Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Quilts finished for FOQ

This is the one I struggled to finish - not the best shot.  It's the quilting that took the time.  Made of layered scrim over yellow-green satin (hand-dyed) for the big fern and grey silk overlaid with dyed silk organza for the dark fossil-ferns.  I ended up liking the back more than the front, but there you go...
The title is Survival of the Fittest as for me ferns are a potent symbol of survival and renewal (and they are actually great survivors - having been around since the Jurassic era, though the ones in my garden are mere youngsters, having only been around for a hundred years or so.

Next is another fern one - made near the end of 2009, a sort of companion piece to the quilt chosen for Contemporary Quilt's Breakthrough exhibition, which will also feature at Festival of Quilts:

This one's called Nature's Blueprints - with Improvisations and attempts to celebrate the ways in which ferns are not - as many people think - fractals but in fact vary greatly from one frond to the next;  this capacity for improvisation is a key factor in their success.

The final quilt of the three (photographed in the car on the way to the P.O. is a double-sided miniatureusing hand-dyed silk organzas and nets over silk-painted pelmet vilene (the shadowy trees in the background deliberately show through from the other side).  Unfortunately this had to be finished off rather hurriedly and some of the stitching has suffered as a result (quilting layers of sheers, especially silk nets, is not the easiest job in the world).  A pretty piece rather than anything very special but I actually manage to like this one!  The trees are drawn from real ones in Wytham Woods, the title is Wildwood - Spring and Autumn and the label is pinned on so it can be easily removed - I understand this will be done before it is shown to the public (I hope)

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

bad blogger posts again - art and function, family and influences

First apologies for not posting for such a long time - I've been stitching for Festival of Quilts, decluttering the house, trying to tame the garden and - as a result of the decluttering and the tenth anniversary of my husband's death - reliving bits of the past both bad and good...

So it's been time for reviewing what's happened so far - not a bad thing to do once in a while.  Coincidentally, one of the recent discussions in the Contemporary Quilt Yahoo group had me putting together a lot of the pieces this morning.  The discussion was sparked by a comment from Helen Conway, a member of the Twelve by Twelve group, during an interview about their work, in which she talks about having to overcome the feeling that creating something not strictly functional was somehow "self-indulgent and wasteful."  This led to a lively discussion, which I am responding to here, about how and whether people feel guilt about what they do and the time and money spent on it, and how they overcome that guilt.

My mother grew up in a Welsh mining village, Maesteg, where there was a strong Protestant tradition, with astrong streak of puritanism woven into it.  Everone in the family was expected to subscribe to the idea that you were supposed to work hard for what you got.  And when times were hard the women made sure they looked after the men's and children's needs before their own, often going without themselves.  However, bound up with this was the idea that when work was finished you were allowed to enjoy yourself - hence the rugger, boxing, singing, picnics, walks in the country, decorative crafts, reading for pleasure and so on that also made up their lives.  As far as I know no-one felt guilty about enjoying what little leisure time they had.

My mother photographed here shortly before she died

continued this tradition, but with some variations.  When not at work (she worked part-time) she and my grandmother, who lived with us, had the housework done by lunchtime.  Depending on the wather, the afternoons (which I remember as wonerful times) were spent going for walks, reading, gardening or doing other enjoyable things (though I did not inherit the green fingers); and I grew up believing that this time was something you were entitled to.  I am heartily grateful for that: such a belief has stood me in good stead. 

My mother also believed, along with my grandmother, in beautifying the house.  (I just typed beatifying which would work just as well).  Every so often we would arrive home from school to discover total chaos for a couple of days as one or other os the rooms was redecorated.  Usually to very good effect - much of my colour sense I learnt from my mother.  And the same attitude went for clothes: we couldn't afford much and day-to-day clothes were often hand-me-downs from better-off members of the family, but best clothes were always the best that could be afforded (though a good suit - usually called a "costume" in those days - would have to last a long time) and looking positively stunning in them was a definite plus and definitely not something to feel guilty about (I could never understand the streak of puritanism that dictated that everything had to be ugly).

