August 15, 2021

Finished blanket

The finished blanket is two layers only, sewn together with a "pillowcase binding," no quilting. I had dyed up a length of linen the same charcoal color I used for the top, thinking I would line the blanket with that. But I kept thinking about how I liked the feel of the fleece throw I've been using for naps. Fleece would be too heavy for a second layer on this, but then I thought of "minky," which is similar to fleece but thinner and even softer. I found a nice gold color, available in a wide enough piece that I didn't have to seam it together. Done! 


July 24, 2021

Project #3: In memory of my mother

Back on April 23rd I promised posts on three projects in progress. Other things in life have held back progress on the third project, and I wanted to be closer to completion before writing about it. With the backing for this piece now being dyed, I'm ready to describe it. A detail shot is above, and below is what the full top looks like, laid out on the floor, edges not yet trimmed; it's about 52x67." 

This piece is in memory of my mother, Helen Schine Gold, a kind of color portrait of her and my feelings about her. I started thinking about doing a quilt in memory of her many years ago (she died in 2003, a year before Jeremy), and started actively working on it in about 2010. The initial thinking was something that would convey the comfort of my mother's presence and of her care and concern for me, embodied in this story:  When I was a sophomore in college, I came down with a serious case of mononucleosis, and wasn't eating. My mother flew to Chicago from New Haven to take care of me. (This is an indication of how badly sick I was, as this was the only time she came to Chicago until I graduated. I had visited the university on my own--my first plane flight ever--and had moved out for my freshman year on my own. My mother was nothing at all like today's "helicopter" parents.) Before my mom even came to my apartment-dorm, she stopped at the grocery store to buy the fixings for chicken soup. I ate it, and I began to get better.  

I went through several different projects on this theme, advancing each one, but then putting it aside when I could see it had had less promise than I hoped. Finally in this last year or so I worked through to an approach that has gotten me closer to a completed work, one that I feel accomplishes what I've been trying to express.

From the beginning, I had colors in mind, referencing chicken soup as well as colors I associated with warmth and care--a wide range of yellows and golds, and maybe a little orange. When I picked up this project again about a year ago, I still had those colors in mind, and thought about doing something that would combine the bowl shape I worked with a few years ago (itself a result of thinking about chicken soup). I did sketches, thinking about doing something large-scale, likely piecing fabric together in a way similar to my Shelter quilt.

Then one day, I was whiling away time on the coloring app I enjoy (Happy Color) and I colored in this rooster. Colors in this app are all pre-set--no choice involved on my part. This particular color combination showed me that I could enliven my palette of yellow/gold if I added in some darker values and some contrasting colors. It's a little embarrassing to admit I learned this from a coloring app, but there it is.

I worked up an expanded palette, with the help of Color-aid papers (thanks Rick!).

Then I pulled some fabrics I had on hand.

Then I began cutting them up, making several maquettes with different piecing techniques, none of them satisfying.

Then, somehow, I got the idea to try something with crewel/needlepoint yarn, rather than with fabric.  This immediately felt like a good direction, as it provided a strong connection to my mother, who taught me both embroidery and knitting, and with whom I planned out large needlepoint projects I enjoy to this day in my dining room (a full set of dining room chairs and 2 large side chairs). So I ordered some yarn 

and started stitching samples. I assumed I would be stitching onto a cream or tan colored base cloth, and ordered samples of linen twill recommended for crewel work. I tried out various stitches to fill space or to define shapes.

I wasn't happy with the background color, so I started sampling on some linen cotton I had on hand that I'd dyed black.

In the last sample above, I was trying out stitches in the upper left that would give a line rather than define a shape. This reminded me of a quotation from a poem of Yehuda Amichai that I had recently noticed in the Shabbat morning service, a poem about the tallis or prayer shawl, that is often decorated with thin stripes:

And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white 

like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.

Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go

like airport runways where angels land and take off.

Yes, lines.  I roughly laid out strands of yarn on a large piece of black fabric. Yes, this could work.

But how to make the lines? I decided on an unbroken line of yarn, not something broken up by stitching, and tried a couching stitch, in which a strand of yarn is laid on top of the fabric and then held down by a series of stitches that wrap around it.

But I didn't like how visible the wrapping stitches were, even when done in the same color yarn. So instead I tried stitching inside the strand, moving the stitches between different strands of the 3-ply yarn so that all is held down.

