Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Creative Seeds and Shoots

Lately I've been snuggling down onto our mushy leather couch in the den most evenings and playing with hand stitching while Bob finishes a crossword puzzle or reads.

Here's what's happening with those leftover letter forms that I decided to experiment with layering over each other and hand stitching. I'm trying a new-for-me method of stretching cloth on stretcher bars before stitching. It is a wee bit awkward sometimes but definitely an improvement over a hoop. It would work great if I could mount it on a stand and keep both hands free all the time. For now, one or both knees are tackling that job.

Question that remains with this first study is how to stitch the fused, layered letter forms. I could machine stitch the outlines and use that to secure the cloth to the backing before I mount it on the stretched canvas frame. I could hand stitch into the outlines of the letter forms with hatching stitches and do no machine stitching at all on this surface.

Last night I impulsively pulled out a copy of Paul Klee: Painting Music before heading off to bed to read for a bit, digested a few pages and then thumbed through it to look at the images. Suddenly, voila -- a drawing appeared that seemed incredibly similar to my letter forms and hand stitching and the hatch marks excitingly suited to hand or freemotion machine stitching.

Polyphonic (And a Complementary Repeat), 1931, pen and blue ink on two pieces of scratch paper, mounted on cardboard. Klee wrote about his polyphonic pieces (the term is used to describe music containing parts of equal significance which are played simultaneously -- a lot to think about in applying this to visual art!) in notes for his Bauhaus lectures: "the layering of various structured areas produces of composition of 'many voices', a harmony of forms in which colour takes on a specific meaning." (Paul Klee: Painting Music by Hajo Duchting, Prestel Verlag, 2002.)
Since I seem to be becoming Jeanne of the-thousand-and-one analogies, here is today's (an homage to spring?!). I feel like soil that some kindly, generous gardener is tilling and seeding. It seems that every day new shoots emerge in the shape of new ideas to consider and cultivate. I am excited about seeing the Klee drawings and am sure they are seeds that will eventually start to sprout and make their way to the surface.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Getting Closer

I got back to work on samples late yesterday afternoon at my studio. I'm still testing out more ideas for deconstructing letters for the next Pages pieces so they look like they're wearing away or being erased. Here are some samples and results. On the lower left letter, I pulled out my trusty Presist and stippled it through a stencil and then painted over it once the resist dried. That yellowish color you see on the letter is dried Presist (available through http://www.prochemical.com/).

On the top right I used a dry kitchen sponge to stipple paint through a stencil without any resist. The top image shows resist with paint over it...

and this one shows the same letters after cloth has been heat set and rinsed. I thought the outline of the letters still looked too intact, so I tried again.

This time I worked more intentionally with the resist to cover portions of the outer edges. Once the resist dried, I painted over it with black Setacolor.

The results on this sample encouraged me, especially on the lower left hand part of the C and the bottom of the B. The challenge is to stipple the resist enough to cover but not form blobs -- it will take a bit more practice to get the application just right, but these letters really do look like they are beginning to break down or disintegrate. Here's a shape where I really liked the results once I set the paint and washed out the resist.

It is encouraging to feel like I'm getting closer to being able to create the cloth for the next Pages construction.

Another big milestone on my "to do" list got completed yesterday. The design for my "Notations" exhibition postcard got fleshed out, finished and sent off to the printer thanks to the wonderful assistance of my dear friend Nancy Murty, http://www.nancymurty.com/, who manages to be both a gifted nature artist AND pattern designer. Thanks to her, the postcard looks exceptional. If you'd like me to mail you a postcard, just e-mail your snail mail address to me at beckwriter@aol.com and I'll be happy to send one to you.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Experimenting with New Ideas

After writing and editing feverishly for the past few days, all the materials for my exhibition are now safely in the hands of U.of R's excellent gallery manager, Heather Layton, who said she's sending the word files and images on to the PR department. Whew.

