Category Archives: Books

Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s “Playing With Purpose”

I’ve been aware of Wolfe’s work ever since she won first place at an early QuiltCon for her deconstructed double wedding ring quilt. She began her career as an artist, but branched into quilting. Over the past several years she has designed fabric, opened a quilt store, taught classes, written books, and become an active presence on social media. With her most recent book, a retrospective of her work, I learned she also managed to make the 125 quilts shown, mostly since 2008, in addition to all her other activities. And these are mostly large quilts, easily 80 by 80 inches. My guess is she’s made at least 100 more quilts. She does have many of them quilted by others, but even so…

Most of her work is exuberant and lively, with lots of color and scrappy fabric. She often references traditional patterns, but will put a twist on them. Sometimes she serves tradition straight up. I’m showing a few quilts from the book that were new to me.

Wolfe tried out different styles before settling on what is now her signature. “Cheap Hotels” from 2010 uses a more minimalist approach without a block structure. It stands out in the book because there’s nothing else like it.

“Stripes, Plaids, and Polka Dots” is reminiscent of Gwen Marston’s work, with its bold zigzag border treatment. The stars and sashing are made with Wolfe’s 15 minutes of play technique, while the subdued stripes and plaids of the squares give all that busyness room to breathe. The different sizes of the background yellow/beige squares lend a casual air, while the polka dots capture the eye and direct it around the squares.

“Summer of Stars” works due to the ombre fabric surrounding the center star. I’d love to get my hands on some of it.

The following two quilts are great examples of how fabric choices and placement can change the look of a quilt. It takes an eye for abstraction to discern such possibilities.

While I don’t like every quilt in this book, I appreciate Wolfe’s willingnes to always try out an idea and use lots of different fabrics. She doesn’t let fear of “ruining” something stop her from pushing further. Her philosophy is: “You have to make ugly pieces and then learn from them. You have to make something that is just so fabulous that you look at it and think, Wow! I can’t believe I did that! For myself, the failure and the successes are equally valuable.”

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Missing Gwen

Not many quilt artists span the quilting world from traditional to modern and minimalist in their work. Gwen Marston did. She took her cues from the traditional folk art quilts she studied, but breathed new life into the form.

Two weeks before her death I looked at her book, “A Common Thread,” that shows over 60 quilts Gwen made and selected for this volume. It contains few words, just photo after photo of quilts made from 1976 to 2015. Here are my favorites.

So playful with the exuberant center panel and curved borders, and then the sawtooth edge
Love the casual placement of the berry clusters and the idiosyncratic roundness of the wreaths.
Those pops of turquoise and the one orange dagger!
Utterly simple, in fabrics I don’t like, yet there’s such movement in the strings.
This quilt captures stillness, and the hand quilting is sophisticated in its simplicity.

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African Textiles Today

Chris Spring’s book “African Textiles Today” was a mind expanding read for me. First, the photos are gorgeous; second, there’s enough text to elucidate the photos without overwhelming you; and third, it includes a section on textiles as integral elements of African photography. As I came to understand, in Africa textiles communicate many messages, some literal. Below I’ve shown the textile first, then the author’s annotation about it. Since I photographed them from the book, the curve of the pages distorts the images.

Often a kanga (a piece of cloth) will have words printed on it. My favorite is this work from Tanzania that says “The mangos are ready.” Apparently this is an invitation from wife to husband to help himself.

It was a tough decision, but my favorite textile in the book is one created in Egypt as a tent hanging.

I don’t want to lose sight of how all the textiles are created, so here is one being made.

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Books Beside My Bed

When I can’t get to exhibits, shows, or talks I like to refresh my design sense with books that feature artists. Right now I have three in rotation by my bed: “Art Quilts Unfolding: 50 Years of Innovation,” “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” and “Quilt Artistry: Inspired Designs From The East.” The first two are recent publications, while the last is from 2002.

