Saturday, October 31, 2009

Practice: Moons and Pomegranates

a drawing I did four years ago, practicing drawing and composition simultaneously
5" X 7" colored pencil on paper

Still life w/ half eaten pomegranate
One of my earliest sketchbook drawings, a good practice piece

So say you want to be more creative in your endeavors. And say that your endeavors include design and composition. And say that people who should know tell you to practice, practice, practice. Well, how do you get all that practice? After all, embroidery is an almighty slow medium to work in. A large piece could certainly take months of constant work.

Yesterday I spent several hours in my studio making Christmas cards. In about an hour and a half’s work, I designed and made six unique cards. For an embroiderer that is incredibly fast results. It occurred to me that it was a very good exercise for design and composition. I make all of my greeting cards anymore. It kills me to make any two just exactly the same (the artist in me shining through). I have made some to sell too, but the work and materials I put into them just won’t justify selling them for $3 a card. So I don’t do that anymore.

What other ways are good practice for design and composition? Sketching and drawing is also a pathway. Since good drawing skills are essential for a top-notch designer it is practice, practice, practice for me in drawing. Each of those drawings that I can finish in an hour or two of work is another way to practice the two skills together--drawing and composition. You could do that too.

What about scrapbooking? I personally do not do scrapbooking, but I have seen some very creative pages. If the pages are not merely bought and then assembled following the directions slavishly, then composition enters the picture.

Something close to scrapbooking techniques that I do is making books from cover to cover. Look into some of my previous posts for glimpses of the books I have made. The twin books that Ann Erdmann and I made together remain the epitome of my book-making skills.

So practicing creativity and composition is not something that you have to put off because you are not designing a magnum opus (or magna opera, in the plural), it is something that you can do on a daily basis--easy and fun, with a product at the end of it. Try it and you might really love it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Great Divide

Several ways of achieving value in blackwork
from Blackwork: Compleat and Unabridged.

It seems to be as I get older that the divide between the artists in needlework and the purely craftsmen in needlework is becoming greater. And yet as I say this I can think of many instances of people I know making the great leap between the two. Peggy M. of Sandia Mountains Chapter helped Karen Schueler with two books written for the chapter, Santos for Embroidery and the New Mexico Wildflower Book in the mid-90s. Karen is one of the great mixed media artists of our time and I have no doubt that she was an artist before she was an embroiderer. Peggy really did a tremendous job along with Karen. And to my knowledge, Peggy is not an artist, not even, as I am, a self-proclaimed one.

More recently I want to mention Lores K., also a member of Sandia Mountains. She is a great researcher and is interested all types of embroidery. She was not known as an artist, that is, an innovator who designed her own work. About four years ago she took a short class from me called The Button Sampler. She took the information I gave in the class and developed at least two samplers on her own. They are beautiful work. Then Lores became interested in darning patterns and pattern darning (ask Lores to tell you the difference) and she again created a lovely sampler from her studies. The colors and the design are meticulous. She has jumped the divide.

I have already mentioned in another post Ann E. in connection with art and embroidery. She continues to amaze me with her dedication to excellence, both in modern blackwork and in modern colcha.

Patricia T., also a member of our chapter is beginning to explore blackwork as an art. She has talked about using the Santos book as the basis for turning them into blackwork pieces. She has also expressed interest in taking my class Intense Pattern that explores pattern theory within blackwork--a class for people who want to do original work. By the way, Peggy M. and Ann E. also want to take that class.

