Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Documenting the process -- part 2, words

Yesterday I wrote about taking a lot of pictures as you work.  But that's only half of documenting your work.  You also want to keep track of your thoughts, how you come up with ideas, how you progress from one piece in a series to the next, how you master and improve your technique, how you solved problems, how you do something that comes up only once in several months but it's important to remember how to do it right.

I can suggest many different ways that you might go at this, but the most important thing is to find a process that works for you.  I used to be in the habit of writing down, every evening, what I had worked on during the day, along with any notes and thoughts that I wanted to keep.  I always used a calendar book with either a separate page or separate box for each day.

Spaghetti was a quilt, not my dinner menu.

I kept track of details like what thread was used to quilt.

One year a friend regifted me with a very nice calendar book that she thought would be good for my notes -- but it was one of those books good in any year, with the days numbered days but not marked with days of the week.  I started out by labeling ahead a couple of weeks at a time, writing "S M T W Th F S" in the boxes.  But then I would forget, and then I didn't label for a while, and I couldn't remember whether today was the 27th or the 28th, and by the time I got to May I just quit using the book altogether.

That may seem like a pretty minor problem, but to me the format of the book was like a bit of sand in your shoe -- just annoying enough to take the pleasure out of my daily notes, a process that had always made me feel I'd accomplished something but now was making me feel crabby.  I don't know what kind of process will make you feel good rather than crabby, but suggest you try out some different ones and see what works.

Some people already have the daily habit of journaling, or "morning pages," or writing down their blood pressure, or sending an email to their mother -- maybe you could add your art notes to that routine.  Some people use a daily or weekly blog or instagram post to memorialize their art progress.  If you were really compulsive, and like to work on the computer, you might make a new Word document for each artwork, and write a narrative with pictures and text.  Whatever works for you -- whatever encourages you to actually follow through on your good intentions -- is the right answer.

By the way, Linda left a comment on yesterday's post:  "I don't really think about documenting along the way.  I guess posting to my blog is my only documentation.  Maybe I ought to be stepping it up."  So I checked out Linda's blog and indeed, she's doing a pretty good job of taking pictures and writing down what she's working on.  She's got that discipline down pat.  So my advice to her might be to stick with the blog as her format, but write a little bit more about the decisions she makes and ideas that come to her as she sews.

I do think it's better to write down your thoughts than to depend on memory.  In particular, write down ideas that did not get executed -- "might use contrast thread next time" or "what if the lines were twice as wide?"  Just rereading what you wrote about past work can help you jump-start your process, decide what to do next, get out of a funk and/or overcome artist's block.

Let me know whether any of this rings a bell with you!

Monday, January 27, 2020

Documenting the process -- part 1, pictures

Last week I wrote about Claire Henderson, who just finished a quilt she started in my workshop at Quilting By The Lake in 2017 and sent me a picture.  I looked back in my files and found some pictures I had taken of her quilt on the design wall, and it was interesting to see how the composition changed during the workshop and then at home.

Vickie left a comment: "I do love seeing the process.  I keep resolving to take and organize photos of my process, and add comments and reflections.  But, then, I think I'm too busy to stop and do that.  I've got to find a designated time for this.  Do you have any suggestions?"

Well, yes, I suggest you figure out a way to do it!  I firmly believe that understanding your own process, both the methods and techniques you use to make art and the way you come up with your ideas, is one of the major skillsets of the serious artist.  Maybe there are artiste savants out there who simply channel the universe into art without thinking about it along the way, but most of the artists I admire and respect don't do it that way.  They are able to articulate and recall what they have done in the past, so it's easier to plan ahead, solve problems and incorporate new ideas into their practice.

Vickie is right that there are two kinds of documentation: photos of the work as it progresses, and comments about how, why and how well you did what you did.  Of the many ways you can accomplish this, there's just one thing that absolutely has to be done RIGHT NOW as you work, and that's to take pictures.  So my first suggestion is to get into the habit of taking a lot of photos of what's happening on the design wall.

Making new habits is most effective one step at a time, and step one is really easy -- keep a camera at hand as you work.  Fortunately many people are already in the habit of carrying a phone on their person even when moving around their own house; if you aren't, then make a point of taking the phone or camera with you into the studio.  At the very least, take a picture of your design wall as you leave for the day.  And if you're working on anything complicated, take more -- you can't anticipate when your composition might fall prey to a gust of wind, a helpful toddler or playful cat, or when you lose your place between the design wall and the sewing machine.

(In the age of digital photos, there's no such thing as taking too many pictures.  When I snap the design wall as I close up for the night, I take two or three shots.  Why skimp?  You can always cull out the duplicates, or the ones out of focus or too dark.)

