Seriously, Series (by Clairan Ferrono)

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.

17 Responses to “Seriously, Series (by Clairan Ferrono)”

  1. 1 india September 2, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    interesting ponderings….now i use leaves for many reasons, they’re my dye source, each genus tells its own story, leaves in general have a multiplicity of interpretations….etc etc

  2. 2 angela August 5, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Good food for though, Clarian. Thank you.

    I am leaving the Cafe turning around your last paragraph: “I think it’s important to take note of the things we think about consistently and try making work about them…”

    This is a new idea for me. I have always worked in series, but I think of this way of working more as an expression of recurrent actions that of recurrent thoughts…

    It is always nice to stop by the Ragged Cloth Cafe and come out with a new idea to think over or try out!

  3. 3 Olga August 4, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Clairan, an interesting bunch of topics to chew over!

    1. I do so agree that the technical side of art needs to take a back seat. It is the means to an end, although it might well be tied up closely with that end. It distresses me when I consistently hear folks at an exhibition of art quilts concentrating exclusively on discussing how a piece was made. It’s like judging the quality of art by how many hours it took to make.

    Perhaps when art quilters are leading technical workshops they should take time to talk about the thinking behind design decisions.

    2. The categories fine artists and art quilts are so broad these days as to be essentially meaningless. The latter seems to encompass everything which can be described as a non-traditionally patterned wall-hung quilt, from decorative through installation. It is a hobby horse of mine that there should be more discrimination so that each broad (and of course overlapping) area within that range should be better defined. Then the folks who make beautifully presented leaves would be judged for what they are achieving and not for having failed to be those who use leaves as metaphor.

    3. I too very much enjoy seeing and learning about the work artists make in series, especially if the individual pieces contribute to devlopment of an idea or group of ideas, or present different views of an interesting subject. There is a danger, however, of falling into lazy designing, of reusing themes because they worked before, because customers want something recognisable, or even of not honing the idea enough in the first place. So although there are stunning examples, I would not wholeheartedly endorse working in series as being the only or best way to go – unless of course the artist’s body of work is that series.

    4. I enjoy writing, and particularly enjoy writing about art or ideas I’ve encountered. I do not like to write about the specific development of visual ideas for my own work however. Somehow I find that defining and describing my visual ideas in literary form impedes their becoming worked out visually. The two can work in parallel, just as tremendous inspiration which often comes to me while listening to exquisite jazz concerts. It can be enlightening to examine one’s philosophy of art, but in a way I think that your example of writing about leaves to bring up fascinating associations from which to make art is a category between the pretty and the seriously expressive, and nearer the former than the latter.

  4. 4 Sandra Wyman August 3, 2008 at 12:56 am

    Thanks so much for this article, Clairan, which has put into words what I have been trying to formulate in my head. As a relative beginner I am constantly struggling with “pretty” versus “meaningful” and almost always seem to somehow end up with pretty (even at the age of 61 it seems I have not quite outgrown the need for approval which may account for part of it” My most recent quilt was like this – I intended an abstraction of where and how I gew up and ended up with a pretty picture of bluebell woods – the earlier stages were very much better to my mind than the finished article: I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way I’m going to work through this is to see it as the first of a series – something I have to get out of my system before I can move on to where I really want to be. The words thing helps, too, in my case (though doodling and dreaming work just as well and probably better for some people)

  5. 5 kathy August 2, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Yes, Clairan, great discussion and thanks for bringing this up. Great topic. It has given me lots of food for thought and an idea for challenging myself, perhaps like June’s class challenge, to go deeper, see more, think more.

  6. 6 Stacy August 2, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    This is a fascinating article and I’m glad Anne Copeland linked it on QA. I like to think of creating as a ‘shift in paradigm’. Oh so hard to do, but so enlightening and rewarding once done.

  7. 7 Peg Keeney August 2, 2008 at 10:06 am


    Very interesting discussion. I so agree that working in a series allows you to look at things in a deeper way…not just make pretty but to try and make the viewer do a little work too…Perhaps think about something differently, or see somthing they have not seen before or even make a personal connection to what they are viewing.
    Beth aptly stated “ is like taking the next layer off an onion.:

  8. 8 Beth August 2, 2008 at 4:12 am

    Clairan, your point is very aptly stated! I think, too, that when we are engaged/passionate/thoughtful about a subject we don’t even need to THINK about working in series, it just happens because we peel the next layer off the onion–it isn’t a matter of forcing myself to think “what do I want to do next in this series”–the evolution/refinement will occur naturally as we work.

  9. 9 Ros August 2, 2008 at 4:02 am

    Clairan, thank you for sparking such an interesting discussion. I really like the idea of writing as a way of exploring ideas and feelings about one’s work. This might take it onto a different plane altogether – and I’m certainly going to try it.

  10. 10 June August 1, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    One of the weird things that happens when you step back as Clairan suggests and ask yourself “why we are drawn to this or that subject” is that you find answers that propel you forward. These are not necessarily answers you may have started with — or even ever thought before. They appear as part of the process of the work, in tandem with it, but, as Clairan has said, sometimes need to be put into words to be clear, even to oneself.

    In the traffic circle exercise that I got engaged in, I found myself painting the city skyline that shows behind and a mile or so away from the circle. The skyline got bigger as I painted it over various iterations, but the tree that dominates the traffic circle also got bigger. One of the better paintings, imho, is the one that has a wild wonky yellow-ish tree menacing a car coming around the circle and overshadowing the city skyline.

