Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Untitled or titled depending....

Dear Diane,
I am all out of synch posting here on a Tuesday afternoon. I still managed to get to Boc Boc though!

Dennis is here too so I have just asked him his view about the art/ title debate and he thinks the same as me. He thinks that the title is part of the quilt and enhances his experience of it. He gave me two examples. the first is a quit called Cannonball by Karina Thompson which he saw in the Quilt Art 22 catalogue which I had at the side of our bed. He liked the quilt but said he was interested all over again when he saw the title and realised the artist meant it to be a canonball. He had until then thought it was an egg slicer. ( It has pleats or slashes You have to see it an I can't find it online to link to but I can understand how he saw an egg slicer.)

Then he reminded me of this quilt which I showed him as it was in progress a few days ago. ( its still in progress by the way as you may have noticed by the missing heads!) He said that he liked the composition of the quilt and only then did I ask him could he see what was in my mind when I made it. He then started to look worried and eventually said that he saw an abacus. An abacus??? I looked afresh. Oh yes, in the brown fabric. Sort of. But why would three ladies be standing next to a giant abacus? I was thinking of ladies wating for a lift. The light dawned. 'That's what the two buttons are! I see it now'.

So I suppose the answer to your question depends on what we mean by a quilt 'working' or 'succeeding'. If a viewer enjoys looking at it and can tell themselves a story or can be interested as a result of looking at it, that's success to me. I don't mind if what they see is not what was in my mind when I made it at all.But I also like that the title gives a new perspective. So double pleasure: the viewer's own interpretation and then their consideration of mine. I see the title as part of my creation. And I think a lot of other people find art more interesting or maybe more accessible if they have a key to help them enter into it.

Ages and ages ago, I was at an law event in a modern art gallery. Well before I made art myself ( Did I already tell you this? I told someone a little while ago I think?) Anyway, there was a display of sculpture all over the floor of one room. We looked and didn't have a clue. My colleagues with me were mocking that the art was an unintelligable pile of *****. So, messing about, I made up a lavish interpretation for them. Later that evening I circled back through the same room and found a group of different people admiring it and discussing it. I asked them if they understood it and they repeated back my explanation even though none of them had been in the room at the time. Turned out it had passed around like chinese whispers until it had taken on an authenticity and accidentally it had allowed the current viewers to access the work and to go on to add their own views and intepretations. Unless I had a lucky guess it was higly unlikely that my story was anything like what the artist had in mind. But that didnt matter. The viewers just needed a key. The artist can give that or withold it as they choose. I like to give it,

But then, I am a writer and words are as much art to me as the quilt. I really don't understand why the need to divorce the two if the coupling makes for a deeper experience. After all no-one said to Paul Simon " Nice music but you know, the story of the trip to Gracelands ought to be told though the notes and not need the words." I agree that a good title is not going to make up for a dreadful quilt design but I do believe it can enhance a quilt.

I also read recently an email list discussion about writing artists statements in which someone decried putting too much about the art piece in the label next to it in a gallery else the art would end up 'just illustrating your words'. I recoiled at that one. What is wrong with that? Served Beatrix Potter quite well if I recall. Actually, it deepened still further a latent desire in me to produce a book in which photos of my quilts go along side pieces of my writing on the same topic. An idea for the future!

To pick up your issue of design methods - aimless experimental wandering, or purposeful wallk towards a preconcieved idea, I do a bit of both. Sometimes I shuffle fabric and the process of doing that inspires me. Or I start with an idea and work towards that happily going off on a tangent if I am so led to do so. I was very interested in that same Quilt Art 22 catalogue to read that ?.......... Whose work I very much admire says she also uses both approaches. I think that disappointment is possible with both methods. Either the meanderng leads nowhere or the preconcieved idea turns out to be an unreachable pot of gold under the rainbow.

On another note, I read an interesting article by ..... In the SAQA Journal about how keeping a journal/ sketchbook was not for everyone. She had tried both it and journal quilting and found it only distracted from her actual art making. I had to smile because I know both you and I have had the journal trauma of believing that if only we could find the perfect method of journalling, that would transform us into an awsome quilter. ( Am I right? I worry now that I just made that up and it was only me had that belief). Anyway, all the time I/ we have been having that internal conversation I have actually been keeping quilting journals. Of the kind that work for me. In which I often write about how I need to try another ( much less natural) way of art journallng. How nuts is that? At the moment they are all stuffed temporarily into my wardrobe awaiting official studio space. So I pulled one out at random. The first page had a postcard from Marrakech which I stuck in in 2007.

It was just the inspiration I didn't know I was looking for, for a quilt based on fruit I promised to make for an exhibiton at Midsomer Quilting. ( I will show you as soon as it is finished and the good folk at MQ have seen it which will only be a few days off now. I plan something a little dfferent and as they read my blog I dont want to spoil the first viewing!) So my wordy journals with narry a spot of paint in them can be just as useful as those mini works of art books produced by fine artists turned textile workers.

That said, I still get seduced by possibilty. My next letter to you will no doubt come from Bath as we go down there next week and I have my pile of starter books ready ( others wil be bought down there) including two by Danny Gregory which, even without opening them, are tempting me to buy a watercolour moleskin and keep a visual journal of the trip. Not for design purposes. Just for fun. And the excuse of buying a new moleskin!