As far as stitching and artmaking goes I was lucky enough to learn that that was guilt-free too.  My mother knitted and embroidered - often what she made could put to practical use but it was far more than that - she knitted complicated fairisles and lacy things that wen well beyond practical, and as the embroidered items were never actually used they cannot be said to have been purely functional by any stretch of the imagination.
And she also encouraged me to paint (largely I think because it gave her a chance to paint herself) and drew the most amazing cartoon characters.  As I grew older she was proud of my ability to use a brush and a needle - though when it came to career choices the protestant ethic won out and I never got to go to art school: university plus teaching gave far better options for making a living.

And for myself what impact has it had on me?  Well, as a student I had no remorse about wasting anything except food (and the idea it was sinful to waste unless it could be avoided has stuck with me - from time to time I have to clear out the unidentifiable objects from my freezer - it's OK to waste them if you can't remember what they were or when).  I wasted time and money with enormous enthusiasm - though I did have one term where I had to dig myself out of an enormous hole, and managed to do so.  Once I started work and got married though I suddenly reverted to type: my husband at one point had to persuade me that I should spend money on clothes for myself, and it took a few more years before I could persuade myself that I should spend money on other things I wanted...

My husband was an enormous influence on me:  he never considered time or money creating stuff as in any way wasteful.  To him it was a positive.  Here we are in our youth, together but in separate photographs (note the matching M&S jumpers - sweet eh?):

Perhaps the fact that he was a painter (oil and acrylics rather than gloss and emulsion) had something to do with it.  Also he did regard what he did that he wasn't being paid for as more important than his paid work (which consisted of work supplied by an agency which consisted of things like paintings of racehorse, portraits from photographs and so on - including some rather unusual ones like the thirteen head and shoulders drawings of Edward Heath which is probably now mouldering in a basement somewhere in Conservative Party Central Office - difficult to draw without caricaturing, apparently!).  When I took up quilting he understood and encouraged - visiting exhibitions, offering constructive criticism and sharing my enthusiasm for interesting fabrics.  On the day when he said he could no longer teach me anything about colour I really felt I'd arrived (admittedly up till then his colour advice had usually been "needs some gold" but it is amazing how much a touch of gold, yellow, cream or mustard can do for a quilt or a painting)

But probably the thing that did most to stop me feeling guilty about spending so much on quilting was my health.  I started quilting at a time when I was spending hours and hours on my job (teaching in an inner-city school meant I spent hours on preparation and planning - not being a "tough guy" I had to keep the kids entertained and happy as well as educating them) as well as on union and political activities in my spare time (the protestant work ethic in operation with a vengeance).  I decided to timetable in an evening class to keep myself sane - two hours a week that would be sacrosanct and just for me; the hand-stitching also kept me alert and productive during all the long boring meetings I had to attend.  In a few months I had made my first quilt:

Because I still hung onto the belief that to be any good it had to involve a lot of work I ended up doing an elaborate border pattern (not realising that the unquilted areas would gather up and stick out like  a sore thumb) and this is where the Protestant ethic transformed into a new shape.

But first, the health issue - quilting came in time to preserve my sanity but not my physical health.  I ended up having to retire from teaching with what was then called ME and is now more often called CFS; even the simplest things left me ill and exhausted, and having pinned so much of my sense of worth on doing things, it was terrible no longer being able to do them.  Being unable to knit (my hand-muscles tired too quickly) I turned to hand-stitching, and unable to do that for long I spent longer thinking about and designing what I did.  Being lucky enough to win third prize in the Harrogate show (this is way back in the nineties) for a cot quilt gave me a sense of achievement once again.  As I got better I was able to use the sewing-machine again, and attend a City and Guilds course.  And all this was guilt-free because I felt so good about actually being able to do it, and yes I really got a boost when, a couple of years later I completed my first quilt out of hand-dyed fabrics, to my own design:

This quilt, Caging the Moment, completed in 1996 for an exhibition at Lotherton Hall in Leeds, also won the Quilters Guild cup for use of colour at the Great British Quilt Festival in Harrogate as well as rosettes for bed quilt and use of colour at Quilts UK in 1997-8.

