Sunday, 30 October 2011

Houston-bound and distracted


It is Sunday night, and I thought I would take this quiet time to reply to your post from this week.  I do not have a hot beverage at hand -- just a bottle of bubbly water, fizzing quietly at my side.  The week promises to be rather busy as I leave for the quilt festival in Houston on Wednesday and don't return until Monday.  The next two days are for laundry and packing and general preparations so I don't leave the household in a mess.

I have actually sewn a lot this week, working on a gift project that I can't show.  But it was another good example of how having an externally-imposed need to create something, along with a specific deadline, prodded me into doing something I wouldn't have otherwise done.  And, I might add, I am quite pleased with the result.  So that has been rather productive and enjoyable and I have the very nice sense of anticipation of having made a gift I hope the recipient will like as much as I do.

The sketching and watercolor on mixed media class continues -- we are in week 4.  Last week, we were instructed to do various backgrounds for pages trying different methods.  I found it very unsatisfying, just randomly creating backgrounds without any plan or reason to do them.  This week, we are to put content on the pages, which is in part (I guess) about suiting subject to an existing texture/color/pattern, and also about learning what happens when you draw and paint on gesso, or absorbent ground, or collaged papers.  (Or, to be honest, maybe it's not designed for any purpose other than this is another thing this teacher does and she's having us give it a try too.) I have come to the conclusion that I like my watercolors in pure form -- straight onto paper, and the mixed media aspect isn't doing too much for me yet.  What I've put above was a very fast page I did earlier today, loosely sketching the tools on my worktable.  You can see I'm not going for precision!  My goal for this experience is to just enjoy the process, develop the habit of doing a bit of sketching and painting every day, and loosening up so the drawings have some personality.  So far the wonkiness I achieve has less to do with personality and more to do with lack of skills -- but maybe they will overlap?! 

But that leads back to your comments about teachers and classes.  You were differentiating between teachers and classes that teach you how to do a specific thing: replicate a quilt, make a book like so-and-so's... and I agree, I have no interest in that in terms of "I want to make THAT EXACT THING TOO."  But you know?  A lot of people like that sort of class.  They don't want to think, they don't want to design, they want to make THAT.  Just like that.  My sister in her needlework business encounters that all of the time.  She doesn't sell "kits" per se with patterns and colors all put together -- she sells patterns separately so people can choose their own colors.  I've worked in her booth scads of times and most people just want to make the thing JUST LIKE the picture, without choosing their own colors are doing anything individual along the way.  So clearly, there's a market.  Those are the people who buy Magie's kits, yes?  And it's wonderful that there are designers like you and my sister who can make work people want to replicate.   But there are a lot of people out there like us, I think, who want something very different.

And then there are technique classes -- and while many of them focus on a specific project, I can see that it makes sense to learn a new technique in the context of a project that is going to expose you to the technique's different issues.  I think a good teacher can choose a project (or a variety of them for students to choose from) that will present appropriate experiences for the student to master the technique.  If one is interested in learning a new technique, I think that sort of class can be very useful.

I totally agree that the best sort of class is one in which you are encouraged or get the opportunity to take what the teacher is teaching and then apply it in a personal way.  I think the best teachers are ones who can teach what they know, but who welcome and inspire the ability for a student to use that knowledge in the student's personal, individual way.  But I have come to the conclusion that THAT is a very specific teaching gift, and many teachers don't have that.  Sue Benner and Patti Hawkins are two art quilt teachers who, to my experience, demonstrate the BEST of that sort of teaching -- they know they are providing tools and a way of thinking about how to use the tools, and they have the talent for helping each student move in her own direction with those tools.

It's actually my observation that in the quilt/fiber art world, there are a lot of teachers who don't teach so much as demonstrate something they've made, and then students repeat it in their presence.  They don't teach the ideas behind what they're doing, necessarily, or the art principles that underly the process... they just say "I do THIS, and then I do THAT, and I use these materials" and students are then expected to scurry off and do that, too.  I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but I'm not sure it's teaching so much as demonstrating what they do, if you know what I mean.  I find that frustrating when I want to know more.  And, given that you and I are alike in this way, you know that I generally do what to know more.  I want to know why THAT, and why not the other.  I guess it's that left brain kicking in. 

Yes, I did see the discussion on the SAQA list about art school vs self-learning.  Interesting but again struck me as another issue which some people take way too seriously.  It did not seem to me accidental that the most vociferous ones were arguing for the very education they themselves had gotten -- again, not so much an endorsement of their specific education as a demonstration of how invested they were in their own course of action.  Which is not a bad thing!  I also thought that so much of the discussion had to do with how much self-confidence people had, too. 

At any rate, I may be biased on this myself as I've had no formal art training either.  I'm not in a position to really compare whether having been art school-taught or self-taught is better.  BUT my continuing education as a home-schooling mom of a kid with quirky learning styles has made me study and think about the education process a lot, and here are some of my conclusions.  People learn things differently.  Dramatically differently.  Some people need to hear them, some need to see them, some need to experience them.  Some people don't have the discipline or motivation to propel their own education in a subject, while others chafe at externally imposed strictures and want to follow their own paths.   So I can see that for some people, the structure and external validation of an accredited art school may seem like the only way, or the best way, to go.

