Monday, March 29, 2010

the unfinished quilt--a mystery

I've been a lot of thinking today about the process of finishing. Rereading my well worn copy of Anne Truitt's Daybook--wonderful book--hard to read the whole thing at once-- she talks about the energy requiring for the final push to bring a piece to completion. The exhilaration and also the slight sorrow that happens when art is out into the larger world-- on its own--separate from me, the artist. Will it work? What will the others say about it?

Let me try to tie a few thoughts together about finishing.

First the weather--isn't this what spring is all about? March in New England. Still patches of snow. The lawn that drab brown color--you know it--before the little hints of green start showing. Only a few lonely crocuses taunt us with the promise of color. Don't tell me that April is the cruelest month!

And the quilt, right now the quilt and I are having what I might call a "dialogue" in polite society.  I'm forced to wait anyhow--a Boston TV station wants to see a quilt in progress. 15 seconds of fame. They wouldn't understand that pacing or thinking or staring is part of the process. So I leave the quilt almost done on the design board. And begin the tension mounts? Will the quilt work?

Are the darker colors of the quilt at the bottom of each zig the key--or do they distract?  I go over and over in my mind's eye. Maybe.... If only.... The genesis of new quilts is here.

But in the end I won't know until I sew it all together. So for now I wait. And worry.

This takes me to a quilt I've been thinking about.  I know I was meant to have this piece even though I don't know who did it or why. Let me begin...

But first I must tell you a bit about my aunt. Now I don't know my aunt as well as I'd like though she was my mom's older sister. My first memory ever--I was 2 1/2-- was of sitting at the top of her long staircase--she lived on the second floor. My little red suitcase was all packed. And I wanted to go home. Now!!! There was no way I could understand that I was going to get a new baby sister--I wanted to be home!!  Not a good way to start a relationship with an aunt whom I didn't see that much anyway.

Two husbands. Two divorces. For years she ran a dress shop in her town--it kept her very busy. Then there was golf, bridge until her mid 90's, her son, church. Her friends. She was always involved.  After my mom died,  I learned that if I wrote her, she'd answer me--asking questions about business, art, life.  As my sister says, she had SPUNK.

Now my aunt didn't make this quilt--she was a painter. Actually she was pretty good. She'd studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. She even sold some of her paintings. But sometime in the 50's an older friend of hers had given her this quilt. She wrote me that.  Why the friend had given her the quilt--I have no idea. It had belonged to the friend's mother--or maybe her grandmother--my aunt wasn't sure. My aunt wasn't meant to finish it--that much I know--but it was too precious to throw away.  So it sat in my aunt's trunk until 2004 when she saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow and thought it might have some value. I was the quilt maker in the family. So I got it.

Clearly it was Victorian--a log cabin pattern done in silk. Lots of detail and a spontaneity about the use of the colors. Tiny pieces--the whole quilt only about 24x36 inches. All hand sewn. The centers--or chimneys as they are called--all maroon.

What did the quilt maker dream of when she started the quilt? A cover for her wedding bed? A throw in the parlor?  Or was it something she started because that's what her friends were doing?  All I know is she made some blocks, starting sewing it together, and then stopped. The blocks not all sewn together.

Big basting stitches still there.

Why? Was it love? A change in circumstances? Or was she just discouraged? Afraid to finish it.  Did she think of it later, pull it out and start to sew it again? Clearly it was important to her. She kept it, passed it down, her daughter--or was it her granddaughter--passed it on to my aunt--who also kept it.

And maybe that is all that is needed. The quilt does tell a story--we just have to write it. As to my aunt--her life too is almost finished. Last fall she finally moved out of her walk-up apartment with the long staircase I stared down. She will turn 99 on Wednesday--won't turn 100. But with such grace and acceptance. This is life, she writes in very shaky letters. A good life. Wonderful memories. Can't complain. Hospice comes often.

As to the quilt I am working on--perhaps another row while I wait for the TV cameras. Maybe that will finish it. Make it complete.

So when do you know a piece is complete? Are you just a bit sad? What are your memories? And when will I finish this quilt?


  1. I love the way you're tying together the unfinished (and sometimes finished) business of life in this essay the way you sew together your quilts. You deserve at least 20 minutes of fame for that!

  2. What a great story, Ann. I think there is a bit of sadness when an important piece is complete. You as the maker are no longer intimately involved in its creation, and you have to step back and start its own life - wether with a new owner, in a show, etc. The first step of creation is codependent, and the next step is independent... very much like sending a child off to school. My recent commissions left me empty when they left, and a bit unfocused, but I am getting back into the swing of things. Sometimes it is easier not to finish, then you can hang on a bit longer... Miles to go before I sleep syndrome...

  3. A great story and post, Ann. I used to feel that way with every piece I finished. At the time I was only working on one piece at a time so it would take a day or two to get started on something new. A bit of a grieving period I would say.

    Now I work on multiple pieces at a time and I don't have the same empty feeling because I'm always "in the middle" of at least one project and that keeps the spirits up.

    I look forward to the final process -- taking the photographs so that I can share the completed artwork with the world. Same feeling as sharing those first images of each child and grandchild.

    Continued Success!
    Jean Judd

  4. Thanks so much for all your comments.

    By now I am so ready for this quilt to be done--soon.