However quilting had still not become guilt-free.  I was now burdened with the need to live up to what I had achieved and felt that I had failed dismally every time I made something which wasn't wonderful (which, of course, was most of the time).  I had merely ditched one set of "ougt-tos" for another set: I ought to spend ages doing it, conforming to the rules of the quilt police, making it as good as possible (and preferably winning awards whixh has only happened one more, in 1998) in order to be a worthwhile person

Between my husband's death ten years ago, which I partially blamed myself for (I should have been able to affect his lifestyle choices and his inability to cope with his own inner demons I felt at the time - as we all do when someone dies) and four years ago I made nothing, the longest I have gone without creating anything in my life.  Recently I have been thinking about that period, feeling I had achieved nothing of note since his death.  The reality of course is different - a close friend presented me with a long list including things like digging myself out of near financial ruin, restoring a house that had begun to fall down around my ears, getting through cancer... 

But I suppose that the thing that I have really learnt in the last few years, since I started stitching and drawing/painting again is that failure has an enormous amount to contribute to success.  And though it sounds cliched, having cancer reminded me I only had one life and I had better make the best of it and avoid as far as possible wasting time in guilt.  Though my work is moving towards becoming more simple, with the design process being more often than not a process of paring down rather than cluttering up, I am still battling with a tendency to want to clutter it up with more than it needs, in attempt to justify its existence by ensuring the production stage is as much hard work as possible.  So I've still got some distance to go.

Bixy the white cat, who is still on a fairly unsuccessful diet, has just come and spoken sharply to me because his food bowl is empty.  Although, unless I have hurt someone or let them down, humans have lost much of their capacity for making me feel guilty, cats are a different matter.  So that's it for now.

Monday, 29 March 2010

V&A Quilts 1700-2010: Part 2 - the stories

Every quilt has a story.  Making a quilt is a meditative process and our thoughts, memories, all the things we experience are stitched into them.  Looking at my quilts instantly brings back events during its making.  Sometimes the fabrics have memories of their own.  But the "hidden histories" and "untold stories" - to quote the subtitle of the V&A exhibition - rarely come to light: usually we keep them to ourselves and do not record them: even present-day artists' statements give only a brief nod to the thoughts and events that went into their making.  And most of those who made the older quilts in the exhibition remain anonymous. 

However, some quilts do come with something of the stories of their makers.  One such is amongst the earliest quilts in the exhibition, a cot-quilt made by Priscilla Redding at the end of the seventeenth century.

We know something of the turbulent events of her and her family's life because she also left behind a diary which tells amongst other things of her father's persecution for his beliefs, and the death of one of her children.

The George III Coverlet (image in previous post) contains a series of applique panels depicting both private and public events from the beginning of the nineteenth century; as V&A curators discovered, through painstaking research, a number of the panels are based on contemporary prints.  However the maker has included what is thought to be a self-portrait in a number of the panels, emphasising her role as onloooker.


The Elisabeth Chapman coverlet (above) arrived at the V&A complete with its history: it was made as a wedding coverlet,  including a love poem and paper templates cut from love letters.  Much of this proved to be myth.  The "love poem" turned out to have been written by a dentist who embalmed his wife's body after her death - he continued to receive her dowry only while she remained above ground.  The "love letters" turned out to be receipts, copybooks, household ledgers and so on.  The quilt also - rather bewilderingly - contains a panel commemorating Wellington's victory at Vittoria.

Some of the most poignant stories are those stitched into the prison quilts.  One of the women involved in making the Rajah  quilt, stitched on board the transportation ship of that name, had been sentenced to transportation as a seventeen-year-old after stealing at the age of fifteen a length of cloth.  Happily she lived to become a pillar of the community in Tasmania, where she settled.  But imagine all the sadness and anxieties stitched into that quilt.

One of the women present at the preview had been one of the girls who had made the quilt whilst a civilian prisoner at Changi Prison in Singapore.  She told of how the quilt had been made from scavenged scraps, stitched in secret (the guards would have beaten them had they been discovered) using the thread from unpicked clothes.


