Tuesday, May 31, 2011

that first block

I keep telling myself that a big quilt begins one block at a time--isn't that some old Chinese saying--or maybe it is from Aesop. Not even sure if it matters. But sometimes it is so hard to just start. What if I can't remember how to make the quilt? What if the colors are wrong? It is harder because it is such a large custom order. Sometimes I can make a custom quilt twice--but this piece is too large for that. It must be right the first time.

As you may remember I have an order for a large quilt for a wonderful room--cozy but open. Dreamy. I wrote about it HERE. The test quilt grows and grows on me. When will it reach the sky? A friend suggests I call it--the stars of August. Great title, isn't it? I love this piece with its optimism and bright colors. I was definitely reaching for the joy of the blue skies that finally came.

Of course the colors are wrong for the order. Far too bright. Blues and reds just don't work in the room. I knew that when I made it. I wanted to explore the potential of the design--see how the rows grow and interact--while still keeping the concept fresh for the wonderful dreamy room where new quilt will live. I had created the design this winter. Even made a wonderful large quilt based on it. But there was so much I didn't know about making this particular quilt. How do the elements interact? What are the possibilities? The variations? I remember how Hamada said each pot took him a lifetime to create. Isn't the same true for quilts?

I buy more fabric--that is the easy part of the research.  The fun part. Arrange it in color progressions in the studio. Is this too warm? Too bright? I sit back and squint. Try to imagine the colors in the room.
This is also easy to do. I contemplate it as I do some hand sewing.

I get out the sheet of samples I sent the client. Neatly taped to a piece of paper for her approval. Of course I kept a copy. Think some more. Rearrange the fabrics. Again I go through the digital images of the space that are stored on a folder in my computer. Had I remembered the colors of the wood? So many subtle variations. The detail in the other artwork. I don't want to dominate but to coordinate and accentuate. That is the hardest part. There is more grey here. The dreaminess of mist and smoke. The softness of stone. Maybe that is the solution.

I rearrange. Pull out new fabrics. Think. Wake up at five in the morning. Yes, this works.  My studio is such a mess. Piles of fabric everywhere.  I put away fabrics that I know won't work but still I need this "clutter". Sometimes clutter can be useful. I squint one last time. Then tell myself I absolutely must start this quilt now. I need to get it done regardless of my fears.

I cut out the back of the first block. The cotton batting. So blank and empty looking at me on the cutting mat. Almost taunting isn't it?

I sort through the fabric and cut small strips in the colors that may work. Neat little piles to add to the quilt. I remember that the first blocks on the test quilt looked dark. The design did not begin to pop until I had several blocks. Then I will have to control the progression to keep it subtle and dreamy. I know it may want to go blue but I won't let it. I clean the sewing machine. Put in a new needle. Wind a bobbin. Drink some coffee and take a deep breath. The journey must begin.

And you--how do you begin a new project? Do you also find that the first block can be the hardest? How do you warm up? Or do you even think about it?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

if you want to write....

A couple days ago I was listening to a great interview on the Diane Rehm Show. This time it was with the novelist Edna O'Brien. Now I must confess that while I had heard her name--I knew almost nothing about her or her work. Sure I must have seen it in passing--but recently I haven't been reading that many novels. But of course Diane is so considerate and thoughtful, I had to pay attention.

I learned that she is an Irish novelist known for her books that explore the inner lives of women and her memories of growing up Catholic in Ireland. She wrote her first novel The Country Girls in the course of three weeks--only to have it banned by the Irish clergy. Indeed her own mother had taken a black pencil to the copy that Edna had given her and crossed out all the obscenities. Fascinating story and wonderful use of language. You can check out the interview HERE.

Now listeners can call in during parts of the show and ask the guests questions. Of course there was the inevitable question from an aspiring author who wanted advice on how to write a novel and get it published. Edna's advice was so succinct and perfect:

                                                 If you want to write, write.