So how are you getting on with your tea theme? Maybe there is a subconscious link between your iced tea and yor ice dyed fabric?!
Are you by chance going to use the SAQA visioning project this year? I am just filling in my page this week so I'll tell you more about that next time I write. But now it is time to go home and take one or two missing photos to add to the text above so I can post this. Then to get to work actually being creative!!

Until next time,

Friday, 23 September 2011

Hot day, cold tea

Dear Helen,
I am writing this from a Starbucks in Sacramento, where I am spending some air-conditioned contemplation time between a meeting and dinner with a friend. It is hardly Bocboc or Cedar Farm but it is pleasant nonetheless. I have been sipping iced tea and doodling in my journal and looking at a Sandra Meech book (Creative Quilts: Inspiration, Texture and Stitch) for visual stimulation. It is a lovely break on this weirdly hot day.

First, here is the end result of the dyed fabric experiment in texture I was working on last time I posted.

You can see that I did a lot of machine quilting and some coloring with pencil to more strongly define shapes. I'm content to stop here with it. I've called it "Azalea Encore" as it reminds me of a big drift of blooming azaleas. I had a fair amount of discomfort working without a visual destination in mind -- part of this experiment involved just beginning to play with the fabric to see where it took me. And maybe the vaguely dissatisfied feeling I had throughout was because I didn't know where I was going. I think I kept waiting for something exciting to result without actually aiming for it, if you know what I mean. We both know people who work this way -- playing with placing fabric and designing as they go, making decisions about what to add or subtract as they proceed -- and while it was fun, with this at least I felt sort of directionless. I am not sure whether that is because I am used to having some result in mind.

But it brings me to your thoughts about wanting the work to tell, or at least suggest, a story to you. I do not look at work that way, at least not consciously, and I don't think of my own work in that way. But upon thinking about this issue, I realize that I look for a piece to raise a question for me, or invoke a curiosity that makes me want to keep looking at it.
You and I have discussed several times whether an art quilt's title is a necessary component to the piece. I know that you want to know the name of a piece, and you give titles to your art quilts that define or round out the story you are telling. This makes perfect sense to me in light of your interest in finding the story in a piece of art. I think I'm different about this though and the story issue highlights why for me. I want the art piece, on its own, to be the communication -- if the title or description explains or clarifies, that's a bonus. But to me, if you need to know the title for the piece to succeed, then to me the piece needs work. Maybe we are saying the same thing, really --we both think a piece needs to succeed visually first and foremost, but the added meaning (or story, if you will) from the title or other information adds something deeper. What do you think?

I have followed a few creative detours this week. You know that I homeschool my teenaged daughter, and this term she wanted some formal drawing instruction. After looking at various books and online materials, and keeping in mind that my daughter learns well from being shown things visually, I have signed up with a website called Drawing Tutorials Online. For a monthly fee, you get access to video drawing lessons from a NYC art school instructor, and they work on basic art school drawing technique. I have been doing the lessons along with her, which has been fun. These lessons focus on pencil drawing, and so far we have been working on achieving light, medium, and dark values in line and tone drawings. Some of the lessons involve figure drawing, which is especially interesting as I have had a bit of a block about drawing people. When I am home I will have to post one of my figure drawings.  Okay, here's one from this past week...

Also, I have detoured into learning a bit about digitizing my own images for machine embroidery. I was so taken with seeing how Laura Kemshall incorporated machine embroidery into her art quilts to add texture, or stitch repeated elements, and I was encouraged by how accessible she made it sound. I have downloaded digitizing software and I've been working through tutorials to learn how it works, and this week I took a stab at digitizing a line drawing I'd done. I have thoughts of stitching a sketch repeatedly to use it in a quilt or series of quilts so I've been taking baby steps in that direction. When I get home I will make my first attempt at stitching out a design onto fabric to see how it goes.

My tea is gone and it's time to head outside now, so that's all for now. I look forward to hearing what you have been up to!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

On stories and starting to draw

Greetings from BocBoc. I am feeling so lazy today that making a sandwich seemed like a major creative task. That's what neighbourhood cafes are for, isn't it? So here I am with my steak baguette keeping my head down over the ipad because the talkative neighbours have also just arrived and I " vant to be alone".

You asked me about the art in London:
Did you mean that it bored you looking at them? Or as the artist, you'd be bored with that little variation between pieces and would need to move in "bigger steps" between pieces?
I wasn't exactly bored, but I was a bit disappointed that that was all there was. I think I was not bored becuase I was busy figuring out why I was disappointed! Which has led me to think a bit about why I was disappointed, which has lead me to think about what I like when looking at and making art. What can I say? I have a long commute, I have lots of thinking time!

Anway I came to a couple of conclusions. I like each piece of art I see to tell me something new. I like it to come with a story or a message or just some new thoughts about techniques or results. The story does not have to be overt, it doesn't even have to be what the artist intended I got from the art. So, sometimes the visual elements of the art can be very similar but, in my perception, it is an entirely new story. Nnnene Okora's work includes some sculptures that are dress like. All very similar in constuction but my response to them is different because to me they evoke a dfferent woman, in different circumstances, wearing a different dress for different reasons. So, each sculpture tells me a different story. Or maybe it is that it sparks something in my brain that inspires me to tell myself a different story. Same result really. Except that the latter version would explain why I might hear a different story than the viewer next to me.

