16 April 2011

Dale Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass

Entrance to Gallery Shop.

On April 8, Jay and I took advantage of the members' preview days to visit the crowd-pleasing exhibit "Dale Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass." Chihuly, a well-known Seattle-based glass artist, directs a large corps of artisans in creating monumental glass installations all over the world. In this show, some of these installations are re-created in a gallery context.

Sketches for Ikebana series.

This latest exhibit, at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) though August 7, 2011, also includes objects from Chihuly's own extensive collections, notably trade blankets and Native American baskets. A few of Chihuly's vigorous concept sketches are displayed as well.

Gallery with wall of trade blankets,
glass vessels on rough-hewn wood slab.

Glass shapes share color palette of Native American baskets.

Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee's review, which I recommend reading after visiting the exhibit, follows the usual party line that's there no intellectual content in Chihuly's work. (See the review here: http://articles.boston.com/2011-04-08/ae/29397522_1_chihuly-show-chihuly-installation-dale-chihuly)

Smee's review is another example of establishment art criticism creating a false dichotomy between the so-called fine arts and decorative art. This out-of-date distinction traps some art critics in an uncomfortable place, limiting them to snide, sour dismissals of objects in fiber, clay and glass, materials which often have functional associations.

Chihuly's works have moved far from their vessel origins, but his carnival color palette and biomorphism probably don't help his cause with art critics. The neon colors and swirly forms do make his work appealing to a wide audience, however, and of course there's the alchemical, almost magical, quality inherent in glass. Chihuly's had great commercial success; I attended the book signing held earlier in April and the line for signed catalogs was quite long. His glass objects were priced between $5,000 and $6,000 in the shop.

Blurry photo at book signing;
line of fans can be seen through glass wall.

Prints and glass for sale.

It may be more useful to examine Chihuly as one of the few contemporary glass artists continuing the tradition of glass as a monumental material. Glass and stone form the immense rose windows of Gothic cathedrals; few would argue that the windows of Chartres are not works of art. An institution like the medieval church could afford to build on such a scale, and had the management framework in place to continue projects over generations. Enormous resources are expended with each of Chihuly's temporary installations which then endure only in media or in gallery reconstructions.

Rose window, Chartres Cathedral.
Photo credit:

Glass was also used for the glorification of another institution, the Bourbon monarchy, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the light from huge windows reflects endlessly off mirrors and chandeliers. Mirrors are, after all, plates of glass with silver on the back. In both Chartres and Versailles, glass is an integral part of the architecture.

Closer to our own era, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Philadelphia-area architect Frank Furness both used glass to great effect.

There are some permanent installations of Chihuly's work in museums and public spaces, but none, to the best of my knowledge, in Boston. Other cities have enjoyed large-scale temporary installations, notably Venice, with its glass-blowing island of Murano, and Jerusalem, where ancient Roman glass may be seen in the archeological museums.

Blue and White Tower, Jerusalem installation. Photo source: http://i12bent.tumblr.com/post/192611659/dale-chihuly-glass-art-master-is-68-today-sep

Chandelier in the entrance of the Tower of David museum.
Permanent installation. Photo source:

My favorite pieces in the MFA show are the chandeliers, whose cascading forms both defy and respond to gravity. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a chandelier permanently installed in a lobby and I hope that the MFA might acquire one.

Gallery of chandeliers, and close-ups.

Onyx and Caramel chandelier.

One work, "Lime Green Icicle Tower", was created specifically for the new courtyard of the American Wing. While this 42-foot tall spiky form is a dramatic introduction to the exhibit, I'm not sure I'd like it as a permanent resident. With its green thorns protruding from a metal armature, it unfortunately conjures up nothing so much as those artificial aluminum Christmas trees assembled by sticking graduated shiny branches into a central metal pole.

Lime Green Icicle Tower.

Lime Green Icicle Tower, detail.

Viewing glass forms in the
outdoor landscape pocket adjacent to the new courtyard.

Slender orange rods of glass are visible in the landscape pockets between the new courtyard and the older building. I wish more of the MFA installation could have been viewed out of doors in natural light; indeed many of the pieces in the MFA's galleries were originally outdoor installations.

