Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Elephant Seals on Christmas

This year, I asked that my family join me to see an elephant seal reserve and rookery as my present.   And so it was that we spent part of the day of Christmas Eve, hiking through lovely dunes

to encounter 4,000 pound male elephant seal behemoths resting on the beach.

Though enormous, they were surprisingly camouflaged, and the rangers made sure we didn't accidentally come up against an unsuspecting bull lying in the sun.  We had to adhere to a 25 foot rule, meaning we couldn't get within 25 feet of the animals.  They are surprisingly quick on the sand for about 25 feet and can bite hard, but then they tire.  Seemed like a very good plan to me.

The females were beginning to arrive on shore, preparing to give birth over the next month. At around 2,000 pounds, they are much smaller than the males, but they still pack a good punch.  One female which was behaving as if she were getting ready to give birth, successfully fended off the advances of an amorous younger bull.  You can see the enormous fellow along the water's edge who knows better than to get in her way.

The bulls come on shore and announce themselves with bellows that sound like deep drums reverberating in some sort of echo chamber.  For the most part, the smaller males remember the sounds of the more dominant males and stay out of the way of the alpha males.  Still, there are times when the bulls want to determine dominance and shoreline real estate, and then they battle.  First, they bellow.  If that's not enough to get someone to back down, they then rear themselves up as tall as they can.  The shorter bull will back down, but there are times when the animals are well matched and they spar, striking and biting at each other.  Most of the fights are short-lived, lasting about two or three minutes.  The one bout we saw had two males striking at each other until a third, much larger male entered the fray and settled the whole thing.

It was a fascinating day with my family and I'm thankful they were all willing to feed my curiosity.  We ended the Christmas Eve by going to Mass and sharing dinner and lots of laughs.  It was a perfect day; I hope your Christmas wishes come true, too.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Interwoven Globe at the Met

I recently went to the The Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the exhibition, Interwoven Globe, The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800.  It was an inspiring and humbling experience to see the artistry created centuries ago.  I realize now that my notes are woefully sparse on all the interesting facts from the audio tour and placards, but I'll share with you a few of the things I learned.  To help protect the textiles, photography isn't allowed in the exhibit, so you'll have to imagine most of what I'm telling you; perhaps it will be enough incentive for you to go see the exhibit.

As I'm sure you can glean from the title, the exhibition focuses on the cultural cross-pollination that arose from the textile trade and how textile manufacturing was influenced by various market tastes.   For example, bizarre silks (yes, that's the correct name) manufactured in China were woven for European markets.  These textiles show images that are a blending of designs of Persian, Ottoman, Indian, and Chinese derivation.   The large-scale designs are asymmetrical, though they may look symmetrical at first glance.  (This reminded me of some of the architectural details I saw on the Louvre; from a distance the structure is symmetrical, but up close you can tell that all the statues are different.  I believe drafters called this design device, "implied symmetry".)

A Louvre courtyard from a distance

Now you can see all the different elements
I was fascinated to learn that Peruvian weavers wove tapestries for Spanish royalty.  The Peruvian weavers used camelid hair in their work -- the body hair and/or undercoat from llamas, alpacas, and vicunas.  One tapestry was displayed in a case in the center of the room so that you could view both sides.  Amazingly, the Peruvian artists had the same image on the front and the back because they managed to knot, then invisibly bury, their threads.  European weavers often cut threads on the reverse and hence, did not create double-sided tapestries.  One of the tapestries from the 17th century had Old Testament and Greek mythology images, along with Chinese symbols.  Somehow, all the diverse imagery was seamlessly blended into the weaving.

A lovely tapestry combining stitch and paint was made in China for the Portuguese market.  The tapestry shows the abduction of Helen of Troy and all the faces are painted as Caucasians, but how could artists in Asia know what it was like in Europe, a far-off land that they'd never seen?  It's supposed that Jesuit missionaries taught the Chinese artists how to represent Anglo faces.   At other times, the textile artists put in imagery and animals from their own environs.  For example, the Gujarat area supplied embroideries to the Mughal court, but also sold bedcovers in Europe.  Their works were populated with animals seen only in India and fired the imagination of the Europeans.

