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Art as Experience

A quick academic post today.

As part of the day job, I have been doing some reading for a scholarly article I am writing about the Body Shop Quilt which has featured so much on this blog for so long.  In fact, I think I need to organise a separate permanent page for it.  Note to self.  For my published academic work, I have been looking at what people say about using art as a research technique, and it always seems very wooly and declamatory to me without that much actual evidence for its big claims.  As a contrast I turned to John Dewey’s famous work, Art as Experience, which was orginally published in 1934.  Very roughly, Dewey claims that art is a natural part of human existence and that we are all art-makers by inclination, but that economic forces have changed the role of Art to the point where it is now a special activity practised by Artists.  Art, he says has become separated off from everyday life and made into a special category of activity.  In a fascinating passage very early on in the book he sort of predicts the rise of tacky game shows and reality tv:

When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of art seem anemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar. (p. 4)

But a bit further on he says something which I think will ring true for anyone doing arts-based research and is a real challenge to how we think of ourselves.  He says that artists have been made special and excluded from ‘the main streams of active interest’ (p. 8) and that this leads to a pronounced form of individualism (Dewey sees art and the collective going hand in hand).  This in turn leads to artists seeing what they do as ‘self-expressionism’ – which is incidentally, how Lady Gaga defined art in an interview I read with her this week.  Anyway, Dewey writes:

In order not to cater to the trend of economic forces, they often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to the point of eccentricity.  Consequently artistic products take on to a still greater degree the air of something independent and esoteric.  (p. 8)

I thought this was a fantastically succinct statement of the position I find myself in.  The economic forces in play around me are of a highly positivist nature and I find myself insisting on my separateness, even to the point of eccentricity that Dewey suggests.   I don’t fit the mainstream of empirical research based on interviews and case studies and hard data.  I often describe my research as being at the bonkers end of qualitative research, and I complain to my boss (although he wouldn’t see himself in that role) that there are very limited opportunities for people who do the sort of work I do because it is so unusual as to be incomprehensible – even though non-academics often really like it.  Because the mainstream does not understand or welcome what I do, I exaggerate my own specialness, my self-expression, to the point of presenting myself as an outsider and an eccentric.  Dewey knew what he was on about.

So, even though I find his prose quite hard to read (styles have really changed since the 1930s) I was almost physically jolted in my seat when I read this.  A voice from the last century exactly describing my experience of the twenty-first.  It was as another twentieth-century artist, Bob Dylan, put it as though it were ‘pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul, from me to you…’

Seeing through new eyes, seeing familiar things afresh, accounting for experience through theoretical understandings.  All these things are what I think education is about.  Mind you, that also makes me slightly eccentric.  So I wonder if that makes my teaching art.  Better stop right there, I think.

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Laura Ashley Sample Book of Secrets

After much deliberation I finally decided how to present the Laura Ashley sample quilts that I wrote about on the blog towards the end of last year.  These are tiny little pieces using up the very smallest scraps of the Laura Ashley fabric I have been given and adding elements to them to suggest a narrative which we can’t unlock but can’t resist putting together.  For example:

I am very committed to the idea that we are all born storytellers and that this is how we make sense of the world, so when we see something like the little red quilt above, we start to make up our own story to explain why there is a spoon with the Mayflower on it: a present from an American relative?  A souvenir of a special trip?  A birthday present from a friend who knew about the spoon collection?  A Daughter of the Mayflower?  Or, with the  one next to it on the right, why is there something that looks like the moon on it, with all the associations of moon and June and lunacy, and the tides and so on.  And where did the lace come from and why has it been so treasured?  We can’t help explaining the world to ourselves in stories.  And, I can’t help telling myself stories when I am making the pieces.  But really, the secret stories here are those of the viewer who makes up their own narrative as they look at the pieces, and, ideally, take them out of the album and hold them in their hands.

I really enjoyed making the pieces but wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.  There were just too many of them to frame, and they weren’t sufficiently robust to make into a free-standing concertina book, so they had been hanging around for a while.  Then I saw an episode of the Kemshalls’ lovely design tv on making collectors’ books – essentially coptic bound books with folded over pages to store small flat items like postage stamps.  I scaled it up a bit to take the mini quilts.  I used really thick handmade Indian paper which was hard to fold but lovely to sew and very stiff to give the book body:

I wrote some notes on the folded down flaps, to make it feel more like a sample book, or working document.  The book at that point was lying fairly flat, but once I put the quilts in and decided to add the ties at the sides to keep the objects from falling out, it suddenly refused to be a closing book and turned into a free-standing object, which I really liked:

Here’s the binding:

It isn’t gloriously neat, but I like the handmade slightly tatty feel it gives.  I use a very simple coptic stitch although I keep meaning to learn something fancier, and I use the linen thread sold for preparing horses’ manes for dressage events.  It’s very cheap comparatively and gives a good effect.