Others may get as good an education or a better one by learning on their own.  I happen to think that the process of choosing what needs to be learned, and why, is as valuable as the learning of the substance itself.  To design your own program requires that you identify what skills you need to learn, what history you need to understand, etc -- and that learning, before you even dive into the actual curriculum, is as valuable as the content.  In a school situation, that's all done for you, and you're going on faith (or relying on the school/teacher's experience) that they will teach you what you need to know.  (It's one of the reasons I'm finding homeschooling rewarding for ME in a way I never anticipated -- I'm learning so much as I sort out what Caroline should learn, and think about WHY various things are or are not important.)

But really,  I suspect that the important factors in getting an education in art have more to do with getting a good breadth of knowledge, good technical skills, doing a lot of practice, getting feedback from some independent source, and having a strong motivation to keep going. Probably being part of a community of others doing and discussing the same things is important too.  But whether that happens through self-direction or a structured school program, I'm not sure it matters.

I never did remember to say that I quite liked your journal sketches, by the way.  I guess what's important is whether you enjoyed doing them and whether it felt like a useful/fun way to record aspects of your trip.  Are you still working on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain? 

I won't post here until after I've returned from Houston.  You know you will be on my mind frequently (and I will try to keep my phone charged and handy for frequent pictures to you).  I'll be interested to see whether it is as creatively inspirational as FoQ was.  I am looking forward to seeing the Twelves, of course, and experiencing people seeing our quilts which is a huge boost on a lot of levels ... but I am most looking forward to the special exhibits like SAQA and Dinner at Eight artists and the like.  I wonder what creative thoughts all of that will yield?

I know you are very busy getting your studio together.  Do you think having a studio will change your creative process?  Will it affect your ideas, do you think?  How do you think it will change the way you work?


Friday, 28 October 2011

Learning to create

Dear Diane,
Well, at last I have time to do justice to your last two posts in my reply. This is a sneaky lunchtime blog entry. I have recently started to try to dedicate two lunchtimes a week to creativity. The constrains of location, and my current lack of easily portable projects, prevent any actual creativity to any meaningful degree but it is useful to me to try to carve time out for reading or writing or even just thinking about creative matters. This is Friday and the first time this week I have managed it due to having a work experience student to look after. So today's tea, over which I talk, is a mug at my desk. I cannot show you  the room it is being consumed in because that would actually be a criminal offence but I think I am safe in showing you my mug!

Nor can I show you the cake because I ate it. But it was my homemade lime drizzle cake and it was yummy.

So, lets try to get down all the interesting (to me at least) thoughts swirling around in my head that you have provoked. Going back two posts where we were talking about linear progression down a  goal orientated path versus meandering down every side path as the whim takes you, my view is that - as with most things in life - a happy medium is about right. For me at least. A compromise between Puritanical strict discipline and a productiveless wild abandon is probably best.

You raised two questions namely, 'Why do I do what I do?' and 'How do I define success?'  I realised that the answer to the first question is probably: because I want to. When I have leisure time ( I am sure that happened a few weeks ago for a little while) I can do anything legal and affordable I want to do. Sometimes I read, sometimes I journal. I enjoy doing yoga and I like to bake cakes. And a lot of the time I make quilts. I never sit around anaylsing why I read or do yoga rather than pilates or football. I never debate why I make cakes and bread rather than planting flowers in the garden. I just like doing that stuff.

I once asked the six or seven year old daughter of a friend why did she like horses so much? She shrugged and said, "Because God made me that way."

The trouble is that God also made me to like plannning and organising and to strive for success. And society made me feel like I was never quite good enough. Which leads to a sort of crashing self-sabotage process in which I spend a lot of time pondering whether I am planning in the best way and whether I am defining success correctly and  not actually just doing the stuff that makes me happy because it makes me happy. (See by way of example, the folder on my ipad labelled 'Spare Apps'. It contains a not inconsiderable number of apps for strategic planning, task lists, reminders, time recording, habit tracking etc, which I do not use because I have yet more apps that do the same tasks but better. And I still wonder if actually, my hot pink filofax might not be a more instinctive tool. And now of course with icloud all the apps I do use synch wi-fi-ly with all my other devices leaving me to ponder which of the devices are best suited to the task I wish to do. On the desk I cannot photograph for you are, working from left to right, my mobile phone which is operating as a wifi hotspot for both the ipod which is plugged into the laptop, on which I am actually typing  ( and which has two screens), and also for the ipad on which  I am reading your previous posts. The hot pink filofax is at home because it was deemed too heavy to cart about all the time, but I miss it.)

So for me the process is like you more important than the product.  But is not just the process of  aimless experimentation. That irritates the heck out of me. I like to know why I am doing something and where it is hoped to lead me. Then within that context I am happy to meander and see if there is a sort cut or a longer more pretty route to my destination. And I am not above ditching the destinations becuase actually, the place I found by accident is better. But I need to start with a destination in mind.  Its like my obessive travel planning I suppose. All planned out in advance with planned gaps in the schedule for improvisation! So my question is not so much Why do I do what I do? but rather What am I doing this for? I can see that those look like restatements of the same thing but actually I think the emphasis is different. Less on motivation more on the proposed outcome even though the proposed outcome may be the satisfaction of an  internal motivation rather than an external stimulus. Although an extrnal stimulus is equally acceptable

(Oh look, there is an eavesdropper over there rolling her eyes and muttering about lawyers speaking gobbedly gook. Huh. I know what I mean! I mean,  I need to know that I am doing it  either to see if I can make a quilt that tells the story of a Rwandan  massacre - internal motivation -  or so that I have a new kit that Magie can sell at the African Fabric Shop - external stimulus sort of, but really as I only do the kits because it gives me pleasure to support Magie and to get a repeatable design out of a limited set of fabrics, its more internal.  I don't like to do it with no ascertainable goal all in sight. Oh heck, maybe I am speaking gobbedly gook now.)

