Sunday, October 16, 2022

Daily painting -- lots of faces

In my last post I showed you the very start of what has turned into a fairly long series of faces in my daily paint project.  I have been finding photos in the newspaper and using them as references to paint my own versions: all spaces heavily outlined, faces rendered in two different non-face-like colors against usually dark backgrounds.  I'll share some of the ones that I'm proud of (but you can see them all on my daily art blog). 

As you can see, I do better with men than women!  I have tried women but have never been happy with the results.  Maybe it's the hair -- and why so many of the ones I like feature bald guys or those in hats!

So far I've done 45 of these faces and am not sure what if anything I'm accomplishing.  As time passed, I started experimenting with different techniques, such as washy shading of the facial contours, and yet I worry about getting away from the flat, graphic quality that I liked from the start.  

When I go through the whole series I find that the ones I like best are those toward the beginning.  That doesn't seem like a good sign.  The more you work in a series, the better you're supposed to get, not the other way around.

I still don't know what I'm going to do next.  In two days I start a new, much smaller sketchbook and a new series, because we're heading off on a long trip and I don't want to carry a huge paint kit.  What will I put in the new sketchbook?  Will I return to the faces when we get home?  

I think that December 31 will be my last daily painting.  Several times in the past I have kept the same daily art theme for multiple years when I was having fun and felt there was still more to explore.  I know there's still a whole universe of painting out there that I have yet to learn, but I'm drawn more to another stitching project for next year.  I'll keep you posted, of course!

Saturday, September 24, 2022

My good deed for the future

I learned to sew at my grandmothers' knees, when I was 5 or 6 years old.  Since then I have probably sewed on a thousand buttons and mended hundreds of pairs of pants.  Every time I repeat myself with these mundane but so-satisfying chores I think of all the people who don't have those skills, and wonder who should have taught them.  

This summer my son got involved with a new venture, the Louisville Tool Library, a non-profit that owns lots and lots of tools of every sort that Library members can check our for their various maintenance and improvement projects.  At first they were thinking along the lines of shovels, saws, screwdrivers, drills, all kinds of building and fixing equipment.  But then people started donating sewing machines and I perked up my ears.  My son has made himself the guy in charge of workshops, and I volunteered to teach one for total sewing beginners -- today.

With practicality in mind, I decided to teach how to sew on buttons and how to patch holes in pants, both by hand.  We started with threading a needle (my students did great -- everybody succeeded on the first try) and putting a knot at the end.  Then they sewed on some little four-hole shirt buttons.  They could choose whether to sew plus signs or equal signs through the four holes.

After a couple of shirt buttons, we moved on to pants buttons, which of course required a stalk or shank.  They switched to sturdier needles and button-and-carpet thread.  We spent time on how to tie off the thread at the end of the task, and how to bury the ends between the layers of fabric (one of the students thought this was the cleverest thing she'd ever seen...).

Then we put patches on pants holes -- just plain old holes near the knees, no blown-out seams or holes in difficult places like pockets.  They cut patches from drapery-weight fabric, pinned them underneath the holes, and did rows and rows of running stitches to secure the patches.  

I had only three students this afternoon, after some who had signed up for the workshop were no-shows.  At first I was annoyed, but after we got started I was glad to have so few people -- especially the guy who had never held a needle in his life.  I could give individual instruction, attention and encouragement.  So future workshops will be just as small.

I came home exhilarated -- all three of the students said they wanted to come back for more lessons, and the Tool Library people want to have me come back as often as I can.  I want to keep teaching these basics, and one of the students asked if I could teach "visible mending."  I'd also like to hold a mending clinic in which people could bring in their own garments that need help, and we could talk first about whether the problem can actually be repaired, and how to go about it.  I am less excited about teaching newbies how to use sewing machines but I suppose I could suck it up and do it.  Supposedly the Tool Library people have tested out every tool before putting it out on the floor, so the machines ought to all work (even if they're not Berninas...  I am so spoiled... ).

