Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Textile Society of America Symposium

A couple of weeks ago I was on a panel of men speaking at the TSA Symposium in Los Angeles, discussing something called "The Male Mystique." The other men on the panel were intimidatingly well qualified for this, and I enjoyed seeing their work, hearing their views. But the real reason to be at the TSA Symposium was to attend other lectures and to learn about things I never imagined.

Like the picture above, taken during a lecture on central Asian textiles. It shows an "Ink Painted Wool Tapestry...woven by the Mongours, a Chinese minority living along the Yellow River during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)...(who) practiced a religion called Manichaeanism after its founder Mani, who was born in Babylonia and lived in third century Persia...(they) believe that the universe is divided between the forces of Good, exemplified by light,  and the forces of Evil, demonstrated by Dark..."

I hardly know where to start. Let's start with the idea that this is nearly a thousand years old, and its design looks like something from mid-20th century Europe. Or how about the idea that the design vocabulary is only vaguely Chinese, which you can see in the little curlicues in the cloudlike formations, but that the peacocks in the foreground come from somewhere with which I am unfamiliar. Then the alternating bands of dark and light, or Dark and Light, which yet do not strictly alternate in a symmetrical way, but seem to be intertwined.

For me it is positively thrilling to see something like this, to encounter a civilization I never knew existed. And who is Mani? What does the rest of their art look like?

This is why it is worth all the travel and expense to attend one of these conferences. The people who are doing the deep study will share it with you and open your eyes to new worlds.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

New New York Beauty

I am often asked about my creative process, something I often feel I do not even have. I mean, I am amazed that after all these years making things I still end up feeling like I don't know how to start a new one. For this quilt I started out where I often start: without anything in mind.

I just pulled a bunch of fabrics off my shelf and tossed them onto the floor. Any fabrics that seemed to go well together I rejected. I do not like the look of things that are too coordinated, too harmonious. Eventually I found myself with these three fabrics, which were not particularly friendly with each other, but seemed to have a sort of energy when I laid them side by side.

First, I cut some random pieces from the bacon-like stuff on the right, without any clear idea what I was doing. Suddenly I remembered that I had been wanting to make a new New York Beauty. "Perfect!" I said to myself, "These two pieces would give me the contrast I need for the long, sharp points." As I worked along at building a row of points, I saw that I could keep all the greenish yellow on one side and all the pink stripes on the other.

This is my secret technique. I just start working on something whether or not I know what it will be. Sometimes I end up with a mistaken, misshapen, problematic thing. But usually by the time I am solidly started, I have a sound idea for where to go and how to get there.

And that is the hardest part: believing that an idea will appear.

Sometimes, you have to plan ahead. Sometimes you start out with a clear idea. But sometimes you can start out without either a plan or a concept, and those things will materialize.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Making Paintings Art

I have been obsessed lately with the idea of cutting up paintings and making them into quilts. Friends have been donating paintings; I have been finding them at the thrift stores; taking them off my own walls. The strange, electric shock of running a rotary cutter across someone's artwork is the kind of intense sensation hard to get in a standard quiltmaking project. 

On this quilt, just out of the machine, I have combined the cut up paintings with another of my recent ideas: paying homage to the great quiltmakers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This one contains a quilted version of the only known picture of Harriet Powers, maker of the fantastic Bible quilts that can be found in the Smithsonian and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (

In thinking of a way to honor harriet, I got thinking about the memorial arches like the Arc de Triomphe. I realized I could combine my obsessions if I just made the arch out of paintings, with all the metaphorical implications that might follow. The sky above her is lit with stars. 

Harriet herself, once a slave in Georgia, is on a pedestal in the middle, in an image I drew with a digital pen and sent to my Fusion longarm:

I feel like I am starting to get where I want to go with this series. At the moment I am collecting new paintings for another quilts, but the painted canvas is so hard to work with I may give myself a break and use regular fabric for a change. I'll just have to generate my own electricity.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Protesters, Sleeping

Five or six weeks ago I saw a picture in the newspaper--said the last guy in San Francisco to actually subscribe to a couple of newspapers--of the protesters in Kiev sleeping on the floor of an occupied government building. It was a big jumble of sleeping bags, blankets, quilts and coats, interspersed now and then with a peaceful face of one of the protesters sleeping. I loved the image, because the sleepers looked so angelic and because the image was mostly blankets! Blankets! I always think of what I am doing as making a blanket, which is why I always make them big enough to sleep under...big enough to wrap up in, against the coldness of the universe. The idea of these dedicated patriots, who were putting their lives on the line, that even they had to just lie down and sleep sometimes, I found unbearably poignant.

