10 September 2014

Quilting by the Lake workshop with Dorothy Caldwell

Detail of a sujuni featuring applique and Kantha embroidery.

From July 21 until July 25, 2014, I renewed my long-dormant acquaintance with embroidery in a class led by Canadian artist Dorothy Caldwell, as part of the Quilting-by-the-Lake program sponsored by the Schweinfurth Art Center in upstate New York.  In the 5-day workshop, entitled "The Expressive Stitch," our cohort of eighteen women learned about an embroidery tradition of India, called Kantha, and used this form as a point of departure for our own explorations in narrative stitchery.

Our classroom, in the campus athletic center.

The workshops - which range in duration from two to five day -  are held on the campus of Onandaga Community College, about 20 minutes by car outside of Syracuse, New York. Participants stay in dorms and eat surprisingly tasty meals (the food at my alma mater was terrible) in the cafeteria.

After introductions, Dorothy began by explaining Kantha and discussing the samples she acquired during her travels to India with her colleague Dr. Skye Morrison.  Dr. Morrison, textile researcher and scholar, supports the efforts of rural Indian women to find new markets for their traditional crafts.  She presented a paper on her work for the Textile Society of America in 2006, and, with Dorothy, organized an exhibit, Stitching Women's Lives, at the Textile Museum of Canada, in 1999.

Sujuni textile, detail.

The artifacts which Dorothy shared with us are called sujuni in the north-east Indian region of Bihar, in which they were made, but kantha-style embroidery is found in other regions of India, so I will refer to both object and technique as kantha. Originally kantha embroideries were made from old white saris and dhotis (men's loincloth-type garments) and the fabrics were stacked in layers, with no "batting". The layers were heavily stitched, in effect recycling old cloth to  construct new textiles, which were then used for bedding or table coverings. These creations were traditionally not sold but made for lifecycle events such as marriages and childbirth, and given as gifts. After a period of decline, the craft was revived in the 1970's and an NGO established to help the women adapt their products to generate income.

Kantha embroidery, detail.

The embroideries are narrative textiles, representing events in the women's lives, such as the impact of AIDS on their communities, the economic impact of the dowry tradition in the lives of young brides, and environmental problems, too.  One young artist, Archana Kumari, travelled to New York City in 1999 and Dr. Morrison commissioned a kantha embroidery to commemorate her trip.  As you can see below, the Statue of Liberty, beautifully stylized and stitched, made a big impression.

New York City kantha, designer Archana Kumari, detail.

We focused primarily on the stitched, as opposed to the applique, techniques. To oversimplify the embroidery process: representational motifs - people, animals, birds - are draw on cloth, outlined in chain or back-stitch, and then the background is infilled with many, many running stitches. The large kantha are a group effort, with one woman drawing the design and up to as many as four women working together to stitch one piece.

Kantha can be stitched in black on white....

...Or white on black.

For our kantha-inspired work, Dorothy suggested white thread on black, as most satisfying for beginners.  We stitched through two layers; a color 8 1/4" square of fabric beneath a black layer that was 8" square, so that just the merest edging of color peeked out. I had inappropriate supplies, since I brought Kona cotton solids and my sashiko needles.  While it is loosely woven, as per the instructions on the class hand-out, Kona cotton is just too thick for fine stitching, and the sashiko needles too blunt. As I said, it's been a while since I'd done any embroidery.  Fortunately my table-mate Jan, a master embroiderer, gave me some chenille needles, which worked very well, and the Kona cotton, while not ideal, worked well enough for a simplified version of the technique.

Dorothy pinning up our work in progress on an improvised pin-up wall.

Throughout the week, Dorothy pinned our efforts up on a design wall; it was fascinating to see everyone's work in progress.  Stitching our 8" squares took hours; this is indeed "Slow Fiber" - the moniker, styled after the "slow food" movement, given to an outlook which celebrates the craft of handwork and the thoughtful, almost meditative quality, of time-intensive techniques.

Our first exercises, underway.