My Grandma frequently used to say, " A little bit of what you fancy does you good." Generally speaking I think this is good life advice. (I say 'generally' because she was once heard to say just that whilst stuffing cream meringues into her mouth not long after having been diagnosed with diabetes and I am not sure if the motto applied too well that day!).  So I think for me a bit of planning, a bit of philosophical musings about popular psychology on creativity, a bit of meandering from time to time, a bit of goal setting ... its all about compromise. Maybe its about a safe framework in which to meander.

You also asked, 'What makes a good teacher?' 'What can a teacher do to inspire/ help you?'
Well, I do not think teachers who set simple tasks then praise all students with nothing further are good teachers. I think a teacher that would be good for me is one who enables a student to see a whole other way of viewing a topic or opens up to them a whole new world of possibilties that excites them and then gives enough information to equip that student to go and  explore that world independantly. So project based classes? Too prescriptive for me, although I have been in classes with teachers who were very good at teaching how to replicate their class quilt. But not for me. ( I rebel).

The class needs to all tie together for me too. I need to know where it is meant to take me. I once did a two day workshop on art techniques for textile work. (Thats not what it was called but to protect the not so innocent I will not give the class title).  We spent two days moving from one technique for using art materials to get a 'design starter' to another. But that class wholly failed to explain how the resultant squiggles and splashes of various media related to textile art. They maye have inspired the teacher and it may have been obvious to her but she failed to communicate her thought processes to me at least ( and got politely exasperated with me when I pressed for her to try to do so).

The alternative good teacher to me is one that says she is going to teach you a set technique or a set collection of pieces of information and then does so clearly and precisely without limiting your sense of how you could use that information. The only teacher in the context of textiles who I have come in touch with and who gets five stars from me for that type of class is Claire Benn of Committed to Cloth. Two years ago at festival I just happened to be near her stand when she started to do a screen printing demonstration. Best  class at that show ever. No frills, no patronising, no waffle. Just a stream of clear concise, information, demonstrated visually as she went along adding nothing unneeded, leaving out nothing essential and done in a commanding but approachable tone that left you in no doubt she was an expert and the information was good. Superb. I recommend her books with DVDs for the same reason. Actually I think you bought some at festival didn't you? How did you find them?

A good teacher should enable a student to take the material into something different than that which the teacher is doing but to at least the same standard. So if I may use the example of the comment on your sketchbook course and the reply you gave: a course that would teach me to produce pages like Jane La Fazio. Not interested. A class that used Jane La Fazio pages as examples to give me a blinding understanding of why life without art journalling is a lesser life. For me. Sadly I think that there is a market that perpetuates the 'do- this- and-then-do- that-and -oh -well-done-you-made-a-replica-work' type of teaching which does not require real teaching skills so much as good technique skills and an abilty to pass them on. A good teacher will change the course of a students life even if just by a little bit.  (Hmmm. I wrote that and thought: Oh come on, delete that, thats really pretentious. But on reflection I think its true. So I am leaving it in and sticking my neck out!)

This leads me to bring up another kind of related question for you. On the SAQA yahoo group ( do you read that?) I have been involved in a discussion about art degrees.  I will not describe the whole debate but suffice it to say that it is about whether an art degree is necessary  to be a 'successful artist' ( and you will note I have so far avoided actually answering the question. "what is success?") or whether it is possible to teach the same material to yourself. Despite having had an qualifcation-seeking addiction  in the past I am in the autodidact camp. If only because I like that word. And despite the fact that the debate nearly caused a relapse when I read the undergraduate introduction page for Yale Collage and reaslied that they would let me build a degree that allowed me to do Art History and Zulu classes together and postively encouraged me not to close my mind to adding in a bit of African Amercian studies for good measure after which I could do a quilt related independent study project.   See - thats my kind of meadering - all around the actually quite enclosed field that is african inspired textile art.

Anyway, I have been convinced (and lets face it, I was hardly trying to resist) that it is a good idea to educate myself on the type of topics one might do if one went to art school. Which in its self is huge fun. Not only will that  involve researching art school prospectuses and searching Amazon for related books, it means I can then plan out a selt-taught curriculum for myself. And, better still, I can use my best Ipad apps to plan a time to do that planning. I am in heaven. So here are my questions for you:
Do you think fornal art education is necessary to be a recognised artist. ( I know that is not your definition of success but as it was the one I think most common to those in the debate I shall adopt it for this discussion)
And from your knowledge gained as a homeschooling parent, what is optimal : studying one topic at a time in depth, two of three in parallel or dipping in here there and everywhere into a huge pile of books with no plan?

Oh. is that question not where I came in?


