Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I have long been curious about what draws a person to a particular quilt--or any piece of art, for that matter.  The preferences many times seem to fall into two main camps, although these are probably just  the two dominant ends of a long spectrum of preferences:  the representational or the abstract.  All of us are drawn to the human face--I know there are studies out there that demonstrate this, but I'm not about to spend the time to search them out.   But our eyes seem to focus first on any faces that might be visible.  And our minds are always trying to make sense of our surroundings so when a quilt looks like something--a dog, a tree, a landscape--our minds probably heave a little sigh of relief that they don't have to work so hard figuring out what is going on.  So the popularity of the representational is easy to explain.

But that doesn't explain why I--and I know there are some others like me out there, although we definitely seem to be a minority--am drawn to the abstract. I spend a lot of time looking at pieces that play with pattern (not necessarily symmetrical) or color or shape and even enjoy the objects, animals, persons in a quilt more when they have become more abstract or patterned.  Even in Ireland, while everyone was commenting on the eight cute cows that were gathered at a stone wall, I was more interested in the patterns in the stone wall. But they got their revenge when I stepped in a cow souvenir, which was neither abstract nor representational but very real and very fresh.

I have just finished a piece (20" x 37")--well, it needs a hanging sleeve and a label--that is an attempt to think in fabric about this issue.  I'm calling it "Dialog: Pattern or Picture?" And anybody reading that hates quilts with a message or a long explanation attached should just look at and respond to the quilt and skip all the rest of this blog, although the quilt involves more questions than a single message for me.
This quilt began when I had a yard of my snow-dyed fabric up on my working wall last winter, as I waited for inspiration. One day I noticed close to the center of the fabric, a nearly perfect image of a butterfly.  --Oh-- I immediately said to myself --I'll have to use that somehow.--
A few days later,  I decided to get started.  As I thought about a plan for the piece and tried to decide exactly how much I wanted to cut around the image without wasting the rest of the beautiful green fabric, I began asking myself why this section of fabric with the butterfly on it was any more important than other sections where the dyes made beautiful swirls of color or deep pools of shadow or even another nearby fabric that exploded with shades of amethyst and light blue but never resolved into looking like "something." And then I realized the best use of the butterfly was in a quilt that explored this issue of the abstract vs. the representational.

I added the circle of pointed ovals at the top, a shape that, when flipped, becomes a leaf.  Is one more significant, more interesting, more valuable, more beautiful, more attention grabbing than the other?

Is a love for the abstract a cultivated taste, like learning to like cilantro, or are the taste buds of those who like the representational wired differently from those who prefer the abstract? Looking closely at master quilters or artists in other media as well as reading about art and taking art-related classes has probably given me a better appreciation of line, shape, composition, but I am not ready to accept that the study of art is the whole reason someone finds pleasure in the abstract.  I seem to feel that I liked looking at pattern and color long before I knew the name of Rothko or Mondrian.

Anyway, back to color, which is important in this quilt as well:  I chose a more solid hand-dyed blue to set off the busier green and amethyst snow-dyes, and some of Laura Wasilowski's great hand-dyed pearl cotton to do the hand quilting.

Now I'll see if my attempt at capturing a dialog in fabric works for anyone else besides me.  And if you're still with me, thanks for the company.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ireland again

I have a thing about what I guess could be called portals--doors, windows, gates, thresholds.  And the doors of Limerick, where we stayed first and then of Lisdoonvarna, where this picture come from, captured my attention almost immediately.
They were all different in shape, size, texture, and ornamentation, and almost all brightly colored. After my jet lag had receded I began to remember a poster entitled something like The Doors of Dublin and indeed there is one, as well as one of the doors of Ireland.  So I was definitely not the first to make this discovery.  I still took many pictures of the doors whenever we were on foot in a town.

But the doors of many of the monasteries and castles we visited also peaked my interest--or perhaps I should more properly call them doorways.
This is the entrance to St. Enda's Church from the eighth or ninth century on the largest of the Aran Islands.  And there are many more photos that will supply fodder for a quilt design, as well as shots of windows:

A window from Cong Abbey, rebuilt in the thirteenth century.

And then there was a whole different window experience.  Joe McDermott, our Irish guide, took us to St. Mary's Church in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, and promised us that, even though this was not exactly "Ancient Ireland," we would not want to miss seeing some stained glass windows done in the 1920s by the famous Irish artist Harry Clarke.  Now, even though as a quilter I did have fun playing with the stained glass technique several years ago,  I do not usually go out of my way to see stained glass windows.  

As we entered the church I looked up at the windows behind the altar and said to myself,  --Yeah, they are nice windows, but not worth making us a little late for dinner-- as this side trip was doing.  Then I turned to the side wall and I got that tingle that tells me this is connecting with something deep.  The windows on both side walls, which Clarke had designed, glowed with some of the most saturated colors I have ever seen. It was like a Van Gogh painting lit from within.  And Clarke adds many lines within each leaded piece so that the window has much more texture than the usual stained glass.  

A camera cannot capture the colors, unfortunately.  You had to be standing in front of those windows to get the full experience--and it's nice to know there are a few things that virtual reality can't accomplish.  It's like the difference between seeing a photo of a quilt and having it in front of you.

Clarke is also known for the individuality of his faces--something that got him into trouble with some of his religious patrons who felt that some of his religious windows were not "spiritual" enough.  Here is an example of his humor:
If you can't get a clear view of the child with glasses reading a book, while a saint tries to preach the gospel to those crowded around, click on the picture to enlarge it.