Even when working primarily in black and white, there is a lot of variation available depending on how many strands of the 6-stranded DMC or other brand embroidery floss the artist chooses to employ, the length and separation of stitches, and whether the stitches are "stacked" or staggered. Below is a sort of sampler made by Jan, demonstrating some of the possibilities.

Single strand at the bottom; multiple strands at top of sampler.

As part of the curriculum we also did some interesting stitching exercises. In one we sewed a line - any kind of line - on a rectangle of organza, a lightweight, stiff fabric, using all six strands of red floss. By putting our individual efforts end to end, we created a "continuous" line of red thread. Traditionally in India red is a color representing power, love and energy, and it was indeed energizing to see our linked threads create a humble but effective work  celebrating both our individuality and the fact that we were "all in this together".

Our red thread stitching.

In addition to these activities, participants shared both examples of their own work  as well as textiles - perhaps family heirlooms or travel souvenirs - which demonstrated the beauty of both utilitarian stitches and of ornamental work.  One shared highlight was the patchwork blanket below, purchased in India, pieced and over-stitched with many, many running stitches.

Participant sharing her Indian bed covering.

Detail, Indian blanket with stitching.

We also learned about traditional border designs used in conjunction with kantha, as illustrated in the pouch, below, and in samplers created by Indian girls as part of a program to give young women marketable skills and to sustain the needlework traditions.

Kantha-stitched pouch with border design.

Indian student sampler.

Detail, student sampler.

As I said, it's been a while since I had done any embroidery other than Japanese sashiko stitching, so I am glad I toted along my iPad mini, so I could quickly look up tutorials on chain stitch. (My classmates, a generous group of women, offered assistance too.) A number of the stitchers in the group were quite skilled, including Nancy from Ontario, Canada, who shared her stitched journal with us one day. Nancy takes a few minutes each day to record, in stitches and pen-and-ink, something notable, whether it be a wedding or simply a peak of autumn color. Lovely!

Nancy's stitched and dyed journal, unscrolled to share.

A good warm-up for those of us whose embroidery skills are a bit rusty might be one of the pre-printed samplers from Rebecca Ringquist, sold on etsy under the store name dropcloth. (Thanks to classmate Mary for this suggestion.) 

Finally, the class also included a wonderful Powerpoint presentation from Dorothy, all about her work, her travels and textile adventures with Australian India Flint, and a quick survey of other textile artists working in a contemporary cloth idiom. A week filled with a lot of food for thought.

Detail, Wandering Time, Dorothy Caldwell.

31 August 2014

Tammis Keefe and Coats and Clark

A gallery of Keefe designs.

Thanks to the efforts of my stalwart DH, we've added over 50 handkerchief designs to the Tammis Keefe website, as well as towels, placemats and more furnishing fabrics.

Gold metallic ink remains lustrous in this unlaundered hankie.

I was fortunate enough to acquire a group of hankies which an expert needleworker, with a good eye for color,  personalized with tatted edgings. Tatting is a form of lace-making, using a special shuttle and thread.  Since some of these items retain their original sticker, it seems they were treasured not for their function, but as objects of delight in and of themselves. Three are featured in this post; as always click on the image to enlarge.

The needlewoman accentuated the orange motifs with her colored edging.

The bright aqua edging is just perfect.

Centerspread of 1955 Edgings booklet.

Coats and Clark, the venerable textile company founded in Scotland in 1812, published many pattern books with designs for their line of crochet cotton, which came in a wide variety of colors, such as Chartreuse Green, Hunter's Green and more imaginatively, Killarney, Mandarin Rust, Limefruit, and Devil Red. The instructional booklet above is from 1955, and has a Keefe hankie in the lower right-hand corner. (The two print hankies on the center crease were designed by Keefe's friend Betty Anderson.)

To celebrate its 200th birthday in 2012, Coats and Clark, now owned by the same conglomerate which absorbed Rowan Yarn and FreeSpirit fabrics, created an informative website chronicling the firm's industrial history. In addition, stitchers have shared their stories of sewing, and making things generally, on the website.

