non-original art that the art world accepts as art

December 19th, 2014

This topic was still in my head today while the brain was getting some blood circulation.  That got me thinking about lots of examples of art (well accepted in the history of art) that are not “original” but no one challenges whether or not they are true art.  In no particular order:

  • Jasper Johns American Flag
  • Joan Miró’s The Tilled Field, inspired by Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights
  • Claude Monet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, inspired by Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe
  • Duchamp’s overturned urinal
  • Devorah Sperber’s Mona Lisa done in thread (and then a tailor shop in Beirut that stole the idea and did it with larger spools and hung it in their window).  How is that for a copy of the copy?
  • Roy Lichtenstein’s Bedroom at Arles, inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles
  • all Lichtenstein’s comic book pieces
  • Paul Klee used pictorial symbols and signs like arrows, letters, musical notation, ancient hieroglyphs and the art of children in his work
  • Ellsworth Kelly used geometric shapes in repetition (which look like quilts)
  • Greek canons for sculpture of human form were employed by every artist in ancient times
  • Claus Oldenberg sculptures of enlarged every day objects (lots and lots of them)
  • Jim Dine Hearts
  • Renaissance art inspired by the Greeks and Romans (after all, art in the Renaissance was all about revival of classical art)
  • Tattoo art inspired by art of other cultures
  • All things Starry Night, Marilyn, Last Supper, The Scream, The Kiss and Mona Lisa
  • The Saatchi Gallery’s show entitled “inspired by Picasso”
  • The new Romanian Soccer Stadium that was inspired by Brancusi sculpture
  • Dior fashion New Look inspired by Picasso, Modigliani, Renoir, Cezanne and Gauguin.
  • The famous Mondrian dresses of the 1960s
  • Paul Gaugin’s Spirit of the Dead Walking, inspired by Édouard Manet’s Olympia (another copy of the copy, because……)
  • Édouard Manet’s Olympia, inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino
  • Monet starting an entire art movement called impressionism
  • Dada starting a movement characterized by mocking and inverting all art that preceded it

That is only a start, there are lots more examples.  My point?  That art does not (necessarily) (apparently) need to be original to be ART.  It is expression, intention and execution that makes art art.  Inspiration, outright copying in another medium, copying for the sake of commentary or expression are also valid ways to make art.  There is a fine line between this concept and plagiarism, derivative art, or outright copyright infringement, but all the above have been well accepted by the art world and have become icons in their own right.

And don’t even get me started on conceptual art…….another day another post!

what makes art original….and does it need to be?

December 18th, 2014

Someone recently mentioned to me that art that is not completely original is not real art.  That immediately brought to mind Andy Warhol, who made a career of lifting commercial images and the likenesses of celebrities.  My next thought was the Mona Lisa and all the iterations of her over the centuries, including the moustachio’d ML by Marcel DuChamp, and the silkscreen of 30 ML’s by Warhol himself.  How about all the cross pollination between Picasso and Braque?  Or Modigliani’s work based on African masks?  I am sure if I taxed my brain I would come up with better examples, but it is already 4:00 in the afternoon and that is when my brain calls it quits for the day and clocks out.

The next thing I thought about was my own work.  Although I mostly work from my own photos, there are instances when my work is derived from a photo by a friend or relative who has given me permission to use it in my art.  Does the very fact that the photo was not mine to begin with make the resulting artwork less original and therefore not ART?  I hope not.

The slippery slope here is that although most serious artists do not need to be told not to lift someone else’s creative endeavor, even the most famous artists DO.  Some do it as commentary, which becomes more and more common in the days of conceptual artworks.  Some build on it as inspiration.  But the question remains, when is it ok and when is it not ok?  I guess the simple answer is when the first artist files a lawsuit against the second claiming copyright infringement.  But this is more than a copyright question, it is a question of whether every single thought surrounding the artwork must be completely original for the result to be considered art.  And frankly, that seems close to impossible.