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Drawing on nature

I recently went into a Starbucks in the area (not my most local one) and was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had refurnished it and there are very comfortable lingering spots, it's hardly Cedar Farm, mind you, but I like the ambience. Today, my Practical Design workshop was cancelled (due to too many conflicts and illnesses) so instead I am treating myself to an art afternoon out. What this means is that I've loaded up my basket with the usual assortment of books and journals and IPad and now my watercolor travel kit comes along too.

I had a lovely time browsing around a wonderful used bookstore, it's one of those places where books are wedged in at every angle and the cashier's desk is surrounded by more piles. I have found wonderful treasures there. Today, the Great Find was a beautiful book on animal anatomy for artists which will be under the tree for Caroline at Christmas. Shhh, don't tell her.

You haven posted here in a bit but I know you've been traveling and then returned to work and home and studio renovation ... So, knowing full well how life sometimes gets in the way of blogging, I am forging ahead. I do hope at some point that you'll reply to the post I did last time, about creative process. I'm interested to hear what you think.

But I should get back to the subject of creativity and show you what I have been doing.

This is the 12-inch quilt I made as my entry to Midsomer Quilting's fruit challenge. I've not used this technique for a long time (since my Labikeet portrait of Gemma for Twelve by Twelve, I think.). I enjoyed it tremendously and infound myself thinking of the fabric as paints. That is something fiber people say at times and I've understood the analogy, but I've never really had that specific sense while I was working. Maybe the connection felt more immediate because I am doing a bot of drawing and painting each day.

And speaking of that, I am still surprised by how very much I am loving the process of drawing and painting, I'm reminded of how much I liked playing with watercolors when I took some classes years ago. This past week, our assignment was to choose something from nature, draw and paint it, and then develop some stylized designs inspired by our work with the subject. It was very fun -- and you know, I felt immediately gratified because my usual sketchbook style is drawing lots of stylized designs, one leading to the next to see how many design ideas one inspiration can spawn. I had a brand time with this and here are some of the pages I did:

In fact, I liked this assignment so much I had a hard time moving on to this week's assignment which is to paint backgrounds for new pages using various media. I find the process of just making a background, without making it in the context of what is is for, to be rather boring. But in the interests of learning and trusting the course process, I have been good and done a bunch of different backgrounds. We'll see where they go.

This leads me to a new question: when you take a class, what can a teacher do that inspires you or helps you? What makes a good teacher for creative pursuits, I guess is what I'm asking. I have various thoughts and this online workshop has got me thinking because I'm somewhat disappointed at the instruction that is not happening. But I'm wondering whether some people most like to be left alone with no feedback but lots of "yay! Keep going" sorts of encouragement. Maybe I'm unusual in wanting to be told what isn't right and could be better?

I'll go now and look forward to your update.
Dear Diane,

I am sorry it has taken so long to reply to your last letter. I thought I would do all kinds of things that needed doing or that I just wanted to do while we had two weeks off in Bath but in fact I mainly just enjoyed chilling out. I did give the Illustrated Journal a go though... here are about half the pages I did:

My conclusion: I can do it if I want to any I may from time to time but there is not time to do all I want to do as it is and this was not compelling enough for me to want to do it very regularly.
And I think you are absolutely right about needing a non -creating break. I did do a lttle bit of sewing when I was away but I have given up for probably the next fortnight or so. The main creative activity right now is constantly redeisgning where the storage in my studio to be as the builder tells me that when he said, yes he could build what I originally designed, that he actually meant, oh, I didn't understand. no I can't build it like that because it has no support and will fall apart. The trouble is that he cares about the  Building Inspector passing the joints and the walls and I care about how wide my cutting table can be and where my thread jars will fit!

At the minute it looks like this still

but decoration is due to start on Thursday and hopefully most furniture will follow fairly soon thereafter. And hopefully then my mind will be clear enough to create. And hopefully I will be able to find things to create with when they are no longer scattered in half unpacked boxes around the house! And hopefully when I am not crawling around the floor with a tape measure and an online furniture catalogue muttering "... 360 cm... less a bit... leave room for... squeeze in... 70 cm for the..." I might be able to blog deep thoughts about the Purpose of Creativity. But right now I am in Small Detail territory not Deep Thinking territory :) I enjoy that, the planning and the research and the narrowing down of possibilities. I don't mind when I have to change tack and adapt because of a construction detail and I think I am good at holding all the details in my head and noodling it all out. But it fills my head and takes my time. So I am going to surrender to it for the next couple of weeks and just get it done.

My Mum said yesterday, "Maybe when you get your studio all finished and tidy you will have time to finish your novel!" I though everyone had forgotten about that and,when I have a desk dedicated to words not fabric, I would be able get it out and edit it in secret.. obviously not! Where the time for that will come from I don't know but I am sure a new desk will make it possible. You know how much faith I am placing in the power of a new writing desk!
I am thinking of this one with some drawers placed nearby. I think I am craving the concept of a surface which is clear of everything but a laptop, lamp, fountain pen and beautiful noteook. Uncluttered and ready for thought!

Of course, it will face a wall not a nice patio - hence why I needed the photo you kindly gave me of the grounds at Bishops ranch to remind me of retreat and how one day, when I am not paying for new windows and bannisters and toilets, I can buy a flight and come back.

Not that I shall not be thinking about creativity whilst this work is on going though. I have book of essays on creativity I have just started which I hope will provide fodder for future correspondence and I hope to read, ooh, at least a paragraph a night in bed!! I is called Inspiring Creatvity: An Anthology of Powerful Insights and Practical Ideas to Guide you to Successful creating by Rick Benzel. I bet one of his ideas is: hire an Interior Designer.

