Laurie Wohl — Unweavings (by Kathleen Loomis)

Several weeks ago I got to see a show by Laurie Wohl, a New York fiber artist who has concentrated on liturgical and religious-themed work.  Her show at the Patio Gallery in Louisville was a series based on Christian, Jewish and Muslim poetry and spiritual texts.  (Sorry that I didn’t visit in time to tell you about it before the show closed.)

She wrote: “For this project, I emphasize particularly the common themes and striking parallels between Arabic and Hebrew texts, similarly rich in a poetry of spiritual love, an extensive poetry of exile, a poetry of nostalgia for Andalusia, and poetry speaking of enemies and reconciliation.”

It’s a daring subject in this era of widespread fear of radical Islam, to seek similarities between that religion and Christianity and Judaism.  In fact, viewers might have shared the tiniest start to read Wohl’s categorization as “the Abrahamic religions” — we Judeo-Christians don’t usually think of Islam as our sibling, although it reveres the Old Testament, regards Jesus as a holy man and sprang from the same tradition.

Wohl’s works in this series make extensive use of calligraphy, mostly Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and also repeat the imagery of a veil, through her signature “unweaving” technique.  Working with a heavy canvas, she slices either the warp or weft threads around the edge of a shape, then unpicks the weave to leave the other strands loose.  Because the weaving process puts a lot of crimp into the strands, when they’re set free over a long distance they’re significantly longer than the woven part of the canvas, so they droop and/or bulge.

Laurie Wohl, Window of Prayers (detail below)

I missed the gallery talk so I didn’t learn how Wohl achieves the sharp raised edges on her letters and shapes.

Laurie Wohl, Babylon (detail)

I could tell that she painted the “unwoven” strands of her canvases and often strung beads on them.  Sometimes she sliced the free strands at the top of the shape so they would hang down below the unwoven area.

Laurie Wohl, Elegy for Cordoba (detail below)

(Note how the rods at the bottom droop slightly at the center where more of the weave has been removed.)

Usually she removes the horizontal threads and leaves the vertical, but not always.

Laurie Wohl, Watchwords (detail)

I’m always intrigued by art that uses text or letterforms, and though I read neither Arabic nor Hebrew, I could tell that Wohl’s calligraphy is exquisite.  The works have a solemn presence as well as a bright and lively sparkle.  The show was well worth a visit.

 

I’m cross-posting this to my own blog, Art With A Needle.  Please stop by and visit me some time!

 

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Found in the International Honor Quilt boxes — Ana Lupas (by Kathleen Loomis)

I wrote last week about my new volunteer gig, helping to catalog the “International Honor Quilt” collection of panels  that were made to accompany Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party installation.  My favorite piece in the first 200 panels I’ve catalogued is this one, by Ana Lupas:

Yes, at first glance it looks pretty awful, a mess of raggedy interfacing and loose thread ends.  But as you look more closely, you notice the intricate machine-stitched gridwork in the center:

Why did this piece call out to me so loudly?  I love grids, and I love dense machine stitching, and I love old-fashioned typewriters like the one used to type Lupas’ name and address on the interfacing.  But what I really admire is the supreme confidence of an artist who can put such humble materials together — the edges are secured with staples! — and make them stand up straight and proud.

The panel stood out from the others — not pretty, not earnest, not awkward or amateurish, despite its seemingly haphazard construction.  It’s the only one I’ve seen so far that strikes me as art rather than as decoration.

I had never heard of Ana Lupas, but some research reveals her to be 75 years old, still living in Cluj, Romania, where she was born.  She started her art career as a tapestry weaver and was exhibited in all the major shows, including several times at the the Lodz Triennial, where she won Gold and Silver medals in 1979.

She expanded her work to installations and happenings, especially outdoors where she was among the earliest Land Art practitioners and strongly influenced many of her fellow artists in Eastern Europe.  She would enlist people from villages to construct wreaths, towers and other forms from straw, then leave them outside for years to weather and disintegrate.  Predating Christo’s Running Fence, she had 100 women help her cover an entire hill with clotheslines of wet linens.

