Thursday, September 22, 2016

the art of abstracting......what is it? why is it? What do you see?

One of my many York quilts...

Many, many years ago I was employed as a  librarian at Rowntrees chocolate factory in York, England.
The Rowntrees were Quakers who believed in helping their workers in many ways....they built a theatre, a swimming pool, a whole village.  They also had two libraries in the factory  - a wonderful old Victorian building stretch for about a half mile. 
I worked in both the Lending library which had many books for all the factory employees to borrow, and in the technical library where we scanned all the daily newspapers, magazines, journals etc for articles relating to any aspect of the chocolate industry.  My job was to write the "abstracts" - yes, now we come to the point of  this post!!  I had to read the article and then note the key points, the most outstanding and important ones, that captured the essence of the piece in a very short paragraph.
And isn't that exactly what the abstract artist does? and why do they abstract?

Dark City

As artists we're all trying to communicate, but we want to communicated something new, fresh,  a diferent take on things...I think that's one of the (many) reasons abstract art became so popular. It was and is different , it's new, it gives us ways to  look at things  that havn't been done before....and that's very attractive.  You've all heard the cliche "same old same old"..usually intoned in a very boring manner!!  Well who want to makes boring art?   As I looked around a small art show yesterday, I felt I had seen every image before, everything looked So stale.
I also noticed perfectly awkward (now there's a nice oxymoron for you!) compositions that just screamed at me!! well I suppose that was a striking experience - but not one I wanted!   The colors also looked stale and flat...low saturation colors placed in low contrast situations are not going to look new and fresh.

When I got home I started reading the latest issue of International Artist and noticed that looking at really good art helps both to inspire and inform.  The paintings were of the same subjects I'd seen in the local art show, but they were alive and fresh.  One of the artists described how he had begun to feel that his work was getting stale and so he had pushed himself to seek new inspiration.  Now he did it by travel, which not all of us can do in actuality, but we do it with books and the internet, by studying different kinds of art. 

 Look at good abstract art and be inspired by it!  Try to figure out how it works.  You want to learn how to compose well and satisfyingly?   Then, learn from the best.  Art that has stood the test of time - it's now well over hundred years since abstract art (as art) began to be produced...there's a lot to learn from!

And, if you should be interested, I am starting a new class called More Abstract Art for Quiltmakers
this Friday at   
Take a look at your own work, or the work of other local art lovers, does it really catch your eye and give you a frisson of both awe and recognition?  Or is it stale and ho-hum?   And what is the difference?  What are the differences between the two kinds of art?  Can you work it out?  Can you apply it?  It's not just technique, though of course that is's also being creative, being original, being prepared to try out new things, even though many will not work.  Don't give yourself excuses!!  Time (alas!) is short!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading......
and do please comment - what do you see as you look around at the art world around you?


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Three roads to better work...

photo by Chuck Murphy

 Before I  begin on practicing....just in case you want to know! ...the photo is from our local OLLI  (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute)  office where those of us who practice art were asked to display our you can see I've definitely diversified a bit!  There are two quilts, four watercolors and one acrylic, to say nothing of a printer and a card file!  The quilt on the left is "Bluebeard's Castle"  from my Hamilton, ON, steel mill series (by way of Bartok - he chose the colors!).  The quilt in the middle is one of a series I've done of Athens, GA - a college town in the SE of USA.   The  right hand watercolors are both of the pond in the neighbourhood, a nice morning walk while I ponder upon the day's practice....
have no idea how that Yorkie on the left crept in...must have been having a whimsical moment!

Anyway, to the topic of the day:
I've been reading a lot of books and articles about practicing...these are mainly focused on athletic activities like golf or music, but I think much of what I read also pertains to art.

Let's face it: whatever IT is, you don't get better without practicing.  Of course your goal might not BE to get better...but I think for most of us (and definitely everyone reading this blog!) improvement in our art making is a major goal.

