31 December 2009


Quilt exhibitions always include "Don't Touch!" signs (now often reworded along the lines of "respect the work"). But of all things, quilts invite touch - people have a hard time keeping their hands off them - the urge is to scrunch the delectable item, to feel its reality - or just to stroke the fabric.

Pottery has a similar draw - we like to hold mugs and cups not simply to lift drink to our mouths but to enjoy the feel of their surfaces. And there are people who love to sit with a pillow (or a cat) on their lap. It has been argued that our western culture is "touch hungry". In 2000 Tiffany Field published a book simply entitled Touch, which argues that many of us, children and adults alike, are deprived of touch experiences.

Writing about her PhD research in regard to tactile ceramics, Bonnie Kemske has said, "It is easy to see how the development of our touch hungry culture has been, and is, perpetuated by one strand of Northern European/American Christian heritage that equates sensuality with sin, a determined preoccupation with intellectual achievement among our middle-class oligarchy, and a rise of affluence that has led to the purchase of more and more ‘precious’ goods that must be protected in use, or not used at all. ...Work that is touched and handled, especially on a daily basis, has ... a lower status than that which is kept safely put away in a cupboard or a display case." (Read the rest of her article here.)

Privileging the intellect and excluding sensation is being challenged, and part of this is the move to introduce more and more children to craft, eg through Craft Club. (Another strand is the way phenomenology challenges the Cartesian mind/body duality, but we won't grapple with that here.)

"Look but don't touch" has long been the watchword in galleries and museums. But art has crossed the visual barrier to engage with other senses, as you'll know if you've visited one of Anya Gallacio's installations of rotting flowers. Video and sound too have crossed the visual barrier into the world of art, and the terms "sense memory" and "imagined touch" are being used.

As inhabitants of a touch-hungry culture we want tactile experiences ... so some of us work with fabric or with clay, or paint we make the objects that, on a wall or on a plinth, would be forbidden for all but the owners to touch.

So let me end with the hope that the sense of touch will be more appreciated, and that art will touch people in more than a visual way. And that touching won't be such a no-no -- for example, in quilt exhibitions by providing "touching samples" near the work. I believe that the physical connection is so very important - to be able to pick something up and hold it in your hands, or run your hands over the surface.

30 December 2009

Ah, the sales!

Arriving at Oxford Circus station, I wondered if this was really a good idea, this getting out into the wet world of consumerism along with all those other people...Oops, wrong store - not quite my demographic - but a warning to expect long line-ups at the till -
Couldn't resist stopping at the red-and-purple shoes department -
Two hours and five purchases of varying degrees of boringness and necessity later, the search for the perfect cross-body bag nearly ended in John Lewis. This is, I have discovered by obsessively searching the internet, the Fossil Small Top Zip crossbody bag - must be last season's, it's not on their UK website, and the two US sellers don't ship internationally. I didn't buy it even though it was perfect in all ways but one -- the colour -- it's gotta be black (purple would be nice, but the chance of that is slim!). Are there any leather workers reading this .... or should I try making it out of fabric ....
Hey ho, time to head home -- and still the happy shoppers arrive -

Polkadots and more - Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama was one of the featured artists in the Walking in My Mind exhibition at the Hayward recently (can't believe I missed seeing that one! but you can see videos about it here and, for more of the works, here ). She's known for her polka dots, but it's her recent "prisoner's door" that fascinates me. It looks to be made of stuffed fabric, painted or sprayed.Since childhood Kusama has been seeing visions of nets, flowers, polka dots that engulf her world. Born in Japan in 1929, she lived in the New York art limelight from 1953 to 1973, being tremendously productive and organising happenings and other events. The papparazzi called her The Polkadot Princess in the 1960s, and she was as well known as Andy Warhol. Since 1975 she's been living, by choice, in a mental hospital; her studio is nearby.This is her Mirror Room (1965). But she's used other motifs, often flowers -
Wikipedia sums up: "Her paintings, collages, soft sculptures, performance art and environmental installations all share an obsession with repetition, pattern, and accumulation. Her work shows some attributes of feminism, minimalism, surrealism, Art Brut, pop art, and abstract expressionism, and is infused with autobiographical, psychological, and sexual content. She describes herself as an "obsessive artist". Kusama is also a published novelist and poet, and has created notable work in film and fashion design. She has long struggled with mental illness. On 12th Nov 2008 Christies New York sold a work by her for $5,100,000, a record for a living female artist." Can't find a photo of that one - here's an exuberant flower instead -Can she really have made 50,000 artworks? Quite possibly - she's been obsessive and productive over a 70-year career ... "Art keeps me alive," she says.

29 December 2009

Embroidered photographs - what kind of art is that?