Simple. But not easy. Basically the equivalent of that slogan we all know-- "Just do it." Don't write for others, don't write assuming that you will get published. Just write. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard as the case may be. Just do it.

At lunch that day I was leafing through my latest copy of American Craft. There was an interesting editorial by Monica Moses--the new Editor-In-Chief--in which she also discusses the desire that we all have to make things. Indeed she hypothesizes that customers come the the American Craft Shows in part because they want to live vicariously through the work of different craft artists. They want to think that they can make something like what they are seeing. She advised the readers to actually take the time to make something. Take a class at Haystack. Use your hands.

Now if I stopped writing this post here, everyone would agree with me. Great idea, Ann. Yes, we should all make something. And quite frankly I do agree that we need that pleasure of creating things by hand. Indeed I wrote about that very concept in my post and the power of the hand HERE.

But--and you knew there would be a big BUT--we also need to look at the work of the many fine craftspeople as also being art. It is not just the fact that they are making something with their hands, but also the fact that the art they are making can take us to a new and different place. Give us new insight into how we perceive the world around us. Startle us. Amaze us.

When I go to the opera, I do not think that I could be on stage singing that aria. No, I marvel at the subtle range of emotion that the voice can convey from the softest whisper to the greatest tumults of human emotion. When I hear the symphony perform Mahler, I get taken to a deep place within me--emotions that don't have names are stirred within me.  When I walk across the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, I don't think that my garden can look like that.

And when I go to a fine craft show or a gallery or a museum, I don't think I can make that a sophisticated glass vase like my neighbor Ed Branson does that dances into the thinnest of points.  I don't think I can create the complex woven baskets of my friend Kari Lonning that create spaces of the imagination inside and out. I don't even think how to recreate the simple but complex quilts of Erin Wilson, even though I might have the technical skills to do that. But I don't have her vision, her sense of color and design, her originality in the countless designs she creates.  Instead I enjoy the sweep of color and the intricate possibilities that she conveys.

Yes, we do need to make things--whether it is craft or cooking or gardening or whatever--but I think that we also have to allow ourselves to go beyond that feeling of doing it yourself to maintain that awe of what the human spirit can accomplish. How much one person can explore the intricacies of the human emotion and condition by delving deep into their own selves?

As Edna O'Brien said, write if you want to write. Write for yourself and see what happens. If you want to make a craft, take a class, learn the skills, do it. Enjoy yourselves. But don't let that interfere with your appreciation and marvel at the human potential. At least that's my two cents, I would love to hear what you think.

Monday, May 23, 2011

testing 1--2--3--4

Sometimes all I can do is make the quilt, Ann. Start sewing. Too much thought is not going to help. You see this time I have an order for a large quilt similar to endless fields. Maybe you remember this quilt--I made it during the winter and wrote about it HERE and HERE and HERE. Now I love this piece, simple and elegant. Thinking of the fields stretching into the horizon off into the unknown. I love the potential of those horizons, those dreams. The thoughts of that place out there. My photographer called this piece "regal". Elegant.  I'll take that as a complement.

But alas--endless fields is the wrong colors for the room. Now it is the sweetest room--overlooking the woods. Great art in the room. Simple and cozy. Tucked away. It needs a happy quilt. Lighter and less dominant. More summery but not too much green--she doesn't want too much green. And I want the quilt to be absolutely wonderful--the customer is so wonderful herself--I want it to echo her lovely personality.

So I have to rethink the quilt. Now sometimes I can just see in my mind's eye what a quilt will look like. I can picture it in the room just like that. It's fun. But this time I am not sure. There is so much potential here--but can I get the colors to progress without too much green? I play with the fabrics. Arrange them on the cutting table. Step back. Re-arrange them. Hmm. I could do this a long long time. But I must make progress on the quilt--I have been thinking about it long enough.

