Archive for the 'artist development' Category

Hand it to the Machine? Celebrating technology (by Olga Norris)

Tuesday 15 October 2013 is Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of women in science, technology, and engineering.  The other day there was an interesting article in the Guardian newspaper linked to this celebration, and highlighting the attitudes to women using technology.  I was amused to read that the author, Helen Czerski likened learning to use an arc welder to icing a cake, and immediately thought of Sokari Douglas Camp, whose splendid sculptures are made by welding.

Sokari Douglas Camp: The Finger 2011 Steel, beads, tin can, silk thread

Sokari Douglas Camp: The Finger 2011 Steel, beads, tin can, silk thread

In the textile world we have been used to using advances in technology forever: the loom and the needle for a start.  And in our textile world it seems to be women who use the technology designed and devised by men.  On the other hand, I’m always delighted to find a user who is quietly competent at taking her sewing machine apart and putting it together again.  Way back at the end of last century I attended a workshop on machine embroidery by Pamela Watts who was also learning to fly a helicopter.  Women certainly seem to be eager to embrace technological advances in the textile world.

There is as much of a buzz around the latest machinery as there is at the thread and fabric stalls at exhibitions like the Festival of Quilts, and the Knitting and Stitching Show in the UK.  Books can hardly keep up with all the ways of exploiting the newest gadgets to prod and pull, join and cut stuff.  Folks are also always finding new ways of using kitchen technology to help with making art: microwave ovens for dyeing, liquidisers for mushing paper, etc.

The point of technology is to help us achieve, to push us further from the smallest incremental aid like the rotary cutter’s advance on the scissors to the great leap forward of using lasers.   The Schiffli Project has spurred many works of art, such as recent pieces by Alice Kettle (an interview with Alice here).

Alice Kettle: Ormopenthesis 2007 Schiffli Project 160 x 160cm

Alice Kettle: Ormopenthesis 2007 Schiffli Project 160 x 160cm

Sarah Hartland has experimented with an industrial laser to etch fabrics in her printmaking explorations.  Karina Thompson used digital stitch in her art, as does Charlotte Yde, better known for her art quilts.  Sculptor Janet Echelman is a great advocate for modern technology use in making art.

Janet Echelman: 1.26 Denver 2010 Sculpture Project at the Biennial of the Americas

Janet Echelman: 1.26 Denver 2010 Sculpture Project at the Biennial of the Americas

I also remember being blown away on seeing Marilene Oliver’s take on printmaking at her degree show at the Royal College of Art a few years back.  Now living in Angola, Africa, I am interested to see how her work is developing.  The article below was found in the yellerzine blog on her exhibition at Edinburgh Printmakers earlier this year.

Marilene Oliver: work in the Confusao exhibition 2013

Marilene Oliver: work in the Confusao exhibition 2013

Marilène Oliver
Edinburgh Printmakers
16th March-11th May 2013

Oliver has worked for many years with medical imaging data to create sculptures and installations. This solo exhibition, the first since the artist has moved to Sub Saharan Africa, sees the artist refining her practice to a series of dark and haunting etchings. Continuing her project of working with the anonymised dataset Melanix, Oliver uses radiology software to produce digital 2D renderings that are later combined with intricate collagraph drawings. Oliver’s inspiration for the images in this series comes from the many powerful experiences she has had since living in Africa that have caused her to rethink her relationship with the scanned body. Whereas before the CT dataset was a material that she could manipulate and transform to create complicated sculptures, it now has a strong symbolic resonance, signifying privilege both in terms of wealth and access to digital technology. In ‘Confusao’ Melanix is shrouded in the dark, weightless void of digital space, emerging to find herself appropriating traditions and rituals of African cultures she barely understands but is captivated.

Marilène Oliver works at a crossroads somewhere between new digital technologies, traditional print and sculpture, her finished objects bridging the virtual and the real worlds. She works with the body translated into data form in order to understand how it has become ‘unfleshed’, in the hope of understanding who or what it has become. To this end she uses various scanning technologies, such as MRI and PET, to reclaim the interior of the body and create works that allow is to materially contemplate our increasingly digitised selves.