I got even better at it, so that the interior stitching is really not visible.

Satisfied with this technique, I started stitching. I set up on the dining room table. (You get a glimpse below of the needle-pointed dining room chairs and the 2 side chairs by the windows.) A drying rack was convenient for lining up the yarns.

As I worked out the design for this work, it became less about the nourishing comfort of chicken soup (standing in for my mom) and more a color portrait of my mother. As I chose strands of colors from what I'd ordered, I included not only the colors I associated with the warmth of her personality and her support of me, but also some colors I remembered from her clothing, which seemed to work well for expanding the palette. 

In a few places, I put a line of what I call my "conversation stitch." A little conversation with my mom.

Along the way, my idea for this piece changed from something to be hung on a wall to something I would use as a covering. It will replace the fleece throw that I keep by the living room couch and that I use when taking a nap. I think it will be a comfort to draw this over me.

It will look something like this when in use:

I am so much happier with this than with the one other piece that I actually finished before relegating it to a closet.

The plan here was to focus on various pale yellows, in the way that I did for grays in "Holiness"; I made this much smaller (34x42") because I wanted something to hang on a wall, and had no larger spaces available. But the end result gave me no satisfaction. I found that it's not possible to dye as interesting a range of pale yellows as pale grays, and it also became clear that the large size of "Holiness" (70x85") is crucial to its impact. Another difference is that I quilted the yellow one, and although I like the dense quilting I used (below), the total flatness of "Holiness," stretched on a frame with no stitching, is part of its power.

A final note:  Here'a shout-out to Judy Kirpich's moving interpretation of chicken soup, which I came across along the way, and which inspired me to continue searching for my own.


April 29, 2021

Project #2: Homage to Ellsworth Kelly, II

Back in 2013, I made a small quilt,  "Homage to Ellsworth Kelly," working from his paintings of colorful squares. You can see an example of one of Kelly's such paintings in the top row of the stamps put out not long ago by USPS--wish I had purchased more!

After studying a number of Kelly's paintings of squares, I decided to use multiple bright colors, along with both white and black, and to place the squares so that value contrasts dominate, but to also have some places where two adjacent squares are close in value. Here's the quilt I made, 36"x36."

For quite a while, I've had a photocopied image of another piece by Kelly on my bulletin board, "Brushstrokes Cut into Forty-Nine Squares and Arranged by Chance." 

Recently it occurred to me that I had on hand some fabric that might work well for a quilt based on this idea. I had dyed a couple of yards of cotton/linen blend in dark charcoal, but it came out less mottled than I wanted it, so had set it aside. I also had a large supply of the heavy natural linen that I used for Words Spoken. So I did some sample blocks with these fabrics, and decided to go forward with a large project. I'm making blocks that will finish at 7" square, and I'm planning on a queen-size quilt (91x112"), which will need 208 blocks. (In contrast, Kelly's entire piece is only 14" square, which surprised me--it seems large-scale to me, but instead it's small and delicate.)

The appeal to me of this kind of work is the combination of intent and chance. Kelly's original brushstrokes were made with some level of intent: making lines both thick and thin, curved and straight, and pulling the brush in long strokes across a page.  But then he cut the paper up into squares, with no attention to where in a line's path the cuts fell, and then he arranged the squares by chance. 

Kelly's piece is the starting point for my quilt, but my materials dictated a somewhat different method. Cutting and sewing in fabric strips makes for a different kind of line, and gestures made this way are not as free as a line made with a brush. And rather than making one large drawing and cutting it into 49 squares, the most I can do is work a strip that will be cut into two blocks. I've been doing that for about half the blocks, but if I want to include a pronounced curve, or some intersecting lines, then I work on just one block at a time, and do a more intentional composition. So, there's less randomness within the blocks than Kelly achieved. And although I initially put the blocks up on the wall randomly, as they are each completed, I do then step back and rearrange to get something that pleases me. This is a very enjoyable part of the process, seeing the different ways the lines can relate to each other. Did Kelly really arrange the squares totally randomly, without moving any squares? If so, what will power!

