Sunday, April 02, 2006


I've been working my way through the armload of books I brought home from the library a week ago, plus a couple more that arrived through inter-library loan. These all pertain to surface design - mostly painting on fabric, but some also touch on other methods of manipulating or changing cloth before it goes into your textile work. There have been a number of "aha" moments, as in "Aha! So that's where that idea (technique, design, et al) came from. That's why I'm seeing that everywhere now (or a few years back - some of these books date from as much as 10 years ago)." These authors either became trend setters or they capitalized on the latest trends by publishing their own twist on it.

I once read a good description defining the difference between innovative, contemporary and traditional work. I paraphrase here but I think this is a pretty good recapping: An innovative work uses techniques, materials or designs that are new and different, presented for the first time. Others who copy this innovation produce work that is considered contemporary - a part of the current trend. Somewhere down the road, these fresh, new and daring innovations become mainstream and may even be considered traditional if enough time passes.

My current foray through this collection of books is not to get ideas per se but rather to learn the technical side of applying paint to fabric. I'm so technique oriented that in order to feel confident about experimenting, indeed to assure that my tryouts are as successful and positive as possible, I prefer to do a lot of research first and play later. Once I have a handle on the basics, I'm more apt to throw out some of the rules and loosen up. I can definitely see the attraction to trying out and incorporating all these different ways to manipulate and embellish textiles, and I can also see how trendy many of them have become by the quilts being shown in exhibits and magazines. What I often cannot see is how to effectively use some of these ideas in my own work.

This, I think, is where vision comes in. Without vision, we don't really know where we are going. Without vision, our work may become a mere tour de force of the many techniques we know and materials we have at hand. Vision is akin to goals, but it is difficult to set truly effective goals without some kind of vision of where you want to go or what you want to accomplish. Without vision, our work is not cohesive, or it really says nothing other than, look what I can do.

As I stand in front of a blank piece of cloth, stamps and paint and brushes at the ready, I don't know where to begin. It is so unlike the process I'm used to using fabrics ready to go to design my quilt. Directions in one of the books made it clear to me what I needed to do. I needed to have some kind of a plan, not just randomly go at it. That's not to say that my design has to be rigid, drawn out in advance, totally pre-planned before the paints come out. That is only to say I really need to have some kind of idea or vision of what I want to do. I needed to think ahead of time about how colors would work together, blend or become muddy. I needed to consider the overall pattern and color distribution before stamping away. Happy accidents do happen and ideas surface as we work, but I've seen enough truly horrid fabric out there to know success isn't a given.

This all makes perfect sense to me when I think about how I've approached other aspects of my life. I've found myself in leadership positions many times, and it is always clear that leaders can lead in two ways. They can either moderate the group, letting it drift where it may, possibly setting short-term goals and seeing that they are met, or they can have a vision for the group that grabs it and leads it, perhaps in a new direction, but always without a doubt about where it is headed. It should also be noted that like goals that can be met, visions can be fulfilled, leading to new visions. (My track record for working with groups, by the way, has been about a year's worth of vision. After that, I have nothing more to say and need to move on.)

Such it is, I think, for the successful quilt artist. The Quilt Studio, by Pauline Burbidge shows quite well her journey, vision for her work and how that vision has changed over the years. I think many of today's enthusiastic quilters need to heed her words found at the very end of the book:

"If you are like most quiltmakers, your early work is likely to swing from one theme to the next, as you experiment and try out new ways of working. It is usually not a lack of ideas that keeps you from developing your own style but rather lack of concentration or patience to stick with and develop a theme. It's easy to allow yourself to be distracted and change course instead of exploring your original theme in more depth. The experience you gain from making one quilt leads very naturally into the next, and this is how you will develop a visual language of your own. Even if, early on, you make quilts that do not look like a "series," you can be sure there are visual links between them and, in time, if you persist, those links will become more and more apparent in your work."

Well, I am quite guilty of lack of patience to stick with and develop a theme. I am very easily distracted. My vision takes a backseat to the whims of the hour. Time to get back to my themes - I have two of them now that I had planned to explore - birch trees, started a few years ago, and willow leaves, started last fall. Oh, to develop the discipline! I guess the current stack of reading is a start. I've been remembering that I planned to try stamping leaves as the sequel to the machine embroidered Willow Leaves. I'm learning other ways I can use my paints to follow up this theme as well. Maybe there's hope for me yet!

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