Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Drawing with thread in the city!

Close up of "Starry Night" block center
Well, it was Katie that started me on this quilting journey after all.

I completed 3 quilts and 1 quilted pillow over the last couple of years, learning very different techniques with each one. I thought I might as well continue to experiment with this art form on my kids. They are always happy to be on the receiving end of one of my creative whims... a new pancake recipe, a framed painting, a quilt... whatever!

So starting with my daughter, Katie did a bit of research on the computer and found a quilt block that she liked and then came to the quilt shop with me for fabric. As expected, she chose very conservative colors (brown and cream) with just a tiny print in the brown. It took what seemed like forever to cut out all the pieces for the quilt top and sew them together. With every quilt, I learn something new. With this quilt, I became more comfortable at my machine and actually sewed a pretty consistent 1/4" seam! I also figured out how to chain stitch all the small pieces to make it go faster.

Time for the border and backing meant another trip to the quilt shop. Katie zoomed in on a fabric that looked like a map of NYC. It was a wonderful choice and so unexpected for my conservative daughter! I know she is a fan of all things Manhattan, her grandfather and architecture at the top of that list, so I was thrilled that the quilt might now mean something more to her than just another experiment of mine. We also picked out a border fabric that would tie the colors of the backing fabric in with the front design.

Assembling the quilt with all the layers was exciting and I could not wait to get on with hand quilting the entire project. Now that we had a theme going with the NYC backing, I had ideas for the quilting designs. I would create a skyline all around the turquoise border and in each of the 12 centers of the blocks, I would stitch something that meant New York to Kate and to me. I could not remember being this excited about any other project in the longest time!

I tried, I really tried, to master machine quilting. I am just not a fan of the look. I bought a few Craftsy classes on free motion quilting, and experimented as I do with anything new, over and over again. I thought about simply doing straight quilting lines with my walking foot, but that did not thrill me. And my quilt shop even has a long arm quilting machine I could use as well. I know a handmade quilt is special because you get to select the fabric and it is made with love, but once it goes through a machine to assemble the whole thing, I think it kind of takes the handmade out of it. I suppose someone who hand dyes their fabrics would feel the same way about that step of the project and would never think of buying batiks on a bolt. In any rate, working each stitch by hand as the quilt becomes complete feels more like something handmade and it is something I love to do.

So with my vanishing purple pen in hand, I sketched different designs in each of the cream centers of the blocks and quilted the designs with brown thread. I was blending together my skills for drawing with my love for fabric. How perfect is that? I also used the brown thread for the skyline on the border and a cream thread to finish quilting around each of the triangles of the blocks. It was with a smile that I completed each section of this quilt and added my signature at the bottom. It is with a smile that I can share this with my daughter. After all she was the one who started me on this journey all along.

Taxi Cab

Fountain in front of Lincoln Center

Empire State Building

NYC Public Library

I Love NY logo

Brooklyn Bridge

Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Big Apple!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

How do I sign my quilts?

I am an avid listener of Abby Glassenberg's podcast, "While She Naps." It is the conversation that accompanies me to school just about every day... especially when I was binge-listening to the last two years of her recordings! Now that I have caught up with all her back episodes, I eagerly await her new podcasts each week and try to entertain my trips with other podcasters, some of who are interesting and others who get jumped midstream to the next one on my iPod just like a song that I am not in the mood to listen to.

Self-portrait quilt by Luke Haynes
One wonderful and recent episode of "While She Naps" was an interview with Luke Haynes, a graphic artist turned quilter. He began as an art major in college and it is his graphic design and art skills that he brings to his quilts. This fact caught my interest quickly and after the episode, I found myself looking up his work and eagerly examining his quilted images online.