So why do I say that the gap is widening between the artists and the technical people? Because I do very few classes taught at the regional and national levels that foster pure creativity and design. Doing a needlepoint in class with a choice between red roses and purple roses may be a “choice”, but it is a scanty, dull choice. Give us classes we can sink our teeth into--classes about design theory and color theory. Not classes on how to stitch a rainbow in all the colors of the, uh, rainbow. Give us classes that show us how to do original work within the great embroidery categories. For instance, tell people that klosters within Hardanger are based on 4 stitches + 1, so that the count stays even no matter what the artist elects to do with them. Tell people that blackwork can be shaded and given value in about eight ways--and then show them! Tell them to write down all the “rules” to classic needlepoint and then to discard two or three and show them how to start designing from there. Tell people colors don’t have to match, that designs have to be unified, that they can dye their own threads and fabrics to get exactly what they want. Tell them there are no limits.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blackwork Unadulterated

Stella Grace
detail of blackwork that does not have reversible patterns
black cotton on white cotton fabric
7" X 7"

The Wedding Sampler
desinged and stitched by Carole Rinard, Ann Erdmann, and SKW
from the collection of Jake and Barrett Lucero
15" X 10"
black silk on white linen
some of this could have been done reversibly, but it wasn't--too comlex and not needful.

I first learned blackwork when I was a new member of the Creative Needlework Chapter of the EGA out of Collingswood, NJ. That was the first chapter I was ever in. I joined the group shortly after we (PJ, Mike, and myself--Barrett was not even a sparkle at that point) moved to NJ for Mike's work in 1977.

CNC was a great chapter for me who was absorbing embroidery at a mad rate. We were close to the then-national headquarters in NYC and most of the great teachers lived within a couple hundred miles of us, including several within fifty miles. The programs were astonishing with new things every month. We learned Brazilian, Hardanger, Assisi, goldwork, dyeing threads, counted cross-stitch (this soon-to-be world-wide craze was just taking off), needlepoint, crewel, and many more things. We were a chapter of youngsters. I was in my early 30s; most people were under forty--not something we see now much.

My first two blackwork teachers were Jane Zimmerman and Ilsa Altherr, both still active within embroidery circles. Jane is my favorite embroidery teacher of all time. She taught us classic English blackwork. Ilsa taught us reversible blackwork. It was very hard for me that first time I tried Ilsa's way. I liked Jane's a lot better--it was more accessible.

Now there is sort of a schism between people who insist that proper blackwork be reversible and people who insist that it can be either and still be correct. I quickly learned how to do reversible blackwork and can now do it even ungraphed. It is usually done in running stitch "journeys" with up to four journeys needed to finish a complex line of blackwork. But I normally choose not to it, but to stick to the more plastic Elizabethan style of back stitches.

In England there is a tradition of blackwork that goes back to at least 1395 with Chaucer's description (and by inference back even further in time), and this description may indicate reversible blackwork. This is the quote from The Miller's Tale

"Young, comely, was this wife; a lovely girl;
Her body slim and supple as a weasel.
She wore a cross-striped sash, all made of silk;
An apron also, white a morning milk,
She wore about her loins, gored to flare.
White was her smock; its collar front and back,
Embroidered with black silk inside and out,
The ribbons of the white cap that she wore
Were also coal-black silk, to match the collar;
She'd a broad silken headband set back high,
And certainly she had a come-hither look in her eye."
There is a portrait of Queen Isabel of Spain done in 1494 by Bronzino that shows her in "undress" with a cap and smock both decorated in black stitches on white fabric. This most certainly is Spanish Work. In Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe inventory of 1600 there is reference to both Spanish work and blackwork--sometimes both techniques are listed on the same piece of clothing. Obviously there was a difference between the two in the minds of the Elizabethans and the Tudors. But what that difference is, we do not know today. To us it is all black stitches on white fabric.
My theory is that Spanish work was always reversible. We see in Spanish samplers of the 1600s and 1700s the type of running stitch that is familiar to us today as reversible blackwork. I think this is the remnant of the great Spanish Work tradition. I have been to the Victoria and Albert Museum and have seen the backs of English-style blackwork and none of it is reversible by any stretch of the imagination. In the great portraits of the Tudor and Elizabethan eras we see the court dress as having a lot of blackwork on the cuffs, sleeves, and bodice edgings. People point to these and say that obviously it was reversible blackwork because on a sleeve cuff we can see both the front and back which seem reversible. Well, maybe. From a portrait we cannot see how the garment was made. Maybe the cuffs were two pieces sewn with wrong sides to the inside and with two identical lines of stitching on them. Or maybe they were done in Spanish Work. But the items of clothing I saw at the V & A were NOT reversible.
Ilsa Altherr, as far as I know, introduced reversible blackwork to the USA. But this style of blackwork is not the be-all and end-all of blackwork. Not every blackwork pattern can even be stitched reversibly. Some patterns change from the front to back when they are put in reversibly. The Elizabethans and the Tudors were a practical people. There is no sense in taxing brains to do something reversible when there is no need to. As Jane Zimmerman says, the Tudors and Elzabethans did not have graph paper to plan out the journeys of reversibility. A huge stumbling block to most stitchers.
I do not teach reversible blackwork: I teach in the classic Elizabethan model--backstitch with some running and double running stitches for some outlines. Basic blackwork is easy to do--anyone who can cross-stitch can do blackwork at its easiest levels. I urge everyone to try it--it is very satisfying.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Velma and Mountmellick