Time to make a test piece. Maybe even two. See what happens. Learn the potential of this pattern. Oh how I dislike those discussions wanting me to always make something new. I want to learn from what I have done and push the designs--but that may be a different blog post. Instead I start. Of course it seems really dark at first. I remember the same feeling in the first quilt. Lovely colors but dark.

It is nice to be working in a smaller piece. Let's me try out the ideas without sewing for days and then finding out it's not right.  Then I have to stop and think. Green to teal is easy. But teal to blue is harder. I put up different test fabrics. Which color works? I step back and squint. Think. Start.

Not bad--it may be a bit bright. I keep going. Is the blue too strong? Should I have tamped down the other colors? What will happen when it is sewn together?

I remember in endless fields it was only the last row or two that tied the work together. Will it be the same for this quilt? Did I allow myself enough room for the change or should I make the test piece longer? Should I just go browns and greys? So many questions. I must piece some more. See what happens and then insert the quilt in the room in my mind's eye. So much to do. So exciting to see what happens.

What do you think? Do you ever try test pieces? Will the light colors at the top--the ones not pieced yet--tie the quilt together? Or is it just a test piece?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

learning to make music

Yesterday afternoon I heard another wonderful story on NPR--it was an obituary for the cellist Bernard Greenhouse. Now I confess that I didn't recognize his name--although I must have heard of him. After all he was a member of the Beaux Arts Trio for many years. Then he had a solo career. As the story reminded us, he could have been the only person living to have played cello for almost nine decades. Pretty amazing isn't that. At age eight he decided to become a cellist. OK--that takes determination. Studied under Pablo Cassals. Now that is someone I have heard of--you probably know that name too. Although his eyesight was failing, he played the cello every day. Not to learn new music but just to keep his skills. Then three weeks ago, he stopped. Playing the cello became too hard for him at age 95--or was it 96.

Already a great story but what I remembered most was his teaching. As he put it, and I paraphrase, his goal was not too teach his students to play the cello but to make music. Think about it. Being so sensitive to possibilities of the notes and music that you can convey the emotions that you want to with it. The interview was wonderful--check it out HERE.

I think about that concept as I work on a grey rolling hills. Now I confess I love the color grey. Not the grey with the silver tones. Too harsh and distant for me. But the grey that goes into taupe. Just that hint of warmth there. The uncertainty of the colors that convey memories of the mist and dirt. Subtle colors that must be read and studied. One at a time.

I made a study in grey a few weeks ago. Look at that definition and rhythm. So many colors put together. Even the blacks have bits of color in their creation if you look carefully. This study was more to the mauve colors. Oh how I love the subtleties of the fabric.

The rolling hills will be a bit different. More free form. Little scenes of the hills. Not the pinks. Just the hint of yellow. A little more of the taupe.

Don't you love the look of the clouds. This fabric was actually meant to be smoke for a train engine.
That hint of taupe. How do you define it? So sophisticated and subtle. Tiny bits of green in the this color. And the blue--oh the faintest of the blue. Can't be too strong for this piece. I love making quilts where I must use this control and knowledge. This is what makes it fun for me.

Isn't this like making music? Knowing the subtle details. Paying careful attention to what you have done and using it to decide what you will do while always remembering the whole that is intended.

I think of this as I remember the interview. Learning to sew is one thing but making music is another. Isn't that the essence of art? Choosing each piece of fabric carefully--the size, the color, the designs and putting it into the quilt just right so that it looks like it just happens.

What do you think? Have you heard any great interviews recently? How do you learn to "make music"?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

complicated, complex, complete

Maybe it was the buds on my lilacs.  Or the last greys on the hill across from my studio waiting for the explosion of green. Was I saturated with forsythia? Or was it the drizzle that morning? Does it even matter? I sort through my fabrics hunting for inspiration. A new quilt to make to fill the empty spaces on my studio walls. You must know that time in between projects--before I begin the next big quilt.