We are influenced all the time by lots of things around us, not just other artworks.  Some are obvious, and some are subliminal.  We cannot even be sure ourselves whether or not our subconscious brain is holding onto something stored in deep memory when we think we are having an original thought.

And what about our own artwork?  One could argue that working in a series, or using the same format or a similar piece to something already in one’s body of work is not original and therefore not art.  Does a technique need to be truly original for the result to be art?  If that is the case, much of what exists in the world isn’t even close to meeting the criteria.

No conclusion, but something to think about.  I am not sure I can encapsulate into a nice clean definition “what is art” but I do think the word “original” isn’t necessarily a part of it.

So I will close with these two pieces of mine you have seen before.  Can you tell which would be considered ART because it is completely original and which would not make the cut?  Does it matter?


sarlat and private world

evolution of a voice, revisiting and revising…..

December 5th, 2014

Readers of this blog know that a theme I discuss over and over is voice–finding a voice, developing a voice, letting your voice evolve.  I thought I would share something with you that might help illustrate how a voice can remain consistent but still grow.

Many years ago, I took this photo in Hong Kong:


For those of you who remember the discussion of how I get the “random” photos I use, here you can see my husband looking very bored but complacent so I could get the shot I really wanted–that woman with the umbrella in the front of the frame.

Back in 2009, I used this photo to make this piece I entitled “Market Day, Hong Kong” which I was never happy with, never exhibited or showed anywhere.

market day hong kong 26 5 x19  2009

The face wasn’t refined enough, the colors were too much and that goofy curve at the bottom didn’t do anything.  But I loved the photo, so a year later in 2010, I revisited it again:

old woman 2010 9.5 x 9

At this point in my exploration, I was focusing on faces, and using value to execute them in unrealistic color.  I didn’t hate this one, and have exhibited it a few times, mostly I use it when I teach as an example of value vs. color.

But this week I decided I still had not used this photo to its full advantage and revisited it again.  Here is the figure, I am not 100% sure how it will be completed, but you will see that the theme of my work is unchanged since the first one in 2009–in fact the photo is still the same one that inspires the work:

asian woman

So let’s look at just the figures side by side (thank goodness for photoshop!):

side by side

And let’s talk about the changes from the first in 2009 to the second in 2014:

To begin with, over the past year or so I have been experimenting with distilling each image into as few “brushstrokes” as possible–using the fewest number of fabric pieces to tell the story.  This simplification is most evident when looking just at the color alone, and the overall number of fabrics used.  It is not immediately obvious, but look at the shadow and highlights in her jacket–in the new version there are two different black on black fabrics used, but the contrast is so subtle that the overall view is more graphic and less fussy.  My new goal is to explore and celebrate the body language rather than every little detail.

I have moved back to realistic skin tones in the new one, not that I have abandoned the idea of color vs. value, but because here I am telling a story and that story didn’t require unusual color.  I also realize that the original didn’t work because the color change wasn’t consistent–either all realistic color or all not–but there is a beige base and purple and blues for the skin, and the resulting image is confusing.

The face has changed too.  In the first version, as was closer to the photo, the face is straight up and looking forward.  In the new one, the face is tilted down ever so slightly, exaggerating the curve of her back and making her look older and more like she is leaning on that umbrella rather than just carrying it.  This is a subtle change, and deviates from the photo (remember the photo is your guide not your master) but I think heightens the story I want to tell.  In addition, I think the fewer pieces of fabric in the new one are clearer and have greater impact than the original which sort of disappears into muddiness.

The plastic shopping bag is now depicted by a single fabric–which makes it less of a focal point and more of a supporting character.

I loved the original umbrella (in fact it was the only part of the original piece I did like) and amazingly still had the same fabric in my stash (old stash fabrics never die, they just keep getting smaller!).  But this time I made the umbrella larger and straighter in the frame, which also gives the impression she is leaning on it.  Also subtle, if you look at the two umbrellas side by side you will see that they are constructed differently, the second having those folds of fabric that occur when the umbrella is closed (represented using the back of the same fabric) rather than the stripes merely going in a different direction on the first.

