Disciplined Observation by Kate Themel

Who would have thought a Cicada Killer Wasp could be so beautiful? You may not think so when one surprises you flying out of your mailbox… but put the little guy under a microscope and a new world is revealed. This world is complicated, layered, iridescent and almost endless in its variety. This is the world observed by Dinah Wells, a watercolorist and entomologist living in Guilford, Connecticut.

Green Stink Bug, 2008 Dinah Wells

Green Stink Bug, 2008 Dinah Wells

I had the pleasure of meeting Dinah and seeing her work first hand at a recent Art League meeting. I also enjoyed seeing her favorite specimens. And yes, by specimens I mean actual dry, dead bugs. But after listening to Dinah talk about her inspiration and passion for insects, I couldn’t wait to take a closer look at them. She showed us a Stag Beetle, a local Cicada and a North American Horse Fly. Up close, they were like fine jewelry – delicately filigreed wings; eyes textured in dots and swirls like expert engraving; and the colors…!

Ice Water, 2008 Kate Themel

Ice Water, 2008 Kate Themel

Recently I had the idea to create an art quilt based on a glass of water with an ice cube in it. It was a simple tumbler sitting on a flat table. What’s so complicated, right? However, once I started drawing it, I began to get that “oh geez, why did I start this?” feeling. The closer I looked, the more colors appeared. There were so many reflections, shadows, layers… it was a little universe in there! I cut and tried combinations of fabric, pulled my hair, pulled out threads, started over, cut and moved around chunks of finished pieces until I was able to step back and see that world again. The end result is one of the most complicated quilts I’ve ever finished, and one of the most satisfying. I loved the experience of observing this image so closely that it transformed into something other than glass, water and ice. Without the physical object to observe, my art quilt would never have come to life as it did.

Ice Water detail 2008 Kate Themel

Ice Water detail 2008 Kate Themel

Although no artist can work without using their imagination and taking leaps and liberties with ‘reality’, we can’t let ourselves become isolated from the world. If we live only in our minds we risk losing the life force behind our work… which is life itself.

I’m not suggesting everyone should go out to their backyards with a jar and start collecting bugs, or stare at their dinnerware until their eyes are bloodshot. But I was inspired and energized by Dinah Wells’ integrity and disciplined observation. And I understand how her fascination with these usually-hidden treasures serves as an engine for her creativity. She not only studies these insects from photos, but also researches their anatomy and if she can’t locate a specimen locally, she goes to the Peabody Museum to look at their collection. She knows her subject inside and out – literally. By the way, the Cicada Killer Wasp sounds ominous they kill Cicadas, not people.

Picasso once said “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.

As artists, it is our job to observe and reflect the world around us. Not every artist works in a representational style. But every artist can benefit from the practice of keen observation and investigation. To take an object and study it down to the smallest detail, until the subject becomes part of the artist, takes discipline and focus. From there, we can go anywhere we want… we may even discover a whole new world that fits in the palm of one hand.

Being Creative in our Art and our Budgets: by Kate Themel

It has been named “Issue Number One” on news programs, radio spots and around the dinner table. How does financial trouble affect our ability to create fine art? And what can we do to lessen the effects?

The making of fabric art and art quilts can be expensive, compared to paper and watercolors or charcoal pencil. As artists, we often make sacrifices in other areas of our lives in order to pursue our creative goals. Sometimes this means adjusting our budget so we can buy materials. But

usually we are not willing to compromise our design by using cheap materials. I’m sure I’m not the only one who debates silently while wandering around my favorite fabric store: “Hmmm…. $9 per yard? A little pricey but I love it! And I love THIS one… and I must have THIS one… Well, I can go another year with this coat… and if I promise not to go to Dunkin Donuts on the way home….” The store owner has gotten used to the sight of me standing for long periods of time staring off into space.

Clearly, the economy has slowed down. Many people have lost their jobs and some have lost their homes. More than once, references have been made to The Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Most Americans had to cut back drastically on their expenses. In many households, buying fabric for colorful and decorative quilts might have seemed impractical. But many beautiful quilts were made during this time period and not all were made by wealthy women. How did they do it? What can we learn from that era that can be applied now?


Waste Not

Then: Feed sack and scrap quilts were popular during this time. Contrary to popular belief, scrap quilts were rarely made from “worn out” clothing. For practical purposes, it wouldn’t make sense to spend time and effort making something out of a weakened fabric. Most of the time, the scraps were leftovers from other projects using good quality fabrics (i.e. curtains, table linens, clothing). Rather than throw out the small pieces, women would save them in hopes of getting different colors or patterns from their friends’ stash. During their fabric swaps, women would often trade patterns, iron transfers and templates.