Ana Lupas, Humid Installation, 1970

I was unable to find more information about Lupas and her recent work, even by painfully reading Google translations of art criticism from the Hungarian. I found an artist statement that somebody else had translated into English, but it left most of its meaning behind.  She talks about art having “to contribute, to shape, and to give new dimensions to the social existential universe,” whatever that means.  She has no website, and I could find no images of her early tapestry work, predating the internet.

I’m afraid she will remain a mystery to me; her work calls out to me across the years but leaves me hungry for more.

I’m also posting this to my personal blog, artwithaneedle.blogspot.com

International Honor Quilt project (by Kathleen Loomis)

You have probably heard of Judy Chicago’s magnum opus, The Dinner Party, made in 1975-6, first exhibited in 1979 and now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  Widely regarded as one of the high points in feminist art, it is a huge three-sided table with 39 place settings, each one commemorating a famous woman in history with an individualized plate and placemat.  An additional 999 women were memorialized on floormats on which the table rested.

The exhibit toured the world for nine years, drawing huge crowds, and many of the women who saw it were moved to wish that their own favorite women could be included in the show.  At some point Chicago invited submissions from anybody who wanted to make a panel.  Hundreds of panels came in, and on later stops in the tour they were displayed as part of the Dinner Party installation.

The panels covered famous and not-famous women; many people honored their mothers, grandmothers, next-door neighbors and teachers.  Others chose women’s organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women or La Leche League.  Some depicted fictional, mythological or Biblical characters, groups such as farm women or pioneers, or universal themes such as menstruation.

There were only two rules: each panel should be an equilateral triangle, 24 inches on a side, and around the edges of the triangle should be written the name of the honoree and her city and country. Beyond that, the format, materials and techniques were up to the makers.

After the world tour, both The Dinner Party itself and the more than 600 volunteer-made panels went into storage.  Last year, Chicago’s foundation donated the panels to the University of Louisville, and the school is now grappling with the task of properly documenting them. In a moment of some kind of mental aberration, I decided that I needed to be involved with this project, so I’m spending several hours a week with the panels and a spreadsheet, helping the curators with the technical details of textile techniques and materials.

The database is supposed to include information on the panel, the woman or group honored in the panel, the maker of the panel and biographical information about her, the maker’s statement (about why she chose the honoree, how she made the panel, or whatever else she wanted to say), technical information on the panel’s condition, measurements, materials and techniques, and a detailed description of the panel. Materials, techniques and description are my responsibility, while the other fields are being checked and corrected by others on the project staff.

In my three fields, we’re finding that some panels have no information at all, while others have been incorrectly described. For instance,18 of the first 54 we went through had no information on materials, techniques and description!  That’s a lot of blank spaces in the data base. But even the ones that have been filled in by past cataloguers need to be carefully checked for accuracy.  The previous cataloguers sometimes confuse hand and machine stitching and use catchall terms such as “hand sewn” instead of distinguishing between hand piecing, hand applique and hand embroidery. One of the cataloguers seemed enamored of the term “partial machine construction,” which means nothing to me.  “Top stitching” is frequently used as a descriptor, except sometimes it means machine applique, other times it means quilting, still other times it means embroidery.

the cataloguer thought this beautiful padded satin stitch was machine embroidered

The previous cataloguers also didn’t pay much attention to how the edges of the panels were finished — traditional quilt binding, facing, knife-edge finish, fabric from the front or back of the panel folded over the edge and stitched down on the other side, or whatever.  In many cases there was no description at all of the edge, and in others it wasn’t accurate. So I inspect each panel, compare it to what the cataloguer wrote, poke and prod the work to determine what techniques were used, occasionally feel the goods with my ungloved hand to identify the material, and write my own notes.  Then at home I type it all into the database; it usually takes me a bit longer to type up the notes than it did to inspect the panels.