Though I choose not to dye, I'm fascinated by the wonderful possibilities of the technique.  During the 17th century, clamp resist dyeing was used to create polychrome patterns.  Artists used wooden blocks with drilled channels so that dye could be selectively applied to the cloth through the holes.  Can you imagine that?  Amazing.

Before I took up quilting, I loved to embroider and needlepoint.  The embroidered pieces in the exhibition were incredible and I marveled at what was created without good lighting.  To add luster to their work, artists would sometimes add stitches made with metal wrapped thread.  I can't even fathom how they wrapped the thread, let alone made stitches that didn't fray or destroy the cloth.  I also loved the palampores, or bed coverings, made in India.  What fascinated me was that the designs of an 18th century dyed and painted palampore looked very similar to a needlepoint design I stitched at twenty years ago.

Image from Interwoven Globe calendar
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013
Palampore, detail
India (Coromandel Coast) for the Sri Lankan market, first quarter 18th century
Cotton, Mordant, and resist-dyed and painted, 72 x 44 9/16 in.
Purchase, Fernando Family Trust Gift, in honor of
Dr. Quintus and Mrs. Wimala Fernando, 2010 2010.337

A petit-point canvas I stitched twenty years ago
I knew this was a Jacobean design, but always assumed it was strictly European. Now I know differently.  These designs were based off an asymmetrical "tree of life", with flowers and leaves sprouting all over.  None of the flowers or leaves were repeated in the palampore, an incredible exercise in variation.

These are just a few of the interesting things in the exhibition and I urge you to go see it if you can; it's open through January 5th.  And if there's any question of the exhibition's broad appeal, my father-in-law saw it and found it fascinating.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Texture of Water

A few weeks ago I went to see the Morris Museum's Wet & Wild exhibition, a selection of contemporary art quilts from John M Walsh III's collection.  I wanted almost every quilt, if only I had the open wall space (oh, and the funds).  I loved seeing how water was recreated, using all sorts of techniques and textures to portray something fluid.  Here are three of my favorites:

Tim Harding, Surf Swimmers, 1998

Detail, Surf Swimmers, Tim Harding

Rachel Brumer, Describing Rain, 2006

Detail, Describing Rain, Rachel Brumer

Lenore Davis, Florida Surf, 1984-1985

Detail, Florida Surf, Lenore Davis 

It's a shame I didn't write this up in time for you to go to the exhibition; the show closes on December 8th. However, I encourage you to keep an eye out for future art quilt exhibitions at the Morris Museum because each one I've seen there has been lovely.

-- Sorry to have been gone so long from blogging.  A tumble down our fourteen step staircase left me bruised and sore, with a tailbone that took a beating.  For the last several weeks I've been standing, walking, or lying on my side .... sitting is literally a pain in the ____.   Computer work has been out of the question. But(t) I'm on the mend and getting back in the saddle again.  I've missed blogging and am glad to be back.  This week I hope to tackle a little time at my sewing machine.  Woo hoo!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tidbits about the Met

On Friday, Natalya and I took a Big Onion tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  We were signed up for a tour titled "America's Museum: Art and History of the Metropolitan" to be led by an Art History PhD candidate from Columbia.

It was great.  I learned a great deal in the two hours of the tour, too much to share here, but here are five  tidbits:

1)  The Met has more than 2 million pieces of art in its collection.

2)  The Museum is on the National Register of Historic Places which protects the structure, both inside and out, from any changes.  That means they can't add the murals originally intended for the ceilings in the great halls

nor carve the statues originally intended for the tops of the exterior columns -- the giant blocks of stone must remain as blocks.

3) The original Metropolitan Museum was located in a brownstone that the museum didn't own.  It quickly outgrew its space and a permanent location was secured from the City of New York in a parcel on Central Park.  Almost as soon as its new home was built, a new one was commissioned to take its place (no one liked the old building).  The new building, as it stands still today, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt and encompasses the original building whose walls you can still see in some areas of the museum.