Once I made a few dozen blocks, I tried out different arrangements. The first is closest to Kelly's drawing:

Then I wondered what it would be like if I added in a few squares that flipped the black/tan relationship, and I like the result:

And then I wondered, what if I introduced more black still, isolating each of the blocks within a black grid:

I like this also, but the plan is to go with the second arrangement--some scattered black blocks, but no black sashing. Below is progress so far, with placement very provisional. The width will be as is; the length will go down past the bottom of the design wall, so I'll have to work on this in two sections. I've made several more blocks since this photo, so I'm now about 1/3 done. Some days I make a couple of blocks, some days as many as four. I'm taking it slow, enjoying watching the design in each block take shape. This is not a project conducive to production-line piecing.

Here's a close-up of part of one block, so you can see the texture of the linen. It's a loosely woven fabric, so I starch each block heavily before trimming it to size. (Click on the image if you'd like to see it larger.)

One other issue I've thought about: Are my two "Homage to Ellsworth Kelly" quilts too close to Kelly? Am I copying or making something new? Is it OK to make work this close to another artist's? A few thoughts:
  • Studying the work of other artists is a key part of learning to make art. Looking really closely at Kelly's, figuring out compositional elements that are central to the work, helps me understand key elements of composition such as color and line, and how to use them.
  • Copying the works exactly would likely have taught me even more, and art students are sometimes asked to do this as an exercise. But I was interested in making something that built on Kelly, while still developing into my own work. I have gone further in that direction in the second homage than the first.
  • If I ever do another exhibition of my work, I wouldn't include these quilts, given that they are derivative rather than more fully original. Not that anything is 100% "original," if you study at all the work of other artists, but there are degrees. 
  • To make my source clear, I have given both of these quilts the title of "Homage to Ellsworth Kelly," and I hope the recipients will enjoy looking at the work of the artist who inspired them, as well as the quilt.
And here's another, somewhat similar quilt that's a step further from being original work, a quilt that I made in 2015 from the "Glyphs" pattern by Modern Quilt Studio (issue 9 of their magazine). 

Being done from a pattern, much was decided by the authors of the pattern, although I did change the colors and sashing width and left off the borders. And while the pattern authors gave samples of "glyphs," they encouraged makers to create their own. Still, no mistaking that this is a quilt I made from a pattern created by someone else. 

Comparing the design of this with my second "Homage to Ellsworth Kelly" quilt: While there's much similarity in the construction, this quilt has straight lines only, and each block is a composition unto itself. The narrow sashing keeps each block distinct, so one doesn't get the feeling of connection that happens when there's no sashing, and when the lines include some curves.

April 23, 2021

3 works in progress

I'm working on three different projects at the moment, and thought I'd give you a look at each one, over a few posts. 

This first one was the last begun but the first finished. I was thinking I would intersperse working on it with the others, but it created such a mess that it took over the studio, so I just kept at it until it was done. This is from a pattern by Rachel Hauser of Stitched in Color, "Confetti." For a background fabric, I dyed some Nature's Way muslin in a pale gray that I like very much. (The color shows a little better in the detail shots below.)

I have made two "confetti" quilts long before I saw this pattern, with both of mine done improvisationally. The first was a wedding quilt made for a friend, and the second used the same idea to make "If Only," a wedding quilt for Jeremy. In contrast, Rachel Hauser's pattern utilizes paperpiecing, which pre-determines the position of scraps. I don't think I'd ever do this again, as I prefer the more spontaneous look of improvised "confetti," but that spontaneous look comes with the cost of much greater design time and mental exertion.  Much as I love doing work of my own design, I also enjoy relaxing with the simpler process of making according to someone else's design. The other appeal was that paper piecing is a technique I find challenging, and I thought this might be a good pattern for me to use to build the skill. Well, I did get better, but I made every possible mistake there is in paper piecing, most of them more than once. For those who aren't familiar with it, a little taste of what's involved: A pattern for each block is printed out on paper. (I used a translucent paper made for this purpose.) Pieces of fabric are sewn to the underside of the paper, in the order indicated by a sequence of letters.

And here's the paper turned over, showing the first pieces sewn on.

I won't try to explain anything more, except to say that because of the flipping, you need to be able to imagine everything in reverse, which is very challenging for me.  

Below are a couple of close-ups. Working with scraps is always fun, as you get to re-visit projects from the past.

There's always a hope that when doing a project with scraps, that one will work down the volume of the scraps on hand, but that never works. Going through the bins of scraps, only results in fluffing them up and creating more volume than one takes out in little pieces. To use up some more of them, I decided to make the back of the quilt entirely from large scraps, which included a few already-pieced blocks. (The top and bottom rows will be trimmed after quilting.) 

