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...