If you were to die tomorrow, would you rather leave behind you 200 hohum quilts, or 10 brilliant ones?  Think about it.....
And yet how often do we push ourselves to make something that we've not really thought about very much,?    Halfway through we become aware of its mediocrity but still we feel we MUST finish it.
I used to have this very foolish goal of making more work every year than the preceding year....but finally (and hopefully not too late!) have come to realise it's not quantity but quality.

And how do we achieve whatever it is we do??  I would say three  things:

1.  Time ...putting in at least an hour a day, but four hours would yield much more  progress.  give yourself time and don't resent it, enjoy it! It is very very good for you, and should be a high priority - don't allow excuses!
Getting enough time..may involve saying NO......(thank you, Sharon, for this suggestion) practice  saying:  "I'm awfully sorry...but".    

Practicing is  very calming....don't be thinking about finishing the product in time for the guild meeting  or to enter a quilt show, rather, enjoy the process, enjoy the flow...the lovely rhythms of cutting out the pieces, laying out a design, so satisfying.  And then gently one by one picking up two patches ambling to the sewing machine, sewing them together...then a slow saunter to the ironing board where everything is made smooth and lovely....and the pair now united join the rest of the arrangement!  Smooth, flowing, gently breathing like floating down a slow stream, letting your thoughts drift and your body relax....
Sounds good doesn't it????  Not:  Make Quilts Fast!  A Faster Quicker Way to Make That Quilt!
Short and Easy!  Notice how hard those words wonder we often feel in a frenzy!!

Do, please, give yourself time. Enjoy the practicing....

2. Thoughtful practice as opposed to mindless making.  You get nowhere learning a Chopin waltz while planning what to cook for dinner - believe me I've tried it!!  And creating a strong design for an art quilt whilst watching soaps on telly??? !! Research has shown over and over that we actually can't do two things at the same time...multi tasking isn't that, the brain is rapidly switching from one thing to another - fine if all you need is seconds on the task....but creative work needs more than seconds.
Think it through before you begin...what is your aim?  what is your process?

3.  Objective assessment - which could be lessons, or coaching, or critiquing.
We all need that objective help.
I'm still continually seeing work into which the artist has put a tremendous amount of time, but to the objective eye the arrangement of shapes is boring and predictable, the colors garish and often childishly literal: e.g. bright blue sky, bright green leaves on trees with solid brown trunks, bright blue know the sort of thing.  No coherent message, no real involvement with the topic, no fresh outlook........but hours and hours spent on fancy quilting!

Even advanced musicians get lessons and certainly beginner and intermediate ones do;
the athlete gets a coach, and probably a trainer too.
 Quilters might take a one day workshop where the teacher demonstrates a new technique....which is fun...but it doesn't help you move forward with your own work.

So, if you really want to improve....please think on!
and if you have been, thanks for reading.....
also: would you add anything to the above list in the search for improvement?  What has helped you the most to go to a higher level?  Comments! please.....


Monday, August 29, 2016

Working in Series....

I have a Working in Series class coming up with The Academy of Quilting  
and it lead me  to think about my own series that I've worked on over the years.
I've made an awful lot of quilts!!!  Thank goodness many have left home, otherwise, I'd have to move out for lack of space for myself.

It just seemed natural to me to work in series from the start...I think it's because I didn't have access to a lot of really fun workshops (time, geography, money, kids etc)....and I've always made quilts about my own life.

My first series was about Windows...coming from a dark Northern city, windows were always an important feature of a room.  In our old Victorian house in York the upstairs bedrooms had only skylights, but you could stand on a stool and stick your head out of the roof (literally!) and look all round.  I like the idea that the window frames the view...and when there's a slight breeze it's like this lovely little movie going on outside the window...leaves tossing up and down, shadows and shades...

BUT I also liked it when you walk around at night - in a city - and there are all these little vignettes of indoor life, especially interesting when seen from a train!  Reminds me  of the film "Rear Window"!!

so my first series was Windows, here's a typical example:

After I'd made about a dozen or so like this I began to put the windows into buildings:

I made rows of different kinds of windows and stacked them up together...I'd seen a building like this in my home town and thought it worked just fine!  also a lot more interesting to do than making the same window over and over...