I’m about halfway through “Art Quilts Unfolding,” a large (about 350 pages) SAQA publication that aims to celebrate the emergence of the art quilt movement from the 1960s on. The growth in each decade is described, individual artists representative of that decade are interviewed, and there’s a gallery of representative work. The sequestering by decade falls apart somewhat in the sections that feature individual artists as examples of their work is shown over the decades. I’m sure it’s no surprise that most of the work is by SAQA members. I’m finding the interviews with individual artists to be superficial, more like magazine profiles. I would prefer a discussion of the artist’s thinking for a specific quilt. That said, the diversity of artistic visions is staggering. I appreciate the effort to include artists from outside the U.S.

Jean Laury, “Tom’s Quilt”

The Georgia O’Keeffe book focuses on how she dressed herself and her homes, and is lavishly illustrated. It goes with the current museum exhibit of the same name, but stands very much on its own. So far I’ve paged through to gawk at the photos, but have made little inroads on the text. I did learn that she sewed many of her early clothes, and was a meticulous seamstress. O’Keeffe had a knack for posing effectively, possibly due to lessons learned from her husband, the photographer Alfred Steiglitz. Like the SAQA book, it is long (320 pages) and heavy.

Wrap dress from the 1960-70s. O’Keeffe had several of these.

O’Keeffe in New Mexico wearing Calder pin

My third book is by Yoshiko Jinzenji, a Japanese quilt artist who I learned about recently. She began quilting upon seeing Mennonite quilts when she lived in Toronto, expanded her interests to Indonesian textiles, and came full circle with the textiles of her native Japan. Her process begins with dyeing thread, making the cloth, then sewing and quilting it. Her aesthetic is spare and minimalist, and she combines synthetic fabrics with natural dyes. She also combines hand sewing with longarm quilting. The quilt directions she gives are more like suggestions. I can’t see me ever making work like hers, imagine spending days boiling freshly cut bamboo, but it does me good to explore a different way. The staging of the photography is gorgeous.

I’d love to learn about design books that inspire you as I have access to most libraries in Ohio and know how to use my library card.

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Artistic Endeavors – “Fray”

Occasionally I dip my toe into academic publications. My latest foray is “Fray: Art + Textile Politics,” which The New York Times chose as one of the ten best 2017 books about art. I saw the word textile in the title and put in a library request for it. I won’t review the book, which “explores textiles and their role at the forefront of debates about process, materiality, gender, and race in times of economic upheaval.” That’s too much academic talk for me, but it’s not surprising as the author, Julia Bryan-Wilson, is a Professor in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley.

The publisher’s summary is at the end of this post, in case you want to find out more about the author’s thesis. You’re on your own if you choose to read the details of her arguments. With the exception of her discussion of Chile’s arpilleras, it was beyond me.

See the source image

Instead, I want to concentrate on some points the author makes about the acceptance of textiles in art and what kind of bridge exists between craft and contemporary art. The former issue exercises me on occasion, especially when I see almost no mention of fiber art in art related news media such as Art Daily.  In a year I’ve noted two such mentions – a Sheila Hicks exhibit and a piece by Robert Rauschenberg made of silk panels, though there’s been plenty of coverage for various installations and performance art.

So, why the blind eye to textiles? I want to quote from “Fray” and add my comments.

In recent decades, textiles have provided a unique challenge to these divisions [fine art, non-fine art] as more self-trained crafters are absorbed into the art market…the institutionalization of the Gee’s Bend quilts, which are now displayed in art museums alongside abstract painting and sculpture, is the most striking exception to the still generally intractable separation of objects not originally created for museums from the self-appointed realm of contemporary art (p. 6)

Bryan-Wilson talks about craftivism, which started in the early 2000’s as a leftist, antinationalist, or innovative handmaking movement to buy handmade items and boycott the mass produced products of big box stores.

…this is one of the most paradoxical aspects of craftivism – just as in [William] Morris’s day, when his fabrics became upholstery for the wealthy – which is to say that so much of the purported handmade revolution is really about individualized niche shopping, a way to guarantee the value and originality of a bespoke purchase. (p. 27)

Bryan-Wilson talks about the special relationship that handmaking has to ‘slow time’ as it “helps practitioners more fully inhabit, and decelerate, the present moment. ” (p. 261-262) I’ve seen many blog posts about slow stitching and I’m sure you have, too.