That meant I could get back to my studio and start fleshing out ideas and then printing the fabric to make them.
But who can start a day without an unexpected bit of fun and inspiration?? I just had to photograph this "No Parking" barrel -- loved the color contrast between the blue and the brick, the rust patterns and of course the graffiti!
Next, while I was thinking about my ideas for the next Pages piece, I played with making a variety of letterforms with a gold tipped applicator bottle...

and while I was at it, also grabbed a chopstick that I use as a stirring stick and decided to see how that worked as a writing instrument! The marks along the bottom are from a brush, also fun to do.
Next on the list was to try out some of the ideas rolling around in my head for some more Pages pieces. One thought is to make the centers dark and the outside areas around them lighter. Another is to create small collages for each of the Pages in a long hanging, cut each one apart and keep each composition intact -- you can especially see this happening about with the number 8.
The idea behind this one is to work with one darker line on all light fabrics to create a feeling of the letter form disintegrating. I printed this with just the partial outline of a letter form. This idea needs more work.

One new way of doing samples that is working super well is to do paste-ups of these block ideas on Bristol paper rather than backing them on Solvy and stitching and dissolving them to see the results. I know what they look like stitched, gluing them onto paper and then pinning them up really helps me stand back and compare results. I can even pull the little pieces of fabric off again and paste up other ones -- a definite time saver.
If you're interested in reading the final statement I sent to U. of R for my exhibition, read on. La la la la la, it feels so good to have this DONE!!
Art & Music Gallery
Rush Rhees Library
May 21st – June 13th, 2008
Opening Reception: Wednesday, May 21st, 5-7 PM

“Notations” is an exhibition of new work by Jeanne Raffer Beck that charts the territory of written language and its perceived meanings. Beck combines invented letter forms with found remnants of handwritten correspondence and old printed texts; the works invite the viewer to travel the surface as one might browse through pages in a book or run a finger over a map.

Artist Statement:

A lifelong wordsmith, I combine fragments of found letters, diaries and journals from the late 19th and early 20th centuries with invented letter forms inspired by ancient texts. This juxtaposition invites a consideration of human cultures over time. Like an archeological site, these fragments can be excavated but do not always fit together; some questions about the past remain forever hidden or undecipherable. Other aspects of human experience invite the creation of a new language to understand them, one that is intuitive rather than linear.

After spending well over two decades as a professional writer, these past twelve years working as a visual artist have given me new perspectives on words and text. Discovering old, handwritten letters and diaries holds a strong personal connection as well; journaling has been a longstanding practice for me. Old diaries and journals differ greatly in vocabulary and structure from contemporary writing, even though they were written over the past 150 years. Yet it is the calligraphic form of these writers’ penmanship that fascinates me more than the content. Even the existence of such documents seems poignant, since handwritten correspondence has virtually disappeared from contemporary culture.

In addition to searching for handwritten works, ancient scripts and Asian calligraphy have also inspired my appreciation for the visual nature of written words. Language evolves and alters; each alphabet represents an entire culture and epoch. Even when these ancient scripts cannot be translated, the beauty and mystery contained in the patterns and forms still engage the imagination.

Some of the pieces in the “Notations” exhibition have map-like elements suggesting exploration or charting the boundaries of a territory. Others respond to the conceptual idea of pages – words, ideas and stories contained within books. When we speak a language, the cadence and intonations of the human voice convey as much meaning as the words. Responding to that idea, the writings on these surfaces evoke spoken sounds through the rhythm, spacing and pressure of the marks.

Each piece in this series in some way deconstructs the linear structure of text and incorporates invented letterforms that become their own visual language. Working through the ideas for each piece excavates new associations for the next – an evolution, which like language, is everchanging in the contexts of human culture and personal experience.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Warning: Tornado of Words and Ideas Building!

I'm on my fifteenth (at least) version of the two line show description that I need to provide ASAP to the U of R for their press release for my upcoming exhibition. Ah, wordsmithing revisited. This reminds me why I don't write for a living any more -- EDITING AND REVISING!! It's not the words themselves that are causing this funnel cloud of activity, I can write copy pretty easily -- when it's not about me! I also feel a desire to distill what my work is about down to the most interesting, accurate explanation possible and I still feel tentative about defining that. So as I'm whirling like Dorothy's house around the center of the funnel, imagine that all these words and ideas are getting sucked right up and are swirling around with me. No wonder I want to invent a new language -- there are too many words to choose from in this one!