So, I decided to make my own picture of the sleeping protesters. With my robotic long arm machine, I could draw the faces into the computer and drop them into the white spaces of my jumbled up fabric. For the rest of the quilting, I studied the barricades and used as many of the same materials as I could, quilting them with free motion on the long arm, all the tires, sand bags, fences and blocks. The firewood and cables. The sticks and rocks.

In a way, the only thing I did was to take the idea of a quilt with alternate plain blocks and make it crazy style. In that way, you can see how this quilt came straight out of traditional ideas. But the quilting would never have been possible without my robotic machine, a Handi Quilter Fusion. I love getting to know it and finding out what it can do. It is a thrill every time I walk into my studio.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Susan McCord: Greatest Quiltmaker Ever.

Susan McCord lived in Indiana during the second half of the 19th century and made a bunch of fantastic quilts, 13 of which are owned by the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Her most famous quilt consists of strips of fabric entirely coved by small leaves on vines, each leave composed of minute scraps. You can get the idea here:

All Susan's quilts are worth study, each one original and each one exemplifying the freedom with which 19th century quiltmakers could approach the job. When each woman was free to interpret or invent patterns her own way, creativity abounded. They created the template for the approach to quilts we still use.

For this quilt I wanted to picture Susan McCord feeding her chickens, because I thought that if I could find a time tunnel back to 1880, I would probably find her doing some daily chores, not making a quilt. The quilt is picture here just off the machine, my long arm, where I quilted it with my own interpretation of her leaf design:

The title of the quilt is "Susan McCord In My Time Tunnel." It is all made with bias tape on a background made of hand printed fabric imported by Maiwa of Vancouver.

If you would like to know more about Susan McCord, you can still get Barbara Brackman's book on her at:

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Friends and Art

A few years ago I went on a winter camping trip with 18 or 19 guys, most of whom I did not know, in the Porcupine Mountains, on the northern side of the upper peninsula of Michigan. I was skeptical about the idea at first, but I ended up having the time of my life. Among the great guys I met on that trip was John Pappas, an artist with whom I have since become great friends.

John lives near Ann Arbor and works for an an ad agency, where he does fantastic work for corporations, museums, restaurants and so on. But when he is not at work John is almost always drawing. He incorporates drawing into his life in a beautiful way, making travel journals, portraits of musicians and athletes, and this year a series of portraits of his creative friends, of which I was one. While John uses all the most up-to-date software and computers at work, he loves the feel of drawing by hand, and he has drawn a lot on wood panels, birchbark and many kinds of paper. You can see what he does on his great website,

I have been thinking about the role of technique and equipment in my work this year, especially, since this was the year i finally got a computerized longarm machine, a Handi Quilter Fusion with a ProSticher. When I announced it on facebook and in my lectures, many people seemed to assume acquiring the machine meant the end of my hand quilting, as if you had to choose between quilting by machine and quilting by hand.

Well, as my teens would say, "Duh!" Of course people would think that. It seems like our quilt world is divided into two camps, camps which hold each other in mutual disdain. Many quilters of my generation, even if they have adopted machine quilting for their own work, still feel that the best way to make a quilt is to hand quilt it. Many machine quilters think it is, at best, wasteful to spend your time hand quilting when you could have the thing done with in a fraction of the time.  I think each technique has its own strengths and weaknesses, that each technique is right for certain projects, wrong for others.

Anyway, I decided I wanted to have John's portrait of me. We negotiated a settlement, where we would trade same-size portraits of each other, each one about two feet by three feet. I figured his portrait would make a good first project for my new machine.

