Monday, November 19, 2012

What I Did in Houston

What I Did Last Houston

Last year I had a chance to go to Salt Lake City for a week to work at Handi Quilter headquarters as an artist in residence. With their best computer operated long arm--the Pro Stitcher on a Fusion--and a team of technicians, I created my first landscape quilt, on that I had wanted to do for years. A 6 x 7 foot all white quilt, it exemplifies my idea of using an old genre for a new statement.

This October as Houston approached, Brenda Groelz of Handi Quilter called to see if I wanted to make another quilt, this time in their booth at the International Quilt Festival in Houston. We quickly made arrangements and I went to work on the files for my next whole-cloth quilt, this one made of indigo blue denim, much like some of the early indigo whole cloth quilts. This one, however, is a brand new pattern, a crowd scene.

I wanted to make a picture of a crowd that I could call "Reception of the Quilter," a big imaginary crowd that would gather when they heard the quilter was coming. I had taken a picture at the tree lighting ceremony in downtown San Francisco last year, a picture I thought would be perfect for the project.

To prepare one of these I first "cut" the picture into a grid of smaller squares in the computer. Then I use a digital pen to trace each square. Finally, I use a digitizing program to convert the drawing to a quilting file that the Pro Stitcher can read. So I ended up taking my quilt design to Houston as 90 blocks on a little USB drive in my pocket.

Assembling the blocks into rows and lining up the rows as they are sewn are big challenges. But I had learned a lot the first time around, so knew some of the important things to consider before I started. First up was thread. I really wanted the machine to work smoothly and uninterrupted throughout the days, so I asked the friendly people at Superior Threads to guide me. They recommended Magnifico quilting thread, which would not only be strong and reliable, but also would give a slight sparkle to the quilting. It looked great against the denim, so I went with it.

It was a little nerve wracking to be working on a new project with equipment I was not exactly a master of, to be in one of the busiest booths in the show with thousands of people looking over my shoulder and to be trying to solve software difficulties in the software I had barely met. Eventually, however, I got the setup rigged and chugging along, so I could actually walk away from it sometimes and let it just keep on sewing my design for me. It was a blast to see the people in the first row to be quilted, figures that looked at first like random lines, but gradually started to resemble faces and bodies. "Look!" people would say, "It's a woman!" and so on. As the crowd grows larger toward the bottom of the design, it becomes much clearer that it is a crowd of people behind a police barricade.

This quilt was a little easier than the first one. The next one will be even easier, I hope, as I learn to handle the software and equipment even better. In any case, it is only because of the great people at Handi Quilter that I have been able to realize my long-standing dream of working with the computerized long arm. I hope I get to do many more.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

New Ways to Quilt

New Ways to Quilt!

My friend Luke Haynes is not only half my age, but also someone who arrived at quiltmaking from the opposite direction. Whereas I came to quilts by going through an apprenticeship program with older female quilters, who instilled in me a classical notion of learning and interpreting the classics before striking out on my own, Luke started making quilts as part of his art background and only gradually started to learn about the history and techniques of the past. These opposing origins, however, do nothing to keep us from being great admirers of each other's work. I am crazy about Luke's portrait quilts, and he claims to like my abstract compositions.

Recently I was in Seattle and had a chance to spend the day with Luke, a rare chance to visit with a peer and talk about work and life. At some point in the afternoon, we started talking about our insecurities and how hard it would be to try to do what each other did. Being untrained as an artist and constitutionally unfit for starting a quilt where I knew what the ending would look like, I said it would freak me out to try a portrait quilt. Oh yes, he agreed, the idea of working like I do--starting to cut and sew without knowing what the final quilt would look like--freaked Luke out as well.

Ah Hah! Of course, then, we had to try it. The minute I got home I started creating a background for a portrait of Luke. Of course my portrait will be executed with bias tape, unlike his more realistic endeavors. Still, it was stimulating to try something completely new. At first I tried to figure out how to borrow a digital projector and project his image onto the denim so I could trace it and have lines to follow, but then I figured out that I could simply draw his face freehand...that I could draw at least that well.