Well then I thought about the night time windows I'd seen and did a series like that:

all the windows lit up at night and all sorts of  things going on inside!!!!

Gradually the building became more complicated and there were more of them:

and I was really getting into the idea more of a city, than individual windows...and in fact entitled a series of about ten quilts, each 60" x 60" Idea of a City.   Above is just one of them.

Well, then I started thinking about how many of the old building in my home town (York, UK) had t exterior many of these buildings are painted bright white and the old beams are quite black...creating elegant and intriguing black/white patterns:

so now those windows are almost becoming like woodcuts.... and very abstract..

while colour is very very seductive and I dearly love RED, you must admit that black and white is totally gorgeous!!  so clean, so bold, so I did a lot of black and white pieces.....

but then .....the Red really pulled me in...and I just (well!) saw Red!  I was involved in a series of very frustrating and tedious and argumentative meetings at work and seeing red was definitely the Emotion of the I got into the habit of going to the meetings with a bag full of red scraps....

What a great way to cope with hours of people yelling at each other! and me calmly stitching away on RED........

but when things calmed down I was still with the old houses and streets:

And then I read about the drowned cities....when Old Ma Nature really thinks we humans have totally screwed it up...(according to the old folk tales..) ....the cities get drowned...

and so began my Drowned City series...and that was a lot of fun...basically I'd taken a new surface design technique - arashi shibori ( a kind of tie-dye) and applied it to my city series....

And I did a LOT of those...maybe 20 or so...before I began to be intrigued by other kinds of buildings...industrial buildings have a lot of different shapes that you'd never see on a domestic building and that got me into a series of quilts about industrial buildings.
Here is a typical example:

Note - I'm back into black and white!!!

However where I live now there arn't cities or industrial building, there's a pond - and that's what I see every morning:

One of the reasons we came  to America was all the beautiful space there is here! now I'm enjoying creating a series of almost abstract quilts about the space and openness that I love....

I think  Working in a Series (and I've written a book about it) is a great way to further your talents and career as an artist, but it's also a lovely way to really explore something close to your heart.

Love the comments!!!  Do keep on making them.....
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

Monday, August 22, 2016

Spending money...

I used to think the best thing to spend money on was something that you could keep, hold in your hot little hand...and take with you always...something tangible.
But then you end up with a house full of STUFF!!

Lately however I've been reading and thinking (as usual!!) lots of cogitation goes on around here...
One of the books I've just read is The Practicing Mind
by Sterner and while (as with any so called self help book), there's a lot of padding and iteration of things we already know but havn't paid much mind to...reading these afresh does bring them to the forefront. 

Sterner reminds us of just  a few important things - but they are well worthwhile spending a little time considering. 

In the last chapter (of this very short book!), he talks abou the importance of spending time, effort and money on developing your skills and your knowledge rather than getting a bigger car, a fancier kitchen, another gadget for the studio, a newer and better sewing machine.  Improve yourself rather than your sewing room.

We are lucky in that the tools of our trade are really quite few and can be very simple - we don't need more in the way of objects.  We really don't need as much space, even though I do envy those gorgeous studios that people have!!  Slavering over the wooden floors, the space, the long moveable design walls, the lighting, the separate areas for cutting and sewing, the floor to ceiling windows looking out over the lake - well you get the picture!!  Oh yes and the infinity pool!!  And perhaps a grand piano seen through a doorway at the end of  the studio into the main house..but ...BUT....those are objects, surroundings, they are not  you.  They actually don't benefit you one iota, they don't help you to grow as an artist or a person.