What I have to do is to trick the software into thinking it is making a series of blocks. It involves breaking my picture into small squares I can draw life size in the computer, then using another software to convert the drawings into quiltable files, and yet another software to assemble the quiltable files into rows i can feed into the computer on the quilting machine. Sometimes the most difficult part of the project is simply staying awake while I convert files one after the other.

Eventually I finished a set of files I thought would work, so I ran a test piece on muslin  to try them out. This is one of the advantages of the computerized machine, that you can run the same piece over and over, editing and fixing it each time. It turned out almost everything was wrong with my first batch, so I redid it and tried again. The files still needed more fixing, but I thought they were close enough to run the actual quilt. Finally, then, I pieced the top, installed it in the machine and babied it through for a couple of days.

As you can see above, the dimensions are nearly life size.  I included myself poking my head in from the corner, my arm around the shoulders of my friend.

This week we finally made the exchange, sending each other's portrait across the country. I love my new picture, but I do not know where I am going to hang it. I don't want it peering down at all of us in the dining room, overseeing us in the living room. I'll find the right spot. In the meantime, it is leaning against a wall by my desk where I can look at it all I want, in wonder at John's artistry. It's about the best Christmas present a guy could get.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Quilts and Art

Art and Quilts

I stopped in to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art recently and saw this work by Sanford Biggers. Apparently it is two works with one superimposed over the other. I had a number of feelings about it.

First, it is a nice Pennsylvania German quilt, 1880-90. You can still see the fine cable quilting along the outer pink border at the bottom.

Second, I think people should be free to make art any way they can think of, including cutting up or burning an antique quilt, painting over it, shredding it--I do not really have any objection to people making art any way that seems right to them.  My objection to this is primarily in the wall text. As you can see, the materials are listed in detail, and the quilt itself is listed as "Cotton textile..." which gives the impression that the quilt was some sort of naturally occurring object. Just like a towel, another "cotton textile," or a sheet. The text does not admit the possibility that the quilt was designed and made by a person, probably a woman, 130 or 140 years ago, and that it was made of a number of carefully chosen cotton textiles, arranged in an aesthetically powerful design.

The artist cannot admit that the original quilt is at least as important to the success of this piece as his contribution. If he did, he would have to admit that it was a collaboration between him and a historical quilter. I looked him up online, and found this helpful information in an article for Art21 magazine by
Nettrice Gaskins:

"In Codex, (the series from which the above piece is taken)  he repurposes historical quilts that may have been used on the Underground Railroad as signposts, signaling “stations,” or safe houses. These works re-imagine cultural-historical artifacts of the past using materials of the present to consider possible futures...Some scholars argue that African slave artists and craftspeople used quilts much like NASA scientists use star charts. A star chart is a map of the night sky and Underground Railroad Conductor Harriet Tubman may have used one of these charts or quilts to lead dozens of slaves to freedom using the North Star as a guide. Accordingly, Biggers’ use of slave quilts as source material for his art makes reference to Tubman and the secret routes she traveled. "

No kidding. There are so many things wrong with this set of ideas that one hardly knows where to start. Tubman may have used one of these quilted star charts? Really? And she may have had an early GPS signaling device. Or she may have travelled by the light emitted from a UFO. There is absolutely no historical evidence for this, or for the idea that quilts were ever used by any fleeing slave for any kind of direction. And Biggers is using slave quilts? This quilt has all the earmarks of a Pennsylvania German quilt of an era a couple decades after slavery. It is not related to slave quilts. So his use of this quilt does not make reference to Harriet Tubman and the secret routes she traveled. 

I could go on  but all I am interested in talking about is the idea that modern artists cannot conceive of the idea that the quiltrepresents any kind of artistic statement in and of itself. Using a quilt as the basis for a work of art was done by Robert Rauschenberg first in 1955, something I wish would be acknowledged by the artist somewhere. But even Rauschenberg's example, "Bed" 1955, is surrounded by commentary that just as adamantly insists that the mere blanket he used, another Log Cabin quilt, had no value, being a simple blanket. 

It is as if these quilts were covered with an invisibility cloak. You might think someone would be able to look at one and say, "Wow--that woman really knew what she was doing."