is concept alone enough?

April 7th, 2014

Last weekend I went to see the Whitney Biennial, the exhibit that is supposed to be about cutting edge art in America.  And as much as I wanted to write a comprehensive post about the work I saw, I have been grappling with doing just that since last Saturday.  I thought that if I let it all sink in, I would come to see the wonder and brilliance of it all.  I didn’t.

The easy part first.  The exhibit spans three floors of the museum and each is assigned to a single curator from outside the Whitney.  This decision alone has been criticized in the local press, seen by some as the Whitney shirking its responsibilities and taking the easy route by letting someone else do the work.  I didn’t see it that way; to me it promised different points of view and different conversations between the floors.  At least that is what I thought before I saw the exhibit.

I guess what bothered me the most about the artwork was the fact that I was disappointed in myself for not getting why most of it was so revered.  It all made me think I have no business in the art world; that my art education and my exposure to art is totally inadequate; that to ever think of myself as an artist is outlandish because I don’t even know the password to get into the club.  But when I got past the self-bashing, it just made me mad.

It was all so precious, so self-indulgent and so pretentious.

I went looking for trends, trends that might define where art is headed, but since so many of the artists represented were either already well along in their careers or already dead, it only served to show trends in curation, if that.

One floor seemed to be about deconstruction.  This is not a new theme in art, although it was presented as if it were something quite extraordinary rather than so cliche.  Fragments of words or numbers, pieces of broken ceramics contained in larger pieces of ceramic, works made out of other things that presented interesting dualities of the materials themselves.  Nothing new there.

The other two floors were more confusing with no thread of continuity that was apparent.  Oh, I read the curator’s statements, lots of art-speak and elaborate musings that said nothing in the end.  What made up these two floors were lots of sexual imagery—not erotic or sensuous or even good art, but raw images of genitalia that seemed to move beyond shock value, they felt obsessive and spoke more of personal inadequacy than art.  Lots of works that claimed to be about some social issue but more often than not, so obscure it lost any impact it might have had, could have had or should have had.  Lots of artworks that relied on another work of art, be it music or literature or poetry or other visual artwork to make its point—which felt like the artist snubbing his or her nose at those viewers who lacked the familiarity with the original work.  There was work that served as an indictment of the very art world in which the artists were being elevated; or of technology and the digital world; and work that required too much complicated and referenced explanation.  Nothing that made me think, or change my perspective or even admire the connections.  The signage that accompanied the artwork was often even more confusing and less elegantly executed than the artwork itself.

Concept has become the point and the destination in so much art today–some lofty concept that apparently does not need to be realized in a way that shows any mastery of one’s chosen genre, or even a well executed finished product.  I get that art is about process, I tell that to my students all the time; but by the time it hangs in a museum as a pinnacle of American Art, it should look better than a haphazardly edited selection of preschool artwork pinned to the wall with pushpins and justified with a whole lot of overly embellished phrases that mean as little as the artwork it is meant to explain.

Whatever happened to learning how to use one’s chosen medium?  Whatever happened to artistic skill sets and the language of art itself?  If I have an obscure or obscene concept is that enough to make it art?  Apparently.

I am no prude, nor do I consider myself too deeply rooted in art of prior centuries to “get it”.  Yes, there were a few pieces I quite liked, some concepts that were quite intriguing; but overall I just couldn’t move past feeling as if there was nothing there to get.  No new ideas, no wonderful way to present the material, no idea or concept presented in a way that was mind-blowing or inspirational or even beckoned me to look further or deeper or longer.

The whole thing felt so manipulated, so mocking, so totally self absorbed.  I guess the NY Times is never going to hire me as their art critic.

I guess I can live with that.

buy it now and save

April 4th, 2014

Every now and then, Amazon reduces the price of a book for a short period of time–I don’t really know why, but it seems that my upcoming book “Pictorial Art Quilt Guidebook” is on Amazon today for the low price of only $20.00.

Pictorial Art Quilt Guidebook

The book, which will actually be available some time this June, is filled with lots of good information for art quilters who want to depict common elements with fabric.  You can read more about the book by clicking on the menu item called NEW BOOK on the sidebar.  On the bottom of that page you will find a link to Amazon to purchase the book.  (Please use that link, Amazon credits me for every book purchased that way.)