So, I have been back out on the road for much of the last week, and I will be away much of the coming two weeks, but soon I will have my new pictorial quilt top ready for quilting. Here it is partly sewn, partly pinned and partly just dropped in place. I love trying something scary and new.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

3D Improvement

It has always struck me as odd that the glorious quilts of the 1800's managed to achieve their glory by remaining entirely two dimensional, while an earnest pursuit of many quilters since has been to achieve a three dimensional effect. Many times the pictorial quilts I see look similar to paint-by-number works of the 1950's and 60's--little shapes filled with bits of solid color. In the last decade, of course, the effects of thread painting, as well as, um, painting, have made quilts look a lot more three dimensional and naturalistic. For those who seek that effect, it is a glorious time to be working.

For me, I have always wanted to make it clear that my quilts were intended to be seen as two dimensional objects, (even though a quilt is technically three dimensional.) In other words, I am making a design on fabric and I want it to be seen as that, not to be seen as a fabric painting.

All that is prelude to the big lips above. One of my top two or three favorite artists of all time, Man Ray, was an all round kind of artist. He is well known as a photographer, and he made his living from both art photography and commercial work. But he was also a painter and sculptor. Man Ray was part of the Surrealists in Paris throughout the 1920's and 1930's. He made many paintings, but his best known painting by far is the one called "A l'Heure de l'Observatoire: les Amoureux," a giant pair of lips spread across a clouded sky. 

When I heard this painting and a number of other works were coming to San Francisco for a show, I decided to make my own pair of lips on a quilt, then, to make it my own, to spread a cloud of short bias tape strips over it. One day in my studio, I noticed some red bias strips, and I realized I could double the black strips with the red, in a way that would resemble the 3D effect of movies when you look at them without the special glasses. That way I could ironically point out that I had "improved" l'Heure de la Observatoire  by making it 3D. 

Hence, "Observatory Time, Improved." 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Making and Remaking

I have been writing about this project all summer it seems. I started out with the quilt on the left, the one I wrote about last time. I was very happy with it until I found out the black fabric on the back was going to run all over the place, that it would become the Usain Bolt of fabrics. So I decided I would make another one, a new road with new stick figure skeletons all over it. In this picture the new one was just out of the long arm frame. I quilted both with the same idea of many small picture frames, like those on a wall of ancestors and family photos.

The hard part, I found, was to stay present, to remain emotionally engaged during the remake. As I have said so many times before, you can do anything with a quilt, but each cut and each seam and each quilting stitch has to be the most important thing in your world. I always go off the rails when I think I can just cruise along doing anything, without committing fully to the moment.

I worked at it, however, and used the weird skill of skeleton/stick figure making I had acquired making the first one to choreograph slightly crazier and slightly more conflict fueled actions. I even have a small battle of sorts in the upper middle where the curve is so tight I wasn't sure I could make everyone fit. Maybe because I have teenagers at the moment, or maybe because it is a presidential election year, I had no trouble hooking into a feeling of conflict and weariness in those characters.

Now I do not know what will happen next, only that I have two quilts to deal with now where I meant to have only one. It is possible that I could use this as a starting point for a series of skeleton quilts, but I think I want to go somewhere else with my next quilts.

When I start to get discouraged about things like this, the world will often tell me what to do next.  This time I got a message from the Shelburne Museum that the director had signed off on buying my quilt that is on display there, "The Rule of Three."

This is a quilt I made only for myself, based on some ideas I had about memory, longing, and certain fabrics. Maybe that is the way to go: making things only to please myself. Hmmm.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Latest Mistake

As I have mentioned before, I love the entire process of making a quilt. Every step is absorbing and rewarding. I like washing and ironing fabric before I bring it into my studio, I like the cutting, the sewing, the quilting and the binding. Here on my latest quilt, however, I goofed. This fabric is supposed to be snow white--it was snow white when I appliqued these 83 skeletons onto it. But the morning I had a date to take it to the quilting machine and quilt it, I realized I had not made a backing for it. That's when I went wrong.

