Friday, December 28, 2012

considering Abstraction in 2013

Ambivalence 1
  Representational art is art that involves some representation of the real world.
Abstract art, by contrast, does not attempt to show things as they really are.

In realism the artist generally tried to portray things as realistically as they can; abstract art attempts a number of different things but what it does not do is aim at a realistic representation of some actual place or object.  Abstract art can be about ideas, or feelings, expressions, mood.  In effect pure abstraction is one end of a continuum and pure realism at the other, with most 2d art somewhere in the middle.

Attempting to paint things as they really are has a long history and was particularly popular in the mid 19th century.   Realist painters wanted to make every day life and everyday scenes into Art.  Previous to this the main focus of art had been on religious or mythological topics.  Abstract art began to appear around the turn of the 19th/20th century with various movements being developed: Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism – and many more, divisions and subdivisions!
A Summer Day Long Ago

You can take the same subject and paint it abstractly, realistically or somewhere in the middle: e.g. a landscape can be shown in as much detail as a photograph, or more impressionistically with the emphasis on the light and shade, or as abstractly as a simple grid using just the colors from the landscape. Agnes Martin’s grids have often been said to have been inspired by the Canadian prairies where she was born – or the New Mexico deserts where she moved after leaving New York.  Interestingly, she herself always hotly denied this; she wanted her grids to be a picture of perfection, the abstract idea of perfection rather than a portrayal of something actual. And who knows what is true?  I think we probably don’t even remember or have any idea of the power of our early visual memories.

The inspiration for abstract art can come from mood, emotions, observations, objects, geometry, patterns, details, even microscopic details – there are a myriad possibilities. Ideas can be developed from other artists’ work (a very common beginning point for artists ever since art began thousands and thousands of years ago), from nature, from  the construction techniques themselves and these days, increasingly from computer manipulations!  There are so many ways that can inspire us to create ever new arrangements of the basic elements.

Fall Study
 I felt that I’ve always made some abstract work – when I added up how many of the 250 or so wall quilts or fiber collages (take your pick!) I considered that about 1/3 were purely abstract and another third significantly abstracted from my original sketch of a building or city or landscape.  In reality, however everything I’ve done has been abstract.  I’ve never once attempted a faithful realistic representation of anything – nature does that better, also an SLR camera !!

Forcefield 2
There are many regions of abstraction, though, into which I’ve never strayed and I think the task I’m going to set myself for the New Year, my second NY resolution after “Spend more time on Making Art!”, is to explore some of the possibilities for abstract fiber art that I havn’t yet attempted.  I think it’s very important (unless one is a commercial decorative artist) to keep trying things you’ve not tried before, to be very adventurous in one’s art.  In order to get into the better shows (the top handful of quilt shows and mixed media art shows) something different and venturesome is required.  And I think that’s right – that’s what those shows are for.  The other shows are for polished techniques and impeccable renderings of ideas we’ve seen before.  I know for Quilt National this year I deliberately chose something strong and bold and a little out of the normal quilt range – and it paid off – or perhaps I was just lucky, who knows?!!  But we do owe it to ourselves to not just keep reproducing the same thing, in many different colors, but instead to push forward, to be Bold.

And so with resolutions 1 and 2 in place, I shall go and make a nice cup of tea!  Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you have decided to do in your artistic life and what part abstraction might play in it.  Also, d’you agree with me?  Should we be bolder?  Or is polishing better?
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Ultimate Quilt Judging Algorithm - 9 questions to ask!

Last week I wrote about developing an algorithm to see if the judging of art quilts could be improved -  partly just out of curiosity about decision making but also because I had seen so many amazing pieces rejected for major shows, when quite mediocre ones were accepted. I asked for ideas for questions the algorithm might use. 
But, before we get to that, I must commend N who has already developed her own algorithm for judging science fair projects!  She wrote that judging “seemed daunting [until]  I came up with a number system that rated categories. Added the categories, I could tell whom I would recommend for blue ribbons. It worked great for me, but I was always amazed that the other judges saw things totally differently. I was never really sure if I was thinking out of the box or if they just didn't know what they were doing”.  What’s interesting is that there is, in fact, very little correlation between one’s confidence in a decision of this kind and its validity.  If a person is very confident in their intuitive powers, you need to ask whether they are making that judgment in an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable and also whether they have had the opportunity to learn those regularities through prolonged practice. 

The same holds true, of course, for art projects.  When you are blocking out a quilt on the design wall, in judging whether or not this shape of red (or blue) will work well in relationship to the other shapes on the wall, if you have considerable practice and feedback at doing this, your intuitive judgment is likely to be sound, given that the principles of good design are surprisingly applicable to much art.  If, however, you have not had much practice and this is your first workshop in creating an art quilt, then to be asked by the teacher to “use your intuition” is a nonsense! Intuition is the result of prolonged and considerable exposure to fairly regular situations, it isn’t something you’re born with.  Alas!!

SO,  let’s look at the questions that were suggested for our Ultimate Quilt Judging Algorithm.  I wrote that six categories should be enough – you don’t want to be standing there all day looking at your own various attempts, or at the quilt show looking at one piece! Interestingly, only four main categories were mentioned.