The most recent of the prison quilts is one made by men at Wandsworth Prison, organised by the charity Fine Cell Work.  Each of the hexagons was made by an inmate, choosing his own illustration and/or message:


Another of the contemporary quilts is that made by Quilt Art member Sara Impey:


 This beautiful quilt, called Punctuation, contains the phrases never did like puntuation and see you suddenly one day found in a letter amongst her mother's possessions after her death.  The letter suggests there was a relationship between her mother and a family friend - the rediscovery of a "hidden history".

But possibly the most poignant of the stories relates to a piece I was unable to take a photograph of (it was behind a glass case), a tiny piece half of a larger piece that had been embroidered with a heart.  It comes from the Foundling Museum: this piece was left by a mother with her baby whom she was forced by poverty or some other circumstance to leave at the Foundling Hospital.  The other half she kept with her, intending to reclaim her baby when circumstances improved, using the piece she kept to prove that she was the mother.  In this case, as in many others, she never did return.

Interestingly, there is a link between this and the final piece in the exhibition, one which I also find profoundly moving, the installation by Tracey Emin (shown in the previous post).  There is currently an exhibition of work by Tracey Emin at the Foundling Museum on the theme of lost children.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Quilts 1700-2010 at the V&A: Part One

On Wednesday I was one of a number of quilting bloggers invited to a preview of Quilts 1700-2010, the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, its first major exhibition of British quilts.  It is an extraordinary exhibition and it was wonderful to be able to explore the exhibition thoroughly without the crowds - in fact fellow-blogger Angela - - and I go locked in briefly, we were so loathe to leave (though as Angela said "we would have been warm"!)

I had intended to write just a brief and straightforward review of the exhibition but it started getting longer and more complex - the more I though about it, the more the ideas flowed: above all it is an exhibition that makes you think.  So I intend to write, in addition to this piece, at least two others about the matters and issues raised by the exhibition.  These will appear some time in the course of the next week or so.

This is the first thing you see as you enter the exhibition: valance and hangings in clamshell patchwork made of an assortment of fabrics, including silks and indian chintzes much sought after at the time (between 1730 and 1750).  This, like all the early quilts in the exhibition, was a luxury item, something of a status symbol - far from the stereotype of "make do and mend" often stated as the reason for patchwork.  It is true, however, that such luxury items are more likely to survive than those in less wealthy households where quilts got used to death.  Even so, there were few if any quilts made in the poorest households, where there would not have been the materials or leisure to make them.

The first section - titled The Domestic Landscape - includes quilts for cots, beds and other items, some made by relatively well-to-do women with skill and leisure-time, some made by professional makers.  Many look toned-down in colour to us now: in others, with a little imagination you can guess how vivid they must have been before they faded:

It is in this section that the first big surprise comes.  You are admiring the subtlety of the early quilts when you  round a corner and come face to face with this quilt


the work of contemporary art quilter Jo Budd.  This piece - one of my favourites by an artist who has long been a favourite of mine - is called Winter/Male and responds to the seasons, the colours of the natural world, but is also a reference to her partner and their love of the land.  It has enormous impact partly because of its size and colouring but does not jar against the antique quilts; instead it complements them.

The second section, Private Thoughts, Public Debates,  includes a range of quilts, taking the viewer into the noneteenth century.  One of the most remarkable, by an unknown maker (as are most of the quilts in this section), is a coverlet with a central applique panel depicting George III reviewing the troops:


The body of the quilt, which dates from 1803-5 is made up of a series of intricately pieced blocks, whilst the border is a series of vignettes of scenes from contemporary prints and paintings.

There are a number of exquisitely-pieced quilts in this section, which also includes works by two contemporary quilt artists, Sara Impey's Punctuation and Diana Harrison's Box .  Amongst the antique quilts is one of my favourites, a wholecloth "strippy" from Penparc in Wales


The third section, Virtue and Virtuosity, includes quilt intended for display rather than domestic use.  One of my favourites was an applique quilt with silhouettes in various fabrics:


 There are contemporary quilts by Caron Garfen and Nina Saunders and a range of quilts made by men, including this quilt made of tiny hexagons by a soldier, possibly Francis Bailey in about 1864-77:


British troops in India had time on their hands, and were encouraged to take up stitching: it helped to keep them away from drink and gambling.