But with the Owusu Ankorah Pieces I found I was interested in the first one I chose to look at. I enjoyed looking from a distance at the optical illusions and close up at the paint texture. I was interested in the flyer with the artist statement on and I was able to look and receive what I thought the artist was trying to say. But when I then went to look at the others there was nothing new in terms of message. The rearragments of he elements created visual variation but did not impart to me new ideas. And that is what disappointed me.

So from that, I had confirmed what I probably already knew about myself; that the piece needs a story for me to feel it is an art quilt. Now that opens up a whole other debate about what an art quilt is doesn't it, so let me explain. I use that term here in a very personal context and am not intending my definition to be applied to the work of others. I tend to see what I make in three distinct categories. First, 'home' quilts. These are the things I make to sit or sleep under. I am not going to call them traditional quilts because sometimes they are and sometimes not. But they are utilitarian in purpose. Those quilts I make because I like to be warm and because the process is relaxing and often is a a useful creative spark to something else.

Then I make 'kit and magazine quilts' I do these to support the business of my friend and supplier of African fabrics Magie Relph, because I enjoy introducing others to new ways of doing things and because these quilts provide a little bit of income to support my fabric habit. I also really enjoy writing the articles that go with them.

But neither of those are really what I feel I am striving towards. That is to make 'art quilts' and by that I mean quilts that tell a story, that make people think, that send a message other than "look at me I am pretty and warm". So with most of the Twelve quilts I start with the story and illustrate it as best I can. Which means, to FINALLY answer your question, I meant that I would as an artist have to have either a different story for each quilt or a different chapter of the same story. It would not satisfy me to do say a series of Little Red Riding Hood quilts, each with the wolf/ grandmother in bed. One under a log cabin quilt, this one with a lone star quilt, this one with a four poster bed, this one wih a futon etc. meanngless variation for the sake of it. I get bored. I want to communicate with my art quits not just be decorative.

Of course that's just me. No reason for anyone to feel the same way. The comment Joyce left on my orignal post about If I needed to sell work I might feel differently is a good one. Fortunatley I will never be in that position though, having no intention to support myself with art, so I can remain pretentious without financial concerns. (Unless Greece being bankrupt means I will lose my job. Does anyone understand what Greece defaulting on its loans actually means for anyone else?! If you do and it means I will lose my job would you please not tell me.)

I haven't done much more sketchbook work - well, a bit:

The top oneproves that lips are not my forte! I like the second as a design if I am going to stick to literal African Ladies. It was a photo of Indian women but I changed their clothing. The third is a great cheat as I used the ipad as a light box and traced. But I have decided that I need to give learning to draw in general a chance. I decided that merely drawing was not going to help as I was likley to just repeat mistakes. So I ordered Drawing on the Right side of the brain by Betty Williams. I thought that when I was on holiday in Bath in October it would be the ideal time to learn. I have just read the first chapter with a little ice cream.

I am promised that through drawing "the treasure secretly gathered in your heart will become evident through your creative work." Well that sounds good.

I also liked the quote from Robert Henri,
"When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work might be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self- expressive creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens and opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are many more pages possible."

So if you will excuse me now I must go and learn how to be disturbing. Can't see that being too hard.....


PS Later.... The first instruction in the drawing book is to draw three things, a self portrait, a portrait from memory and your own hand so you have a record of how much you imorove from pre-instruction to the end of the book. I am not showing the first two but here is my hand. You will have to guess as to how much is is a bad drawing and how much I am actually burdered wth deformed hands :)

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Sunday postcard

Hi, Helen,

This is a quick "postcard" because I just can't wait to comment on what you've posted!  First, though, sorry to hear about the cold.  Does the chai at Cedar Farm have healing as well as creative properties?  I took the photo above at Cedar Farm by the way. I don't think I've ever seen such a true image of a "peaches and cream" complexion than on this little girl.

I have had a lovely morning sitting here with my coffee and looking at the October Gallery links you posted.  On first look in photographs, the work of Nnenna Okore didn't wow me, to be honest, but the more I expanded each photo and looked carefully I found that they were really growing on me.  And I'm sure that the impact in person would be significantly different.  And in our current contemplation of series I found myself looking at the pieces and thinking about how they worked "with shapes that explore or are inspired by intimate spaces, shelters, architectural and natural environments" which is how her artist statement describes her intent.  And that made me see the work a bit differently, I think -- looking at (and finding) that loose connection between the kernel of the idea and the piece.

I think since FoQ I am thinking a bit differently about inspiration and result.  It's something I can't quite articulate yet.

I find El Anatsui's work harder to access emotionally, for me, even -- again, I think it's the translation of it into small photos. But I can see just how it is the combination of unusual manipulation of ethnic symbols and textures that excites you.  Perhaps on my next trip to the UK we can get to London and I can see this stuff in person!

I found the pieces by Owusu-Ankomah very intriguing.  They are quite graphic (which is a sort of look I like) but also I think they probably translate better in photography than some of the other artists' work does.  That said, I liked the sets of pieces and didn't feel that No. 1 intrigued me and then the others bored me.  His artist statement talks about how the adinkra symbols represent particular concepts or proverbs, and I saw the different images as having different symbols and meaning, which was also reflected in the different postures.  So I wasn't bored by the additional pieces, and felt also that while each was strong, together they said something even stronger.  Did you mean that it bored you looking at them? Or as the artist, you'd be bored with that little variation between pieces and would need to move in "bigger steps" between pieces?   