1. Immediate reaction, Attention getting and holding
Did this quilt attract my attention? Yes = 1, no = 0
How long did I want to look at it? 5 seconds (0) or 5 minutes? (1)
If I pushed myself to look longer, did I see something more? Yes = 1, no = 0
Does this piece stir something in me? Yes = 1, no = 0
Is there anything in this quilt that distresses, disturbs or bothers me?  Was that the artist’s intent?
 Yes:    Intentional = 1, Unintentional = minus 1. No = 0.

2. Fresh and New
 Have I seen something like this before? If so, is it a development, or an iteration?
Score 1 for not seen before, or a development.  Score 0 for seen before.

3. Color and Value
Looking at it first in grey scale (in order to avoid not only color bias, but also the tendency for different people to see colors in different ways), is it strong, balanced and interesting? Yes = 1, no = 0
Do the colors used work together and, if they clash, is there a reason for that? Work together = 1, clash but with a good reason = 1, clash for no reason = 0.

4. Technique
Does the technique used amaze and awe me? Yes = 1, no = 0
But, are the techniques more the result of proficiency and access to particular technology (camera, printer, high end machine) than to traditional fiber work?  The weight given to the answer to this could be determined by the organizers of the quilt show and who is awarding the prizes! (ha!) If the show supports all techniques, not matter how much technology is used, then the yes is good.  If the show does not, then subtract the 1 given for amazing technique.

Conclusions: What’s interesting is that while the above questions do not directly relate to the principles (which are, of course, guidelines, not rules!) of design (as in “is this quilt design well pulled together?"), but, rather, they are all supported by those principles.  So judges who were familiar with those concepts would be able to hold a discussion using common terminology.  I do think it important that we all have the vocabularly of designs - we think in words by and large, and without words, less thinking is possible!!

There are more questions in category 1, however that is because more people thought it important to mention. And, in reading many jurors' comments, this is definitely the category considered to be most important.   So there are in total 9 questions.   Try them out – and report back!!  Especially try it out on the winners of prizes vs the non winners, and, if you have access, the accepted work vs the unaccepted.

Any comments?  I look forward to reading them! They make my day! both positive and negative!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!    Elizabeth

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Ultimate Quilt Judging Algorithm

How would you feel if your art quilt was judged via a simple questionnaire rather than a panel of experts?

I read Meehl’s famous book Clinical vs statistical  Prediction: A theoretical analysis and a review of the evidence  many years ago.  I was reminded of it recently by a discussion in Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, in itself a further treatise on the parlous and impossibly illogical state of human decision making!!
Meehl showed with numerous examples that in many fields a simple algorithm could make a better predictions than could experts in that particular field.  This included doctors re prognosis (remember the Apgar score they use to evaluate newborns?  It has saved many infant lives), wine-growers predicting how good a wine a particular crop will make, stock-brokers (yes! Wall street could give up tomorrow and computers calculate the best buys and sells and do it better!), financial analysts, sporting events, recidivism rates etc etc.  When I think of how much money we spend on these “fortune tellers”, instead of  on solid research and development into clean energy and so on, my mind doesn’t cogitate, it boggles!

So I started wondering if an algorithm could be developed for judging art, specifically a quilt show…or even if that would be a good thing?  We have all known of amazing quilts that weren’t accepted to shows where they should have been –  and duds that were included to everyone’s disgust (except I presume to that of the maker!!)   Would they have got in if they were assessed simply by a 6 step questionnaire?  It would also be a useful way of assessing one’s own work – which babies need help and which will be stars? I know I’m not alone in wondering which of my art works is the strongest.

Meehl concluded from his meta analyses that in order to achieve the best predictions, decisions should be based on formulae, especially in low-validity environments (like an art show).   What we also know is that the algorithm doesn’t have to include complex weighting – it doesn’t make any difference according to Dawes’ article “The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear models in decision making”.
Weighted complex combinations are no more reliable than simple ones.

 Of course “experts” are extremely hostile to these ideas, they don’t like to think that all their expertise and judgment and sensitivity counts for very little.  And they are skilled in limited, local short term situations, but longer term predictions are better assessed by a mechanical combination of a few variables. However, many have so much invested in their expertise that it makes it very difficult for them to accept their weaknesses as well as their strengths.

Okay – so which variables would we pick for judging a quilt?  Six is enough.  They should, if possible, address different aspects of the work so that there is not too much overlap.  Once the six dimensions have been chosen then a couple of questions for each one could be formulated.  For example, for me one of the important things is whether or not the piece can hold my interest – so the questions might be:

1a. How long did I look at this quilt when I first saw it?
1b. Did I come back to look at it again?

A second variable I think important would be something I’d call “freshness”.  Questions might be:
2a.  Have I seen something like this before?