You can't go back and take a picture of what you had on the design wall last week, but you can always organize the photos later.  I was embarrassed, when Claire emailed me last week, to find that I had no folder for the QBL workshop.  So I went back and searched through everything I had taken in July 2017, pulled out the ones from the workshop and filed them where they should have been all along.  Two and a half years late, but now all is in order.  You should aim for a higher standard; maybe once a month?  once a year???

Tomorrow I'll talk about the second part of the process, keeping track of your thoughts.  Too bad there's no way to just shoot photos of what's going on in your head, and organize them later!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Finished at last

How many times have you attended a workshop, made a good start on a quilt or other project, went home intending to wind it up posthaste -- and then time passed....

It's happened to me a lot, and sometimes it has taken a decade or more to get around to finishing the piece.  (Often what I do with it bears little resemblance to what I thought I would do with it when I left the workshop.)

But today I want to share a project from Claire Henderson, who took my workshop in improvisational piecing at Quilting by the Lake in 2017.  Yesterday she wrote me: "I finally quilted and faced my big project from the class.  I still like it and it was the first piece I pulled out for my New Years resolution to finish more things I start!  Thanks again for a fun and most important to me, serious and useful class."

Yesterday, when she sent me a picture of the quilt that she just finished, I looked back in my files and found that I had photographed the quilt in process.  Here's how she started out, making strip sets from her chosen palette:

The next day she was cutting modules from the strip sets and putting them up on the design wall:

By the end of the workshop, she had the quilt pretty much composed on the wall:

And here it is all sewed, quilted and faced:

I find it interesting how the big white square with the little green/blue/green patch in the middle was sketched out so early in the process, and how, with a little tweaking, it survived into the final quilt.  Also that the white and blue are the only ones of the five colors to survive into large expanses in the final version, while the red and green ended up sliced and diced into much smaller pieces -- and the coral is only an occasional accent bit.

I've always been a big fan of taking lots of photos as your quilt takes shape on the design wall.  Not only does it help you reconstruct if a big wind or a toddler takes everything down, or if you get confused between the wall and the sewing machine, but it gives a view into your thought process.

Thanks, Claire, for sharing!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

By their stash shall ye know them

Many of my friends know about my never-ending conceptual art project that I have been calling "mile-o-crochet" even though it will probably not get to be a mile long.  I'm using up leftover yarn to crochet a series of l-o-n-g strips that have no purpose at all except to be rolled up into cakes.  As the word has gotten around, I have become the recipient of many bags of yarn bits.

Today I scored seven bags of stuff from a friend of a friend, and spent a couple of hours sorting it into piles -- worsted weight for the mile-o-crochet, delicate baby yarn, other sport-weight yarns, rug yarn, needlepoint wool, novelty yarns for fancy knitted scarves, a pile of miscellaneous for art, and a little bit in the wastebasket. 

I know the donor of this stash must feel great thinking that the leftovers from decades of handwork will go to a good cause.  I wish I could assure her that it will happen -- I will definitely make the mile-o- and the baby afghans, but since I no longer do needlepoint and don't really know how to knit, I will take the rest to my fiber art group grab bag tomorrow and hope that somebody else will grab.

But what struck me as I sorted through the bags was how much of this woman's life is revealed by her stash.  From the envelopes of patterns she ordered, I know her maiden name, her mother's address and one of her still-in-town-but-my-own-place addresses before she moved to Louisville.  (Note to those in witness protection: go through your bags of yarn carefully before de-accessioning.)  I know that in the 70s she made a bazillion crocheted caps -- or at least she bought or cut out a bazillion patterns for crocheted caps.

I know that she drafted her own patterns for needlepoint, often making personalized belts and other stuff with appropriate symbols, logos and lettering. 

I know she bought a lot of rug yarn, and at least three rug hooks, but never made the rug(s).  I know from a note on the bag that her mother liked to knit and crochet stuff for the church bazaar, like this crocodile/hot mitt.

Here's a giveaway thimble marked "Don't get stuck.  Re-elect SENATOR JOHN SHERMAN COOPER", which my husband says might be worth some money to a collector of political memorabilia, as Cooper was a nationally prominent Republican who served on the Warren Commission.  She herself was active in politics, once running for judge (a crochet pattern written on a piece of her campaign stationery).

I've always liked working with leftovers and hand-me-down projects.  Knowing that some other woman once sat in the evenings making something useful and beautiful out of this yarn, this canvas, this fabric, gives me an energy that I don't get from virgin materials.  I'm not a woo-woo person, but I do think there's an aura to pre-owned and pre-used things -- usually a good aura that I seek to capture and amplify with my own subsequent work.

Sometimes the other woman is one I love -- my grandmothers, my mother, my sister.  Sometimes she is totally unknown to me and I can try to imagine her as I stitch.  Sometimes I know who she is without having ever met her -- in many cases, the mothers or grandmothers of my friends.  In this case, it's a woman whose husband I ran into occasionally in my long-ago reporter days, whose name is familiar to me but whom I don't think I have ever met.  And yet her life is now a little bit entwined with mine. 

