My life as a quiltmaker (for chronological order, read oldest post to newest)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

14. Running Stitches

"Ambivalence" returned. Or rather, some elements of that quilt reappeared: its plaid geometric shapes became scaled-down "houses" lining an imagined New England roadside in a quilt made of my racing t-shirts. It was inevitable, I guess, that my running and quilting interests would merge when my shirts began escaping from the drawers they were stuffed into.

It isn't easy composing a quilt with such a wide variety of large and bold graphic designs. The obvious choice, and the simplest, would have been to cut out all the logos in same-sized square shapes and sew them together in a grid, which--given the number of shirts I had--could have sheltered my whole extended family. I began to experiment by putting up pieces on my flannel-covered design wall, but the result looked more like a jumbled billboard than the quilted "running journal" I had hoped for, so it was back to the drawing board.

Gradually I realized that what I wanted to convey was my enjoyment of running, and--daughter of New England that I am--that meant my enjoyment of running on country roads through four seasons, with the companionship of good friends. Knowing what it is you want to say makes all the difference: once I understood why I was making the quilt, I was able to separate the shirts into winter, spring, summer, and fall colors; I cut out a fabric road for the center squares. Piecing fabrics together in an improvisational way, I tried to suggest houses and trees along the road, rather than to depict them realistically. My friends--with whom I have roamed the roads, solved many a problem, shared laughs and tears--are represented in photographs transferred to fabric. These days, it's simple to print a digital image directly onto fabric, but back in the early 90s when I made this quilt, the only option available for getting pictures onto fabric meant buying reverse-image color photocopies of my pictures, coating the copies with a white glue-like liquid, and letting them dry. Little by little, I used water and elbow grease to rub away the paper; what remained was a color image imprinted on a plastic-like medium which I then glued onto fabric. It was a tedious process, but it put my friends in the quilt.

The results were positive: I ended up with extra room in my drawers for new race shirts, great dust cloths from the shirt remnants (to this day, t-shirt rags take the place of paper towels in our house), and a quilt which led to my first magazine article. Back then, external rewards seemed to come easily and regularly as a result of exposure in various regional and national quilt shows; it seems to me now that I never even worried about whether I would get into a show, and I never had to look far for the next opportunity to present itself. And sure enough, this quilt brought a new chance my way. One afternoon I received a phone call from one of the editors of American Quilter Magazine. She asked if I were sitting down and went on to tell me that she and her co-editor wanted to put my running quilt on the cover of their magazine. As it turned out, the editors were overridden by a higher-up who wanted something more acceptable to a larger number of readers. Instead, they asked me write an article about the quilt so they could feature it within the pages of the magazine. This was my first shot at writing, and I hadn't even had to send a query letter. In hindsight, I marvel that I somehow avoided agonizing self-doubt and simply took advantage of the opportunities that came along. Those lucky first experiences have made it easier for me to recover from the sometimes appropriate yet always disheartening rejections from shows and magazines that I have experienced since. Little successes and little failures make for a balanced life in the long run.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

13. Hubcaps

Even while we worked on our joint QuiltEssential commissions, Lynne and I each continued to create our own quilts as well. In my previous entry, I mentioned that I've learned to work in a series; pictured here is Hubcaps #1, the first of several "machine-inspired" quilts. Right next to it is a copy of the April 1989 Consumer Reports car issue. While you might easily imagine that the magazine inspired the quilt, I'd like to believe (without a shred of evidence) it was the other way round. In fact, the quilt pre-dated the magazine issue by at least a year (and it would have been two if not for the year I spent collecting black, white, and gray printed fabrics before beginning work). I include the side-by-side pictures of both not because I suspect that Consumer Reports staff were hiding in my workroom (though the quantities of fabric, thread and lint everywhere would surely have provided enough cover), but because it was an early reminder to me that "there is nothing new under the sun." Makers of quilts have always made heavy use of borrowing and sharing; creative souls in all media have always built upon the ideas of others; and sometimes--as in this case, I suppose--ideas are just "in the air" waiting to be used. I think it must be related to that phenomenon by which you learn a new word and then suddenly see it in every newspaper and billboard that catches your eye.

While quilters have for years found inspiration in butter churns, windmills, barn doors, and mariners' compasses, I don't find myself tripping over many of those objects in my daily rounds. What was a constant in my everyday routine was my car, especially in the days of chauffering youngsters from place to place, so of course--as most things eventually do in my world--it became grist for the quilt mill. Sitting at a car dealership while waiting for an oil change became an opportunity to marvel at the design effort that goes into wheel covers. It was an obvious next step for me to interpret them in fabric.

