Thursday, July 12, 2018

Crows and Cons: New Quilt

It began with a discussion. We soon found out we had differing opinions. Some of our arguments were based in fact, others were based on personal preference. I'm not sure we ever agreed on anything. But the egg began to incubate.

I like crows, and I've taken photos of many crows over the years, so I knew I would have imagery. I examined the pictures, looking for striking, high-contrast images, which is lucky since crows present such a perfect silhouette. At the same time, watching two neighborhood crows, I noticed one had a bent feather, which made the pair easy to spot. I called them Bent Feather (BF) and Bent Feather's Friend (BFF). They had favorite perches in a tall tree, on a certain telephone wire, and near the corner neighbor's birdfeeder. When  I gardened in the early morning, they would peck the ground and even come closer to see what I was doing, see if I had unearthed their breakfast. Eventually, I stopped seeing them regularly.

Then there were five crows, or six. One might have been offspring from a previous year. Three were definitely juveniles, noisy, wanting to be fed by the parents. They would flap their wings and make a racket, opening their mouths, sitting close to a parent, who would usually find something to give them. The juveniles are slightly smaller and their feathers are shiny blue-black, without the dust and fade of years in the sun.

I included some photos of BF and BFF in the quilt. The babies came after I had pieced it. Solar printing, letterpress from wood type, and faded jeans all come together. Embroidered crow footprints and solar prints from fallen feathers round it out.

Here it is: Crows and Cons. Both itself (about crows) and a metaphor for any argument or discussion or debate you might have.

(the crow in this detail is actually from a screenshot from the osprey cam at sfbayospreys.orgthe rest are photos from photos I took.)

(full image of the quilt is also on the website here)

Monday, July 9, 2018

Form and Fusion

Taking a step backward, putting aside message and meaning, the art "only you can make," I find moments where examining formal artistic concerns is refreshing and interesting. Perhaps this is the left brain side of artmaking. By formal concerns I mean color, shape, line, where the eye travels, background and foreground, and sensitivity to materials. These are a heck of a lot more objective, and maybe that is why they are taught in an academic environment; you can list them with checkboxes and grade them more easily. That said, line, color, materials, and shape are also easy to work with as you have no message other than making something pleasing and, dare I say, even beautiful. At a certain point you can intuit how to put the work together. This intuition happens after much play and practice, exploring and learning from the world.

Arranging colored blocks. Scribbling with colored crayons on paper. These are things we do naturally as children (assuming we have access to blocks, crayons, and paper). We don't think too hard about it. We experiment with the tools and explore. In daily life it's about choosing clothes or arranging our meals on a plate. We get ideas from the world around us, and that world, thanks to the internet, is enormous.

This experimentation doesn't just apply to the visual arts. In the 1980s, I had a professor who said that World Music or World Beat would become the music of the world. Musicians were traveling, exchanging music from their cultures. In the SF Bay area we had groups like Mapenzi, Zulu Spear, and the Looters. Western musician Paul Simon included South African music on his album, Graceland and brought mainstream U.S. attention to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. David Byrne integrated African music into the Talking Heads' album, Remain in Light;  and in 2018, for a wonderful switchback, Beninese, African-born musician Angélique Kidjo made a fantastic cover album of it. Music back then felt like it was reaching out to be global, rather than regional or national. This exchange added complexity to ways of making music, listening, hearing, seeing. 

But "World Music" became a marketing term, a catch-all for anything non-Western, which infuriated David Byrne (see his article here and another interesting article documenting the history here), and sadly changed the designation of all-inclusive to us/them or anything non-western. Thirty years later there is the concern about cultural appropriation in all forms of art. (Well, there has always been concern about this, but it is more in the foreground today.)

We use spices from around the world in our food. Our clothes are manufactured internationally. Free trade opens doors and opportunities. Yet, these items are not considered appropriated, perhaps because they are made for trade. The objection to appropriation comes when it is close to a particular religion, a lifestyle, a custom or, more importantly I think, an area that has intense emotional or spiritual significance. It can also be a source of tension when the borrower has absolutely no idea of the history of an object, or uses a language in a work "for texture" without knowing what it means. I remember in the 1980s when milagros, Mexican religious folk charms, were made into earrings and sold in Berkeley. They looked neat. I stopped wearing mine fairly soon after I learned what they were.