So, Keefe's art pops up in a wide variety of places.  Her fabrics are featured in the Museum of Modern Art's Good Design exhibitions in the late 1940's - 1950's; at the same time the publicity department of a huge thread company features her work in crochet booklets.  This inclusion in such disparate venues - cutting across boundaries of class and status -  exemplifies Keefe's broad and enduring appeal.

25 August 2014

Anne Hollander and Tom Tierney and costume history

Woman in Blue, Henri Matisse, 1937, from Fabric of Vision.

Two leading lights in the world of textile history died last month.  Anne Hollander, an independent scholar and curator, studied the role of costume (the art world's  portmanteau for apparel) in art throughout history.  Ms. Hollander, in her many books, analyzed how artists, as disparate as sculptors in ancient Greece and the 20th-century British painter Lucian Freud, used clothing and drapery to convey meaning. She pioneered the serious study of fashion and clothing; prior to her work "It [fashion] had this taint of a women's-page subject" stated Judy Thurman, a New Yorker writer quoted in Ms. Hollander's New York Times obituary.

Given that clothing and accessories are freighted with immense symbolism, it seems obvious now that the depiction of apparel - clothing which can signal status, wealth and power, among other characteristics - would seem an obvious focus of study, but this was not always so. A major corrective to this oversight arrived with the 2002 exhibit Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting, curated by Ms. Hollander for Britain's National Gallery.

Exhibition catalog.

Ms. Hollander wrote about robes, tailcoats, veils and dresses; Tom Tierney drew them.  Dover books have sold over 4 million copies of his paper doll books, reason enough to sit up and take notice even if the books themselves weren't so charming and, due to his meticulous research, so informative. If you can't get to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Tierney's books will help scratch the fashion itch. You can even see Kate Middleton in her unmentionables - evidently things have loosened up at Buck House - in the officially sanctioned William & Kate paper doll book.

Selection of Dover paper doll books by Tom Tierney.

The phrase "making history come alive" is over-used but nevertheless genuinely describes the utility of Mr. Tierney's books, which can flesh out the opulence  of Tudor England - Henry VIII and his wives - or demonstrate just what Jane Austen meant when she wrote about pelisses and spencer jackets.

Finally, a book about someone very much still with us, Queen Elizabeth II - Dressing the Queen: the Jubilee Wardrobe. As a public figure the Queen must dress the part and has a dedicated and talented wardrobe staff, marshaled by Head Dresser Angela Kelly. This book gives a glimpse of the process for preparing the Queen's wardrobe for the Jubilee Year. Yes, the volume celebrates hereditary rank and privilege, like any reporting on the royal family, although I happen to think the Queen gives good value for money. One tidbit is that, to avoid any unfortunate accidents, small weights are sewn into the hems of some garments.  The images below are taken from the book.

Blue outfit with sleeve detail, worn to Armed Forces Muster, 2012.

Service of Thanksgiving, St. Paul's Cathedral. 

The planning and craftsmanship involved is impressive; protocol plays a role too; during a trip to Ireland, the Queen wore a green suit and hat for an open-car procession. For the opening of the Olympics, two identical peach dresses were made in secret; one worn by a stunt double parachuting into Olympic stadium and one for the Queen, who appeared on the podium with hardly a feather out of place after her apparent sky-dive.  As I said, good value for money.

Dressing the Queen: The Jubilee Wardrobe. ISBN 978 1 905686 74 2

Anne Hollander wrote many books, among them:
Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting. ISBN  1 85709 907 9
Moving Pictures. ISBN 0 394 57400 1
Feeding the Eye. ISBN 0 374 28201 3

Tom Tierney's books are available at the Dover site and many bookstores.

16 August 2014

Erie Canal Museum Syracuse New York

Cargo carried on the Canal.

I took a class at Quilting by the Lake this summer; DH tagged along and arranged a business meeting nearby. As much as I enjoyed the class, I "skipped school" one day early so we could indulge our interest in American history and visit the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York. Back in the Pleistocene era, when I was in school, we learned the Erie Canal song in elementary chorus:
I've got an old mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
She's a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
We've hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And every inch of the way we know
From Albany to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge for we're coming to a town
And you'll always know your neighbor
And you'll always  know your pal
If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal
There are several more verses to this popular song, written by Thomas Allen in 1905. Why don't we celebrate feats of civil engineering or modes of commercial transportation in songs today?

