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."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My New Machine

My New Machine

This week I got my new Handi Quilter Fusion longarm machine and 12 foot table, together with a ProStitcher computerized system.  I have been looking forward to this for a long time, because I want to start my new series of quilts, quilts that will represent a different approach to using this equipment. It has long seemed to me that it was a waste of technology to use this fantastic machine for anything even close to hand quilting designs, anything like we have done in the past. With such a new sophisticated device we should be able to make new sophisticated quilts. 

I think one of the fundamental building blocks of our quilt world is a misunderstanding of the actual tradition and how transgressive, how revolutionary it was. 19th century American women blew up the European ways of making quilts, dynamited it and started over. Their definition not only included the possibility that every woman could invent her own design, but also the possibility that her design did not have to resemble anything that had come before. 

In the 1970's, by contrast, we all learned that the ONLY thing we should do is to base our quilts on what had come before. There were a few voices in the wilderness crying out that it was not necessary, but for the most part symmetrical, block-style quiltmaking was the only proper and acceptable approach. In order to propagate this idea we had to ignore all those quilts that did not fit in with this idea. And we had to re-conceive of the tradition as one of confinement, not one of glorious freedom. 

So, when I saw one of these beauties a while ago, my mind drifted instantly to all those images and designs I have  floating around in my mind's eye without any way to transcribe them. Now I have a way. Now I can put up and shut up. I can stop complaining about the feather and scrolly designs so ubiquitous in the quilt world and actually produce some alternatives. 

We'll see how it works out. For now I had better just get to work and learn this technology. I can't wait.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Quilt Retreat This Fall

Last year I met a woman named Patricia Belyea who not only makes quilts, but also imports yukata cloth--the stuff for making kimono--from Japan. That is all well and good. But when I learned that in her previous life she had been in the world of design and marketing, I suggested we talk about co-hosting a quilt retreat. Bingo! Just like that we were flying down the runway toward this fall's destination.

It is going to be my dream come true: a beautiful lodge on the Hood Canal, a couple hours outside of Seattle, which we will have the full use of so we can stay up as late as we want and sew, visit or talk. The place has fantastic food. I will be able to put up a frame so I can have a hand quilting project going, and can teach people how to quilt. AND I get to teach anything I want. I will be teaching classes specially made for the retreat, showing quilters where I get my ideas, how I develop them, how I approach the process. Patricia will be bringing lots of yukata cloth and will have a chance to give us a thorough introduction to it. I will be performing my 12-year-old musical quilt show, Joe the Quilter, one last time before I retire it for good. The whole thing will be fun, relaxing and energizing all at once.

We have a few more spaces to fill in the retreat, so we have decided that now is the time to have a summer special price: $995.00, which includes 5 nights and four days of lodging, with evening events, classes all day, and the thing I am really looking forward to: having someone else cook all the meals.

All the information is here:

I am looking forward to teaching at my first retreat in 20 years. I hope to see you there.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Don't Give Up

I teach a lot of workshops, and in many of them we make blocks which all need to be arranged at the end of the day. Sometimes the quilter will come to me in frustration  and say, "My blocks aren't working!  It's just not going to work." In one of these situations recently I found myself explaining yet again, " Your blocks are fine! All you have to do is stick with them...keep working with them, don't just give up." Don't give up on your project, I always say, because there will come a point in it where your insecurity will bloom and convince you that what you are doing is no good. You just have to work through that, until you get to the point where you see the sort of secret language your project has and learn to speak it.

That is where I ended up with this one, and had to listen to my own advice. My idea was to create a gaudy, strange background for a portrait, then to see if the portrait could overcome its background. The way I made it I ended up with bias edges all around the outside, which caused a lot of trouble. Then, when I was sewing down the bias tape like crazy all around the inside, I seemed to be gathering the fabric a lot, causing lots of fullness and distortion throughout. Oy.

I just wanted to quit and start a new quilt. This is something I rarely do. I usually have to work from beginning to end on a single quilt. So, just as I was starting to pull this off my design wall, I heard my own words ringing in my ear: "Don't give up...stick with it!" That was when I realized I had to see it all the way through.

