Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Slow Art of Learning

 I love learning, but I want my learning to be efficient! There simply isn't enough time to learn all I want to learn in the time available (whether the amount per day, or in terms of years!). So I've been reading about the best ways to learn, practice and improve. 

By the way that's me, on the left,  learning to dance "plus" in square dancing; pictures of me trying to learn to make better art, play piano, speak French, write etc etc would be too boring - no good visuals! As you can see, in dancing as well as in quilts, I love black and white!

This was taken at the Art Fair that I and two friends put together last weekend...we had a great time.  It finally occurred to me that ART wasn't just paintings, photographs or quilts hanging on a wall, but was also dance (insofar as you can call what I do "dance'!), music and acting...and a bunch of other things too of course.  So we added all those into the Fair and it was Excellent! And, by the way, the artists sold more of their work!!  So if you want a tip for making your Art Fair successful......add square dancing!

However, back to  learning....from music to soccer the advice seems to be: break it down into small pieces, take the difficult bits and practice them VERY SLOWLY while remaining totally focussed.  Studies show that it's not so much the Quantity of practice (though of course that is definitely correlated) but the Quality that leads to improvement.  Far too often we keep going over and over the fun bits - because they are just that!  But we ignore the difficult bits and just muddle through and hope for the best.  And make little progress.   In this last week I've been in three different group learning situations in three different art forms and have heard people say that they practice a lot but they're on a plateau and not making progress.  Whether you're making an art quilt, learning to play a sonata or executing a Spin Chain Exchange the Gears, if you don't go through the most difficult bit very slowly and thoughtfully totally involved in what you are doing, it's very likely that you will stick at the same level.

 Now that is absolutely fine if that's all you want to achieve and you're having fun - but over and over I hear people saying, "oh he/she is so lucky, they are so talented."  Most people (7 foot tall basketball players aside!) are NOT born with some amazing talent, they have learned and learned and learned very efficiently and slowly. Yes, even Mozart! and Picasso - read their biographies!

Ignore those producers of Stuff that constantly urge us to work quickly!! That is to their benefit (more product consumed, more product purchased), and not ours...if you want to be talented, break the task into small bits, focus and Go Slowly!

And now for a nice, SLOW cup of tea..if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Artist's Prerogative

It is the artist’s prerogative to reveal the beauty of common things to those who havn’t noticed!
Most of us usually do notice a gorgeous sunset, or a pretty child or a cuddly kitten.  But how many spot
the beauty on stained tanks of chemicals?
 As John Carlson put it in his highly recommended book on landscape painting:

 "the need is for something more than a commonplace truth".

It is the artist’s task to help/make the viewer see the beauty in things that they might well have missed.
  This is true regardless of the image that is being created.
 Still life: whoever looked twice at an old bottle?  Morandi helped us to see the nuances of color and form.  Dominie Nash shows us the amazing pattern and structure of a few items left lying on a table. 

Monet showed us the varying light on haystacks – pretty ordinary looking things one wouldn’t normally give much time to…and if you look at photographs of the actual scenes that Cezanne or Van Gogh painted you’d be amazed at how ordinary and prosaic many of them are.
You don’t have to go to Venice to find wondrous ideas, they are as close as your nearest supermarket!

People in my workshops sometimes say - I don't know what to make a quilt about, everything been done!!  Yes it's very true of sunsets and puppy dogs and sweet little cottages nestled in landscapes, to say nothing of those eternal sheep on the green hillside (these days they're probably statues anyway!), but what about the beauty of the everyday things that you see - the shadow of light on the bathroom wall, the dandelions (a sadly under rated flower) pushing their way up through cracks in the pavement, the accidental superimposition of two images, or the juxtaposition of oddities.   The keys of a piano seen from an unusual angle, the moss - oh the moss!! And yet I hear of people trying to get rid of it!!!
 What images, what little secret vignettes are stored in your brain?   Your memory is a good place to work from for it exaggerates the essentials and the trifles become blurred.  This is especially helpful to the artist.  Remember, if you just create (in whatever medium) that which is exactly there, the literal truth, it's frequently dull and unexciting.
Push the good stuff!! forget the rest!Always tell the story well, emphasizing the main action, don't worry about the details of  what the weather was like when it happened, or what Mrs Smith said when she heard about it!! Unless she had the wit of Oscar Wilde, of course!!

It's curious but true that the visual memories that often have the most impact are those that seem to go far back.  Carlson feels that much creative work is founded upon our earliest impressions, when everything was new and fresh and we had no preconceived notions.  Those early images  "ripen" as memory and feeling get to work on them.   They are our artistic inheritance, a treasure trove of ideas.  Furthermorewe may well be excited by something we see now precisely because it triggers these old early memories.   That might be why I see beauty in industrial buildings having grown up within sight of a gasometer!  And, very interestingly, artists are using gasometers as objects of beauty.  There is a show about to start in Germany based on many views of them.

