Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Form, Not Function 4 -- pictorial

This year's FNF had only a few pictorial quilts, two of which won awards.  One of those awards was the one given by my small quilt support group, River City Fiber Artists, which meant that I got to visit the museum early and choose. 

Longtime readers will recall that I generally dislike pictorial quilts as a genre, especially portraits.  I have long felt that fabric is not a good medium to depict photographically realistic images, but this year I had to admit that the quilt winning the RCFA award is perhaps the best portrait quilt I've ever seen.

Linda Anderson, Velvet Flowers, 31 x 51" (detail below)

For me, the challenge of portraiture in fabric is how to achieve the graded tones of facial features without the abrupt changes in switching from one fabric to another, the Photoshop-aided posterization process used by so many quilters to render photos into fabric.  I'm sorry I didn't do a better job of figuring out the process, but Anderson either painted or printed the faces, then quilted with a whole lot of threadwork, changing colors to enhance the realistic facial contours and skin tones.  Metallic thread made the image sparkle.

By contrast, look at this portrait:

Margaret Abramshe, Nan, 33 x 29" (detail below)

Here too the image is painted or printed, then quilted.  But here the quilting is all the same color, intended to highlight the contours rather than the gradations in skin tome, and is much sparser, giving a stylized look to the portrait.  The quilting line becomes an art element in itself.

Quite a different approach is seen in one of the honorable mention winners:

Kathy Nida, I can't Be Your Superwoman, 88 x 52" (details below)

Nida's work is instantaneously recognizable from across the room in any quilt show, with intricately rendered details in a sometimes-cartoony style.  A very different approach to figurative art in quilting.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Form, Not Function 3 -- because you asked...

I've had a few reader comments to the two posts I've made so far about Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie.  Wanted to respond to them before I go on with more discussion of the show.

About the Best in Show dress made entirely of yo-yos, Shasta wrote: "It reminds me that I have yo-yos I need to stitch together still." 

After I observed that I wished the jurors had not chosen three quilts with the same basic "recipe" -- big, improvisationally pieced, white, densely machine quilted -- Irene commented: "Maybe the jurors had nothing but that type of work to select from..."

Good point, but according to the Carnegie's web page, there were 265 quilts submitted by 110 artists, so I think they could have found something different if they had tried.  By the way, that web page has photos of every quilt in the show, not just the prizewinners, so you might find it interesting to spend a few minutes on a virtual visit.

Shannon commented:  "You could conceivably add Aryana Londir's piece to this list -- the color sense is different but the piecing approach looks somewhat similar.   After reading your post today I went back and looked at the show again to see if it felt too "heavy" in that particular approach.  After consideration, I'm not sure.  The overall show feels balances to me and there are several other additional (apparently) pieced pieces that don't have this style/approach.  I wonder to what extent this is a piecing style that is currently used by a large variety of artists?  I also wondered if it might be tied to the jurors.  I remember QN 19 when Nancy Crow was a juror the selected pieces felt enriched for those that had a Nancy-Crow-piecing style.  Not that that's necessarily bad, just perhaps an influence."

Shannon makes several points worth responding to.  First, Londir's quilt is definitely of the same character as the three I discussed in my last post: improvisationally pieced, machine quilted with parallel lines, the shapes predominantly right-angled.

Aryana Londir, What Day is Today?  41 x 24"

I like this quilt a lot -- how can you go wrong with the cheerful and dramatic German-flag color palette, plus just enough white to make it sparkle.  A nice balance of solids with commercial prints and what look to be discharged or dyed fabrics.

Shannon makes an excellent point about how the individual jurors and their own tastes can influence what's picked for a show.  Theoretically, having three jurors should make it more difficult for one to have a disproportionate say, but we all know that sometimes one voice is more equal than the others in the room.  I did not see the Quilt National show that Nancy Crow juried (it was QN 17, not 19) but I know that there were a lot of improvisationally pieced quilts in that show and many people suggested that Crow had mainly led the charge toward work in her own genre.  The fact that she, not the QN organizers, personally selected her two fellow jurors did nothing to dispel the faint aura of favoritism.

Longtime readers know that I am a huge fan and disciple of Nancy Crow.  I spent 16 weeks in her workshops over the years, taught at the Crow Barn, machine-quilted three pieces for her, and have credited her with turning me into a serious artist.  Probably because of her influence I love and teach improvisational piecing myself and I'm always happy to see that kind of quilt in a show.  But I confess that many times I find myself categorizing that kind of quilt as "look-mom-I-just-took-a-Nancy-Crow-workshop."