And so on….so let’s see how much consensus as to important variables we would have.  So please send in your ideas!!  What characteristics of a quilt, or any work of art actually, are the most important?  Let’s see if between us  we can devise the Ultimate Quilt Judging Algorithm!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!  Elizabeth

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rara avis: the fiber art collector


Birds On The Wire 18” x 20”
Forgive the gap in blogging! I’ve recently taken part in two art shows/sales in our town – well advertised, a fair amount of traffic and a LOT of work. I had a selection of small and medium sized quilts, framed and unframed watercolors. My sales of quilts (and believe me the prices were low…I wouldn’t dare tell any of the “quilt professionals” just quite how low!) were minimal. On the other hand, I had absolutely no problem finding buyers for my watercolour paintings, both framed and unframed.
Quilts seem to be a hard sell right now. For one thing few people outside the quilt world see quilts as art. Consider this quotation from the local newspaper’s article about one of the shows:
“Elizabeth Barton weaves quilts that, if viewed without texture, are just as abstract as paintings, never mind their usefulness..there is no reason ever to snuggle under one of her art quilts. Tack it to the wall for sure!”

Spuggies 18” x 18” (i.e. sparrows!)
The fiber art collector is a rare bird: Those who do buy seemed to fall into two categories: people who sew themselves, and folk art collectors. I sold one little piece precisely because the buyers identified it as being very like the work of a well known folk art painter and sculptor.
Quiltmakers themselves are very appreciative of the work and time and planning that goes into making a quilt, but alas they are not usually the richest of folk! Plus, they often feel that they could make a piece like it themselves, if they only got round to it! (ah yes!!). Also I’ve discovered that quiltmakers rarely go to art shows. Despite postcards, newspaper articles etc I think only one or two quiltmakers of the hundreds in the local area came to either of the shows though if you take the quilts to them – for example at a workshop – they are very interested.
The other big problem with quilts is that it’s very hard to make something under $100 – fabric is expensive – whether you dye it or buy it. Good thread is also very pricey and cheap thread is not worth working with, unless you’re a masochist! Even the simplest piece can take at least 20 hours which means that even if you pay yourself just $5 an hour, you’re easily over $100. I do love those folk who say “ah yes, but you enjoyed making it!” – as if somehow you should subtract your enjoyment from the price!!
It’s also difficult to give wall quilt as a gift, whereas a small painting that is fresh and lively will, the buyer feels, be appreciated by anyone. Sadly, they are not so sure about the lasting value, or the acceptance of, a fiber piece.
Institutions, on the other hand, love fiber art. I think mainly because they can get a much bigger fiber piece for their money than they can a painting! Plus, in many ways, quilts are easier to handle and to hang than paintings and you’re not worried that a falling quilt could rending someone unconscious!! Alas, with the recession, many institutions have given up buying art of any kind.
Now, however, with holiday sales out of the way, there’s a whole New Year to look forward to. I’m planning a series based on a very specific group of painters, so I’m in research mode right now which I love! Oh dear, perhaps I should be adding up how much I’m enjoying this ready to deduct it from the price of my future work!

If you have been, thanks for reading! And I’d love to hear about your experiences with art shows/sales……sorry about the slight hassle of copying a few blurry letters when you comment – it prevents a deluge, unbelievable deluge!, of spam.
Thank you! Elizabeth

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pop-Up Gallery show this week

A couple of friends and I were so frustrated with existing art collaboratives – either too expensive or too backward looking or too many folk with boring work – that we thought we’d do our own!  So we rented a gallery for this next weekend: Fri Nov 30-Sun Dec 2.  And then we had a lot of fun thinking whom we could invite to join us.  We wanted a mix of different mediums and all of them of great quality.  We also wanted to have folk that don’t usually show their work so there would be a fresh flavour to the show.  We’ve even hired a musician – no canned musack for us!!  Here’s our announcement!

tn Having got this amazing group together and the gallery and all the other arrangements, I’ve been hustling to matt or frame up watercolors and finish quilts ready to show.  Since Athens,GA  is one of the monetarily poorest places in the nation – despite being incredibly rich in talented folk, education, learning and things to do – it’s important to keep prices low.  As you know quilts – even for the wall! – take an incredibly long time to make, so I’ve been doing some cropping….both of the paintings and the quilts.  Looking for little gems!

roof exuberance k


I made a quilt some time ago that I never really felt worked – the composition was very awkward as you can see…plus I’d done one very similar which was much better.

So time to get out the rotary cutter!  and I created two little fellows from this big overloaded camelephanteater….

I like them better…more mystery, more abstracted and I’ve got rid of the distracting top heavy bright shapes…I’d noticed when cropping watercolors how I could significantly improve them by doing so, so it makes a lot of sense to do the same thing with quilts.  I’ll take a look at these as they hang on the wall in the gallery (!) and I think I’ll be coming home afterwards looking for many more to cut up!  After all why keep the whole thing when not all of it is working – cut to the good bits I reckon!

roof exuberance crop 1

roof exuberance crop 2 And here are some of the watercolors – just local scenes or places I’ve been on my travels ….



this was from a photo I took when I was out hiking in the woods with my photography friends…I love photos of people really engaged in doing something.