And here are a couple of photos to give you a taste of the other two projects:

March 16, 2021

Words Spoken--Design and Construction

This project started a couple of years ago, when I began writing down sentences that have been stuck in my mind for a long time. "You're the one who goes away" was first on the list, but there are another dozen or so, words spoken to me that continue to have a place in my psychic geography. My first thought of how to give them a life in art was to combine them with a line drawing of an object, with the sentence below. For "You're the one who goes away," the object would have been the rolling laptop bag. But some of the sentences didn't have an obvious image associated with them, and I decided that it was the words themselves that were key--that the words themselves needed to be the whole composition.

I've used words/text in other pieces in my body of work on Loss. I stamped a narrative in "Accident." I did a large screen-printed version of the same narrative in "Accident II." I wrote out my many regrets on the back of "Regret." And I fused foot-high letters in "Self-Portrait, Year 2: Beneath the Surface." Each text has demanded its own form. For this recent project, I got the idea early on of using the hand-writing of the speaker for the letter style of each sentence. For scale, I decided on a size significantly larger than ordinary handwriting, but still small enough that you needed to stand fairly close to view it; the stitched letters are about 1-1/2" high. (In "Self-Portrait," in contrast, I was aiming for something like a billboard, both in size and style.)

It pleased me that to replicate the style of another's handwriting, I could rely on paleographic skills I'd learned fifty years ago when studying medieval history in graduate school. I used a technique for deciphering difficult handwritten texts, which is to isolate individual letters in a text and copy them out into an alphabet. After you've done that, it's much easier to decipher words that previously were impenetrable. For this project it wasn't an issue of not being able to read Jeremy's handwriting, but rather that I wanted to be able to create new words from the small sample that I had.  Here's a photo of the sample of Jeremy's script that I used (a birthday poem for me, lightly adapted from Calvin and Hobbes, done when Jeremy was eleven), along with the alphabet I pulled out, and my first writing of the sentence in the style of Jeremy's handwriting. I was astonished that I got it on the first try. Then it was a simple matter to enlarge it for the stitched piece. (Click on any photo to enlarge it.)

I liked the idea of using a heavy-weight linen fabric as the base, and did some trials of dyeing it gray, thinking of a link to my work "Holiness."  But I decided instead on a natural-colored linen, and got a heavy-weight variety from a company recommended by Susan Brandeis, whose book, The Intentional Thread: A Guide to Drawing, Gesture, and Color in Stitch was a great help to me on many issues related to stitched lettering. sells samples for a very reasonable price, so I was able to look at a number before choosing 4C22.  Another book I studied was Sara Impey, Text in Textile Art.

How to lay out the sentence on the cloth? I tried out a couple of different layouts. Putting the text all on one line results in an awkward size (42x14"). Splitting it over two lines results in a more pleasing size. But it seemed to me that the integrity of the quotation as a whole was better maintained if it were on one line. Also, if it's split over two lines, the whole quotation can be taken in at once. In a long line, your eye has to travel down it, slowing down the reading of the sentence.

As I finish other pieces in the series and hang them together, the overall shape of the display will create a different experience than just one piece hung on its own.

How to stitch the lettering? I quickly settled on couching as the best way to get a smooth, continuous line. Here's a quick explanation if you'd like to know what "couching" refers to.  The thread I used to form the letters is a beautiful silk wrapped paper yarn made from linen by Habu Textiles that I found in a yarn store in New York several years ago.  The paper base gives the yarn a crispness that helps to get sharp points in some letters, while also working well for curved shapes. Here's a repeat of a close-up from my first post that shows the thread and how it's couched. I used a very thin black thread  for the couching (80 wt Aurifil), so it's difficult to see, which is good.  

I considered doubling the linen/silk thread of the lettering, or using a heavier yarn to get a bolder look, but the single strand of thread is very beautiful, and I'm happy with the result. Another possibility would have been to use this thread on white linen, which would also have given a more striking look. But I needed this to be more quiet.

One other process element: Taking the advice of Susan Brandeis, I backed the linen with a light fabric, to keep it from shifting as I did the embroidery. That's the reason for the basting stitches across the fabric in the photo below--long stitches of thin gray and brown threads that are taken out once the stitching is done. I used a 12" hoop, propped against the table, which allowed me to stitch from both above and below. I've since purchased a floor stand to hold the hoop, which will make the next piece in the series easier to work. 