I made the covers out of the embroidered linen that I made stuffed birds out of at Christmas for those who saw that post, and lined it with some unlovely 90s Laura Ashley fabric.  I liked the creamy linen because it went with the nostalgic, a bit vintage feel of the album as a whole:

The curlicues are taken from Tim Holtz’s grungeboard shapes and painted with Golden Fluid Acrylics and glued on.  The pounding the glue on technique that I learned at my bookbinding course last summer really worked to get the complex shapes to stick completely.

I now need to get some sort of perspex box or dome to fit over the finished thing, which will be tricky, I suspect, but I really like the finished piece, and like the way that it has taken on a sculptural form of its own accord.

Lost in Lace, Gas Hall, Birmingham City Art Gallery

Yesterday was my birthday and so I took the day off and went to Birmingham to see an exhibition, Lost in Lace, which is unfortunately just about to come off (19 February 2012).  The touring ten Leonardo drawings from the Royal Collection are also on display if you want to see them, in the same building, along with the Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold.  Plus, the chance to pay your respects to some of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings and to enjoy stunning high Victoriana confidence in architecture.  So something for everyone.  It might therefore have been a mistake to go at half-term when quite so many grandparents were trying to entertain quite so many children and quite so many of them wanted lunch at exactly the same time in the cafe, but, at least they were doing something improving.  And not too many of them found their way into an experimental lace exhibition anyway, so that was okay.

The show is quite simply beautiful with the invited artists exploring the notion of a fabric made of holes and absences and creating partitions and walls which are tangible but permeable.  I fell totally in love with this piece:

by Piper Shepherd although I can’t say why, which is so often the problem with aesthetics.  I loved it, but I can’t pinpoint exactly why, and why that piece and not one of the others which were also breathtaking.

I only have rather murky photographs because I only had my phone and flash photography wasn’t allowed, but they give an idea of the show.  I loved the fact that it was BIG when lace is usually so tiny and intricate.  There is also a wonderful catalogue by Lesley Millar which has excellent photos and documents the commissioning process, which I think is really welcome with pieces like this which are responses to a call, in effect.  The exhibition also had touchable samples with every piece which was a really good idea as fabric is tactile and callsfor a haptic response as well as a visual one.  This is a picture of the show as a whole:

And this is another picture of the showgirl at the centre, a massive piece by Atelier Manferdini using suspended Swarovski crystals, called  Inverted Crystal Cathedral:

The crystals seemed to bring out the magpie in most of the visitors, but the most haunting piece for me was probably this massive installation: After the Dream by Chiharu Shiota, which had a real Angela Carter fairytale quality:

She describes this process as drawing in the air and uses quite a thick black wool thread without much give to get the effects:

Michael Brennand  Wood, whose work I really love, contributed Lace The Final Frontier which is playing with ideas of boundaries, borders, war, conflict and enclosed space.  He was worked a lot with lace, and I have felt some sort of connection to this through coming from Nottingham which has a long connection with machine-made lace.  This piece is a blow-up fragment of lace, but the individual pieces are ‘pretty deadly’:

Some of the pieces were ‘about’ the shadow they cast as well as the piece itself:

which cast this shadow:

There were considerably more pieces in the show, but they were even more difficult to photograph, particularly the installations playing with light or video, althoughKathleen Rodgers’ electron microscope film of lace in extreme close-up was absolutely mesmerising, like a long shot over a mountainous landscape in a feature film.

So, a very beautiful exhibition and one which really made me want to do something with lace which is such a weird fabric.  Always extra, excessive, decorative.  Fragile and strong.  Held together sometimes by a single knot.  A case example of line creating the world.  So much to think about, which is the sign of a really good show.

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Working on Laura Ashley

I’m sorry that there hasn’t been much activity on this blog in the last ten days.  That pesky day job has got in the way a bit.  But the marking is more or less done now, and it’s on with the research term.  This means that I will be able to do some interviews for my Laura Ashley project, which I am really looking forward to.  And I might be able to kick start the Laura Ashley wall piece.

The big piece has really caused me problems because the Laura Ashley prints seem to resist being used on a large scale that does not include making a bed quilt.  They don’t respond at all well to any of my bag of trick art quilt techniques: slashing, burning, painting, and so on.  They like the miniature and the small.

The breakthrough came for me when I realised that to make a Laura Ashley quilt you don’t have to use all Laura Ashley fabrics.  Durrrrr.  I didn’t just use Marks and Spencer’s fabric or plastic bags to make those pieces, or chopped up Nikes to make the Nike stuff.  Just because Laura Ashley is synonymous with fabric doesn’t mean the quilt must be made from Laura Ashley cloth.  With one bound I was free.  Then I realised that what I wanted to do was to make a piece about what cloth has meant to me over the years, and to think about a relationship which has meant a lot but which started with those Laura Ashley bit bags all those years ago.  And so this is what I think the quilt will be about: fabric and quilting itself and what it has meant to me in my life.