But you ask the question of how I define series.  I will have to give this some more serious thought, but here is the way I've thought of it:  That one works with imagery or ideas in whatever steps seem "right" until one is done with it.  So that may mean tiny variation; it may mean significant leaps; it may mean huge bounds so that a piece's identification in a series is more a matter of the artist's internal world than any outwardly visible connection.  I can think of a lot of artists (more quilt artists, now that I think of it) who work in series and name their pieces something like  Assembly #1, Asssembly #2, etc.  (If there is anyone out there who has used that exact name, sorry, I'm not talking about them in particular -- just using that as an example.)  I've seen series work where the pieces look almost identical to me in a way that makes me think "oh, another one of THOSE?" and I'm find them rather boring.  Individually, they may be very nice pieces.  But seeing a flow of work from one artist that all looks the same makes me far less interested in the artists's output.

BUT I can see how, from the artist point of view, he or she may be working something out along the way.  Color.  Form.  Proportion.  Construction technique.  Something that is movement for the artist that represents growth, even if it's the "I won't do it THAT way again."

So in terms of my view of my own work, the series is whatever makes sense to me.  But that's just me, and I recognize that someone looking at what I do might see no connection at all between one piece and another.  (And since I'm not hanging work in galleries at this point, I'm not too worried about that.)  I don't know what that means to, say, a gallery owner preparing to hang a series of work by an artist.  Probably they'd want work that looks visually cohesive in some way.  

The other thing I want to respond to this morning is what you've said about your green ovals piece.  You don't have to disclaim that using post-quilting paint or paintstiks as Kemshallish.  Yes, they use that technique.  But so do lots of other people.  You've added a tool to your toolbox and just because you noticed it via them, maybe, doesn't mean you're imitating them when you do it. So don't worry about that at all. I actually like the texture on the green ovals, and it didn't look unsuccessful in that respect.  The thing that struck me about the ovals is the use of the small red bits -- I can't help but see them as green olives with pimento filling.  (It's the combination of the green shapes and those exact green and orangey-red colors.)  But that was my reaction when I focused on the ovals (your having said that you thought they were not quite successful) -- in the overall piece the colors and shapes work beautifully.

Oh, how I wish I could be with you at Bath to do a sketchbook retreat!  There are some useful online tutorials for using watercolor pencils, btw:



I have more to say about what you posted but I'll save that for later this week.  I'm now off to prepare for the school week ahead.  Hope your cold feels better!



Dear Diane,
Oh I am so happy that you found time to write to me so that I got the letter this morning. I am full of a head cold and it was so nice to have an antidote to waking up with squeaky ears and eyes that feel like someone punched them hard. I saw the email in my inbox and then shut the Ipad cover quickly lest I be tempted and then took you along to Cedar Farm to read there. I have so much I have been saving up to tell you. ( Eavesdroppers on this conversation will, I think be blog readers with stamina, as I think long posts are to be the order of the days. Open letters not postcards. Unless I have a postcard kind of week in which case I shall be short. I know that will be Ok with you.)
So,first as you can see I obeyed your instructions and went back and bought more unsuitable notebooks. Don't they look pretty?
Your ice dyed fabrics look very interesting. I shall have to try that sometime, although maybe for now I should let that be your thing? As soon as I saw your picture of them all cut up It reminded me of a piece of art I had seen but couldn't immedately place. It look a little while of walking around in my memories before I remembered. This ceramic piece at Art Fest we saw together. ( I have no record now of the artist. Can you remember?)

And the way your pieces are loose reminded me of Jeanne Beck's Fluttering Pages pieces.

Now I thought about whether to draw those comparators to your attention because I think until today if anyone did that to me I might feel rather deflated, as if someone was telling me my work was not original. But today I read this on a blog:

"Originality is rarely found in the idea, but in the execution of the idea. Its about what you bring to it and how you interpret it, use it as a vehicle to deliver your philosophy, your world view." (Elena Ray on tribalwriter.com).

And of course you bring something new, a new discovery , a new expression to what actually is a simple format. Reading that gave me some kind of release. I don't need to reinvent the wheel. I just need to present it differently. Reminds me of the pigs. You know the city wide art projects where people are asked to decorate pigs. Or cows. Or whatever. All the same but all different.  All quilts are basically three layers with some sort of fibre and some sort of stitch. All the same. But all different.

So, yes I added colour to my last Fabric sketch after quilting. Paintstix for the green circles and Jaqcuard metalic paint for the bones. And yes thats very Kemshallish in technique. But it doesn't look like I copied them I don't think.  Its only a little piece. I'd guess about 30cm ish by 40 cm ish. I'm too lazy to go and measure it :) Deborah in her comment said that the green orbs were not totally unsucessful. Well maybe not as an idea but they are in real life because they puckered and pleated after quilting even though they are not that big. I think it was the scraps of black polyester battting I was using because I could get to it. Not using that again for art quilts. Unless I want pleating and puckering I suppose.

Now, let me tell you about London. You know I was down there overnight for a training course. Well, they very kindly let us out just in time for me to go to my beloved October Gallery en route to the train. (The taxi driver who picked me up outside The Ministry of Justice had never heard of the place and asked me why I was going there at that time of day. I don't think he understood my answer: because I have time.) Its not a big place, just a couple of rooms and there is rarely anyone else in there whenever I go. But they show really interesting art.