Standing in the corner of my studio was a pole with a 12' x 12' piece of black brushed denim I had bought one time to use for a background on some photos. As I said, I always wash all the fabrics before they come into my studio. But this one had not needed washing, since I was going to use it only for photography. Anyway, I forgot that little piece of information in my hurry to get to my quilting date. I quickly cut the black down to backing size and ran out the door with it.

To make matters even more interesting, when I posted a picture of the finished quilt on my facebook page, an internet friend offered to buy it, instantly. Wonderful! He would take possession of it in September. I could therefore take it on my lecture trip to the east coast and show it off before I sent it away forever.

Back home, however, I noticed that the humidity in the east had made something peculiar happen around the edges of the quilt: the black color seemed to be running. That was when I realized how badly I had messed up. Wondering just how bad it was going to get, I made a little sample using the same fabrics and sprayed some water on it. The black bled through immediately.

I tried many methods to try and get the backing to stop giving off dye, but in the end I had to admit that the quilt was ruined, and would never be the quilt I had envisioned, the quilt I had in fact made.

There might be some way to salvage it yet, to make it into something I can live with. But for now my plan is simply to start over, remembering all the while how much I enjoy the process and how thankful I am to have the opportunity to make an even better version of my idea. I just have to remember not to grit my teeth.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Because they have mounted an exhibition in the Whatcom Museum, my friends Bob Shaw and Julie Silber and I have decided to have an all-day fun day of quilts in Bellingham, Washington this September. We will all give lectures both informative and amusing, guided tours of the show, Q&A sessions and more. If you live anywhere in Washington state, you won't want to miss this special day. 

A complete day of quilt activities for $95
 Registration is limited,
so sign up soon. Prepayment is required.
If the event is cancelled for any reason,
your payment will be returned to you.

Robert Shaw, Julie Silber and Joe
Cunningham present a Quilt Adventure at the
Whatcom Museum in beautiful Bellingham,
Washington, site of the groundbreaking exhibition
American Quilts: The Democratic Art, based on
Bob's book of the same title. Let Bob, Julie and
Joe give you an insider’s look at the show itself,
and explore the history, art and meaning of
American quilts and quiltmaking, from the early
1800s to the present.
Enlightening, entertaining, endearing, everything you
ever wanted to know about quilts. From the walkthrough,
guided tour in the morning through the
fascinating presentations by three of the best-known
quilt authorities in the country, the entire day is
designed to give you memories for a lifetime.
Join us at the Whatcom Museum for an unforgettable

Quilt Adventure III.

What: Guided tours, lectures, Q&A, More
When: September 15, 2012
Where: Whatcom Museum, 121 Prospect Street,
Bellingham, Washington, 98225
Time: 9:30AM-4:30PM
9:30-12:00 Guided tour with Julie and Joe, illustrated
lecture by Bob: American Quilts: The Democratic Art
Lunch break
1:00-4:30 “Keeping Em In Stitches: America’s
Funniest Quilts,” Julie
“Or, You Can Do Anything You Want,” Joe
“A History of the Art Quilt,” Bob
Q&A with all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Desperately Seeking

Now I have to quilt it. It was a lot of fun to feel like a choreographer as I came up with new poses for my little skeletons all around the quilt. Some are barely holding on by their fingernails, some are blithely strolling, some skip, some leap, some lie down and some plod. It gave me great pleasure to think of them as my ancestors, the innumerable, unknowable ones who came before, whose parade I will join someday.

I never like to have a simple quilting grid, especially something that comes from traditional quilting designs, because I feel that if I am going to do something completely new with the design of the quilt, I should do something completely new with the quilting. In that regard I am still deeply traditional. That is, I like to take the quilting seriously as a separate design element on the quilt, not as an element there only to complement the design of the top. I have many friends in the world of quilts who think of the quilting design as something supplementary, something more or less like a necessary evil. To me the quilting design is one more chance to put my own stamp on my quilt. I want it all original.

