BadAssHerstory: I AM HER(E) NOW

 

When Shannon Downey put out her call for BadAssHerstory, I knew I wanted to participate.

Initially I started doodling, so to speak, on these two pieces which were left over from aikido uniform jackets. I had this idea about cloud chambers and a secret code being representative of different stages of my life, but when I got to the top of the left side, where I start to spread my wings, I didn’t know where to go from there. So I put it down. (The blue side was dyed with indigo a year after I did the stitching in blue, and then I just started stitching in white as a contrast to the other side.) This piece is more about mark making than it is about me or my story.

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In the meantime, this past spring, in April, I decided to start a bullet journal. The idea was never that I would use it faithfully every day. In fact, I barely touched it over the summer, BUT I have used it regularly and one of the things I use it for is to write down or (gasp!) sketch ideas. One day, I had this very strong idea of just presenting myself in mountain pose saying  in bold letters I AM HERE NOW.

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Wonder: Establishing and Maintaining a Creative Practice

I have blogged about this before, in part, but yesterday I gave a talk and I know some of my friends who live in the ether wanted access to it as well.  I departed somewhat from the script and talked about specific mistakes, but basically, this is what I talked about.

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Because I was talking to a group of quilters, I started with my first quilt. I will note I have not attempted piecework this complicated since.

Take what works for you and leave the rest behind.

Start with the basics: get enough sleep, eat well, exercise. Take your medications.

Commit to your creative practice — REGULAR PRACTICE. Good writers go and write for X many minutes/hours or whatever it is a day. If you want to be creative, you have to do it. Not all of us have the luxury of doing it every day, but for me, even if I’m not in my studio, I still spend part of the day thinking over ideas.
Three main components:

Structure (physical, chronological,)

Inspiration — many sources

Challenges — how to challenge yourself and what to do when big challenges (ie, mistakes) occur
Structure:

Physical: have a dedicated space — it doesn’t have to be a whole room. Some people manage to work out of a tiny corner. I find having a whole room dedicated to my practice enormously helpful. I can maintain an organized stash of materials that are at the ready when inspiration strikes. Or when I need to just force myself to sew two pieces of fabric together.

 

Having the machine set up and ready to all the time made a huge difference in my willingness to get down to business.

Time: Commit to your practice.  1 day a week every day for an hour.  Whatever works for you. Know what time(s) of day work for you and don’t sacrifice them.

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Decay, Disintegration, Distortion

Charity Janisse recently posted a picture of rusted metal on Twitter, which got me thinking about decay. I realized that I tend to focus on themes of vitality in my work and working on the flip side could be interesting.

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Flame taken by Charity Janisse and posted in this online article.

 

Then Lorie McCown came and gave a talk about her work to my quilt guild. She uses a lot of textiles in her work with frayed edges. Boy did she get me thinking about disintegration (as well as making your mark). You can find some great detail shots of her work on her Instagram account here.

And I’ve been talking to people who do computerized generative art. I think it was Anders Hoff who got me thinking about distortion when he posted these.

 

So, when I found myself with a week with one kid who was going to be gone from 9-4:30 every day, I jumped on the chance to work on a series of 5 panels which I dubbed “Obsessive Stitching 1-5”.  My initial idea was to work with all over patterns, as I had done in the Trajectory: Escape Velocity initial and final panels, but after two days of that, I got bored.

Here is day 1 and day 2.

 

I had hoped that the above finished panel would be more buckled (as it was promising to do below and like the panel from day 1), but it smoothed itself out in one dimension, while warping the shape!

Day 3. Here’s what happens when I do the same thing over and over. I have to change it up. This one needs more quilting, but I wasn’t able to finish it in one day.

 

Day 4 I decided to go back to the all over pattern and not worry about distorting the fabric. I was focused more on accentuating the pattern that the dye had created and adding texture. I used two metallic threads (black and red) in one needle (one eye, not two). Here is the result. It’s very subtle. I am quite pleased with how this turned out and think I might add some beads before I call it completely done.