My objective here is not exactly what I shoot for in teaching quilting or other fiber arts.  In those classes I wish that nobody will ever have to use other people's patterns again.  In these, the bar is much lower: that nobody will ever have to throw out a garment because it has a hole or a blown seam or a missing button.  Call it Survival Skills 101 -- with a side benefit of helping save the planet.  A good day all around!

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Daily painting update

As July turned into August I started feeling blah every day when I brought out my sketchbook for daily painting.  My intentions when I decided to do painting as my daily art for 2022 were to learn how to use paint and brushes, and with any luck, to develop some kind of personal style or voice that felt good.  I even thought maybe I could eventually come up with small paintings good enough to be torn out of the sketchbook and displayed in the gallery.

But none of these things had happened at mid-year.  I had learned that I loved gouache, especially when watered down a bit so I could use wet-into-wet techniques.  But my default composition of three horizontal segments, stacked one over the other, was feeling stale.  Some days I liked what I did, other days not, and I was definitely in a rut.

My sketchbook ran out of pages toward the end of August and I waited until the last possible day to make a run to the art supply store -- where to my dismay, there were no more 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 sketchbooks on the shelves.  I had to buy the next size up, 7 x 10.  That doesn't seem like a lot, but it's actually 50% larger and the expanse of untouched white looked orders of magnitude more daunting.  

So, time for a life-changing experience -- I painted a person.

I was thinking of Rouault's people, crudely outlined in black, usually dark against dark, not photorealistic by a mile but also not cute or cartoony.  

Georges Rouault, The Old King

Here's my first such guy:

I liked him, but what to do the next day?  I was less happy with the second guy, getting too much toward the cute/cartoon side:

Then an idea: what if I copied my guy from a photo in the newspaper instead of drawing him?  Here's the third guy:


I was much happier -- without having to worry about the outline, I could still do my own thing with the painting, and the two-color face approach was very satisfying.  I'm now two weeks in to the newspaper photo series and feeling pretty good about it.  

I'll show you more of these new faces in another post.

Friday, August 5, 2022

I have not been dead, it just looks that way...

I am so embarrassed at how long it's been since I last posted.  June and July have been the busiest months in years and while I've kept up with the daily painting and the daily Instagram posts, I have sorely neglected my blog.  I guess that proves that, at least for me, making a commitment to daily art works much better than just trying to do something as frequently as possible.  I'll try to catch you up on what I missed telling you about at the time.

So the end of June was a marathon of getting a truckload of art ready to hang in my solo show at PYRO Gallery.  A bit more than half the pieces in the show were new work, made in the last two years.  The rest were older, but mostly never seen locally.  Among the very oldest was this quilt that appeared in the special "I Remember Mama" exhibit at the Houston Quilt Festival in 2003.

Household Textiles, 2003, details below

When I wrote an artist statement for the Houston show, it was pretty sweet -- kind of embarrassing to me as I read it again for the first time in almost 20 years.  I talked about women who "sit with our needles and contemplate our lives as we sew, finding joy, peace, and a brief respite from chores and chaos."

When I gave a couple of gallery talks during the run of my show, I found myself taking a different and darker tone.  I pointed out that household textiles come is two different varieties: as instruments of female drudgery, and sometimes as instruments of female creativity and pleasure.  I noted that the ladies on the quilt (three of them are actual people, including Viola, my mother; two are made-up names given to unidentified photos found in the family box) obviously spent a whole lot more time on drudgery than on creativity...

I was particularly happy that my sister was able to come for the opening of the show, and got to revisit her old wedding dress incorporated into the quilt. 

The marriage didn't last, but the dress sure did.  It was made of that luscious heavy, drapey polyester that was so popular in the early 70s and it will no doubt outlive every other piece of textile on the entire quilt, if not the entire world. You can see in the photo that I stuffed the long sleeve so it rises a good three inches off the surface of the quilt, and I was astounded to see that after 19 years on a shelf, the sleeve is still just as perky and wrinkle-free as it was when I folded up the quilt and stowed it away.   Go, polyester!   (Now, of course, people sneer at polyester, while loving microfiber, which of course is the same thing...) 