I see this house on my walk every day…it’s a very nice shape especially with the trees providing contrast…I painted it first without the car…but it was obviously lacking something there…the white shapes really needed to continue toward the right hand edge, so I was glad that Rita nearly always has her van parked there on the driveway!



I taught at Hudson River Valley Inn a couple of autumns back; there is a lovely park just up the hill from the inn with great views.  I was able to sit and sketch as well as take photographs, and then made the painting later when I got back home.




I’m in a plein aire group started by a wonderful artist couple that live at the end of our street…they go out scouting for great local sites and were able to find this gorgeous field of sunflowers!  And they were all looking at us (the flowers that is!!)  What a beautiful day we had amongst the flowers.



Sometimes we stay in Bob’s garden to paint, they have a very nice little gazebo tucked under the tall pines so prevalent down here in the south….




and down the street the other way, is a garden with a central lawn that always catches the sunlight in the early morning – love those glowing little sunlit magical areas!

So – if you’re in town!  Do come see the show.  And if you’re not – consider mounting your own show; many galleries are so desperate for revenue I think they’d be happy to rent to you between their major shows.

I’ll report back on how it all went!  If you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Abstract vs representation quilts in major quilt shows

pump, baby, pump image 72


Somebody mentioned that representational quilts were only 20% of the pieces accepted for the major biennial quilt show, Quilt National, this year and they were wondering why that was. I don’t know if that figure is correct (I’ve not seen the show – yet!) but I started cogitating, as is my wont, about the representational vs abstract choice in art quilts.





I think part of the reason that abstract design is popular in quilts is the very strong historical tradition for pattern within the medium. Quilting developed for several reasons: obviously a need for warm bedclothes – but that could have been achieved a lot more quickly by sewing the biggest left over, or harvested, chunks of fabric you had. Chopping up the salvaged and left over fabric into geometric shapes to be arranged into patterns, however, satisfies both the need to be creative and the need to be able to order one’s life – or at least a small part of it. And, this was an activity to be done in the evenings when you were tired as a restful occupation rather than a mental exercise . So choosing an arrangement you liked and carefully putting in the pieces – a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle – would be much more likely. It’s relaxing rather than challenging, and furthermore the results are known – you know what it will look like when you’re done. People, as a rule, do not like uncertainty.


The nature of the medium

It’s relatively easy to cut fabric into squares and triangles and then sew them together. It’s much harder to sew together shapes that aren’t regular and geometric…so it would make much more sense to utilize cloth pieces to make geometric patterns, however irregular. Are we, therefore, stretching the medium when we use it to create “pictures” or are we going against its essential nature? Is it as daft as using blobs of paint to create a sculpture? Or, intriguing and refreshing?



Fashion within the Art World

Quilts as art to be hung on the wall really began in the 1980s when abstract art was very evident in the mainstream art world. It’s very likely that one art form is significantly affected by what is happening in other art forms at the same time. If painting is abstract, and quilts are being made to hang the same way that paintings are, then it’s likely that the makers of those early art quilts would follow the trend of what they saw.

Currently the trend in the art world is for three things I’d say (and I’d love for you to comment!):
1.  installation art
2. art where one medium poses as another
3. video.
A major quilt show recently (the red and white one in New York) was mounted more like an installation that a traditional quilt show.
Currently successful art quilts (think of Amy Orr and John Lefelhocz) are “quilts” made from unlikely things like sugar bags or bag ties).
I don’t know of any “video” quilts yet…but curator David Revere McFadden was lamenting at the SAQA meeting in Philadelphia last Spring about the lack of contemporary quilts using things like video, fiber optics and other electronic components.
So I think fashion is a key operative device in choice of subject.

april rains crop

The task of the juror

There’s another aspect too; bar a few very knowledgeable art critics/curators, most jurors are responding to the work they’re assessing from a fairly limited scope of experience. I would suggest that’s it’s actually easier to detect a poor representational quilt that it is to detect a poor abstract or non-representational one. It’s a lot easier to pick out the wrong notes from a tune you know very well, than from one you’re not as familiar with. We are always influenced (much more than we’ll accept) by the familiar. I read that something like 80% of doctors feel that they will not be influenced to prescribe a certain drug by having been wined and dine by that drug’s manufacturers. Oh how wrong they are!! Psychological research shows clearly that we’ll opt for the familiar over the unfamiliar nearly every time. That’s why advertising works! Of course there are always a few iconoclastic folk around! – thank goodness for them…but generally it’s very very tough to exert the mental effort to resist.


But no judgments!

This isn’t to say, of course, that I think the quilt art form should or should not be abstract or representational. I think the important thing is to achieve good and exciting designs creating long lasting and satisfying images. I don’t think there is any general bias on the part of jurors towards one type of work over another and I enjoy making both kinds of quilts. Vive la difference!

If you have been, thanks for reading!! I look forward to comments!! Please!!