I have a vision--a quilt in those off colors of reds and mauves, greys and taupes. Warm but not bright. Haunting in the complexity. There is something about those colors without names--those tertiary colors made with a bit of grey, some blue, just a tad of yellow. You know the ones--you see the paint chips with the complex formulas. The prints--just so perfect and complete.

Interesting words--complex, complicated, complete. Similar and yet so different. The prefix com just means with. That's simple.  "Complex" from the French to weave, braid or twine. Perfect word for fiber isn't it. "Complicated" is from the Latin--folded, confused, intricate. That makes sense also. You can check it out here. But "complete"--also from Latin--means to fill, fulfill, finish as in complete the legions. You can check it out here. Isn't English fun?

The fabrics I buy for my challenges--often not sure what I will do with them. "But they look so great together," I tell myself. "I know they will work."  And then they sit there--sometimes for years.  This wonderful complex feather fabric. Just a slight hint of metallic. What was I thinking when I bought it? I don't even remember.  I know I have used it--there is only a quarter yard left.  Usually it is at the bottom of the pile--but this time it will be perfect, I think.

I pulled out the mauve and pale blue. So sophisticated. I just bought it--maybe last fall. I wasn't sure what I would do with it even then.  I know I thought about it for a week or two but I just had to have it. I haven't used any of it yet. Pulled it out a couple of times but it wasn't quite right. This time it will work. Looks like it belongs to royalty.  The print that looks like a batik but it is not. So soft in its colors. I have used just a bit of it--too soft for most of my quilts--but this time...

Rolling hills is just perfect for these colors. I have that long narrow spot in my studio that needs something. I know these pieces sell. But will it work with these colors. I piece a couple of blocks. Interesting how the prints work in this design. Do you see how the feather fabric works?

I like that bit of soft yellow. Oh this is fun. Using all those fabrics that have just been sitting there. The blocks become greater the more I make.

Not bad. These colors are interesting.  I sew it together.  Finish it. Haunting isn't it?  Complex colors.

Maybe now I will make one in greys and taupes. See what happens in colors that are almost no color--if you know what I mean. What do you think? Do you ever just have to work in certain colors even if you don't know the names for them?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

expressivity--why some performances of Mozart are brilliant

Recently there was an interesting comment on the Studio Art Quilt Association forum--not a major discussion but a post by a beginning quilt maker trying to find her way to become an artist. She put forward a couple of interesting questions--does a quilt by an experienced quilt maker deserve to have a greater value than one made by a beginner? How does one even determine value? Is art good or bad based on its own merits? I had some gut feelings but how to answer them. I tried to wrap my mind around these questions.

Certainly I wouldn't hire a plumber or car mechanic who was "just practicing". I want my lawyer to know what he or she is doing. I could go on. Do you want to fly on an airplane with a pilot who is just practicing?

But maybe art is different. Now as a step-mom I have sat through many school band performances enjoying them because I love the participants but... You must know that feeling.  Probably just like me, you made your parents sit through similar performances. There is justice here. Of course there have been local productions that have touched me--I am still remember a version of The Story of Anne Frank in our local town hall. A young friend of mine was Meep. Though a few lines were mis-spoken, clearly there was an emotion conveyed that reached the audience.  And I do love to see the quilts made by friends. The ones made by my other grandmother. The quilts that I see proudly displayed at various quilt guilds.  But I love them for the effort and the raw emotion and not for their "art". Isn't there a difference between the local theater and a Broadway production? Isn't there a reason we go to museums to see the Monets and O'Keefes? Think of the details of a Jackson Pollock--so many more layers than the many imitators.

As I ponder the question as to what the difference is,  I catch a great interview by Robin Young on Here and Now. Don't you love how much information is on NPR? In this interview she was discussing the concept of expressivity with Daniel Levitin.  What a wonderful word that is, isn't it? Apparently he was the author of a best selling book Your Brain on Music though I had not heard of him or his book. Shame on me. It was  a great discussion based on such wonderful research. The question was why are some performances of Mozart brilliant and others just ho-hum. After all they are all based on playing the same notes in the same order for the same amount of time. Or are they?

