Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Remembering Lynn

One of the people in my piecing class at the Crow Barn last month was Betty Goodwin, whom I have known for several years.  Even if you don't know her, you may know of her as the donor of a major prize at Quilt National, the Lynn Goodwin Borgman Award for Surface Design. Lynn was Betty's daughter, an avid quilter, and the two had frequently attended workshops and quilt shows together, enjoying the opportunity to spend time together without the distractions of family and chores.

Lynn Borgman

Lynn died unexpectedly in 1999 after supposedly routine outpatient surgery and it was left to Betty to deal with her fabric stash.  A lot was given away but Betty kept some things, including many, many yards of the old Pointillist Palette fabrics in every colorway that had been produced.

She brought some of them to our workshop, wondering if maybe she could use them after all those years.  Well, why not?  What better way to remember your loved one than to  bring her into the room with you as you work with her fabric.

Betty used the pointillist fabric for this exercise in fine line piecing, and it proved to be an interesting experiment in value contrast.  Notice how the fine lines pop out in some places and disappear in others.  She also achieved a nice effect by cutting the center panel out of the piecing and flipping it around.

Before her death, Lynn had been planning to attend a workshop that required a lot of strips, so she had methodically cut them to size and packed them in storage boxes.  Betty had kept those too and brought them along.

She sliced the strips even narrower to use as fine lines in the piecing.  Here is the composition in progress; the print strips made beautiful delicate lines to set off the solid color blocks.

Here's Betty with her work for the week:

It's always energizing to have the spirit of someone else in the room while you're making art, one reason why I love to work with other people's leftovers.  Although none of the rest of us had the pleasure of knowing Lynn, we felt her presence and love with us in the room.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Perfect copies -- but are they art?

Much discussion in quilt/art circles recently regarding two prizewinning quilts at the big Houston show this year.

Virginia Greaves, Worry, 2014

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

You probably recognize the image as the famous photo taken in California by Dorothea Lange, documenting the travails of migrant workers during the drought of the Dust Bowl.  That photo was black and white, while Greaves has imagined it in color and executed it in machine applique.

On the Quiltart email list, typical for listserv discussions, the focus started on a nitpick: was it a copyright violation to appropriate the Lange image.  (Apparently it's in the public domain, since Lange was working for the U.S. government.) But it quickly moved to a  discussion of whether it's a Good Thing to copy somebody else's photo(or even your own photo) to make your own artwork.

Somebody pointed out another big winner at Houston, ironically in the category of "innovative artistry," which was a replica of a painting.

Maria Landi and Maria Lucia Azara, Summer Wind

Anna Bocek, La Playa series

When this quilt was first discussed on the list, one commenter put the subject to rest by suggesting that the show entry form should require that the artist has gotten permission to use any text or imagery.  This strikes me as a solution to the wrong problem.  Among other things, it would forever rule out quotations from the Bible or Shakespeare, not to mention remixes of Vermeer or Picasso.  And I think the point is not whether you have somebody's permission to work from their original, but whether you should.

So is it a Good Thing to copy somebody else's photo or painting?  And then is it a Good Thing to enter it as your own work in a big show?

One Quiltart reader said "to present it as a faithful reproduction but in fabric is a form of cheating.  In my opinion there is little difference in this than using a commercial pattern.  This is not the same as inspiration.  I can download most any image from the net and with Photoshop turn it into a pattern of any size."  Similarly, a bunch of art quilters with whom I shared a meal the weekend the Houston winners were announced thought that Photoshop-enabled translation of photos into quilts was nothing more than "paint by numbers."

But other readers defended the practice.  One wrote: "I liken rendering a photograph in a different medium (such as fiber) no different than a singer covering a brilliant old song.  Even if the rhythm and lyrics are the same, even if the very same instruments and arrangements are used, it's a new artistic work.  It's an homage to the original."

One wrote:  "So what if these quilters use photographs taken by others?  Have you honestly tried to render an image in fabric?  It takes an artist's eye to translate the spirit of the photo into another medium."

Someone else wrote:  "Ginny Greaves' quilt based on the Lange photograph seems to me to be in the tradition of artists who are influenced and inspired by other artists' works.  Translating a photograph into an entirely different medium, such as fabric, seems sufficiently different to make it unique."

