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"Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets.  Imagination without skill gives us modern art." -- Tom Stoppard

Would you call it art if a sweater designed by one is knit by another?  Is this situation any different from the artist who designs a sculpture for a foundry to create?  And does art made without skill lose something in the translation? 

The above image is the interior of a sculpture by Mike Andrews which is currently on exhibit at the Winter Delights Stitching Salon.  It towers for nearly two stories, but despite its grand scale, it is inviting, drawing the viewer into its interior, allowing a place to sit and reflect.   

I love its bright colors and the way light passes through it, but I couldn't help focusing on the hundreds of staples used to secure the fabric to the wood frame.  Andrews spent obvious hours at a knitting machine producing yards and yards of fabric, let alone in building the wood frame, so why did he skimp on the finishing details?   This lack of craftsmanship detracts from both the beauty and power of the piece.  I left feeling a bit disappointed.

This brings me back to the concept proposed by Tom Stoppard.  Is craftsmanship to be so devalued or should it be used to elevate art to higher place?  For me, craftsmanship and concept go hand in hand.  One can't exist without the other. 

What are your feelings on this subject?  Is a sweater designed by one and knit by another nothing but a poor copy, or is something added by the knitter to make the sweater unique?  Is concept more relevant to art production than skill?  Are fiber and textile programs nationwide focusing too much on one over the other?  Should they?

tea or coffee

"I have measured out my life with coffee spoons."  --  T.S. Eliot

I stayed in bed an extra two hours and woke up thinking "tea or coffee?"  The day after finishing a large body of work always leaves me feeling disconcerted.  What do I do with myself?  Sure, I have a list of things to do.   But it isn't the same as working with a deadline looming over head, there isn't the adrenalin rush. 

Deadlines are the bane of my existence, but I appreciate them.  They force me to settle on one of the many ideas swimming in my head.  Deadlines aren't always external driven.  Some are internal.  I want to end my day knowing I have accomplished something I had set out to do.  It could be a set number of inches knit, mail answered or bills paid. 

Over these last few months I have learned a few things about myself.  My daughter has been thinking in depth about her future.  All the choices are daunting.  At her age I knew what I was going to do.  I was going to college to study art, specifically holography.  I was sidetracked into the textile arts, but the study of light is still an integral component of my work.  Emily isn't so certain and I can understand.  I have the same feeling.  There are so many choices now that my daughter is full grown and I have more flexibility.  Do I apply for tenure-track college positions?  Do I apply for artist-in-residency programs?  What about writing a book on needlefelting, ribbon work or embroidery?  Though I still love traveling, I'm no longer addicted to it.  The idea of living in France for part of the year is very attractive, but I haven't figured out how to financially support such a dream.  What I did learn is that I enjoy working the bulk of my day in the studio and then unwinding with teaching art to children.  I can let my silly out.   For now that will have to do.

The kettle is whistling and it's time to make a decision - coffee.

green goddess


"Who loves a garden loves a greenhouse too."  -- William Cowper

The green goddess, Kirsten Akre, is in the news, this week's Timeout Chicago  to be specific. I first met Kirsten at Garfield Park Conservatory.  She developed their amazing Demonstration Garden on a next to zil budget and turned it into a teaching center for children and adults on the pleasures of organic gardening. 

I switched to organic gardening 11 years ago when I developed a small natural dye plot at Oz Park.  I didn't have much of a budget.  I initially depended on the generosity of friends who gave seeds and divisions from their own gardens.  The Lincoln Park Zoo donated the manure.  (I imagined it a mix of giraffe and zebra, but who knows- elephant?)  These days I don't have the luxury of zoo doo, but I mix in compost each spring to give my own garden a nutritious breakfast.  It took a few years, but the rewards are many.  Wildlife is returning to my garden.  Sure, there is the occasional rat or squirrel, but there are also hummingbirds, preying mantis, walking sticks and a dozen or so different butterflies.  Many folks tend to think of organic gardening as more expensive and laborious.  It's not.  You recycle your garden waste into compost and if you join a gardening club, you will have many other enthusiasts with whom to trade plants and divisions. 

Kirsten is the information lady on anything related to organic gardening.  If she can't answer your question, she knows who can help you.  She is now working at Kilbourn Park Greenhouse, a tiny treasure located in Chicago's northwest side (and a short stroll from my house, lucky me!).  I recently took a course on raising houseplants using organic methods.  Taking a class somewhere warm and tropical where gardenias and hibiscus bloom offers a much needed respite from the long grey days of winter.

I am also teaching at the greenhouse.  The series of "art and the garden" workshops for adults and families cover the making of cyanotypes, needlefelting, natural dying, bookbinding, garden sculptures and later this fall - a monthly stitch night.  Check out the schedule of classes at Kilbourn Park, or better yet, volunteer. 