I wonder how many artists have made quilts about cups of tea though, I think I'd better make one and get a few ideas!!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!  Elizabeth

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hearing Yourself Thinking, Hearing Yourself Seeing.

I just read a very interesting article in a new (to me at least) magazine of interviews (actually called Interview, it must have come free with something and has been totally fascinating reading) about two famous NYC art critics: Jerry Saltz (New York magazine) and Roberta Smith (NY times)  married to each other for years. They are two of the best known, most influential art critics of our time. They go out to see 25-30 art shows per week!  …then race home – (or perhaps stagger with stimulus overload!) and write their reviews.  Some of the things they discussed totally resonated with me.

 Roberta Smith said that the act of writing the review itself is the real test of one’s view of the art.  “Writing is a process that tells you what to think” – that sometimes your real feeling about the art you’ve seen isn’t clear until you try to put it into words and make sense of it. That's why I feel it's so important for us to develop an art vocabulary - words help us to think!  Just try it without!

Roberta Smith commented that quite often “when you look at art, you hear yourself thinking things you don’t want to be thinking”!!  (I know I’ve had thoughts at some quilt shows – and many art shows too, that I certainly felt I didn’t want to be SAYING, though I don’t know about thinking!)  She feels that your opinion can switch as you look at the work: initial dislike can change to like and vice versa, that you might go in with a very positive attitude but then as you look more, discover things you really don’t like.

They both advocate that one should take one’s time when viewing art.  They feel that “that whole Gladwellian “blink” first-opinion-is-the-best-one is terribly anti-intellectual to begin with, but for art it’s disastrous”.  And yet, how very often is this how our art quilts are judged?  The jurors for the prestigious quilts shows talk about having to make judgments just about as fast as the blink of an eye.  Certainly I felt that many of the judgments in a local art show I just visited where probably made when the judge’s eye was actually blinking!!  Because they were blinking ‘orrible!!!   

Smith and Salz recall some of the art that in the end they developed the greatest respect for, they had actually hated at first glance.  They suggest that one revisit art multiple times, letting your doubt work for you as an important cognitive process.

They also advocate that a critic – or juror – should know nothing  at all about what the artist thinks – no artist statements…let the art speak for itself.  I’ve never understood why the quilt catalogues require such statements and I don’t read them.When I do critique sessions in my workshops, I try to prevent the artist from speaking – not always possible of course!! The work of art itself is the artist statement, you don’t need more. 
 “Don’t talk, I can’t hear myself see!”

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

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Serial Work

There's a lot of buzz these days about working in a series. A few years ago I made about ten quilts all based on "the Idea of the City" - each one 60" square...I had one show where they all hung together and it was amazing....

 Working in series is not a new concept at all - Van Gogh made many different paintings of his vase of sunflowers, Edvard Munch produced a lot of Screams!!  Must have been quite hoarse by the end!
Our most famous quiltmakers, also, have always picked an idea or a theme, whether based on form or content and worked many examples of it.  I remember reading with fascination Nancy Crow's beautifully illustrated first book: Nancy Crow, Quilts and Influences, (only $5 second hand on Amazon, an amazing bargain), and seeing how she would take some formal idea like three or four strips of fabric, joined and then cut into squares and rearranged and make many different examples of it.

And, of course, the Log Cabin pattern, one of the most traditional of traditional quilts has numerous variations.

So, why work in a series anyway?  Why did all these people do it?
 What is so helpful about doing it that most major artists, in no matter what medium, all seem to do it?

And the Big Answer, the Most Important Answer, is because it works!  yes, this particular mousetrap is worth beating a path for!  Serial work leads, almost inevitably, to better work.  I say "almost" because you have to keep pushing, not just iterating.  Serial work doesn't mean developing a formula and sticking to it for the rest of your life no matter how stale it becomes - we've all read those awful potboilers, and I'm so disappointed when an author with great promise in his or her first few books gets caught up by the great "publish and prosper oligarchies" and starts churning out one stale hamburger after another.

And if you want to know more about serial work, I just happened to have written a book about it!! I promise there are going to be no potboilers, or stale hamburgers issuing forth from my keyboard, however!  The book is on Amazon: Working in a Series, published by C&T.  Or you can contact me for a signed copy, I still have a few left. (link on sidebar at the top).  Or you can sign up with the Academy of Quilting for my Working in Series class which starts this Friday.

Take a look at your own work - you might be surprised to find out that you've been serializing yourself!!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading.............Elizabeth