This is just a tiny number of those who grasp the tools they need to make contemporary art – and who let the tools lead them to stretch their ideas.  But a niggling attitude seems to persist in appreciating art – even from those who are creators themselves.

Why is it then that having something made by hand seems to carry so much approval as being better, more authentic?  And why is using the computer in any form seen as an advance too far?  Why still the dismissive statement used about the computer as tool – as if the artist’s thinking, creativity, decision-making, and even hand skills had somehow been removed the moment that switch went on.  As someone who extensively uses a computer where others use a sketchbook and more, I have become perhaps overly sensitive to denigration of that use –  but why this recurrent disproportionate praise for the hand made?

In this morning’s newspaper I was interested to read this last sentence from Grayson Perry in an interview: “I think the artists who will go down in history are the ones who in some way respond to the moment they’re in.”

I would like to know what others think about the technology we all use to make work, and whether the less technology we use – the more primitive the tools the more worthy/authentic the work.  Is the means of creation really more important than the intention and/or the end?

Questions, questions (by Olga Norris)

In her juror’s statement in the Quilt National 2011 catalogue Eleanor McCain, started with the question ‘What about these works of art demands that they be formed from cloth and thread?  Is there a message and meaning that can only be revealed through this medium?  What in the quilt form is important to the art?  As a fiber art professor once asked, “If it’s not about the fiber, why work in that medium?” 

 I was struck with these questions which set me thinking.  I can only talk about my own work, which was successful in being selected for this exhibition.  I have not seen the discussion which June spoke of in her comments in the previous post, so forgive me if I am duplicating.  (I have had irritating experiences with Yahoo which are too tedious to go into here.)  The thoughts I have originate with my own work(s), but I hope that those thoughts will elicit responses from others. 


What about my piece demands that it be formed from cloth and thread?  Well, certainly not the subject, whatever people interpret it to be, because subjects can be explored and manifest in all sorts of media.  It is essentially how the artist wishes to express themselves that dictates what medium, and what techniques within the medium are chosen.  I suppose the question that I should perhaps ask myself each time I make a piece of work in quilt form is ‘Is this the most appropriate medium to choose?’  I do know that although those are the means I mostly use to express myself at present, some ideas and designs ‘do not work’ for me in cloth and stitch, and demand a different treatment.  This is a kind of discrimination on my part, but I must admit that I do not rigorously investigate how far my works demand to be formed from cloth and thread.

 This ties closely with the next question: Is there a message and meaning that can only be revealed through this medium?  Again, the answer is probably no in the case of my piece.  Choosing a medium has more to do with the language, the voice in which I ‘speak’ rather than to do with the message or the meaning.  Of course the medium can colour the delivery of any message, just as it does the interpretation – but is it so important that the message should only be revealed in this medium?  Are there any – or many – messages which can only be revealed in this medium? What in the quilt form is important to the art?  At last a question I can answer without frustration.  As Eleanor McCain said: ‘The quilt is laden, even burdened, with symbolism.’.  It is that symbolism and the symbolic values of cloth and stitch generally which contribute to the way the message is both presented and interpreted.  Indeed this is part of what makes quilt-making a slow art: not only is it obvious that the making takes time, but also the full interpretation should take time.  In this way, being judged for exhibition becomes even more of a lottery if initial impact is not part of the message. 

One of the qualities of the art quilt is that it is derived from an everyday practical object to which one does not regularly pay much attention.  But in that familiarity as part of the background, at a receptive moment it can catch the viewer’s casual glance to reveal more, drawing the eye to consider and perhaps understand more.  Of course enigmatic work in any medium can do that.  And choosing to make work in quilt form is a double-edged sword in that by that very use of everyday materials which hang as they are the work can be dismissed as somehow inferior, easily made, domestic in a pejorative way compared with neat framed wall art which is believed to take skill, and uses special materials which are only to be found in artists’ studios.