On another topic - I finished all the sweaters for my editor at Lark Books.  I just have to type up the instructions.  HOOORAY!!!  I am giving my wrists a much needed break this week and will focus my energy on taxes, tidying, and catching up on my French lessons. 

gallette des rois

"My cake is dough."  --  William Shakespeare

This past weekend I spent my Saturday with my daughter learning to make a gallette des rois. A gallette des rois, the Cake of Kings, is a sweet traditionally served in honor of Epiphany, the time when the kings first met and paid honor to the baby Jesus.  Though a round puff pastry filled with an almond custard / paste is the traditional version, there are others, such as the Provencal version in the upper portion of the photo.  I prefer this one as it is not quite as sweet, the filling being a mixture of dried fruits soaked in white wine. 

Madelaine Bullwinkel was our adventure guide.  She is an amazing chef with over 30 years experience in teaching French cooking.  Though she offers classes in her home, we met up with her at the Alliance Francaise de Chicago where I had first met her in French class.   If you are in the Chicago area and inclined to take a class, you couldn't have a better teacher than Madelaine.  She had everyone working, no lounge lizards allowed.  I even learned to make my first custard! It was a bit touch and go with fellow classmates looking worried as it got lumpier and lumpier, but with a few flicks of her whisk Madelaine had me back on track in no time.

But the real joy in taking this class was the time spent with my daughter, she's 18 with a busy life of her own.  Our days of sipping hot coco at the local coffee shop while playing endless rounds of Uno have dwindled.  It is a rare treat to share time with her outside our home and a pleasure to see how much she has grown and matured. 

A few useful tricks that go beyond the baking of this particular dish are as follows:
1)    Flavor your sugar using a vanilla bean placed in the sugar jar for several hours.  The scent is divine and the subtle zip it adds is delicious! 

2)    Check the ingredients list of commercial puff pastry.  If there isn't butter in it, don't bother using it.  This seems a bit obvious as puff pastry is supposed to be made with butter, but I was surprised to learn that the brand I've been using for years doesn't have any.  You would think a vegetarian accustomed to reading labels could've figured this out on her own, but no.  Anyway, check with your gourmet groceries, such Treasure Island or Whole Foods, for versions containing butter.  The price is well worth it!  We did a taste test to prove it.

One small question - I am nearing the end of 4 months of solid knitting.  By that I mean I have been knitting 6-8 hours a day with only a few days off.  My wrists are sore, especially the muscles.  Do you have any favorite remedies for soothing them?

bad dog


A brief addition to my previous entry.  In the past hour I have been working at the computer my papillon Josie (aka the Empress), a full grown dog of 1 year and 6 days, managed to jump up on a kitchen chair, climb on the table and take off with the final maternity sweater nearing completion.  AAAAAAAAGH! Her only saving grace is that I believe she thought she was fetching it for me as she proudly dropped it at my feet with a wag of her tail.  It's a good thing she is so darn cute.  I now have several hours of untangling mohair and salvaging what I can.  Next time, I am putting down work in hand on the kitchen counter in a sealed basket with a state of the art dog deterrent alarm..... 

tangled mohair

"Women like to sit down with trouble as if it were knitting."  -- Ellen Glasgow

Thank you for the comments and emails concerning jury duty!  Sometimes I can twist myself up tighter than a tangled ball of mohair.  The words of encouragement have helped.  Now I just need to find out if I can bring my knitting needles with me.  When I think of knitting and jury duty, I always think of the Agatha Christie character Miss Jane Marple.  There is a '60's movie version of one story where the clickety-clack of metal needles were getting on the judge's last nerve.  Note to self, bring bamboo needles. 

I need to gloat a moment.  I have been working toward an editorial deadline for maternity sweaters which has already been extended once and the two out of three sweaters completed look great.  A colleague at the Beverly Arts Center modeled them for me yesterday.  She has two weeks to go until her due date and the sweaters fit well.  They hid what needed to be hidden and highlighted what should be highlighted.  It is a challenge to design in the abstract.  I was going by measurements sent me and the sweaters simply looked huge.  I haven't had a model to occasionally check for fit, so I was a bit nervous.  But anxieties have been laid to rest and the final sweater is well near completion.  Hooray!

moral test

"About morals, I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."  --  Ernest Hemingway

I've been sent a summons to jury duty.  As I have never had to deal with a summons, I have no experience with it and so did what I always do - I asked my family and friends about their experiences. 

"Oh lord, it sooooo boring!" 
"I had to hear about this murder.  It was horrible.  I still have nightmares."

Everyone, including my mother, has told me to lie.  It seems that my being self-employed and the sole bread winner for my family is not a hardship and therefore does not excuse me from duty.  So, I should declare myself a racist pig who believes in capital punishment to guarantee I won't be picked.  I'm not crazy about missing work and struggling to pay next month's bills, but I couldn't live with myself if I declared such crap.  Jury duty may be intensely boring or horrifying, but it is part of a working democracy.  Is there any other way I may fulfill my duty and still pay my bills? 

This begs the question then of how far you could be pushed before you lowered your own standards.  It would take physical threat to my family or self.  Is the lack of income enough of a threat?  I have some savings, but it is for my retirement.  I don't know....