I experimented with a number of backgrounds against which to set the circles, but settled on this strip-piecing because it evokes motion. The hand quilting echoes the circles and suggests spinning, and a tire-tread design is the source of the hand-quilting lines in the border. These last two details are not visible in the picture here, which indicates two things: first, I shouldn't be doing my own photography, and second, I take special pleasure in adding details that reward the viewer who, having seen the quilt from a distance, comes up close for a better look.

This quilt was the first solo effort for which I received really positive feedback from judges, a coveted spot in a traveling exhibit (three real museums, with three real openings!) and some prestigious ribbons. It's also a quilt that carried to new heights what had now become my usual operating formula, which I can summarize like this: compelling idea + procrastination + deadline = finished-at-all-costs product with technical imperfections. As I finished the quilt top, all that strip-piecing was getting mighty stretchy around the edges; I decided to just "rein it in" with tight borders all around. When that method yielded a bulging middle, I quilted the center section even more. These labor-intensive efforts yielded a quilt which doesn't hang straight and still bulges in the middle. Nevertheless, with a temperature of 104 degrees and lots of flu symptoms, I finished the binding and shipped it off to a show. Perfection had eluded me again, and was a success. In adding a contemporary voice to a long line of forerunners, I felt truly connected to the rich tradition from which I had already benefited so enormously.

Monday, April 2, 2007

12. Ambivalence

It is just possible that I have succumbed to the twin dangers of too much nostalgia and too many episodes of Lost. I resolve to avoid "cliffhanger" blog endings for a while. But here is the promised "setback" story.

I've talked about a bit of the recognition Lynne and I received for our work together, but now is the time for the tale of how we were carried away by our own success. We began work on a piece which we would enter into a show entitled "Tactile Architecture." Not only did no one ever see it in that show, no one ever saw it in any show. Here's why.

With school-aged children and part-time jobs in addition to our "QuiltEssential" joint venture, Lynne and I were veering between “work” activities and “home” activities; we were women caught in the middle of a culture and era which caused me, at least, much confusion about exactly where my energy should be directed at any given moment, day, week, month, or year. We were taking our work very seriously, but we weren't exactly raking in piles of money. We were making some dollars, some art, and some bedcovers. I won't speak for Lynne (she's always had her head on straighter than mine on this topic), but I struggled to separate self-respect from earnings, and connect it to how well I was using my time in life.

We undertook a doomed effort to bring clarity about these conflicts into a quilt that ended up reflecting all of our confusion instead. Our design sketch depicted houses that said “family”, buildings that said “work/office”, and women's heads that said “we're caught between the two” (as well as "we don't quite know how to do fabric faces"). Our concept contrasted the straight lines of the buildings with the curved lines of the women “caught” in between.

Truly it was too much of a burden for one quilt to bear. Caught up in the ideas and the creative process, we failed to realize our folly. In fact, by that time, we were adding yet another layer of meaning in the hand stitching design: a tree of life, just in case the quilt was deficient in symbolism. To her credit, Lynne understood earlier than I that this quilt wasn't developing as successfully as we'd hoped. As the deadline for submission approached and the time pressure for finishing the hand quilting mounted, she abandoned the attempt. Unwilling to admit defeat, I completed the quilt. Persistence in the face of adversity isn't always a good choice. Together, we showed our work to a trusted friend of good judgment, who looked quizzically at the central shape containing those strangely disembodied heads and said, “interesting..."

For those who might not realize: that word is not a ringing endorsement. She followed up with “...but what's the football in the center?” From that moment, the quilt was referred to between us as “the football quilt”. Its true name is “Ambivalence,” a title chosen to enlighten the viewer about the ideas expressed in the quilt but which in fact ended up referring to our feelings about it.

HUGE lessons were learned: (1) no matter how great the idea, someone had better be seeing—and not just with the mind's eye—the visual design that is actually taking shape, preferably before too much work has been done; (2) no matter how many of those great ideas there are, it is probably wiser not to include all of them in one quilt. These days, I've learned to work in series so I can explore a subject over time and don't have to include all my favorite ideas or fabrics at once. I try to remember to look at what I'm doing and to see more truly and simply. I now know just how hard that is to do; "simple" never gets any easier, and I don't think it ever will. But I'm truly and simply happy that I can keep trying.