The quilt on the cover is actually a step by step “workshop” to learn the technique, and there is a project specifically for faces, using the famous Afghan Girl:

L. Wiener Afghan Girl from a photo by Steve McCurry

You will also find a section that gives tips and tricks for depicting common elements like water, trees, skin, hair, eyes and animals that will serve as a guide for your representational art quilts no matter what they include.

Also included is my easy way to establish values and find the right one in fabric.  No, I won’t tell you now, you need to buy the book!

So buy yourself a present when the price is low and own the book as soon as it is available.  There is no way to know how long Amazon will offer it at this price, so take advantage while you can!

art history two minutes at a time

April 2nd, 2014

I only just discovered a wonderful new website that I want to share with you, so I can let the Met Museum in NYC do all the work for me in my blog post today.

The museum has launched a site called 82 and 5th (which is where the museum is located in NYC) and it features curators speaking about specific works in various genre in snippets of about two minutes each (some go a little longer, but two minutes is their pitch).  There is a lot of  interesting information and insight packed into that short period of time, and since the snippets themselves are so short, you can easily fit one or two at a time into your day.  There are currently 100 available.

Use this link and click on menu in the top right corner to see the options available for viewing.  I found it was then easier to click on list view in order to see them all.

It is like an art history education two minutes at a time!


jumbled musings (hey, I haven’t had coffee yet)

March 23rd, 2014

In the past few days I have been watching TED talks on art.  If you aren’t familiar with TED talks, they are short (usually less than 15 minutes) talks by interesting people in different fields talking about a variety of things.  Since they are short, it is easy to watch one or two at a time, more when I have more time.

In addition, yesterday I spent the afternoon going in and out of galleries in Chelsea in NYC.  Lots of interesting stuff there, lots to see.  A bit too much, in fact.  But the combination of seeing so much art and hearing artists speak has me thinking again.

Concept and Technique alone are not enough.

I saw several artists in galleries in Chelsea who had a great concept and/or a great technique from which they built a body of work.  But having a great idea or discovering a new and interesting way to use materials isn’t enough.  Not for me, anyway.  The art that results from this great concept or working method has to SAY something.  It has to elicit some sort of reaction or emotion or resonate with the viewer in some way.  Otherwise, the reaction to it is “oh, isn’t that clever.  Here is a blue one, here is a red one, look this one has stripes.”  Forget whether or not someone wants to live with it (that is a whole different discussion) but if it doesn’t grab a viewer’s attention for more than the time it takes to nod their head and move on then to me it has failed.  Finding that great concept or technique is only the beginning, what you DO with it is what matters.

Beauty isn’t the goal.

Art does not need to be beautiful.  In fact, some of the most dramatic and memorable art is disturbing.  To me, it doesn’t matter what emotion it elicits, but it needs to elicit SOME reaction.  Otherwise, it is just more visual stuff your brain will need to delete that night while sleeping.

If it requires a long explanation, it isn’t successful.

I am sure there are many artists, far more successful than I, who would disagree with this statement.  But to walk around a sculpture that makes no sense whatsoever and elicits nothing, gives me nothing to which to relate or respond, only to hear a five minute explanation about why and what and how doesn’t do it for me.  Yes, understanding where the artist came from, how he or she came to do this sort of thing in this particular way, what influenced or motivated him/her does help understand and appreciate the work on a deeper level.  But I am sorry, I know creating art is about process, but if the result doesn’t do anything but take up space, then for me it should have ended with process and never been put in a gallery.   But heck, these artists are in galleries in NYC and I am not so who is wrong?  I guess all fingers point to me.

Presentation matters, big time.

Another interesting thing I observed in the galleries–even the sloppiest technique looked wonderful when mounted and framed properly.  A clean and professional presentation makes the muddiest murkiest junkiest stuff look wonderful, especially when grouped with like items of the same size and same presentation.  You can get away with a lot of crap if it all works well together with other crap in the same sized frames.  Seriously.

Don’t try to think outside the box, work within your limitations.

This is paraphrased from something on one of the TED talks and it stuck with me.  Rather than working hard to find an “out of the box” (that phrase is becoming so cliche in the art world anyway) way of doing something, work with what you have, including (and in fact, especially) your limitations.  This particular artist had nerve damage in his hand that made it impossible for him to even draw a straight line.  So he embraced this limitation and built his voice around it.  Then he challenged himself to work with other limitations–a limited number of materials, only using his foot, stuff like that.  Some of the resulting artworks were better than others.