In case it won't become obvious soon enough, this is countdown month -- I hang my exhibit, now titled "Notations," at U of R's Art & Music Library Gallery on May 19th -- and I have MUCHOS work to do before that day on all fronts. So I am trying to be disciplined and write the definitive two sentence statement about this body of work, order a temporary sign for the gallery window, design and order postcards for invitations to the opening , update my resume and write a brand spankin' new artist statement to accompany the exhibition --and get it all done in the next few days. But here's the difficulty of what should normally be easy to accomplish, I am still so immersed in fleshing out the work and discovering what it's all about that it is HUGELY hard to get the distance I need to really extract the marrow of the ideas behind the work I'm doing. And really hard as well to pull myself away from engaging with making it to even think about writing statements and designing postcards. But of course I am doing just that and as I make friends with the need to do so it becomes enjoyable and stimulating. However, my attention does drift off a bit now and then back to the works in progress!

For the next four weeks, I'll be dashing back and forth between finishing up current pieces and starting at least two new pieces to round out the body of work I want to exhibit. It's exciting to watch it start coming together -- I am eager to hang the Pages pieces and decide which new pieces to start. I am ever so grateful to Heather Layton and Janet Berlo at the U. of R. for the invitation to exhibit. Seeing my work in a gallery setting offers an excellent learning curve, extremely important to my goal of developing a good-sized body of work on this language theme that I can submit to other venues for future solo exhibition opportunities. Seeing this work installed will give me a more objective perspective so I can continue to develop it, strengthen what is really working and what needs rethinking and determine where to take the work next from here.

Tomorrow I head back to my studio and print new yardage to continue this series. I'll keep working and producing as much new work as possible this next month -- I welcome affirming thoughts to add to my own that everything will come together wonderfully, easily and that the pieces will look beautiful together in the exhibit space!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bubble Bubble, Toil and Trouble

I've been debating the merits of learning natural dyeing for a while and have felt an attraction to learn more about the types of dyes used by ancient and indigenous cultures. That, coupled with an interest in more ecology-friendly dyeing processes led me to wonder about the benefits of natural rather than chemical dyeing.

A few months ago I met Sarah Burnett, a life long natural dyer who lives right in my area and was offering a local class this week in natural dyeing. So I signed right up.
See all those containers lined up on the work tables in our kitchen area? The names and origins of the natural dyes are themselves fascinating -- cochineal, madder, safflower, weld, black walnut, to name a few. The processes are more labor intensive and product specific than working with cold water reactive dyes, where one size pretty much fits all; and the results are, surprisingly, not dissimilar to what I get working with chemical dyes. In my usual Libra-like fashion, I weighed the pluses and minuses of natural versus chemical dyes.

For me the negatives of natural dyeing are the lengthy time it takes to mordant and soak the fabrics before dyeing (one hour each before each successive application of dye) and the hot water processing. Lining up pots of dyes and bringing the solutions up to and maintaining proper temperatures while stirring every ten minutes is less flexible than the direct application processes that I use (painting, layering, silk screening). Sarah did say it is possible to do direct application dyeing with natural dyes and then let them air cure for four weeks to set them.

Here's Sarah. She has primarily a weaving background and is fascinated by shibori, a Japanese resist process which creates compressed areas on fabric surfaces that resist applied dyes. When the fabric is opened up, the dyed and undyed areas create a variety of patterns, depending on how the resists are done. Shibori is a labor intensive process that, with patience, can yield lovely results.
Stitched, bound and clamped resists are alluring and I've worked with all of them over the past 12-14 years that I've been dyeing and printing, but currently I've been favoring less labor intensive resists that are applied with brushes and screens and stamps and stencils, etc.
So I reaffirmed during this two days that my personal work will continue to be with those processes and my shibori days are in the past!

All in all, the two days were enjoyable and informative and provided a lot of new information to digest and consider. What natural dye process would I DEFINITELY return to again after this first experience? I would have to say indigo, which is probably the most toxic of the natural dyeing processes we used because it requires lye and thiorea dioxide to activate it. I've worked with it before in classes but didn't see how I could maintain an indigo pot in my studio.

However, we mixed a small three gallon vat and I could heat that to the correct temperature right in my own studio and store it in between dyeing sessions. With a lid and an gas cartridge face mask and open window I wouldn't worry about fumes;I think I could store the solution and reactivate it to use again over a period of months, which would lessen the amount of chemicals I'd pour down the drain. The unique gradations of blue that indigo offers -- difficult to duplicate with chemical dyes --could be a wonderful addition to my processes.

