Friday, September 28, 2012

Who do we create for?

As I worked on my Sunday quota of four blocks for Veronica's quilt, I thought about one aspect of craft that I haven't often reflected on:  that the craftsperson most frequently makes things that will be used in other people's everyday lives.  Although I'm having fun trying to make interesting blocks when faced with Veronica's idea of the quilt she'd like to have on her bed, I am not driven to make this quilt the way I was driven to make the New York Beauty that is now on the spare bed.  I had this theory about colours:  that all colours could go together if they were arranged or grouped in an effective way, if you paid attention less to the colour than to their level of saturation--the amount of black or grey mixed in with a pure colour, and if you created a rhythm of saturated and unsaturated colours.  I made the quilt, then, as a way of learning something I really wanted to know, as an experiment.  It didn't need to satisfy someone else's hunger, to speak to someone else's sense of who they are, the way something beautiful and well-crafted is able to do.

I seem to be managing this with Veronica's quilt; she looked at all the blocks I have pieced and said "That's it.  Understated with a bit of red.  That's me."  And in a way the need to understand someone else's desires and vision is a gift:  it stretches me as a craftsperson beyond my comfort zone.  I find that some of my principles still hold, though in different ways.  Many quilters, for example, talk about encouraging the viewer's eyes to move around the quilt.  What we're trying to do is to build in surprises that urge you to explore, or to build in echoes that you seek out.  I'm still doing that here, but in a way that's much more subtle. I have to intuit what Veronica would like, and that imaginative act is, in itself, exciting.  She's found a cream print with simple grey butterflies and moths on it, and I'm going to "fussy-cut" pieces and make a slight change to the block so that, perhaps three times in the entire quilt, there's a large moth or a butterfly right at the centre of the block.   

Thoughtful craftspeople imagine the person who will use their work all the time.  Randal Fedge, who tried to teach me to work on a potter's wheel, often took the lovely edge of a bowl and gave it a twist with his thumb.  He was anticipating the bowl's owner picking it up right by the comfortable, inviting divot he'd made.  Jack Sures makes inviting thumb-rests on the top of his mug handles.  I have a very flat porcelain bowl made at Chosin Pottery by Judy Dyelle.  She has made a tiny pleat on the edge of the thin porcelain that always makes me smile, perhaps because it made her smile when she created it.  

Thinking about craftspeople making invitations to future users or attempting to anticipate what would give their owners delight made me wonder whether artists do something similar.  Who do artists create for?  Other artists?  Past masters?   I had a chance to put that question to three young writers last weekend.  "Who do you write for?" I asked them.  Sarah Taggart gave an answer that moved me.  She writes for her characters.  Then because she messes it up, she says, she has to go back to write for herself--for her sense of self-respect.  And then for future readers. 

Brenda Schmidt launched a very interesting book of essays, Flight Calls on Monday.  All of these were prompted by rather enigmatic epigraphs sent by her Saskatchewan Writers' Guild mentor Gerry Hill:  clearly at some level she--like many of us--wrote for a mentor who perhaps temporarily comes to stand in for the audience we would like to have, an audience we respect and trust.

Adorno has a lovely phrase about a successful work of art.  He says it is the equal of itself.  In other words, what the artist has accomplished actually comes very close to the artist's vision.  Faulty craftsmanship, a simplistic world view, inattention haven't crept into the work so that it fails to reflect that Platonic ideal the artist had.  I kind of like Adorno''s notion, except that sometimes I suspect I don't grasp that complex ideal until I'm nearly there.  If I could articulate that ideal in words, I wouldn't have difficulty writing the poem or realizing the character, would I?  Yet I still believe that in the early stages I write for the work itself.  There's some complex aesthetic whole which speaks to what it means to be human that I strive for, even if I only imagine it at some level of abstraction.   It's only as I get closer to this hazy idea that I begin to think about how I'll create a bridge between the work and the world I want it to live in.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Autumnal synaesthesia

I enjoy winter.  I find something appealing about the aesthetic minimalism of winter, of a world stripped down to basics.  I suspect I also enjoy the excuse to hibernate, to pare my own life down to the things that are important necessary:  family, cats, friends, reading--all in the "yes" column.  Floundering around on FB or wandering Cornwall Centre after Christmas--not so much.  Baking bread, yes; baking cookies probably not.

But I also love the way fall, with its riotous effect on our senses, gets us ready for that minimalism.  Just before last weekend, I thought that fall was very much about colour and about the way that colour changes daily.  You have to watch carefully, earnestly, or you find that a favourite tree has suddenly lost all its leaves and you didn`t even notice it turning.  The light also changes quickly, particularly in the early evening, so you realize that you need to watch that sunset down the back lane or you`re not going to see it at all.