4) The first Met President was Luigi Palma di Cesnola, an Italian-American Union solider who later served as the Consulate to Cyprus.  He fancied himself an amateur archeologist and excavated sites throughout Cyprus; when he returned to the United States, his collection came with him and became the start of the antiquities collection at the Met.

5) The Met declined Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's significant collection of American art from the early 1900s because it didn't fit with their acquisition plans at the time.  She went on to establish the Whitney Museum of American Art, using her collection as the genesis for that museum.  The Met is probably kicking itself on that one, but it is nice to have another New York City museum dedicated to American art.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Be Still, My Heart....

"Art is this amazing thing where there is this huge effort to tell something, but it's mute.  It can never speak."  -- Stephen Sollins

Yesterday, I fell in love with the works of two artists unfamiliar to me: Sabrina Gschwandtner and Stephen Sollins.  These two, along with Luke Haynes, have art on display in the alt_quilts exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York.  The exhibition is up until January 5, 2014 and I urge you to go see it.

"Gather up the fragments ... that nothing be lost" (John 6:12) is the biblical verse which sums up the nature of all three artists in the show. The first one you encounter as you enter the exhibition is Luke Haynes. Haynes buys clothing by the hundreds of pounds from Goodwill thrift shops, takes the clothing apart, and uses the parts to create his quilts.  I'd not seen a Luke Haynes quilt "in the flesh" and two things struck me in particular from this collection of quilts.  First,  I like his sense of humor, most notably in (Man Stuff #4) Elk Head, 2008.  As the placard next to the quilt read, "In the artist's words, the "mounted" animal head is "an homage to smoking rooms and hunting and the trophies displayed from acts of man-ism."  After making and titling the quilt, Haynes discovered that the elk head is in fact a white-tailed deer, but decided not to change it."   

Detail, (Man Stuff #4) Elk Head, Luke Haynes, 2008
 Second, I am intrigued by his use of anamorphic perspective.  In other words, an image looks distorted when seen straight on, but looks correct and three-dimensional when viewed from a specific angle.

(Self-Portrait #7) Over Here, Luke Haynes, 2013, seen straight on

(Self-Portrait #7) Over Here, Luke Haynes, 2013, seen from the right

Stephen Sollins thrilled me with his recycled paper pieces that are re-creations of traditional quilt patterns, but created with an intent beyond just derivative art.   Sollins uses any type of paper or Tyvek envelope that comes in his daily mail: junk mail, personal correspondence, bills, etc.  He then adapts the materials to a new purpose: artwork that references the past, but is created from patterned materials intended to shield personal data and/or confidential information.   In one quote on the wall it explained that "He recognized an analogue between the function of such decorative patterns to guard private information and similar patterns in fabrics that were used in quilts to guard the privacy of the bed."  

Many of his pieces were displayed close to antique quilts that served as inspiration.  I loved the comparison between the two.  One display case also showed all the intricate plans Sollins draws as he organizes his thoughts and develops his strategy for a piece.

Honeycomb Quilt Top, 1835-1845, England, Artist Unknown

Untitled (Grandfather's Garden), 2013, Stephen Sollins, inspired by hexagon paper-pieced quilts
Detail, Untitled (Grandfather's Garden), 2013, Stephen Sollins

Various plans, outlines, and pictures that Sollins used to create his piece,  Untitled (Return to Sender, after Mary Jane Smith, 1865),  2010

Sabrina Gschwandtner's work is absolutely amazing as well.  Her artworks were presented in LED light boxes because it's all constructed of 16mm film.  She couples her own film with footage from the 1950s -1980s that were deaccessioned by the Fashion Institute of Technology.  From a distance, you see thin strips of color that are joined together to form traditional quilt blocks.

 But as you get closer and closer, you see what the strips actually are.

Close-up of footage
Gschwandtner sews the film together on her Bernina sewing machine, overlapping footage and using a zigzag stitch to hold them together.  She considers the content of the films before splicing sections together, hoping to create a relationship not just of color, but of topic as well.   Gschwandtner is noted as understanding, too, the connection between early film and women's work.  Per the museum's literature, "women were among the first Hollywood film editors beause their conversance with sewing -- and their smaller fingers -- prepared them to cut, splice, and thread film."  There's a little warp to Gschwandtner's larger pieces and I think it adds to the impression of a flowing piece of fabric, disguising the actual nature of the material used.

