Human Marks : Day 5 (final thoughts)

[Edited 5/28, 10:00 PM to correct typos] 

I took this photo on a walk after lunch Thursday for both inspiration and memory. It might sound a little precious, but I keep thinking "Rows of corn; rows of stitching." In some way that I don't yet fully understand, that seems to encapsulate this week.  One of the things that's really staying with me is the stitching--on fabric, on paper, alone, and in small circles of new friends. Stitch is transformative. It joins fabric into garments to cover and protect out bodies; it decorates functional items; it's a tool for artists. And yet stitch, like weaving, has become mechanized to the point that we hardly give a thought to its presence in our lives. 

I have sewing machines that can make 1,500 stitches per minute, and others that sew with 3 or 4 needles at a time. I treasure and rely on these tools to do my work, and I'd hate to be without them. Gosh, I wonder if I even managed to sew 1,500 stitches by hand this week! Not too many generations ago (and still today in some places) hand stitch and hand weaving were more the norm than the exception. Textile, thread, and needles were treasured. Garments were cared for and mended. As a consequence of industrial sewing and weaving, garments have become disposable. We replace rather than mend, and more often than not, we replace out of a desire for the new and chic.

More troubling than our cultural perception of garment and textile as disposable, is our expectation of an unending supply of product at an affordable price. Machine or no machine, someone is making the clothes you wear, even those purchased at a discount store for less than you might spend for lunch. Add to this thought the notion that hand stitched embellishments are time consuming and done entirely by people, not machines. 

I feel as though I'm rambling and grasping to draw these thoughts together. It's basically this: Somebody made my clothes, linens, etc. Even if I made some of the clothing, I didn't weave the fabric. Think of all the people involved in the production of a single garment and all of the folks taking their share of the profit. How much money makes it back to the person with his or her hands in the soil or on the sewing machine, or stitching away by hand?

I don't know what to do with that question except to be with it in the hope that greater mindfulness and better stewardship will follow. 

It's been wonderful to spend another week at the Barn, to reconnect with a few old friends, and make new connections. Stated simply, Dorothy Caldwell is not only a gifted artist, but a generous teacher. She has a talent for gently moving around the room, connecting with each of her students, and offering suggestions and words of encouragement that seem to keep each person on track--whatever that individual's track might be. Along the way she also interjects thought-provoking ideas, like our discussion and practice of hand stitching, which led to the thoughts above. If you're a visual artist of any sort then I say you can't go wrong with one of Dorothy's classes. 

Human Marks : Day 4

Today was all about bookbinding. Well, sort of. The task of binding our books superficially involved the mechanics of a simple stitched binding. On a deeper level it was an exercise in recognizing and solving a whole series of design problems. The pages that we've created this week all have a fold down the middle like a greeting card. Folded in half they form 4 pages. Assembling a book with some sort of flow involves sorting, selecting--and in come cases modifying--these groups of pages so that they work together, even though we didn't really plan how this was going to work from the outset. It was a great exercise. The photo above shows the end-of-day status for all of my projects for the week. Some things are not totally finished, but finished enough for the group review tomorrow morning.

The photos below show the binding for one of the books coming together. This was seriously fun and I think I might be doing more on my own.

Book signatures (groups of folded pages) assembled and ready for binding.

All of the signatures individually stitched with waxed linen thread and held together temporarily with a rubber band.

The final bound book. The signatures are all connected together by weaving embroidery floss through the waxed linen threads along the spine edge of each signature. That crazy nest of waxed thread hanging off the spine of the book is staying as a design element (it's art).

Human Marks : Day 2 + 3

 Indian Kantha sample from Dorothy's collection.

Indian Kantha sample from Dorothy's collection.