Friday, November 16, 2012


wild acres 003

I only like to teach 4-6 workshops a year…I see other art quilt/fiber collage teachers racing around the country and I’m not envious!!  the hassles of flying these days: the long queues, the waiting, the cramped up seats in the aircraft, the uncertainties of whether connections will be made, whether your bags will make it through and what shape they’ll be in when they do ( I once had a suitcase returned to me with its shape changed from a rectangle to a perfect circle.  A bit like a burrito only open at both ends frothing out various undergarments – some meant to be seen, others not!!).   I do like, however, to have a sense of the year ahead with something interesting each month!  I don’t need to see too far into the future, I think that would be awful – how could you have hopes and dreams that way? I don’t understand those folk who go to fortune tellers.  though it is good to be able  to look down the path of a year and see new challenges!  That kind of anticipation is lovely.


One of the challenges I’ve set myself for 2013 is to develop a new workshop based on abstract art.  There are many 20th century abstract painters I love and I’d like to deconstruct their working processes and apply them to quilt design.  I think it could be really exciting.  There’s so much we as quilters can learn from the art world as a whole.  From the masters we can discover new ideas and great inspiration and from the rubbish (and there’s plenty of that, believe me! the average quilt show is usually well ahead of the average sunday painter show in terms of excitement and quality!) we can see what not to do.  It really is helpful to analyze the bad and the ugly as well as the good!

So my workshop on Abstract Design for Art Quilts based on abstract 20th century paintings is going to be at Arrowmont next August!  Here’s a link for the sneak preview of 2013 workshops at Arrowmont:
And you can actually register – from today…get in ahead of the crowd! (1 865 436 5860)

Arrowmont is, I think, one of the best art and craft workshop centers in the country.  For one thing they are totally full service:  they have excellent workshops, in super well equipped studios, art galleries stuffed with inspiration, a great library with lots of books, all the latest magazines, and loads of computers.  Several levels of accommodation, very good food, lovely climate.  They run a shuttle  to/from Knoxville, TN airport so getting there is not difficult and the ride up into the Smoky Mountains is lovely.  One of the best things, I think, is that there are usually about 12 concurrent workshops in 12 different mediums, so it’s nothing like as homogenous as the average quilting retreat.  There are all ages, all sexes (amazing!), all kinds of backgrounds. And seeing work done in clay or wood or glass or painting is really inspiring.


And now to get back to the abstract paintings I love….I’m going to analyze about half a dozen of my favorites so there’ll be plenty of different ideas to try.  These masterworks of abstract  art are well constructed as well as expressionistic and that’s something I think is lacking from many of the abstract quilts that I’m seeing these days.  Yes they are getting prizes because of the tour de force layering and bright colors – but will they stand the test of time?  Perhaps I’d better consult one of those fortune tellers after all!!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!     Elizabeth

Friday, November 9, 2012

Visit your local art museum!

cape cod oct 2012 053

A very dear friend (you know who you are– we actually met in my local art museum!) sent me an interesting article by Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, about the problems that the arts are having these days.  Major orchestras, like the Atlanta Symphony, are struggling with huge debt.  Opera companies have “gut[ted] their operations to the point of unrecognizability”,  previously successful and much admired performing companies have folded and many museums and art galleries have had their budgets cut (or even eliminated) by cities and states.  

While there’s little we can do about the recession directly, it did strike me that there’s quite a lot we can do to show how important our museums and art galleries are to us.  If politicians  often don’t recognize the value of good public education, how much credence will they give to the importance of the arts?   So one thing we can do is visit the our local public art galleries and museums and show them how much we care. 

Go regularly. Make a point of going to see what’s new or visiting art works you love  at least once a month. Go at least as often as you go to the Mall! Know where the special pieces are that really speak to you just as easily as you know where to find the tea in the supermarket.   Make a short visit – say half an hour or so – part of your errand-running routine.

Looking for inspiration? Go and see which pieces really have an impact on you.  Which pieces call you from across the gallery as soon as you enter the room?  And why? and how?    And use those strategies and devices yourself!

november 2010 a

Meet friends there – many museums have snack bars or coffee shops – stroll around the galleries together discussing which pieces are your favorites and why (great eye-training exercise!) and then enjoy a well earned cafe au lait or cream puff (now you know what to order for me!).

Take the (grand)children – it’s important to introduce kids to art early – and they love it.  Many museums now have special labels, or leaflets or programs for children. My local art museum,, has several signs especially for children in each gallery.  Kids love the “treasure hunt” sense of finding these special labels and then reading the information and looking at the art to see if they can spot the dog or whatever is described.   If you then reward them with a trip to the gift shop and a couple of postcards of a painting they really liked, then you’ve doubled the effect!

Base your next quilt guild challenge on the art in the museum.  The guild could select a particular painting, or a particular gallery, or even the whole museum as the inspiration for the challenge.

Attend classes  Many museums offer classes and discussion groups.  Make a point of supporting them.

Open Drawing Hours   If classes aren’t available, ask when the open sketching hours are – or ask if you can go any time that’s convenient for you.  Most museums are very happy to accommodate sketchers, and often have folding stools available.  There’s no better way to learn!

Rent space for a special event  How much more pleasant to have a wedding or a retirement party in an art setting than in an anonymous generic hotel “ballroom”!

There are probably other ways too to support your local public art gallery – so please comment if I’ve forgotten something obvious!!  We need to really show those budget cutting politicians that ART is more important than more (and frequently unnecessary) traffic lights!!

