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

Thursday, May 24, 2007

18. Grandmother's Rows Garden

The way I figured it, "Grandmother's Rows Garden" was bound to be a failure. "Leave of My Senses" had succeeded beyond expectations, leaving me intimidated and challenged in the process, not really knowing what to do next. But by now I'd gotten into the habit of entering several large shows each year, partly to spur me on to complete at least a few of the many ideas that were usually swirling in my head, and also to reward myself for doing the more routine work of commissions. Though I fully expected to fail to live up to myself, I designed and submitted this quilt to Quilter's Gathering in 1993. I had it in my possession as a completed quilt all of about 30 minutes before I mailed it off to the show. I have never seen it since. The magazine pictured above owned it after awarding me the purchase prize for "Most Innovative Use of a Traditional Pattern."

I don't even know where the quilt is now, although that isn't so different from the fate of many of the quilts I've made. What I do know is how it felt to go through the design process, because I wrote about it in my journal (oh, how I wish I had done more of that!). I started working on August 15, with a two week time-frame to go from nothing at all to a finished slide of a mostly-finished piece to enter into the show. I began with the desire to use a large hexagon shape and spent the first afternoon staring at my empty white design wall, cutting, placing, rearranging, and removing pieces of fabric. Nothing felt right. Nothing came together. At the end of the first day, I still had a blank wall--and now a bad mood, as well. Though I walked away, my thoughts continued to wander back to the workroom as I tried to figure out how to get the look I was after: vertical columns alternating between "vase" shapes and "flower" shapes reminiscent of calla lilies, with the hexagon shapes vanishing as color flowed from one block to the next. But it just wasn't happening. Two days later I had to ask myself why I was basing the quilt on hexagons if I didn't want them to show up? I decided to explore the possibility of leaving space between each hexagon, with some kind of fabric strip in between, so that these geometric shapes would contrast with the curving vertical lines. Then the problem became how I would actually sew everything together. I stayed up much too late working on a new technique for topstitching the quilt together with machine embroidery stitches. It would have been simpler to use an iron-on fusible web product to accomplish the design effect, but I had strong opinions against having a bed-size quilt that was cardboard-stiff instead of soft.

The next day I was back to making pillow shams and notebook covers (small commissions), but since I was in the "impulsive, impatient" stages and likely to get carried away by my ideas (see "Ambivalence" in a previous blog entry) it wasn't a bad thing to step away from the quilt for a day or two, so I could really see it again.

By the end of August, I was delighted that I had produced a major piece in a tight time frame (except for completing the hand quilting), and noted in my journal that I was happy with the way it had turned out: "not a blockbuster piece," I wrote, "but a good size, and it offered several technical challenges which I feel I handled well." In retrospect, one of the most important benefits of making this quilt was the addition of new technical abilities to my "tool box." The prize money didn't hurt, either. But the largest consequence of all was that, in creating this piece while contemplating former success, I realized--and noted in my journal--that "every quilt I make has to have my voice in it, and it has to be honest work. If those conditions are met, if I avoid falling into the trap of doing the latest fad technique...I can be satisfied with both the process and the product." That understanding saved me when I eventually did experience the very rejection that I had expected when I made "Grandmother's Rows Garden".

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

17. The Bobby Quilt

"Bobby" was one of the first commissions I worked on in the "post-Lynne" era of QuiltEssential. It remains the most painful experience of 30-plus years of making quilts. The quilt was the third one commissioned by this particular client, for whom Lynne and I had previously made two quilts which had been warmly received. This grandmother wanted another quilt for her newest grandson, and she wanted cars and trucks, in primary "boy" colors as opposed to baby pastels. I set about designing four different car/truck blocks, drew up a proposed quilt design on graph paper, pretty much exactly as it is in this picture, and got the "go-ahead." I chose a blue/green plaid for the borders--very "masculine", I thought--and a blue print for the sashing and for the name that was to be sewn along the bottom of the quilt. I chose lots of stripes, plaids, and bold graphic fabrics for the cars and trucks. I was satisfied with the results as I delivered the quilt to the house just before Christmas; the client wasn't there, but her daughter accepted the package.

Shortly after Christmas, I received in the mail a letter from my client. In no uncertain terms, she rejected the quilt I had made, telling me that the quilt was far too ugly (her words) for her to even consider giving it to her grandson. She asked that I pick it up and take it away. It wasn't at all what she wanted, and she made no attempt to spare my feelings in saying so; quite the contrary, in fact--she made sure I understood just how upset she was that her planned Christmas present was such a disaster.

I shed bucketloads of tears at the kitchen table where I finished reading the letter. Devastated, I wrote a quick note asking when I could pick up the quilt, enclosed her refund, and cried some more. After the tears came anger, when I considered the way she had handled the matter. Then, gradually, I worked on the "forgiveness" part of the experience--that is, after I had sounded forth rather vehemently on the subject with my running buddies; oh, the things they have heard over the years....