Aunt Velma is actually no blood relation to me. She is the older sister of my uncle who is married to my aunt who is my mother’s older sister. All of us in the previous sentence were born in Holyoke, Colorado, a little town of about 2500 that is the county seat of Philips County. Aunt Velma is aunt to all my cousins on my mother’s side. So to me she was always just one more loving adult in the long days of my childhood.

Aunt Velma in August celebrated her 100th birthday in what was to be a big party, but what turned out to be a stay in a hospital--her first. Velma fell in her garden while she was making concrete stepping stones shaped like turtles. She assured me that she was being very careful, but the bag of cement had a mind of its own and tipped over the wheelbarrow. Down she went breaking her shoulder.

Velma has done needlework in her long life. She knows about needlepoint and “pillowcase” embroidery. But she also knows about Mountmellick work. Mountmellick is an embroidery technique done in Ireland around the town of the same name. It was introduced as a cottage industry in the 1800s during one of the famines--a way to give housewives some extra money. It is whitework done on heavy cotton ground with thick cotton threads. The work is done in plant themes such as blackberry fruit and leaves and, in this instance, grape vines, tendrils, and leaves. Sometimes the satin stitches of the fruits are padded to give them relief. Everything about it is curvilinear.

Velma has a piece of Mountmellick that was done by her mother around 1900; see the pictures of it below. I don’t know where or why Elsie Biddle, Velma’s mother (I thought Grandma Biddle was one of my grandmothers too), would have learned Mountmellick, perhaps from a friend or even from a magazine. But she did this piece and then passed it on at her death to her only daughter, Velma. Velma told me on her 100th birthday that she was passing it on to me because she knew that I knew the value of it to the family. Velma did ask me what I would do with it when it was time for me to pass it on. I will donate it to the collection of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, where it can reside for other people to see it and study it.

Mountmellick work done by Elsie Biddle c.1900

20" X 14"

Detail of the grape vine and leaves. Notice the laid work on the leaf.

The padded grapes with tendrils and the scalloped edge.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Fish Swallowed My Pencil

Morning Glories
colored pencil, 5" X 7"
for sale for $25
Creativity comes in many guises. Creativity in art is just one
of the ways, though it is a very public way

Creativity comes in many different guises. Just yesterday I was talking with a friend from the Sandia Mountains Chapter who said that she just wasn’t creative. This is untrue. It is one of the human conditions to be creative. But creativity can lurk in any corner. I have used my sister Albie as an example before. Albie is a wonderful stitcher--canvas embroidery is her forte. But she chooses not to be at her most creative within it. It is creative enough for her to choose her own stitches and yarns for a painted canvas. What she does is grease the wheels and surfaces of one of the largest corporations on the globe. She helps divisions of Boeing get along with one another. It is a huge job and she is very successful at it because she is very resourceful (read: creative). As it happens we have a first cousin named Sharon who works as a health counselor in eastern Colorado. She has recently been asked smooth out the tensions between several departments in a new hospital near the Kansas border. This is exactly the same thing that Albie does. Sharon denies being creative, but she just “knows” how to reconcile the people. This is a type of creativity that I will never choose to exercise.