This one, however, is a real challenge--primarily because the white space is so undefined and open. I have not yet found the right approach. Sometimes it is good to be flummoxed, as it is only when you are desperate, devoid of ideas that you can be in the frame of mind to attempt something radical, something completely different. I am just about there. Every day I think of the possibilities and return instead to writing projects, music projects and family projects. Desperation is sure to set in soon.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Halfway Home
Thinking of my first experience with an actual image--my house quilt called "1871"--I had the idea that I could maybe try another quilt with a recognizable image, or a series of them. The idea that came up for me immediately was this sort of road with skeleton-like figures working their way along it, like my long line of the road of a bunch of ants or something. I don't know exactly what. But the idea fit my way of working, so I stuck with it.

What I mean is that this is how I like to work: I have a vague idea of how something might look. In this case, "a sort of road with little figures all along it." Then I started in by creating a meandering line. I let the line create itself by starting with a length of bias tape and just sewing it down until I reached the end. At the end, I built a little stick figure. Then another and another. Each figure is a new composition, another challenge to find the right pose, the right proportions and etc. After a while they seemed to take on lives of their own, more or less telling me what to do next.

In this way I did not have to plan each detail, but rather to discover each detail...I like to find out what the quilt will look like by making it.

"This is all well and good," you might say, "But what if you don't like what it looks like when you are done?" Fair question. The fact is sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. But I don't have to like something to like it! That is, I am always surprised by some aspect of the finished quilt. On this one I see that the large negative space in the middle is going to be a lot more significant than I thought, so I will have to contend with that with the right approach to quilt designs. Okay. It gives me a new challenge and it sparks a new direction of thought. That is what I am looking for here: new directions of thought.

So it is in doing the actual work that I find the new ways, the new means. The work is not an expression of what I have discovered elsewhere.

I have been held up for a couple of days by my need to prep more materials. I have to cut the many small bits of bias, then fold and glue the ends so they don't ravel. Now I have them and I can tackle my next crew of figures. It looks to me like I am about halfway to the end. See you there.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Quilts and The Blues

March 31 I was in Los Angeles to give a lecture on the opening night of my show at the Craft in America Study Center. Because I like to talk about quilts and play guitar at the same time, I concocted a lecture called Quilts and The Blues, which I thought would give me an opportunity for some amusing comparisons, but which, when I started writing the thing, made me realize all sorts of new aspects of these two forms.

For starters, we have to remember that both forms grew out of existing traditions. Quilts arrived here as formal bedcoverings for the houses of the well-to-do. Blues music has roots in African, folk and gospel musical traditions. Also, they both grew and flourished during the period when the creators of them were excluded from positions of power in the culture.

Women, being legally excluded from owning property or voting, and excluded from the academic traditions of the of the arts, excluded from politics and any positions of power in the culture, created quilts which they chose to give away. With this gift economy, they were safe from the judgements, the interference, the market considerations that would have prevailed if they were trying to appeal to or be part of the academy or the intellectual or the business worlds. Under this neglect by the powerful, women were free to create.

Blues musicians, being seen in the last part of the 19th century and the first part of the twentieth as similarly extra-academic, economically superflous, concerned only with amusing friends and family with their semi-musical plinking and plonking, were also free to create.

The forms these two groups invented were community-owned patterns. The 12-bar form, the 3 against 4 rhythmic feels, the borrowings from African drones and gospel harmonies and improvisations--all these were malleable and infinitely variable.

Within these community patterns, the creators were free to do anything they could think of...and, come to think of it, they didn't even have to stay within the patterns. Anything could work as a blanket if you sewed enough pieces together. You could write a blues with any number of beats, bars, chords or subjects.

So it was precisely because of the neglect of the ruling class that these forms could grow and flourish. To demonstrate the infinite variability of quilt patterns I put together a Powerpoint presentation with 20 or so variations of Log Cabin patterns. For the musical variations I played a variety of blues songs from different artists, all of whom had created wild variations on traditional themes.

It was a blast, for me at least. It seemed like it went over well, and the whole experience made me want to work more on my book of quilt essays.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

What It Takes

I have been busy with tax season, with other projects, and have not had a quilt to work on for a couple of weeks. So I had a few minutes in the studio this week and decided to start something new. My first impulse is usually to do something I have done before, what I call the "Hollywood Impulse." It worked before, so maybe I should do the same thing only a little bit different! I laid a whole quilt out to do just that, and realized that I was remaking something, and that my heart was just not in it.