Looking back over your artistic life, is it the acquisition of particular objects that really made a difference to your progress?  That stand out in your memory?
" Thank goodness I got the Super Swifty Nobble Bong!  it enabled me to finally get into that amazing Quilt Show! "
Or rather was it learning something new and then practicing it and developing your skills?
Getting to observe yourself in action as an artist, taking your time, bringing your feelings and abilities to the practice of your art (whatever medium) is so much more rewarding  than those rows of objects.
Take your time each day to enjoy what you know, what you can do...minute by minute, enjoy the practice.  And if you want to spend money, spend it directly on improving yourself, not your equipment, developing your knowledge and your ability to put it into practice.   The best sewing machine in the world in the most glorious studio will not help you to move forward so much as putting your own time, effort, practice and thought  into your work and yourself.

If you have been, thanks for reading!  Comments...please!!!    Elizabeth

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Perfection: don't play it safe!!

It seems to me that one of the problems with traditional quilting - as it's taught - is perfection.  For perfection is boring!  I remember as a sickly kid,  I had every sympathy with Colin (in one of my favorite childhood books: The Secret Garden) lying in bed and desperate for something to think about!  I examined every inch of the wallpaper - a repeated pattern of flower baskets, there were hundreds of the damned things! I was desperately looking for the one that was different.  Had I known the Oscar Wilde quote: "either that wallpaper goes, or I do"  (supposedly his last words - the wallpaper won!), I'm sure I would have shouted them out!  (hopefully not with the same result!) Not because I hated baskets of flowers, but because they were all exactly the same.

But, in real life, perfection is unnatural......  an illusion.

If you think about music, or painting or writing, or a flower garden - to be rigidly perfect, technically perfect, is deadly.  DEADly!  As Sara Solovitch wrote in her book, Playing Scared, the viewer or the listener "craves excitement and discovery".  Solovitch considers that it's our faults and mistakes that provide guideposts to higher capabilities.

Sports psychologist Don Greene says "People want to hear (see, feel) excitement.  They want to hear energy.  When you play it safe, when every detail is perfect, chances are it isn't exciting.  it's like a tennis player who makes every serve.  They're not playing at the edge of  their capabilities.  Until they start faulting, they don't know how much range they have for faster serves".

In quilt design, it's very important to take risks, push your selves to and even over the edge.  What's to lose?  A bit of paper, a few minutes sketching with a pencil?   Do lots and lots  of sketches and drawings in the hope that a few will have something new, fresh and exciting.  Sketching out ideas with a pencil is not the time for a lot of criticism and negative self talk..  This is the situation where the "throw fabric at the wall and see what sticks " (and here I quote from any number of people...these are not my words) is EXACTLY what you should be doing - only I suggest for speed and economy of fabric - and also for focusing on lines, shapes and values rather than texture or color, that you do this with pencil and paper...or a brush dipped in black ink and paper...whatever your sketching tools of choice.

And now I need to convince my piano teacher too that perfection is an undesirable illusion!
If you have been, thanks for reading.....and thank you so much for your comments!!   Elizabeth

Thursday, August 4, 2016


I'm fascinated by the parallels between improvisation in different mediums.

Remember, improv is not random and I'm not writing about the "cut out pieces of fabric, throw them at the design wall and see what sticks" school of  socalled improv.   Or even the "put one interesting shape up and then let it tell you what it needs" idea.  My thrown fabric never seems to stick to the wall in very interesting ways at all...usually just sort of droops and sadly falls off with a sigh.....even if I do get something sewn together its thoughtless origins are far too evident!
And I've never had a piece of fabric "talk to me".  Even though I've heard both painters and writers say "oh the characters/painting takes over and tells me what to do", I've never had orders from my quilts....even for a nice cuppa tea! Or a gin and tonic, come to very interesting though if  they did!!  Might cheer them up a bit!

No, real improv is not like that at all.  In fact it probably began seriously in classical music times. In the 17th and 18th centuries  musicians were  expected to be able to take a simple theme and then, off the top of their heads (and years of vast experience with harmony, counterpoint and so on) develop that theme in many different ways.