I therefore think that it is so much more difficult to make good art using a medium which is so easily overlooked or dismissed.  But the question of good art was not raised. 

The professor’s quoted statement of ‘If it’s not about the fiber, why work in that medium?’ I find it useful to keep asking myself questions such as whether I am a fibre artist.  I could be described as a digital printmaker who uses cloth and stitch.  And sometimes I develop images/designs which are not always suitable for use with cloth and/or stitch.   

Part of my use of medium, I must frankly admit is practical.  I develop designs digitally, which means that it’s clean.  I can pick up and put down my physical work almost anywhere without having to clean up or manage materials in the way that a painter or ceramicist must.  I can stitch while spending every afternoon with my aged mother with whom I do not get on and have nothing to say – but she approves of the activity which thus keeps me sane. I love the feel of cloth, and appreciate the meditative qualities derived from repetitive stitching.

But it is not just that.  I’m interested in comfort and discomfort in human relationships, and for that reason domestic techniques and materials are an appropriate language for me to use at present.

 What I am much more interested in really is Is it good art?  And in a way the only person who can answer that is me.  Hey ho.

A publication and a publisher hit the dust (by Olga Norris)

From the age of four I wanted to be an artist.  Later I grew to appreciate writing in its various forms, and was lucky enough to have a fulfillingly creative career in publishing.  When the career became distinctly less creative I turned my attention more fully onto becoming more involved with personal expression.  This was aided and perhaps even specifically directed by an inspirational magazine I found while living in the USA in the very early 80s: Fiberarts.  

I did not turn to textiles immediately.  Such is the power of the accepted view of what being an artist is that I worked first in acrylics on paper.  But I subscribed to Fiberarts, just as I had subscribed to Crafts magazine for years previously.  It was a combination of my previous experience with textiles as a child, the constant inspiration and broadening of my thinking by reading Fiberarts, and the encounter with a fascinating exhibition entitled Art of the Stitch by the UK Embroiderers’ Guild which finally tipped me over.

 I found a voice of my own at the turn of the century, but the desire for incoming inspiration and information about the work of others, their expressions and their intentions has not diminished.  I am sad that Fiberarts is now no more.  I must admit that I have been expecting it ever since it was bought by a company which seemed primarily interested in enormous circulation; but I take no pleasure in being proved right.  I am only glad that the Internet is there to supply serendipitous delights – but what is missing there is critical nourishment.

 I had hoped some years ago that Telos books would grow into a list spanning from introductions to the artists in various countries using textile as their medium, through monographs on particular artists, to academic texts.  The visuals were stunning.  The design seductive, but the text was sadly lacking, and increasingly more so as the price increased.  Even a book addict hooked on art textiles stopped buying some years ago now.  So now Telos is also no more.

 Does this mean that there is no market for thoughtful, thought-provoking critical analysis within and about art which uses textile forms and techniques?  Have those of us who want to exchange thoughts more about intention than technique been swamped by the seemingly ever increasing thirst for the latter?  Is it out there and I’ve just missed it somehow?

Louise Bourgeois’ fabric drawings (by Olga Norris)

I have recently acquired a splendid large book: the catalogue of an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois fabric works.  I have written about this in my blog, but one aspect of the work interested me in particular – Bourgeois’ fabric drawings.

The images above are from a selection on the Hauser + Wirth site where the exhibition is on currently.  Another drawing can be seen here.  I am also intrigued by her collections of fabric drawings which she has made into books.  Here  and here give an idea of what their pages look like.

I find all of these pieces engaging and attractive on first view, and then despite their apparent simplicity – maybe because of their deceptive simplicity, I am intrigued to gaze on them longer.    I think that it’s a question of the compositions, the balance and choice of colours, the intensity of them which detain me.  And I certainly admire the quality of the craftsmanship.  That is not to say that I am in awe of Bourgeois’ craftsmanship, her wielding of a needle.  It is her idea that the craftsmanship is an important element which intrigues me.