Do I like the new one now?  Yes.  I think she is more compelling, her face demands attention and she has a strong presence that the first one lacks.  Will I still like it a year from now, or four years from now?  Maybe, maybe not.

So as embarrassed as I am to show you the older version, I hope you will understand from seeing them side by side how a voice can grow but still remain consistent.


why color matters

November 25th, 2014

I have talked a lot in this blog about the importance of value, because without value there will be no dimension, no shadow and no contour in your finished art quilt.  But that does not mean color isn’t important.  So the following illustration from something I am currently working on.

Most often I start with a color palette in mind, either because I like the color composition in the original photo, or I immediately know what colors will look right and set the right mood.  Sometimes it is because there is a particular fabric I want to use.  Occasionally, I go through two or more iterations before I am happy with it.  Such was the case with this woman.

In the original photo she is wearing a yellowish shirt.  It amazes me how often the strangers I photograph did not dress appropriately for my artwork when they got started in the morning!  This woman had beautiful caramel colored skin, and although I started out with tones similar to those she was wearing, I didn’t like the result:


Although I did like the way the shirt looked on its own, i felt it blended in too much with the skin tones and made it hard to distinguish where she ended and the shirt began.

Next I went blue, thinking this was a fabric I would like to use:


I liked the color, but felt it was too bright to be consistent with her pensive pose and therefore did not set the right mood for the piece.

So I went into the red tones:


Although this photo is a bit out of focus, I think you can see the idea.  I like the red (especially as the blue fabric I chose for her pants has a little red in is), but the lighter tone in the highlights blends in with the middle tone of her skin.  This doesn’t work for me at all.

So I changed the highlight tone and left the rest intact:


Now the highlights look right with the base tone of the shirt, the skin tones are distinctly different from the shirt colors and this starts to work.  It still isn’t right, but at least I am getting a sense of what it needs–for example, in the very first one, there are two lighter tones for the highlights and I think that is more effective.  Here I oversimplified.  So back to the studio to play with her some more.

Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it takes a few different tries to get there.  This is definitely one of those times!

To all of you in the US, have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

being creative when you aren’t in the mood

November 19th, 2014

In this blog in the past I have addressed the issue of not knowing what to work on next.  Personally, I rarely have this problem as there are always dozens of photos in my computer files marked “up next” for me to choose from.  On any given day, I might select something different, but in the end those that are meant to be made probably are.

But what I haven’t really addressed in this blog, and have been experiencing lately, is finding it hard to get into the right head space.  This is a different problem from not knowing where to go next.  This can be a double edged sword, and in fact, a vicious circle.

When I am working on something and embracing the process, being motivated and getting positive results is not a real concern.  But my art is what I do to relax and unwind–it is the zen in my life–so when there are other things in my life that get in the way of that zen, it can impact greatly what I can accomplish creatively.

So more specifically, there is a lot going on in my life these days that has me stressed.  No, nothing horrendous, just the everyday stuff that sometimes rolls off my back and other times builds and layers until I am feeling overwhelmed and ready to scream.  This is exactly when I need to go into the studio and do something for me, but often once I get there I am too stressed out to work.

That is what happened to me this week.  Several times I said, “that’s it, I am spending the next two hours in the studio with no interruptions” but everything I touched didn’t go well.  Every piece of fabric I chose, everything I put together didn’t work.  Nothing was going my way.  It was extremely frustrating.  And in fact, it was making me even more stressed rather than the opposite.

That is where the vicious circle comes in–need to do art to relax, need to relax to do art.  What’s a girl to do??!!?

Here are some of the things I do when this happens:

First, I like to take long walks, usually with the dog (who is a great listener and never interrupts!) especially at my favorite place–the Larchmont Harbour Park.  This often clears my head and helps me relax.  Watching the water break against the rocks, watching the boats out in the distance.  Heavenly.  But mother nature did not want to cooperate this week, and gave us frigid cold, rain and wind.  Not the conditions under which I feel compelled to take a long walk.