On another note of remembrance, I couldn't help but think, many times during the show, of my dear friend Marti Plager, who died a year ago.  She had always loved this quilt and on many occasions urged me to find a way to get it up in public again.  A few times I almost did, and Marti was disappointed when it never happened.

So it finally happened, and I hope Marti got to look down from heaven and see it displayed so nicely.


Saturday, June 11, 2022

Getting ready -- a lot of work...

My new show opens four weeks from yesterday and I'm now in the stage that is probably the least fun.  All the art is made, but it has to be made ready to hang.  I've made about 20 hand-stitched pieces in varying shapes and sizes, most of them pretty small, and to make a cohesive body of work they're all going to be mounted on stretched canvases, covered with black fabric.  

Unfortunately, the black fabric is not tightly woven (I bought the cheapest cotton in the store) so the white canvas shows through when it's tightly stretched.  So I had to paint the outer border of the canvas black first. 

Then to the stretching.  The parts in the middle are easy to do, but the corners are tricky if you want them to be as flat as possible.  (The purchased canvas already has a triangle of three layers at each corner, so perfectly flat isn't going to happen, but by pulling tight you can get them to fold neatly, without bulges.)  

I do this by pulling and pinning and inspecting and pulling some more and repinning everything before putting in the final staples in the corners.  

I sew the embroideries to the canvas,  sometimes with the stitches invisible (time-consuming, but it's almost like magic when you're done) and sometimes visible.  Fortunately it's easy to stitch through the canvas and sometimes I got into a groove, carrying many of the stitching lines off the original fabric and well onto the background.  

I am deliberately avoiding calculating how much time it takes me to get a "finished" embroidery onto a canvas.  If I did, I'd probably realize that I'm paying myself a minimum wage of about 95 cents an hour.  But there are compensations, such as seeing a big stack of canvases, all looking the same, ready to go.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Let them drink beer

This post has nothing to do with fiber art but I'm feeling seriously crabby.

I'm crabby about the crisis in baby formula.  As a mother who failed at breastfeeding my first time around (as did my mother and my sister) and went straight to the bottle the second time around, I can't imagine what mothers are doing today when they can't find formula in the stores.  And it seems that the only response from the public health establishment is to harangue them: DON'T, DON'T, DON'T make homemade formula.

I was particularly annoyed this afternoon to read my regular email newsletter from Dr. Leana Wen, who writes for the Washington Post.  A reader complained to her: "Why aren't pediatricians sharing these recipes?  Public health authorities keep treating mothers like they are too incompetent to follow simple directions to feed their babies."

Dr. Wen sanctimoniously explained the two reasons why mothers shouldn't make their own formula.  "First, commercial formula is carefully researched through clinical trials to provide the specific nutrients babies need.  Homemade recipes will likely lack these nutrients or contain them in improper amounts."

So how about sharing recipes that contain the right nutrients in the right amounts?  Wouldn't that be better than leaving desperate parents to their own devices?

Dr. Wen continues:  "Second, homemade recipes are rife with bacterial contamination.  There are Internet recipes that call for using unpasteurized raw milk, which is really dangerous for babies."

Again, how about sharing a recipe that doesn't call for unpasteurized raw milk?  Or sharing tips for making sure that homemade formula is protected as much as possible from bacteria?  People are capable of canning tomatoes in sterile jars, and in an emergency -- which we have right now -- they should be able to carefully do the best possible job with baby formula.

Dr. Wen and WaPo are not alone in telling people what not to do but offering no help on what they should do instead.  Here's the New York Times' list of don'ts:  

"If you're running low on formula, don't dilute it or try to stretch it by adding water."  

"Don't buy formula from an online marketplace like Facebook or Craigslist... Always go to a trusted store, pharmacy or directly to the manufacturer."  (in other words, all those places that don't have any formula on the shelves...)

"Don't feed toddler formula to your infant.  (Toddler formula may be OK for an older baby for a few days; check with your doctor.)" 

"Buying imported European formulas, which aren't FDA-approved, has potential risks.  For example, in Europe, a hypoallergenic formula may contain intact proteins, which can cause reactions in babies with allergies."  (apparently the White House missed this memo, because they're already starting to airlift formula from Europe...)

