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.