The perspective granted by the passing of time now lets me understand what I gained in the process. After the humiliation came a firm resolve to listen more carefully, to make sure I truly understood what the customer was asking for, and to make sure we were on the same page about color vocabularies by the end of our contract process. Commissions are not about me and my preferences. All of my clients since that time have benefited from that lesson, and in the kind of work that I currently do, it is especially important that I get it "right," although that is a subject for future blog entries.

Happy ending: I removed the "Bobby" sewn along the bottom border and sold the quilt to someone who was able to see the quilt with a kinder, gentler vision. And my confidence was tempered and strengthened by a dose of humility and a feeling of gratitude that we don't all see the world through the same eyes.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

16. Spring Thaw

After making "Ambivalence," Lynne and I returned to themes of nature. We set out to make a companion piece to "Forget Me Not," featuring a pieced background, a "window" area containing floral motifs, and suggestions of a landscape. One thing we knew at the outset: there would be no curves this time. Leafing through the many "idea" scrapbooks that we kept to inspire us, we happened upon a magazine ad featuring a narrow, vertical shaft of light on a dark background. Thematically it had nothing to do with what we wanted to work on, but it was a compositional starting point. We began with the "landscape" background, working from the top down, beginning with small rectangles and gradually increasing the size to give some abstract sense of perspective. Also in the scrapbook was a color image, torn from a magazine, which depicted an alpine setting with colorful flowers in the foreground. I have a dim recollection that our subject matter and color palette were influenced by that clipping. So much for the background.

Then the question became: what exactly do we add to give this quilt its reason for existing. After all, it wasn't imagined as a bed quilt with an obvious utilitarian purpose; we wanted it to have a focal point. We experimented with a number of ways to fill our "window" area, and abstract flower blocks were our answer. We then composed a vertical panel of pieced strips and set them at a diagonal angle to provide additional contrast between them and the background. Somewhere along the line we began to perceive the design as that which our title suggests: a spring thaw, an icy-cold mountain gradually giving way in color and geometry to a river and a springtime burst of flowers and greenery. Choice of design for the quilt stitching then became clear: snowflake-like shapes quilted with silver thread within the vertical shaft, "landscape" contour lines in mountains, river, and field areas, and flower-like shapes dotting the "grassy" part of the landscape.

The finished quilt hung at a number of venues, the most memorable for me being the Vermont Quilt Festival. The previous year at the same show, Lynne and I had celebrated winning awards by enthusiastically enjoying the champagne reception; the year "Spring Thaw" hung, we commiserated over the fact that it hadn't won a ribbon by energetically partaking of the champagne reception.

Our last joint art quilt effort, "Spring Thaw" is intertwined with beginnings and endings, with life's ups and downs and unpredictable paths. By this time, Lynne and I had done a lot of teaching together. There were many innovative attempts at "promotion" and marketing, many grant proposals and letters and articles written, many ribbons won, many shows mounted. We had drunk many a cup of coffee as we pondered the problems posed by living the "artist's life." We had shared many a chuckle as our dogs raced after each other. Our work had been featured in art galleries and fine craft venues and even a Japanese magazine. We had taken an art class together at RISD in the continuing ed department. We had worked craft fairs together, and eyed each other sympathetically and silently as we heard the inevitable comments of potential customers who wanted to do just what we were doing--if only they had the time. And how much time DID it take, anyway? Hearing the answers, the customers would often completely support our charging a fair price, all the while signaling that they themselves would not be spending that sum on work they could imagine themselves doing--if only they had the time.

But over time, we found ourselves in an era when imported quilts had begun to overwhelm the market, appearing for impossibly low prices in department stores. Though we were offering custom design, our prices for traditional quilts were now being compared to prices of quilts made in countries where wages and materials costs were far lower than in ours. And though we were still selling art quilts, made by one or the other of us, they were often the smaller pieces at smaller prices.

During those same years, our children were growing up. My first son was preparing to go to college, and there were financial pressures and life issues to address--including issues I thought I had already figured out but had really just placed on hold for a time. I was working with our local conservation commission on a part-time basis as well as doing QuiltEssential commissions and teaching. And most often, it was a commission or teaching, not making art. One particular job proved to be the last straw, at least for Lynne: two identical, traditional, queen-sized quilts forced her to ask herself if she really wanted to be spending her artistic energies in exactly that way. Our goals began to diverge as we fell under different kinds of pressures and expectations, and with the writing of one final check, QuiltEssential was in my keeping.

Lynne and her husband own "Forget Me Not." "Ambivalence" lives in my house and is often featured in the lectures I give. We donated "Spring Thaw" to the local art museum for its annual fundraising auction, where it raised a worthy and gratifying sum.

