Sunday, July 23, 2006

Quantifying Aesthetics

First of all, some elaboration on the last post. As the letter says, the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, in Golden, Colorado, has accepted Log Cabin, which is the one I had in the guild show a few months ago, for an exhibit. It will be shown from August 15 to October 21. This is a coup, probably more of a coup than the quilt really deserves, but I am completely stoked about it nonetheless.

I hadn't really expected it to be accepted. The RMQM has a show of quilts by men every two years, and that was my real target. I thought that if I submitted a piece now, they would know my name when the men's show came around. As it is, I wonder if the esoteric category of the show I was accepted for -- quilts using the color orange -- might have made it a "soft" field of entries.

So, I stuck Log Cabin in a box and mailed it to Colorado on Thursday. Even now, I'm afraid they'll say "sorry, dude, it looked better in the photo than in real life, we're not going to show it." But I hope not. My in-laws live in Colorado, and being shown in an honest-to-God museum has won major points with them, or at least helped to legitimize the whole boy-quilter thing.

Anyway, its good that Log Cabin is doing well, because it turns out that it is the perfect embodyment of the Michael Handley aesthetic. And I can prove it.

A couple weekends ago, I drove down to Sisters, Oregon, for their annual outdoor quilt show. The largest outdoor quilt show in the world, we're told, and it's not hard to believe -- pretty much every exterior surface of that oh-so-faux little village gets covered with quilts for one hopefully dry day every year, and the town turns into a packed madhouse of, well, the kinds of people who get excited about quilts. Such as myself.

There is no particular organizing principle to the layout of the quilts that I could detect, and with 1500 or so quilts to see and no one to talk about them with, I was initially a little puzzled on how to proceed. After fifteen minutes or so of checking out the scene, though, it occured to me that I had the opportunity to conduct an unusual experiment on myself. I could use the show to explore my own tastes, and find out if there are any specific kinds of quilts that I particularly respond to.

I used a highly sophisticated methodology for this experiment: I took pictures of quilts I liked. Which is to say, I walked around the town, taking a brief glance at nearly all of the pieces on display, and without further thinking took pictures of the ones I was immediately attracted to. I tried to surpress any thinking about craftsmanship, tradition, innovation, symbolism, or anything else beyond an immediate gut reaction. I didn't note who the quiltmaker was, and I didn't make any attempt to get a good picture -- just a quick snapshot of every quilt that jumped out at me.

I ended up taking 75 pictures, meaning -- if we stipulate that the Sisters show represented a reasonable cross section of quilting as a whole -- that about 5% of quilts jump out at me. Through the miracle of modern uploading, I have placed the entire collection online at, where you are welcome to take a look if you so desire.

So, is there some kind of pattern to the quilts I like? Oh mai oui. Embarassingly so, as it turns out.

Of the 75 quilts I liked, it turns out that 68 of them are geometric -- i.e. composed of rectangles, triangles, circles, diamonds, and occasionally hexagons or octogons. (19 of them, in fact, are composed only of squares and rectangles).

Now, this is interesting to me, because most of my own pieces are also geometric. I have always had the nagging fear that I worked in geometries because it is easier than the piecing or applique techniques involved in working with non-geometric shapes (although that isn't necessarily true), or because I am too lazy to learn new techniques. But, having done this experiment, I'm thinking I might stick with geometries for the more defensible reason that those the kinds of quilts I like. It doesn't seem like it should be a startling revelation, but it kind of is.

A whopping 62 of the 75 are not only geometric, but also symetrical, laterally or vertically, or both. (I designated five more are "semi-symetrical," whatever that means.) I guess I like orderliness in my geometrical patterns.

How about color? Well, it would seem I like vivid, saturated colors -- 43 of the quilts I liked use brilliant "jewel tones" in their coposition. And another 43 -- quite a bit of overlap here, obviously -- used patterns based primarily on contrasting color values. Here, again, what I like seems awfully similar to what I do. More than half of my quilts are patterned on value contrasts, and yeah, I'm a notorious jewel-tone junky.

Log Cabin is made exclusively of rectangles -- 768 of 'em -- so it's nothing if not geometrical. It's laid out in a tightly symetrical pattern. In earlier posts, we've talked about it's refusal to involve a value contrast, but it certainly cranks up the brilliant saturated colors. According to my experiment, it is exactly the kind of quilt I like. So, it seems appropriate that it is my flagship piece for the moment.

It's nice to know what I like. Now I can go make more.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

My Favorite Letter Ever

....well, one of my favorites anyway.

If it's too small to read, you can click on it, or any other image, to show them full-size.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Multigenerational Madness

Alright, this here is the first State of the Craft entry for the 2006-2007 Quiltin' year, and the the first entry on our new host, Blogger. Thank you, gentle reader, for seeking out the new site. Please note that, on Blogger, anyone can comment. Click on "comment" at the bottom of a post, pick "other" where it says "choose your identity," and you'll be good to go.

