Monday, August 29, 2016

Working in Series....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 22, 2016

Spending money...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Perfection: don't play it safe!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 4, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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