Our quilting connection endures; I still look to her for the occasional critique when I get stuck or want a trustworthy reaction to some new effort. She drinks less coffee these days than I do, but we, along with another old friend from the early days, regularly meet over mugs of something hot. And QuiltEssential goes on.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

15. Leave of My Senses

Mistakes? This quilt had them in spades. Lessons? Oh, yes. And opportunities, too: my forays into a quilting career were confirmed and furthered. I didn't give the quilt its name: my husband came up with the idea when he saw me feverishly trying to finish the top for an entry deadline: "Leave of My Senses," he called it.

Planning for this piece began while I was lying awake one night. Moonlight, filtered through holly bushes just outside the window, streamed into our bedroom and cast crescent-shaped shadows onto the wall. I thought the shadows in shades of gray were interesting all by themselves, even without any color. I had already wanted to work with curved leaf shapes and had (with Lynne) done a very simple version in "Forget Me Not." Happening upon a book covered by marbleized paper, I studied closely how the positive and negative shapes and values flowed into each other. Inspirations and observations merged, yielding a 12-piece curved block unit. Sixty-six of these blocks created the quilt top. Though every block was made from identical templates, the placement of lights and darks varied, and half the blocks were mirror-imaged. No two blocks were the same in fabric choices; I used some maroon and green prints and a wide variety of grays and blacks. It was a nightmare to keep track of--its title was most descriptive.

Now, about those mistakes. As usual, I worked feverishly to meet the deadline. Although life really was pretty darn busy back then, I have to admit I probably focus best when I'm under time pressure. But my work can be compromised technically as the clock ticks mercilessly along, and that happened this time. I got the slides mailed off all right, was accepted into the show, and even won a first place ribbon. Yet when I saw the quilt hanging, I overheard one woman say to another, " really doesn't hang that well, does it?" I wish I could say that she was just envious that I had a ribbon. In fact, she--and this bugged me no end--was right. I know that I don't make perfect quilts; I don't have the patience or the skill for it, and only occasionally do I even have the desire. Still, her comment gnawed at me.

Finally realizing that the technical imperfection which kept the quilt from hanging "just right" kept people from focusing on the design and the details I wanted them to see, I took drastic measures. When the quilt was accepted into the American Quilter's Society Show in Paducah, KY, I took time to remove the sawtooth edging, time to take out all of the elaborate quilting in the two side borders, time to remove the borders completely. I was determined to find out why it would not hang straight, and I did. The length of the quilt varied by 1-2 inches depending upon whether I measured through the vertical center, or the sides. The sides were just a bit longer, causing the ripple in the center. I shortened the side borders, put everything back together again, and shipped it down to Paducah.

One afternoon during the multiple-day show, I received a phone call from one of the show officials and was overwhelmed to hear that "Leave of My Senses" had won the first place in the Innovative Design competition of this nationally prestigious show. To me it felt like winning an Oscar, and in addition to validation, a fancy ribbon, and a Waterford crystal award, it included a money prize which enabled me to buy a fancy new sewing machine to replace the very basic model I had received as a high school graduation present. I would be interviewed and published in the book containing the winners. I gained both confidence and credentials for furthering my career goals: in the next months and years I would have to decide exactly what form those goals would take.

In this instance, all that I went through to fix my mistake was justified by the award. I learned important lessons. It is definitely more efficient not to rush things if it means undoing them later. Though I fixed the mistake that was interfering with my communicating with the viewer, I didn't feel compelled to fix other mistakes: for example, one set of "prairie point" inserts in one of the curved seams is inserted upside down. No one but me has ever noticed unless I pointed it out. It would have been a waste of time to fix that. And as for avoiding making such mistakes (excepting the ones caused by sheer haste): not gonna happen. I've been doing this a lot of years, and even my current work sometimes yields examples of quite unintentional glitches discovered after a quilt has been shown, published, even purchased; there are probably more that I haven't even discovered. I'm hoping they will serve as (unintentional) rewards for some future diligent observer.

Long after this quilt had traveled to many other places and won additional ribbons, it was a source of one of my greatest rewards. In 1994 there was an annular (solar) eclipse in our area, in mid-day. I had just finished a run with several friends when they called to me; just about the time when the eclipse had reached its peak, one of them had noticed the sunlight casting crescent-shaped shadows through the leaves of a large tree and suddenly realized she was looking at a pattern that very much reminded her of "Leave of My Senses." When I returned home from my run, there was a message from my husband who, coming in from his lunch hour run, had seen those same shadows through another tree (the crescent-shaped shadows are a feature of this type of eclipse) and had for the first time understood the inspiration behind this quilt. To have created something that had caught a glimpse of nature's design--even though I didn't fully understand it--was the greatest thrill. To communicate some truth--however small--through the work of one's hands and spirit: well, there is no greater motivation for me. Nor is there a goal more difficult and elusive and rare. Clever, "interesting," beautiful, different, new: any of these is easier than "true". The pursuit of authenticity and the very occasional but joyous and even surprised "yes!" that rises when I see what I've made are all that is necessary to explain why I must continue making quilts.