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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Whatever happened to Social Realism? (by Kathleen Loomis)

My art book group was reading about Ben Shahn, the great Social Realism artist of the mid-20th Century, and the question came up, is there any Social Realism in today’s art world?  That movement, you will recall, pictures ordinary people, especially the poor and downtrodden of the world, and implicitly criticizes the power structures that keep them down.  It includes a lot of great art, on both sides of the ocean.

George Luks, St. Botolph St., 1922

Ben Shahn, Demonstration, 1933

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

One of the most enduring projects of Social Realism was the monumental effort by the U.S. Farm Security Administration to document poverty during the Depression.  Many unemployed artists, including Ben Shahn, worked for the FSA and produced photos that we all recognize.

Ben Shahn, Boone County, Arkansas, 1935 

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

The poor we still have with us, but at least within the realm of painting, there seems to be little interest in High Art lately in documenting their lives.

What happened to Social Realism after its heyday?  We thought of several factors.

First, Abstract Expressionism made realistic painting seem so old-fashioned.  And subsequent trends in art — Pop, Conceptual, Minimalist, whatever — seemed equally bent on distancing themselves from anything from previous generations.  Painters who did stick with the old traditions, such as Andrew Wyeth, may have been popular with the public but were never fully accepted by High Art.

Second, irony came to rule American culture, making it uncool to be earnest or sincere.

Third, photography seemed to be a much better way of depicting the details of real life, and proving that extreme conditions aren’t just a figment of the artist’s imagination.  The FSA photos themselves were Exhibit A for that argument, and photographic documentation of the poor and marginal continues strong today.  You name the fringe group, there’s a photographer who has documented it.  For instance, teenage drug addicts in Tulsa, Oklahoma — Larry Clark (below).

 LGBT — Catherine Opie (below).

Workers in third world countries — Sebastião Salgado (below).

Turkish transvestite prostitutes — Kutlug Ataman (below). Although I neither know nor care much about Turkish transvestites, I confess to having sat for well over an hour transfixed by this video, which went on much longer.

Amputees from Colombian drug wars — Miguel Angel Rojas (below).

There’s obviously no dearth of art photography documenting the ragged edges of society, and if we’re unaware of either the art or the reality, it’s not for lack of somebody trying to enlighten us.  But the preferred form changes with the times.

So imagine my surprise as I was googling away to find paintings made in this very decade in the good old Social Realism style.

Max Ginsburg, Foreclosure, 2011

Had the man worn work clothes and the little girl a raggedy cotton dress, nothing in this scene would distinguish it from a painting of the 30s.  “I choose to paint realistically because I believe realism is truth and truth is beauty,” Ginsburg writes on his website. “I believe that realism can communicate ideas strongly.”

Although this approach is out of fashion, the desire of the artist to document the situations of the non-elite clearly continues.  It will be interesting to see whether photography in its turn will become old-fashioned as a means to accomplish this, and if so, what genre will take its place.

 

Rodin — king of recycling (by Kathleen Loomis)

My art history teacher last year, Chris Fulton, is an authority on Rodin’s great statue The Thinker, a situation that came about by accident. When Chris arrived at the University of Louisville a dozen years ago he noticed that the bronze Thinker who sits on the quad at U of L was much the worse for weather, its patina severely damaged and deteriorating before our eyes. He started to pester the administration to do something about it — our Thinker, the first bronze casting ever made in that size, is priceless. (There are about 28 full-size Thinkers around the world, but we’re number one, a mantra that U of L usually applies to basketball.)

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Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, at University of Louisville, surrounded by Chris Fulton and his art history students

After years of pestering Chris got them to commit to restoration of the Thinker, but as reward for his good intentions, he got put on the committee. The job was finally completed a year ago, and in the course of his work with the restoration, Chris became quite the expert. He also has begun working with some of the people he met on a larger project to document and study all the Thinkers ever cast.

Hearing him tell about his adventures in Rodin made me especially eager to hit the Musée Rodin when we got to Paris last year. The building used to be Rodin’s studio/workshop, and he donated all his sculptures to the government upon his death on condition that they turn the place into a museum.

Rodin first did The Thinker in 1880 as part of a commission to sculpt two massive front doors for a museum in Paris. The doors depicted the Gates of Hell, a scene from Dante’s Inferno, and Dante himself sat above the lintel contemplating the folly of mankind.

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Rodin, La Porte de l’Enfer, third maquette (plaster), 1881-82

The museum was never built, and Rodin kept working on the doors until his death, but it was hardly a failed project!