    People who imagined that I was thinking of the traffic circle as islands of peace and serenity (these circles always have foliage and a tree or two) were slightly offended by the lurid colors and menace they saw in the painting. I found myself hunting for an explanation of why I saw the traffic circle like this.

    In talking to viewers of the painting, I came to realize that as I was painting on-site, I began to know more clearly how the traffic circles, with their trees and foliage, operate as a serious hindrance to speeding cars. I came to think of the traffic circles, as I sat there and painted, as guardians of the space; when I saw an occasional car careen a bit as it tried to go too fast around the circles, I began seeing the Islands as serious gatekeepers of the space, not to be taken lightly or gently. That as-yet-unarticulated vision only became known, even to myself, as I had to explain what the painting was “about.”

    OUr household has always called the traffic circles “traffic calmers.” But it took 8.5 paintings for me to realize that sometimes, when faced with bullies like the automobile, it takes a lot to calm bullies down. My paintings took on a wry and/or comic aspect, one that I would never have come to if I hadn’t painted the first 8 paintings. And I still wouldn’t know why the painting looks as it does if someone hadn’t pushed me to verbalize what I had done.

    As Clairan says so eloquently, “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.”

  11. 11 kate August 1, 2008 at 7:10 am

    Great points, Clairan.
    I love the idea of approaching a theme or concept from different angles, such as through writing vs. sketching; or from physically different angles at one location.
    I’m very impressed that you were able to get 11 paintings done from the same traffic circle. That takes discipline! And in addition to your comment that after a few paintings you were looking to “change the scene”… if you keep going back to the same location on different days or times of day, I bet the scene changes on its own. You might notice things in the background or see differences in the textures of things that you only skimmed over before. It’s a great exersize; and like all exersize it’s not always fun. But the benefits you get are usually worth it.
    Very thought-provoking. Thanks Clairan!

  12. 12 arlee August 1, 2008 at 6:38 am

    Thank you for this thought provoking piece. Aptly and ironically timed for myself, i’ve just started truly consciously thinking about series and what i need to say, rather than just playing with techniques in a hodgepodge jumponthebandwagon fashion. I don’t think we all “need” to work in series, but it *is* a tool to explore a theme or concept certainly, and if not “seriously” or as a “serious” artist, but then as a sharpening of ideas and interpretation.

  13. 13 clairan August 1, 2008 at 5:51 am

    Connie, Denise — wonderful! Please do consider writing about your deeply felt
    and persistent images and ideas. Remember no one is reading it but you! Spelling and punctuation don’t count. You want stream of consciousness to really get at your own critical connections.

    I hope you will eventually share with us the results of these experiments in depth!

  14. 14 Denise Aumick August 1, 2008 at 2:56 am

    Excellent thoughts. This essay is making me think about the repeat imagery, colors and sensibilities in the pieces I create – where they come from, what they represent to me. I believe my desire to create a certain feel or look draws on those deep waters within (so to speak). To consciously consider and try to unearth more layers in these leanings in order to expand personal art expression makes a lot of sense. Thank you.

  15. 15 Connie Rose July 31, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    Excellent discussion, thanks. I like the idea of thinking/creating in the context of a series. I haven’t done too much of that yet, but it’s an appropriate consideration for where I am right now with my art. I’m inspired by the idea of sticking with something, pushing the edges of it, trying different but related things, working it all into a body of work. Thanks for your sharing your thoughts!

  16. 16 clairan July 31, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Absolutely June. Doing a series helps with the design decisions. But more importantly, when you are working on a series you care deeply about, you can put those into the back of your brain and work on the serious issues in the front. WHY does this fascinate me. WHAT are the resonances? HOW can I best express them? When we are really working to bring the ideas and the connections together, the metaphorical expression is put into play and we can surprise ourselves with the power of our work.

  17. 17 June July 31, 2008 at 8:04 pm


    Thanks for the kind words. I will treasure them.

    And of course, as long-time readers of Ragged Cloth know, I’m into series, and more specifically, into the kind of idea Clairan is getting at when she says, “Every decision is not a design decision.”

    Certainly, when choices seem to be about equal, the question of what you are aiming for, where you are going, helps make the decision-making easier. I also think working in series forces you to keep going beyond the stuck point. Everyone reaches a “stuck point” where boredom or lack of imagination or blankness or lack of ideas suddenly stops you. If you are working on a series, you can sometimes work around that stuck point by knowing what you are aiming for or by using the artificial challenge of the series to keep you going. At least you can do what should theoretically work, and fix the design in the next go-round….

    My best personal example is a recent painting class I took where we were required to choose a motif and paint it eleven! times. This instructor was into plein air work, so he strongly suggested that we pick something we could go back to again and again, not a photograph but a site, preferably outside. The class began in February and this was the first assignment and even in relatively mild Portland, that was a challenging set of tasks. I chose for ease of access and painted a traffic round-about (traffic island) in the next block over. By the 7th of these paintings I was beginning to swear; by the 9th I was sweating in spite of the 45 degree weather. I managed all eleven, however, and while I”m not sure I really love any of those paintings, I know that the forced repetition forced me to think of ways to change the scene — light, shadow, color, peripheral objects, sky, street scenes, foliage, lack of foliage — I ran the gamut and learned enough that I’m glad I did it. I’m still using some of the lessons I learned while doing that work. I don’t think I’ll do another traffic island soon, though.

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