I am still processing images from this trip, as some of them fade a bit and others settle into my psyche.  More later, and if you are still with me this time, thanks for the company.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wedding revisited

Shortly after I blogged about finishing my daughter's quilted petticoat for her 18th century wedding, I planned to write about another wedding dress, but some mini-crisis happened and I never got back to it.  The subject of wedding dresses and quilts became a thread on the Quiltart e-mail list and reminded me that I should write about it.  So you'll hear more of Ireland later. . .

About three years ago Lynn, a friend who has seen quite a bit of my work in local shows, approached me about making a quilt for her out of her wedding dress.  --It's been hanging in my closet for 35 years and I want to do something with it.--  Now I thought a bit before I took this commission.  First of all, any of you who have seen my work know that white does not play a prominent place in my work.  In fact, I don't think I used it at all before Lynn's quilt.  I asked if I could add other colors and she thought for a while and then said that would be okay.  She also added that her mother had made her dress as well as the dresses of her bridesmaids and she thought she had some fabric left over from their dresses.  --Ah,  I said, and what color were those?--  --Off-white--  Hmm.  This was going to be a challenge, but for some reason, I felt ready to take it on.  After all, a sonnet has some ironclad rules to it but instead of becoming a straightjacket , the restrictions can be a source of powerful beauty for many poets.  And Lynn was leaving me complete freedom to choose the design, trusting soul that she is.

So I agreed and spent some time just letting ideas percolate.  Almost immediately I had two colors in mind to add--a unique teal and a mauve hand-dye, both from Bali, I believe, that I had recently bought at the Lancaster quilt show.  These seemed to be colors Lynn would like.  I wanted a curved shape in the colors and began playing with possibilities and finally got a shape that worked for me.  I was also beginning to get a sense of the whole quilt.  The dress was simple and as elegantly beautiful as Lynn, and I felt that the quilt made from it should also have an elegant simplicity about it.

I wanted to make a sample and that meant cutting into the dress.  It took a couple of weeks for me to work up the courage to make that first cut.  Did I say the dress was made of linen--linen that has a life of its own, that wiggles and squirms its way out of square at every opportunity?  But I got a sample made to my satisfaction and Lynn got  a preview of the shape so that if she had reacted with any semblance of horror I could go back to drawing board.  But she liked it as she had liked my color choice.

So the quilt grew slowly on my working wall as the amount of fabric available from the dress grew smaller.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I cut my last long piece that I would make it.  And here it is, although it is a difficult quilt to photograph, and I was not taking as much care as I should when I made these photos:

Part of what you cannot see well is the change in texture between the vertical pieces, since I alternated Lynn's dress with narrow bands of fabric from the bridesmaid's dresses, which were a different weave from hers.  I also decided to create texture on the two side borders to add interest without adding color, even though those curved pleats ate up the fabric quickly and were more challenging than I had planned because of the orneriness of the linen.  Lynn's mother had made seventeen covered buttons as the closure for the dress in the back and those are the dots on the curved pieces with just enough left over to put two buttons in each corner.
From Lynn's hesitation about adding color I got the feeling that she did not want much color in this quilt.  I also kept the quilting simple in keeping with the original.  I finally titled it "Alteration," for obvious reasons and as a reference to the Shakespeare sonnet line, "Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds."  The final quilt measures about 45" x 60".

Lynn was pleased--always a crucial element in a commission.  And I learned much.  I doubt I will seek out linen ever again for a quilt, but I have learned never to say --never--.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Home Again

Sunday night Tom and I arrived, tired and time disoriented, in Boston after a two-week adventure in Ireland.  We, unfortunately, brought an Irish cold back with us that made our last four days of hiking in the Irish rain a bit uncomfortable, and has now left me without a voice at a time when I am full of images and experiences I want to share.  We were part of a small group of seventeen people on a Sierra Club tour with the enticing title of "In Search of Ancient Ireland."

I saw inspiration for quilts everywhere and ended up taking many pictures of things like stone walls in all their many variations.  It was also the height of the spring wildflowers and  I spent a lot of time with a botanist in the group, lingering behind the rest while we photographed and tried to identify these flowers that neither of us had seen before.  She was a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm about plants.

Bog cotton that looks like wisps of cotton on a stem and has been harvested for mattress stuffing in the past.

I have just begun to sort through the pictures but so many of the sites we visited were on top of mountains with spectacular views.   After a memorable hike in a rainstorm--rain is always possible in Ireland--we arrived on the top of one of the Bricklieve Mountains in County Sligo and this patchwork is what I saw in many directions.  Click on the photo to make it bigger, if you like.
This photo was a little misty but that is the way the day was, when it was not pouring rain.  Our goal that day was a 5,000 year old passage tomb that we could slither into after removing our packs. 

But this is the island of Ireland and so many of our views as we traveled through the west were of the ocean:

This is a view from an area known as the Ceide Fields and the ocean almost surrounded this hill, where ancient stone walls delineating Neolithic farm fields 5 or 6,000 years ago (you can see them on the right in the photo below) were discovered.

The land became boggy as the climate warmed and the removal of trees for farming--even then people were changing the environment-- made the soil wetter and so it eventually had to be abandoned, but the bog grew over the stone walls, preserving them for thousands of years in the original patterns.  They were discovered as the peat created by the bog was harvested.

But the title of this blog refers to more than just our return to laundry and piles of e-mail and junk mail from the post office and foot-high weeds in the garden.  I felt a deep sense of being home in Ireland in so many senses, while at the same time felt the myriad differences between the hills of Pennsylvania and the Irish landscape. And to touch the stones that people 5,000 years ago or more had touched or to sit behind our bus driver on the Aran Islands and listen to him talk in his deep brogue with our Irish guide, or to stand on the top of Knocknarea and hear our guide read a Yeats poem was unforgettable.

Obviously, you will hear more of the trip, and if you're still with me for this chapter, thanks for the company.