I started on a second piece for the series shortly after I finished the first, this next one to be words spoken by my mother. I did the same process of creating an alphabet from examples of her handwriting: some recipe cards, a list of the work done on our house in Woodbridge, CT purchased in the 1950s, and notes that she took on her cancer treatment in 2002. 

But when I tried to create the sentence in a larger version of my mother's handwriting, I couldn't get it to look like hers. I think it may have to do with the fact that my own handwriting is much closer to hers than it was to Jeremy's, which somehow makes it more difficult to re-create. Also, there's quite a bit of spacing between her letters, that when enlarged looks odd. I put it away some months ago and haven't gone back to it. One of these days, I will try again.  

So, this is the conclusion of my posts on "Words Spoken 1." Writing this out and sharing it has lifted a burden. Thanks to all who have sent me your responses and kind words.


March 14, 2021

Words Spoken--An explanation of the work

An explanation of "Words Spoken"

When my son Jeremy was growing up, he had a talent for remembering things that David and I had forgotten, so we would sometimes call him "The Rememberer." And David had a talent for finding things that Jeremy or I had mislaid, so we would sometimes call him "The Finder." At one point, I asked the two of them, "If Jeremy's the rememberer, and David is the Finder, what would a nickname be for me?" Jeremy answered, "You're the one who goes away."

Of course this phrase has been with me ever since. In the morass of guilt that any parent carries after the death of their child, these words are an unchanging catalyst that over and over again, across the sixteen years since Jeremy's death, precipitates my sense of failure and loss. 

And why this nickname? It was true that my job involved some travel, a night or two or three away from time to time, attending a conference or giving a guest lecture somewhere. It had never occurred to me that these were significant absences to Jeremy. Although the nickname did not make its way into later conversation, the next birthday gift Jeremy got me was a wheeled laptop bag, to make it easier for me when I was traveling with my computer. 

The nickname may have referred to my travel away from home, but I think also of the significant part of the day that Jeremy was in day care or after school care, rather than at home with me or David.  One of the things I discovered about Jeremy after his death, talking with his friends, was that his being adopted as an infant was a larger part of his mental landscape than I knew. I think that may have given him vulnerability to a sense of abandonment that I didn't have a clue about. 

In July of 2016, preparing for an exhibition of my work about loss, I wrote in a blog post: "The series of quilts I've been making for the last twelve years is complete—this work that has been about the death of my son Jeremy and what it is like to live with loss. I have put out into the world, as best I can, what there has been in me to say.  There are no more angles to cover.  This doesn't mean that my deep sense of loss is over, just that I have said what I can about it." Perhaps no new angles, as my previous work included a quilt on regret. But guilt is different from regret, even while overlapping. So, here's something else I found I had to say.

As I thought about the place of these words of Jeremy in my life, I realized that there were other clips of speech that live on in my head, bits of concentrate of a relationship, of a person's meaning to me. My plan is to do a series of these in stitched panels. I will do at least one more, words spoken by my mother. Perhaps I'll do a half-dozen. The others are not so painful. . .  

I'd also like to tell you about the design and construction of the work, but I'll save that for a later post. 

I showed a draft of this post to my husband, and in addition to improving the prose here and there, he asked me, "Why are you writing publicly about this?" Good question—why not just keep it private? My first answer is that I've learned, through people's responses to my earlier work, that others really appreciate having difficult messages out in public, that it gives them a chance to consider similar things in their own lives, and it also helps them understand people they know who have gone through such an experience. This was most notable in the outpouring of response I received when I showed "Self-Portrait, Year 2: Beneath the Surface" at a national exhibit. In the case of "Words Spoken," even if the specific words may have no resonance, I'm thinking many of you carry words from long ago in your head, an isolated phrase or sentence that stays with you, standing in for a person, a relationship. 

Then my second answer to David's question, after I thought a bit more:  Writing publicly about this is also a form of penance. 


March 13, 2021

Words Spoken

Here is the difficult piece that I have held back. It is intended as the first in a series.  

It is hand-stitching on linen, 42 x 14", stretched over a wooden frame. A detail to give you a better sense of the texture.

I will let this stand on its own for a day or two, and then post something more about the work.