And now, I’m off to see my favorite Charles Burchfield!!    If you have been, thanks for reading!


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Small Works

silvery pond 72

Silvery Pond

Having two art shows/sales coming up it’s been fun to switch from oh so serious (and secretive! Glad to get out from under the wraps! ) work for QN to some much more light hearted or experimental pieces. Since generally only small pieces sell, it’s a good opportunity to try a lot of different things without investing too much time in any one idea.

goldfish 72


I also wanted to try stretching work - I have liked the look of stretched textiles for a long time ever since I saw Joy Saville’s amazing work many years ago. She has a most elaborate stretching system that can be totally taken to bits and folded up for shipping – it’s truly wonderful, but I’m sure expensive and complicated. Even the explanation of how it worked had me confabulated! So, I’ve just been buying standard artist stretcher bars – they used to be obtainable everywhere but now I find I’m having to get them online. Don’t know what this tells us about contemporary painters! Maybe they are buying pre stretched, primed canvases rather than producing their own. Which of course limits you to the sizes the manufacturers choose to produce and is the first problem I ran into. I’ve always hated those competitions where you had to produce a quilt of certain dimensions and now I know why!! I find it next to impossible to do this.     on the wire 72

                                                             On The Line

But there are other problems to solve when stretching pieces too. If you use a thick batt, it makes it far too thick for folding over on the corners. Using no batt at all reduces the texture and the substance of the piece dramatically – 3 layers is better than two! And two is better than one! So I’ve experimented with different kinds of batting: thin cotton, wool, split wool and flannel. Also I’ve explored reduced the size of the batt so that it just reaches the first “turn” (as it were) on the frame. I’ve tried hand stitching through the layers and machine stitching. I also tried with and without borders, piecing versus appliqué, and adding on extra elements once the piece is stretched.

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The benefit of small pieces is that you can take the time to experiment in all these different ways and find out what is right for you. The variety of things you can do is vast, but it’s possible to try out many of them and immediately and easily hang the pieces on the wall to see what works best as a finished piece. The other benefit is that nearly everyone I know cannot afford a full sized art quilt. We all know the hours that go into making them, consequently even if you limit yourself to minimum wage you’re up into several hundreds before you’ve barely started piecing, let alone quilting! And yet ordinary folks are more likely to want to buy textile art than major monied art collectors…and, of course, there are a lot more of them!

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So here are a few of the pieces I’ve been working on, not sure how to price them yet but will do my best to make them reasonable.

                                                                                                         City Life


And two unstretched small arashi pieces:

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Arashi Squares

                                                                 Arashi city

And now to sit back and cogitate a little!  
If you have been, thanks for reading! 
All comments most welcome!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sometimes I just sits….

highland oct 12 I’ve been up in the Smoky Mountains hiking with friends, enjoying the glorious fall weather and trying to totally submerge myself into the sights, sounds, smells of the beauty around me.  As we hiked, we talked about the immense difficulty of just letting go and enjoying – too often your mind runs back to that hovering black cloud of “should be doings” and “must get dones”.  My friend said she actually felt guilty if she allowed herself to sink into the many aspects of pleasure!  And, alas, I know just what she means!  The old man was asked “and what do you do all day?” and replied:  “sometimes I sits and thinks,  and sometimes I just sits”. It’s good to just sit and enjoy it! 

But then when we do get to thinking, what kind of thinking will we do?    Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the two main kinds of thinking which he calls  System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is (more or less) intuitive or automatic thinking and System 2 is focused, calculated, analytical thinking.   System 1 is fast and without conscious effort, System 2 is slow and involves considerable effort.  These two modes are surprisingly relevant to our work as visual artists.  Intuitive thought, says Kahneman, is often marvelous but frequently flawed.  So often our thinking is subject to cognitive biases.  As quiltmakers, we meet that every day when people automatically assume we are little old ladies sitting in a church hall sewing squares of calico together. Their intuitive response is incorrect for they have responded only to the word “quilt”.

Valid intuitive thinking is immensely helpful  in situations were very quick and accurate thinking is necessary – the experienced driver who automatically does the right thing when the car skids – or the nurse who recognizes a presenting symptom and acts immediately without having to say to herself oh that symptoms means X and therefore I must do Y.   People who have had a lot of experience with composition and design are able to take a quick look at a piece and immediately just “know” that the balance is off, or more contrast is needed, or if there were just a touch of blue “right there” it would all pull together.

Such a skill is called “expert intuition” and while it looks like it is an amazing gift or talent,  it’s actually not.   All of us have intuition in some situations and not in others. So, what is it?  Herbert Simon made an exhaustive study of master chess players – people who can just glance at a board and “see” the right move.  They are the ones that play several games at once, walking along the tables where their many opponents crouch fixedly over their boards.  Along comes the expert and flick ,flick, flick ,perfect move after perfect move!  After all his research Simon reported that, as the expert walked along, each chess board “provided a cue; this cue [gave] the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information [provided] the answer.  Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”

Intuition is the result of countless hours of study and analysis (slow thinking) leading to many memories and connections which the “expert”  can access very quickly.  It is not a gift that is given to us (or not) at birth, it is not like performing a magic spell that will happen when we say nan-see-cro! and throw the fabric at the design wall, it is many hours of study and learning i.e. System 2 thinking.  The tennis player perfects their “intuitive” response to a situation by practicing such responses in such situations over and over.