Now: Although feed and flour sacks have become a thing of the past (except in reproduction fabrics), the practice of saving and trading can be applied today, especially with our renewed focus on conservation of resources.

Dresses made from flour sacks, worn by children in a coal mine community. 1937

Dresses made from flour sacks, worn by children in a coal mine community. 1937

Share Expenses

Then: When buying fabric was too expensive for one quilter, often women would work together. One popular example was a system known as “halves”. To save time and money, 2 women would pool their fabric and agree on a pattern. One woman would piece together 2 quilts and another would quilt both of them. In the end, they would each keep one finished quilt.

Sometimes a bargain could be struck with a client who had some money but no time or no sewing skills. That person would buy enough fabric for 2 quilts. One finished quilt would go to the person who bought the fabric and the quilter would keep the second one as payment for her work.

Now: This idea works well for people who make traditional quilts, but with some ‘tweaking’, the idea could be used by fabric artists. For example, 2 artists may use similar materials such as bleach, resists, soy products etc. They could pool their money and buy products in bulk, often getting materials at a lower cost. Some fabric artists share fees so they can buy large ads in magazines and periodicals. This provides greater market exposure for everyone in the group and cuts down on each person’s financial burden.


Then: Many times, women would trade a finished quilt for food, goods or services; they might even trade animal feed for a quilt made from the feed sacks.

Now: Almost anything can be traded for your artwork, if you are able to quantify its value. Many people would love to buy art but cannot justify the cost in their minds, especially if they are worried about their job security.

“Ace McGunicle, Quilt Detective” writes about her experience in “The Case of the Battered Quilt”: http://www.noqers.org/mysteries/barteredmyst.html

As Ace demonstrates, you don’t have to barter for fabric or art supplies. Maybe you need help moving or housecleaning and another person needs a unique and creative present to give to their mother for Christmas. We just have to think as creatively when it comes to business, as we do for our designs.

This quilt, made from sack scraps, is for sale by American Antiques,

This quilt, made from sack scraps, is for sale by American Antiques, http://www.antiquequilts.biz

In many households, women organize the budget and set priorities for the family. Often we are inclined to sacrifice our own needs for those of our children or spouses. We can fall into the creative “booby trap” when we downgrade our artistic passion to a hobby or a luxury. Of course I’m not suggesting that people let their children starve so they can buy fabric. Sometimes all but the basic necessities have to be put on hold. But if we have any discretionary funds, there are ways to pursue our artistic dreams without breaking the budget.

As an artist, have you been impacted by economic events? What kinds of ideas have you heard or tried in order to save money while remaining artistically active?

Facts about Quilting during the Depression were gathered from these sources:




News of the Weird – Should I be insulted by this horse? by Kate Themel

On the lighter side of the news, a horse named Cholla will be having a solo exhibition of his paintings in Venice next Spring.  Yes, if you are pausing to re-read the first sentence, I did mean to type HORSE.

Cholla has gained notoriety as several of the horse’s paintings have been accepted into juried shows in the US and Europe.   (The latest one: 3rd International Art Prize Arte Laguna, October 18-November 2, Mogliano Veneto, Italy).  “The Big Red Buck” was accepted and included in the show, along with 1,770 other paintings.

As you can imagine, the reactions from the jurors after learning that the “artist” was in fact a horse, ranged from amusement to anger.  I, myself, only wonder what exactly were the faults of the nearly 1400 paintings the jurors rejected?

A mystifying statement was made by Cholla’s owner Renee Chambers.  She says the work’s acceptance into this and other international art shows, proves the horse has artistic talent.

“Yes, it’s a novelty that a horse can paint,” she said. “But it’s not about novelty anymore. It’s about his validation as an artist.”

Um….. what??

According to a CNN article (See link below), “His artwork has been described as having the ‘fire of Pollock’ and the ‘fixed gaze of Resnick.’  I’d really like to have the names of the people who said that.

I decided to take a look at the paintings and see what all the hub bub was about.  I’ll admit: paint has been applied to canvas using a variety of colors.  Other than that, I really don’t see anything mind-blowing.  If I owned Cholla, I’m sure these would be framed and hanging in a place of honor in my house.  Much like the paintings my kids have done over the years.  If you want to take a look and some examples, here’s their official link: http://www.artistisahorse.com/

A WORD OF WARNING:  The website looks like Cholla the horse designed it himself.  It’s very hard to navigate and the words and pictures are all over the place.  You have to scroll down pretty far just to see some of the links.