Music can help, too.  Depending on my mood, I listen to different music in the studio while working.  I have very eclectic taste and so I have sobering music, uplifting music, music the dog and I like to dance to (yes, he is also a terrific dancer), and sing along music with a whole bunch of stuff in between.  Uplifting music helps.  Dancing music is even better.  (thank goodness no one can see into my studio windows–I hope).  When I am really overwhelmed, Navajo flute music by Carlos Nikai is the only thing that works for me.  When I feel the need for human companionship, I listen to talk radio.

yendrik dancing

Forcing myself to do something also helps.  When I get into this state, it helps to choose something from the up next file that will be easily accomplished.  Nothing that requires too much thought or too many changes from the photo can sometimes get the auto pilot in gear and once the final piece looks good, it starts me back on the road to success.  That is what happened to me this week.

I am working on my solo show for next summer and working on figures to begin with.  Their final resting place in compositions will come later, for now I am just making the figures themselves.  So it is easy to move from one to another without shifting gears completely.  I started on one that I really loved, but after two or three sessions in the studio she was not working.  I put her aside and started another figure, one that was simple and easy to create and I did in a relatively short time frame.  When I liked the way she looked, I went back to the other one and scrapped everything I had done.  I changed the color story.  I looked at her in a different way.  She became a different piece from where she had started a few days before.  But getting back in the mode made it work.

But the other secret isn’t such a secret at all.  The stress needs to be dealt with head on and eliminated.  Otherwise, I find myself having the same combative conversations in my head over and over.  Wine helps.  Off loading some of the combative conversations to my husband helped as well.  In the end, letting go of the stuff that was making me crazy wasn’t easy, but necessary.




international blog hop, my turn!

November 10th, 2014

Welcome to the Leni Levenson Wiener part of the blog hop. If you don’t know me, I hope you will take a few minutes after reading this blog post to look at my website and see my work, my books and my voice coaching for artists.

And I want to thank Heather Dubreuil

for asking me to participate. I adore Heather’s work. Although it reminds me of pen and ink sketches with water color wash, it is all fabric and thread. Her most common subjects are scenes of NYC and Montreal (two of my favorite cities). If you are not familiar with Heather’s amazing artwork, please check out her website and blog. You won’t be sorry!



So these are the questions I was asked to address:

What am I working on?

This is an easy question to answer. I am so excited to be having my first solo museum show this summer and I am happily and busily working on pieces for that exhibition. I have to say I had not expected to find myself so caught up and lost in the process when I have no real deadline (I am doing fine without sticking to a schedule) and with no one else’s parameters. I have set my own size limits, stylistic limits and the exhibition is essentially one very large series, but since that was all my decision it doesn’t feel imposed, just structured. It is nice to remember why I fell in love with working with fabric in the first place.

But the truth is I am ALWAYS working on something! For every project on my worktable, there are two in my head and dozens on the computer waiting for me.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The short (and maybe somewhat glib) answer to that question is that it is mine. There are other figurative artists working in fabric, many of whom are doing work that just blows me away. But each of us brings to our art our own life experiences, our own vision and our own preferences. So the real answer to the question is that it is my unique artistic voice that makes my work different from others doing similar work.

To begin with, I always work from an image—usually my own photo but occasionally someone else’s if it moves me (and I have permission). I am not able to work spontaneously, I need a road map. I don’t want to reinvent the perspective, the proportions, the light and shadow. Starting from a photo gives me all that information and then the fun of what I do is in finding the right fabric that contains all the information I need to convey.

I am inspired by certain images—I am drawn to people in particular, but people in a solitary and introspective moment I can capture without their notice. I guess that is because in those private moments, when we think no one is looking, we are being truly ourselves—no pretensions, no agenda. When people are just being themselves, caught off guard, is also when we are all most alike. Something about that really grabs me.