Berend Strik is a New York-based Dutch artist who has been embroidering photographs since 1987. The images shown here, to give you a flavour of his work, are a selection from this site, one of the galleries that represent him, which says: "These mutations, ranging from spare designs to a Horror vacui, simultaneously underscore and undermine the reality presented in the photographs."
"The images are chosen from photographs the artist has taken on his travels through Africa, documenting the people, architecture and post-colonial landscapes of the continent. By perforating them with a needle and thread, the two-dimensional quality of the image is disrupted, creating a work that is both tactile and conceptually driven. The embroidered photographs and collaged textures contain a nuanced layering of pattern, fabric and image that come together to explore the notion of the exotic."
Embroidering on the photograps is "undermining the reproducibility of the image while returning it to a more autonomous form. The narrative of the photo is subsequently changed, and new layers and realities are presented. Through this process, Strik plays with historic atmospheres and art historical clich├ęs and uses autobiographical details to express something he feels is universal."One more thing - some of the photos are about 1.5m across.

Thank you, Santa

This gorgeous espresso machine is settling into its new home - it's a prezzie from my son-and-lodger, that extravagant rascal Thomas. We are agreed that it makes a fine cup of coffee, and that it's worth taking the time to do so. The jar of instant in the "coffeeteria" on the shelf may soon be redundant ...

28 December 2009

Art I like - Greely Myatt

Memphis, Tennessee, artist (and professor of art) Greely Myatt recycles with zeal, making quilt-patterned constructions of road signs and other reclaimed wood, and doing other interesting things like putting zippers in walls. The town recently honoured his 20 years there with nine concurrent exhibitions.
A review in Artforum says, "Myatt’s role as a southern artist facing the canonical works of art history is never far from his mind, as works including Roomrug, 1999, demonstrate. The combination of multicolored broomsticks fashioned into a fragment of a rug and reflected into a right-angled mirror re-creates a Smithsonesque non-site, though the site represented is that of the domestic sphere. The playful attitude and meticulous rigor with which Myatt handles his materials might be considered a mask that hides a deeper understanding of the roles and restrictions of regional artists in a universal context."Much of his output suggests or actively engages in dialogues––between the artist and art history, the art and its imagined audience, or notions of fine art and the craft tradition.
You can see an interview with him here. He says that he had the idea of building, rather than sewing, quilts - playing with the idea of quilts being built on tradition: "My collaborator was my grandmother ... who was deceased ... so that was an easy collaboration - we didn't argue at all."

He also says, "You never have enough money to do it, so you can let that be a reason not to do it, or you can let that be a factor in how to do it. I like that struggle."
See more images here and here, and in the "artists" section here.

Journal quilts, 2009

Contemporary Quilt's journal quilt project for 2009 is drawing to a close. The deadline for the final four quilts is 31 December. Thanks to two days of quietly hand-sewing while listening to the radio (bliss!) mine are ready, with several days to go.

September - fruit moon; October - falling leaves moon; November - frost moon (version 1 in the making); December - long night moon -And here are the final versions - I decided to start November again, after a little research on how frost crystals form -
I'm pleased with the Novemberand December quiltlets (6" x 12") -You can see the earlier JQs here and here.

25 December 2009

More Christmas trees

This Belgian advert is rather appealing - from tree to book to tree. It's not meant to be about recycling, of course, but it has a certain circular logic. And it's terribly seasonable ... happy holidays everyone; may you have satisfying times and something delightful to read.

24 December 2009

Do dogs know it's Christmas?

From our Christmas-day trip to the seaside last year - somewhere between Lymington and Bournemouth.

Cooking frenzy about to happen

Our "holiday tradition" is to have the family meal on Xmas Eve - so today is the day of the grand cookathon. This year we have a mostly vegetarian menu, chosen by my son and augmented with a few of my own favourite must-have dishes.

As it hasn't happened yet, you're spared the photos. I supply the menu as a matter of record.

While Thomas and I put the finishing touches on the main course, Sarah, Tony and Lisa will be cracking nuts and dipping into a bowl of garlic mushrooms.

Then the table will be spread with turmeric roast potatoes, roast vegetables, a parsnip-cranberry-chestnut loaf, risotto-stuffed red onions, brussels sprouts with caramelised garlic and lemon peel, and two kinds of stuffing balls (one made with sausage meat), and perhaps "pigs in blankets" as a sop to the meat-eaters. Oh, and onion gravy - gotta have gravy!

We decided on the traditional trifle for dessert - it slides nicely down, into any little cracks left after eating all that other good stuff. And it's "a piece of cake" to make (method is below).

Possibly against my better judgment, but because we need a photo to enliven all this text, here is the kitchen BCF - before cooking frenzy.It's not a big workspace, and there will be two of us cooking - but by clearing up as we go, we manage. So the first step today is to put everything away.

The chestnuts have been roasted and peeled, so the worst job is out of the way. Which brings us to this photo, and a salutary lesson -Centre front is an exploded chestnut (the inside of the oven was a mess). You must score the skin before roasting - so the hot gases can escape!