Using an electronic keyboard, the same piece was played just as it was written and also by an experienced pianist. The difference was astounding. The first one sounded like student work. Very boring and methodical.  In the second one, it turned out the pianist--I forget who it was--made very slight changes--often by only a few thousandths of a second in terms of the length of the notes and the spacing between them. This was the human touch which made it art. A third time the computer exaggerated these differences by 50%. Oh that was too much.  I was glad to learn that the majority of listeners agreed on that. You can hear some of the variations of music and the discussion HERE.

Isn't that fascinating confirmation of the importance of the human touch? Style and emotion. But isn't it more than just the human touch? Isn't there a sureness to the great works that communicates to us? So many slight differences.  Knowing when to tweak the music. Isn't it the same with quilts. Those careful selections of fabric and color. The little changes to the design. That point of view of the artist.  Isn't that we love some quilts because they are made by those we love and we love other quilts because they are expressive?

And doesn't this answer some of the questions of the beginning quilt maker on the SAQA forum? OK--my two cents. Did you hear that interview? What do you think about expressivity? And do you have a favorite performer of Mozart?

Monday, May 9, 2011

how do you like your forsythia?

Last week--as if by magic--finally there were forsythia. Those wonderful burst of gold and yellow, glowing in the sunlight. Statements of spring and warmth.  Glowing orbs against the tender green of the grass. Wisps of yellow in the woods. On the way home from the studio there is a row of forsythia carefully pruned into spheres of color. So wonderful. Such a lovely statement of color and hope.

I heard on--of all places--Car Talk--that forsythia is actually named after William Forsyth. Now you must know those car guys--Click and Clack--so funny but sometimes you need to take them with a grain of salt, if you know what I mean. Time to do a bit of research. Amazingly there actually was a William Forsyth--he was the director of the Chelsea Physic Garden in Great Britain and first used forsythia in 1770. One of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society.  The plant was discovered in China by Robert Fortune--what a wonderful name that is. Later other species were found--there are actually 11 different varieties mainly from eastern Asia. There is an entire website devoted to forsythia--you can find it HERE. On Wikipedia I learn that forsythias are part of the olive family HERE.

Oh how I love these splashes of color. Each year I dig up the sprouts and plant them at the edge of the woods. The entrance to our driveway. On the hill overlooking the house. Wonderful celebration. I try to think of spring without forsythia. My mother had a plant that never really bloomed--of course she pruned it in August or September--not a good idea. But my grandmother had a lovely bush--I knew the color and the joy. I knew what we were missing by not having the forsythia.

But what if you had never seen a forsythia?  I wonder about Europe before it was discovered--would Bruegel's peasants have seen forsythia in the distant manors? Would forsythia have surrounded the cathedrals?  Would the Unicorn have frolicked in a grove of forsythia? Oh my mind can wander. Just think if the Pilgrims had seen forsythia. Enough already, Ann.

I read a wonderful design blog--the writer has found it hard to post recently. Nothing inspires her in the dreariness and sameness of her life until finally she realizes the need for bold splashes of color. And suddenly feels alive. You can read it HERE.  Isn't it true how color can make us feel alive? Isn't that the secret of forsythia?

And I think of my quilts. In spring I want bright colors. Splashes of gold and yellow.  Warmth and new life and my mood rises.

And you--do you have forsythia? How do colors affect your moods? What colors do you work with in the spring?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

...to be simple

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the concept of simplicity. You must know that wonderful Shaker song--"tis a gift to be simple..." What a wonderful song.  Just read some of these words:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
Aren't they fabulous? Did you know that it was actually composed by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848 as a dancing song? The things one learns on Wikipedia--fascinating. But what is simplicity? I want to ponder this more.