Here is an artist drawing attention to craftmanship.  Of course  fibre craft is vital to the concept of so much of Bourgeois’ work in whatever medium given her tapestry mending origins.  But it struck me that Bourgeois validates so many of us who have the urge to express ourselves artistically, and who choose fibre craft as our medium.

As we see here in the fabric drawings, the effect can be powerful, arresting; work that is paired away and direct.  I find the oeuvre of Louise Bourgeois such a vital encouragement and endorsement of what I am trying to do, and these fabric drawings in particular reassure me that I should continue to try to simplify, to distil.

Inspiration, Influence, and Instruction (ramblings by Olga Norris)


Recently I have been mulling over thoughts about these tricky three Is.  At first Instruction seems easy enough to separate away from the other two.  But I don’t think that it’s domain consists only of workshops, lectures, and how-to books.  We learn so much by perception, by example, and yes, by influence.  We even receive instruction by pursuing inspiration.

 So, a tangled ball of threads.  It is not always worth spending time separating out individual threads from such balls; but the activity sometimes forms an appropriate distraction while the back burner is sorting out more serious stuff.  And in any case I thought it was long past time that I contributed something to the Cafe.

 Which of these three Is comes first?  I vividly remember travelling home from town on a coach, wetting my finger to fill in the magic drawing book: the colours were embedded in the paper and released when wet.  I also remember my great uncle taking me to see mosaics being restored.  And the moment of decision when my portrait was painted at the age of four: ‘I want to be an artist’.  So much is coming at us, and we are grasping so many different elements and aspects of life in those earliest years that I cannot separate influence, instruction, inspiration.  I can just be happy that I received all three.

 After my career in publishing was over I drifted towards work with fibre and design because these were areas in which I had some little hobby experience and some adjacent practice respectively.  I plunged way out of my depth by deciding to enter the world of knitwear design.  Not enough instruction there – but on the other hand it was a fun learning curve which I would never have enjoyed had the instruction come first.  But it was lucky that disaster was not financial, because such ventures can be costly mistakes.

 Inspiration in the form of an exhibition of international contemporary embroidery drew me to a more focused instruction at workshops in the UK Embroiderers’ Guild.  There I learned so many specific skills, but also learned new viewpoints.  The question then arises – ‘how do I want to use these skills?’  So many of the brilliant teachers were artists whose work I would never want to copy, because what they made did not express who I am.

 Was it the inspiration or the influence of the coincidence that I took up the Embroiderers’ Guild workshops in the year celebrating the anniversary of India’s independence?  I went to a fascinating lecture given by Anne Morrell on Kantha quilts, followed by a workshop on quilting with silk where I tried out the Kantha running stitch on my samples.  Bingo!

 Background instruction in looking at and learning about art came not only from my seeking out as much input as I could, but specifically at university where I took classes in Aesthetics as part of my degree, and a year’s course in History of Art influenced not only by my pre-existing leanings but particularly because the principal lecturer was David Talbot Rice, an expert in Byzantine art (which I had been surrounded by in my childhood in Thessaloniki, Greece).  While at university I was also filled with inspiration by the gallery owner and artist Richard Demarco who was extremely generous with his time and his experience.  All this instruction on how to look was influencing me in seeking out inspiration.

 When I first thought about making serious art I found it extremely difficult to extract my thinking from the influence of my previous expertise in commissioning illustrative art.  Both ideas and how to illustrate them were filtered through my publishing experience.  It has taken me a long time and much re-adjustment of thinking to let my mind flow into my own expressions.  It can still be an insidious influence to encounter wondrous art in a style to which the immediate reaction is ‘I should make work like that!’  It can take so long to get past such a self-destructive approach, and I still find from time to time doubts creep in about what I’m doing and how I am doing it.

 It is essential always to want to improve, and to welcome instruction, influence, and certainly inspiration – but all as nourishment to becoming better at what we do.  Because in the end the real question is not which is which, but what are we doing with it all?

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