm a pretty lame practitioner.

For years now, I haven't taken my sewing machine to the retreat, nor have I produced much that could be described as art.  I usually take several boxes of miscellaneous clippings and junk, plus a bunch of unread newspapers and magazines.  I have the bad habit, when left to my own devices at home, of clipping things from the newspaper, or saving entire sections that I haven't read yet, and putting them in a pile.  This occurs at the dining room table.  When somebody shows up for dinner and we need to clear the table, my pile often gets picked up and deposited into a box.  Where it may stay for weeks, or months, or years.

So I take those boxes with me on retreat, and I go through them.  I clip what needs to be clipped, I paste up what needs to go into books or daily art, I file things to be kept in folders, and throw out the rest.  This takes a long time, because much of the stuff has to be read first.  In 3 1/2 days I came up with one huge grocery bag full of discarded papers to be recycled, plus a whole lot of bits and pieces to be filed or processed.

clippings to go into an artist book

I also came across things to give to others in the room.  Beth was working on a quilt that happened to be the same colors as a little scrap of batik fabric that I found in my pile.  Who knows why that scrap got into a pile of clippings, but it ended up in Beth's quilt.

Somebody else asked if anybody had a bit of MistyFuse, because she needed to add some new fabric to her hand-stitching project.  What had I come across only a half-hour before in my boxes but a sample pack of MistyFuse!  I don't remember where I got it, but it leaped into action when it was needed.

I gave a piece of tatted lace that happened to be in the trunk of my car to somebody else, and some clippings to yet another person.

Best of all, I got several weeks ahead on my weekly "found poetry" project.  Every Sunday I post a "found poem" on the blog, composed of clippings from newspapers and magazines.  In the ten weeks so far this year, I have most often been composing and pasting up my poems after dark on Saturday night.  This makes for stress.  And I have been looking forward with a bit of trepidation to our longish vacation planned for late spring, because the kindle I carry on trips doesn't allow me to do much blog posting.  So it was good to crank out a bunch of poems and put them in the queue in advance.

I'll tell you more about the retreat later this week.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Maps everywhere

Since I have been doing a map a day as my art project for 2018, I'm on the lookout for ideas that I can try out.  So I was intrigued to come across three different artists in the last couple of weeks who have used maps in their work.

Stacy McKnight Maney, At Home

She pasted a map onto a wood panel, covered it with semi-opaque paint, then added the big at sign as a gel transfer over the top.  What's not to love -- wood panel, map, typographical character!

Kristina Arnold, Specimen Series: Meles meles

Bottom layer: a topographical map of Wyoming.  Middle layer: a drawing of the jawbone of a badger (Meles meles) that Kristina found while walking in the woods in England.  Top layer: a map of the English town where she was living at the time, including the route she took when she found the bone, drawn on vellum.

I liked the translucency of the vellum, and especially the concept of layered maps of different scales, different mediums, different colors and different places.

Kayla Bischoff, Synapse Map 3

Again, a wood panel, papered with bits of maps -- all cut from the Rand McNally Road Atlas, but from different states and places.  Top layer: a network connecting nodes of brain activity or maybe other neuron bundles, its map-like qualities echoing the underlying road maps.

It's true that once you start looking for something, you're likely to find it everywhere.  Since I've been watching for maps, I'm seeing them!  I'm not one to steal visual images but I am happy to try on other people's concepts for size.  I'm intrigued by the layered maps, by the small map sections abutting one another, by the overlay of (other) symbols on top of the total-symbol map.  I had already started exploring some of these concepts before I saw the other people's artwork, but maybe I'll add some borrowed ingredients to my daily art going forward.  I'll show you what I come up with!

Monday, March 5, 2018

My new toy

One of my wonderful daughters-in-law gave me a present the other day.  She had been at a weaving workshop and got the chance to buy a leather bracelet that is also a tape measure.  It wraps around your wrist twice with just enough slack so you barely notice it's there.  Unwrapped, it's 17 inches long (or 40 cm).

She said she thought I might find this useful.  And she was so right -- not even two hours later, I was walking down the street with two of my gallery colleagues, looking at the temporary vinyl signs that a neighboring business had hung on its fence.  We were thinking about signs, and somebody said "How tall do you think that sign is?  Maybe 24 inches or so?"  I started to eyeball it, and then I remembered!

"WAIT!  Look what my daughter-in-law just gave me!!"  I whipped it off my wrist and measured the sign (it was 30 inches).  Rarely has a gift meant to be useful proven its worth in such a short time!

Having never seen an accessory like this before, I was surprised to see, the very next day, the same bracelet on the arm of a friend of mine whom I saw at an art fair.  Synchronicity in the universe!   (She thought she was ordering the same color that I have, but it came pale and raw.  Since she dyes things for a living, she just dunked the leather in some red dye and got this beautiful coral.)

I plan to continue wearing mine every day.  Who knows how frequently it will be whipped into action -- I suspect quite a bit.  Thank you Kristin!!  I'm so glad we married you.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Friday, March 2, 2018

Kimono challenge -- my response

Last fall I wrote about the kimono challenge in our local fiber and textile art group, and showed photos of several of the different things that people made.  But I never got around to showing you a picture of my own pieces.

I made two small hand-stitched pieces with bits of kimono fabric stitched on top of larger kimono backgrounds.  Mostly running stitches, in a variety of different threads, with french knots for emphasis.

I did a lot of experimenting with different threads.  Silk thread felt elegant and I thought there was a certain karma to using it on the silk kimono fabrics, but even doubled, it made a pretty faint line.  Rayons and polyesters worked the same way.  They were fine as background running stitches but didn't have the substance to make assertive french knots.

After trying every thread in my stash, or so it seemed, I found two spools of variegated Aurifil cotton in the very heavy 28 weight.  I don't know why I bought them in the first place, because Aurifil is an expensive toy to get if you don't have a plan for it.  But the ivory-pink-coral-rust colorway looked just perfect with my pink and coral fabrics, and made beautiful, fat french knots.  I had so much fun making the knots that I started piling them densely on, totally covering the background.

Before I display these in public I'll have to come up with a way to mount them.  I'm thinking of affixing them to wood panels, like the ones I've been using for collage.  The contrast of the soft fabric with the hard panel seems appealing.  I'll let you know how that works out!