Fall is, perhaps, the season when all our senses are tangled together.  The sussurating leaves sound golden.  The crisp mornings taste like heirloom tomatoes and freshly pulled carrots. The particular smell of fallen elm leaves evokes also the smell of apples, of fallow earth, of planting tulip bulbs.  You associate the late afternoon golden light with long nineteenth-century novels or with some other mad undertaking like re-reading Dante`s Divine Comedy or the latest translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Strangely enough, paradoxically enough, for those of us who are the perpetual students that teach, it is a season of new beginnings, a time to re-envision an undertaking you`ve been doing for thirty-six years so you can (in Ezra Pound`s words) "make it new" in this time of the turning, waning year.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Craft and Art--again

I made Veronica a going-away-to-university quilt when she left for McGill, in 1997.  It's traveled quite a lot, even catching a plane for Cambridge, and has become rather worn and faded.   So she and I had been on the lookout for a quilt or a block or a fabric that would suggest a skeleton for a new quilt that I hope to have finished for Christmas.

Foolishly, while I was on sabbatical I worked on Barbara Brackman's block of the week quilt that marked the 150th anniversary of the civil war.  She created a wonderful website for quilters that included lots of history, photographs of many primary documents, details from women's lives, and information about decisive battles.  Each of the blocks, like one called "the underground railroad," which had a strong visual diagonal, was tied to the war in some way.  Perhaps the block had been published under a particular name, like "the battle of Sumter," in a ladies' magazine.   More than that, perhaps, the naming of quilt blocks after events or songs (there's one called "the grapes of wrath") or ideas shows how close the war was to the domestic lives of women, how it had become a part of their self-expression in quilts. The fabrics Brackman was using for the sample blocks were all made with reproduction fabrics--fabrics designed to look like they might have come from the Civil War period.  Strangely enough, there's a whole cottage industry devoted to "reproduction" fabrics.  I'll admit I can't resist buying them because they're so interesting.  They have a different visual language and a different mood from contemporary cottons.
These two blocks, in a pattern called "blockade" "spoke" to Veronica.  She liked something about the calm square in a square in a square, but also liked the secondary pattern of the pinwheel that emerges when you put the blocks together edge to edge.  The next step was for her to begin to go through my fabric stash to find the beginnings of a colour scheme and the visual language of the fabric she liked.  She decided on blacks, dark blacky-blues, grey blues, greys, creams--and a dash of red.  I've made about fifteen blocks, which you see at the top of the post.  Of course, Sheba had to put herself in the picture.  Where there are quilts or quilt blocks, there are cats--or at least Sheba.  We've chosen lots of batiks along with quite a few Japanese fabrics to give the quilt a modern look.

This weekend, in order to get myself organized to simply sit down and begin to piece, I pulled fabrics for blocks, combining them in groups of fours, and started cutting up perfectly good fabric into little pieces so I could sew them together again--a non-quilter's bemused definition of quilting.  And I studied the blocks I'd made, which were spread out on the quilt that opened last week's post. 

For me, quilting is very much about play.  But I also find that when I am working on a quilt some other layer of my mind rumbles away like a woman's foot on an old treadle sewing machine.  One of the questions that popped up for me, perhaps because I was looking at the juxtaposition of two very different quilts, was "Is there such a thing as a 'Kathleen Wall quilt'?  My immediate answer was 'no.'  Perhaps you could recognize my quilts by the careful craftsmanship and the size of the quilting stitches if I had quilted it by hand.  No matter how many triangles I have to coordinate, all my points meet.  But my quilts share this quality with those of hundred--if not thousands--of quilts made by other women.  I could also say that my quilts aren't what quilters derisively call "matchy-matchy."  If I'm using blue in a quilt, I don't make sure that all the blue fabrics are exactly the same blue, with the same amount of grey or green or purple in them.  I interpret my colours widely.  But again, you could say this of many, many quilters.  While there's something very calm about a quilt whose colours are uniform, lots of quilters chose instead to surprise you into thoughts about colour and mood.  So that the quilt I posted last week uses almost every shade of blue or green there is, trying to create something both harmonious and surprising.

Perhaps, my bubbling mind considered, I've stumbled onto one of those distinctions between craft and art that I'm always thinking about.  Craft, like quilting, is very much concerned with traditions.  Why else would thousands of women around the world (these women included their comments on Brackman's website and sent in pictures of their blocks ) be making quilts in the twenty-first century out of fabric designed to look like it was made in the nineteenth?  Craft also speaks to a collective vision or preoccupation, so we were making blocks that women had designed about a hundred and fifty years ago when they wanted to articulate the connections between their intimate and domestic lives and large historical events.