Side view, Camouflage, 2012, Sabrina Gschwandtner
Alt_quilt will be on display through January 5th.  I hope you all can see these amazing works of art, by both old and new masters.

Soldiers' Quilt: Square within a Square, Artist Unidentified
1850-1880, England or United States; wool

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Hardware Store Solution

This week I have to send "Thistles" to the Slater Memorial Art Museum for our Fiber Revolution exhibition, Diversity.  The sleeve is on the back of the quilt and I had a wooden slat prepared, complete with new eye screws and a scrubbing with sandpaper to make the surface nice and smooth.

But I can't send the wooden slat.

The Museum has requested that we include a flat slat with holes so that when the piece is hanging it doesn't protrude from the wall, so the nails can keep a low profile.  A wooden slat, for what the museum has in mind, might be too thick.  Many Fiber Revolution members already use telescoping curtain rods instead of wooden slats as hanging mechanisms, and we were all encouraged to follow suit. And thus is was that I went searching for one.

Alas, my piece is too narrow to use a curtain rod; it's only 16 inches wide.  None of the rods collapse into such a small dimension.  I suppose I should have expected that -- windows aren't that tiny and I certainly wasn't going to special order something.

Thankfully, our local hardware store is stocked floor to ceiling with all sorts of things, including this metal slat that I found in the plumbing department.

I don't know what the slat is supposed to be used for, but it's a perfect metal hanger.  It's solid enough not to warp or bend, but light enough not to tear through the sleeve.  The holes along the edge make mounting with nails very easy.  The hardware store staff cut this piece to my specifications (the original metal piece was three feet long). I made sure that the measurement I gave landed between holes.  Then, the gentleman kindly used a grinding machine to smooth the edges.  I scrubbed it with a household cleaner to get rid of any grease and dirt, and labelled it with a permanent marker.  I chose not to include the title of my piece so that I can recycle the slat for another artwork.

I think this is a solution I will likely turn to again and again.  What do you think of it?

Do you have any unique hanging solutions?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Should an Artist Statement Be Part of the Entry Process?

There's often a debate on the internet quilting groups about artist statements.  Many quilters feel that artist statements should be included with entries so jurors can better understand how the piece fits the theme of the exhibition or how the artist created it.

I've stayed out of the debate because I don't know where I stand.  I've found that some artist statements help me connect better with the work I see in front of me.  At other times, flowery language confuses me or makes me want to hire the artist's agent so I, too, can use the Spin Doctor to sell ... fluff.

Now I have a new data point based on my own experience with a multi-media gallery.  When I entered the Political Statements call for entry, artists were asked to label their images with all the piece's relevant information: First Name _ Last Name _ Title of Piece _ medium _ Height x Width (in inches).   Aside from our contact information and our entry fee, that's all the gallery wanted from us when we submitted our images for jurying.  Either the jurors understood our message and felt it was appropriate for the theme, or they didn't. They made their decision based on what they saw and what they felt they needed.

All the accepted artists have been asked now to submit an artist statement. The gallery, however, has stipulated what they'd like to receive from each of us.  They want a simple explanation of what each of us was trying to say with our art, what statement we are trying to make (apropos given that this is a political statement exhibition).  We submitted our statements on-line and brevity was enforced by a restricted character count.  Discussion about techniques was optional and not strongly encouraged.

I like this format.  Our artwork was judged on its merits alone.  The artists' curatorial comments are somewhat consistent in content and short, and will make the flow of reading the statements easier, I suspect, for viewers.  I don't know how the statements will be used on-line versus the gallery exhibition, so I'll re-evaluate things when I see them.  For now, I'll say that I'm a fan of judging artwork without any artist commentary, but including a brief statement to preemptively answer a few viewer questions.  Everything else can be left to personal interpretation, making the viewing experience that much richer.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Brief History of Portraiture

Cover of Eye To I exhibition catalog, © Katonah Museum of Art
To help us prepare to lead tours and discuss the artwork, the Katonah Museum of Art prepared extensive materials for the docents to read and learn.  One item included in the packet was a brief history of portraiture which I was asked to write.  I am sharing the essay here.