By Day 5, I was exhausted, had run out of food, and had other things to attend to, so I only had a couple hours in the studio. I decided if I worked small(er), I might be able to get something substantial done. Initially I was going to make coccolithophores in space, but that seemed too daunting by Friday afternoon, so I switched to jellies instead. This picture is a bit of a cheat because I only made three jellies the first day. Also, the tweet is misleading. There are 12 jellies on that panel.

All in all, I have to say it was an interesting week. I rarely get concentrated time like that to work, and certainly never 5 days in a row. Working only with hand dyed panels felt very different to me. It is certainly a way to more easily incorporate organic patterns into my work. I also don’t usually focus on the stitching. That has typically been a way to just hold the thing together and add color. Using stitching as way to get to texture was very satisfying, especially as I think of my work more and more as 3d.

I look forward to playing more with stitching and themes of decay, disintegration, and distortion.

 

Making mistakes work for you

Many of us have this notion that mistakes are things we learn from so we can do something better, but what if you make a mistake and you can’t fix it? As an artist, this is an opportunity to make your work more exciting.

Usually we have this idea that when we make a mistake, we learn from it so we don’t do that thing again. For instance, how many times did you sew two pieces of fabric together in the wrong orientation? Didn’t take too long to figure that out, right? Or how many times did you cut improperly? These sorts of mistakes are good because they make us more careful in our work.

But, then there are the “mistakes of planning,” I’ll call them. They aren’t caused by the same inattention the above errors are. When these mistakes happen, your stomach drops because you feel there is no return from this sort of mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I still get that feeling, but it doesn’t last as long because some of these sorts of mistakes have lead to the end product being much more interesting.

This quilt, with the spiral in the middle, I’d initially intended to have bugs and music on it. When I went to the store, the best I could do was this lobster print. It was black and the lobsters were big, but they were important and I couldn’t release them. Instead, I worked them into the design and put them into the flying geese, which was when I discovered another mistake: one of the lobster parts was flying backwards. Baby quilts are a great place to experiment with design because the baby won’t care.

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Another mistake turned into a feature was when I made my older daughter’s bed quilt. I got to the borders and discovered I didn’t have enough of the fabric to go all the way around. Ok, fine, I thought, I’ll just do one edge pink and the other salmon. Which worked if I didn’t have any fabric in the corners. Back to the drawing board. That’s when I realized there was a secondary pattern in the main pieced part of the quilt that was a sawtooth star. Great, problem solved! I would just put sawtooth stars in the corners! It’s now my favorite part of the quilt.

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Fast forward a few years and my work is diverging from traditional quilting. The mistakes I’m making now are real opportunities to stretch as an artist.

My normal mode of operation is very “think out loud.” I try not to fasten anything down permanently unless I’m sure, but sometimes things happen that I didn’t prepare for and then I have to adjust.

The last panel for Trajectory: Escape Velocity, in my head, was going to be quilted in the same manner as the first panel. So, off I went and quilted the panel — without looking at the first panel. This time, I quilted it much more densely than I had done with the first panel. Oops, it buckled like mad. I figured, I’ll cut a hole in the middle and then it will be flat and then I can figure out how to cover up the hole. I remembered someone talking about doing something like this. And the panel was unique; it was made from a piece of hand dyed fabric. I couldn’t just scrap it and start over.

 

 

 

Well, I cut the hole and it was still wavy. And that was after I enlarged it at least twice. I put it down and went to bed. The next day, I came back. I couldn’t bring myself to cut into it more. Then I found myself thinking, it’s fabric. Why does it need to be flat? What if I make this work for me? I decided to go with it and it has become a dimensional panel with a hole in the middle. These are special features of this panel. It suits the message I’m trying to get across and it actually is much more interesting than if the panel had been flat with no holes.

 

So, sometimes mistakes are an opportunity to practice flexible thinking.

Letting go of fear

Nuno felting experiment

My phrase for this year is “letting go of fear”. I’m afraid of a lot of things. Most of them are quite silly. One of the reasons I love science is that it is all about facts. I find it very comforting to look at statistics, for instance. And I also love the spirit of investigation.

Last May I saw my first nuno felted scarf. I had no idea what it was, but I fell in love. I wanted to know how to do that thing.  In December, I met a woman who agreed to teach me and two weeks ago, she did indeed teach me. I took home four samples. It was so much fun.