I did do two more fabric sketches when I was down in Bath, using some scraps I took with me.

This one measures 15 x 8 inches. The bottom fabric is african batik but the top two background fabrics were plain handdyes. I used neocolour crayons to make marks inspired by the central fabric scrap then free motioned similar marks offset over the crayoning in an attempt to create some depth and interest. The plain terracotta is khadi paper. Ontop of the central scrap I made the same marks in treasure gold.

I did not mean to make another African lady quilt. In fact I was inspired by the works of Hannes Hares who incorprated African textiles into his work. I was playing just with combining the central square bit with handdyes but somehow this rather totemic lady muscled in on the deal together with her bone baby in its grave. Such a happy set of quilts I seem to need to make recently! This one is  14 1/2 inches by 18 1/2 inches.

Anyway, as I say, just sketches to flex my muscles. Comments welcome. 
(Look: that woman at the next table is sneaking glances. I wonder what she is thinking?!)

Ok, I am going to go and have a bath and, while I am soaking make a mental list of what items I need to keep in the desk drawers and therefore what combination of which depth drawers I should  order.... I think I will be a good thing that from the bath I will be able to see the design wall. All my best thoughts come when I am in water!

Have a good day,

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Moving forward with a lot of zig-zagging

Dear Helen,

I missed you at the ranch. This would have been your view if you'd been sitting next to me, as you were last October.

But it sounds like you are having a lovely retreat in Bath.  You mentioned that you are not being as productive as you'd hoped, but I remind you that sometimes a rest is necessary for productive creativity to take place.  You've had an intensely creative several months (what with our Birmingham adventure and the work you've produced and designing your studio and drawing and all) and I think your inner self is telling you that you need a break.  I always hit what I think of as fallow periods where all I really want to do is read and leaf mindlessly through magazines and watch movies on TV ... and I have come to think of them as necessary, and in fact, vital resting places for the creative side of my brain.  It's not wasted time.  It's part of that introspective phase of creativity, where your subconscious can work while you put your conscious brain on auto-pilot.

And if you're doing auto-pilot while floating in thermal pools at a spa and lingering over tea and scones, so much the better.

But back to the retreat.  It was a lovely time, as I'm sure you can imagine.  I have learned not to work on anything in that setting that requires significant creative decision making, as I'm too engaged and distracted by chatting with friends and soaking up the general air of creative excitement.

Here is one of the things I worked on -- what will be a large piece in my topographical map series.  It's a reverse applique process and although you can't see them here in this shot, there are lots of sewn lines and I'm in the process of cutting away layers of fabric to reveal different layers beneath.  It's a phase of somewhat tedious work but it's enjoyable and there's a sense of mystery and discovery, as I can't predict what things will look like exactly as the patterns and color splotches on the hand-dyed and batik fabrics reveal themselves in different ways.

Here is another thing I worked on at the retreat -- I pieced all of these small blocks (4.5 inches each) on the first day in a bout of improvisational piecing.  I sure enjoyed making these blocks and found that I got lots of ideas for bigger designs from the serendipity of the small pieces going together.  I've gotten all of the blocks assembled and have ideas for borders and stitching .  I consider this another adventure in just diving in with no sense of plan or imagined image.  I don't usually work this spontaneously but I sure had fun doing it.

You mentioned those Danny Gregory books.  I like those a lot.  And it sound like using those and trying out his style of illustrated journal keeping has confirmed for you what your own journal style is.  That's a very good discovery!

I mentioned that I'd signed up for an online class (through the site) with Jane Lafazio on sketching and watercolor painting for mixed media journaling. What prompted me to do this had more to do with wanting to get into the habit of incorporating color (via pencil or watercolor) in my journals more.  Like you, I'm drawn to beautiful illustrated journals but my goal isn't so much to start keeping one as it is to incorporate the practices into the type of journal keeping I already do.

So far, our week's task has been to draw everyday objects, and using loose watercolor to add color.  I've been doing a small sketch/painting each day, and while I see that my skills need some work, I really like the meditative aspect of LOOKING at something and remembering to draw or paint what I SEE instead of what I THINK I see.  This is harder to do than one would think.

For example, I worked with this bottle of wine yesterday (hey, we live in Wine Country.  Wine is an every day object.)

And here's my first attempt at painting it:

I made the bottle green and the wine red, because that's what my brain told me the colors were.  But look back at that bottle -- the wine isn't red, it's a blacky-red, tinted greenish by the green of the bottle.
So I went in some more and tried to darken everything without totally mucking things up and losing what few white highlights I had left.  (Keeping white in watercolor is quite a challenge, I find.)

It should all really be darker, I know.  But it felt like time to move on and maybe I'll tackle a wine bottle later to see if I can do it better.  Anyway, this is proving to be a very good exercise in seeing.

And here's the first one I did -- a sketch/painting of a carved wooden mermaid that lives in my office with me.  I just love her.  But studying the lines and colors and shapes made me see aspects of the shape and texture and wood that I'd never noticed before.  I have been thinking that making art is a particular state of mindfulness about the world, whether the art is representational or abstract.