Most art historians agree that the history of portraiture does not begin with prehistoric cave paintings.  These paintings are believed to be either part of a hunting ritual or a storytelling process, and animals figure prominently in the works.   Instead, the history of portraiture began when the human figure became the central focus of the artwork.

The ancient Egyptians are credited with the start of portraiture as they carved and painted images of deities and the pharaohs, who were accepted as living gods.  For centuries, gods and deified leaders were the only acceptable subjects for portraiture. During medieval times, organized religion in both Europe and Asia gained power and financial wealth.  Portraiture boomed under the patronage of Western and Eastern religious leadership, leading artists to create images of God, Buddha, and faith-based stories in as many mediums as possible, from paintings and sculpture, to stained-glass windows and temple adornments.

During the European Renaissance the aristocracy began its patronage of the arts and with that, a wider range of subjects became acceptable for artists.  In addition to pursuing the perfection of the human form (as opposed to the perfection of divinity), the development of oil-based paints enabled artists to experiment with color, light and shadow.  Brush strokes and the use of perspective expanded artists’ personal style; placing subjects in natural and home settings allowed for even more expansive methods of expression.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, portraiture became a favorite in Colonial America.  Early American artists focused on life in the new world, painting American subjects and leaders.  Those unable to afford a large personal work either commissioned a miniature portrait or a silhouette, a profile picture created with light and shadow.  In Europe, artists were influenced either by Romanticism or Neoclassicism.   Neoclassicists continued to celebrate the human form, but simplified the backgrounds in an attempt to create an unembellished view of the person or event.  Romantics, on the other hand, venerated the “Romantic Hero” -- a character or subject elevated to the status of epic hero – and placed their subjects in more evocative settings with more saturated colors.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, artists were no longer restricted on subject matter.  Artists placed their chosen subjects in whatever settings and poses suited them, enabling artists to explore light, color, brush stroke, the perceived psyche of their subject, mediums, and style.  Self-portraits became more common and flaws were not disguised or hidden.  By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, portraiture had reached a point in which the artist’s style became more important than the subject of the painting.  Artists came to be seen as interpreters, both of the subject matter and of the world at large. 

Portraiture experienced a lull as abstraction and conceptual art became the rage. However, portraiture re-emerged as pop-art artists made use of cultural references in their work, enabling viewers to further interpret the art based on their own biases and experiences.  Today, with the opportunity to explore any subject in any setting, artists have endless inspiration for portraiture.  Portraiture is accessible and created by the masses with an abundance of “selfies” circulating the Internet, proving that portraiture remains a beguiling and robust means of artistic expression.
© Vivien Zepf

Because the museum's education department wanted the summary to fit on one page, I couldn't be as expansive about some art movements as I would have liked.  I also wasn't able to cover everything; a notable absence here is tribal artwork from areas such as Africa or the Arctic Inuit culture.  However, the research I did to prepare for and write this essay was very helpful to my own knowledge base, and I am thrilled they chose to share it with all the docents.  

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Political Statements

I'm pleased and honored to announce that A Show of Hands was juried into The Linus Galleries' on-line exhibition, Political Statements.  You can see all the artwork selected for the on-line exhibition here.

A Show of Hands, 2012, 18" x 96"
A Show of Hands is my eight foot tall totem about voting.  It has the verbiage of most of the amendments concerning voting stamped across the surface, along with a compelling statement by Dwight D. Eisenhower, "The future of this Republic is in the hands of the American voter".  In addition to the language, I thread sketched outlines of hands as homage to our earliest method of voting: by a show of hands.