But, before we begin, a brief commercial message. No, really! I am happy and very proud to announce (or, for many of you, re- or re-re-announce) that my mother's first book, Fabric Sihouettes: Quilted Treasures from the Family Album, is now available for pre-order on Amazon (HERE is a link).

I'll have more to say about this book in future entries, but for now I'll just encourage everyone to order, at a minimum, copies for themselves and for everyone in their address book.

Frequently Asked Question: "Is that you on the bike?"

A: Yes, it is. I am also, for my sins, the one on the stickhorse in "My Little Cowboys," the quilt on the lower left of the cover. Lamentably, the book includes the humiliating original photograph from which that silouette was taken. The deep psychological scarring associated with having this and other "treasures from the family album" made public will no doubt be a recurring theme in future entries to this blog.



Although quilting has gained some recognition as a contemporary art form in the last 15 years or so, it still has very strong down-home, ol'-fashioned associations in the minds of most. And this makes sense -- modern quilting, for all of its rapidly expanding notions of what is possible in the medium, is still deeply rooted in the quilting traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, there are still active quilters (my Mom, for instance) who learned quilting at the end of that earlier tradition; many (but not Mom, to my knowledge) quilted continuously, even through the 1950s and 1960s, the decades when traditional quilting was essentially dead and the modern revival had not yet started.

Of course, other art forms -- painting or sculpture or photography, say -- are deeply rooted in their histories, but don't seem like old-fashioned things to do. This might have to do with the practical roots of quilting. Making one's own blanket, like churning one's own butter or thatching one's own roof, is definitely something that is not necessarily a part of modern life. And, as a medium of expression, a blanket has an aura of outrageous wholesomeness that the canvas, clay, and photographic plate really can't compete with.

That wholesomeness is old-fashioned goes, I trust, without saying.

There is a whole branch of quilters who are only really interested in "vintage" or "period" quilts. Indeed, most serious quilt collectors are only interested in 19th and early 20th century pieces. Some quilt shows have a category for reconstructed quilts -- vintage quilts in which a quilter has repaired damage, or an incomplete vintage piece that a modern quilter has finished. While I've never been especially interested in vintage quilts, myself, I've always thought the reconstructed quilt concept was cool in that it brings traditional and modern quilting together quite literally in a given piece.

I never expected to get involved in quilt reconstruction. But....

In the early 1930s, Mary Sampson, the grandmother of my grandmother's cousin, had such severe arthritis that she could no longer comfortably hold the weight of a full quilt top. An lifelong quilter, now in her late 80s, she continued to make individual blocks. Lots of individual blocks. Made of one-inch squares, following a kind of "Around the World" pattern, and sewn by hand with needle and thread with tremendous craftsmanship, these little quilts are works of art in themselves (we have some mounted behind glass hanging in our living room). They are also testament to the time on one woman's arthritic hands -- by the time of her death in 1934, there were hundreds upon hundreds of these blocks. All of a pattern, and unified by the black and white fabric of their outer rings, they appear to have been intended for a single project. Sampson, however, had made three or four times as many blocks as would have been needed for even the largest imaginable quilt.

Following Sampson's death, the blocks were placed in shoeboxes and shuffled from family member to family member over the following decades until they ended up in my grandmother's hands. Grandma, more a knitter than a quilter, gave them to my mom, who felt guilty about them for several years before giving them back to Grandma -- Mom isn't even related to Mary Sampson, except through my Dad. After Grandma died in the late 1980s, however, the blocks ended up decisively back in Mom's lap.

Mom set out concientiously to deal with this combination treasure trove/guilt trip. Over the coming years, she would make two quilts from the blocks, as well as a third from other pieces left by Sampson. She gave sets to each of my sisters, who have worked with them over the years. This still left one final set of 32 blocks. She put this last set on backing material in 1994, but got no further with it.

Now, even before she decided to write a book, Mom was plenty busy. Moreover, she hand-quilts everything she makes, which means that her projects take months and months to finish. As a result, she has literally dozens of projects in the pipeline at any given time. And lately, she's been thinking a lot of how to lighten some of that load.

Last week, she got one long-stalled project off of her plate by presenting me with the final set of 32 Mary Sampson blocks. Well, maybe "presenting" is a little too grand -- she actually dropped them in my lap, quite literally, and informed me I would be responsible for them henceforth.

I'm more than happy to do it, though. I don't know much about this kinda-sorta ancestor of mine, but even so, working with these blocks has already (I immediately started experimenting with design, with the pattern shown here being a lead contender so far) made me feel connected to the history and tradition of the craft. Plus, I know Mom wouldn't be setting me loose with these blocks if she didn't feel I was at least marginally competant, and that's huge -- I've arrived! I've arrived!

Now, hopefully I won't screw up. I'll let you know how it goes.