Sorry for not posting yesterday. It was a LONG day. I got back to the hotel around 9 and continued stitching until about 1030. Yesterday started with a fantastic slide talk about kantha stitching in India (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kantha) and the work that Dorothy and some of her colleagues have done to document and support the work of local women. As I said in the Day 1 post, we're collecting our work into a hand bound volume. Yesterday we spent the better part of the day stitching a kantha-style cover for the book. How hard or time consuming could that possibly be? The answer is rather. Most of us aren't hand stitchers, so there's a bit of re-learning and slow going, but we're all making great progress between yesterday and today. The underlying lesson is that the oh-so-affordable hand stitched souvenir from your vacation or that catalog item from India or elsewhere was made by someone who labored for days to create it. Think about that and then look again at the price. It's sobering.   

This is were I started: blank cloth and simple tools.

By about mid-day today I was here.

Betwixt and between bouts of stitching there've been more slide talks, more mark-making exercises (including taking a hammer and nail to paper!), great food, and wonderful conversation and camaraderie. We've got a really great group of super-talented folks in class and there's great energy flowing.  

Human Marks : Day 1

I'm here in Ohio at the Crow Timber Frame Barn (nancycrow.com) for a one week workshop with Dorothy Caldwell (dorothycaldwell.com) titled, "Human Marks". I've admired the mark quality in Dorothy's work for many years, and countless friends and colleagues have recommended her workshops. I'm thrilled to finally have an opportunity to study with her.

As the name says, this workshop is all about human marks made in a variety of ways--fingerprints, pen, paint, burning, stitching, etc. The tangible end product will be several small hand bound books containing the results of our mark-making exercises. The intangible "product" is that there really isn't a product per se. We're making these marks without purpose, and the books will be a collection with no purpose other than to be an artifact of the time. The marks aren't intended to be representational or patternistic. They just are. 

It's a rare thing for me to spend five days doing something that isn't driving toward a goal. I'm enjoying it. Here are a few samples of today's work.

Marks make with a pen (mine's the one in the center).

Marks make with a brush and india ink. The tall piece to the right make with fingerprints. The small bits on the far right are marks burned into cloth with incense. 

Beginning the new adventure

Updated 1/27/2016 to correct an intolerable number of typos.

I took off the last 2 weeks of December in anticipation that the last day of the year would mark my last day at National Geographic after almost 26 years--that's 9,448 days, but who counts. It was an amazing experience--many jobs, at least 2 careers, and tremendous people, all under a single roof. The decision to leave was not taken lightly or made with ease. The recent reorganization (just Google "Washington Post National Geographic") presented me with both a job opportunity and a chance to take a voluntary separation package. I chose the latter. I hope that years from now I can have a Frost-like moment when I can rightly compare this inflection point in the arc of my life story to those roads in a yellow wood. I confess that having just reread "The Road Not Taken," I'm struck by just how very appropriate it is to the moment.

So here I am, nearly a month later. I've had a couple weeks of holiday slacking, followed by a couple weeks of a lingering, gurgling, post-holiday virus, which I can always count on before Epiphany. I've cleaned the closets, remembered how to cook, cleared the backlog of ironing, and tidied my desk. And of course we've had a blizzard, affectionately dubbed "Snowzilla". Now what? I suppose it's time to embrace this whole idea of being a self-employed artist. You see, that's what this leap of faith is supposed to be about--moving from my day-to-day corporate job to being a full time working artist. The universe has seen fit to send me several bits of reassurance that I've made the right decision: a supportive husband, a host of friends cheering me on, a small show at the New Deal Cafe, and a commission that I'm hoping to finalize within a week. I'm grateful. 

What's missing at this point is a routine, my great boss, and my work friends.

A regular rhythm to my day is only just starting to come together. I like a certain amount of routine and a certain amount of flexibility, but I'm little surprised to find just how aimless one can become when all structure is taken away. 

I've had good bosses and bad bosses--and I mean seriously bad. I was fortunate to leave NGS on a high note, having spent most of the last 2 years working for a great boss. I miss having a leader I can follow with confidence and someone who I knew was thinking faster and farther than I was. Now that falls to me. I get to be both the leader and the follower. It's great to lead; sometimes it's also nice to follow--just saying.

I love days spent in near silence, or perhaps with an audiobook or NPR. Having said that, I can also say that a week spent that way will definitely make you appreciate the folks with whom you used to spend your days. This is my opportunity to make new connections, but I miss my colleagues.  