I hope this doesn't sound creepy, like I'm stalking her.  But since I know who she is, maybe I will call her up, thank her for the stash and see if she wants her John Sherman Cooper thimble back.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

I knew I would use this someday...

A long time ago -- 20 or 25 years?? -- I acquired a batch of Melody Johnson fabrics with Wonder Under already applied.  I have no recollection of how they came into my possession, although I took a workshop from Melody once at the Lancaster quilt show.  But none of the pieces strike a chord, and the designs that were already cut and put together don't seem like the kind of designs that I would have made.  I know I have never made a quilt with these fabrics.

Maybe one of my quilt pals passed them along to me, knowing that I'm a sucker for bags of bits and pieces.  In any case, they have sat in a neatly labeled shoebox in my studio for decades.  Even though I hate fusing, I didn't want to throw them away, because you never know.

And today, I knew!

I wanted to make a postage stamp quilt with letters of the alphabet, to replace the one that I just sold in December.  But I remembered how fiddly it was to make that quilt, and then -- strike of lightning -- remembered that box full of beautiful hand-dyed fabrics all ready to fuse.

Striped Alphabet -- gone to a good home
So I spent an hour or two cutting out the letters, but then instead of painstakingly holding each bit in place with tweezers while feeding them through the sewing machine, I just fused them to the background and proceeded to zip through the actual sewing at 60 mph knowing nothing would slip out of place.

What is the moral of this story?  To throw nothing out, because you never know?  To label your boxes clearly so you can find them 20 years later when inspiration strikes?  To keep your mind open to methods and techniques that you generally disapprove of?  All of the above?

(And if you think I'm going to throw out all these tiny bits and pieces, some smaller than an inch, you're wrong.  Because you never know.)

Monday, January 6, 2020

John Baldessari, R.I.P.

I was sad to read in today's paper that John Baldessari, one of the greats of conceptual art, died last week.  I've seen and admired many of his works in various museums over the years, but the one that made the greatest impact was one that I saw at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles almost exactly ten years ago.

Here's what I wrote about it in my blog on January 24, 2010:

"Finally, my nomination for the most startling art I've seen all year (I know, it's still January....).

John Baldessari  "Two Highrises (with Disruptions) / Two Witnesses (Red and Green)

At first glance you think "just another 9/11 riff" but then you notice that it was made in 1990.

The docent thought the 'twin towers' were a small model made for low-end movie special effects, but didn't sound 100% confident in her story.  Who knows!  Baldessari made the piece for an exhibit on relationships, and apparently the couple on the top were supposed to be the main subjects of the picture.  Today, of course, we are riveted by the burning towers.  MoCA has only recently put the piece on display for the first time since 9/11."

I've thought about this piece many times in the ten years since I saw it, and how often can you recall a single work of art with that kind of lasting impact?  Professor Baldessari, we'll miss you.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Day One of daily art 2020

During the last week of the year I always angst over what project to adopt for my new daily art.  Sometimes I have made my mind up only in the waning hours of New Year's Eve, but this time I was pretty sure for the last month or so that I wanted to continue my calligraphy for another year.  I have truly loved this project and feel that I have only begun to explore the possibilities of writing-as-art.

Unfortunately, when I was in the craft store in early December I didn't think to stock up on sketchbooks for 2020, so yesterday I had to make a fast run -- and discovered that the kind I have been using all year was not on the shelf.  The whole store kind of resembled a post-holiday war zone, with half-empty shelves and display racks moved for renovation, so I probably should be glad I found any sketchbook at all.  But I will be starting the year with 70-pound "artist paper" instead of 80-pound "premium artist paper."  (Probably won't notice much difference.)

I very reluctantly decided to abandon my daily miniatures with the end of 2019.  I have truly loved that project as well and looked forward to making a new little piece of art every day.  But I realized that documenting and cataloguing the miniatures was taking up a lot of time.  Between the writing and the miniature I was probably averaging at least a half hour a day, and although I had the constant fun and exhilaration of making art, I found it hard to concentrate on "real art" last year.  So with a solo show to put together in June, I am bidding the miniatures good-bye, at least for a while.

Some might ask whether I couldn't just make miniatures without having it be an official Daily Art, and dispense with the tedious documentation.  And of course I could, and perhaps I will, although it will be an entirely different project.  I have learned in two decades of daily art that the documentation and organization is half the fun, and at least to my mind, an essential part of the character of what I produce. 

So here's my last daily miniature, a two-faced Janus: 

And my first calligraphy of the new year, the beginning of the Ode to Joy -- the same text that I used to start last year, and returned to so many times in between.  What better sentiment to grasp as we move forward in fraught times: All men will become brothers where thy gentle wings stay. 

Happy New Year, and let's hope for lots of art and joy ahead.