I still think it’s worth a look, just to read some of the work’s titles.  They really made me smile.  And it was a nice break from the stress of the day.  I started coming up with my own names for his work; “Fresh Hay” and “Unbridled Passion” came to mind.

Anyway, this story just proves that I have been surfing the internet too much.  The art world is not going to be brought to its knees or anything.  No one is being hurt and there are a lot of other important things going on in the world.  The value of this story is only to distract you from an otherwise stressful day and revel in the ridiculous.  I think I’m going to file this story in the “The Stuff Crazy People Do” folder and move on with my life.

So, Please, to all the fabric artists out there who have been rejected by art show jurors:  You may be considering sitting your Persian cat Sofie at the sewing machine… You know, just to see if she has any talent. Take a deep breath, call a friend, and get back to work.  Obviously jurors are fallible; even the established ones.  You never really know what is in their heads when they choose artwork.

More on Cholla the wonder horse/artist:


Interested in paying $90 for a print of Cholla’s work? http://www.horseartcollection.com/artist.php?ID=0

See the artist in action!  Be amazed! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vvz_nUHfwE

Technology and Human Touch within Fabric Art – Kate Themel

A beautiful composition caught my eye at a quilt show.  The colors and intricate pattern were mesmerizing… it reminded me of abstracted light on water.  How did they do that? I wondered.

I walked up to the quilt and discovered it was created by a computer generated image that had been printed onto a whole cloth.  Oh, well that wasn’t as impressive as I expected.  The quilting, I criticized, isn’t even very imaginative.  The stitches just follow along the lines of the printed image.  All my amazement evaporated; I had thought this complex design must have been something only an expert craftsperson could have pulled off.  I was disillusioned to see how simple it was.  I have to say, I was disappointed.  Then I noticed that this quilt won a ribbon in the show.  Then I just got mad. 

I complained inside my head: “That’s cheating.  They did the whole thing on a computer.  What is this doing in a quilt show anyway?  What artistic skill is being demonstrated here? For that matter, what quilting skills are being rewarded by a ribbon?  This is digital photography, not fabric art.”   

But on the way home, I stepped off my high horse a bit.  I asked myself “What am I so mad about?  Why do I feel cheated?  Am I just jealous that they won a ribbon and I think I spent more time on my work then they did?”   

The answer was I was upset because I was conflicted.  I loved the design but I didn’t respect how it was made.  Is that a fair judgment? To test my position, I tried to make an argument for the other side: 

·    On first sight of this quilt, I was impressed and intrigued.  It had a strong composition and compelled me to come for a closer look.  For fine art, the visual impact is the top priority and I admit that the design here was very successful. 

·    The artwork was made out of layers of fabric held together by stitches, so it met the accepted definition of a quilt.  In practical terms, I could not object to it being in a quilt show.  There were plenty of other examples of “Whole cloth” quilts on display. 

·    The label explained that the design was a digital image printed on fabric; there was no deception in its presentation.  Therefore I could not accuse the artist of “cheating”.  

·    The use of technology does not necessarily preclude something from being Art.  Photography was not considered an artistic endeavor because it didn’t require any painting or drawing skills.  When the sewing machine was invented and used by quilters, many traditionalists objected to its use, arguing that it was an easy short-cut.  At first, machine sewn pieces were not considered “real” quilts.

So with the invention of digital cameras and computer software, of course artists will be experimenting & assimilating it into their work.  The quilt in question made use of the latest technology.  Is that any different than when I use an electric sewing machine?  Or when I take digital photos as part of my research? 

The whole thing reminded me of a joke – How many artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?  Answer: 100.  One to screw it in, and 99 to say “I could have done that!” 

So I amended my judgment as follows:

1. I was wrong in my assertion that this quilt did not belong in a quilt show.  It clearly met the requirements of art as well as the definition of a quilt.  

2. Technology may make the production process easier, but it is still just a tool.  It can be used to create a successful design, or as a crutch for a poor design.   The quilt in question demonstrated fine art principals successfully.  I wouldn’t have been drawn in for a closer look otherwise. 

With that said, I still connect with fabric art by the process as well as the result.  To me, the direct manipulation of materials by the artist and the wonderful “hands on” building process is my favorite aspect of the work.  