Detail, A Show of Hands, 2012
I am so pleased that this piece has found a place to be seen outside of my studio.  I'm equally thrilled that my textile piece was selected; it appears to have been the only fiber art juried into the 47 piece on-line show. Even if it doesn't make it into the brick and mortar exhibition scheduled for February, I'm honored to have been included.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Art without My Studio

This last week was filled with art, even though I never made it into my studio.  I took an endless number of pictures of my garden that somehow is still full of showy blossoms this late in October.  I took pictures with colors that aren't retouched and also played with filters on my camera:

Orange Sombrero echinacea

Lovely Red Rose

Black and white Geranium Heart

Sepia Rose

I went to the Met with my eldest daughter who was home on Fall break:

Unknown school girl looking elegant in a toga

I discovered Francesco Guardi, The Grand Canal Above Rialto, ca. 1760
He was an master painter of "views" and his name translates to "You see"

I also discovered a bit of humor in the Temple of Dendur: the artist was (it is assumed) supposed to create mirror reliefs, but in this image, he had one of the birds bite the wrist of the man holding it.

I had another docent training session for the upcoming portraiture exhibition opening this week at the Katonah Museum of Art.  More on that in the next few days, but suffice it to say that I am getting more and more excited about this exhibition.

I also marveled in Mother Nature's gorgeous Fall display, taking more pictures, of course.

On the trail during an early morning hike

By the side of a parking lot

The Hudson and the Palisades

Complementary colors

Red Oak

Ahh, a great week...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Almost Wordless Wednesday

Pumpkin doors -- not enhanced or retouched...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

When Art and Science Collide

At our first docent training session for the upcoming portraiture exhibition, one of the KMA curators mentioned that she read Eric R. Kandel's book, The Age of Insight, as part of her research.  Mr. Kandel is a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is University Professor and Kavli Professor at Columbia University and a Senior Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  He is also founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

What does all this have to do with art?  Well, Mr. Kandel's book discusses how the burgeoning science of the mind influenced art in Vienna from 1890 to 1918.  In addition, "The dialogue and the ongoing research in brain science and art continue to this day. They have given us an initial understanding of the processes at work in the brain of the beholder -- the viewer -- as he or she looks at a work of art."  (p. xiv)

In Vienna at the start of the twentieth century, the onset of the field of psychology influenced the Viennese modernists to concern themselves more with the psyche of their subjects than rendering a realistic representation of their subject.  This new path was facilitated because artists, intellectuals, and medical professionals met, discussed, and debated new movements in each of their fields. 

"In the 1930s scholars at the Vienna School of Art History were instrumental in in advancing the modernist agenda of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele.  They emphasized that the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths.  In addition, the Vienna School of Art History, influenced in part by Sigmund Freud's psychological work, began to develop a science-based psychology of art that was initially focused on the beholder."  (p. xvi)

I've learned all this in just the preface to the 515 page book.  I'm so intrigued that I ordered my own copy of the book so I can write in the margins and take my time absorbing all it all.  Next up: Part 1 -- A Psychoanalytic Psychology and Art of Unconscious Emotion.

I don't know what that means, but I'll let you know when I do.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Describing Art

Image from Orange County Register Arts Blog, 2007

In addition to learning how to be a docent, and learning all there is to know about the upcoming portraiture exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art, I've also done a bit of writing for them.

One of the assignments was targeted at school groups.  My job was to describe a particular work of art so students could draw their own version at school, based on what I'd written.  The students would try to find that piece when they arrived at the museum.  From there, the students, teachers, and docents could discuss if the artwork was what the students expected;  if they felt all the relevant details were present;  if, upon seeing the artwork, they would have written the description differently.

I discovered that this was a great exercise in seeing.  Carefully looking at a piece of artwork is a helpful process whether you're describing it to someone else or not.  Discerning what makes it unique is invaluable in appreciating an artist's style and understanding what makes the art special.  It's also a great way learn about composition, line, and detail.

I encourage you to try your own version of this exercise the next time you go to an exhibition with a friend.  Select a piece of art, one that your friend hasn't already seen.  Describe it and then ask your friend to turn around and view the art.  See if the picture they formed in their mind, the perception they have of the art, matches up with the reality before them.  You might discover some insight into how you see and what details you feel are critical to the essence of a work.