Source: http://eriecanalmuseum.org/

This 363-mile long waterway, begun in 1817 and opened in 1825, made possible expansion into the Northwest Territories by connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. The lending institutions established to help finance the canal construction became the banks that enabled New York to become the financial capital of the US, eclipsing Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston as a trade center.

As you can see, where there was once a canal directly in front of the building there is now a highway; the original canal was replaced, and largely rerouted, in 1918. In fact, where I stood to take the picture would have been water or towpath. After the 1918 reconstruction the old canal sections were mostly filled in - what a lost opportunity.

Weighlock Building, now the Erie Canal Museum.

The canal's 36 original locks addressed the elevation differential of about 565 feet as the waterway climbed from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.  A lock is a section of waterway that can be made watertight by closing gates at both ends; water is then pumped into the section to raise the watercraft waiting inside the lock. Shippers paid duties based on the tonnage of their cargo, and the canal boats were weighed at weighlocks, only one of which survives (anywhere in the US) and now houses the Museum.

Left: model of the weighing mechanism. Right: model of the weighlock.

The highlight of the museum is an actual canal boat, now in permanent drydock, as it were, which visitors can investigate. Many canal boats were family-owned, so, in addition to carrying cargo and passengers, these vessels served as houseboats. Young children wore harnesses so they could be pulled up out of the water quickly in case of falling overboard.

Canal boat, stern.

"Time to Dream" sculpture on the roof.

Passengers and crew stood or sat on the upper deck, but in case of a low bridge had to lie prone or go below; hence the song line "Low bridge everybody down." Life-size casts provide a human presence on the boat and elsewhere in the museum. My own Scots-Irish ancestor, David Logan, probably took a canal boat when he emigrated to Rochester, New York, in 1833, and then again when he journeyed further to Buffalo, en route to his final destination in Michigan, around 1850.

Canal boat.

Female passenger with her precious possessions.

Heating and cooking onboard.

Can you guess what this little seat, with a curtain, is for?

At the tiller.

Keeping organized.

The museum also recreated the weighmaster's office, with its desk-with-a-thousand-cubbies, and all-important stove, and has exhibits depicting a period tavern and general store and lots of info on the construction and planning of "Governor Clinton's Ditch," as the project was derisively labelled when first envisioned.

The original canal was replaced in 1918 by the larger New York State Barge Canal, but the 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, as well as the growth of railroads and highways, made the canal system obsolete in the second half of the 20th century. There is still some shipping on the canal as well as recreational travel.

The weighmaster.

Sandstone facade.

On the recommendation of the museum desk, we walked over to Armory Square for a satisfying dinner at an Irish-themed gastro-pub, Kitty Hoynes.

Syracuse is struggling economically, but has many beautiful buildings from its hey-day that escaped the urban renewal impulses of the 1960's.  Fortunately, some far-sighted Syracuse women challenged the planners of Interstate 81, which had been slated to go right over the weighlock building; their efforts saved this irreplaceable piece of our history.

Graffiti carved by 19th mule drivers on a mule barn wall.

For more images and information on life on the canal, this book can be ordered from the museum gift shop.  No ISBN number, but many historic photos and brief but concise explanatory text.

31 July 2014

Everson Museum of Art Syracuse New York

Scarab Vase (Apotheosis of the Toiler), Adelaide A. Robineau, 1910.

Our travels took us - DH and I - to the Syracuse, New York, area recently. We visited the Everson Museum of Art on a bright Sunday afternoon and practically had the place to ourselves.  The permanent collection of the museum is comprised primarily  of American art, and the collection, though small, is strong, with some heart-quickening treasures, such as the covered vessel by master potter Adelaide Alsop Robineau  (1865 - 1929) pictured at the top of this blog. Robineau was one of the most important American artists you may have never heard of, creating ceramic masterpieces with a technical skill that is undervalued today. She both formed the shapes and the surfaces of her works, something rather rare in the world of art pottery at the time.