Alright, then, I thought, lets take these problems one at a time. First, I had to lose all the wavy bias edges that were unfixable. But that would make it too small for my taste. Ah ha! A frame! I could add a frame to replace the outer 6 inches I removed. Since I am making a sort of parody of a Roy Lichtenstein  painting, a frame would fit right in with my intent. It had been so long since I added a border like this that I got heavily into it, the careful measuring, the mitering and all. The more I worked, the more I saw how I could believe in it, how to let it speak its own language.

Sometimes, I do have to let a project go...have to abandon something I can no longer believe in. But that is rare. Mostly I end up like this, needing only to work through the moment when my insecurity takes over and tells me I might as well quit.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Finding a Studio Space

Every few years I have had to find a new studio space in San Francisco. It could be worse, but given the latest real estate boom, cheap space is just unavailable around here. I end up hunting and pulling strings and seeking the best possible deal.The best possible deal often ends up being something provisional and, eventually, something that disappears. So I am on the hunt again.

This time, however, I would love to find a place where it is not provisional and where I could settle in for a long time. The good thing about moving is the inevitable purge that goes along with leaving a place. I am not a hoarder, but I cannot walk past a handmade textile. So I end up with random unfinished embroideries form Nepal, mostly worn out quilts from India, Mexican weavings still on the frame, acrylic yarn needlepoint from 1972, all kinds of afghans and quilt tops. I end up with odd lots of thread and floss, funny books on creativity, bias tape by the bushel and fabric that goes into my "unsuitable but cool" pile. When I am faced with the idea of putting all these in boxes and carrying them down five flights of steps and up three more, the idea of finding the stuff a new home becomes highly appealing. 

The bad thing about moving is the disruption in my work. I have been on the road for a couple of months, and now I do not want to start a new project until I get moved. 

Oh well. I have loved my current studio, and every day there has been a gift. So I am going to try to relax and hope for the best here. The picture above is one possibility, and it is closer to my home than my current space. 

My wife has pointed out that each new studio brings big changes to my work. I wonder what changes the next one will bring?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Craftsy Class

Having successfully avoided all kinds of new technologies, new social thingamabobs and that sort of malarky, I finally gave in to the peer pressure from all the quilt teachers I know and signed up to do a Craftsy class, or project, or series. A show. What I found was that those Craftsy people are very smart and I would not be surprised if they ended up doing something really great, like taking over Detroit and fixing its finances.

Anyway, they treated me like my last name was Presley. And they let me teach the class I wanted to teach in my own way, on my own terms. It was a lot of fun, a lot of work and a lot to learn before ther launch date, which is TOMORROW!! Oy. So I am doing my homework, trying to learn how to interact with students online, how to check in every morning.

The class is called Pattern-free Quiltmaking, and it is exactly that: how to make a quilt without pattern pieces, but with different processes that  give you controllable, unique results. This is the kind of thing I do all the time. When I decide to strew a bunch of black bias "sticks" across a white field, I am using a process, a one-step process. Each invdividual stick copntributes to the whole, but each individual stick can be applied as I wish, spontaneously. I have made a lot of quilts like this, where I just dop the same thing over and over until I decide the quilt is done. Incredibly, Craftsy let me teach this.

They have a great online platform that lets you ask questions of the teacher, post pics and talk to other students about what you are doing. I am curious to hear what you think of the program and of the company. If you are reading this May 20-30, you can enter the contest to win a free class, right here

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Life On The Road

I left San Francisco for three weeks in April for various work dates, from Gees Bend to Atlanta to Sarasota and Denver, stayed home for a week or so, then headed out for my East Coast tour May 1. Since May 1 I have been talking and teaching and meeting with people almost non-stop, and have now passed the midpoint of this three-week trip. It has been a ball, it has been intense, and it has been  a lot of driving, but it has never been boring.