I'm glad that seeing Alicia Merritt's exhibit sparked some ideas for you.  I quite like her work (as you know, drawn as I am to map-inspired images) and I like how she infuses such glowing color into her work too.  They are very graphic and striking compositions, but also immediately identifiable as maps.  I love that.  And I know what you mean about seeing a cohesive body of work -- it makes you realize the strength and possibility in focusing on a limited set of themes and motifs.  As we've experienced in our 12x12 challenges, boundaries can really open creative doors.

But here is what I really want to address.  You mentioned making decisions about what NOT to do, as much as what you want to be doing.  I think setting a course, identifying what it is what excites you, and defining some goals are all very useful steps and important parts of sorting out what you are doing, what you want to be doing, and why you want to be doing it.

But.  I will add some caveats that express my own philosophy about these matters, which are mine and don't necessarily apply to anyone else. I'm not preaching.  Or suggesting they should apply to you.  They are just my reactions.  Okay?

Why I am doing what I am doing is probably the most important question to me when I try to sort out the issues I ponder around my creativity.  And I know that I am not doing what I do to be a famous artist, or to sell work, or to make a name so people will hire me to lecture or teach.  I know that I pursue what I pursue because it makes me happy, and because engaging in creative expression is as necessary to me as oxygen.  Also, I've recognized that for me, the process is as important as the finished work -- that is, I'm nourished creatively by the process, even when it doesn't result in work I consider successful.  I like trying new things, experimenting with new materials, and exploring different avenues.  It's taken me some time to appreciate that for me, experimentation is one of my goals.  I really don't need anyone to buy my art quilts or hire me to teach or give me ribbons in order to feel good about what I do.  Sure, it feels nice when those things happen.  But it doesn't define success for me in my own mind about my own work.

Of course, you've heard me worry that I don't have any identifiable style or that I haven't settled on one technique or process to define as Mine and use for all of my art.  I wonder whether making myself march forward in a more linear way might result in greater growth. 

But when I'm not wibbling with those pesky little insecurities, I realize that I truly do know down deep inside that for me, it's most useful to go with where my creative flow takes me.  It's not a linear thing for me.  I may pursue things that others might see as a distraction, and I may at times end up taking side-trips away from where I thought I wanted to go.  And because I know that I do my art TO MAKE MYSELF HAPPY, first and foremost, I know that following where my impulses take me is better for me than fighting against those impulses.  (I see this as vaguely related to a lesson learned long ago when a really great hairdresser I used to go to in Massachusetts talked to me about working WITH what my stick-straight hair does, as opposed to fighting against it with perms and curlers and such.)   So when I approach the process as something I flow with rather than fight against, it not only makes me happier, I think it works out better in terms of the result.    For me, the creative journey is the destination, if you know what I mean.

I think my attitude was shaped dramatically by experiences I had years ago, when I was very involved in the artist book world.  I was obsessed with making artist books, and decided that I not only wanted to make and sell them, but I wanted to become known in that world.  I showed my books in galleries and had stuff published in magazines and books.  I set out to teach in the book world (when hardly anyone even knew what artist books were) and I accomplished that, getting invited to teach at a rather prestigious event.  And you know what?  It took the joy out of it for me, it truly did.  I worked so hard at figuring out what people would want to see and what would be publishable or teachable, and then I had to make samples and all ... and it just stopped being fun.  After that teaching job which felt like the pinnacle of achievement for me, I found I didn't want to make any more books.  It wasn't the fact that I'd reached the goal that changed things; it was realizing that I'd veered away from focusing on what was fun for me to worrying about how to please others and making things to suit others' needs.

That's why I keep in mind the fact that my creative work is for my own pleasure.  That's why I'm doing what I'm doing.  I'm very clear about that.  I'm not averse to hard work, or encountering frustration as I problem-solve, or taking on creative challenges to overcome.  But at the root of it all is the knowledge that I am doing this to increase the joy in my life.  If it's not doing that (in a big picture sort of way), then I know I'm not on the right track.  

I'm fortunate to have a professional career that earns me a good income and a family situation that means I don't have to work full-time.  So art and creativity are, for me, about pleasing myself and keeping myself interested and challenged.  If it takes me on a zig-zag exploration instead of a straight line to fame and fortune, I'm okay with that. 

As an aside, I sometimes think there are others who really do see creativity as a Serious Business Indeed.  For them, I guess, that's fine.  And for those who want or need to make a living from their art, the pressures of having to produce and market and sell probably feel like serious matters.  But some people manage to make the process of creativity and art seem like such a grim, intense, struggle -- or at least a subject of gravity and significance that doesn't seem to leave any room for humor or lightness.  I wonder if it truly is that for them, or if they have some investment in making people THINK it's a grim, intense struggle so their work will seem more valuable?  Or maybe they are just grim, tortured personalities who'd bring that to whatever they pursued?  Who knows.  But it makes me rather sad for them, to be honest, because I think that the core of creativity should have a rather large dollop of joy in it.