My technique, as well, isn’t anything unique or unusual. I have found ways to do what I need to do that work for me. But I always tell students in my workshops to take a little from every teacher, every book, every video, and keep what works and throw out the rest. Just because I find a certain process the best way for me does not make it the best way for anyone else. So keep the seeds of what works and find your own process that is easiest for you. Remember, it does not need to be hard or complicated to be good art—that is something else entirely.

Why do I write/create what I do?

The reasons for writing and creating are different, so I will separate them. Why do I create what I do—because I have to. I can’t explain why, I just NEED to make things, and if I am not in the studio making my fabric collage art, I am making clothes or jewelry, or baking, or doing something creative—because when I don’t I go crazy. When I was a kid I always had to have an art project going or I wasn’t much fun to live with (my younger son was the same way). I just need to be making SOMETHING, something that is my own, generated by me, controlled by me. A therapist’s dream I guess, but making art means I don’t need therapy!

Why I write is something completely different. I write because I want to share. For one thing, so many other artists were so generous with their information when I started my art quilt journey, that I want to “pay it forward”.   But also, I get so excited about the feeling of creating something from nothing and I want to share that wonderful feeling with others. Like a drug pusher for art. My work is very solitary, so I love to teach and meet lots of wonderful people, and I get as excited as anyone else in the room when the artworks begin to evolve on the tables in the classroom. It is a rush for me to share and see what I know starting others on their path. I can’t teach everywhere (I would LIKE to) so I write books. Nothing makes me happier than getting emails from people all over the world who want to show me what they made using my book as a guide. It is awesome!

How does my writing/creating process work?

I strongly believe creativity requires structure. Everyone who is not creative thinks artists are these wild and crazy lunatics who just pull their art from thin air and live in their own little world. That could not be farther from the truth. Art requires dedication, research, experimentation, examination, and many hours of work. I don’t care what the creative endeavor, whether it is making art, or writing, or creating music—it is work. It may be pleasurable (it should be pleasurable, because we all know that for most of us it is not lucrative) but it requires serious attention to detail.

For me, I need to spend the hours of the day when my brain is most alert doing the most important things on my schedule, and that usually means either the artwork and/or the book with which I am involved at that time.   My schedule is pretty structured—I have coffee, get right to work until about 1, eat lunch and take a break—do other things that require my time, and back to work. But my best hours are between 9 and 1 and I am always out of the studio by 4:00 (because by then I am not all that productive). I also never work more than a few hours at a time without taking a break so I can come back to what I was working on and see it fresh. That is what works for me, but everyone is different.

Lots of emerging artists and students in my workshops tell me they don’t have time to do art. Yes, I know–job, home, family, children they all take up time. Even retired people tell me they can’t fit it in. But until you make it a priority it will never fit into your life.   When my boys were old enough, I would steal an hour a day to work on whatever creative project I was involved with at the time (I used to be a sculptor). I would tell them “if it isn’t bleeding or on fire, don’t disturb me.” They found their own things to do—often their own creative pursuits (they started making movies starring our pet rabbit as a super hero—they wrote the scripts, made the sets, the costumes [oh, how the rabbit loved the costumes!] and used an old video camera to make the movies) and we were all happier for it. If it is important to you, it is important enough to fit into your life.

1000 Quilt Inspirations

October 29th, 2014

I am thrilled to announce my work is being included in a new book (due for release in February, 2015):

1000 Quilt Inspirations

by Sandra Sider

sandra siders book

published by Qbooks.

With 1000 photos of quilts and quilt blocks, how could you not find some wonderful inspirations regardless of the kind of quilting you do?  I am very excited that four of my pieces will be pictured in this book, and can’t wait to see it.

Dr. Sandra Sider, a very talented art quilter, is also an independent curator; has published articles and reviews concerning fiber art and other aspects of visual culture for three decades. Her graduate degrees include an M.A. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She was President of Studio Art Quilt Associates (2010-2013), and is Consulting Curator for the Texas Quilt Museum.  Impressive, right?  I am also proud to say someone I know and respect–and a fellow New Yorker!

The book is not available yet, but you can pre-order it from Amazon using this link.