The curators had acquired several pairs of those baggy, limp white cotton gloves to protect the quilts, but I said we needed Machingers to make it easier to work.  I have a long, strong embroidery needle that I use to poke at the work and lift an edge or pull a seam open to see how it was stitched, a ruler to measure the borders and a magnifying loupe to get a better look at the stitches if necessary.

I had to gingerly poke at this one to determine that the tiny orange stitches are made with a punch needle, not french knots

I’m writing more about my adventures in cataloguing on my own blog, Art With A Needle, if you’re intrigued with this project.  Next week I’ll write about an artist I discovered in the pile of panels.

Perfect copies — but are they art? (by Kathleen Loomis)

Much discussion in quilt/art circles recently regarding two prizewinning quilts at the big Houston show this year.

IQA dorothea lange   

Virginia Greaves, Worry, 2014

third-place winner, Art — People, Portraits and Figures at Houston IQA show

dorothea lange

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

You probably recognize the image as the famous photo taken in California by Dorothea Lange, documenting the travails of migrant workers during the drought of the Dust Bowl. That photo was black and white, while Greaves has imagined it in color and executed it in machine applique.

On the Quiltart email list, typical for listserv discussions, the focus started on a nitpick: was it a copyright violation to appropriate the Lange image. (Apparently it’s in the public domain, since Lange was working for the U.S. government.) But it quickly moved to a discussion of whether it’s a Good Thing to copy somebody else’s photo(or even your own photo) to make your own artwork.

Somebody pointed out another big winner at Houston, ironically in the category of “innovative artistry,” which was a replica of a painting.

summer wind IQA houston

Maria Landi and Maria Lucia Azara, Summer Wind

winner of $5,000 Baby Lock Master Award for Innovative Artistry at Houston IQA show

summer wind painting

painting by Anna Bocek, La Playa series

When these quilts were first discussed on the list, one commenter put the subject to rest by suggesting that the show entry form should require that the artist has gotten permission to use any text or imagery. This strikes me as a solution to the wrong problem. Among other things, it would forever rule out quotations from the Bible or Shakespeare, not to mention remixes of Vermeer or Picasso. And I think the point is not whether you have somebody’s permission to work from their original, but whether you should.

So is it a Good Thing to copy somebody else’s photo or painting? And then is it a Good Thing to enter it as your own work in a big show?

One Quiltart reader said “to present it as a faithful reproduction but in fabric is a form of cheating. In my opinion there is little difference in this than using a commercial pattern. This is not the same as inspiration. I can download most any image from the net and with Photoshop turn it into a pattern of any size.” Similarly, a bunch of art quilters with whom I shared a meal the weekend the Houston winners were announced thought that Photoshop-enabled translation of photos into quilts was nothing more than “paint by numbers.”

But other readers defended the practice. One wrote: “I liken rendering a photograph in a different medium (such as fiber) no different than a singer covering a brilliant old song. Even if the rhythm and lyrics are the same, even if the very same instruments and arrangements are used, it’s a new artistic work. It’s an homage to the original.”

One wrote: “So what if these quilters use photographs taken by others? Have you honestly tried to render an image in fabric? It takes an artist’s eye to translate the spirit of the photo into another medium.”

Someone else wrote: “Ginny Greaves’ quilt based on the Lange photograph seems to me to be in the tradition of artists who are influenced and inspired by other artists’ works. Translating a photograph into an entirely different medium, such as fabric, seems sufficiently different to make it unique.”

But another reader wrote: “Simply interpreting it in the fabric medium doesn’t really bring anything new to it. They don’t sing with a distinctive style of the quilt artist. They are just copies. And I simply do not understand making art, copied from someone else’s photo, that you wish to look just like the original! That story has been told!”