Longtime readers might recall that I was livid because QN 13 had only two quilts out of 85 that were pieced in the classic quilt format.  Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction, at least in this particular show.  This year's FNF isn't anywhere near as skewed in its selection as QN 13, and it's certainly a good show, with few if any duds and a bunch of solid, beautiful, well-made quilts.  I'll be talking more about several of them in the next few posts.  Meanwhile, thanks to Shannon, Irene and all my readers for your thoughtful comments.

PS -- Shannon has a very non-traditional quilt in the show, which I'll tell you more about.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Form, Not Function 2 -- improvisational piecing

There are only 19 pieces in this year's Form, Not Function show, so you can't help but notice when you seem to see the same one more than once.  Don't say to your friend, "Did you like that improvisationally pieced one, the really big one, with lots of white and all that machine quilting? It won a prize." -- because that only narrows it down to three.

Here's what won the second prize, in effect:

Susan Lapham, Playland #3, 85 x 82" (detail below)

It's densely machine quilted with horizontal lines barely an eighth-inch apart.  Yes, as the title suggests, there's a hint of playfulness but the subdued palette of off-colors gives a calm feeling despite the complex piecing, especially the tiny squares of black scattered on the large white areas. 

Honorable mention went to:

Margaret Black, Curb Appeal 7, 84 x 64" (detail below)

Black won a prize at last year's FNF for Curb Appeal 6, somewhat larger and more complicated than this year's entry.  (She also took best in show at Quilt National '17, before she embarked upon this series.) 

What's to say about this one -- it calls out to all of us who love to piece and cut and piece and cut and keep going forever.  Like Lapham's quilt, this one is densely machine quilted with parallel lines, except these go vertically.

And another honorable mention:

Susan Michael, All That You Dream, 75 x 64" (detail below)

It's the tiebreaker in the machine-quilting department, making two out of three with vertical lines.  The bold black-and-white palette gives a more assertive character and graphic quality than was seen in the other two quilts, with overtones of African prints and sparing accents of red and yellow.  Unlike the other two quilts discussed today, this one mixes fabrics, with canvas, ticking and some little shiny fabrics side-by-side with quilting-weight cottons. 

As one who does improvisational piecing with mostly right angles and dense machine quilting with parallel lines, I find it difficult to say anything bad about these quilts!  I'd be happy to have made any one of them.

All three of these quilts, especially the first two, suffered a bit from being displayed on white walls.  It was hard to tell where the quilt stopped and the wall started.  A gray or beige wall would have made them sparkle and sing.

More important, when one-sixth of the whole show consists of basically the same recipe, I have to wonder whether it might have been more interesting for viewers if the jurors had found a little more variety in approach and appearance.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Form, Not Function -- Best in Show

Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie is a show that has been at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany IN since 2004.  It has bounced around the calendar several times for various reasons, including bad weather (it used to be in the winter) and coordination with Quilt National (so people could catch both shows on a single road trip) and this year, coronavirus.  But it opened today, despite everything, and the museum is ready for masked visitors every day except Sunday.  The show will be up through October 31, a longer run than usual, so maybe you'll be able to see it in person.

Best in Show went to Marty Ornish for her 3-D installation "She gazed at the carousel through rose-colored glasses."

Yes, it's made of yo-yos, a slinky one-sleeve halter-top dress cascading into a train that extends up the wall.

Ornish's artist statement says she works in "salvaged textiles and found items" and the yo-yos all appear to be made from Depression-era prints.  I wish I knew more about the provenance -- did she find the yo-yos in somebody else's discarded stash, or make them herself?  Are the fabrics authentic Depression-era or reproductions?  In any case, the result is stunning, and the subdued pastel palette is calm and soothing from afar and endlessly interesting up close.

As I drove home from the museum it occurred to me to wonder whether this technically qualifies as a quilt under the FNF definition: layers held together by stitching.  I guess technically it does, because yo-yos have a front layer and a back layer, and though the layers aren't exactly stitched "together" (the back of a yo-yo is entirely free of thread), you can argue that each yo-yo is "held together" with its buddies via stitching.  (I have served as a juror in FNF several times, and it's this kind of nit-picking that you fall into ex officio.)  Anyhow, the yo-yo quilt is a time-honored niche, so I would give it a pass even though it's not the standard "quilt" format.