Why, just the salad oil stains I have managed to inflict on three of my new shirts have been exciting, especially when I tried to wash them off during a lecture. When I had back to back video shoots for PBS and Craftsy in my schedule, my wife took me to Nordstrom's and helped me pick out five new shirts, which I have worn every day for six weeks now, cycling through them so as to keep each one as fresh as possible. Finally in Brooklyn this week I took them all to a shirt laundry and had them cleaned, so I would look and feel fresh for the rest of my trip. The next night I went to dinner with guild members before my lecture and dripped salad dressing down the front of the first one. Perfect! A big stain on my shirt for my lecture! The following evening I went to dinner in clean shirt number two and slathered some nice balsamic vinaigrette down the front. The next morning I donned shirt number three, just in time to have a little something squirt out of my ham and cheese croissant, DOWN THE FRONT.

At the next lecture I hustled into the kitchen of the community center, squirted some dish soap onto a sponge and tried to scrub and rinse all three.  This, of course, was in a large room full of women, who all had advice for me: "Use shampoo!", "Hang them outside and they will dry by the time you are done." Indeed, they were--dry enough to see the water stains where I had not rinsed properly.

Oh boy, was I careful with that caesar salad tonight. I'm sure my dinner companions wondered why I was holding the fork by the very end, leaning over my plate and carefully inserting each forkful in my mouth.

I brought more books than I could ever possibly sell, and ran out on lecture number two. Now all the quilters are mad at me for having no books.

Today is not only Mother's Day, but also the day before my 18th anniversary. "You are going to be gone Mother's Day AND our anniversary?" my wife inquired at one point. I could see something behind her eyes that looked like...I am not sure what. Seemed like math of some sort.

Fortunately, meeting new quilters, seeing the personality of each new guild, teaching classes that get people to do things they never thought they could do--it is all fun. One more week til I fly home, and this time get to stay there for a while. Maybe I will get to make a new quilt this year yet.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Yarn Bombers in the Museum

Yarn Bombers in the Museum

I finished my week long video shoot in Denver earl;hy afternoon Friday, so that gave me a while to walk around downtown and to check out the Museum of Contemporary Art. In the entryway to the museum were a few pieces by a local bunch of needlework activists and yarn bombers who had made these enormous banners.

Conceptually, I love yarn bombing, the gratuitous adding of knitted stuff to things in the public sphere. Years ago I noticed the mailbox outside my studio had grown knitted feet overnight. Then the bike rack acquired knitted sleeves. Since then, of course, yarn bombing has gone much more mainstream and gained tremendous online visibility. Here are a couple of my favorite installations:
The Wall Street Bull got it:

and here are a few pics, including a tree and a motorcycle

Like I said, I am completely in favor of this idea. Anything anyone can do for free to beautify the world, even briefly, is something I like. If the results are not always so artful, that's alright with me too. These banners, for instance, are more interesting to me for the fact that they were commissioned by the museum than for what they look like. To me, they don't really add up to anything visually, even with the limited palette and techniques.

But the idea that museums now are catching on to the action in the streets on such a shortened timeline, is fascinating. That is, it used to take a long time for the conservative institutions like museums to catch on to the trends and directions that the public had long since embraced. It can happen much quicker now.

I loved the Denver MCA and its beautiful building. I enjoyed one show there very much, and I found little to like in another show. But the main thing, for me, was how exciting and open an institution it seemed to be.

Now that yarn bombers have hit the museum we might see less of their work on the street. But I doubt it. Knitting, no matter how cutting edge and artful, is like quilting: a traditional craft practiced by women to make gifts for loved ones. It is difficult to assign monetary value to it. So the yarn bombers will probably continue to embrace the freedom that comes along with anonymity and knit all kinds of amusing and free public works. I am grateful.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The F Bomb Quilt at Quiltcon

On facebook yesterday was a picture of a quilt at Quiltcon, the huge new Modern Quilt Guild show in Austin. The quilt is a sampler made of blocks sent in from people all over to a professor who thought  we should be able to use the full range of the English language in crafts. All blocks have the well-known old English word commonly used to describe sexual intercourse, and also used as an intensifying modifier in all sorts of settings. Like most samplers, it succeeds as an art work only up to a point.  That is, it is just a collection of blocks, not a graphically organized and coherent visual statement. But it is so arresting an image that it packs a whollop.