So don’t feel hopeless if it seems as if your intuition is not as effective as the next person’s, it’s  a matter of experience.   If they have more experience than you, they’ll have more memories of solutions to problems and be able to access them more easily.  And experience can be gained…though, as Kahneman points out, it takes work and we do tend to resist it. 

Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.”

I’m sure I’ll want to write more about Kahneman’s work and how it applies to the artist’s task – but do take a look for yourself, it’s a recent book published in 2011, though the research he describes goes back many decades.

And if, you have been, thanks for reading!  And send in your comments!  what role d’you think intuition plays in creativity? 


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Looking for that missing piece?

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The old problem: you’ve lost a wallet in a field somewhere – how should you find it? (we’re assuming no tracking devices!!)



Where d’you look for a solution?(there aren’t many at the top of a mast!).  so…do you…
Race around madly?
Retrace the footprints?
Methodically quarter  the area?
Find out how other people have solved it?
Get friends to help you?
Give up and say you never like that wallet anyway?

There are different ways to learn and to find out the answers to those questions as artists we pose ourselves every day. And there are different ways of finding the solution. It’s true sometimes trial and error is best but often a more methodical approach is less frustrating. Let’s take a look at which of the above works best when!

Racing around madly
Believe it or not, I have seen folk doing this – they don’t know what color a certain section of the quilt they’re blocking out on the wall should be and so they run back and forth to their stash trying this and trying that. The pile of discarded fabrics grows ever larger around their feet – but then voila! And eureka! (depending on your preference for French or Greek!) you find the Right Piece! It’s magic, there it is…or …wasn’t this the one you tried in the first place?

Retrace the footprints
I’m very fond of this method. You always begin with a nice cup of tea, then you sit down with your notebook of Past Works…you don’t have such a notebook? Shame on you! Stop all else and start printing them out to a page, into sheet protectors and into the notebook or file folder! My Quilts! (or, if you eschew the Q word: My Art)

Eniow – back to the notebook. Have you had this problem before? How did you solve it last time? What did you think of the solution you arrived at then? How does it look in the piece? Can you try it with the new work on the wall?

Methodical Quartering
Again, a cuppa is a prerequisite! You’re looking for the right fabric for a certain area, ask yourself one by one: what value it should be ? light, medium or dark? What color temperature should it be? Warm or cool? Saturated or greyed colour?  Should the fabric have a definite texture or pattern, and if so at what scale? Or should it be blurry and background in nature?

Once you have established the above facts then you can address the stash – which (I hope) is sorted out clearly so that a limited number of candidates for the missing piece can soon be found and assessed.

Find out how other people have solved it

The training of your eye is essential both to really see what other artists are doing and have done and also to create fresh work of your own. Knowing what has been achieved helps you to find your own solutions much more quickly. It’s important to develop what is known as “the cultivated eye”. See as much art as you can. Look to see how the Grand Masters have solved problems like yours. A wide knowledge of art will always help you find a solution to your problem today. If people ask me what they can do to improve their work: obviously practice it, but also know the field – especially modern art where artists have set themselves all kinds of problems to solve.

Intuition is the result of relaxing one’s critical eye, getting into the zone and a lot of experience. If you have a lot of experience, then I suggest you switch on some music, relax, lie back and look around you and see what catches your eye as being the Right Piece. Intuition is the apparent ability to understand something immediately and to find a solution to a problem, without obviously conscious reasoning. It is accepted generally to be a right brain activity therefore switching off one’s critique will help!

The reliability of intuition, however is dependent upon both knowledge and experience of similar situations. Someone who has a great knowledge of gardening may just “know” what a certain plant needs in order to thrive without having to figure it out. A busy doctor in the emergency department (medicine still being more art than science!) will “know” instantly that this patient has a case of X disease even before the tests come back. More knowledge doesn’t always mean a better answer of course, but the likelihood of its being so is much greater.

Get friends to help youAQN
Well of course the Beatles knew that “a little bit of help from my friends” would get you through a lot of problems. And many have found that critique groups, formal or informal are a great way to problem solve. When someone other than yourself looks at your work they only see the work, they don’t see the frustrated hopes and dreams, the various things you’ve tried and failed, the wrong directions you have taken. They can just look at what you’ve got so far in much purer design terms.  They don’t have the dross blurring their vision (nothing like a choice mixed metaphor!).

Give up and say you never liked that wallet anyway
There’s nothing wrong with this – as long as you don’t do it every time!! Some ideas just aren’t strong enough to make it all the way through. But most will, with a little bit of time and coaxing. Listen to yourself if this is the answer you come up with. Is this your usual way out of design difficulties? If so, then seek an answer above…if this is a fairly rare occurrence for you and you feel you started a piece for all the wrong reasons - a group challenge you really didn’t want to do , a red piece when you’re in a blue mood and so on, then stuff the whole thing into the thrift store bag and have done with it!

