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

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

22. A.K. Remembered

Half way through creating this quilt in the early 90's, I ran out of the blue "sky" fabric and couldn't find any more anywhere. Attempting to create my own version of the blue flowered print, I took the plunge and for the first time tried fabric paints. The pieces are small enough and the quilt is busy enough that the old and new blues worked together just fine, and I acquired another set of skills that I have put to good use over time. But that isn't why this quilt's story is told here.

Most steps along the way are not giant leaps, and not every quilt is major. This one is a short story: a small quilt, a small tribute to someone who in a small way helped me along my path. Someone who happened to have the experience and wisdom to recognize where I was and who happened to do the exact thing I needed at just the right time.

"A.K." was the mother of a friend. She was also a quilter, one whom I saw regularly for a relatively short period of time whenever my friends and I met for our run at the house where she was living with her daughter's family. At a time when I was deeply mired in doubt about whether quilting would be a career or be relegated to hobby status, when outer and inner voices were pushing me to commit wholeheartedly to a focused working life, she commissioned me to make a birthday present for her daughter. It was to be in part a quilt of autumn in New England. I completed the commission, and I think she was pleased to be able to give my work to her daughter. It wasn't the quilt pictured here.

Not too long afterwards, she died. Some time later I found myself making yet another autumn quilt (it's clearly in my blood) and remembering this generous and wise woman, and I gave the quilt its name. She had made a relatively minor decision in choosing a birthday gift for her daughter. But her choice, added to other voices and other small gestures of support over time, helped me to believe that I wasn't put on earth to keep a spotless house nor to turn the world around or upside down. On my own I had finally figured out that I wasn't put here to teach in the public schools, either.

So I sat down and set about creating a real business plan. Having committed to my life's work, now I committed wholeheartedly to exploring all aspects of it--including the question of whether I could support myself. The business plan didn't last long in its original form, but the career has endured and the explorations have taken me in directions I never could have predicted. Meanwhile, the quilt has hung in art galleries and on dormitory walls, holding its own as a reminder to be grateful for fine people and small works.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

21. Hubcaps 2: Color Wheel

Back in ninth grade, I taught myself how to play the guitar so I could become a brown-haired version of Mary Travers. (I tried to iron my hair straight also, which worked about as well as my folksinging career.) The guitar was retired shortly after college when I realized I'd have to take some lessons and practice a lot in order to be satisfied with the sounds I was making. I had gone as far as I could without formal training.

I reached a similar stage in quiltmaking, but this time I committed to doing whatever it took to improve. Taking an introductory art class gave me a chance to work in a variety of media while honing my ability to see and to figure out what I saw. The quilt pictured here was made around this time and became the subject of an article in American Quilter Magazine about the experience of taking an art class and its effects on this quilt.

Hubcaps 2 continued a series in which I have enjoyed exploring machine imagery. Here I used only one of the nine patterns--in color this time--that I had drafted for "Hubcaps." Immediately faced with a compositional challenge, I struggled with the design, because no matter what I did I ended up with a bulls-eye in the center. Having pieced lots of gray prints together for a background (just as I had pieced colored strips together in my first hubcap quilt), I had dwarfed the single circle within too much background. Here's where taking the art class made a difference: I had learned to trust that if my efforts didn't look right to me, the design problem wasn't solved. Instead of strong-arming a pre-conceived solution into place, I had become willing to allow time for chance and random thoughts to assist me in coming up with satisfying answers. The quilt came together for me when I decided to view things from a different angle (oh, the metaphorical implications here!). I took the section of gray strips and tipped it in a diagonal orientation: much more satisfying to me, but still too overwhelming for the center circle. Superimposing a light-colored frame composed of pastel striped fabric (changing to brightly colored stripes where the frame crossed over the gray fabrics) reduced the sea of gray prints and was a solution which continues to delight me when I see this quilt. It would have been gratifying to get this effect on purpose, but here's how it really works: pile of rejected fabric on floor + quilt forming on wall + eyes wandering back and forth between the two = many possibilities, including some right ones. Benefitting from chance, though, has taught me to wait patiently for the lucky moments--and then learn how the effect can be achieved on purpose the next time. Working in series extends such lessons by letting me build upon previous problems and solutions.

There was now empty space to be filled within the light colored frame, and serendipity played a role here also. Before beginning the quilt, I had experimented with silkscreening. A small advertising picture of a hubcap design became my test screen, printed on gray and unbleached muslin fabrics. These printings were really supposed to be a trial run, but I liked the way they turned out and never printed any more. When placed together in a checkerboard arrangement, they echoed the central "color wheel/hubcap" image. I used exactly as many as I had, and I had exactly as many as I wanted, even though nothing had been pre-planned. A final border of darker grays and blacks re-introduced accents of color and curved lines drawn from the center.

While I still remember well what I did to design this quilt, I can't remember exactly how the inspirations for the design solutions came about: they are just "magic" moments. I do know it's a magic that can only come when I am in a prepared state of mind. The preparation in this case was patience and an open mind, fostered in part by the art class I took. The satisfaction I felt in my solutions was validated when "Hubcaps 2" was selected for inclusion in the Fiber Arts Design Book V by Lark Press.

I gave this quilt to my older son on the occasion of his 21st birthday, because I had read about an old tradition of "freedom quilts" presented to sons when they reach adulthood. Many of the flashes of color and contrast accenting this quilt came from two wonderfully graphic cotton shirts he wore through his middle school years, so the gift seemed appropriate. Once again I am struck by the power of a quilt as symbol and metaphor: I loved this quilt but "let it go" across the country with him, where it remains.