There’s a paradox in the business of selling time consuming “slow time” crafts on platforms such as Etsy. It’s hard to make a living wage given the time and material demands of such crafts. (p. 263) This thought echoes recent blog posts about Etsy’s way of doing business, which is now undergoing even more changes to raise its stock price.

Textiles are unique among art forms in that they move between high and low, between functional and artistic, but they

continue to be underrepresented within contemporary art history. These legions of hobby quilters, sewers, and weavers are in some measure responsible for the current academic and art-world interest in textiles, but … their actual work is often considered too mundane, uninteresting, generic … to itself cross the threshold of institutional visibility. (p. 33)

Bryan-Wilson talks about how different spheres of textiles – hobbyists, self-identified artists – are often in contact and inform each other.

…widespread interest in craft among everyday or amateur makers helps impel art – critical and art-institutional attention. Just as fine-art photography as a genre evolves under constant pressure exerted by the collective expertise of snapshot photographers, textiles as a field draws strength from a wide pool of self-trained makers who not only make up much of the audience for museum exhibits but also contribute to robust discourse around these techniques. (p. 273)

The surge of interest in crafts since the early 2000s has led to exhibits of some fiber artists like Sheila Hicks. While such shows might be a step in the right direction, many have tended to be highly formalist in nature, erasing the highly contentious…context in which many of these textile-based techniques first made their appearance within contemporary art. (p. 273)

I wish I could tell you Bryan-Wilson has some solutions in mind, but I found none in my admittedly hit and miss perusal of her book.

In closing I’ll suggest you read Barbara Brackman’s blog about quilts in an economic context. Her inaugural post talks about the romantic and nostalgic concepts about quilting planted by writers such as Ruby McKim, Nancy Cabot, Marie Webster, and Ruth Finley.

Brackman says: “Every one of those authors painted a false picture of the past by ignoring the economic and commercial aspects of women’s needlework at which she herself was succeeding admirably.” I’m looking forward to Barbara’s rants.

 

 

From the publisher:

In 1974, women in a feminist consciousness-raising group in Eugene, Oregon, formed a mock organization called the Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society. Emblazoning its logo onto t-shirts, the group wryly envisioned female collective textile making as a practice that could upend conventions, threaten state structures, and wreak political havoc. Elaborating on this example as a prehistory to the more recent phenomenon of “craftivism”—the politics and social practices associated with handmaking—Fray explores textiles and their role at the forefront of debates about process, materiality, gender, and race in times of economic upheaval.

Closely examining how amateurs and fine artists in the United States and Chile turned to sewing, braiding, knotting, and quilting amid the rise of global manufacturing, Julia Bryan-Wilson argues that textiles unravel the high/low divide and urges us to think flexibly about what the politics of textiles might be. Her case studies from the 1970s through the 1990s—including the improvised costumes of the theater troupe the Cockettes, the braided rag rugs of US artist Harmony Hammond, the thread-based sculptures of Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, the small hand-sewn tapestries depicting Pinochet’s torture, and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt—are often taken as evidence of the inherently progressive nature of handcrafted textiles. Fray, however, shows that such methods are recruited to often ambivalent ends, leaving textiles very much “in the fray” of debates about feminized labor, protest cultures, and queer identities; the malleability of cloth and fiber means that textiles can be activated, or stretched, in many ideological directions.

The first contemporary art history book to discuss both fine art and amateur registers of handmaking at such an expansive scale, Fray unveils crucial insights into how textiles inhabit the broad space between artistic and political poles—high and low, untrained and highly skilled, conformist and disobedient, craft and art.

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I Follow A Pattern

And why is that so earth shattering, you may ask? Because for 7, going on 8, years I have made my quilts up or altered the original source so thoroughly it was unrecognizable. However, when I came across Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s Cascade quilt in her newest book, “Modern Quilt Magic,” I knew I’d have to follow the directions to have my version work.

Here’s her version.

I cut out the templates from plastic, hauled out my purple and its buddies scrap bin, traced the templates, and started cutting. There is lots of bias in each piece, so gentle handling is the key. As Victoria says, you need only pin in three places before sewing the units together. It also helps to match the registration marks piece to piece, and to mark them to begin with, of course.

When I got to the light fabrics area I had to break into stash, which of course generates more scraps, and explains why scrap bins never get emptied.