One of the most disturbing quilts in the exhibition is the one designed by artist Grayson Perry and completed in 1993, a commentary on the American abortion debate of the 1990s:


 Perry's commentaries on the quilt refer both to the way a bed can be a place of danger, and the way in which hard-line anti-abortionists committed acts of violence:  this left me wondering whether a work of art with a "message" should need a commentary, given the quilt, with its title, could be read otherwise.  Having looked at it a number of times, however, the ambiguity can be seen as important...

The section on Making a Living had a particular impact for me, in that my great grandmother and her mother made wholecloth quilts for sale in Maesteg in South Wales.  This section includes work produced by professional quilters in Northumberland, South Wales and Northern Ireland, and also includes work by artists Pauline Burbudge (one of her beautiful Applecross quilts) and Susan Stockwell - a commentary of the Chnese economy pieced from new and used banknotes.  Another piece. produced by final-year textile student Kirsty Fenton, Threaded Wrists is a powerful commentary on poverty and childhood.  Another of my favourites, by quilt artist Jane Whiteley (originally from the UK but now living in Australia), is Sides to the Middle, Fingers to the Bone, which refers to the "make do and mend" ethos of post-war Briteain:


The final section of the exhibition is an extremely powerful one.  Called Meeting the Past, it includes quilts which celebrate major life-events and quilts as memorials. 

One of the latter, by Jennifer Vickers, is made of stitched squares of paper, mostly plain, but some with tiny photographs.  Each square represents someone who died during the Second Iraq War; the photographs are those of military personnel, the plain squares represent civilian deaths.

Three prison quilts stand out: one made in collaboration with Fine Cell Work by inmates of Wandsworth Prison: each of the prisoners involved stitched an image/message on a hexagon - some serious, some humorous, provide a unique expression of what prison life is like.  The patchwork coverlet made by the Changi Prison Girl Guide Group (one of whom was actually present at the preview) had to be stitched in secret, away from the eyes of the guards, from bits of prison uniform (surreptitiously shortened by tiny amounts) and scraps of any fabrics they could find.  The third of the prison quilts is to my mind the most remarkable - the Rajah Quilt, made in 1841 by women convicts on a prison ship bound for Tasmania, a huge quilt made using meterials donated by an organisation started by social reformer Elizabeth Fry.  This is the first time this quilt has been shown outside the National Museum of Australia.

The exhibition ends as it began, with a four-poster bed: this time To Meet My Past by artist Tracey Emin.  The first impression is of a luxurious rather beautiful bed:


When you look closer you see the appliqued and embroidered messages relating to periods of pain and despair in her life: one reads "I can't believe I used to be afrad of ghosts".

The exhibition continues until 4th July.  In addition to the hudge range of exhibits, it is beautifully arranged and lit, with exhibits supported with a variety of documentary material.  Sue Prichard, the curator, and her team have done a wonderful job.  For anyone in London this spring/summer it is not to be missed.

The majority of the images in this post - used with permission - are those of the V and A and are their copyright.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

breakfast with the herons and other adventures

A couple of weeks ago I visited Llangollen to see the Quiltfest exhibition organised by Val Shields.  Unfortunately part of the exhibition was closed on the afternoon I arrived: the museum volunteer had had to leave early and I was unable to see the Effie Galletly and Liesbeth Williams exhibitions.

However, my overnight stay in Llangollen was enhanced by discovering that fellow exhibitor and Contempoarary Quilt member Ros Crouch was also staying at the Royal Hotel - we spent a pleasant time over a very good chinese meal.  Also the following morning by enjoying an excellent breakfast whilst watching the herons on the River Dee - a rare treat (the picture above is unfortunately not by me but by JMW Turner - one of the bird studies currently on exhibition in Leeds City Art Gallery.