Which is not to say that I don't think it's useful to establish some goals and work toward them.  Being responsible and exercising discipline can be important.  Deadlines and externally or internally imposed restrictions can really spur creative thinking and accomplishment.  But if along the way, you are fascinated by a new discovery, I don't think it's necessarily bad or wrong or undisciplined to explore it.  It all comes back to the reason one is doing what one is doing.  If you're making quilts because you're working toward a one-woman show of cohesive art, then maybe you need to buckle down and decide what the parameters of your show will be and then focus on doing the best work you can do.  No problem.  But me, right now?  I'm in this for the journey.  If I decide I want to think about tea and work on tea as inspiration, and somewhere along the way I see something that reminds me of a map thing I want to pursue, FOR ME it's okay to deviate from the tea and go play with maps for a bit.  I know I'll get back to each subject.  AND I believe strongly that everything you learn and do informs what you do thereafter.  (Hah.  Maybe there'll be a tea map somewhere that comes out of this.)

I read the "Why Keeping Your Options Open is a Really, Really Bad Idea" article that Brenda noted in her comment to your post. I agree generally that it's better to make a decision and act on it than it is to waffle along forever, never actually deciding.  It's curious to me that the article is framed in terms of "the science of success" when really what it addresses is the psychological adaptation we do instinctively when we don't have any other choice.  But again, does that enhance creativity?  Or the joy in the creative process?  I'm not sure.  Just as indecision, the failure to commit, and inaction can be inhibiting, to my mind when it comes to creativity and art-making,  rigidity and being closed to new discoveries seem counter-productive as well.

So I guess the trick is to know why you're doing what you're doing, to stay focused and disciplined enough to keep moving on the path (or paths) that allow you keep moving, but to simultaneously stay open and flexible so as not to lose the adventurous joy that can lead to discoveries that enhance your progress?  Pah.  Easy-peasy. :-) 

I remind you that I'm expressing my own philosophy for my own work.  And maybe it explains why I don't have a cohesive body of work on one theme or another.  But I do what I love, and in my view that's the way to be successful.  Twelve by Twelve seems like the ultimate example of how doing something for our own joy and amusement and satisfaction has led to results we'd never have imagined.

Goodness, I did go on, didn't I?  I think I need some spa time now!

Oh, and I can't wait to see the fabric sketches you do based on your very exciting drawings!


Sunday, 9 October 2011

From Bath

Dear Diane,
I am an obedient friend and so when you told me to have a cream scone for you I had to comply.

And I thought you might like a little something else too...

If this is not enough just let me know because I am here another week and can easily get you more scones.

We are here in Bath for a fortnight in the holiday flat we rent several times a year. I brought lots of creativity related things to do but for the first week have not been exactly productive. It is for example, hard to paint or sew when spending hours at a time floating in thermal waters in the spa! But I have decided that given I tend to be so goal orientated with my creativity,with my Nozbe Ipad app to plan all the projects etc, it is probably necessary to allow myself to take time out and renew from time to time. It is a long time now since I read Julia Cameron's The Artists Way but I do seem to recall that one of her exercises - aimed at writers but adaptable for other art forms - is to take a week off from reading! A whole week!

I can't say I really took a week off from creativity although the only sewing I did for seven days was to finish this twelve by twelve quilt on the theme of Fruit for the Midsomer Quilting Challenge. Did you know that it is really very easy to sew apricots and cranberries?!

WhatI have been doing is dipping into two Danny Gregory books. TheCreatve Licence and and Illustrated Life both about illustrated journals. I decided to allocate this fortnight to trying keeping one out. I have learned that ( a) I can do it and ( b) whilst I have enjoyed the experiment and would not rule out doing the odd page now and again as the whim takes, I quickly meandered back to my own form of journal keeping which is much more word and like scrbble based. So I am now making a declaration on an informed basis, thay I know what kind of journal works best for me and I am going to stick with that despite what other people may declare is a good way to work. I will still enjoy looking at more painterly books and at least I have now slain the ' I can't do a book like that' dragon.

I am embracing the concept of focusing down at the moment. Making as many decisions about what I am not going to be doing as much as what I am going to be doing. I find it is both exhilarating and exhausting that the art quilt world consists of unlimited possibilities and it has been slightly daunting to try and find a niche in that world that is both original and personal. Trying to decidewhat to do is HARD! where do you start?It is so easy to be seduced by new ideas, fabrics, products, inspiration, everywhere I turn. I fear missing out. So I have started to focus on what I am not going to do. Its odd. Its the same decision really but it helps me to phrase it that way.
perhaps because I am not faced with choosing between forty options. It is just one choice. Does this option really excite me? Will it sustain and satisfy me? It is the best thing for me right now? If not, set it aside.

One task for me for this week is to fill in my SAQA visioning page. I know you are not partcipating but I find that kind of life planning deliciously satisfying. In summary I am going to task myself with producing a series of work, using various shows here in the UK as targets to ensure I actually produce and don't shilly shally just playing with ideas then collapsing with indecision. Finished is the aim. I am going to work with two loose, and I anticipate interconnecting sources of inspiration, African Ladies and Kuba cloth, both of which excite me to look at and which seem to provide enough potential variation. And I am declaring it publically here and on SAQA so that I have to stick to it! I am reminding myself that this is only a committment for a year and all the other things that interest me will not go away but await a new year.

After my week of inactivity I went to see Alicial Merritt's works at the Bishops Palace in Bath ( you can see more photos on my blog here). It was fascinating to me that all to shake me out of my hibernation and catapult me, vibrating with excitement, back to the boxes of fabrics stacked in the holiday flat kitchen, was to see this very complete and self assured collection of related works. On my return I started some journal sketches...

Now I have to gather the courage to start and continue, ignoring distractions and slaying fears of mediocracy, persevering through doubt to completion, remembering that success is what I define it.

