Monday, January 30, 2006

The Whole Quilting/Mental Health Thing, Vol. II

The Whole Quilting/Mental Health Thing, Vol. II
DATE: 01/30/2006 10:25:09 PM

From the original "Friendster" version of State of the Craft.

So. When we left off, it was 1994, I was recovering from a nervous breakdown in sunny Bandon-by-the-Sea, Oregon, I had become fascinated with my mom's quilting, and I had made my little placemat-sized first quilt.

What I haven't really articulated, neither here nor to myself, is WHY I became fascinated and then started into quilting. I've always loved color and pattern, which I supposed goes a long way towards explaining it. Never especially good with paint or pencil, I found fabric a very forgiving and manageable medium. Too, quilting is well suited for abstract patterns, so one doesn't have to fret over subject matter -- and when it comes to subject matter, I've always had a pretty wooden imagination.

Anyway, let's get this narrative show back on the road. I finished that little placemat, and Mom left town for a short trip, naturally assuming that I had made my one quilt, that it was kind of cool but not something likely to be repeated.

By the time she got back, after a long weekend, I was well into putting together my second quilt.

Now, "Number Two," as I think we can fairly call it, is a piece that makes a strong case that a beginning designer needs the guiding hand of a mentor. It is telling that, to put a picture of it here, I had to find it and photograph it tonight -- until now, it had gone 12 years without anyone ever thinking to take a picture of it. It is not handsome. It is not interesting. It is not at all clear what I was thinking.

In its defense, it did look slightly better before the black fabrics faded unevenly, as black fabrics tend to do. The craftsmanship is not terrible for an unsupervised second effort, and if I hadn't used the reds.... but then, I did use the reds.

Before I left Bandon, under my own power, I was to make two more quilts, including the Cow Quilt. The Cow Quilt is always the one people like best, which can be a bit of a drag -- I made it 40 quilts and 12 years ago, damn it! One likes to think one is making progress! Doesn't one? Not always trying to catch up with the third piece he ever made?

Well, hell, it's nice to have made something people like. It has hung in a quilt show in Bandon, in the Bandon Public Library, and in the "Foyer Gallery" at IRCO, which is all very flattering. It currently lives in the guest room.

So. It's one of those unanswerable questions, the extent to which taking on quilting helped me recover from my first big mental health crisis, or if it was just something that incidentally happened while I happened to be recovering. My therapist says that creative processing, and even the arm motions characteristic of, say, working on a quilt (or playing a musical instrument) makes your brain fire off good chemicals. And it's definitely true, I've learned over and over, that working on something that absorbs you can keep your mind from gnawing on itself, at least on a good day.

I took a class several years ago, although it seems strange to say so now, in which the final project was to do a self-revalatory performance art piece. No, really, I did. And I told the story about how I learned to quilt, exploiting the metaphoric possibilities to the hilt. I even used the phrase "stitching the pieces of my life back together." And there have been times when I actually believed it -- really believed that quilting saved my life, by giving me a focus, or a competance, or a meditation, or something that I could just immerse myself in until the world around me righted itself again.

Other times, it just seems like a hobby.

PROGRESS REPORT: The challenge quilt is coming along beautifully. The face is pretty much completely laid out, and I have been pouring my weekends into the details of the piecing. I think I will make the deadline. I can not wait to show it to you, Gentle Reader. Even more, I can not wait to work on something else, or even clean the house for crying out loud. Alternating between work and this project (and, it must be admitted, "Civ IV") begins to feel like life without weekends. And that's no good.

P.S. If you are wondering about the performance art piece, it was a hit. Predictably, I wowed 'em when I unfurled my quilts. What really floored them, though, was when I threaded the sewing machine. You could have heard a pin drop. I guess people aren't used to seeing guys do that.

DATE: 02/01/2006 08:12:39 PM
whatever makes you happy and sane, you are blessed to have at lease one thing that people say wow at. many people don't have the skills to show off like you do with your quilts. i truly admire your passion, talents, and patience for one thing. can't wait to see your finished project.....

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Whole Quilting/Mental Health Thing, Vol. I

The Whole Quilting/Mental Health Thing, Vol. I
DATE: 01/24/2006 09:41:46 PM

From the original "Friendster" version of State of the Craft.

Alright, it's time to talk about the quilting/mental health connection, so listen up. Or, if you're uncomfortable with this kind of thing, skip the entry. No worries.

OK, still with me? Alright, if you are reading this, you probably already know that I have encounters with Clinical Depression every few years. Well, that's how I came to quilt.

My first definite episode of Depression began in the summer of 1994. I was stuck in Kansas, had no schedule to keep me focused, and didn't have a clue what was happening, and things quickly spriraled out of control. Within less than two months, I developed symptoms of anorexia (losing 35 pounds off of what was already, at the time, a fairly slim frame) and a full-blown case of agoraphobia that was to stick with me for the next five years. At that point, as a happier alternative to offing myself, I flew back to Oregon to, basically, put myself back in the care of my parents for a while.

To make a long story short, it all worked out. I started eating again, we got my meds sorted out, and if I still had trouble going more than 25 miles or so, at least I was OK leaving the house. In the meantime, I was spending a lot of time around my parents, helping Dad with yardwork and whatnot and -- here's the tie-in -- watching my Mom work on a quilt. The yardwork was nice, but I found the quilting completely fascinating.

The quilt Mom was working on was like the ones I talked about last week in the sense that it was a single image composed of hundreds of small "two-inch squares." A two-inch square is, duh, a little piece of fabric that is two inches by two inches. This can get confusing, though, because a quarter inch on each side of the piece disappears when it gets sewn to its neighboring pieces. That quarter inch is called the "seam allowance," and because of the seam allowance, a two-inch square only measures 1 1/2 inches by 1 1/2 inches in the actual quilt.