At the moment they have a solo exhibition by Owusu-Ankomah. You can see the work here . It was a stark example of working in a series which I know we have both been considering. I like the idea of a series. I understand why artists say you should so it. But at the same time I was initially put off by this exhibition. Not the work. I like the work, the concept, the cleverness of it. But I do not like the sameness of the pictures. I don't have any idea how this artist would view working in a series so I don't want to make any assumptions about what he was doing for himself. But for me- I'd be bored doing this I think. I'd feel I had a really successful piece and then I varied it. Two men not one. One man facing the other way. A blue man not a white and black one. A symbol varied. Yawn. Same, same but different. To me there was variation in this series bit not progression.

Of course, success is what you define it to be and it is highly possible I am not comprehending the artist's aim. But it was useful for me to stand in those rooms and have clarified what I mean when I say I want to work in a series. I mean each work linked to the next but moving away from it, not just rehashing in different combinations. How do you see the definition of a 'series?'

One of the reasons I made time to go to the gallery was to pick up the catalogue for an exhibtion I missed by Nnenne Okora.  She was a student of  El Anatusi whose work I adore and I was interested when I saw her earlier work how it was very different to his yet you could see a student/ mentor resemblance. In the latest catalogue you can see how she is moving on. She is using the same materials but different methods ( deconstructing rather than constructing) and you see a progression and development. You can see old and new work here.

I spent my time at Cedar Farm this morning sneezing and just reading stuff on my Ipad.  One thing I really enjoyed looking at was this video ( which I find myself totally incapable of embedding) about creative flow. Bear with it because after his introducton it gets more interesting. I was particularly taken with two things. First his simple defintion of creation and ecstacy: In the context of a composer it is getting a 'piece of paper where he can put down little marks that were not there before and as he does that he can imagine sounds that had not existed before in that combination'. It goes back to what I was saying before: no need to invent a new musical scale. Just put those existing notes which small children learn to drawn in music theory classes, into a new combination. Not even a brilliant, inovative combination. Just a new one. And when you do that you enter ' a new state of reality - that is a moment of reality'. 

I also liked his slide about how creative flow comes when you maximise both the challenge you set yourself and your skills. (The slide is at about 15.40 mins if you want to scroll ahead on the video)  High Challenge and lower skills result in anxiety.  I am quite good at setting high challenges. not so good at getting my skills up to the level that matches the challenge. For example, all those water soluble pencils and stuff you made me buy? (Ahem. All those pencils I bought of my own volition. But you didn't STOP me!) I have no idea how to use them well. So its frustrating when I draw something and use them like colouring pencils in the same way I did at playgroup when I was three. I get anxious that I am wasting my time. That there is no POINT to what I am doing. So I learned today that I need to get my skills up in that area. I have a fortnight coming up in the flat in Bath and it seems to me that is a good time to devote some time to experiment and play with sketchbooks.  I can say to myself that I am going to give it two goods weeks to prove itself to me as a useful tool.

Oh, you asked me if I use a design wall. Not so much. I did get my Dad to make me one for the previous house which was stored in the garage and then dragged into the house when I needed it.( I blogged about it here  and showed it in use here.)I did use it because it was really the only place to store blocks of a quilt in progress.  And I did used to walk back from it to see the work from a distance. (Sadly to walk back from it I had to walk through the door of the library into the kitchen and right past the fridge. Turns out I evaluate quilts best with cheese in my mouth!). But it was heavy and blocked Dennis' access to his books so I didn't use it all that much. I will be putting one up in the new studio. But you are right. Mostly I have to date been using a design ironing board or a design floor.  This is what is on the design ironing board right now. A new kit idea for The African Fabric Shop with the new Coral Tree Shweshwe fabrics. I like to mess about moving fabric about a bit then this will be enough tfor me to launch into the making of the whole thing based not so much with what is on the board as on what is in my head as a result of what is on the board. But then kits have to be fairly straight forward repeatable things. Different to what I would design for myself.

The other things I was going to tell you about were about rituals and creativity. I did a  lot of  reading and thinking about that today, but you know, looking at the time, I think I will save that for the next letter:) Time to actually go and make something. Like a cup of tea say,

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Tea stained inspiration

Dear Helen,

Your new teapot is very pretty!  And I suppose your mum's attitude about being afraid to use your lovely Lazy Daisy one is a bit like a quilter's fear of cutting up that beautiful piece of fabric.  (It amuses me that to quell your mum's fear you bought ANOTHER very pretty teapot, which is also like the way we quilters -- having masses of wonderful fabric -- go buy more so we can use THAT instead of cutting up the "good" stuff we already have.)  In any event, you now have two cheery teapots to choose from, your mum has one to use without fear, and you'll have a dedicated teapot when your studio is done.  Although if I know you, when your studio is done you will have found another teapot that perfectly matches the colors of the glass tiles you've had put in the bathroom...

Before I go further, I must say that I am quite taken with the piece you created last week.  I see echoes of the bone shapes/symbols that you referred to earlier, and the different layers of color and texture add a lot of dimension.  I am guessing that you applied some color after quilting -- with paint or paintstiks, maybe?  Am I right?   This piece doesn't directly reference African ladies and yet from your earlier postings I can see how you got from there to here.  So clearly you are processing this all and working with the imagery is yielding effective results.  What is the size of that piece, by the way?

