Recently, at a surface design workshop, another student asked me if she should put circles or triangles on a piece she was dyeing. I tried to elicit from her the basis on which she was deciding. I wanted to try to see where she thought she might be going. But she hadn’t thought that far yet. Of course I completely understand that in a class one is under time and other pressures, and this is not necessarily what we do at home in our own studios. But eventually I was prompted to say, “Every decision is not a design decision.” And what I really meant to be saying, I decided when I had mulled this over for a couple of days was, “Sometimes the technical side of art really needs to take a back seat to why we make art.”
So many fine artists are making art quilts these days, but so many of them are trite or bland or “pretty.” There’s certainly a place for the decorative, and for sure art does not need to be ugly or disturbing or political or “profound,” but I do think it has to be about something. Not, “I make leaves because leaves are pretty and I like leaves” but perhaps, “I am drawn to leaves because they represent the evanescence of nature,” or “leaves are like books and we can read the world in them,” etc.
I like to see work from people who are passionate about a subject and who think deeply, critically, and often about it. I love to watch an artist’s series grow and change and deepen. I’m thinking of Virginia Spiegel’s Boundary Waters, Clare Plug’s discharged stones, June Underwood’s landscapes (both painted and stitched), Linda Colsh’s black and white elderly figures, Pamela Fitzsimons incredibly stitched homages to the conservation land she lives on, Judy Hooworth’s painted river pieces, Deirdre Adams stitched impressionistic landscapes and many more. I don’t mean to suggest I love every piece in every series, and I will admit that sometimes an artist becomes too attached to a series and starts repeating. But by in large a series represents a topic or theme or way of working that is central to an artist’s being, and it shows.
One of the ways we can get to the heart of why we are drawn to this or that subject is to write about it. After making a sketch or thinking of an idea for a new piece, writing for a specified period of time about, say, leaves, may bring up all kinds of fascinating associations. If it doesn’t, why not? Is it that you’re not letting yourself access those ideas, feelings or beliefs, or is it that your desire to make a piece about leaves is itself pretty evanescent. I think it’s important to take note of the things we think about consistently and try making work about them — even if the expression seems too difficult, or perhaps we’re unsure of what we’re trying to express. It’s worth working at. And it’s hard work, no doubt about it, pushing ourselves. But that, I think, is where the real and true and joyous lies.