You could catch the glimpse of one of Van Gogh's paintings and know that it was a Van Gogh.  Likewise, you could probably identify a couple of sentences as Shakespeare's or Virginia Woolf's.  But this is not always true of craft.  We expect artists to express their unique vision of the world, of life, of our experience of being human,  a vision that colours every aesthetic decision they make.  Certainly some people who are working in media that we usually associate with "craft," like ceramics, nevertheless bring their own vision of their practice and their world into everything they create.  But we call them artists.

I could think of my quilts as studies in mood--which is also how I think of Mark Rothko's paintings.  But he has found an entirely original, idiosyncratic, challenging way of embodying mood, while I use the visual language that women have spoken time time out of mind.  Together we create two things all human beings need to thrive:  the unfamiliarity, the challenges, the questions posed by the work of art, and the comfort of the familiar, of tradition. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Early Fall: Only a Promise of Happiness

In his book Only a Promise of Happiness, art critic Alexander Nehemas suggests that one of the promises beauty makes is that it will repay our attention.  We have the sense, he argues, that we can return to something beautiful over and over and never exhaust what it might tell us about the human body, about the natural world, about the expression of an emotion or an idea, about the creation of form or the perfect correspondence between form and content.  Perhaps he explains my own watchfulness over the last couple of days as summer draws to its ecstatic, golden ending and as I move from the isolation of writing back into the community and conversation of the classroom.

Mornings are different:  there's a relieved, happy tang in the air that is reflected in people's spirits and in the wind.  Saturday morning after our weekly breakfast at Tangerine, Bill and I walked from there to the Farmer's Market.  The wind laughed and tumbled a piece of newspaper along Thirteenth as if its tattered edges were made of crinoline.  People had come with their wagons, their children, their granny carts to the market where we are both more sociable--catching one another's eyes in shared delight in a child's determined march across the park--yet sometimes less aware of one another as we turned inward to recover our shopping lists or simply feel the air on our skin.   This is nothing like our decorous shopping in the supermarket where we move down the aisles in straight lines, respecting one another's sense of purpose and avoiding one another's faces and shopping carts.  There is simply something about the ripeness in the air--the fragrance of tomatoes and falling leaves--that captures our enlivened attention.

The mid-day heat is also different, Janus-faced.  It looks back to  summer, but its dryness and its promise of cool evenings face the fall.  Even on these warm afternoons, there's no fooling yourself into believing that it's midsummer.  Perhaps that's because the trees sound different; they rub their dry edges against one another the way an old woman rubs the dry palms of her hands.  Our hot humid summer created a landscape that was boldly, brilliantly green.  But gold has crept into the palette.  You may look up on a country road to find an entire field swathed onto its side, the grain gone, the straw inert; it no longer cares about the wind or the sun.  Golden fields on both sides of the road wrap you in the warmth you will need for the winter ahead.   Or you may find a sudden streak of yellow through the small birches in Wascana Park or see a single branch of an elm turned golden.  No matter how much water you give your lawn, it won't return to that pure midsummer green.

There's an openness about the house, now that we no longer close the windows and the curtains against heat that won't abate in the night.  Yet that openness comes with a strange price:  the tapping of the blinds against the window frames sounds like time itself, with its uneven rapping on my knuckles.  My first inclination is to rush headlong into time, and I make lists furiously; then I refuse to hurry the moment and nevertheless find that everything on my list is done.  Am I getting sensible and realistic in my old age, managing my relationship with time in a way that is both friendlier and more productive?  The contradictions won't resolve themselves.

I am intensely here, here right now.  Yet at the same time I have a powerful sense of a past that won't return and of a waning future.  Perhaps there are simply practical reasons for this.  I have finished my last sabbatical and on Thursday I begin my final four years of teaching.  I so look forward to conversations with my students, to the adventure of the classroom.  Yet I also find myself keeping a list of things I'll read and do once I've retired.  Perhaps even more, for my work on Woolf has thoroughly worn me out while it has also filled me with wonder, I look forward to when I'm not juggling contradictory demands on my time.

But these practical changes coming in my life do not explain why the golden light of early evening fills me with quiet delight and deep sadness.  I cannot help studying it with the kind of sustained attention Nehemas tells us we need when we are faced with beauty.  Yet somehow it manages to stare me down, to confront me with its waning, as if it is reminding me that it is only a "promise of happiness," as Stendhall noted in his book On Love, from which Nehemas borrowed his title.  I am indeed in love with life, yet that later afternoon goldness seems to speak of the fact that I will never study it long enough to exhaust my sense of its beauty--which is why I need to pay such careful attention now.