Your description of how your interest in Africa resulted demonstrates my own theory: that the best work stems from something truly personal.  It doesn't have to be personal as in "I am African," but it can be something that affected you in a deep, immediate personal way.  Maybe reading a newspaper story or seeing an image somewhere can have that personal connection -- but it's something that touches you and doesn't let go that comes through.

I've been all over the place this week, playing with a bit of fast sketching of shapes as I continue to think about why teabags are interesting me right now... 

I like that simplified shape of a side teabag view (sort of arrow-headish) and it occurs to me that it would make an interesting stamp

but I've not been able to put my hands on any of the various rubber erasers and plastic pieces I've bought to try carving and experimenting with it.  (Oh!  It just occurred to me where they might be -- in a different cupboard as the result of some reorganization a few months ago...)  And I've been messing about with sketches related to negative space, to see where that leads...

By the way, look at that letter "t" up there.  Isn't it interesting that the positive dark background/light letter looks like "t" and the negative space looks like "it"? 

Funnily enough, though, what is exciting me most is one of those accidental connections one makes when one has ideas simmering in the back of one's brain.  Incubating, right?  I recently wrote on my own blog about experimenting with a dye technique involving ice, which results in some very textured, streaky results.

And, coincidentally, I'd had tea one afternoon this week and then set the wet teabag on a white paper napkin.  The splotch of tea staining got me thinking about tea stain patterns, which then got me thinking about this ice-dyed fabric and the patterns of color flowing ...  So although there isn't really any direct visual relationship, that flow of thinking propelled me to cut up a piece of the dyed fabric and experiment with moving shapes around. I've been playing around with a design on my design wall and this is a portion of what is up there now:

I'm not sure where this will go but it I like where it is going.  Stay tuned.

Hmm, that makes me think -- I know that you don't have a design wall right now, but generally speaking do you work with a design wall?  When I've seen you make pieces, I've seen you lay components out on a table and work quickly to put them together (presumably based on what you've had incubating in your head). I was thinking that I didn't used to work via a design wall -- I had something in my head and I just dove in.  More and more now, I put things up on the wall to see what they do, and to move things around and contemplate them more over time.  Of course, this could have to do with how often I get interrupted with real life stuff -- I generally end up with something on the wall for longer than I intend, and it gives me the opportunity to see things in progress.  I find that over time, I end up making decisions or taking directions I'd not have taken if I'd worked continuously from the starting point.  Of course, it takes me longer to finish things!

While I've had this moving around on the design wall, I've been spending sewing time working on a bed quilt for Caroline's bed.  She chose the fabric and had a very clear vision of what she wanted -- luckily for me, it is a basic block type quilt and we were able to lay it all out visually with Electric Quilt software so I could make sure I knew what she was envisioning.  I've been assembling the blocks, and while I'm happy to make a quilt for her (and happy that she wants a mom-made quilt for her bed), at one point earlier this week I was feeling a sense of frustration at having to do this ordinary piecing job when I wanted to be doing more creative things.

And then it hit me at one point that I was really enjoying what I was doing, and that instead of looking ahead at what I wanted to do after I finished those blocks, I could just be in the moment and focus on the process.  It occurred to me that while it isn't the most creative process for me, I love that I'm making Caroline's creative vision become real.  So that was a realization about creativity -- to be attentive to what I'm doing, and work on one project at a time in my head, rather than working on one with my hands with my brain rushing on to other things.   

Now I need to go look at my teapots.  Maybe I need another?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

New teapot

Dear Diane,
Look! I got a new teapot.

My Mum said she was scared of breaking my Portmerion Crazy Daisy teapot so Dennis suggested I had better buy one for her to use. I think she was thinking of a rather utilitarian teapot but I could not resist this Portmerion Dawn Chorus teapot. I think that even if you are making a cup of tea it is better to create it with a thing of beauty don't you? And it is actually a second so Mum can be reassured that it is already not perfect so a chip in her hands will not be the thing that spoils it. And I can't tell why it is a second, which reminds me not to stress about my art not being perfect, because this teapot might have been cast out of the John Lewis store for whom it was created and made to live in the discount mall, but it is still bringing beauty into my life. This will be my studio teapot I think. When I eventually get the studio finished.

In the meantime I continue to create on the dining room table. This is a better photo of the original fabric sketch

 and this is the one from this week. Showing some rather unsuccessful experimentation on the green ovals!

While I was making it I was pondering a question Erica has posed to me a couple of times now, namely, what draws me to African women? She pointed out that there are lots of social issues all over the world so why have I focused in on Africa? At first when I read those questions I interpreted them as a crticism; its not your culture, why are you doing it? Then after a period of consideration of, oh, about two seconds I decided that she did not mean a criticism at all and that was my internally resident Censor seizing on a non- existent reason not to follow the artistic path down which my heart was taking me.

So as I say, I pondered. And I came to the conclusion that travel plays a big part in my creatvity. I was wondering if the same is true for you as I know you associate tea with your English travels. Back when I was still at University, many, many years before I started to quilt or do any kind of art I spent a month in South Africa, Namibia and Swaziland. This was just months after Mr Mandela was released and as I was travelling with a friend who had previously lived in the country we stayed with South Africans and talked about how the country was transforming and how the way they lived their lives would change. I have very vivid memories of things I experienced there, from touring Soweto and being shown bullets on the road to browsing a bookshop which was open late on a sultry Jo'bug night and finding a book about Miriam Makeba which led to my love of South African music. When I got back to university, by entire coincidence, the student in the room opposite me was an exiled member of the ANC, lonely and homesick and happy to talk to someone who had been to his country. From Hull University I went to Cambridge and there I met Albie Sachs, a white South African who, as an advocate, defended those charged under the apartheid racial laws. He was forced ino exile in Mozambique and there he lost an arm and an eye when South African security forces put a bomb in his car.After I met him Nelson Mandela appointed him a Constitutional Law Judge. I began to collect books - lots of them!- about the apartheid era.