"It is not alone the fact that women have generally had to spend most of their strength in doing for others that has handicapped them in individual effort; but also that they have almost universally had to care wholly for themselves."  --  Anna Garlin Spencer

In college we frequently played a game in which one student was required to introduce another student to the rest of the class.  It was one of those many inane games that seem to takeover university classes at the beginning of term.  One variation was to consider an adjective that you felt best described a positive quality in the other person.  For me, that adjective was always the word "nurturing." 

I am nurturing.  I am a mother and a teacher.  These two titles have the word "nurturing" boldface in the job descriptions.  My performance work often speaks to the connections between self and other, highlighting and nurturing these fragile tendrils.  I volunteer at a local park raising plants, weeding beds, and sharing information on their care.  But at the end of the day, I want little more than the time and space to nurture my own self unless another is willing to return to me a bit of what I try to share daily.

When looking for a fitting quote for today's entry I was struck by the number of quotations that were acidic or depressing.  To be alone is rarely considered by others to be positive.  A few of my favorites which didn't really say I what I am thinking, but still struck me as true are:

Let things alone; let them weigh what they will, let them soar or fall.  --  Henry David Thoreau
The revery alone will do if bees are few.  --  Emily Dickinson

And now one a bit more acidic in tone:

We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone.  Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.  --  Orson Welles

And finally a humorous one:

Living alone makes it harder to find someone to blame.  --  Mason Cooley

Oh how true is the last one!  I have no one to blame for the gutters being full other than myself.  As rainwater spills over the edge and hits the house's foundation, my curses grow louder. 

But I chose the first one as in my experience, the act of nurturing is often misinterpreted.  I do not wish to play the role of nurturer to my lover and yet that is the role in which I am frequently cast.  His job is more important than my own.  His needs must always be met before my own.  Etc, etc, etc.  Until I find that rare fella who really does view me as his equal and not his surrogate mom, I will continue walking alone on my path, cherishing the many roses along the way, but being wary of their thorns.



"Loneliness is more likely to lead to fussy housekeeping than to grand views of the Universe."  --  Mason Cooley

The artist's life is often considered a lonely one.  Books abound on the subject of the depressed artist or the artist as anti-social.  In this culture, art is certainly not valued to the extent it is in France or Italy and yet, they too have their books full of the crazy, lonely artist working up in his or her garret.  But the point frequently missed is the difference between the state of being lonely versus alone.

Last night my daughter once again encouraged me to date.  She sees me spending my days alone at home working in the studio.  If I am alone, I must be lonely.  I generally enjoy dating, but I find this idea of life being fulfilled only by the presence of a lover to be rather bizarre.  Life is to be lived and enjoyed in the here and now, not in the "if only...."  And frankly, I need my alone time to think and create.  Maybe one day I will meet that fella who understands this need for mental as well as physical space, but until then, I think I will continue living my life as is - alone.  Though the fact that I share my home with one teenage daughter and two dogs, one could debate whether I may lay claim to living a life alone.

After 5 hours in the studio diligently knitting a sweater due to my editor by the month's end, I feel the need of a break.   Maybe I shall attend to a spot of fussy housekeeping and ponder further questions of the Universe.

The above image is a part of my "Attachment Project" and taken last week while at Interlochen.   




Art for art's sake, with no purpose, for any purpose perverts art.  But art achieves a purpose which is not its own."   --  Benjamin Constant

Teenagers never cease to challenge and surprise me.  This past week I was at Interlochen Center for the Arts in northern Michigan. Their summer camp and high school are world famous.  I knew of the high caliber of their program.  It was recently acknowledged with a National Medal of the Arts from President Bush.  Yet with all this as a given, my experience far surpassed all imagination. 

I had gone with a mental sketch of a performance piece which would discuss the connections made between classmates, bonds that can often stretch across decades.  I made 8 pairs of mittens (with a few donated by the local community) and 20 hats.  I wanted rings of each, one within the other.  As the students and I began stitching the connections, it became clear that I had to let go of artistic control and trust their imaginations. Once again, I am forced to question who is the artist.   Is she the one who sketches and initiates the concept or is s/he the person(s) executing its reality? 

After a combined hour of practice, the students developed two distinct pieces.  Though no titles were formally given, I think of them as "Holding Hands" and "Trust."  The first piece involved a weaving of the connected mittens into a stable, yet flexible fabric.  It had been worked out the day prior to the public performance, but "Trust" developed within minutes of being performed. One by one the performers became members of the audience while the audience became the performers.  It spoke to the creative pact made between artist and viewer and made me think of a lecture I once heard on how art is not the physical object, but what the viewer brings to it.

I am accustomed to working with some serendipity in my performance art, after all I cannot possibly predict what several hundred people coming together for the Red Thread Project will possibly do, but there is always some element of control.  There is a choreographer leading the moves and musicians who add a specific rhythm.   But I have to say, trusting the performers to the extent I did this week was a delightful new learning experience and one I am sure to repeat.


A special thank you to Kaz McCue and Ann Cole (pictured above) for making this experience such a rewarding one and of course, to all the students!