Trifle - a method rather than a recipe

You will need: a "sponge cake" of some sort, or sponge fingers
sherry or brandy (or orange juice) to wet the cake
fruit of some sort - I use a bag of frozen raspberries and two bananas, sliced
a tin or box of ready-made custard
whipping cream

Break up the cake into a big glass bowl. Drizzle with booze or juice - a couple of tablespoons at least.

Tip in the fruit so it's evenly distributed. You can put the banana slices round the edge for maximum visual impace, with a bit of the red fruit glimmering through.

Cover with the custard. Refrigerate for a while so the juice from the raspberries can soak into the cake and blend with the booze flavour.

Just before serving, whip the cream and spread over the top. If you have some grated or flaked chocolate around and want to use that as decoration, feel free to do so.

Felted soaps

This year the "making Christmas presents" frenzy didn't hit me ... until I saw this blog post on making felt wrappers around soaps.

Felted soap - how surreal is that - it comes with its own washcloth...

I had the ingredients to hand - soaps of various sizes and wool roving of many colours - and quickly got to work.

In the bag of felting materials was a piece of plastic screen from a box of fruit - this was useful for rubbing the felt. A plastic scouring pad would be good too.
A happy hour later - the results. (And the room smells very ... soapy - next time I'll use the unscented stuff.) The first one came out best - because I was being most careful??
Presumably when the soap is all used up you can slit the felt and end up with a tiny bag - useful for storing items of jewellery, perhaps ...

23 December 2009

Off the shelf- "Celebrating the Stitch"

One of my essential books for textile and general creative inspiration continues to be "Celebrating the Stitch: Contemporary Embroidery of North America" by Barbara Lee Smith, published by Taunton Press in 1991. It shows, in photographs and words, that "textile art is not limited by process", that it transcends the homely needle skills used for decorative purposes.
Its sections are imaginatively themed: Light and Shadow, Poems and Portraits, Mysterious Messages, Within and Without, Celebrating the Stitch. Each section contains 1-5 pages per artist, with 2-4 pictures and a text that includes many of the artist's own words. Also there are text boxes on specific techniques (stencilling a pattern on fabric; needleweaving; a few embroidery stitches; etc), or on more general subjects like the pleasures of machine embroidery or creating an artwork for the community.
At the end of each section are pages of short quotes from artists - for example, on "thinking about ... what materials and tools mean to an artist" or about their working processes: "trying out... tools and materials". Another example is "Thinking about ... getting unstuck" and "Trying out ... ways to stay unstuck". Also at the end of each section, a Gallery of works by other artists.
Yes, some of the work from 1991 and earlier looks a bit last-century (if only because you've already seen it elsewhere) -- and, haven't we learnt a lot more about "Using the copy machine and computer for design" since then - what fit into a half-page box in 1991 now fills volumes...
So much of this textile art, though, hasn't dated -- isn't that timelessness one of the things that makes it art?And what an artist has to say about their work will be fresh and new no matter when you first read about it.


Antidote to unseasonable weather

Ski jumping ... in summer! -... in Chicago in 1955. Would Health&Safety allow it now?

21 December 2009

Brussels in the snow

After a lovely few days in Ghent, enjoying winter whiteness and Jack Frost nipping at our noses, we waited for the much-delayed train to Brussels only to learn that the Eurostar was out of commission because of the unseasonable weather. So here in Brussels we stay, with difficult internet access. And I have so many gorgeous photos to share, and exciting art finds to blog about...

The Design Museum in Ghent is great, and we caught a show at the modern art museum called Roar China - woodblock printing and design in the 1930s. More chinese art in several museums here -- but they are closed on Mondays; we might still be here tomorrow, who knows ... it's an adventure and I have the battery charger for the camera along, as well as a 4GB chip.

19 December 2009

Art heros - Wanda Gag

Wanda Gag is an artist I first met in childhood - possibly because her illustrations appeared in Jack and Jill magazine, and I was struck by her "strange" name ... and the strange quality of these pictures. What I didn't know then was her rather romantic story - how as a teenager, after her father's death in 1907, as the oldest of seven children, she supported the family by her art. They lived in a house built by her father in New Ulm, Minnesota, which has now been restored.
Wanda went on to study and work in New York, and in the mid-1920s her career took off. Now she's known for her children's books, starting with Millions of Cats in 1928.

Her non-children's book work often has a slightly spooky tinge, for instance "Lime Light" -See more of her prints here.

The family had spoken German at home, and in addition to having the visual-art input from her father, Wanda heard folktales from her storyteller mother. In 1936 the first of her translations from the brothers Grimm was published; the best known is probably Snow White, published in 1938. (Grimm's fairy tales are an important part of my own background, read to us kids in German by my grandmother from her old book, printed in "black-letter" (fraktur) style.)

Wanda Gag's motto was "draw to live and live to draw", and she never let her family or her marriage get in the way of her career. A lifelong chain smoker, she died of lung cancer in 1946.