Another: “Copying a photo slavishly is NOT a particularly creative endeavor, especially when the goal is to make it exactly like someone else’s original. In the case of fabric medium, it is a very clever and dedicated workmanship issue to get it perfect. But NOT a personal expression of a creative fiber artist.”

Which leads to a final question, is it a Good Thing for the judges to give a big prize to a quilt that reproduces somebody else’s image? Arguably the Houston judges didn’t know that Landi and Azara’s quilt was so closely based on a painting, although the signage says “original design inspired by a painting by Anna Bocek.” But the judges would have had to have lived all their lives in an aluminum-foil-lined box to not recognize the Migrant Mother as a copy of Dorothea Lange’s famous photo.

One of the Quiltart readers wrote: “at the risk of sounding testy, what about the word “Original” do the judges and jurors not understand?”

Someone else: “How can fiber art ever be taken seriously if blatant copy work is what is rewarded at our top shows?” Another responded: “We often gripe about quilts not being taken seriously as an art medium and being excluded from ‘art’ shows, and this is one of the reasons why. It’s not just about copyright and legalities, and it’s not just about quilt show rules — even though both of those things matter. It’s about raising the conceptual and emotional level of the work itself and pushing past the quilt world’s emphasis on a certain type of technique.”

Another: “I was shocked… that these quilts… were even accepted. In my opinion, composition is one of the most important parts that make a successful work of art. When an image is copied exactly, you are using the original artist’s composing ability.”

Somebody else: “Art quilts should be original work that comes from the mind of the creator. Variations of things where the artist has incorporated her own interpretation would be acceptable as long as… you can actually see the artist’s fancy has taken some flight. An exact replication, regardless of how it is technically achieved should not be part of the art quilt vocabulary. I am not a fan of most things from photos. I can understand using a photo as a jumping off point but where is the vision, creative spirit, and color sense in copying something in front of you?”

Another wrote: “I find it embarrassing for the artist to simply lift the image — verbatim so to speak — and present it in a major show…. What were the judges thinking? … I know some may think I’m an art snob… but we can’t have it both ways. Is artquilting an artform or a nice hobby?”

The opposing viewpoint: “All I’m saying is, if it transports out of your daily grind, it if challenges you creatively, who are we to judge the arty-ness of a piece?”

The response: “The jurors SHOULD be judging the “arty-ness” of the piece. This is important to those of us committed to making ART from fabric… Yet the big awards are still going to copies and Hallmark card compositions as long as they are brilliantly constructed.”

What do you think?

Check out the whole roster of Houston winners here.

This is cross-posted to my blog, Art With a Needle.

quilt (R)evolution exhibit at the Dairy Barn (by Kathleen Loomis)

Just home from Athens OH where I visited the Dairy Barn for its current show, an exciting collection of work from most of the people who have served as Quilt National jurors over the 35 years of that exhibit.  It was special because the participants were asked to send three pieces: one from their earliest work, one of their work at the time they were jurors, and one of their current work. And most of them actually sent exactly what was requested!

The too-clever title of the show, “quilt (R)evolution” is silly but accurate, because the quilts do clearly mark the evolution of the quilts-as-art genre, and it was quite a change from the status quo.  Several of the oldest pieces are only a step or two away from traditional — and Ann Johnston’s 1979 quilt could have easily been made in 1879.

I’ve been obsessively following Quilt Nationals via catalog since 1983 and in person for at least 20 years (can’t remember exactly which one I first attended) so it’s not a surprise to me that quilts-as-art started so close to its traditional roots and took a few years to escape the conventions.  But it’s fun to be reminded of how the famous names we’re all familiar with started out, and how they got going in their own directions.

For instance, Joan Schulze started by making a big quilt that was the California winner in the big Good Housekeeping Quilts of America competition in 1976 — I remember that, even though I wasn’t much of a quilter at the time.  After it was photographed for the book (I think I have the book, too) her quilt and others were destroyed in a warehouse fire but after a long period of grieving she decided to remake it.  The design was original, with a batiked landscape in the center, but its wide border is composed of the traditional Road to California blocks (she did shock the viewers by making them in different colors to extend the landscape — blue for the sky, brown for the earth).