Syracuse Center for the Study of Ceramics.

More of Robineau's work is displayed in the most amazing part of the museum, located in the basement. The Syracuse China Center for the Study of Ceramics, opened in 1986,  has examples of every major global pottery type, beginning with  Pre-Columbian work, and continuing right up to the sculptural forms of Peter Voulkos  and Robert Arneson. It was the first  collection in the nation devoted to the chronological presentation of art work in clay and remains one of the most comprehensive.

Syracuse China, for whom the center is named, was for over a century a major manufacturer of fine china. The story of this venerable American manufacturer parallels that of many other industries in the Rust Belt - rising labor costs, less demand for products,  and other factors, squeezed them out of business. The company was  purchased by Libbey Glass, of Toledo, Ohio, in 1995.  About ten years later the Syracuse factory was closed,  and the brand seems to be extinct.

Art tiles and other treasures - we opened every drawer.
Eighteenth-century Staffordshire English teapots.

Dedham Pottery, Dedham, Massachusetts.

My great-aunt Ruth received a Master's degree in geography through summer study at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, while teaching full-time during the Michigan school year. She visited the Dedham Pottery works with fellow students on a field trip from Worcester, and purchased some pottery. I believe this was in the 1930's and Ruth had little money, so she could only afford seconds, items which were less than perfect. I love the pieces all the more for that.

My inherited Dedham pottery.

The note in front of the plate, in Ruth's hand, states:
 Bought when on Clark U weekend field trips. Bought - with flaws - to have souvenir when money was less plentiful.

American Arts and Crafts vessels.

The Dictator, Victor Schreckengost, ca. 1939.

Victor Schreckengost designed the famous Jazz bowl, so admired by Eleanor Roosevelt.  It is difficult to see in my photo, but the satirical sculpture above represents Nero, with figures of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Hirohito as his attendants. We were also pleased to encounter the work of the Korean potter, Shin Sang-Ho, shown below.

Jar, Shin Sang-Ho, 1987.

For any student or collector of ceramics,  the Everson Museum is a must-see.

Opened in 1968, the Everson was I. M. Pei's first museum.  The Brutalist style, to which this edifice belongs,  and which was so popular with 1960's urban renewal planners, has not aged well in general.  The hulking, cantilevered cubes of this building suggest a fortress or tomb, wherein art lies immured, rather than a welcoming place for study, enjoyment and even celebration.  Warning - the Wikipedia entry is also out of date as the Stickley furniture collection formerly housed here has decamped.

Entrance? your guess is as good as mine.

Successful buildings don't need directional arrows.

Le Corbusier has a lot to answer for.

While the spiral staircase is a triumph of concrete construction technique - and I am truly a fan of concrete, used well -  this building shares the same problem as the recently shuttered American Folk Art Museum in that so much space is given over to monumental stairs and other showy features that the net-to-gross-floor area seems very out of whack. The net floor area is the usable square footage left after one subtracts features like elevators, stairs, lobbies, and bathrooms, etc.  Small museums - which still have to have fire egress stairs of the same dimensions as big museums - can end up with grand sculptural gestures and not enough space for exhibits, collections management, shops and all the other activities housed in an arts center.   Moreover, although the museum rests on a large lot - almost an entire city block - it was designed as a stand-alone piece of sculpture in and of itself, and would be difficult to modify or enlarge.

Left: Old stone building. Right: colored, texture concrete, museum interior.

The exterior and interior are of pigmented concrete, with reddish-colored sandstone aggregate pebbles exposed by the bush-hammered surface of the concrete. The use of this material may have been intended to evoke the materials - sandstone and limestone - used in many old Syracuse buildings, as well as the Erie Canal, but the monolithic concrete lacks the human scale of the worked stone blocks. The various concrete modules are linked by fenestrated connecting passages, and while light pours in through these passages, the overall effect of so much looming concrete is menacing. It's a relief to enter the galleries, which are fairly mundane, top-lit spaces, and see the wonderful art.