Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Bringing Stitching Forward
Penny Gold here. My attention in quiltmaking has long been focused on color and shape. Choosing fabrics, creating pleasing adjacencies of color, selecting shapes--these have been my main pleasures. Quilting the layers together at the end was often done with reluctance--I loved how the tops looked without quilting. I thought about changing to doing fabric collage rather than quilts, but I love the feel and drape of quilts, and I enjoy giving quilts to family and friends as gifts that can be used. And--I had to admit--the finished quilted product always did look better than the unquilted top.
I have always done some handquilting (reserved for projects that had special personal meaning) as well as machine quilting. Whether working by hand or machine, I found it difficult to think creatively about the stitching; my main question was: what stitching would detract/divert the least from the design I had made through color and shape. Several years ago, I decided to challenge myself to think in a more wide-ranging way about the quilting, to think of the quilting as a kind of drawing, as a layer that could add additional meaning to a quilt rather than just supporting what was already there. I had the good fortune to be able to take an art class at the college where I was teaching, a course called "Drawing in the Expanded Field." The course was about a wide range of 20th-century and contemporary drawing, considering "drawing" in the widest possible sense. I looked at artists familiar to me in a new light and learned about many more; favorites include Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin, Gego and Eva Hesse. I did a lot of experimental drawing. I learned a great deal, with two things in particular that have an impact on my work in quilting:
1) I love repetition of simple lines and shapes. This is obvious from my attraction to the artists mentioned above. Variation is also a necessary part of the work—but sometimes only the very slight variation that comes from something being repeated by a human hand. There is an obvious connection here to the pleasure I get from traditional hand quilting—one similar stitch after another—and from my favorite style of machine quilting, which is closely spaced parallel lines. There is a kind of control and attentiveness in these processes that appeals to me.
2) But—more of a surprise to me--I also learned that abandoning control can also yield interesting and pleasing results. I'll talk about two examples.
Using a code to generate a sequence of shapes:
One exercise in the class was to find a pre-existing pattern or code, and to use that to generate a sequence of some sort in one's art work. The pre-existing pattern I used was a sentence taken from a book I happened to have open. Then, following the sequence of consonants and vowels, I assigned vowels to be squares and consonants to be rectangles:
I loved making this and others like it, fiddling with various shapes and assigned codes. It freed me from making decisions about placement of each shape—I just followed the code. Yet, because there was some underlying meaning/rule in the originating code (the relationship between consonants and vowels in English words), the resulting pattern of shapes had a kind of in-built balance to it. I enjoyed the combination of freedom with structure.
Cutting things up and re-structuring:
One of my ongoing quilt projects has to do with stones, some pieces focused on color, others on shape. For the ones focused on shape, I was intent to convey the beauty of the myriad curving contours of stones, so I put those curves against a contrasting background, for example, these small pieces made with hand-painted fabric:
One of the class assignments was to cut up something and then make something from the pieces. I photocopied a number of photographs of stones, cut up the photocopies, and collaged them together. Here's one of the resulting collages, perhaps my favorite piece from this class:
and a detail:
I made straight-edge cuts, and I like how those straight edges play against the curved lines of the stones. This is nothing like the fabric work I had done before, and I never would have gotten here through step-by-step figuring out. It took the leap of cutting up, itself done randomly, without intentionally trying to make particular shapes (other than angular edges).
Buoyed with courage from that experiment, I took the leap, and cut up some fabric stone shapes that I had appliquéd onto fabric, and then put them back together in a new composition:
I do love this small piece (13x14"). But still, what to do about quilting? Once again, I couldn't bear to "interfere" with the shapes, and I kept stitching to an absolute minimum, invisible except from the back.
So, the class taught me a lot about what could be gained by experimenting, and most especially, by letting go of control and of conscious intention. But the impact in my quilt-making ended up being in the areas of color and shape, not in the line of quilting. Yet the groundwork was laid, and when I read a description of Dorothy Caldwell's "Human Marks" workshop, I saw this as a chance to come back to thinking about quilting as drawing, as "mark-making." My next post will talk about the impact of that workshop on my stitching.