Brave words. I am expecting to wobble and need to sit with you over a cup of tea and a very chocolately confection and be encouraged. Is that OK? I will reciprocate in whatever way is needed. Not that you seem to get yourself into these crises of purpose and confidence- you seem so much more assured and content to put one foot after the other down whatever path looks good. Can you transfer some of your zen- ness to me perhaps?!

By the way, talking of tea, I can see both the headless jumper wearer and the iron in the teabag. I think its like the old faces in a vase picture. Does it bother you that people see other than what you intended or not?

OK. Time to take my poor man-flu ridden husband to the nearby trattoria for a pile of comforting pasta. After that, some fabric sketches I think with the bits and bobs I have down here. Just playing about.


Saturday, 1 October 2011


Dear Helen,

I am taking a break from sorting through the unfinished projects in my closet to write this.  Tomorrow, I'll head off to my twice-yearly quilting retreat at the Bishop's Ranch where I'll be hanging out with many of the ladies pictured above. (And I'll be thinking of you and last October when you came with me!)  Because of all of the chatter and social activity, I tend to use the retreat as a place for piecing things I can do without much concentration.  I might machine quilt a project too. 

I think we are mostly agreed on the quilt title issue.  We both agree that the title can richly enhance one's understanding of the quilt.  I've been thinking of your shock upon learning that at some art quilt competitions, the judges didn't know the title of the quilt when they judged it.  My first reaction was that I thought it reasonable to judge the artwork on the imagery alone.  The artist has chosen a visual medium, after all.  Still, I also agree that  the title conveys or at least adds to what the artist was communicating with the piece, and someone assessing the artwork should know that to assess it. I wonder what non-fiber art competitions do?  It's probably handled differently at different venues, as in the quilt world.

 I like your story of finding the Marrakech postcard in your 2007 journal.  That sounds like what journals SHOULD do, in whatever form they're kept -- provide sparks of inspiration by allowing you to stumbled onto things that you kept or jotted or sketched at another time.  Like you, I'm bowled over by the beauty of some artist's journals ... but I know that putting that much work into a beautiful journal takes time and effort and of course looking at the journal itself as an artful process.  I'm more like you, I think -- my journals are full of sketches and jottings but flipping through them does give me new ideas.

One thing I started doing a while back -- if I sketched something that caught my eye or made a diagram of something that seemed noteworthy, I'd try to then make 4 or 5 more small thumbnail sketches morphing the design into something else.  Distorting it.  Changing shapes,  Using an element differently.  That sort of thing.  And while I've not yet produced quilts from them, I like what's there and I get excited when I see them.  Plus I think the practice at making 5 quick variations from one inspiration is bound to be good for my creative brain.

My tea theme.  I've been working this week on digital embroidery, stitching out the little sketch I digitized last week, then shifting it a bit to improve it, then trying a stitch-out again.  I'm not sure why I now have a stitch-sketch of a tea bag ... other than I just am fascinated by teabags right now and I'm not sure where it will take me.

 Here is my first stitched out image -- which I posted on my individual blog, and got various reactions from folks saying everything from "obviously a teabag" to someone seeing a headless person wearing a sweater which I still can't find for the life of me.  So perhaps it's not the best stitchy sketch but I'm learning and I must say that the process of taking my own image and turning it into automated stitches is rather fascinating.

I have no photos but I also made a first experiment attaching teabag papers (beautifully stained with tea stains) to fabric with matte medium.  Judy Coates Perez has done this to great effect in fiber art collages and I thought I'd give it a try.  So far, I find the matte medium has darkened the fabric where it's been brushed, and looks sort of ... well... like wet parchment on fabric, maybe?  I am trying to channel my inner Kemshall and remember that adding layers can change things dramatically.  So once again I am struggling with the adventure/frustration of not knowing at all where I am going, experimenting with different materials and techniques, and seeing where it takes me.

I figure at some point I will have these little weird experimental bits and the accumulated knowledge will blend and result in the production of a gorgeous piece.  I guess it's like the City and Guilds sampling process.  Well, I'm doing great in the samples department, not so great in the resulting gorgeous work result. Yet.  :-)

The drawing exercises continue and really, I'm finding that at this beginning stage it's still about learning what the pencil will do, how much value and texture you can get with a pencil.  So that's fun.

And, just to keep things exciting, I've signed up for Jane LaFazio's online Sketching and Watercolor class (via Joggles) which starts next week.  I'm hoping that that will nicely complement the drawing lessons and inspire me to use watercolors and colored pencils a bit more regularly.

And speaking of colored pencils, this week I was in an art/craft store and came upon a whole rack of Derwent drawing pencils.  I felt like I'd stumbled onto old friends -- "I just visited your ancestors in your native land," I wanted to say.

I am not doing the SAQA visioning thing.  I can see how it might be useful for some and I can see how it's exactly the sort of goal-oriented thing you love.  

But for this week, I will be basking in the peaceful ranch atmosphere, chattering away with lively friends, and keeping my machine humming.  It is supposed to be a drizzly week so that will make for a nice cozy retreat indeed. 

I will picture you and Dennis happily holed up in Bath, exploring Mr. B's Emporium and having a lovely afternoon tea!  Have a scone (with jam and clotted cream please) for me, and I'll eat an extra corn-lime cookie in your honor!