Although I love to quilt and I love to work with thread and fibers, my initial love for traditional quilts quickly faded away.  I am not a perfect quilter and could never compete with the best-of-the-best quilters out there. I could never be judged for my sewing ability or how well I follow the rules of the quilting police. My creativity with quilting comes out of the joy of working with my hands, the joy of seeing how colors and patterns work together, and for the moment, my obsession with hand quilting the negative spaces. As I explore the many techniques for machine and hand sewing, I try to master these techniques as best as possible, then just enjoy what I can bring out of it as an art form. I am first and foremost an artist. It is what I do, it is who I am.

I pay homage to generations of women who have spent their lives stitching to perfection and may not have ever made a name for themselves in the process. But as a response to Abby's interview with Luke Haynes, there were many listeners who criticized him for getting his fame just by being a male in the mostly female world of quilts. And as one rebuttal put it, Mr. Haynes wants to be known for his quilts, not for being a male quilter, yet he signs his name so boldly on the front... a very male thing to do.

Robert Indiana 
His bold name in all caps is what I first admired about his quilts! It never crossed my mind to label that a male thing. I enjoy the artwork of Robert Indiana, for example, and I use his "LOVE" sculpture as the basis of an art lesson that I teach in school each year. I have never considered Robert Indiana's work to be a male thing either, just an artist's interpretation of a design with letters.

As well, I never go on about Georgia O'Keeffe being a female because of her soft color palette. Her work becomes the focus in my classroom when we learn how to blend colors of paint on the canvas. And that is obviously not just a female thing to do! I suppose gender matters less these days and that is a good thing. We can all be inspired by anyone.

My 2 year old quilt with a revised border design
I have completed a couple of quilts since my "Learn to Quilt" class two years ago. For the first quilt I made, I was taught to make a label on the back of the quilt. That label became a work of art all by itself, with my choice of typeface for the name and date, and the beautiful fabric frame surrounding the muslin square with the signature. As soon as I heard the Luke Haynes interview, I realized what was wrong with my label. It should not be on the back!

After experimenting with hand stitching and recently adding designs to the border of this two year old quilt, I also added my signature using the same Perle 8 cotton I used for the border. It is signed exactly as I do my paintings. I am very proud of my efforts, and I love the feeling I get when I see my signature right there on the front.

For the border, I added rows of hand stitched Perle cotton. Then I improvised with free form swirls in red.
I love the detail that the quilting stitches adds to the wide border. 
Not as bold as Luke Haynes,
but there it is.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Bringing art to life!

My grand-niece Emma with her Emma doll

I listen to a wonderful podcast on my way to school in the mornings. Abby Glassenberg, "While She Naps," is a softie and doll designer. Lately her interest runs more to the business end of creative careers as she takes us along on her journey of turning her creative skills into a marketable business. What I love the most, though, are her conversations with other creative artists and sewists. Her interviews are so full of useful tips and recommendations that I could spend a good half hour on the computer looking at all the links in her podcast notes and wanting to know more about the art of people she interviews. She has a sweet voice, asks all the right questions, and makes my trip into school a pleasure.

I wear many creative hats. I am a painter, an illustrator, a writer, a graphic designer, an art teacher, and a quilter. I am not doll maker in any way, shape or form. But that does not stop me from enjoying her interviews with doll designers and hearing their stories. On Pinterest, I saw a number of pins related to people making dolls out of kids' artwork. I was inspired to try this out after hearing the stories behind the many doll makers on Abby's show.

I teach art to 3 year olds through 5th grade at my school and something that is very common with my youngest students is how they draw people. Can you picture the well known M&M cartoon character with his arms and legs coming out of the head of the round candy? You might see this same characterization in any child's drawing. As young artists perceive people around them, the face is the most important element of anyone they meet, and everything (such as arms and legs) are simply extensions of the face. There might be a body between the head and the legs, but in their eyes, it is not as important to recognize or represent in their artwork.

We expect children to depict reality on paper, yet how can we get them to notice what is not important to them? If they get to design their own softies, they would need to make decisions that travel beyond where the eyes and mouth go on the face. For example, what color would they choose for the shirt or the dress? Beginner artists in my class drew a self-portrait making many color decisions for each part of their portrait. Then, using fabric samples donated to the art room, I turned each of these wonderful depictions into a softie and brought their drawings to life!