The fact that the quilt is being shown in a quilt show adds all kinds of sizzle to the statement. People do not expect to see any kind of rawness at a quilt show. The world of quilts is one of earnest, sincere and nice expressions of generally positive emotions. It has long bothered me that our range of expression in quilts is so limited. Nearly all the prize winning quilts at national shows are symmetrical, decorative, frilly. Which is fine, but I can't help being attracted to the older quilts from our tradition that would have no chance in this context--wild, asymmetrical, sometimes crude and and raw. 

So we have this tradition from which we have selected a small slice to emulate. We ignore the rest, and then we are shocked when someone shows up with a quilt from the real world. I do not think it helps us to be afraid of language, afraid of craziness, afraid of the world outside the lovely quilt world. 

The quilt in question, which can be seen here, along with an explanation by its creator,

would not get a second glance if it were adorned with another word. The quilting is a loopy pantograph that makes it look like a mattress pad. What I thought when I saw it was that it was a pale imitation of the first really shocking quilt I saw at a show in the early 1980's. The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue, a sampler of blocks depicting Sunbonnet Sue committing suicide in imaginative ways, was shocking to an older generation of quilters who revered the Sunbonnet Sue blocks popular in the 1930's. The quilt was made by a group of quilters in Lawrence, Ks, called The Seamsters Union.

The discussion then as now, centered largely on how inappropriate it was to show images one doesn't expect at quilt shows, how disrespectful of the tradition it was. I didn't see it that way 30 years ago, and I don't see it that way now. I think we can respect and love the tradition and enjoy its full range of messages, not just the light and easy ones. We do not have to be afraid. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Frame Up

Quilt In the Frame
I haven't had a quilt in the frame for a couple of years, and I miss it. So when I started to think about what to do with this quilt top, I thought maybe it would be a perfect candidate for hand quilting. Since it is made of denim, I thought I would use the Gees Bend style of quilting, done with regular thread on a large, size 5, Between quilting needle. I get mine from Colonial. 

Of course the minute I decided to spend some time sitting quietly at the frame my activity chart went crazy...that is, my email started filling up with urgent and cool things I needed to do. I got a contract from Craftsy for a series on my piecing workshops. I got an offer to be on QNN for my computerized machine quilting stuff. And a couple of nights ago I heard from Handi Quilter that I will be getting my own computerized machine pronto. So I have to finish this in a hurry to make room for it. 

One of the great joys of my life has been to be able to work along in my studio while listening to music. I have a lot of musical friends, so I often have discs by them to listen to, but the world of music is so vast that I can hear pretty much anything anytime. I can start out in the morning with a Skip James album and wind through a Bartok piece, Philip Glass, Dr Dog, Jack White, Duke Ellington, Tennessee Ernie Ford and etc.  

At the moment, however, I have so much prep work for the video shoots, so much I need to get done besides getting this quilt  done that I have been sitting there most days in silence. Just working along with my hands while my mind wanders over the coming tasks and sorts them all out. It is a marvelous fact of hand quilting that it is so easy it barely requires any thought at all. And it occupies that part of your brain that needs to be judgmental, that needs to line things up, that criticizes your every thought. This means that the rest of your mind is free to be creative, to float for hours through problems, challenges, strings of thought that you would not ordinarily have time or peace to follow. 

So I have needed to silence. And I have started to feel like silence is the real luxury of my life. To have silence in our world is something rare and something we usually avoid by staying plugged in to all the forms of input we can stand. The news. Music. Facebook. TV on all the time. It's a joy and a luxury to sit quietly and work. All I hear is the birds outside my window, the wind, occasional traffic sounds. 

So while I will be going back to the computerized machine work soon, I have to figure out a way to balance it out with the hand work. They go together nicely.