So all in all, it was a positive experiment to try natural dyeing. I met some terrific people, enjoyed a break from thinking about my own series and got to explore a whole different approach to dyeing right in my own home town -- a winning combination!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My Radar Screen Lights Up!

I picked up a neglected issue of Art in America yesterday that has been sitting unread on the coffee table for several months and immediately opened to an ad featuring a piece by Jack Pierson -- and I confess, I have never heard of him. But isn't it interesting that just after jotting an idea down in my sketchbook that involved deconstructing written text and reassembling it into new compositions, that a full page image suddenly appeared of a metal sculpture of that very idea -- "Abstract #3", 2007, 70 x 94 x 2 in. -- right smack dab on the center of my radar screen??

Remember the picture from the other day of piles of letter shapes covering the surfaces of my sewing studio and laying in random groups on the floor? I thought, as I looked at them, how cool it would be to experiment with creating a new piece just by throwing cut out letters up into the air like leaves and letting them fall onto a piece of fabric below to create a totally random composition. This salvaged-sign-letter sculpture by Pierson called "Music and Fire,", 2006, looks like the pieces just fell randomly onto the surface beneath. Of course we all know just how much work goes into crafting a seemingly spontaneous assembly of individual elements into a cohesive whole, but the fact that I happened upon it almost as soon as the thought entered my own mind
is one of those delightful coincidences that I love.

Here's one last one, called -- what else? -- Roses, Roses, Roses -- a kind of tongue twister version of its own name. I also discovered in reading about this man's diverse body of work that for one exhibition (couldn't find images) he did seven small pencil drawings where he meticulously copied the first pages of books by women. Two of the books he copied were Barbara Pym's "Less than Angels" (1955) and Sister Wendy Beckett's "The Gaze of Love" (1993).

I will have to visit the library and see what more I can find out about this artist who obviously finds letterforms as intriguing as I do. When I happen onto someone who uses letters and words in their work, I want to learn more about their work and why they choose these elements to express ideas.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Same Trail, New Twist

Letter production continued all day yesterday, although not in a neat and orderly factory line manner. Quality engineers everywhere would have nightmares about MY production methods.

Basically every surface of my sewing area filled and spilled over with letter patterns, cut out letters, fabrics and scraps by the end of the day. I had decided yesterday was the day to fix the Pages 3 piece, draped over the ironing board on the right. I fused down crisp, fresh letters over the ones that had gotten a bit distorted from washing and they complete the piece wonderfully. All I need to do today is put on the hanging sleeve. My husband has come up with a prototype for acrylic hangers for these pieces so they will hang about 6-7 inches away from the wall -- that way they will cast shadows through the openings and the piece will move whenever there's a breeze. But all the time I've been working on the latest wallhangings and this piece, my mind has been playing with my long list of ideas and variations to choose what I want to explore next. So here's the bones of one possibility that I put together while I cut and fused.

I stapled fabric to 18" x18" stretcher bar frames, drew a 12" frame as a size guide and decided to play with hand embroidery and overlaying sheer letters on top of each other. While these are leftover letter forms from the latest Parables pieces, I could just as easily arrange a variety of letter form shapes into compositions.

I find the shapes created where the pieces intersect and overlap a rich area to consider and develop in future works. For this first sample, however, my idea is to investigate hand stitching the surrounding surfaces, then mounting it to a canvas wrapped frame. I already have purchased thirty 12" x12" canvas wrapped frames to develop multiples that can all be hung together as one large work or in small groupings, and this sample will help me play with and work through some initial ideas.
I'm finding that one of the most challenging things for me to do with this series is to honor the idea in each piece and not immediately leap ahead to the next ones and start spilling out a jumble of ideas onto one surface. I envision a series where each work leads to the next variation, a progression that records my creative process -- a map that shows how one idea leads to the next...and the next. When the body of work hangs together at my exhibition in May, I'm hoping this evolutionary trail or map will become apparent and as interesting as each individual work.

My mind is still chewing over the ideas behind the language theme.One occurred to me yesterday when I was talking about my work with a friend after she asked me why I had chosen to work with just one letter shape on these two Parable pieces ( a good critique question, by the way!). One immediate response was that I wanted to design a form that looked interesting no matter which way I oriented it, but that didn't seem to get at the heart of my intention. So I contemplated the Parables pieces as I worked on cutting and fusing letters to the Pages piece yesterday. Then I realized that I want the letter forms on these two surfaces to actually "read" like SOUNDS, to have movement and resonance. The phrase popped into my head, "Sounding it Out." I like the ambiguity of this -- isn't language a metaphor for culture and our attempts to "translate" our world?