Looking through glass at
another view of glass garden forms.

More reedy forms in Mille Fiori.

Mille Fiori.
The installations were recreated on reflective plinths,
with high contrast, dramatic lighting.

The Persian Ceiling.

One highlight of the show is an overhead installation called the Persian Ceiling. Wouldn't a pavilion with these forms incorporated into the roof be a great addition to the Rose Kennedy Greenway? That bland expanse would become a destination.

The Persian Ceiling.

The Persian Ceiling, detail.

The Persian Ceiling, detail.

From the Ikebana series, form and two details.

Chihuly's team has achieved great technical mastery in glass. These forms are huge and it takes great skill to produce glass objects of such size. Without some knowledge of glass-blowing it's hard to fully appreciate the challenges of this medium. Videos of the Chihuly's hot shop (glass-blowing studio) can be seen at http://www.chihuly.com/cbs-early-show.aspx . There are many feature DVDs of Chihuly's work.

Neodymium Reeds.

12 April 2011

Ursula Kern fabric collage

Ursula's quilt, photographed informally on the floor.

On April 9, I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Ursula Kern. This was really two workshops for the price of one: a lesson on paper piecing (see previous blog post) and, in a sort of bonus lesson, an introduction to her quilt design methodology. Indeed, Ursula teaches a stand-alone workshop on her design technique. This spring she'll be leading this class at the Empty Spools Seminars in Asilomar, California, http://www.emptyspoolsseminars.com

Ursula, right, holding the small fabric collage on which the finished quilt,
held by stalwart class assistant Ellen, is based.

Ursula travels with a bag of small fabric scraps, which I would call snippets, so she can design on the go. She also designs quilts using watercolor or gouache (opaque watercolor), creating a maquette (model) which is her layout and color guide for the quilt.

Ursula's travel bag of scraps.
A color palette strip in the foreground.

On the left, fabric scraps are glued onto sturdy paper,
forming a maquette.

Transparent grid overlay, with axes labelled,
aids in enlargement and individual block design.

Sewn block on right is based on block C2.

Once Ursula has a fabric collage to her liking, she uses a permanent marker on a transparent sheet to draw a grid. She can then stitch up each block - the fabric block in the above image, for example, is based on block C2 of the grid. This structured method also helps her keep track of her progress regardless of interruptions in her work schedule. Heavy duty sheet protectors, available at Staples office supply, would work well too, and protect the collages.

Of course, since the fabric collage is comparatively small, and perhaps has two or three fabric snippets, many design decisions remain in the creation of the larger block, which might have as many as twenty fabrics. Ursula describes her studio as messy, with a superabundance of fabric, but her process is very orderly and logical.

Floor layout of fabric collage, grid, individual block,
and partial view of finished quilt.

Another maquette, in watercolor, with grid.
Diagonals assist ensuring each block
adhere to the radial direction in this design.

Windows cut to limit view to single block.

Another one of Ursula's tools is the masking window. This is just heavy stock with holes cut out to allow focus on an individual block, without the distraction of its neighbors.

Fabric collage model, or maquette, about 10 inches square.

Finished quilt (from postcard.)

Watercolor model.

Quilt (from postcard image.)

Happy workshop attendee making a fabric collage.

Another wonderful fabric collage in progress.

As I was intent on working on my paper pieced fish while I still had access to a teacher in case of questions, I didn't have time to start a collage. Fortunately, some of my classmates dove in to this exercise, and kindly allowed me to photograph their work in progress to share in my blog.

Some of Ursula's fabric collages.

Finally, I think Ursula's collages are works of art in and of themselves, and I hope she will someday have a retrospective of her work which includes these small gems.

11 April 2011

Ursula Kern paper piecing workshop

My paper-pieced fish, with sequin and bead eye.

On April 9, I enjoyed a workshop with textile artist Ursula Kern as part of the programming of my quilt guild. Ursula, a professor emerita of textile design from Basel, Switzerland, is an excellent teacher. Visit her website, http://www.ursulakern.ch/kern_pages/frameset.html, for images of her work.

The focus of the workshop was Ursula's paper piecing technique, a variant of the classic English paper piecing traditionally used for Grandmother's Flower Garden blocks.

