Thursday, March 20, 2008


Long gone is the time when there was any newness or shock value in using appropriated images in fine art. Many artists use images, usually altered in some way, that are easily recognizable as another artist's work. Many use photographs and drawings as reference without crediting the original creators. And there is also the more subtle copying of styles or motifs from other artists or other cultures. How do we feel about this as artists? When do we go beyond being inspired by another's work as source material to copyright infringement - in the spirit or letter of the law? What amount of alteration makes an image our own? Is this different for an image produced via camera or a computer than one that comes from an artist's hand? Is it different if the image was produced as art or for another purpose? What about text, readable or not, a favorite quote, journal pages, shopping lists? For each of us, there is a personal and shifting scale of answers to these questions.

All of this came to mind because of a recent guerrilla art event. I have pieces in progress pinned to my studio wall and I have one friend who sometimes wanders in and adds random elements to the work. Sometimes she adds parts of other unfinished work or materials laying nearby, once it was some money she owed me, once it was one of my daughter's drawings. I appreciate this form of communication both as greeting and as a way for me to see my work differently.

This time she slid an image of Frida Kahlo into an empty niche. The card was a reproduction of one of Frida's self portraits and the scale, colors and gesture really fit the spot. I left it there as I worked on other pieces and thought a bit about the possibility of working the literal card into the finish. It is an iconic image, recognizable even if altered. Although I am interested in Kahlo's life and work and my piece references the female form, using the card didn't feel like part of my vocabulary. So I'm back to not knowing what I will put in the nook but now whatever I create I am grateful that it will have the ghost of Frida informing it.

I am not a purist when it comes to appropriation. I collect and use discarded work from my daughter, students and other artists. I trace and scan and use reference photos and drawings as much if not more than I draw from life. I've started to use family photos as well, abstracted and altered or directly copied. I decide based on aesthetics and my own sense of rightness. My scale changes over time and depending on the venue - something I would use in a gift, I might not use in a piece made to be shown and sold. I find my own limits stretching with these questions.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


One of my favorite textile techniques is piecing. Usually associated with quilt tops, piecing is the simple act of joining smaller pieces into a larger whole. The image above is from a collection of quilts from Gees Bend. These quilts have been recently recognized for their strong graphic sense and unusual color combinations. They are far from the tradition of precise cutting of new cloth to specific shapes which are joined into planned and graphed patterns. They share a strong color sense with Amish quilts but are looser and reveal their origins as rags and leftovers.

When working with paper, I often start with a version of strip piecing. Long strips are glued or stitched together, then sliced apart perpendicularly or at an angle and reordered and joined again. This is often a preparation step for me, done for the joy of combining color, textures and patterns and without a specific use in mind. I work with a whole range of sizes and shapes, precisely cut quarter inch strips, roughly torn papers, color all in a family or narrow tonal range, dramatically contrasting hues and values. Sometimes I am cutting into fresh sheets and other times I'm combining leftovers from other work. At some point I run out of one of the papers or the field seems big enough or I just move on to other things and that section is finished.

I'll keep these sections pinned to my work walls, pin them near whole sheets of paper, prints, paper cuts or other materials I am thinking about. Sometimes I cut them apart again and add other elements. Sometime I cover them with a wash of color that unifies the surface but still allows the variation of papers to show through. At some point they become a right element to fit into a particular piece.

It is often at this point that they start to share a sensibility with the Gees Bend quilts. Inevitably I do not have quite enough of one type of these pieced parts to fill the space allotted in my composition. So I cut areas apart and rejoin them to the proportions now needed. The patterns break down into smaller units as I eke the last square inch out of a certain set of papers. I float the pieced parts on a new field of color leaving a contrasting edge or I add new elements to stretch what I already have.

In words this process sounds a bit tedious but in my reality, it is quite satisfying. The constraints leading to a richer solution, the gift of the unplanned moments and the bittersweet of compromise.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


The picture above has little to do with this content but it is posted by popular request from a loyal and careful reader (my mom). It is the house I am in the process of buying on Deer Isle. I first came to Deer Isle in 1982 to Haystack to take a course in hand papermaking. It rained for the first 16 of the 19 days I was here - it was July - and I still moved here full-time in 1991. The house above will be the fourth place I have lived on the Island.

One of the prevailing aspects of life here is the underlying texture of belonging to place. People from away will introduce themselves with their number of years of residence, full or part-time and stories of how they found this place. Locals rattle off rapid family trees including families of origin and marriage, businesses, houses and at least one Eaton. In some circles, I am one of many transplants with extra cred for years of residence and raising a child here. In other circles, I am one of the few to come without a local history - parents, grandparents and gravestones.

Friday I drove to Portland for an errand for the office, to see some art and to hear a band. On the (rainy) drive home I was thinking about a piece I saw by Lisa Young an artist from Providence, the only city I have ever lived in. It was a in many ways a very simple piece but one which captured a sense of place in its scope. The installation consisted of 365 4"x6" rectangles mounted in a calendar format - blocks of seven columns and four or five rows arranged in four columns of three. Overall the arrangement set up a pleasing rhythm of many blues and grays - from intense turquoise to a gray bleached of all tint - interrupted by white at the change of month. Specifically each rectangle was a photograph of the sky each day for a year. The photographs were printed on matte paper and read as small paintings or washes of color.

The work referenced time passing but also a sense of belonging to place. It wasn't landmarks or distinguishing characteristics that made the piece from a particular place but rather the commitment to notice and record one moment of each day. It is a very intimate way to connect to a place in a small scale and relatively short time period. What was interesting to me was how powerful the accumulation of this simple gesture was.

I like that as a goal - to choose one thing to notice and to record it regularly. The collection of data will automatically track changes and in the cyclical nature of change reveal patterns. Maybe I'll start with the spring equinox, balanced between dark and light - a natural new year.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Transitions - where one thing ends and another begins. Sometimes they are sharp, clear lines, easily discerned, other times the shift is so gradual that it is hard to say where the exact separation is.

So it is in my work as I consider how one color will lie next to another, one material will nudge into another or one pattern will disintegrate as another coalesces. Some of my edges are crisp - contrasting, cut, folded, exact - but the nature of paper lends itself to fuzzy edges as well - subtly blended, torn, feathered, deckled.

One of the things you can work with when you make paper is the quality of the deckled edge. The deckle is the frame that lies on top of the mould and controls the way the pulp drains. A tight fitting deckle with a finely beaten pulp will produce a smooth, even edge, like tearing paper with the grain against a ruler. A looser deckle and/or "threadier" pulp will produce an edge with more variation as some fibers slip under the deckle and spread into lacey patterns. You can even lift the deckle during draining to increase this effect.

I like to play different types of edges against each other in my work. The meandering edge framed by a crisp line, the rigid form interrupted by an errant smudge or thread. I also like to accentuate the transitions with an added line or edge treatment, tricks borrowed from dressmaking where an edge will be trimmed, piped or visibly hemmed. In traditional Japanese dress, several full robes will be worn underneath just for the thin lines of color marking the edge of an opening.

In life, we may use a ritual to mark a transition, to provide the break between patterns. In my pieces, I try to consider each transition and how I want to honor its own edginess, with strong demarcation or seamless blending.

Maybe it says something that I chose to live in a place where the edges change noticeably throughout the day and night. Seen or unseen, the tides move the line of transition between land and sea, changing the shape of our Island, decorating the edges with lines of seaweed or ice, with long transitions of flat sand skimmed with water or sharp contrasts of waves lapping at rocks and road.