The next day I spent at the Breakthrough exhibition, a selected exhibition of work by members of Contemporary Quilt, a subgroup of the Quilters Guild of the British Isles.  I did set the machine up as I was supposed to be demonstrating but in fact ended up doing much more talking than sewing.  The two stewards from Gresford Quilters, Jane and Jill (hope I have the names and the spellings right) were excellent company and though we didn't have masses of visitors, it being mid-week with heavy snow the night before, there were not only a number of interested quilters but also a number of local artists and art-students all of whom were really impressed by the quality of the art-work and the way it was presented - praise is due to Val Shields, the organiser, and to Hilary Gooding, exhibitions officer for CQ.

I haven't included any detailed photographs of the quilts as I didn't want to breach any copyright here, but here's a photo of stewards (nearest the camera) plus Ros (furthest away facing) which gives you a flavour of part of the exhibition and the beautiful building it was housed in:

If you have a chance to see this exhibit it will be well worth it: the artwork is amazing - I'm not easily impressed but I was amazed at the quality and ended up wondering how I got selected (but then as Ros put it  "Don't we all feel like that about our own work?")  One of the features that visitors particularly enjoyed was a folder of  swatches, one for each quilt, showing the techniques used, which could be examined more closely and handled, coupled with statements from each artist.

The exhibition itself was in the most wonderful setting, in the grounds of Plas Newydd, where the Ladies of Llangollen - two women who had fled unwelcome arranged marriages - set up home and entertained the great and the good of their day, including Lord Byron (who, incidentally also stayed at the Royal Hotel - wonder if he contemplated the herons over his breakfast?).

The other half of the Breakthrough exhibition can be see at the Quilt Museum in York from March 26th, and the whole exhibition will be on display at the Festival of Quilts at Birmingham NEC in August

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Breakthrough exhibition: Spring Ferns

Quiltfest - - is taking place on Llangollen during the month of February.  There are three major exhibitions - Effie Galletly  with a new exhibition A Sense of Place, works by Liesbeth Williams, and selected quilts by members of the Contemporary Quilt Group (a specialist sub-group of The Quilters Guild of the British Isles) in an exhibition called Breakthrough.  Quiltfest is an annual event and is known for the quality of its exhibitions and this year is no exception - so if you can get to Llangollen this month you'll be in for a treat.

One of the quilts selected is by me!  Yes!  Really!  I have seen photographs of the exhibition and there are really amazing quilts in it, many by well-known quilters: I am proud (and excited) to be in such august company.

My quilt is one of my fern pieces.  It's based on the ferns that have grown in my garden for the last century, but every year seems like new when they start to grow - and for me they are potent symbols of growth and survival.  In terms of my development as an artist they also represent a personal breakthrough in that the ferns are all portraits developed from drawings (apart that is from the screenprinted ferns which remind me of the ghosts of the previous year's ferns that hang around till spring):

The fabric for the quilt is hand-dyed (the background had to be overdyed to get the depth of colour I wanted).  The "ghost-ferns" were screenprinted with thickened dye, using a real fern as a mask.  I've been experimenting with ways of attaching applique by machine: in this case I used a tiny zigzag with a line of straight-stitch either side (if I'm going to use something that will show I prefer to make a feature of it).  I've couched hand-dyed thread (six strands of stranded embroidery cotton) round the screen-printed panels.  The same thread is also used to outline the other fernlets (the ones that haven't yet grown).  The whole wuilt is free-machine quilted (I have been practising this and while I'm not yet perfect I have come on!) with Oliver Twists hand-dyed threads.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

"There really is no such thing as Art"

This is the opening sentence of the late Sir Ernst Gombrich's Story of Art.  For those of you looking for an intelligent introduction to pre twentieth century Western Art you could do no better.  Not just an art history but a book which gives enormous insight into the ways art has been made in the past.  Because Ernst Gombrich was one of the good guys amongst art historians who, instead of relying on personal prejudice, as many so-called art historians of his generation did - you know, the sort that wrote about art with a capital "Ah" - he took the trouble to do his research - not only from books and documents but also by discussions with practising artists.

So yes, you may be bewildered, by this as an opening sentence: read on, and - especially if you take note of the use of upper- and lower-case letters - all will become clear:

There really is no such thing as Art.  There are only artists.  Once these were men who took coloured earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the wall of a cave; today some buy their paints, and design posters for the hoardings; they did and do many other things.  There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realise that Art with a capital A has no existence.  For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish.  You may crush an artist by telling him that what he has just done may be quite good in its own way, only it is not 'Art'.  And you may confound anyone enjoying a picture by declaring that what he liked in it was not the Art but something different.