It also struck me that so many of the TED talk artists spoke about how they came to develop their particular working method, theme or type of work.  One started as an engineer and does intricate kinetic sculptures.  Another had an interest in storms and does amazing photographs of storms, still another started out as a mathematician.  The personal interests and abilities help shape what sort of art they produce, how they approach their materials and in fact what materials they choose in the first place.  And in the end, much of what starts an artist in the right direction is a happy accident.

This is very much what finding your voice is all about.  Who are you, what are you interested in and how does that unique combination of ingredients translate into work that you are doing, or could be doing, that is different from what others around you are doing?  Making art is not about being inspired as much by other artists as it is about taking all the different and seemingly disparate pieces of who you are and using those as your limitations in which to create.

So rather than looking outside of yourself for inspiration, technique and concept, look within.  What are three things you love?  What is the material, technique or process you most enjoy?  The stuff you don’t like–find a way to eliminate it.  This is art, there are no rules about how you have to do something.    And especially those of us coming out of the quilt world hang on to way more rules than we should.  Let go.  Embrace your personal limitations, which means letting go of all the stuff you don’t want in your work.  That will distill your work down to just exactly who you are.  And you will most likely enjoy the process even more if it is built solely around what you love.

piece accepted for exhibition

March 19th, 2014

I am thrilled to announce that my piece Who Will Carry On has been selected for the exhibit, Conscience of the Human Spirit: The Life of Nelson Mandela, which opens July 26, 2014, at IQCAfrica in Johannesburg, South Africa.  The exhibit, organized by Michigan State Art Museum and juried by Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, will travel for two years in South Africa and the United States.

The concept of the exhibition is to  celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy, and I was inspired by this quote:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

who will carry on 2014 for Mandela Exhibit 30 x 30

I chose to use that quote as my starting point and the result is this piece, which shows a young boy lost in concentration over his school books.  At some point a catalog of the show will be produced, I can’t wait to see the rest of the quilts!


March 9th, 2014

I have been wanting to share my newest acquisition, something I purchased about a month ago and have been enjoying in my home.  It is one of the tentmaker quilts–a very interesting story and some truly remarkable work.

A bit of background.  It starts with Jenny Bowker, a very talented art quilter from Australia who had been living in Egypt for some time.  There she discovered and brought to the rest of the world the Tentmakers of Cairo.  From a tradition that dates to nomadic tribes who decorated the insides of their tents with these canvas backed “quilts” (that is our word),  there is still one street in Cairo called Chareh El Khiamiah with shops where the tradition of hand sewing (almost all by men) of these intricate and colorful quilts is still being done.  In Egypt, these are sometimes still used in celebrations or funerals, elsewhere in the world they are prized for their decorative qualities.

Jenny brought some of these to Festival of Quilts in England a few years ago and then to a show that toured the US with the help of AQS (American Quilter’s Society).  I never saw the show in person because it never came near enough to me, but purchased the catalog.  Mind blowing.  But when reading the catalog I saw something interesting–rather than spend the money to ship these back after the tour of the show, AQS was selling them here in the US.  When I went to the website I could not believe how gorgeous these were–and how relatively inexpensive considering the hours of work that must go into each one.  I was hooked.  I bought one, turned on a few of my friends who each bought one, and I still may buy another–as soon as I can figure out where the heck I would hang it!

Here are some  of those still for sale at the AQS site that I particularly loved (click here to go to the sale page):

Capture copy

The patterns are based on traditional Islamic designs, calligraphy and certain often used motifs.  They are designed by folding the square  multiple times, drawing the design onto one wedge, and then expanding that into the rest of the folds.  Look at this detail, the color.  Unbelievable–and don’t forget–all done by hand.Capture 2 copySome are more intricate, some more simple.  Capture 4 copyAs much as I adored all the pattern and detail of these many gorgeous “quilts” I decided to go with something quite simple and therefore more graphic (well, simple is a relative term, since there is a tremendous amount of intricacy here).  Here is the gorgeous tentmaker quilt I get to enjoy every single day:

mineI just adore this and never get tired of looking at it.  The big surprise when I got it home was how it is constructed.  I had assumed it was done much the same way some quilters do “stained glass quilts” where the line design (white, here) was overlaid onto the colored areas.  Not so.  On this quilt the white is the foundation and all those designs in black and two shades of blue are appliqued as negative space.

