Wrestling with surface design guilt

This article originally appeared on the Art Cloth Network blog in March 2018 (http://artclothnetwork.blogspot.com)


This is the first of two articles that deal with my sojourn into digital fabric printing--the why and how of it and what it means in the context of my larger journey as a fiber artist. We’ll start with the big issues in this article. I’ll dig into the methods in the next one.

I’ve been dyeing and printing fabric for close to 20 years, and I still find it exciting. I love the process of getting color onto and off of cloth. I love the details--the measuring, weighing, and calculation--that allow me to create predictable, repeatable color. I love the toolmaking--carving relief printing blocks, designing and burning silk screens, and gathering found objects that become mark making implements. I love painting and printing big pieces of cloth. And then, of course, there are all of the things that happen to that printed cloth. It becomes art cloth for the wall, it gets quilted or stitched, or it becomes art to wear--one of a kind scarves or jackets. Lately though, I’ve been wrestling with a guilty feeling that I’ve been disloyal to my craft, or at the very least veering off on a tangent.

 "Illumination: Counting" Hand dyed art cloth  Russ Little, 2013  

"Illumination: Counting"
Hand dyed art cloth
Russ Little, 2013
 

In all of my time as a dyer, I’ve been a quilt surface designer. I’ve made pieced quilts as well as quilted whole cloth paintings. But, for the last year or so, the thing that’s excited me the most is cut paper collage. I paint paper--drawing paper, found bits of paper, old newspapers--with gouache in an array of colors, then cut it into shapes and arrange them to form a composition. This method is anything but new. Many artists have worked in collage, Matisse being not the least among them (try Googling “Matisse collage”). To give credit where it’s due, I started getting excited about collage through workshops on color theory, collage, and design that I’ve taken with David Hornung.

Collage takes many forms: combinations of found images and/or text, combinations of solid color shapes, figurative, abstract, the whole gamut. You might say that the term “collage” is a big umbrella term that covers lots of forms of “sticking stuff to paper”.

For me, there’s something totally different that happens in my brain when I’m cutting, arranging, and layering paper compared to cutting and piecing fabric, or even painting directly on fabric. Designs and motifs emerge when I cut into paper with an X-ACTO knife that are completely different from what happens on my design wall with fabric. But I still want to work in fabric, and I want to incorporate the textural layer of quilting into the final composition.

 "Collage #3" Cut paper collage digitally printed on cloth, quilted Russ Little, 2017

"Collage #3"
Cut paper collage digitally printed on cloth, quilted
Russ Little, 2017

With some trial and error I’ve found my way to two work methods that embrace some of the best of both paper and fabric. They both rely on digital fabric printing technology--wide carriage inkjet printing on fabric. I create shapes or full designs on paper, scan or photograph them, then send them to a service provider for printing on cloth. When I receive the printed cloth I can them treat it as finished art cloth or add more layers to it through paint, stitch, quilting, etc. Detailed discussion of these methods will be the subject of the next article in this series. For now it’s enough to know that I’m allowing a computer to put dye/pigment on cloth, rather than doing it with my own two hands.

So, what’s all this hand wringing about “surface design guilt”? Well, it comes down to the simple facts of change and that newest of buzzwords, disruption. I’ve spent years building knowledge, skill, and experience in the manual work of hand dyeing and printing cloth. Now I find that I’m able to create a finished work of  fiber art without ever touching dye or fabric paint, and it makes me a little uneasy. It sometimes feels inauthentic. Heretofore, part of the challenge--the foundational craft in this particular art form--has been the skillful manipulation of dye, paint, and cloth to produce the desired result. The computer and printer certainly bring their own set of challenges, but those aren’t generally surmounted using the skills I’ve worked so hard to learn.

In the end, the peace that I’ve made with all of this is perhaps the same peace that others have made. As artists we must embrace new opportunities, tools, and ways of thinking, while remaining grounded in those traditional and foundational skills. Perhaps a fitting comparison might be that a artists using a knitting machine is probably better able to make effective use of that tool if they first learn to knit by hand.

I also wonder about the future. I hope that young artists will continue to learn about traditional, manual ways of working before making the leap of digital tools. I have no desire or intention to stop working with dye, because that particular set of tools and techniques produces different results for me than digital tools. However, it’s also interesting to consider that at some point in the future I might live someplace different and might not find it practical or even desirable to have a full fledged dye studio. The new processes I’ve been exploring lend themselves to a way of making art that requires not much more than a computer, internet connection, cutting table, and sewing machine. 

So, I suppose the “guilt” I’m feeling is mostly rooted in the idea that I simultaneously want to try new thing and be part of the change, and yet I don’t want to see things change too much. And, since we can’t have it both ways, I’m going to forge ahead with one foot on each side of the line between tradition and technology.

In the next article in this series I’ll examine how that blended approach is influencing the way that I work.