For many reasons, this isn't turning out to be a great year for parents and children.  Perhaps the FDA will eventually get around to approving a covid vaccine for little ones, or perhaps they'll just hope the little ones can survive to age 5.  Perhaps the airlifted formula will be sufficient that the babies can survive long enough to be able to finally drink toddler formula.  

And with any luck, the little ones will survive to adulthood without being shot up in their classrooms.  Our grandson graduated from elementary school today, uneventfully.  Other grandparents sadly are not as fortunate as we in that respect.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Feeling trapped

I've been painting fish for several weeks in my daily art project.  Since fish live in water, and since I am intrigued by the washy effects of wet-into-wet painting, I've been doing a lot of experimenting with making the fish blurry, as though seen through the water.

I've enjoyed this series, although I think it's about to end, because I have other ideas to explore.  But a strange thing happened with the fish this week.

We have been tied up in organizing a family transition, as my sister-in-law is going to move across the country from a single-family home on a multi-acre lot in the exurbs to a senior living center here in Kentucky.  We are her closest family, and it's time for her to come to where we can support and help her.

We visited four, count 'em, four places yesterday, which is at least one too many, if you're planning a similar emdeavor.  But fortunately, we found one that looked pretty good, and this morning we went back for a second look and more gory details.  I think this is going to happen -- as soon as the minor tasks of selling a house and moving across the US can be worked out.  Things will be better for everybody once it's done; just the doing will be hell on wheels.

So back to my fish.

I was going to be the get-it-done, voice of reason on yesterday's expedition.  I was familiar with three of the places we visited, because two dear friends, now dead, had lived there.  I had set foot in these three establishments dozens or scores of times.  I knew that my husband and his sister were emotionally fraught by this task, so I was going to be the one who would guide and evaluate with a slightly more objective and detached view.

But as the day wore on, I found myself un-detached, and unexpectedly feeling trapped and claustrophobic.

The fish told the story -- when I did my painting last night the fish ended up in a box.

And this morning, before we headed out for the second visit to the best place, the fish ended up in a trap.

I'm a decade younger than my husband and his sister, so I have known forever that it's likely I'll be the last one standing, the one who does the caregiving and the support at the end of life.  But something about visiting these places made me painfully aware that we're all getting older.

I have sworn that I will never enter an institution when I get old; instead I will die in my own home if it kills me (thus cleverly avoiding the issue of what to do with my studio and my stash and my collections of stuff that I intend to turn into art.  Let my kids deal with that after I'm gone.  And sure enough, just walking into these places -- even the best, most pleasant of them -- reminded me of why I have sworn this oath.

I think the place we have found will be the best solution for my SIL.  It will allow her to easily make friends in a city where she has never lived, thousands of miles away from her present home.  It will give her support and infrastructure so she won't have to lean on us for everything.  It will provide access to dozens of activities and lots of companionship that she could never get in a regular old apartment.  I'm not sure why I'm feeling trapped instead of happy.  (Actually, I guess I'm happy too, but the fish certainly aren't...)

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Sanford Biggers at the Speed, part 3

I've written about the Sanford Biggers show in two previous posts.  Time for a wrap-up.

The piece I liked best in the show was a Tumbling Blocks quilt, with a minimum of paint, overlaid with a dramatic horizontal flame of orange-and-black chevron print.  A little bit of black paint made a curvy outline over the old blocks, a sort of half-silhouette of a key shape.

Sanford Biggers, Quilt 17 ( Sugar, Pork, Bourbon) 

My second favorite was a collage of old quilts, plus a section of curvy stripes made from sequins on a black painted background.

Sanford Biggers, Transition

I liked these quilts because they thoughtfully used large patterned shapes to contrast with and complement the smaller patterns of the vintage pieced quilts.  In both cases there was artistry in the composition and care in the construction.

Sadly, I did not see those features in most of the quilts in the exhibit.  The artspeak at the entrance to the gallery tells us "the quilts signal their original creator's intent as well as the new layers of meaning given to them through Biggers's artistic intervention."  I searched in vain for the new layers of meaning in most of the pieces in the show.