IMG_9856If you look at this closeup maybe you can see that it is those colored shapes that are cut and applied to the white background.  Here is an even closer view showing the hand stitching:

IMG_9857Here you can see those gorgeous little stitches.  And for anyone who has ever done hand applique, you know how hard it is to do points so nice and, well, pointy.

Check them out for yourself and drink in how amazing these magnificent tentmaker quilts are.  I know I will enjoy mine for many years to come.


what makes famous art famous

February 27th, 2014

Recently someone shared with me a story from NPR about what makes famous art famous.  It spoke specifically about the crowds that surround the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.  The conclusion drawn was that the popularity of art is random (based on a study of teenagers and music).  But I don’t agree.

Much of the success of famous art, in fact what makes famous art famous, is press.  If people know  it and do not understand anything else about art, they will like the thing they recognize—it is comfortable and doesn’t demand they think much.  That explains the success of the Mona Lisa, which is a good painting but not even Leonardo’s best—or necessarily the “best” thing in the Louvre.

Many years ago I lived in Florence, Italy and my bedroom window was directly across the street from the front door of the Academia, where Michelangelo’s David is housed.  (Yes, it was absolutely wonderful) Every day I would watch the tour buses pull up in front, the people would stream out, I could see the camera flashes going off and then back they went into the bus.  They never even looked at this magnificent work of art.  Snap a picture, tell your friends you saw the great art of Florence and that was it.  I, on the other hand, went in every day on my way out and on my way home (plus on nice days when the doors were opened I could see him from the window) so I could to drink it all in, study every detail.  Appreciating art takes time, and most people just don’t give it the time it deserves.

While in Florence, I worked at  the Uffizi, filled with wonderful art, which was consistently mostly empty but for a few people who ran through it in an hour or less and were out.  The same goes for the Louvre, the Met and probably other great houses of great art around the world.  Go in, say you saw it, look for a good restaurant nearby. (Hey, I am not knocking good restaurants nearby!)

Most people don’t know much (or anything) about art.  And more than that, they don’t even want to know much about art.  Art is stuffy, it is old paintings in fancy gold frames hanging in dusty old museums.  They don’t get it.  When they feel compelled to go to the Louvre when visiting Paris, they don’t even know what to look at.  So they stand in front of the one painting they recognize, snap a photo and feel as if they have seen it–they have taken in and appreciated the art.  But in fact, all they have done is to see in person that which they already know, and which makes them feel comfortable.  It is no different than taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower.  It is just a symbol.  Nothing to learn, nothing to really see, just something that is a landmark and proves to your friends you really did go to Paris.

To me, this is the same as eating at McDonalds instead of trying the snails.  Know it, feel comfortable with it, move on.  What makes the Mona Lisa famous (don’t get me wrong, it is good art) is that it has become an icon, and icons are famous and their contribution to the culture is never questioned.


clean up time

February 21st, 2014

I have reached the top of my storage space on my server, so I had to make a decision between saving and deleting.  In the end, I decided deleting was the way to go.  Not easy in any aspect of my life, this getting rid of stuff.  You should see the floor of my studio!  Then again, you probably should not.

So if you are looking for posts older than 2011 I am afraid they are gone.  How many people are so enthralled with me that they wanted to go back all those years and read my gems yet again anyway!!??

Cleaner, leaner, and ready to move ahead.  Stay tuned for more!

time management and time planning

January 31st, 2014

Several years ago when I decided to be an artist full time, I had the naive idea that meant I would be in the studio making art every day.  Boy, was I wrong!  Somehow the business of being an artist gobbles up more time than actually being an artist.  It is a frustration I think many of us share.

I find the only way to stay on top of this phenomenon is planning and attitude.  Planning means every year I set a goal for myself (no, not like I promise to exercise more and lose weight–that is tattooed into my forehead and still doesn’t happen from year to year!).  Every year I decide what my focus will be from the perspective of my art career–whether it is to create a body of work, to enter a certain number or certain type of shows, to try and get a contract for a book (or write the book once there is a contract), or simply to work on some particular technical aspect of my work–I establish what I want to accomplish during the year and try hard to meet and even exceed that goal.  This is also complicated by running the house, volunteering for SAQA, remembering to update this blog!,  teaching and the general day to day time consuming activities to which we all fall victim.