That's the news. Whatever I write next (could that possibly be as early as tomorrow?) will be about what comes next. 

New show booth in the making

This post could also be titled, "What I did over my Thanksgiving break." My craft show booth has evolved over the years, but has always been variations on a basic pipe-and-drape design--essentially a curtain backdrop. I'm about to do my 5th show (admittedly my 5th in 5 years, but still...) so I decided to up my game a bit. I've looked at several options for purchasing a booth, but (a) they aren't cheep and (b) they can be bulky. My solution needs to fit in a 4-door car with the rear seat folded down. That means it needs to break down to a small package. 

My solution was a 7' tall folding screen with options to add or remove panels to accommodate different spaces. The pictures above show various stages of production as well as the fully disassembled state. I designed it to have an intentionally raw wood, knocked together look. So far I'm pleased with the result. This morning it'll get the last coat of shellac to protect the wood, then I just need to make the fabric panels that will be stretched in the frame. 

I'll post photos of the finished creation in action next weekend when it's all set up at the Festival of Lights

Check out the new items in my online store

Black Friday? Really? Isn't there still a pile of Thanksgiving dishes in the sink?

Whether you're a conservative shopper or an an all out shopping maniac, it is indeed the time of year when we all begin to contemplate gifts for friends and loved ones, and perhaps for ourselves. It's also an incredibly busy time of year for everyone involved in creating, marketing, and selling. I know I've certainly been busy. 

Click on over to my online store and see some of the newest creations. Buying from local merchants and small businesses is a great way to support the community. These folks--people just like me--are wonderful source for original, one-of-a-kind gifts.

And, if you find yourself in the Washington, DC area next weekend (Dec 5-6), stop by my booth at the Greenbelt Festival of Lights craft fair to see more of my work.

Visit my booth at the Greenbelt Festival of Lights craft show Dec 5-6

Stop by my booth at the Greenbelt Festival of Lights craft fair next weekend, Dec 5 (10am - 5pm) & Dec 6 (10am - 4 pm) at the Greenbelt Community Center located at 15 Crescent Rd in Greenbelt, MD (map).  

It's exciting to be participating in this wonderful gathering of talented artists and craftspeople for my 5th year in a row. I'm looking forward to reconnecting with longtime supporters, meeting new folks, and showing my most recent wearable creations.  

An acceptance in the middle of a sea of rejections

I'm happy to report that "Focal Point" has been accepted into the Art Cloth Network show "Anything Goes". Elin Noble was the juror. She's a delightful, talented artist and teacher. It's an honor to have had her review my work. The first venue for the show hasn't yet been determined, so that's something else to look forward to. 

 "Focal Point"

"Focal Point"

The joy of silk charmeuse

For a moment let's set aside the simple fact that it's just so much fun to say the word "charmeuse," especially when it comes out shar-MOOOZ. More important though is the fact that this stuff is absolutely wonderful to paint on. The brush with thickened dye just glides across the smooth, shiny side of the cloth, and the dye penetrates very well, giving good strike on both sides. 

My cloth is created by printing, dyeing, and a decent amount of hand painting. This isn't the fussy sort of "silk painting" as you can see from the photos below. Both of these length are destined to become scarves.

 First layer of gestural marks and shapes on two 2-yard lengths of silk charmeuse

First layer of gestural marks and shapes on two 2-yard lengths of silk charmeuse

 Beginning to add color

Beginning to add color

 Background fill

Background fill

Adventures in itajime shibori

Adventures in what?

From the same folks that gave the world sushi and origami comes the equally OCD collection of dye patterning techniques collectively known as shibori (she-BOO-ree). All of these methods involve creating a physical resist between cloth and a dye bath by folding, clamping, wrapping, stitching, and binding. I've been using arashi (ah-RAH-she)--pole wrapping--for several years and getting some satisfying results.

 An example of the type of patterning produced by arashi shibori

An example of the type of patterning produced by arashi shibori

I've also been experimenting with itajime (it-ah-JEE-may), another form of shibori that involves clamping folded cloth between wood or plexiglass forms to create a resist. With all of these techniques you get out what you put in. In the case of itajime, carefully folding and pressing the fabric is a time-consuming process, but ultimately produces better (or at least or regular geometric) results than loosely folded fabric.