And I'm so glad this year's jurors did, because this is a wonderful tour de force and so much fun to look at.  When I was at the museum on Wednesday to choose the prizewinner for the River City Fiber Artists award, we agreed that this piece should be a no-brainer for the Viewer's Choice.  I still think so!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Checking in on calligraphy 3

Trying to achieve the same character as the Denise Lach calligraphy that I loved, I ventured out to my local art supply store, which had just reopened, to buy a little squeeze bottle with a needle tip in the smallest diameter they sold.  This turned out to have a different character than the eye droppers and coke-can pen -- namely, much more prone to blobs!

Seems that the squeeze bottle has three modes, just like Goldilocks and the three bears: not enough ink flow, too much ink flow, and just right.  Unfortunately the only one of these modes that I am able to control is too-much; if you give the squeeze bottle a little squeeze you get a huge blob.  Just-right mode seems to occur only after you've started with too-much and written out the excess, and after a short while it expires into not-enough mode.

One of the advantages of this method is that if you keep the squeeze bottle quite empty, you can add more ink of a different color tomorrow -- or even midway through one day's page -- and change the color.  I put too much red in a while back and am still writing it off, waiting for a chance to transition over to blue or green.

I've experimented with doing my letters straight up and down and on a slant. Some days I'm happy with what I come up with, other days not so much.  But none of the days are even close to the Denise Lach exemplar that I am trying to emulate.

You can see all my daily calligraphy here.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

NYTimes tells us how to weave a basket

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the New York Times searching for somebody to write up a crafts project to weave a basket from newspaper.  My internet friend Susan Lenz, a fiber artist, was approached by the Times to see if she would do the job, and after some thought, Susan said no thanks. 

You will be glad to know that the Times found somebody to do it, and in today's newspaper you can find (pretty good) directions for making a square basket.  And at the bottom of the story, in tiny type, it says "Send us photographs of your baskets, or ideas for crafts that involve newspaper.  Email us at"

If any of you out there do papier mache maybe this is your moment to get famous.  And any second-grade teachers out there probably know lots more projects that start with newspaper.

I'm so happy to see the Times solicit ideas from real people instead of going to fancy designers who clearly are years away from actually making things with a needle and thread.  Maybe now they can come up with crafts projects that both make sense and are easy to follow the directions.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Checking in on calligraphy 2

I have been looking to the book Schrift Spiele by the German calligrapher Denise Lach as inspiration for my daily calligraphy.  This example from the book spoke to me, and I have been trying for several weeks to achieve similar results that made me happy.

Denise Lach, Schrift Spiele
I like the contrast between heavy blobby strokes and very fine lines, and the way the actual letters are difficult if not impossible to make out.  The text said it was done with a "glass pipette" which I gather means an eye-dropper kind of tool.

So I looked around the house for eye-dropper kind of tools, and came up short.  But wait, how about the eye dropper inside the bottle of ink?

I did a bunch of dailies with this method, and was less than thrilled.

The blobby strokes worked out OK but the hairlines were more difficult.  This effect was exacerbated by the tendency of the acrylic ink to show up much lighter in value when there isn't much coverage.

Next I tried my old coke-can-and-tongue-depresser pen, which gave a different nuance to the fine lines.

Sometimes I'd get ink splatters, which were OK, but overall I felt the ink flow was very hard to control, and I just wasn't happy.  Some parts of the composition were nice:

...but other parts seemed crude and ugly:

I decided I needed a better tool.  I'll tell you about that in the next post.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Checking in on calligraphy 1

Although one day seems very much like the next in these lockdown/quarantine times, I do have my daily calligraphy to keep me honest.  When I run out of inspiration I grab my book by the German calligrapher Denise Lach and try to find an illustration that looks interesting.  And then I shamelessly copy it, maybe several times, trying it on for comfort to see if I can make it mine instead of hers.  I'll show you three different examples in posts this week.

Here's what I copied from, what I would describe as whimsically drawn letters:

Denise Lach, Schrift Spiele

And here are several days worth of my alphabets.  I have found that 26 letters seem to fill one of my pages quite nicely.

Lach's calligraphy has a smaller range of colors than mine, but somehow looks snappier.  I'm lazily working just from the bottles of ink that happen to be living on my dining room table.  Yes, I could probably root around in the studio and come up with some paints in different colors, or maybe colored pencils, but that would require energy, a quality that I don't seem to have a whole lot of lately.

I kind of like these alphabets, but I'm not sure they're going anywhere.  Maybe I should be trying to contort my letters into more non-traditional shapes, or trying to find more colors.  Or maybe find just one color, as Lach did.

You can see all my daily calligraphy here.