The subject of "what is art?" or, as it sometimes phrased "art or craft" is one guaranteed to stir up a hornet's nest in several of the discussion groups I subscribe to.  (I once wrote my own spoof - but broadly accurate - response to one such discussion which you will find on the sidebar under A Brief History of Western Art).
And so far no-one, to my mind, has come up with a satisfactory answer.  In the search for the absolute, as with the title character in Moby Dick, the whale is always white, or has a kink in its tail, or some other element that distinguishes it from being just a whale, even if that is what it actually is; just as an Artist is an Artist because she or he knows how to use colour, or makes things come to life, or knows about the Elements and Principles of Design, or conveys Important Meanings.

In the Vermeer above, the artist does know how to use colour, shape, line, rhythm, balance, contrast, harmony and all the rest of it; he knows how to produce a likeness.  He was an expert at this and at many other facets of his craft: he has served his apprenticeship and learnt how to do these things.  But any professional at that time could have done as much - and I'm sure we can all think of artists then and since who were intensely skilful, who had learnt their craft, but whose work has no more impact than having us admire their technique.  What makes this painting special, however, is not these things but the effect it has on the viewer, the way it involves us - and when it comes down to it that is the only thing that matters: that is what I see as the "meaning" of the painting.  Whilst I'm sure Vermeer enjoyed his worldly success, and like just like every other artist in history needed to be rewarded for his work, provided that these things happened I'm sure he was not concerned about whether he was described as an artist or a craftsperson.  (The two words anyway had the same original meaning, both meaning skill, one derived from Norman French, the other from Anglo-Saxon).

Last Autumn I attended a talk at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park given by Peter Randall-Page (see his work above) who was asked whether he considered himself an artist or a craftsperson.  His response was "I just make things" - in other words the distinction was irrelevant for him.

Whilst I understand the need people have to feel that what they do is "special", and - especially for those marketing their work - to have what they do considered as being on a par with other forms of visual art (and galleries in this country are possibly even further behind than those in the US in this respect) I do feel there is a sort of continuum: there is certainly artistry in the making of many traditional quilts, and speaking personally I cannot see a specific point where craft ends and art begins: they are part and parcel of the same thing.  The problem in our society is not what things are but how they are valued.  I'm happy to think of myself simply as a "maker" - though I would prefer to be called an artist than a craftsperson (I'm only human after all) I don't need a label to get myself to do what I do.

What Gombrich does in the introduction to his book is to make a plea for the democratisation of art as something you don't have to be a member of the privileged classes or to speak a special language in order to enjoy.  Let's try to keep to that aim shall we?

Sunday, 17 January 2010

the quilts I made for Christmas (well almost!)

For Christmas last year I made a quilt for my brother and sister-in-law.  This was much admired, has been used and washed and still looks pretty good (better, in fact, as I didn't pre-shrink the cotton wadding and it now has a lovely texture) even if I do say so myself.  My two twenty-something nephews loved it:: the elder,Carl, and his girlfriend Elise wanted to commission me to make one for them too; the younger, Gareth, said it was the "dog's b*******s" which is possibly the most unusual compliment on a quilt I've had.  Faced with such enthusiasm, how could I resist?  I'd always iutended to make them quilts anyway - just waiting for the right time.

The quilts didn't quite make it in time for Christmas: Gareth's was part quilted and bound so I was at least able to present him with it on Christmas morning, I reminded him of his previous compliment and said my provisional name was "The D's Bs" (I move in much politer circles than he does); his reply - "no, this one's The Mutts N**ts" and so that is what it will be called:

This is just part of the quilt: the detail tends to get lost in the larger photograph: individual blocks are made up of four chevron log cabins with different sized centres with the strips deliberately misaligned:

The fabrics come from across the globe, with fabrics from Zimbabwe (courtesy of Magie Relph).Gareth has a liking for interesting textiles so I thought these would add to his collection.  This quilt was real fun to make and went together like a dream: I have added more quilting but there is still a  little more to do.