As I mentioned in my first post about this show, I walked in the door as a Biggers skeptic, based on a bit of past knowledge of his work, but would have liked to like this show.  Instead I was surprised at the strength of visceral discomfort that hit me in only the first two rooms of the gallery; all those beautiful antique quilts deliberately messed up with paint and tar to no apparent purpose.  Perhaps it wasn't the defacing per se that bothered me -- I've been known to repurpose old quilt bits myself -- but the slapdash quality of the defacing.  

I went to the museum with two friends, one an artist, one not.  When we compared notes all three of us just wanted to get out of there fast.  I wasn't there long enough to discover exactly what made me so unhappy, and for that I apologize.  

The show will be up through June 26.  I'd love to hear what other people think of it, whether I'm alone in my unease.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Sanford Biggers at the Speed, part 2

More comments about the Sanford Biggers show.  Not everything in the show featured messy paint applications.  One of the quilts, stretched on a wood armature, had dramatic holes, bordered with black organza to give a striking shadow illusion.

Sanford Biggers, Ecclesiastes 1 (KJV)
A similar see-through illusion appeared in an assemblage of six framed quilt sections, with some two-layer areas where the semiopaque frosted plexiglass was cut away to reveal a quilt about a quarter-inch behind.  

Sanford Biggers, Nyabinghi, detail below

Two of the quilts, both Tumbling Blocks, were overlaid with sequins and lame, glittering under the gallery lights.  No paint drips on these, just fabric collage.  

Sanford Biggers, Ooo Oui, detail

Sanford Biggers, Ooo Oui

Several pieces were made by stretching quilt sections into wood-framed constructions.  The first one we saw as we came through the exhibit was intriguing, made in part from American flag-motif quilts. 

Sanford Biggers, Reconstruction, detail below

But the next four or five, the same concept with slightly different construction shapes, all kind of looked alike, and the fact that they were hung too high on the wall to see most of the surfaces made them easy to walk past without stopping to look. 

Maybe I would have liked them better if all the "construction" pieces had been hung together for comparison, but they weren't.

I'll give you the wrap-up report in my next post.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Sanford Biggers at the Speed, part 1

The current blockbuster show at the Speed Museum is by Sanford Biggers, an African American artist whose shtick is to paint on top of antique quilts.  I have been somewhat familiar with his work for several years; in 2017 one of his quilts was in another show at the Speed, and I wrote about it in a blog post.  

I found some things to like in that piece, but I had two big reservations.  First, Biggers made a big deal out of the false story that quilts were used as secret signposts along the Underground Railroad.  Second, it hurt to see a beautiful antique quilt in fine condition used as a canvas.  Surely he could have found a beat-up quilt to paint on!

So I approached the new show with some preconceptions, but resolved to keep an open mind.  I lingered over the artist statement at the entrance to the exhibit, interested to note that he has backed off from his fake-history Underground Railroad statements.  In 2017 the wall tag read "Some quilts were used as signposts for safe houses..."  Five years later, we read "he was intrigued by the heavily debated narrative that quilts in some way doubled as signposts..."  That's progress, I guess, and maybe in five more years he will acknowledge that this narrative is not heavily debated at all, just carelessly repeated by ignorant people.  

But enough nitpicking, let's look at the quilts.  I didn't keep a tally, but it seemed that most of them were in pretty good condition and were simply painted upon and hung on the wall without additional support.  Some were in poor condition, and augmented by patching in pieces from other quilts, or collaging swatches of unquilted fabric, including several kimono pieces, on top. 

Sanford Biggers, Hat & Beard, details

Sanford Biggers, Hat & Beard

Most of the quilts followed the same recipe: start with a quilt or quilt collage, paint loosely over the top, let the paint (or sometimes, tar) drip and blob.  Some of them had intricate and meticulous stenciled designs, but almost always some area of deliberate mess.