Once a goal is set and I have embarked on my journey to accomplish that goal, the more important aspect is follow-through, and follow-through means treating my studio time as if it were a job.  I do not try and fit studio time into my day, I try and structure my day around studio time.  This is important because many artists feel guilty about the time they spend in pursuit of a non-income producing activity.  But if this is important to your mental health, it is as important as anything else you do.

I have certain hours during the day that are prime studio hours–when the light in the room is good, when my brain is awake and fully engaged, and when I know  I can be most productive creatively.  I try very hard to dedicate those hours to being in the studio  rather than doing the laundry, running errands, or working at the computer.  Those things I save for 4:00 and later when my brain (and the light in the room) starts to fade.

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who said she just wasn’t motivated to do anything artistic and when I asked what she was working on it was all finish up stuff or stuff for other people that were not inspiring her to get in there and work.  When this happens I find that I need to push all the “must do” stuff to the side and do something just for me–even if it is only a little thing–just to get me back on track.  It is easy to forget why we want to make art, and what we loved about it when we are busy working on pieces that have to be done for deadlines.

In January I set out on my goal this year of putting together a large series of work that was different from what I have been doing.  I was really enjoying it and found that I couldn’t wait to get into the studio each day because I was excited about the progress.  Then I got sidelined–and in a good way, let me point out–with requests to submit work for several shows and an article for a magazine that will require samples, as well.  Good stuff, to be sure, and well worth taking a break from my annual goal.  But this is the stuff that side-tracks our studio time.  My plan?  Do these things that have deadlines coming up fast and then get back to what I am doing for me.

It is easy to get sidetracked, it is even easier to avoid the studio when things are not going smoothly.  There are plenty of days I don’t get into the studio at all.  But the only way to push through obstacles is to keep working.  Even if it is 15 minutes in the studio, or straightening up or a cup of coffee in the space–it keeps you in the game.  And staying in the game is the most important thing you can do to keep moving forward.


artists and cultural identity

January 17th, 2014

I attended a local art exhibition recently and heard the artist speak.  The focus of her talk was the importance of being true to your cultural identity in your work and it got me to thinking.  My work has nothing to do with my cultural identity–in fact it is just the opposite.  I think of my work as being about what connects us all regardless of our cultural identity, since body language is so universal.  It also got me thinking about the kinds of art I collect, since she also says she only collects artwork that is consistent with her cultural identity.

So I thought I would share with you a few of the different things I collect and from which I derive my inspiration.  And let me just say that collecting art is not necessarily an expensive undertaking–much of the art in my house was found in surprising places (I find a lot of wonderful art at tag sales) and at surprising prices.

Mad for Moroccan:

Maybe it is because Moroccan tiles are so much like traditional quilts, in that they combine patterns in such wonderful ways, but I am more than a little mad for Moroccan.  The first thing one sees on entering my house is this gorgeous hand painted Moroccan cabinet:

It is accompanied by a plate my parents brought back from China and a print I purchased on the street in NYC.

The Moroccan plates in my kitchen were on sale in a home furnishings store.  I don’t think they would have been less expensive in Morocco!

But the ultimate example of  my Moroccan madness, our master bathroom (bless my husband and his trust in me)

Moving on–African:

My husband and I both love African art, and we have collected a lot of it over the years.  It is spread around the house, but much of it is contained in this unit we had built into the door opening from the living room to the family room (the actual doors disappeared long before we moved in):


I think by taking all these relatively small items and putting them together like a collection makes them seem more important than they would individually.

Asian, who of us doesn’t have a little something Asian in our collections?  This corner also includes art by other artists I know and whose work I really admire.

More African and some contemporary:

and the unexpected, French fabric I purchased years ago on a trip to France and saved for the right project.  Eventually, I decided to make it into a headboard:

a piece of plywood, some foam and a few fabric strips, I like it.  Above it, Ansel Adams photos–unfortunately not the real thing, from a calendar–but they look good enough to enjoy.

Just a taste.  My point?  No one would ever figure out what my cultural identity is from looking at the things I collect, and that is fine with me.  I am influenced by so many things from so many cultures–why would I limit myself to just one?  The world is a wide and wonderful place, filled with the most extraordinary arts and crafts and goodies.  I like to enjoy it all.