What I have is a creative bent for art. And creativity in art is much more public than most other types.

My friend Ann in Cheyenne, one of the people I love most in the world, is exercising her creativity in art, something that she was only able to engage in sporadically throughout her life. But now she is splurging with it by taking blackwork into new realms. I am awed and amazed. This is a case of a woman determining to see how far she can stretch herself and her craft. And then doing it. I will see if Ann will allow me to put her newest blackwork on this blog. It would be fun to show it off a little to our friends.

When I teach creativity, as I am going to do in a pilot class in Cheyenne and then later at the 2010 EGA national seminar in San Francisco, I usually teach it as some kind of design theory. Design theory is the apex of creativity in art. In learning D.T., a person can really stretch her creativity to its furthest. The class is A Fish Swallowed My Pencil.

Design theory sounds like a dull subject, but it is not. It is really a large plan and puzzle for the creative part of the mind to learn and then solve for itself. It is nothing to be afraid of; in fact it is something that may change your perception of yourself and of your world. It can make dull things sparkle and dead ends lead on to new paths. Try it, you might just love it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Bobby Pilling

Rune Speaker

Yesterday, Saturday the 10th of October, Carole Rinard came past the house loaded down with my stuff from the education exhibit at national seminar in Pittsburgh. Carole is the new chairman of the national nominating committee. Our good friend, Wanda Anderson, now living in Gunnison, CO, is the new Director of Education, a post that Carole just vacated. I love the way the power within EGA is slowly coming west. If we are not careful, we will have another national president from Rocky Mountain Region.

Along with my two blackwork samplers, my two models for A Fish Swallowed My Pencil and Pirate's Gold, she brought back my piece that won the Bobby Pilling Award this year, Rune Speaker. Ah, the Bobby Pilling Award for stitching outside the lines. I think a lot of the award was for explaining how I had stitched outside the lines.
Below are the words I wrote to the committee who judged the pieces entered for the award. There was some very good embroidery entered in the competition. But I thought I had a good chance because one of my private goals is to shatter some of the traditional styles of embroidery and make them, twisting and turning in color, break into the 21st century.
Thanks, Carole.

Rune Speaker

American non-traditional Hardanger doily
Linen ground with cotton threads
Decorated with a broken hand-carved wooden stamp with two types of gold paint.

I have long been exploring the very edges of Hardanger. What rules can I break and still have a piece have the look and presence of Hardanger?
The rules of classic Hardanger are old and strict. In this work I have broken four of them so that I have a piece that speaks of its maker. The first of the rules is about symmetry. All classic Hardanger work is formally symmetric in the placement of the motifs and areas of klosters. There is nothing that is formally symmetrical about this piece. All the klosters areas are randomly ordered. The second is that the shape of the work is random also--something that would never happen in classic Hardanger. Third is the use of paint and stamping to make it a truly mixed media work. And last is the use of color in a way a little different from the classic Hardanger’s white-on-white or off-white; different from the modern Hardanger of soft color with matching threads. I have used light lilac and metallic gold as complementary colors with the stamping dwindling away. To me the piece is like a piece of faded parchment with hidden messages and meanings long obscured.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Star in the Firmament

In the last two weeks I have been honored to have met and broken tortillas with a wonderful artist. Wilcke Smith has always been a bright star in my fiber arts universe. Wilcke, like me, never went to school to study art. but she learned on the job as a journalist in advertising layout departments of a couple of eastern newspapers and then in an advertising firm. She worked for five years as a designer in a large interior design firm in Texas. In 1954 her husband's work took them to Albuquerque where she struck out on her own as an artist with already a reputation as a creative designer.

Wilcke didn't always embroider, but like a lot of us learned some stitches as a child. It wasn't until she moved to Albuquerque that she started putting embroidery into her fiber art. In Celebrating the Stitch: Contemporary Embroidery of North America by Barbara Lee Smith (one of my teachers and another star in my pantheon), you can see a short blurb and picture of one of Wilcke's works.