 Itajime scarves drying on the line

Itajime scarves drying on the line

And, for your further entertainment, here's a video that compresses the somewhat fussy process of folding and pressing a 2 yard piece of cloth into a small triangular stack. In this video and the image above I'm working with cotton lawn.

Tuesday morning clothesline

I was in the studio at 6 AM this morning (before work) washing out the dye from Sunday and Monday. Last night, all of Sunday's wax and print work got a nice over-dye. I left 12 yards of cloth drying on the line today while I'm at work so they'll be ready for me when I get home. Tonight I get to press out all of the wax (ironing between mountains of newspaper) and launder out the residue. This is about my least favorite task, but it's the only way forward it I want to apply more color. It's that Karate Kid thing--wax on; wax off.

 The clothesline as I left for work.

The clothesline as I left for work.


Let the season of making begin

I'm busy in the studio all year, but over the past 5 years or so I've fallen into an annual pattern of activity. January through April is usually a time for research and developing new ideas--and the time for a much needed winter vacation. May is usually the time that I'll fit in a workshop if I can. June through September I'm often working on art with an eye toward summer and fall exhibition deadlines. But, it's in October through December that the activity level really ratchets up. I sell wearable art (mostly scarves) online all year long, but I also do one 2-day craft show at the beginning of December. Producing enough work for 2 days of selling and working a full time job takes months of part-time effort. 

And as I write this, I've got several yards of printed fabric downstairs in the studio batching--oh, yeah, and dye-stained hands. I absolutely love this frenzy of dyeing, printing, and sewing, but I'll be exhausted by Christmas. That's just the way it is. 

Here are some photos of just some of the weekend's activities. Many thanks to Dan, my in-house photographer.  

 Adding soy wax resist to silk crepe de chine using an Indonesian tjap. The wax will block whatever color I add next. 

Adding soy wax resist to silk crepe de chine using an Indonesian tjap. The wax will block whatever color I add next. 

 Inking a large sheet of plexiglass with thickened dye for monotype printing.

Inking a large sheet of plexiglass with thickened dye for monotype printing.

 Creating pattern on the monotype plate.

Creating pattern on the monotype plate.

 Printing the waxed cloth on inked plate.

Printing the waxed cloth on inked plate.

 Pulling the print.

Pulling the print.

The next steps will be letting the dye cure then putting the whole thing in an immersion dye bath. After that I'm not sure--probably removing the wax followed by...whatever it needs.  

Elements of Design: Day 10 (the end)

While the sun has yet to set on Columbus, it has indeed set on my 2-week design adventure. I got to the Barn early-ish this morning and finished yesterday's composition--gluing down loose pieces and making a few tweaks here and there. David gave a short slide talk about his own recent work, and we did one last crit. Then, after lunch, slowly but surely, folks began to leave. Slow leave-taking, especially after having spent so much time together, is like slowly tearing off a bandage. It might be better if a bell rang, we all said our goodbyes, and then ran--one big "Ouch," rather than so many little painful partings. 

I was among the last to leave because my flight isn't until tomorrow. I did one more small composition in the afternoon as I reflected on yesterday's film about Ellsworth Kelly, seen below in by portfolio. I felt that I just needed to park this idea for future consideration. 

I'm going to need to take some time to reflect on my takeaways from these 10 days. I definitely learned. I hope that I can make (and keep) a commitment to doing more thumbnails and studies. I also need to give serious consideration to paper and paint in addition to cloth, if for no other reason than it seems to access a different part of me--a different voice. 

And so, I'll close with a few thoughtful photos.

Sometimes messy workspace can be productive. (it got even messier than this)

Sometimes (often) beauty exists right beneath your feet. We just need to take the time to notice.

Sometimes the shadow of a thing is even more interesting than the thing itself.