I do hope you find your wallet! If it’s a nice sunny day – it’s glorious here – maybe give up the search for a while, stretch out on the grass and contemplate nature….. So if you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth

PS after 14 million pieces of spam and emails from readers saying they were getting spam as a result of reading my blog, I have had to put back on the step of typing out a few numbers and letters from a photograph before you comment.  But believe me doing this will only increase your visual intelligence!  So – please, feel free to comment!

Monday, October 8, 2012

On the Road

wa columbia river Columbia River Gorge (with de Lauriens for the car buffs!)

Apologies for sparse blogging.  I’ve been on the road and have seen wondrous things!  First a trip to teach a 2 day workshop and give a lecture in Portland, OR and then for a week’s workshop in Cape Cod.  I never realised that being a quilt teacher would lead to so much interesting travel: from the top left hand corner of the nation, to the top right, next to the bottom right and then to the bottom left…..sounds a bit like knittingcape cod oct 2012 067!

Alas, two days in OR/WA was insufficient for people to actually make any quilts though a lot of excellent designing went on.  And I was totally vindicated, both there and in Cape Cod, in my belief that quilt makers are more interested in actually learning  about making their designs stronger than in blindly buying up more products.  (Years ago I was told at a venue to stop teaching and allow the students to sew up their fabric so they could go and buy more – what an insult to those students!).  In my teaching the last few weeks, I was reassured that Information is just as (if not more than!) important as fabric and various other notions.  Of course, one can witter on for far too long and it’s important to be succinct and to the point!  I remember one class I took where the teacher spent all morning every day for 5 days on obscure principles of a little known form of yoga!  It didn’t improve my work one bit!  

One of the ladies in the picture above told me she was 82!  That’s so wonderful and so Encouraging – we’ve all got years left to create art quilts! An art form that will last us all our lives…with endless new possibilities.

Here are some of the very varied (isn’t it wonderful when every quilt in a workshop is different?) quilts that were being designed and put together on Cape Cod:

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I love this chair by Meredith – it has such character and warmth.  You can tell it’s been through a lot..but is still willing!  Her choice of colours really makes it glow.

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                                      Ina’s scene of the old town of Vilnius also glows with life and warmth – it has such a strong underlying structural value pattern that supports all those bright colors.


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Liz is working on the second of her polk weed series.  Her work shows that this overlooked and undervalued plant will surprise us all with its hidden strength,  and beauty. 




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I love it when family members take a class together.  these two quilts are by a mother and daughter.  It’s fascinating that they chose a very similar subject: looking up…Julie took many photos of a wonderful nearby tree and particularly liked this view upward (there are many more pieces to add).  Linda worked from memories of living in New York city and looking up at the towering skyscrapers….

Both achieved a great sense of height and depth in their work using a combination of perspective, and contrasts in the basic elements.


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Karen’s serene image of the beach looking toward the distant sea also has a lovely depth to it.  Apologies to Karen..the piece is actually cooler and bluer..than in the picture…and yes I did tease her about the little orange “sun” – a pin head.  Oh that the manufacturers would make pins with colorless heads!


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How lively  are Betty’s potato vines!  you can just see them dancing in the wind.  Her series of little quilts really brings out their beauty, their variety and their joi de vivre!


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Constance’s barn is only partially complete in this photo – there was much more to come.  She chose a square format to emphasize the solidity and reliability of the old much loved family barn.  Like several other folk, Constance took the extra step of going back to the source for more photographs – different views, different angles, different lights…it is so important to do that, to really know one’s subject.

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and here are Mary Lou’s pieces!  the foliage of Florida in all its lush tropical glory….doesn’t that come across so well?  I think the one on the right is particularly strong with the complementary colour scheme and the bold use of positive and negative shapes.


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Sandy made at least 5 quilt tops in her peapod series…and they’re bursting with life!  Great graphic shapes, power, strength and movement.  I can see a solo show!



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Sharon also created a wonderful sense of depth with her rock formations – plus I love all those skinny black lines, they give a fascinating calligraphic look to the piece.


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this photo doesn’t do justice to Elaine’s design since there is to be another large shape on the left…again she has achieved great depth, subtle color scheme and in her abstracting of the shapes a lovely sense of mystery…these floating gems are actually fungi…they look like pearls!

And talking of floating…photo

look at Linda G’s wonderful guitar floating out notes across the waves…this idea is so imaginative, I’m really looking forward to seeing all the rest of the series.


As you can tell, the two workshops have got me energized and I’m so keen to Make My Own Stuff now!!  No more workshops for a while, I’ve got to focus. But I do feel that as a teacher, one gets to learn just as much as the students…especially about the importance of Not Panicking!!

If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

PS very happy that I was lucky enough to be one of the few who got into Quilt National – and there is luck involved because there are many many wonderful pieces that are entered and sadly not enough room to hang them all in the Dairy Barn.  And in only two years we’ll all be going through the process again!