Thursday, March 09, 2006


From the original "Friendster" version of SOTC.

DATE: 03/09/2006 10:07:39 PM

So, I've been tracking down Portland quilters under 45 on Friendster and trying to start conversations about, well, being a quilter under 45. Kind of fun. There's even a male or two out there.

One of the people I've met is Cynthia, a designer who has a web page showing some of her quilts. They are great -- very fresh and spontaneous, and miles away from the block patterns that are at the core of the American quilting tradition. Quilts like this are called "art quilts." I'm not always crazy about them. They usually veer toward the frou-frou or cutesy, and are often embellished with embroidery, buttons, beads, and other bric-a-brac. Not my thing. Cynthia's, though, are very excellent. What I love about them is that she has combined the spontineity and painterly possibilities of the art quilt with the discipline and dignity of the traditional quilt. Really. Check it out!

Now, when she looked at my quilts, Cynthia initially characterized them as "traditional," which I have to admit came as a bit of a shock. I've always thought of myself as the edgy young guy pushing the envelope. Examining this idea now for the first time, I have to admit that it is basically a crock. But, before I lay down the pretext altogether, I want to lay a case out here that I am at least not a completely hidebound, musty, cobwebbed traditionalist. Ready? Here goes:

Exhibit A: Two Complex Shapes, a quilt I made at the very end of the 90s. This is probably the most original thing I've ever made; I've literally never seen anything else like it. I was dating a painter at the time, and tried to incorporate some of her ideas about composition in my own medium, on a free-form quilt. I made the basic sketch while one of my students gave an oral presentation, and when sketch and presentation were both finished, I realized I hadn't heard a word he said. I gave him a "C," figuring that a good presentation would have held my attention.

Complex Shapes, like most of my quilts until recently, is very weakly quilted. Because of that, and because it hung for years in my old apartment, it sags and doesn't have the visual impact it might. Sometime later this year, I want to requilt it. It can't hurt it, and it might turn it into a real showpiece.

Exhibit B: Sue's Quilt, a quilt I made for Sue, duh. This one came out of the collision of two kind of wacky ideas I had in 2002. On one hand, I was knocking around with some image software, trying to see how big a non-replicating pattern I could make using squares of 1x1, 2x2, 3x3, and 4x4 units. (Yes, I know that's a little strange). On the other hand, I randomly decided to buy a box of scraps on Ebay from some dude in San Fransisco who makes doll clothing, with the purpose of challenging myself to make a quilt out of whatever happened to be in the box when it arrived.

I ended up using the pattern of squares with the scrap fabrics, and this was the result. It was a real challenge of composition and construction, but I'm happy with the way it turned out. Sue seemed pleased, too -- "continually pleased," she says, popping into the room. This ended up being the first piece I displayed outside of a small town, at the 2005 Northwest Quilters show. It was hardly a showstopper, but it is another one that is essentially unique -- I don't think anyone else has made a quilt quite like it.

Exhibit C: Japanese Garden, one of three "slash quilts" I made in the late 1990s. This one belongs to my dear friend Mary Beth. Breaking a background fabrics with "slashes" of inset strips is not a unique idea with me, but I think I applied it pretty well. I was into Kandinsky at the time, and I think I was trying to cop some of his big compositional lines. I ought to mess with that technique again sometime.

Let me finish by saying two more things about tradition. First, I like to work with geometries of rectangles and triangles, as have many quilters before me. Because of this, I'm forever coming up with an original design (only once have I ever made a quilt from someone else's pattern, and that was for a class, so it doesn't count) only to learn that I've replicated something that people were making back in the 1870s.

Take this one -- I came up with that pattern myself, on graph paper, after Thanksgiving dinner in 2004. I've got witnesses! But somehow, I wasn't the first in the hundreds of years of the quilting tradition to think of it, and I've since seen several quilts with the exact same pattern in books and magazines. But none with such fabulous colors.

Which brings me to my final point. Even within the most cliched and common of the traditional patterns, there is a lot of room for innovation, discovery, and artistry. The Log Cabin from the last post is an example of this; where most quilts in this very traditional pattern take their effect from fabric groups of contrasting value, I juxtiposed fabric groups of almost exactly equal value, but from opposite ends of the color wheel. The quilt works, in my humble opinion, because it has both a traditional structural vocabulary and a warm glow all of its own that comes from its color contrast. "Around the World" is about as traditional a pattern as there is, but all four of my AtW quilts have messed with the conventions somehow, either unraveling the structure or using unorthodox fabric sets -- but that's a post in its own right.

Anyway, time to wrap this up with a spectacular display of banality: Tradition is good! Innovation is good! Growing from the roots of your Tradition toward the flowering of your Innovation is good! And, in a sense, inevitable.

Thank you for your kind attention, gentle reader! You rock!


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