And I really think thats why the African thing comes out in my work because although I have no claim to African heritage, I was exposed to it in a very direct and effecting way. I have been back since and my second trip has influenced my work directly - the Community theme quilt was from that trip even though it was years before. I do love the vibrancy of African culture - I once had a memorable evening in sheffield when I got to dance on stage with male Zulu dancers but thats another story!

It works the other way too. My fabric sketches this week have made me think about mass graves and from there the Rwandan genocide. Thats not something I know much about so I had a quick look online and I discovered that they now have a system of courts called 'gacaca' in which the whole community particpiate in finding justice and reconcilaition between victims and perpetrators. Now you can imagine how that got my juices going! I don't know how this will come out visually yet, or when, but I have happily recognised that part of my working in this series is to read and learn about what I am lead to. So today on my commute I started to listen to the audio book As We Forgive.

I think the interest I developed in the art and stories of Australian Aboriginals while I was travelling may come out in my art later as well. But clearly my incubation period is very long! One thing I did do this weekend was start to design a quilt for the Beneath Southern Skies exhibit Brenda is curating and the time I spent learning about Maori Culture was working its way in there.

Erica also asked me was part of my fascination that the African culture was different to mine. That is definately a part of it. I don't have a strong sense of cultural belonging and I certainly do have a fascination with close communities. Look on my bookshelf and you see lots of things about orthodox judaism, mormon households and the like. But her question has planted a little seed in my mind. So far it is so deeply planted in a dark, but I hope fertile place, I am having trouble even articulating it. It is something to do with making art that uses elements of my society to recreate the kind of ritual or ceremonial life of other communities which I feel we lack or have lost. No real idea what that means but when I get to the Illumination stage you will be the first to know:). I have to say I am finding it very useful already to write to you like this and to really think about creativity and to observe what works and what does not work for me. Are you?

Oh and your question about thinking about ritual.... I have not really been thinking about it directly, but I think something is working away at the back of my mind. I can hear the creaking! See for me it is definately about ideas, concepts - for you more images would you say? Of course I never feel I actually have anywhere near the abilty to get out onto a quilt what is in my head. The art in my head is truly amazing :)

I had to smile at your categorising me as single minded and you as rambling down side paths. It made me think about Art Garfunkel who, I understand, set off to walk across America but did it on weekends. Doing a bit then going home doing other projects and picking up at the last spot later on. I think I am a bit like that - single minded but on several paths at once. And of course your side paths remind me of the poem by Robert Frost which is Dennis' favourite : " I took the path less travelled and it has made all the difference."

So anyhow, time to use the teapot I think.

 And the mugs and cake plates that I found I had to buy with it to prevent the horror of the teapot potentially being used with a non-matching mug. Do you think I should go back and buy the matching cake stand?

Saturday, 3 September 2011

We interrupt this conversation...

... to add a clarification.  We recently learned that someone had read my introductory blog entry, and got rather upset.  Here's what I said that provoked her distress:

I warn you now: we don't have topical restrictions on our conversation and it's likely to range far and wide (although we don't intend to talk about what we had for dinner last night or what our families are doing or what is growing in the garden or in the back of the vegetable bin). 

She read that as critical of blogs that talk about gardening and cooking instead of or along with artsy conversation, and took it personally as a slight about her blog.  But that wasn't at all what we meant.  In case there's been any misunderstanding, I thought it worthwhile to clarify. 

Helen and I both really enjoy blogs that show us people's full lives -- whether that includes the house remodel, what's growing in the garden, what got baked that afternoon, what a kid-filled summer day looks like, you name it.  We have talked about this a lot, Helen and I, and we agree that the blogs we are drawn to are the ones in which we get to know the person along with and beyond the art she makes, the fabric she dyes, etc.

But Helen and I both blog with a common philosophy: we are doing this for ourselves and each other, and if anyone happens to read along and find it interesting, that'd be lovely.  But we started this blog to serve a narrow purpose.  And the point of that comment in my introduction was an effort to keep me and Helen on a narrower path in this blog, which we want to use for our conversations about creativity.  We have our own, individual blogs for the other bits and bobs of our lives, and there you could well find us talking about our gardens (except we each seem to be ignoring ours at the moment) and our cooking (which, in my house, hasn't been anything to even mention lately.)  Personally I love to read blogs about food and gardening and have quite a list of them on my regular reading list.

So if by chance that comment early on struck a sour chord in you, please understand.  It wasn't meant to denigrate or criticize anyone else's blog or blogging style. We're just starting this bloggy experiment for a purpose, and we wanted to set some boundaries for ourselves.  That's all.

So, carry on and keep making art. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Starting the Sketchbook

Dear Helen,

Try as I might to pretend I am sitting next to you at Cedar Farm, I am faced -- literally -- with reality.  So while your Cedar Farm chai is on my computer screen, here is the view I see:

So restful and suitable for creative contemplation, no?