Which brings us back to art. When is it appropriate to use something from another culture, not your own, in your art? I'm interested in the Gond people of India (previous blog post here), and the patterning used in the art. I might use the idea of the patterning, but create my own patterns, not use one from another artist. I'm interested in the Japanese sewing patterns of sashiko (blog post here), and do use the patterns, made freely available in textiles books, in my work. I'm attracted to Brazilian woodblock carving of cordel and made a set of books that nodded to it (blog post here). The context and interpretation, I think, is important.

Which, like the labyrinth we're in, has us double back to form. It may be that appropriating, borrowing, using the form, scaffolding, structure, colors, the formal issues, can work. But only then if the artist integrates her own voice, transforms the form.

A friend of mine is very interested in Indian culture, has been to India many times. She also likes Korean bojagi, traditional wrapping cloth, which is like a little quilt. For a birthday gift, I went to Ahlishan, an Indian fabric store, and bought several remnants, with the intention of making a patchwork bojagi (jogak bo) out of them.

I did not have a message or meaning in mind, I simply wanted to play with the form, with colors and shapes and continue practicing the flat seams the form employs. Eventually, I added some of the dyed silk organza I used in my quilt/curtain, There Goes the Neighborhood. Typically, the bojagi are 35 cm square, about 13.75 inches, and wrapping things, according to wikipedia, is considered good luck and shows respect for the object and the recipient. (You can see a couple at the Asian Art Museum website.) I sewed a sleeve on the back of this one for the curtain option, and it  is a little larger, at eighteen inches, a fusion of form and Korean, Indian, and North American cultures. Good luck is a universal wish. I hope it works.

on the table

in the window

Monday, July 2, 2018

Art and Empathy

I think about art. A lot. Maybe too much. I think about my process and the results; I think about what I view in studios, classrooms, galleries, museums, websites and what I read. From the inside, as a maker, I question what I make and why. I look for sense in my choices of materials and medium, and I constantly look for meaning in what I do. Looking outward, as a viewer, I additionally wonder at what moves me, experience the awe or irritation or any number of emotions stirred up by the work, and analyze its success or failure to touch me. I also consider if this is something only this particular artist could make. Could it be replicated and sold in a big box store? and if so, how would my experience of it change? It's complicated.

Sometimes, it seems I'm running around the bases over and over as I think about these things, the game unchanged, a minor leaguer. But recently, I read an article in the New York Times from Saturday, June 30, 2018 that opened onto a new field. In his Op-Ed, "The Cultural Vacuum in the White House," Dave Eggers wrote that this particular presidency, like authoritarian regimes, ignores art and artists almost completely or is defensive or goes on the attack. What particularly struck me was this, "But with art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else's eyes and know their strivings and struggles." 

Wow. Empathy has been on my mind. The lack of it these days. Rethinking empathy takes me back to two earlier posts,  "What about Untitled" and "The Mirror Business." In those posts I wrote about the artists who say, "I want the viewer to see whatever they like in it." Having room for the viewer in the work is good. But now this sounds to be encouraging the viewer to make the artwork all about them, the viewer. It is not asking the viewer to imagine something outside of themself. It's promoting a kind of narcissism.

In the past, when I've asked an artist friend about her work, perhaps a particular work I've puzzled over and tried to feel or understand, my mind will suddenly clear when she reveals her process and tells the story of how she came to make it. Hearing the story of how she thinks and responds to the world, to her materials, to the creative process puts me in her shoes, allows me to see the world from her perspective. I may not agree, but I appreciate the mind-expanding possibilities, the possibility that I could see something new from a fresh perspective. Putting oneself in another's place does that. And it could help this mind-blowing, mean-spirited, empathy-free, us/them world we are in today.

This important change-up of view, this move to a different ballpark, to a different game, court, or field, is another reason a certain artwork should be something only a certain artist can make. Empathy cannot be forced or found in a cookie-cutter image made by machine. We cannot identify with the factory-made object. It needs to emerge from a distinctly particular, human point of view. We need to understand that placed in another body, another time, another place, another mindset, we could have made it. And whether we are or are not makers, we are visitors, guests of another world. And therein lies respect as well.

Art is not just about the message. It is not only about the meaning or feeling or mood. It is also about getting outside of yourself and your own game and respectfully touching base with someone, somewhere else.

I've read two books in the past year that have helped me understand the baffling situation in the United States. Although the titles suggest polarization, they are not meant to demean anyone; they are meant to help each side learn about the other. The first was The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic by George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling. The second was The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla. The books are short, but strong, about 140 pages each.