Friday, February 20, 2015

Looking at the design process

Lately I've been preparing to teaching a class on the design process at the Southeast Fiber Forum conference at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.  I put together a slide show of several of my artworks, along with their inspirations and the samples or models I made while working on each piece.  It was really interesting to look back at my work in this way and to realize that like everyone I return to the same sources of inspiration and ways of working over and over again.

I started as a quiltmaker, and I literally started making art quilts twenty years ago by looking out the window at my own backyard.  We had lots of trees and bird life, and in the snowy Kentucky winters cardinals would practically line up at our bird feeder.  I knew I wanted to capture their vivid red against the snow.  I wanted to design my own original quilt block, one that was recognizably a cardinal and was also sew-able, without too much sobbing and gnashing of teeth.  Here are a few of my early sketches:

You can see these early ideas were all over the place, from semi-realistic to completely abstract, and they were hardly resolved, in some cases quite crude (I'm lookin' at you, triangle bird!)   I find that the hard thing at this stage is to keep faith and remain patient with yourself as the ideas do develop and resolve.

My fibers professor in grad school required that before we plunged into the construction of any piece, we had to make several samples, mock-ups using the actual design and materials, in order to test our ideas, materials, and methods.  Often we had to do half a dozen or more samples before we were permitted to proceed with construction of the final piece.  While this is not a project I did for school, I followed this process. So here are a few of the cardinal blocks I tried:

The last two examples are very close to the actual block I used, a diamond-shaped block that tessellated with background blocks in the same shape.  I decided that despite their drab coloring the female cardinals deserved to be seen too so I included them as well.  Often it's the duller, quieter colors in a piece that allow the brighter colors to really sing.  I added a wing that is a faced flap that stands out from the block, an idea I borrowed from the amazing quilt artist Ruth McDowell.   To add interest some of the background blocks are pieced in strips, and the quilt's border is irregular and interrupted in places by the blocks themselves. 

Here's the final quilt:

 Of course, you know what they say about the best-laid plans.  In this case, after I had all the blocks pieced together and had done the quilting--when the quilt was nearly finished, in other words--I added the large branch shapes, appliqueing them over the surface of the quilt.  It seemed that the birds perched on their tiny twigs needed to be connected to larger branches somehow.  Not all the birds are on a branch, but enough are.  The birds are no longer floating in space, and the branches lead the eye through the piece effectively.  And I like the disconnectedness of the branches, which would never have happened if I had designed them in from the beginning.

So it seems that both deliberate planning and then being able to respond sensitively to the piece in front of you as it develops are both crucial.  Hmmm.  This is one of those lessons I seem to learn anew with almost every piece I do. 

There are still some spots available in my class at Fiber Forum, April 16-19, 2015.  Email me for more information, or go here.

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