These dolls (11 in all) became the highlight of my art show this fall. And, because I am a tech nerd and always look for fun ways to integrate technology into my art room, I also used the Aurasma app on the school iPad, and took a video of each student holding their doll. When parents aim the iPad over each doll, the App triggers the screen to show the video of the student. Amazing!

After that exercise in creative fun, I went ahead and ordered one of Abby Glassenberg's PDF doll patterns. I don't know that I will ever become a doll maker... (as if I need yet another hobby!)... but once I created these adorable dolls for my class, I realized I should learn how to do it the right way, from Abby. I selected and ordered her Emma doll pattern for my grandniece Emma. I was so excited to start this doll and actually managed to finish it just in time for Hanukkah.

I think I will stick to what I do best... painting and quilting... of course until the next new project sparks my interest. I do hope, though, that my sweet Emma enjoys her handmade doll as much as I did my momentary obsession into the world of softie makers!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Making someone happy!

Norman is a tennis player. Even seeing out of just one eye, he is a tennis player. If he did not enjoy watching the game, playing the game, beating his opponent, or simply hitting the ball for the fun of hitting the ball, he would not be a tennis player. And as a true player, he collects all things tennis, like this multi-colored collection of tennis sneakers and the antique racquets that fill up our garage. In his retirement, a small thing like colorful sneakers makes him happy. Why not?

Being creative is what makes me happy. Happiness starts with a new idea, the prospect of turning an inspiration into my own creation. I've got a whole stash of happy thoughts just waiting to be painted, drawn, built or sewn at any time. It's amazing how I can remember anything at all with all those happy little dreams taking up residence in my head. There is pure joy in the development and decision making process. There is pure joy in setting up a composition on a canvas, selecting fabric, arranging my work area and starting a project.

Then there is the process. How could I not enjoy the process? I get into this weird zone with my work. It almost becomes a form of meditation with the strokes of my paintbrush flowing out of my hand without any effort at all. Music can be playing in the background, a podcast can be really interesting to listen to, but I hear nothing at all. It is really something to experience.... that zone of perfect creative harmony.

Completing a project can often be the most painful experience of all and the most thrilling at the same time. When is something done? I could re-work a section of a painting for months before I get it right. I am still re-working the border of a two year old quilt because I was not happy with the look and I knew a little hand stitching would be just the thing to make it perfect. I will put a project away and look at it on another day. I will take a picture of it on my iPad or phone just to see it in a different size or perspective. When something is right, I get it. And while no one else in my family will notice what I think is not finished, I will keep at it until the thrill of it being completed meets my artistic eye. I am my worst critic, but if I ever lower my standards, then why bother doing it to begin with? And it is always worth it. Always.

This is the season of giving. There is pure joy in gifting something I made to someone else. I almost always think that it comes down to making someone else happy. When something is done, the thrill is over and I am on to the next dream of another project. Only by making someone else happy can I keep that thrill alive. I love gifting my work. I love creating things with my hands. I love making people happy. It is my way to show them that I appreciate all that they do for me. It can be as simple as a handmade greeting card for Norman or a quilt that I worked on all year as a gift for Katie.

"Play it again, Sam"
Acrylic on canvas 24x30"
Sam recently dented the side of his ukelele and asked me to paint it. A couple of years ago, I painted a canvas for him with his fingers posed on the Steinway. It took me months to complete it. I was really proud of the result and thrilled for him to own one of my paintings. But I think he was just as excited to see his tiny painted ukelele and play me a song on the instrument once he re-strung it. Sam being his creative self on a Hawaiian painted uke...a gift that keeps on giving!