My version of Cascade, which I’m calling Church Windows per my husband’s comment, is smaller than Victoria’s. There is a limit to my purple fabrics. I don’t know if I’ll quilt this one myself or send it out. It’s quite bias-y though I’ve stay stitched all the edges.

“Modern Quilt Magic” focuses on partial and set in seams projects, and gives thorough explanations of the processes. You can see a video of some of the techniques here. I appreciated the line drawings of the quilts that you can try out colors on before cutting up your fabric.

I wonder what this pattern would look like in horizontal stripes or diagonal colors? I’d better break out my colored pencils.

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A Practical Design Book

I’ve carried on about how important design is in quilting, especially in original quilts.  In previous posts I’ve noted quilt specific design books such as Elizabeth Barton’s “Inspired To Design,” Joen Wolfrom’s “Adventures In Design,” Sandra Meech’s “Connecting Design To Stitch,” and Jean Wells’ “Intuitive Color & Design.” Then, I came across “Create Perfect Paintings” by Nancy Reyner and realized that good design transcends medium, duh! So why should I disdain a resource just because the word quilt appears nowhere in it.

The book’s blurb says, “As a painter, your two main objectives are to draw the viewer to your work and to sustain their attention long enough to create a meaningful viewing experience.” I inserted quilter for painter throughout the book and learned a lot.

With the exception of about 20 pages (out of 144) very specific to mixing paint colors and applying paint, the advice Reyner gives works as well for quilters as for anyone who creates original art. Again, from the publisher’s description, “This solution-based guide offers ways to identify and overcome the common problems faced by all painters in every medium. To create the perfect painting, analysis and editing are critical.”

While Reyner gives helpful advice about creating art, for me her book is valuable for specific ways to analyze my work and fix what’s wrong. She gives a 10 inquiry self-critique method to help you evaluate and improve your work. The usual suspects are there – value/intensity/hue, focal points, design and movement, etc. – but I haven’t found other design books that use digitally altered paintings as examples and show specific steps to fix issues. It’s amazing what a difference a red flower and an upper right detail make in the painting below.

One type of inquiry that has puzzled me is what Reyner calls hot spots, areas of a work that carry “strong viewer expectations,” such as corners and edges, the center, and sky and ground. She cautions against locked corners, where forms or objects are placed directly into corners and along edges. The viewer’s eye will use these to make a quick exit rather than travel around your work. I had been told by an artist to keep my diagonal lines away from corners, but I had no idea why. Now I do.

This altered painting by Pierre Bonnard shows what happens when forms are shoved into the corners. Showing, not telling, seems to help me get it.

In case 10 steps are too much, there’s a 4 step critique shortcut: finish the statement “it’s too ___ (insert adjective here,) figure out the adjective’s opposite (that’s the solution,) choose best techniques to carry that out, and keep an unequal ratio between the opposites. Fifty-fifty ratios and 100-0 ratios lead to boring work. There’s also a critique quick list and pairs of opposites to help you get started.

Beyond specifics this book offers timely (for me) advice such as “Take the necessary time out from painting quilting to periodically think about and clarify your intentions.” I find it all too easy to get swept up in the creative flow. I forget to step back and think about what I’m trying to convey and analyze my progress toward that. One of my goals is to develop a broad intent for each work as I create it – a mood, a feeling, a memory, an impression, etc.

Reyner closes her book with a short section on critique groups. Quilters I’ve been around tend to skirt actual critiques with broad statements like “that’s great” or “love the colors.” I understand no one wants to hurt someone’s feelings, and it’s hard to know if your thoughts are being solicited for an honest critique or simply praise. However, comments by others in a critique group can give you clarity, inspiration and a broader viewpoint, even if they do nothing more than identify problems. I think Reyner expresses well what should be the spirit of a critique:

Each person has vastly different work than the next, and it doesn’t matter whether you prefer that type of work or not. It only matters whether you think that artist has succeeded in doing what they set out to do.

I added the emphasis to remind myself that whether or not you like someone’s work is immaterial to a critique.

I’ll leave the rest of this book for you to make your own discoveries. It resonated enough with me I bought a copy. I consider it $21 well spent.

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