Ah well,  I consider myself quite lucky to have a room where I can have my sewing machine permanently up and ready, and a table for creative work, and my computer right here.  And I can keep an eye on the comings and goings of the Teen, and I can leap up to shift laundry from the washer to the dryer when I hear the end of the cycle.  The clutter is my own fault and seeing this picture is an impetus to clearing it.  Later.

I am so glad to see that the Visual Language exercises are working for you and it does seem that they are doing exactly what they are designed to do -- making you see your subject in some new and different ways and spring-boarding you to all sorts of exciting discoveries.  I love what I see.  And doesn't this seem like you are doing what our Sketchbook Idols have suggested this sort of process will do -- creating fodder for future explorations while you're exploring your theme?

Those stamped designs are just lovely, by the way.  It would make wonderful fabric on its own.  Perhaps it could serve as the basis for making a thermofax screen so you could print it in larger hunks?

Sharing our respective processes is going to illustrate how different we are in our approaches.  You are, it seems to me, single-minded and focused when you have a path you want to pursue.  Me, I have a sense of path but I tend to ramble onto side routes and wander about a bit more.

But I have made some progress, in my rambly way.  First, I decided to go forward exploring "Tea" as my theme, and I selected a journal (from one of many stockpiled in my closet.)  In a step that feels foreign and slightly uncomfortable to me, I've started sketching in an effort to get familiar with the subject and maybe even improve my drawing along the way.

By the way, Laura Kemshall has two very helpful short video lessons on drawing over on Design Matters TV right now, and I have found in my sketching that what she says about the purpose of sketching is true:  I'm discovering information about the subject through the act of drawing it.  With a simple tea bag, there are things you KNOW are there but don't really think about:  the slight seam that seals the bag, the little staple that holds the string, etc.  But drawing makes you SEE them and become aware of how they affect lights and darks and shadows and shapes.  So I'm sketching one or two teabags a day to see where that will lead.  It's quite pleasant and meditative, too.

I've also got my own "word map" sort of thing going in my journal.  You and I are both "word people" so I know you think this way somewhat too -- I keep thinking about different associations with tea and I'm trying to keep track for future research.

I was reading something earlier this week about the creative process which I found interesting.  In this book ("From Ordinary to Extraordinary: Art and Design Problem Solving" by Ken Vieth -- a book about teaching art to kids and how to get kids thinking about art as problem solving), the author describes how researchers have attempted to define the creative process.  Apparently German physicist Herman Hemholz set out 3 steps:

1.  Saturation, the period after research where you have information about your subject

2.  Incubation, the time during which ideas are contemplated and mulled over

3.  Illumination, where you suddenly find a solution to the creative problem

Then sometime later, French mathematician Jules Henri Poincare added  a 4th step:

4. Verification, the act of putting the solution into concrete form

And even later, American psychologist Jacob Getzels added a preliminary stage:

0.  Identifying the existing problem, asking new and searching questions

I am honestly not sure whether this is a reasonable list for most creative people, but what struck me about this was how it applies to our own processes.  You and I have talked about how much of our creative process happens inside our head.  So this was interesting to me as I think you and I tend to be good at the mental "incubation."  Some people work that part out (if they do it at all) by moving fabric around and responding visually to putting pieces of fabric together, moving color around on paper, etc.

And here is another thing I have been thinking about this week: what of my work so far is work I truly love and represents a style I want to pursue?  I don't think of myself as a "representational" artist, but time and time again I return to that.  It's not that it's easy for me -- in many ways, the realistic aspect is more intimidating than free abstraction... But there is something that pulls me to taking something real and ordinary and morphing it a bit into something artful.  Here are some examples of small pieces I made a long time ago in connection with a group project:

I love those pieces.  I loved making them -- taking the image and reducing them to color and value and simple shapes.  And some of my favorite 12x12 quilts involved that sort of work:

So I'm thinking that, while I like veering off to try other techniques and experiment with other visual styles, the work I like best of my own is this simplified realistic sort of thing, not aiming for photo-realism at all, but a stylized imagery.  

But then I see work like Sophie Munns (thank you for that link!) and I see the possibility of the exploration from real to abstract and it makes my heart leap up and I think "let's try!"
So who knows where my little teabag sketches will lead?

Last: You asked about what I think about ritual in creative production.  I have to confess that, having little ritual in that respect, I can't really speak to it personally.  But it makes sense to me, and I've found that it's helpful in other less creative aspects of my life.  But I've not consciously applied it to the creative side of my life.  There is definitely something to be said for just showing up regularly, inspired or not.  I think your Cedar Farm sunday mornings illustrate what can come of that sort of ritual: You take yourself away from the distractions, and you give yourself the treat of time and space to focus on art.  You are training yourself to use that time well.  

I thought I would try visiting my local coffee place my own Cedar Farm.  But The Flying Goat here in Healdsburg (or "The Goat" as it is called locally) is too social of a place.  Every other person who comes in is someone I know from PTO or the neighborhood and while it's great fun to see everyone (it's a sweet reminder of how nice it is to live in a small community), it's not conducive to artful contemplation. 

I am eager to see what you have done this week.  What are you thinking about the ritual?  And I'm wondering -- if you aren't able to get to Cedar Farm, can you transfer that energy to some place in your own home?  (Your desk!  The all-important desk!)