Sanford Biggers, Quilt 30 (Nimbus), detail below

I can't describe the whole show in just one blog post, and probably not even in just two.  So stay tuned and I'll have more pictures and thoughts soon.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Voice from the past

If you were reading my blog (or if you were reading the New York Times) during the summer of 2020, you may remember the silly series called Designer DIY that ran off and on in the Times, in which famous fashion designers came up with adorable sewing and craft ideas for readers to do at home.  Mending and embroidering garments were popular repeat subjects, but making flimsy "jewelry" and handbags also showed up, as well as making a dress out of a pillowcase.

One of my favorites was the feature in which you were instructed on how to embroider your name on your sock.  You were told to use an embroidery hoop, and here's a helpful drawing of work in progress:

from NYTimes Style section

You (unlike the artist or the editor) will notice, of course, that it will be impossible to put the sock on your foot, since the sides of the sock are now sewed together.

I came to love these features, because it enabled me to write snarky comments about how lame the ideas were, and more egregious, how awful the directions were.  If you have 15 minutes to fritter away on the internet today, you might want to read or reread these blog posts, guaranteed to give you lots of laughs.

The posts led to a bunch of comments from my readers, many of whom urged me to write the Times and tell them how awful the series was.  So I did.  Sometime in the summer of 2020 I wrote a long letter that spelled out all the things that they were doing poorly, and urging them to clean up their act.  

I wrote, in part: "If your purpose in this series is to win brownie points in the fashion community and give some designers a bit of free ink, then you have probably succeeded, especially among readers who don’t actually try to do the projects. But if your purpose is to give your readers projects they can succeed at and feel proud of, you are failing miserably. I suspect that the great majority of readers who do the projects are also failing miserably, which I can’t imagine is building warm feelings toward the Times.

"Perhaps things would work better if you let the designers come up with the ideas and let somebody who does actual handwork write the instructions. Better yet, let somebody who does actual handwork come up with the ideas too, so you could present projects that are doable and attractive." 

I received no response, until this morning!

When I found an email, saying "Thank you for contacting the newsroom of The New York Times.  We appreciate readers who share their feedback and help us report thoroughly and accurately.  Someone will read your note shortly, but because of the volume of notes we receive, we cannot respond individually to each one."

I am so gratified that someone will read my note shortly.

Meanwhile, if you want to embroider your sock, please use a darning egg, not an embroidery hoop.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Another painting motif

I wrote in my last post about the lake motif that I've been using in my daily painting.  Another motif that I've used several times is a hand.  Simplest execution you can imagine: trace around the hand, fill in with color.  

I've been using this motif to experiment with color: not so much which two colors will go well together but how to lay down the color within the hand and in the  background.  I don't want a flat, uniform coat of paint; instead I'm looking for ways to vary the tones and achieve an interesting texture.

Because I don't wash out my paint palette dish at night, I always have five or six dried-up blobs of paint in different colors ready to be reconstituted.  I tend to mix up a supply of my main color, then vary the strokes by occasionally dipping into one of the side colors.  Sometimes the colors blend smoothly, if they aren't too different in value and if the first color has stayed pretty wet before the second one comes on.  Other times there are distinct lines between one color and the next.

I find that I like both approaches.  I also like varying the shape of the hand, either by moving the fingers or cropping the shape on the page. 

When my granddaughter was visiting one day I showed her my hand paintings and she let me trace her hand a couple of times.

I am also using these motifs as a way to practice carefully laying down the paint.  I don't paint a background first and then put the hand over the top; instead I paint the hand first and then paint the background color exactly up to the edge, trying to leave no bit of white between the two colors.  It's improving my hand control!

When I showed these paintings to a friend, she suggested that I try to make my depiction more realistic by shading to show dimension.  I thought about that for a while, but then decided that I like the flat look, at least for now.  Maybe after I've gotten more comfortable with the paint I can circle back and focus more on the "drawing." 

(I even thought about extending this flat approach to other mediums, cutting hand shapes out of patterned paper or fabric and collaging them.  Might hold that thought for another day!)

I'll show you my next recurring motif in another post.  Meanwhile, you can see all my daily art on my daily art blog.