Carl and Elise's quilt was also fun to make, and I was able to use a lot of the Kaffe Fassett fabrics I love for this one.  Originally I had planned to use the fabrics I bought from Aussie Dreams designed by Australian aboriginal designers (Elise is Australian), but I couldn't get theme to fit into the agreed colour scheme (sunset colours) so the next gift might have to be a wallhanging!

Of course Django had to get in on the act - he can't resist a camera - or a quilt!  The individual blocks are four-patch stars which make up a secondary design when they are put together.

The current title for the quilt is Southern Star (given the antipodean connection).  They haven't seen it yet - they spent Christmas in Australia at Elise's family home in the Blue Mountains where I trust Carl managed to cope with his spider phobia and Elise's nephews (and I'm still waiting for news of how they reacted to being given England cricket shirts for Christmas presents!).  They also spent last week in tropical Thailand and missed all that lovely snow - it's a hard life but someone has to do it.

If you've got round to reading this, Carl and Elise, welcome home and hope you like the quilt!

Sunday, 10 January 2010


My interest in nature's patterns and observation of the ferns in my garden have led to a deep fascination with these amazing plants.  My ferns, like many others in the neighbourhood, have probably been growing there since soon after the houses were built at the beginning of the twentieth century, but they are mere youngsters compared with the history of ferns in gerneral, which have been around since the Jurassic period.  Good job I like them, as they are not only great survivors but are almost impossible to get rid of.

It started with observational drawings I did last spring, including these two:

For me drawing is not only an intriguing activity which lights up the artist in me but is also a process of observation and discovery sparking questions and a need to know who what and why (I've always felt art and science were closely interlinked and not the separate disciplines many people seem to assume).  One of the first things I observed was how irregular ferns are: a surprise because, like many others who had been fascinated by fractals some years ago, I had thought that ferns were among the most regularly-patterned of plants.  Looking more closely at the growth-patterns of the Male Ferns (the species name) in the following months I discovered a huge degree of variation from the "blueprint" pattern: individual leaves or groups of leaves missing or stubby, for example, especially where they grow near a solid object like a wall or are crowded together (maybe because there's no point in expending energy in growing leaves that have no chance of prospering? I haven't yet found an answer to that question but I'm still looking).

The next drawings took me from naturalistic to stylised:

(apologies for the roughness of these sketches but they are rough notes rather than finished drawings)

I also produced a series of screenrpinted fabric pieces using ferns, hand-dyed fabrics and thickened dyes - here are two examples:

I used these in two quilts: the first is called Nature's Blueprints - and Improvisations.  The ferns here are based on actual ferns in my garden.  It uses the printed panels, my hand-dyed fabrics and machine applique and quilting.  I have not shown it here as I may want to enter it for a show.  There is also a slightly smaller quilt in this series, which I will not show here as it has been selected for the Contemporary Quilt Breakthrough exhibition at Quiltfest in Llangollen next month, so I will not be showing it on my blog until after that exhibition opens.

Then followed some linocuts I did for my printmaking class at Leeds Art college - these are the first two in the series.  The first was intended to be the closest to naturalistic, though it has a strong degree of stylisation.  The print is hand-coloured using watercolour pencils.  The second is strongly influenced by Peter Randall-Page's linocuts (see previous posting)

During this time I was also producing a series of Journal Quilts for the Contemporary Quilt Group's challenge: the idea was to begin naturalistically and become increasingly abstract.  The first, the September JQ, used a print made by pressing one of the ferns used for screen-prints onto fabric, then free-machine quilting the image produced.  The October journal quilt uses the stylisation and techniques used in the larger quilts.

November's JQ, Fuzzy Fern, uses lines rather than shapes and is made by cutting back layers of scrim:

Whilst the last one December's JQ, which I have called Electric Fern because it reminded me of a neon sign, simply focusses on the basic ferny line, to me essence of fern:

I had intended to give ferns a rest after this, but then I went for a walk in Wytham Woods and saw this clump of ferns growing on a tree:

which set me off thinking again...