But another reader wrote:  "Simply interpreting it in the fabric medium doesn't really bring anything new to it.  They don't sing with a distinctive style of the quilt artist.  They are just copies.  And I simply do not understand making art, copied from someone else's photo, that you wish to look just like the original!  That story has been told!"

Another:  "Copying a photo slavishly is NOT a particularly creative endeavor, especially when the goal is to make it exactly like someone else's original.  In the case of fabric medium, it is a very clever and dedicated workmanship issue to get it perfect.  But NOT a personal expression of a creative fiber artist."

Which leads to a final question, is it a Good Thing for the judges to give a big prize to a quilt that reproduces somebody else's image?  Arguably the Houston judges didn't know that Landi and Azara's quilt was so closely based on a painting, although the signage says "original design inspired by a painting by Anna Bocek."  But the judges would have had to have lived all their lives in an aluminum-foil-lined box to not recognize the Migrant Mother as a copy of Dorothea Lange's famous photo.

One of the Quiltart readers wrote: "at the risk of sounding testy, what about the word "Original" do the judges and jurors not understand?"

Someone else:  "How can fiber art ever be taken seriously if blatant copy work is what is rewarded at our top shows?"  Another responded: "We often gripe about quilts not being taken seriously as an art medium and being excluded from 'art' shows, and this is one of the reasons why.  It's not just about copyright and legalities, and it's not just about quilt show rules -- even though both of those things matter.  It's about raising the conceptual and emotional level of the work itself and pushing past the quilt world's emphasis on a certain type of technique."

Another:  "I was shocked... that these quilts... were even accepted.  In my opinion, composition is one of the most important parts that make a successful work of art.  When an image is copied exactly, you are using the original artist's composing ability."

Somebody else:  "Art quilts should be original work that comes from the mind of the creator. Variations of things where the artist has incorporated her own interpretation would be acceptable as long as... you can actually see the artist's fancy has taken some flight.  An exact replication, regardless of how it is technically achieved should not be part of the art quilt vocabulary.  I am not a fan of most things from photos.  I can understand using a photo as a jumping off point but where is the vision, creative spirit, and color sense in copying something in front of you?"

Another wrote:  "I find it embarrassing for the artist to simply lift the image -- verbatim so to speak -- and present it in a major show....  What were the judges thinking? ... I know some may think I'm an art snob... but we can't have it both ways.  Is artquilting an artform or a nice hobby?"

The opposing viewpoint:  "All I'm saying is, if it transports out of your daily grind, it if challenges you creatively, who are we to judge the arty-ness of a piece?"

The response:  "The jurors SHOULD be judging the "arty-ness" of the piece.  This is important to those of us committed to making ART from fabric... Yet the big awards are still going to copies and Hallmark card compositions as long as they are brilliantly constructed."

What do you think?

Check out the whole roster of Houston winners here.

This is cross-posted to Ragged Cloth Cafe, a blog about art.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Q = A = Q 9 -- a trend toward abstraction?

Yesterday I wrote about representational imagery in the Q=A=Q show at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn NY.  Shortly after the show opened I exchanged emails with Patty Kennedy-Zafred, who had a quilt in the show but had not been able to attend the reception.

She wrote me:  "It appears that a large portion of the pieces chosen were abstract, color/design study, a trend I'm seeing more and more.  Do you think that is just coincidence, a trend in the art quilt movement, jurors' preferences?"  She said she thinks the same was true of other recent major art quilt shows.

Patricia Kennedy-Zafred, Sand and Sea: The Children of the Canneries

I don't know whether the preponderance of abstract works is really a trend, but it was true in Q=A=Q this year.  And as both a Q=A=Q juror and an interested observer of the art quilt scene, I think that's probably a good thing.

In my experience, the great majority of representational imagery to be found in quilts is decoration rather than art.  Flowers, birds, rose-covered cottages, snowscapes, mountain sunsets.  For the non-traditionalist, puppies, fish, kids playing (extra points if your own kids or grandkids or puppy).  For the very adventurous, render your puppy in purple instead of his natural brown and white!  Many of the quilts featuring such decorative images are very pleasant, but I have a hard time thinking they belong in a high-end show of quilts as art.

What makes it art, in my mind, is a concept, an intention, a message, something more than "it's pretty."  (And I'm not just describing quilts; there are plenty of paintings that stop at "it's pretty," and while you might enjoy them on your bedroom wall they probably don't deserve space in a museum.)