So this brings me to this very small piece.  It’s a piece based on the first thing I really remember making, a quilt for a doll’s bed.  As it was a long time ago before we had speed-piecing methods, and I was making it from the instructions in the book I blogged about earlier, and as I am English it is made in the English method over papers:

I really like making things over papers like this because although it takes a great deal longer, I find the actual stitching together of the pieces, or panes as I discover they used to be called, very therapeutic.  I get into a rhythm which I enjoy, and it is much easier to get things to fit together accurately than it would be doing this on a machine – even though it’s made up of squares.  So, I loved the construction part of this, done listening to In Our Time on BBC Radio Four – my guilty pleasure.  I also love the way that you get little flashes of the printing on the papers – in this case a catalogue from Gudrun Sjoden which is the absolute perfect weight for making the papers.

The fabric is interesting, though.  It isn’t Laura Ashley fabric.  I am pretty sure that it was given to me by my Grate Frend Ceri after her trip to the quilt museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.  This fact is very thought-provoking in the context of my research project, and is a reason why I don’t think that I need to use just Laura Ashley fabric.  The fabrics are reproduction nineteenth-century prints. A big part of what is coming out about Laura Ashley and the attendant interviews is about preservation, and commemoration and tradition and heritage and commemoration.  A lot is about memory and the past, often happier times.  These fabrics are designed to evoke the quilting of a bygone age, and, I think sometimes the roseate glow age of the Little House on the Prairie books.  There is a tremendous romance about those nineteenth-century American quilts even for the English (I hesitate to speak for the English, but certainly couldn’t represent all the British).  Quilters in the group I am studying were brought up with John Wayne era Westerns, or maybe Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, ideologically dodgy about abducting women but full of glorious quilts.  The block constructions in the covered wagon, the Baltimore beauties, the quilts made for ministers, the Underground Railroad connection, all this adds up to a storehouse of great stories that construct what patchwork and quilting is about.  And I want to explore that romance in the Laura Ashley piece.  Plus, I love the old patchwork quilts and consider myself lucky that I live so close to the American Museum in Bath (www.americanmuseum.org/)which has such a good collection of wonderful vintage quilts, and the Museum of Welsh Life just outside Cardiff (www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/stfagans/), which has such stunning old Welsh quilts.  They are lovely things.  They are beautiful.  And, because I could never really afford to buy one – and possibly wouldn’t want the responsibility of conserving one, I like the idea of making one out of reproduction fabrics.

Also, it seems that Laura Ashley loved the tiny florals on Victorian fabrics and when she came to make her own quilts couldn’t find anything similar and so eventually went into manufacturing her own – which gave rise to the characteristic Laura Ashley print.

Here’s a close-up of some of them:

So, the fabric is important,  and the nostalgia of making a second quilt for the long-gone doll’s bed, but the fact that this fabric was a gift is also very important.

One of the things that fascinates me about this project is the role of the gift in it.  People are giving me their time to be interviewed, but they are also giving me gifts of Laura Ashley items.  So, I have a dress that one of my interviewees wore, and a table cloth, and so on, as well as bags of the cloth.  The last time I went to Bristol Quilters, the wonderful Sue W. came up to me and gave me a bag containing a very carefully catalogued and beautifully documented and presented set of plastic wallets with Laura Ashley fabric inside, all bound together into a kind of album.  I am very interested in what is being given and what is being received.  Conventional gift theory in anthropology is all about exchange and obligation.  I give you a gift so that you will reciprocate in some way – possibly with another gift or with your favour.  If I receive a gift I am in some way obligated.  I don’t think this is what’s going on here.  I know that some people are glad to get rid of the fabric which has been hanging about the house for years, but not everyone.  I want to get into this and try and understand what is happening.  There is something about relationship – the giver’s relationship with me.  There is something about entrusting me to look after the fabric.  There is something about the pleasure in reliving old times that touching this stuff in the act of giving the gift.  I am still not sure, but I don’t think it’s about putting me under some obligation to return the gift.

Finally, there is something in the random-ish placing of the panes/pieces/patches.  One of my favourite theorists, Doreen Massey, who is a geographer, writes about the construction of place as being where stories come together.  This process is pretty random and contributes to what Massey calls the ‘throwntogetherness’ of place.  I like the way that this tiny weeny piece represents this.  Ceri went to Lowell with her daughter.  Her daughter was on her gap year.  Her daughter worked for a particular family.  They met interesting people in Lowell.  They brought the fabric back.  Ceri and I have quilted together for years.  I have known Ceri’s daughter since before she was born.  And so on.  The stories pile up, and are thrown together, in a way analogous to the production of the quilt.  There is some order, but there could easily be another one.  We make sense of our lives and ourselves in retrospect.

So, this very small piece, contains a wealth of meaning, considerably more than just twelve squares of printed cotton fabric.  Which is exactly what I love about patchwork and quilting.