In a article  in Clavier Companion  (a magazine for music teachers), about improvisation in playing the blues, the music writer Bradley Sowash describes how first of all you take a simple melody and add in the "blue" notes  (generally speaking a note that is unexpectedly flat, a minor instead of a major interval).  You accompany, or back, that melodywith any one of several sequences of related chords  (as in the "Blues Box - the numbers relate to specific chords in the key (or colors!) you are working in) for the accompaniment (or background).
First you play it straight....then you vary it.

So that we can see, that he's suggesting simple variations on both the foreground (melody) or subject of the piece:  do it straight, do it backwards, turn it inside out...and at the same time the background can vary too.
Composers like Bach and Beethoven and Mozart of course would be very familiar with this - though probably without the unexpected "blue" notes!!  They could take the  same subject and create 20 or 30 variations on it: straight forward, then perhaps a different key (color), or a different pitch (size), then backwards, inside out, upside down, with ornaments, with different ornaments, spaced out with something in between etc etc .

Now with quilts, one can carry out such improvisations  within one piece - like in this quilt I made many years ago:

Warm Light
So I've used the same simple "melody" - double rectangle with a cross piece - over and over....but the repeats vary in size, in color, the inner cross piece is at different heights and angles, some of the sides lean a bit more than others etc etc...

Or you can create a series of quilts changing the "melody" (your subject) in many ways, but making sure the whole series hangs together. 
(And, by the way, I've a new class starting Sept 2 at
 entitled Working In Series that describes just why and how you can do this.)

To improvise with fabric:  you set up your basic parameters, you decide on the background "chords" ( size of quilt, type of background piecing etc), you pick your subject and then consider all the possible ways you can change it.   You are freewheeling in a sense, but within fairly strict limits.

 Why strict limits?  why not just hit the piano keys at random?  or cut and place the patches of fabric at random?  Firstly, the individual  pieces would have no cohesiveness, no clear structure, no unity - it would be merely a collection of notes, or objects!   I did once write a blog about the  ugliest piano piece in the world -  a computer generated "composition" that uses all 88 notes on the piano - just once!  and it sounds bizarre, disconnected, awkward and is very hard to listen to!  You don't what to make quilts like that!

Secondly, if it were several quilts, all unrelated, it would simply not be a series!    

Well, after a nice cuppa tea, I'd best get back to my notes!
If you have been, thanks for reading...
Do email me (there's a link up on the side bar) if you have any questions...or write a comment!  I love comments...              Elizabeth

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Photo Licensing

Sunset at Harbor Island, SC

  We are all so careful these days about using photographs (the above photo is one of mine and you are welcome to use it!  no bill will arrive from me!) from the internet and I know several people who have been threatened by photograph agencies and billed significant amounts of money even though their use of the photograph was educational only.

Therefore it was with great interest I read an article on the website  (lots of interesting articles about art), about  Carol  Highsmith, the famous photographer who over time has donated nearly 19,000 thousand photographs to the Library of Congress for use by the general public at no charge.  This has been her life's work.

Highsmith only discovered that a certain agency had taken the photographs from this source, added their own watermark and sold them, when she herself received one of their threatening bills for its use!  And she is not the only one,  2013, Daniel Morel was awarded $1.2 million, after the agency pulled his photos from Twitter and distributed them without permission to several major publications.
The agency was trying to charge the photographer a large fee, a very large fee, for the use of their own photographs, photographs they had donated to the public domain!

In the comments in this article, it was evident that several people had paid the agency in questions large sums of money, having been totally mislead by them as to who had the ownership and copyright of the image.  The agency affixed its own watermark AND frequently did not attribute the photographer with the credit.  Quite likely they have already snitched my sunset, and soon I'll be getting a bill for using it!!

Let's hope that Highsmith wins her billion dollar lawsuit against them for doing this, but my guess is that these agencies will simply consider this "the price of doing business".     Clearly - there will be more....and the old saw "the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour" is certainly going to be proven true yet again.  However, it is good to know that sometimes the artist comes out on top!

If you have been, thanks for reading!   All comments strongly welcomed by the way!! Have at it!