But once I had the fabrics laid on the floor, a couple of them caught my eye, this striped stuff and this beautiful African print. Since I am always looking for high contrast, these two seemed like a pair I could work with.
Great. But now what to do with them? I often find myself in this situation, without an idea in my head. Nothing. No idea what to do. When I feel like that, I just get out my rotary cutter and cut into my favorite of the fabrics before me, the stuff I am afraid to cut. That was this strip. I just whacked away at it for a while, cutting strips on different angles. Eventually I figured I could lay this across some of the green and orange print.

And I was off. Everything at that point becomes a design problem, a problem with an answer. Not, "What should I do?" anymore, but "How big should this chunk be?" and "What should I do about this corner?" and so on.

For me, what it takes is this willingness to start a project without a pattern or picture. For you it might be the pattern or picture. But whatever it takes to get going is what we have to find. For me finishing it is the easy part: I just keep going until I am done with this piece, then start another.

A big part of making the quilts you want is simply finding out what it takes to start your motor.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Winona Pepin, Quilter Extraordinaire

Last December The Dorcas Quilters of St John's Presbyterian Church in San Francisco lost a guiding light when Winona Pepin died at the age of 98. Here is a picture from a few years ago with John Maxwell and Patricia Pepin holding up one of Winona's many quilts and everyone else gathered around her.

Winona was born in Kansas and came to San Francisco in the 1950's, I believe. What I know about her for sure is that when I first moved to San Francisco in the 1990's and attended a quilt show, she was there with the Dorcas Quilters as ever, quilting at the frame as a way of inspiring and teaching all comers about the joy of quilting. She was quiet and contained, so one might overlook her at first, but once you sat at the frame for a few minutes it became clear that Winona was the acknowledged master quilter and the sparkle in the atmosphere. She was always very clear about what she liked and how she liked quilts to be done, but she was also always open to new ideas.

I got to know Winona a bit the day she turned 91. That year I had received a grant to have a long exhibition of my own quilts together with antique quilts from which I had drawn inspiration. Part of the show was a Walk Through How-to-Make-a-Quilt Wall, which culminated in a frame with me sitting there and quilting all day, every day. I loved because I could see the whole show from where I sat, so I could answer questions, conduct tours and teach quilting all at the same time. One day in July Winona drove herself up from Daly City to sit an quilt with me for a while. Over the course of the day I learned it was her birthday, and this was the way she wanted to spend it. We had a ball, talking quilts and life. I learned that she had been quilting all her life, and that she came from a long line of quilters. But most important was that I learned even more about her agile and fertile mind, that she was always curious. Fortunately few people attended the show that day so we told stories and quilted for hours.

After that whenever I had a quilt frame set up in the public somewhere Winona would always spend at least a day there with me. Generous to all, and always fun to be around, she lit up the room. The Dorcas Quilters have quite a few brilliant and accomplished quilters, but none who learned to quilt so long ago, none with that amount of experience. She is irreplaceable there and in my heart as well. We all miss her.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Vanishing Point

Here is my latest pieced and appliqued quilt, "My Vanishing Point." The pink fabric is a sort of dark pink and white striped shirting, and the black and white striped fabric is shirting as well. The other two fabrics are standard quilt fabric. The little appliqued squares were given to me by Naomi Ichikawa, editor of Patchwork Quilt Tsushin, a Japanese quilting magazine. When she came to visit and interview me for an article she brought me a stack of precut squares, which I decided to use just as they came out of the package. The black lines are made with commercial bias tape, which I buy whenever I see it.

I wanted to make an image of how I felt about the horizon of old age, how it always recedes, with an image of my own road I am walking, which someday will vanish. For me it is a comfort to make something that allows me a place to think about topics like this. If I keep making things only about the beauty of the world, I get tired of it. Also, I want to see things I have never seen before. So making a quilt on this subject in this way turns out to be exactly what I need to stay alive and interested.