In this situation, I just couldn’t see the individual in the quilt.  This may be the limits of my own imagination rather than an affect of technology.  Clearly the manipulation of materials occurred, but the materials were digital pixels, bytes of data and an industrial printing machine, done before the quilt came into being.  Maybe it’s simply too far removed for me.   

Since no fabric pieces were used, I couldn’t read the story of the process in the artist’s cutting, piecing, layering etc.  There were no surface treatments to record a brushstroke of paint or even the passing of a needle through a bead.  The quilting stitches traced contours of the printed forms, revealing nothing of the artist’s hand.  In essence, the artist stayed hidden inside the technology. 

I discovered that my connection to artwork depends on what is revealed about the artist, maybe even more than what I see as an end result.  Of course, a strong design will catch my eye but it takes more to win me over.  The truth is, I found out that (for myself), visual impact without a back-story leaves me cold.    

What connects you to an artwork?  Do you care about the creative process behind the image?  Or is the final visual impact the only thing that matters?

Grožnjan Istra, Croatia: Revitalization Through Art by Kate Themel

During my visit to Croatia, I had the lovely experience of visiting Grožnjan, known as the “Town of Artists”.   Grožnjan (pronounced roughly “Grosh-nyan”) is situated in an area called Istra. 

Driving through Istra reminded me of road trips through New Hampshire or Vermont.  Huge areas of land are completely covered by forest; other areas contain small family-owned farms where sheep are found sleeping in the shade under olive trees.  Road side produce stands are sprinkled here and there, selling vegetables, cheese, honey and olive oil.  And way up on a hill is an ancient stronghold town made of stone and clay buildings, overlooking this pristine landscape. 

My father in law, born in Croatia during World War II, told me the story of Istra and how the town of Grožnjan owes its vitality to artists.

Grožnjan was once part of Italy, owned by the Venetian republic for most of its 800 year history.  Its inhabitants were almost wiped out by plague in 1630, but was revitalized when Venetian tradesman and artisans settled there and began to maintain and improve the town. 

After World War II, Italy’s borders were redrawn making Istra part of Yugoslavia (now Croatia).  For the second time, the town of Grožnjan was nearly wiped out. As the Italian residents moved out, the town was nearly desserted.

With so many homes left abandoned, local Croatian artists began using the empty buildings for studio space.  Istra was relatively secluded at the time; the few remaining residents were primarily farmers.  Grožnjan was particularly attractive to artists because of its location overlooking the inspiring and beautiful landscape and because of the availability of nice, quiet, and most importantly free living/working space.  The area of Istra became a magnet for painters, sculptors, musicians and dancers.

Soon Grožnjan was “taken over” by artists who became very protective of the town’s integrity, its aesthetic appearance and its environment.  Istra’s economy is still primarily agricultural, so the landscape has remained pretty much unchanged.  Residents of Grožnjan have also made sure to preserve the town’s historical identity and appearance.  Other than electrical wires which cannot be hidden, there are really no outward signs of modern technology visible in the town.  You will not see air conditioners hanging out of windows, satellite dishes on rooftops, neon signs or traffic lights anywhere in Grožnjan.  This is because the residents have passed ordinances banning these things.

Once again this is a prosperous town, drawing tourists and visitors as well as being the permanent home of many artists and musicians.  The International Cultural Center for Young Musicians has a base here and the Academy of Dramatic Arts, University of Zagreb has established summer programs in Grožnjan.

I love the fact that this town is occupied and governed almost entirely by artists.  I love that they make laws to protect the town’s aesthetic… who else would do that?  Mostly I love the community that embraces all forms of art – from fine art/visual arts to music to performance art.  Street signs are hand painted ceramic instead of the usual printed metal.  Carved stone benches are everywhere, just so you can sit and take in the view.  Film festivals, ballet recitals and concerts provide a constant rythm like the town’s heartbeat. 

Walking through the streets, you may pass a ceramics studio, a printshop, a music school and a theater; then stop for coffee and chat with local artists or tourists.  When you’ve finished your espresso and possibly a little ice cream (Don’t worry, the climb up and down the main road will burn off most of those calories!), you may want to see a bead-making demonstration, check the schedules for the next jazz festival or yoga class, and maybe even purchase a unique piece of art before heading back home.

Our family travels to Croatia every other summer, and each time I try to visit at least one or two places I haven’t seen before.  But sometimes I find a place that I want to visit again and again.  Guess where I’ll be headed next time? 

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