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Rodin, La Porte de l’Enfer, bronze

The huge production spawned many figures and poses that were given their own spinoff series, so to speak. The Thinker was first made as a free-standing statue in 1888, the same size as in the doors (about 28 inches tall).

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Rodin, Le Penseur, bronze, 1881-1882 (cast in 1917)

It was so popular that Rodin scaled it up to monumental size, about three times as big. Multiple casts were made in both versions, and one of the big guys is in the garden of the Musée Rodin, thinking under the golden dome of the Invalides.

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Rodin, Le Penseur, bronze, 1804

Although Rodin never installed his massive Gates of Hell doors at the museum that commissioned them, the project was a fertile spawning ground for many other sculptures (the Gates themselves showed up in several places, just not where they were originally intended). Most famous is The Thinker, but other bits also stepped out and became free-standing pieces.

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Rodin, Le Baiser, 1881-2

This one, representing Paolo and Francesca, doomed lovers from Dante’s Inferno, appeared in early maquettes of the Gates. Rodin decided they were too happy for their surroundings, and took them out of the final version. But never one to waste a good concept, he rendered them in terra cotta here and eventually in a larger marble version.

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Rodin, Les Trois Ombres, 1902-4

My favorite spinoff is The Three Shades, who stand at the very top of the Gates, pointing to the ominous words “abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” They’re actually identical triplets, each one cast from the same mold, but turned so that they each seem different.

Since learning more about Rodin’s many multiples, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of bronze-cast sculpture, where the artist isn’t closely involved in the actual making of the work. He may hover about the foundry (or in Rodin’s case, send helpers to check on the casting) but it’s not his hand any more at the end of the process. Did it make the sculptor nervous to turn over his baby to somebody else to finish? Was it exhilarating to order up dozens of Thinkers to populate the world? (Just like The Boys from Brazil.) Why do I lose respect for some artists who outsource the making of their work to others, but not for Rodin?

Clawing your way out — or in (by Kathleen Loomis)

I’ve been reading a book by Glenn Adamson, “Thinking Through Craft,” in which he grapples with the question of the difference, if any, between art and craft.  Unfortunately, there is a difference, at least in the minds of the High Art world.  Craft is somehow not only different from but inferior to art, in these minds, and those of us who work in the “craft” mediums such as ceramics, glass, wood and fiber have a hard time being regarded as “real artists” in the way that painters and sculptors are.

Adamson writes about the discipline of ceramics shortly after mid-century.  You might want to substitute “fiber” for “ceramics” and see if the discussion rings true.

But first he talks about Robert Morris, one of the so-called Process Artists who really didn’t want to be like the Abstract Expressionists.  He quotes Morris as saying, “When I sliced unto the plywood with my Skilsaw, I could hear, beneath the ear-damaging whine, a stark and refreshing ‘no’ reverberate off the four walls: no to transcendence and spritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicizing narrative, valuable artifact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience.”

Adamson continues:  “It was from this attitude that Process Art, the most craft-like of the twentieth-century avant gardes, was born…. If Morris was a sculptor who did not want to make a modern sculpture, then the story of ceramics is primarily that of potters who did not want to make pottery.  Of course, both of these efforts were doomed to failure.  Ceramics, defined as such, could only continue to be ceramics, and for the most part, those who work with clay have remained identified as craftspeople rather than contemporary artists.  Process Artists, meanwhile, despite their seeming attempts not to, made modern art objects that were revered as sculpture.

… The two groups were traveling in opposite directions and, in some sense, each was striving for the other’s condition — the one vainly trying to claw its way to the category of sculpture and the other trying to escape from it.”

Interestingly, Morris tried to claw his way out not just with plywood but with fiber, making many works out of draped or piled felt that were regarded as sculpture, just as the first generation of “fiber artists” were trying to claw their own way in to being regarded as sculpture.

Robert Morris, Brown Felt, 1973

I find it both amusing and discouraging to think of two groups of people desperately headed in opposite directions.  The grass is always greener…

And yet the High Art world does this all the time, arbitrarily awarding designations that are difficult to escape.  Get your MFA from Yale as a painter, and you can subsequently have as many New York gallery shows as you want in whatever medium and technique you choose.  Make quilts, if that’s what floats your boat, but make sure you aren’t too meticulous about the craft techniques.  You might even want to have your mom do the actual sewing.

On the other hand, start out making quilts for your bed or your children, and become so accomplished that your work comes off the bed and onto the wall, and is aesthetically stunning, but you’ll never get that New York gallery show, even if your quilts look just like the guy’s in the previous paragraph.  Or far more likely, even if your quilts look a whole lot better than the guy’s in the previous paragraph.

Go figure.


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