Blue merino on silk, green yarn on blue merino, purple pleated, and red and purple grid

My life, with two kids with activity plus my own interests, is busy. I haven’t had the mental space or time to do something new, but I was starting to feel the pressure build. Use it or lose it. I went to two different yarn stores and bought supplies and today, I dove in. I let go of expectations and just tried, encouraging myself as best I could.

I am thinking this may be the chaotic, organic process my work needs. It’s messy, but easy to clean up, and unlike stitching with a machine, you lose a lot of control (over the shape of things). I love the textures you achieve in nuno felting.

I have no idea what I’m going to do with these pieces. They are experiments, but they are also building blocks.  Every time I can sidestep fear, it’s a good moment.

Dolphins on the beach, finished

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Dolphins frolicking in the water under a sliver of a moon.

Turns out the quilt just needed a little moon and voila, it is ready for show time! I had thought I was going to add a bunch more stuff, but after talking with a variety of people, got the idea that the only thing missing to make it a perfect visit to the beach was the moon.

Liminal spaces, heterogeneous communities, and letting go of fear

A few months ago I was wanting to write a piece on living on the edges, in the liminal spaces. I started that post at least four times and abandoned it every single time. I could not make it cohere. It wasn’t until some time in the last week or so that what I was really trying to express had to do with where I felt most fully myself.

For years I thought I had no communities that I really belonged in, but what I’ve come to realize is that communities that are heterogeneous are much more comfortable spaces for me. I am not neatly defined by most labels (without qualifiers) which is why I thought I just existed on the edges, but I think what’s really going on for me is some sort of Venn Diagram. Forgive if I’m using the term incorrectly. I can’t think of a better analogy.

Finding the #sciart community has been nothing short of amazing for me. No one is out there with a ruler checking your scientific knowledge nor are they judging your art pedigree (no matter the format). We are all just excited about art and science and trying to express that in our individual ways. As I said to CartoonNeuroscience (on Twitter), it’s a way for me to start a conversation.

Finally, I was reflecting on wanting to let go of fear specifically as it relates to my art. I went to a meeting of a fiber art(ists) guild. I was so inspired! It made me realize that groups that represent more than one monolithic Thing are where I feel more comfortable and where I am more likely to not only be inspired, but also supported. As 2015 approaches, I say to the darkness, I have many questions and I want many beams of light to shine towards them.

In the spirit of the season, I’m posting a picture of the Deconstructed Santa I made last year. May we continue to ask questions and have interesting conversations.

Deconstructed Santa

Scattered thoughts about SfN14 a few days later

First of all, if you are thinking you missed the opportunity to obtain one of the art quilts I brought to SfN14, please contact me. It probably isn’t too late 😀

Between the dishes, laundry, and errands that had stacked up, I’ve been pondering what to say post-conference. I feel like the last post really captured the highlights. I am not sure I have much more to add. I loved being at the conference.

I had concerns about how the family would function without me as infrastructure for six days. That part mostly went ok, although things piled up at the end (in the house). I had fears I wouldn’t fit in (they were unfounded).

Creativity-wise I’m now thinking about layers. I had been mulling concepts of folded fabric. Still thinking about that. Layers fits with my “hidden” theme too. Nice to have that teased out.

I now realize I didn’t write about the conversation I had with Hugo Spiers. He’s got me thinking about memory and location. I feel like this field is so rich, ready for mining with the metaphors. The part of the brain that holds memories is the same part that tells us where we are located in space. Without memories, we cannot locate ourselves. Wow. That blows my mind.

Most terrifying moment? During set-up when someone working in the building stepped on two of the quilts. Agh. Luckily she didn’t damage or mark them. Oddest conversation? The man who talked around an idea that he couldn’t tell me about (because it was too obvious and I would run off and do it (probably not true, but that’s what he told me)) and it turned out he wanted someone to draw an image. When I told him I couldn’t draw, but I could manipulate fabric, he didn’t seem to know what to do with that information.

It was amazing to sit next to Megan McGlynn. She’s brilliant and her work is impeccable. We had a lot of fun sharing inspirations. I did not get to spend nearly as much time with any of the other artists and wished that we could have had our own private party.