It’s crying time again for those who didn’t make QN…..

October 23rd, 2014

I am starting to see blog posts from those who entered Quilt National this year and didn’t get in.  Why do we get so hung up on these rejections?  Why do we especially feel bad when QN says no?  (What amazing PR they have been able to foster that a person’s whole mood can be impacted by their saying yes or no.)  I know how it feels, I have been there.  It stings.  And don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled for all of those who have had the chance to add QN to their resume–lots of people I know and admire, lots of outstanding work.  Kudos to you all.

But a little perspective.

The last time around I entered Quilt National with two pieces I thought were pretty strong (and still stand behind them as pieces about which I am very proud)  and I was rejected.  I wrote about it on this blog, if you care enough to see what I said back them you can search the archives for it.  But for all of you who feel badly that you didn’t get in, here is what I have accomplished since that rejection two years ago;

I have:

  • published my fourth (yes, unbelievable, my fourth) book
  • been included in three compilation books on art quilting–one as a featured artist
  • been invited to participate in a major exhibition that is now traveling around the world
  • done a huge commission work that also came with a trip to Vienna, Austria
  • have gotten my first solo museum exhibition (next year, more to follow)
  • had my work in almost a dozen group museum exhibitions around the world
  • contributed several articles for quilt magazines, and have been interviewed by two others
  • appeared on the Quilt Show
  • appointed Chair of the SAQA exhibitions committee and member of the Board of Directors.

Not bad for a rejected artist, right?

I don’t list all this to brag, but to point out that getting into (or more to the point, NOT getting into) Quilt National does not define you as an artist.  I have enjoyed more success in this field than I could ever have dreamed, and I am grateful for every wonderful thing that has come my way.  That QN was on my list of things to shoot for and I didn’t get it, I can live with that.  I tried twice and to be entirely honest, at this point I have set my sights in the art world and getting into QN (even though it is the pinnacle for many people in the art quilt world) isn’t relevant for me anymore.   Every year I set a professional goal for myself, some I achieve, some I don’t.  Some I continue to pursue, others become less important.  As we grow and our work changes, so do our goals.

For all of you who got into QN, congratulations!  Well done, and I truly am excited for you, it is a big accomplishment.  For those of you who did not get it–shake it off, don’t indulge in self pity or self doubt–just get back to work and remember this is about the journey, it is about pleasing yourself.  And if it becomes just another source of stress in your life, why do it.

Put down the cupcake/chocolate bar/potato chips and remember everything you have accomplished in the two years since the last QN.  Take a few minutes to set some professional goals for the coming year and how to go about achieving them.  Then ask yourself “why do I love doing this?” and when you remember, go do it again.


Arrow Rock, Mo 2014

October 21st, 2014

Last year in October, I was invited to do a workshop in Arrow Rock, Mo.–the most amazing little town I have been to in a long time.  A historic landmark, this tiny town (only a few square blocks) feels like going back in time to the late 1800’s.  It was a great trip and this year I got to do it again.  Most of the women from last year attended again, and everyone was working on their own pieces at their own pace.  What a great time we all had!

Here we are, the Arrow Rock ladies 2014:


Our classes are held in the one room schoolhouse:


And here are some photos of everyone at work:

belinda shows off jesusBelinda shows off her work in progress…

jackie day twoJackie’s adorable little grand daughter is coming along….

janetJanet made great progress, she worked on three small pieces this time…..

paulaPaula (who organizes it all) still had time to work on the Explorers from my new book…

roseHere is Rose and Sharon in the background…

terri day twoand Terri hard at work.

And look what they accomplished…

julies aunt mayJulie’s Aunt May is coming along…

shirley and her ducks in work, day twoShirley’s little ducklings are almost there…

patti and her flamingos day twoand Patti’s flamingos are ready to stitch.

All in all a great time with a great group.  And we are doing it again next year.  So if you want to be part of the fun, email me for more information.  Hope to see you in Arrow Rock in 2015!

space still available in Arizona workshop!

October 7th, 2014