Sam's painted ukelele
Below is a video of Sam playing on his painted uke. Happiness hits us all in such different ways. May we all find our "Happy" in the New Year!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Returning to my roots

Falling in love with fabric, thread, and the quiet motion of hand stitching has become somewhat of an obsession for me, again. It is what I loved to do when I was young. There was something magical about touching the fibers and the process of creating something beautiful with them. My father built a huge frame in our basement for me to do my rug hooking, as he would do with anything that I might have showed an interest in. He was my biggest supporter in all things creative. And during the 60's and 70's, in the days of folk music and folk art, it was working with thread and yarn.

Then life got in the way. I majored in fine arts in college and transitioned to graphic arts immediately after graduation as a route to making money. With the birth of my children, I worked out of the house for many years using a very early Apple computer that Daddy bought me....way before anybody had a computer or even knew what email, Facebook, or the www. thing might be. I made a successful go with Adobe Illustrator, writing and illustrating instruction sheets for craft and science kits. I never minded working through the night when my children were asleep and I certainly did not mind working in my PJ'S! I also learned that I loved writing as much as I did drawing each detailed illustration. My least favorite thing to do was anything business related, especially submitting bills and figuring out estimated taxes. When the kids were older, I eventually moved into teaching and gladly accepted a regular paycheck every 2 weeks. I regret nothing that I did along the way, except perhaps having a better business sense when I worked for myself. These days, social media provides a much easier access to advertising who you are.  But regardless, I know I would not be as good a teacher as I am without my 15 years of writing instruction sheets. I would not be as good an artist without growing up in a creative home, taking art in college when we all knew that it would not lead to a job, and having the confidence to be an artist whether you use a pencil, a paintbrush, a stylus, or a needle and thread.

 Life does take funny twists and turns and we all seem to go around in circles. Katie recently bought herself a present on Etsy of embroidered flowers on fabric, stretched on a canvas frame. It looks just like the embroidery my mom used to do back in the early 70's. My dad would draw an outline of a scene on fabric and she would lovingly embroider it. Her work would proudly hang in the living room, right next to my dad's paintings and photographs, and my brother's stained glass. Yet, she never considered herself to be an artist. The embroidery that Katie bought looked so similar to my mom's and when I asked if it was a new piece, she told me that it was, in fact, made in the 1970's!

Well Mom, your work was just as beautiful, if not more so. If she only knew about Etsy, Pinterest, Instagram, or the Food Network!!! There's a lot of things that happened in the world during last 30 years that she missed, including the love of grandchildren and a great granddaughter. Oh, the creativity she could have shown us all.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The One Block Wonder that wasn't!

How can you be creative if you haven't the energy to feel excited about much of anything? This was a long winter filled with too many snow days, too many sick days, and a lack of enthusiasm on my part. To welcome the spring, I had parathyroid surgery and I spent the last two weeks (my spring break from school) recovering from the surgery. With just enough energy to stare at HGTV with Katie, I was grateful for the quilting project I started months ago. Happily resting under one completed quilt, I had my new quilt stretched in a large wooden hoop on my lap with my book light, my needles, my thread, my scissors, and my vanishing purple pen all within reach.

This quilt started with a class that taught a technique for making "One Block Wonders". My local quilt shop had one on display with Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night" as the fabric and I loved the look of it. The colors and brushstrokes of the painting were very recognizable, but the quilt was so much more interesting looking with a modern geometric spin to the design. I could not wait to create the same thing for myself. Of course, as luck would have it, they did not have the van Gogh fabric in stock and I spent a good hour or more trying to select another fabric for my design. Not experienced in this technique, I took the girls' advice in the shop to just go with colors I liked and not worry about the actual print. By the time you cut the triangles and arrange them in a repeat pattern within a hexagon design, you lose all definition of the original fabric design.

The class was fun, as it always is to spend a few hours with other quilters. I learned how to cut perfect repeats of fabric, bought some new, fun quilting tools, and went home with the start of my own "One Block Wonder." My fabric did not do what the Starry Night fabric did... or what the other quilters' fabrics did for that matter! My fabric choice had a lovely arrangement of small green leaves that ran through the entire pattern and this made all my blocks too similar. I did not end up with sections of dramatically different colors to arrange in a creative way.