Joan Schulze, California II, 1979

Subsequently Schulze developed her signature style of using images appropriated from the media in collage-like phototransferred and screenprinted compositions that remind me of Robert Rauschenberg.

Nancy Crow started with huge symmetrical quilts that were meticulously planned and intricately pieced from templates using commercial prints.  Subsequently she found that improvisationally free-cutting shapes from hand-dyed fabrics and building her compositions gradually on the wall was a more satisfying approach.

on the catalog cover:  Nancy Crow, March Study, 1979

Katie Pasquini Masopust’s early quilt was a daring pentagon but executed in impeccably traditional craft from teeny calico prints.  Subsequently she started incorporating easel-painted canvas into her quilt constructions.

Katie Pasquini Masopust, Heavens Reach, 1981

Other jurors went in different directions.  Michael James, after years of strip-pieced curves, embraced digital photography cranked out on a huge-format printer.  Yvonne Porcella started by making functional kimonos, then went flat (but kept her signature palette, brights with black-and-white).  Jan Myers-Newbury started by hand-dying solid gradations, then discovered arashi shibori and never looked back.

Practically all of the early pieces were hand-quilted, but as the years progress most of them switched to the machine.  Practically all the early ones were carefully pieced or appliqued with no raw edges, no messy craftsmanship of any kind, but as the years progress we see fusing, raw-edge applique, phototransfer, non-cloth materials and any number of experimental techniques emerge (for instance, Tim Harding’s latest work is “quilted” with staples).

For those of us who have been tuned in to the quilts-as-art movement for a long time, the show is a great walk down memory lane.  Fortunately all the pieces in the show still look fine (although Ann Johnston’s, used on the bed for decades, has faded dramatically into the muted colors of vintage quilts).  For those of us who aren’t that familiar with the olden days of our little niche of the art world, the show will be an eye-opener: how far we’ve come in such a short time.

Unfortunately the catalog doesn’t reproduce the artist notes that appear on the walls of the Dairy Barn.  So, for instance, readers will probably think that Wendy Huhn’s extravaganza of female fairies perched on irons is about the drudgery of housework, when it’s really about a lethal disease that causes too much iron to build up in one’s blood vessels and joints.  (I know how easy it is to leap to that conclusion, because I eavesdropped on two young guys explaining to one another quite solemnly how women’s work is never done, etc, before one of them thought to read the sign.)

The show remains up at the Dairy Barn through November 22 — see it if you can!

 

 

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I’m cross-posting this to my personal blog, artwithaneedle.blogspot.com

 

Kantha stitching with Dorothy Caldwell (by Kathleen Loomis)

I wrote in June about Dorothy Caldwell, the internationally renowned fiber artist, who conducted workshops for my local fiber and textile art group. This time I’d like to focus on her use of the kantha stitch, aka running stitch, the most basic possible of hand stitches, the one we all learned when we first took up a needle in our hand. Dorothy joked that the reason she uses kantha so much in her own work is that she has never learned any more complicated stitches, but I’m not sure I believe her. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful mark-making tool.

She brought several kantha embroideries that had been made by a cooperative of women in northern India with whom Dorothy has worked for several years. They make large pieces to sell in an effort to improve their village, and among other things have been able to build a meeting house in which to work and to clean up a lake that can now be used for fishing.

DSCN5449

One of the recurring motifs in the embroideries is a woman’s headdress that seems almost to be blowing away, billowing behind the figure. In fact, it shows a sari that is no longer draped over the woman’s face — as the women in this village used to dress when they were dependent and downtrodden — but is pushed back in freedom.

One or two of the women are in charge of drawing the cartoon onto the blank fabric, after which many women might work on the same piece. Popular compositions might be repeated many times but in different color schemes. Here’s a large scene that was executed twice, once in white on black and the other in black on white.