In July I was asked by a friend of an acquaintance (Cheryl Sharp and Carole Dam respectively) of mine to interview Wilcke Smith and take some photographs for an article in Needle Arts. In July I was nose deep in preparing emotionally for 100th birthday parties (not mine!), for weddings, family reunions, and wedding receptions for my only daughter. I was not prepared to do the leg work for someone else's writing. I had never met Wilcke and didn't want to disturb her (or me). But I got through the most emotional period of my life since 2003 and got on with life. I called Wilcke (she is listed in the phone book just as mere mortals are) and I asked to meet her.

I went over one Tuesday morning. I interviewed and photographed. She showed me her smallish studio in her smallish apartment. And we started really talking and laughing. We hit it off. It was great. We talked about her early life, her early career, and we talked about art philosophies. We talked about stitching. I went home, wrote up a short three paragraphs to add to the article and emailed them and the photograph to Needle Arts.

A week and a half later (last Sunday night) she came over for dinner. She met Mike whom she seemed quite taken with. Even Cosmo the cat fell in love with her. We talked about collecting other people's art. We talked about me! She was most generous in her appraisals of my work. She called my work rich and textured with hidden depths. We sent her home with two meals of Mike's white chicken chile and chocolate cake in a doggy bag.

Wilcke is 90 years old (or thereabouts) and looks and acts about 75. She lost her husband of over fifty years two years ago. She lives in a sumptuous apartment in a sumptuous assisted living complex, and she is eager to talk to another artist who understands what she says. Go Wilcke!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pilots, Fish, and Pirates

Collage for the cover of the instructions for
Intense Pattern

It has been most of a year since I last logged on and blogged. Three people have commented that they miss my blogs. With a huge, worldwide audience like that how can I be hard hearted? Thanks Barrett, Ann, and whoever that third person is.

With the bottom fallen out of the art market and only old dust motes in my change purse, I have changed my focus from doing art to teaching art. Consequently I have four new classes coming up. An EGA IS (Independent Study) called Rainbows Bend with Carole Rinard as co-author. An EGA ESP (don't you just love the acronyms? In this case, Extended Study Program) called Intense Pattern of four days length that I have talked about before in this blog series. An EGA 2010 San Francisco national seminar course called Pirate's Gold of four days. And a 2010 EGA national seminar class of two days called A Fish Swallowed My Pencil. I have been hard at work on these for almost a year now, researching, studying, and stitching for them. Am I a little OCD for this much trouble over them? Well, maybe. But I guarantee you they will be the best I can produce.

Pilot classes for the last three were troubling for me to set up. I was embarrassed and insulted by someone in a position to help me who basically said I was taking advantage of her position to even recommend chapters within Rocky Mountain Region to ask to pilot. I saw it as giving smaller chapters a chance to have a national teacher at a basic cost. At any rate, I did not ask any chapter to do so, even though I know there are several pilot classes going around for other teachers within the region.

[What is a pilot class? It is a pre-class taught by the teacher to "practice" for the real thing. All region and national classes should be piloted. A teacher waives her teaching fee for the privilege of having a gang of students helps out with any glitches that may develop. The teacher gets all transportation, room and board, and kit fees, but must teach the class for free.]

Rainbows Bend, a color class taught by mail, will be set up for piloting by the national committee that handles such things. Carole and I will have little to do with it. Intense Pattern, a master blackwork class, will be taught here in Albuquerque in February at Jane Moses' house. The students will have no fees but the kit. A very good deal indeed, considering that if they took the real class they would have to travel to Louisville, KY and pay for their own hotels and food, plus me. Pirate's Gold is being taught at Rita Pittman's house in March (not interfering with Mardi Gras or Easter.) And A Fish is being taught in Cheyenne, WY by my dearest friend, Ann Erdmann, who is setting up a private class among her friends. I am lucky to have such friends as Ann, Jane Moses, and Rita Curry-Pittman.

So I am all set up and now I must finish writing the classes, gather all the stuff in the kits, gather my wits, and I am off to the trembling edge. It would be good to fly after falling off and not land with a meaty splat!