As what usually happens with my projects, I veered off on another creative idea midstream and made another trip to the shop to spend more money. This time, I bought a cream colored fabric with a subtle leaf design. I cut triangles out of that fabric and separated my hexagons with the cream fabric. I loved the look. It was a lot more traditional than the more inventive "One Block Wonders" designs, but I am new to quilting and traditional designs still get me excited. On yet another trip, I picked out fabric for my border and backing and I happily stitched it all together.

Piecing together a quilt top is one thing, but what I admire about most quilts is the intricate design sewn into the layers of the quilt. Yes, these can be done on a machine and my quilt shop even has a long arm for machine stitching perfect little repeat designs. But after sewing the binding of my first quilt by hand, I realized that hand sewing is my favorite part of my new obsession with quilts. I want my projects to look handmade, down to the needlework of the quilted design, and this leaf quilt that did not quite become a "one block wonder" was the perfect project to experiment on.

So, with vanishing pen in hand, I drew leaf patterns on the cream triangles and hand stitched them with a neutral colored thread. I was in love with the result! As I get more courageous with my stitched designs, I will try to use contrasting colors. But this cream on cream design was perfect for me.

I added hand stitched designs to the border and around each hexagon. This quilt was a pleasure to create, a perfect project for these last two weeks of my recovery, and a perfect way to make me feel creative again.

And now Murray and I have two quilts to cuddle under!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Taking a Creative Vacation

What did you do on your time off? This winter break for me was all about resting up, going to see a few Christmas movies, napping, cooking, sleeping late, playing with my dogs, napping, spending time with my family, and napping. See a pattern there? How I will wake up tomorrow morning at 5:15 for school is beyond my vacation brain to imagine! I never did get to write those art report cards I was hoping to get a head start on for January, but I did add a few rows of stitches to my hand quilted throw blanket (it is so pretty!) and I finally did sit down at my easel to complete a few canvases.

"Cinque Terra"
24" x 30" Acrylic on Canvas
This painting is my interpretation of a scene from a photo Ricky and Barbara took on their trip to Cinque Terra in Italy. I started this painting back in February and it took me the better part of this year to complete it.

"I like painting big," I told Barbara. "If you want a canvas for your kitchen, I'll paint a large bottle of ketchup!" Instead, I was given this photo of a beautiful fishing town from their trip to Italy with hundreds of little tiny houses, windows and balconies. I grudgingly started it and then took a break from painting to learn a new hobby (as if I need another new hobby!). I always wanted to learn how to quilt and my family bought me an introduction to a quilting class for my birthday. The painting sadly sat on my easel with just a sky, a mountain and few cute houses painted in while I was learning how to measure, cut and piece together blocks of fabric with a new sewing machine.

Each month or so this past year, I sat down and worked on more sections of the scene. I was painting with a brush that literally had one hair. Did you know you could buy a 20/0 brush? Each window had shutters, or a balcony, or laundry hanging off the ledge. It was fun adding all the details but after a while, it began to resemble a cartoon more than one of my paintings. I aim for realism all the time with my work, but it is my interpretation of realism. I do not start outlining things like I was doing with these buildings. I finally made my way down the canvas to the cliffs and rocks and once again changed my painting style, blending colors and shapes to indicate a realistic scene. I loved this area of the painting because it was all me. Once the rocks were blocked in with color and shadows, I went back up to the houses and repainted them all. I was happy with the color choices, but simplified the scene, leaving just the windows and roof tops. It was finally coming together as a unified scene and I was once again painting regularly at my easel. This final scene had more adjustments made to the sky and the mountain as well as the rocks. The only fussy detail left is a tiny little person in a boat painted just for Ricky.

I knew it was finally complete when I realized that I loved it and felt bad that it was actually leaving my house for another. I wanted to make this painting so that when I went upstate to Yorktown Heights to visit my family, I would see one of my canvases on their wall. When is the next holiday? It is time for a visit yet?