Like Robert Silvers (or better, David Hockney) creating a photomosaic... Like Seurat painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte (well, kinda).... Mom would place these little squares together so that they were each interesting in their own right, blended with their immediate neighbors in interesting ways, and added up to an overall composite image. I probably wouldn't have chosen a big heart as the overall image, but then I wasn't doing the work. The completed quilt is pretty stunning even if you aren't much into big hearts, and it won several judges' and audience choice awards in local shows.

But I digress. The point is, Mom had hundreds of these two-inch squares sorted in little stacks, like -- pick your metaphor -- paint on a palette, or like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. And it was just really, really interesting to watch her -- stick with your chosen metaphor, please -- use them to paint the image on the felt canvas she was using to lay out the quilt, or try to assemble the puzzle with jigsaw pieces that hadn't been made to go together. Like any jerk watching a solitare game, I began to make "helpful suggestions." Most were not helpful, of course, but it was always interesting to hear back why they weren't. The number of variables that determined whether a given square belonged where it did was pretty amazing.

In a thinly-veiled attempt to get me out of her face, Mom cut me a piece of felt, gave me a stack of reject squares, and suggested that I try a little layout. Who could resist? ...well, I suppose lots of people could resist, but I was hooked, and had nothing but time on my hands, and nothing to lose. So, I made this little placemat-sized design, with greens, blues, and purples arranged in a checkerboard pattern of color value. When I announced that I wanted to put it together, Mom looked pained -- later, I realized that she expected that she would have to put it together for me. But no: I wanted to learn the whole process.

For the life of me, I can't remember WHY I wanted to learn the whole process. It may be that, having recently spent two years completing a master's thesis, I was desparate to create something of actual value. Or, if that's too cynical, maybe I wanted to see something good (or, at least, purty) come out of what was otherwise turning out to be a real washout of a summer. Whatever. I learned the basics of running a sewing machine, and pieced that puppy together. I learned how to "tie" -- a cruder, faster method than actual quilting of putting the three layers of your piece together. And voila! I had made a quilt!

to be continued

Friday, January 06, 2006

How I Spent the Martin Luther King Holiday

How I Spent the Martin Luther King Holiday
DATE: 01/16/2006 10:57:08 PM

From the original "Friendster" version of State of the Craft.

Fabric Depot, a grim Portland big-box superstore devoted strictly to fabric -- well, fabric and "notions" -- was advertising a "Martin Luther King Day 30% Off Sale" for today. Who would have thought, 40 years ago, that Dr. King's legacy would include discount fabric for Portland hobbyists? I can't decide whether it represents societal progress, or decline, or what.

This three-day weekend, in any event, has been one of my biggest quilting binges ever. The weather has been absolutely perfect for quilting, and I haven't done much else. Having been out of commission for most of the last month and a half, I have a lot of lost time to make up if I'm going to finish my challenge piece by the late-March deadline. My goal for this weekend was to lay out a "rough draft" of the piece, and happily I completed that last night and got in another seven or eight hours of revision and even a little sewing today.

Now, as I said before, I'm not supposed to reveal what I'm working on for the challenge. Let's just say it is neither a block quilt, where the face is composed of a grid of blocks which can initially be worked on individually, nor a symetrical pattern where bits can be worked on without reference to the whole. Instead, it's an assymetrical pattern in which each single piece -- there are more than 600 -- needs to be individually planned and placed before any sewing can happen.

So, when I say I was "laying out" the quilt, I was literally arranging the pieces on a table cleared for the occasion in my "studio," here. Now that they are laid out, but very little is sewn together, the whole project is extremely vulnerable. Since there's no door on the room, I'm keeping a piece of plywood over the opening at all times, as a cat leaping up onto the table could immediately undo ten hours of work. That would be bad. It's worrying enough that I was trying to think yesterday if there was any way to protect the layout against the possibility of earthquake. But I suppose if the earthquake hits I'll have other things to worry about anyway.

I mentioned in the first entry that this is a "guild challenge." Here's how it works: the American Quilter's Society picked the fabric. Guilds across the U.S. each select a theme; my guild, Northwest Quilters, picked "Show Off Oregon" (which must be a little annoying to members from the 'Couv, but that's not my problem). Individual guild members prepare a quilt on that theme, and submit them by the end of March. At the April meeting, the guild will vote to select the eight best pieces. (The whole thing with the secrecy is to keep the vote honest, rather than having it turn into a popularity contest). Then, at the national convention, the competition is guild vs. guild.

Returning readers will remember that I am a bit insecure about my standing in the quilting world. Now, it so happens that this challenge has been an opportunity for me to try out an idea I've had knocking around for more than ten years. But at the same time, it's also another opportunity to try to establish some cred within the guild. I'm not really expecting my entry will be in the top eight that go to the national conference, but if I can submit an ambitious, original, well-made, and (most importantly) finished piece that gives the winners a run for their money, I'll be happy. It's definitely original and ambitious -- you will have to take my word on that, for now -- but I will have to put in a lot of hours to get it finished, let alone well-made. I might take a extra few days off to work on it.

This challenge project reminds me a little bit of my largest-scale project, one that I've been working on for two years already and estimate I'll finish in 2009. It's called "Labyrinth." It is, well, a labyrinth. It's a big one, executed in 1 1/2 " squares. The photo shows a completed corner of it, about 200 individual squares. The completed quilt will consist of more than 3000 individual squares. Like the challenge quilt, this is another piece that requires laying out, but there are no tables in the house anywhere close to large enough. When I work on layout for this sucker, I take apart our futon and use the entire floor area of our bedroom, and we sleep in the guestroom for a few nights. I think that it will ultimately be a pretty cool thing and prove well worth the years of work and hassle. But, I'll feel stupid if it's a bomb.