My one sadness? Chicago next year is probably not feasible. I had so much support for this convention which was nothing less than amazing, but I wouldn’t have most of that somewhere else. Of course, one never knows what the future holds! And ultimately, the conversations will continue beyond the bounds of SfN14, thanks to social media!

Would love to hear your thoughts about the conference. What struck you? Please comment here or on Twitter.

Another synapse quilt and a blood brain barrier too!

I have neglected to announce here that I will be in the Art of Neuroscience Exhibit at the annual Neuroscience Convention in Washington, DC from Nov 15-19.  Greg DunnLia Cook, Megan McGlynnMichele Banks, and Kathleen Childress will also be there. There are two sessions open to the public, the first is on Saturday, the 15th, from 11 am to 1 pm and the second is Tues, Nov 18 from 3-5pm (I believe).

One of the things I love about creating art in the neuroscience field is how wide open it is.  I can choose any number of things to focus on, from experimental subjects (like jellyfish and octopuses) to data (as in the action potential graph I did) down to the matter on a microscopic level.  These two quilts were inspired by images that were taken under a microscope. If the green one looks familiar, it should. It was inspired by the same image that I used for the black and white synapses.  The second picture is my rendition of a blood brain barrier inspired by this image by Ben Brahim Mohammed.

If you are looking for more pictures, I have posted a bunch on Twitter. (note that not quite all the pictures/videos here are my quilts, but most of them are.) Please feel free to ask me questions!

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Some thoughts on my creative process

As prompted by my twin sister and her blog post on her writing process, I am going to try to document a few things about my creative process as it relates to art quilts.

I am not good at following directions like a recipe or a pattern. This is why I’d be a terrible scientist. I’d never be able to reproduce my own results! I am good at improvising and cobbling things together, however.

I never know where to start. In order to orient myself, I have to pick up fabric, move it around, cut it up, move it around some more, and then start sewing. As I sew, I can start to see the path. I have only met one other quilter who works in this way. This method holds true for me whether I’m doing traditional piecing or art quilts.

The great thing for me about my current process is that the background is a separate element. I can make backgrounds and then let them sit in my studio until they speak to me and tell me what belongs on them (assuming they don’t tell me before that point).

When I started making art quilts in 2012, sometimes I would think, “ha, I am going to do that thing” and then I would go find “that thing” on the computer as clip art and I’d print out the shape, cut it out, and trace it. Then I’d have the element I needed as the focal point (for example, a starfish). However, these felt a little hollow to me and as I started to think about the possibility of selling, I knew I needed to move away from copying elements.

It was terrifying. I don’t draw well. I had no idea how I was going to translate images that I couldn’t even draw! Sometimes I make myself draw something (as I did for a skull), and then by the time it’s embellished I think, “ok, that’s not so terrible.” The key thing I’ve learned in this part of the process is that I don’t actually want to make a direct copy. What I want to do is capture the excitement that I see.

Having already done a few neurons before I tackled the Josephson Junction Neurons (see previous blog post) allowed me to focus on the colors and the interplay between them before I needed to worry about defining the neurons. I felt free to stitch the details over the shiny angelina without worrying about where each axon and dendrite fell. It is not my intention to produce an artistic rendering of scientific images.

I want my quilts to please the eye, to excite people, and make them wonder “what is that thing”? I love questions and my process works best for me because I can stop and ask questions along the way. All I need is an initial vague idea and then the wheels can start to spin. I don’t usually have a concrete vision in my head. I’m flexible to the process and love discovering what emerges as I go.

I would like to note that I’m still struggling to own the label “artist” for myself. I have virtually no formal art training (I took one private class when I was about 14 and I took one semester of art in high school with a teacher who basically gave me the message that I should give up and do something else). I sometimes have to look up theories on design composition or color. The excitement comes naturally, but everything else I’ve had to learn.

I also struggle with this idea that my art is “good enough.” I feel very strongly that everyone’s voice is important. There is room/time for everyone’s voice. Life is not a zero sum game and even moreso with art. I think we build a stronger humanity when more voices are represented. I know there are people who do better neuron art than I do (on a qualitative basis). I know there are people making art quilts much better than mine. Still, what I make is unique every time and I feel there is value in my work for that reason alone.