Elements of Design: Day 9

Today was probably (definitely) not the most productive studio day, but it was certainly active. After a bit of work time this morning, we did critique for 90 minutes. After lunch we had a little field trip to visit Nathaniel and Michelle Stitzlein in their home/studio--the former Grange hall in Baltimore, OH. You have to check out their site and see their amazing work on their website.

So, then there was a little more time for work, followed by an excellent film about Ellsworth Kelly ("Ellsworth Kelly: Fragments"), which I highly recommend. If you have any interest in modern abstract art, run, don't walk, to stream this on Amazon. It's an hour of Kelly discussing his evolution as an artist as well as visiting some of his larger installations. 

And then I got about 30 minutes to work before we trooped off to see Nancy's (Crow) new studio. It's a barn big enough to hold a barn! The interior is stunning--all locally milled wood, huge design walls, an entire floor for quilt storage, and her husband John has the entire basement level for his wood shop. I count myself lucky to have seen the space before she moves in, at which time it will be off limits to everyone.

It was a great day, but introverted me had a little more stimulation than I needed between all of the activity and the level of energy it brought out in everyone else. 

I did manage to at least start a new composition. I'm trying to do this one in 4 panels with the intention to join them, but along the way also trying to create compositions that could stand on their own. I'm not sure I can pull that off, but it's an interesting experiment. 

This is where it stands so far. I keep producing this stuff that's incredibly narrative compared to any of my other work. This only comes out when I work in collage...and I'm thinking maybe I need to do a bit more of that.

Elements of Design: Day 8

In case you're wondering how long this is going to continue, it's 10 days total, so just 2 more entries after this one. 

We started the day with a slide lecture on the categories of design (hierarchical, etc.), then, as promised, we spent the rest of the day much as we did yesterday--only bigger. Today's composition was 8.5 x 22". While I could have also worked 11 x 17", I chose this shape and aspect because it's radically different from my usual work.

Once again, we began with a restricted shape vocabulary and limited color palette, then added both shape and color in three distinct layers. With each layer, the goal was to create a composition that could stand on its own.

You can see the three phases of my composition below. I was surprised by how anthropomorphic and narrative the shapes became. Also, increasing the size of the design space really drove home the importance of proportion. It isn't enough to simply scale up the size of shapes from a smaller composition to a larger one. Neither is it sufficient to use the shades from the smaller composition in a larger one at the same scale. There's a sweet spot in between.

Tomorrow I'm working on a contiguous design in 4 panels that will total 17 x 22".

Elements of Design: Day 7

I'm energized, I'm learning, but I've got to say that it's Tuesday and I'm already Wednesday-tired.

The shape exploration continued today. The compositions got larger and more complex, and there was a twist. First David asked us to create 2 compositions using the same rules as yesterday (limited range of shapes, etc.), but using 4 colors. Not a huge challenge, and I was pleased with the results, shown below.

Then came the challenge: pick one composition and add to it to double the number of shapes and colors. I was hesitant at first because I liked the results that I'd already gotten and feared the mess I expected to make. I have to say that this turned out to be a great exercise. It really drove home the point that good design is built on a strong foundation. Limiting the variables (shape, color, number of elements) in the first pass made it much easier to focus on basic structure. If I'd had 24 pieces moving around at one shot, I'm not sure I'd have arrived at this solution.

Tomorrow we'll be pushing this idea further: 2x the size and multiple cycles of addition. I spent the last couple of hours today painting paper and prepping for tomorrow morning.  

Elements of Design: Day 6

Dan and I had a wonderful weekend together, but this morning it was back to the Barn for week 2 of Elements of Design. David gave a great lecture on art paradigms and their historical context, which helped put our work these two weeks into context. 

Today's exercise was shape composition in color. We were presented with some basic ground rules: A palette of 3 colors, a consistent bounding size, and a limited range of shapes. It might seem hard to believe, but it took 10 hours with a couple of short-but-not-hurried food breaks to complete the work below. Part of it is just the time required to paint all of the paper, then the gluing is a bit fussy time-consuming. But, I'm happy with the result, I'm applying the design principles more readily, and I feel like I'm getting my groove back.   

Tomorrow morning, more colors and a bigger design frame.