DSCN5446DSCN5447DSCN5448

We didn’t have time in the two-day workshop to make any such elaborate embroideries, but we did spend enough time with the kantha stitch to see how it can be deployed in many different patterns and rhythms.

Here are my two kantha samplers, still in progress. I’ll definitely keep working with this stitch and learn more about how it works.

DSCN8111

Dorothy Caldwell — making art of place (by Kathleen Loomis)

My local fiber and textile art group was privileged to have the internationally known fiber artist Dorothy Caldwell spend a week with us earlier this month teaching workshops.  She also gave a lecture on her activities in the “outback” of two countries, Australia and Canada. These activities have culminated in a show that has just closed in Peterborough, Ontario, and will soon travel to two other venues in Canada.

She points out that Australia and Canada are similar nations in many ways:  They’re both huge countries with the great majority of the population clustered on the edges, with vast expanses of sparsely settled, ecologically fragile territory that few people ever get to see.  They were both British colonies, with substantial numbers of people who were transported there as punishment.  Both are rich in resources.

Dorothy has been traveling to Australia for 20 years on a variety of travel, teaching, study and artist residence programs.  Recently she received a grant from the Canadian government to conduct two parallel art projects on the two continents; in both places she would go to a remote location for several weeks, getting to know it, collecting both natural and manmade artifacts, and dyeing paper and fabric with indigenous plant and earth materials.  Then she made a new set of works reflecting her experiences.

In Australia, she visited a sheep station in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, north of Adelaide.  In Canada, she went to Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, 1600 miles north of Toronto, close to Greenland.

“My work is about being in a particular place and using what’s there,” she said.  “I want to get out into the landscape, experience the land, get to know a place by handling the materials.”  For instance, she hiked barefoot on the delicate tundra to get a feel for the tiny, stunted vegetation.

On both these visits she brought Japanese handmade paper, tough enough to hold up in a dye pot, and colored them with natural pigments from plants and earth.  She also collected things like rusty nails and broken tools from the sheep shearers, which came home to become part of the “museum” section of her show.

“Collecting has always been an important part of what I do, since I was a little kid,” Dorothy said.  “My way of journaling is collecting.”

After she came home from her trips, she made some of her characteristically huge fiber pieces to reflect her travels and learnings.  Here’s one inspired by the Arctic summer, with 24-hour daylight that often leads people to stay up all night in euphoria.  Dorothy asked one of the locals how they dealt with not being able to distinguish between “day” and “night” and was both chagrined and charmed at the response:  “When we’re tired we go to sleep.”

Dorothy Caldwell, How Do We Know It’s Night, 120 x 114″

Here’s a piece about the fjord on which Pangnirtung is built.

Dorothy Caldwell, Fjord, 120 x 114″ 

I was delighted to observe how she continues her practice of collection and documentation even if she’s not in an exotic place, but somewhere as unspecial as Louisville.

On a day off between workshops we walked over the new pedestrian bridge that spans the Ohio River.  When we got to the Indiana side, Dorothy pulled a plastic bag out of her purse and proceeded to collect stuff to memorialize this place.  She found some mud to daub on a card, writing the date and place on the back, and then dunked some silk into muddy water to dye it.  She repeated the process on the Kentucky side (even though to my eye mud on one side of the river is fairly indistinguishable from mud on the other).

On the Kentucky side we found some deep footprints in the sand at the edge of the river, partially filled with water that had seeped in.  Dorothy looked around, found a root, and used it to stir up the water into an opaque dye-like solution to color her cards and silk.

Here’s the root, the silk, and the card, out to dry in the sun (and the footprint/dye pot).  She took the root home too as a souvenir.

By the end of the week she had assembled a “museum” in her room of her trip to Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.  There’s the root on the right and the cards in the middle; the silk has been partially twisted into string, and she also collected some bits of rusty metal to round out the display.

 

 


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