If we were to attempt to translate the sounds of language visually, would the results become a kind of visual melody? Evidently I see patterns of movement in written language that trigger associations with dance-- but now it seems I am also aware of the patterns of spoken language and the wonderful cadence of the human voice. Can hand stitches on this new small work capture some of that rhythm?? Lots of juicy, intriguing questions and thoughts accompany these "factory work" days!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Oars and Compasses

I thought I had pulled my oars out of the water for a bit after I wrote yesterday, but the idea of enlarging some of the red letters was just too appealing to me. I had to try it out and see what they would look like on the surface. While I am still fiddling around a bit with adding the red elements to the left side -- here's a quick view of three variations that I've tried so far -- this piece is moving closer and closer to completion. Then I can add a backing and begin the stitching that will complete it into a soft wall hanging. One of the things I appreciate most about the work I'm doing is how each piece seems to be building and expanding and refining the ideas from the previous one. I already am "seeing" how I want to alter my process of silk screening and layering for the next one.

"Bet you're tired of cutting out letters," my friend Becky said as we chatted on the phone last night -- and then I confessed that I was cutting out more letters even as we spoke! There are multitudes of more letter shapes in my near future -- more cut paper resists, more new silkscreens with positive and negative letter forms, more sketching and fleshing out new calligraphic shapes. It seems to me as I work on these pieces that both the individual letters and their relationships are growing from one piece to the next and I am both surprised and pleased at how naturally the progression seems to be developing. The compositions seem to be less about interpreting messages or meaning from their arrangements, the way we do with words and sentences, and more about the beauty of each individual form and the ambiguity of language.

I know I don't need to intellectualize what I'm doing, that the whys and wherefores of my creative process will become clearer to me with each new work I complete in this series, but it is a rainy, gray morning and I am quite happy to nest here today and pin and cut and stack little piles of letters all around me...in fact even thinking of piles of them makes me smile. Can you envision me building stacks and stacks of them into towers until they totally surround me?? Or stringing them horizontally on long threads and attaching the ends to a frame? I better jot those ideas down in my sketchbook!

This is where the idea of a compass suddenly appears -- I do feel as though I am steadily voyaging in the direction of my own "true north." It occurs to me that these arrangements of letter forms are evolving into a mapping process. Only the terrain I'm mapping is my inner world's responses to the outer one. Written language is part of my culture and outer world; its origins interest me, and I've been reading about its history and evolution. However much I read, though, the questions still are present at the edges of my thoughts -- where are these references to written language leading me and what is it they want to say?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Goodbye Hollywood, I'm Back in the Art Biz!

This is about as close as I came to rubbing elbows with Hollywood stars during my week in southern California! While my daughter's film festival took place at the same studio where Ugly Betty, The Closer and Private Practice are filmed, none of the casts and crews were there -- oh well --they were filming at nearby Paramount Studios the whole week -- but I did nab this close up of an Ugly Betty designated parking space, which actually belongs to a man listed on the web as the director for the television show, The Office. Fight those feelings of envy!

I spent yesterday unpacking and resettling back into my quiet upstate New York life after a week on Southern California freeways. The film festival was great fun although we worked hard -- no time to take many photos, since my niece and I took care of the food and bar for four days -- and when the festival was busy, WE were busy! Attendance is growing and I expect it will do so again next year.
By yesterday afternoon, I had settled back in at home enough to start cutting new letters out to return to -- and hopefully conquer! -- Parables 3. Before my trip you may recall that I had added the black, shadowy letter shapes. I decided the piece needed some contrast and thought some contrasting red letters might add a bit of punch. I think they're just what it needs. I'm at a point with this where all I will do for the next few days is sporadically edit the placement of these red letters as I'm working on the other two pieces in progress. Once it's totally pleasing to my eye, I'll sandwich it and start stitching. I like the addition of the red; it's in keeping with the other two pieces I did and heightens the sense of depth on the surface. I might enlarge a few more red letters now that I'm looking at this -- but this one is improving, hallelujiah.