Also in my experience, most representational imagery in the quilt world tends toward the highly realistic end of the spectrum.  The more it looks like a photo, the more it's likely to be the viewers' choice.  Unfortunately, fabric isn't a medium particularly conducive to photorealism.  Sure, you can painstakingly render your photo in pixelated form, find fabrics of the appropriate value and hue, and   applique them for a startling resemblance to the original picture, but aside from the technical gee-whiz of the transformation, this process generally leaves me cold.  I'm usually not sure why the artist did it, or whether the resulting quilt is a step up or a step down, artistically,  from the original image.

Many quilt artists paint directly onto the cloth, then finish it by quilting and maybe elaborate thread painting.  I tend to like this kind of work, provided it isn't just sentimental flowers and mountain sunsets, although there's still the lingering question, if she wanted to paint this picture why did she render it as a quilt instead of on a stretched canvas.  Other artists accomplish painterly effects with fabric collage, a technique I love.  For some reason, I don't often wonder if she wanted to do a collage why did she render it as a quilt instead of as paper pasted on a support.

Patricia Kennedy-Zafred, Sand and Sea: The Children of the Canneries

Of course, if you want photorealism, you can simply print your photo onto the fabric.  Sometimes this works brilliantly, as in Patty's Q=A=Q piece shown above.  She has taken historic photos from the Library of Congress, reproduced them on fabric, overlaid them with text describing the subjects, and enhanced the photos with dye and ink.  The result is clearly her own work, incorporating comment and context, and not just a rendering of the original photo.

But too frequently quiltmakers stop after they print the photo onto the fabric.  I've seen too many photos just plopped into the middle of a quilt, perhaps with some handlettered identification.  I won't jury that kind of work into a museum show because it doesn't seem to have a purpose.

A Toronto curator was recently quoted in connection with the World of Threads exhibit as saying, "It is essential for artists working in fibre to push the boundaries.  Think long and hard about what the conventions and cliches are of your media and process.  Why does it have to be that way?  Do other people find what you are making meaningful?  Does it communicate to them?"

Too many representational quilts are "conventions and cliches," in my opinion, largely because of subject matter but also because of technique.  I guess a lot of abstract quilts are also cliches, but in general I think the quilt format is more friendly to abstraction than to representation.  That's probably because of the predominance of geometric and abstract blocks in traditional quilts, a heritage that is hard to escape.

What do you think?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Q = A = Q 8 -- representation

So far in my discussion of Q=A=Q at the Schweinfurth I have not showed you much in the way of representational imagery.  In fact, there was not much in the way of representational imagery in the show -- less than one-quarter of the works chosen.

Pamela Allen, Kissing in Public, 54 x 36"

I liked the style -- stylized without being cutesy -- and the palette, composition and craft were all up to speed.  A nice use of commercial fabrics, and elaborate quilting in the sky.

Margaret Abramshe, Synchronized in the Sea of Love, 49 x 40"

Mostly done by phototransfer, this quilt relies on three repeated motifs -- girls in bathing caps, swimming girls, and fish -- for a narrative with a bit of mystery.  Every now and then symmetrical is the way to go for tying disparate elements together, and this composition works well.

Daniela Arnoldi and Marco Sarzi-Sartori, Venice Lagoon,   (detail below)

This cityscape is made from fabrics and trims of many different materials, densely layered on to create painterly texture and depth. In the photo it may look a bit heavy-handed, but in person it's stunning.  

Shawn Quinlan, The New American Heritage, 63 x 51"  (detail below)

Shawn must have the world's greatest collection of novelty prints, which he deploys in his never-ending series of quilts making snarky comments on politics and culture.  Here he cut up a vintage wall hanging and tea towels as well as other fabrics for images of Washington, Lincoln, Uncle Sam and other American icons.

Paula Kovarik, Memory's Playground, 27 x 55"  (detail below)

And finally, here's a masterpiece of drawing, an extended stream-of-consciousness doodle in free-motion machine stitching on a vintage tablecloth.  I don't know what the elephant has to do with the starfish or the hippo or the fork or the genie's lamp, but I love the way the line covers the whole surface, punctuated by areas of dense pastel filling stitches.  As a finishing touch, the long threads between little star points are allowed to float over the top of the drawing.