I read in a collection of food writings--(oh I love to read good writing about food. Not only does it take me to a different place--and sometimes make me hungry--but let's face it--good food is both craft and art also)--but I digress: anyhow in this particular essay Monica Bhide asks "Does a Recipe Need to be Complicated to be Good?" Great question. She has written a cookbook on Indian food--OK I'm hungry already--and explains that a reader complained that her recipe was too "simplistic." Note, the complaint was not that the food didn't taste good--it did--but that it was too easy to make. Oh I like that--I don't have time to cook if you know what I mean.

Let me continue, as Monica explains, simple does not mean easy. It takes years of experience, "guts--and culinary prowess" to cook it just right. After all with few ingredients, there is "no place to hide." Now she hastens to point out, that by simple she does not mean dumbing a recipe down. Instead she takes the best ingredients--the perfectly ripe tomato, the freshest spices and the right techniques. After all, she points out that if you have the perfect clove of cardamon, why would you want to add flavors to "muck it up"? Her words--not mine but doesn't it make sense. Her website is HERE and the essay is in  Best Food Writing 2010 edited by Holly Hughes--a delightful book to pick up when you need that quick break.

I think of a recent e-mail I received from a friend. She wrote that she was trying to unclutter her life. To turn off the radio and the TV news. To concentrate on that which is important to her. Essential to her being. The mist rising from the hills. The tender green of the maples. Music. Conversation.  Time in her studio. How wonderful and true that feels. How I admire her guts to do this.

Isn't there so much here for all of us? How easy it is for me to get carried away with technique and design of my quilts.  Can I add just a bit more detail here? What about this block over here? Maybe I should add a few stitches here? Another color progression there? I know there have been times in my journey that I have been more concerned with technique than truth and I have to pull back.  How hard it is to do this. If you make a quilt with just a few colors, the colors have to be just right. The simpler the design the more must be contained with in it so that the meaning will unfold upon further examination. Layers of meaning and richness. But so controlled. So practiced. Simple is not easy.

And you--do you work simply?  Do you think this is important? Do you ever try to unclutter your life? And does this Shaker dance song ever float through your being? Do you ever come round right?

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right

Monday, May 2, 2011

the quilts of Ann Brauer--it's May!!!

Suddenly it seems it is May. The snow is gone--finally. There is an energy here--I think of it as a time of preparation. Little green leaves on the trees. Peas peeking up in my garden in  somewhat straight rows. (My cats do "help" with the planting--oh well.)  I want to work in the bright blues of May. The yellows of forsythia. The tender greens of the lawn. And the purples of my lilacs. Every day seems new. Such excitement and hope at this time of year.

I have begun filling out my schedule of shows for the rest of the year with this same sense of excitement and hope. This summer I will be returning to three of my favorite shows--the Guilford Craft Show in July and the Berkshire Craft Show  and American Craft Expo in Evanston in August. I am so looking forward to all of them.  You can see the complete list of shows on my website at http://www.annbrauer.com  So I will be in the studio working to finish a few orders and make lots of new quilts and smaller accessories for these shows. 

It was rather obvious to me my quilt  may sun should be the quilt special of the month. This quilt was made as a sample way back in 2006. It is 48 x 48 inches and was originally priced at $1080. The colors in the image are not as true as they could be since I took the picture myself. There are bright blues, yellows and some greens. For this special the quilt is $500 plus tax and shipping. Just like in other specials this is offered on a first come/first serve basis. The offer will be withdrawn on May 10 so if you are interested please e-mail me directly.

One of the new items I have been working on is a new variation of my little purses. These are about 8 x 8 inches with a thin strap for hanging. The back is a solid pieced black. The purses are all cotton. I love the feel of the thin strips of cotton on the front and the intense and wonderful colors that I can create. Right now I have three different styles--a solid color, a color progression and purses with contrasting colors. What do you think? Which  works best? I would love to hear. The purses are $60 and there are a few more on my web site under small works.

Well, that's enough for now. I hope to see some of you in my studio. The Bridge of Flowers is lovely at this time of year.  Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. And do enjoy the season.