Ursula, on the right, with class assistant Ellen.

Using Ursula's handout as a guide, we began by sketching simple flower or fish shapes, and then subdividing these images into simple irregular polygons. Polygons, you may remember, are simply shapes with three or more straight sides and angles. (Circles are not polygons.) One rule for our polygons: no re-entrant angles.

In an irregular polygon, an interior angle that is greater than 180° and whose apex faces into the polygon is a re-entrant angle. Another way of saying this is that all the polygons must be convex polygons, never concave polygons.
(I always liked geometry - can you tell?) Shapes like the one in the image below aren't allowed because you'd end up with no seam allowance at corner B, and thus a hole in the patchwork. Okay, enough math.

Angle CBA, indicated by the red arc, is the forbidden re-entrant angle.

Ursula Kern, sketching from nature photographs.

To watch the process an artist uses to translate a nature photograph into an abstract shape, while retaining the naturalistic characteristics of the animal or plant, was the most important aspect of the workshop for me. Too often, in their desire for realism, quilters end up with something that is, in the words of Jane Sassaman, "tragically literal," and more of a cartoon than a meaningful interpretation.

Ursula's abstraction of a narcissus.

An orchid, made into polygons.

A butterfly.

A fish - translated into polygons, with stripes modified for pragmatic piecing.

I decided to attempt a fish, inspired by a photo of an undersea animal quilt by Ursula. I began sketching from a fish photograph in an old Monterey Bay Aquarium newsletter and Ursula came over to help. She showed me how she selects the salient features of the fish - gills, fins, tail - then blocks out the elements of the fish using sketch bubbles. Next, she translates the contours of the bubbles into straight lines. Once the fish shape has been sub-divided into polygons, she extends lines out from the outer points to form the background shapes.

My inspiration.

Ursula's sketch - the light sketch outlines are darkened into polygons.

I simplified Ursula's sketch a bit, just to ensure that I would actually finish my fish in a timely manner. If I make another fish, I will probably return to Ursula's original design, which gave more detail to the gills, and included a lateral fin.

Sticking pins through the design and layer of card stock beneath.

The next step is to transfer the polygon-ified design to a piece of stiff paper such as card stock. Ursula uses a low-tech technique - she simply places the polygon design over the card stock and sticks a straight pin through both layers at each corner, or vertex. Then, using a ruler or clear plastic drafting triangle, she literally connects the (pin-prick) dots on the card stock, redrawing the polygons. Basic, but effective.

Another transfer option might be to put the card stock through the single-sheet feed of a copier.

Marked card stock pieces are cut apart.

After the shapes are transferred to the card stock, each piece is enumerated and given a directional arrow too. If you've ever worked on a paper collage and had a gust of wind blow zillions of pieces everywhere, you'll understand why it's a good idea to mark every piece. Moreover, to avoid reversing the design, pieces are also marked on the back, using a different color marker or some other form of differentiation from the front.

Fish shapes, all cut and ready to cover with fabric.

Next, all the pieces are cut, then covered in the chosen fabric. Seam allowance is at least one quarter inch, but doesn't have to be exact. Basting stitches go through paper and fabric, securing the corners. While it might seem tempting to use template plastic for the pieces, it would be difficult to stitch through the plastic. Card stock, or other similar weight paper, has enough stiffness to hold its shape but is still easily sewn.

Piece #5 covered in fabric.
Basted through fabric and paper, catching corners.

My basted polygons, in progress.

As is usual in workshops, I really didn't bring the right fabrics, so thanks to Sylvia Einstein for lugging part of her stash, from which I borrowed liberally.

Another artist auditioning fabrics for a leafy background for her flower.
Center of flower is fussy cut.
Petals are covered in orange fabrics.

Once all the pieces are basted, they are sewn together, using small whipstitches right along the edge of the fabric, catching two or three threads, but NOT the paper. It was difficult to photograph this part of the process but more about the paper piecing technique can be found in books on English paper piecing or videos, such as this link on Youtube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDrTVi0jk6w

Inserting the needle perpendicular to the edges,
I whipstitch two pieces together.

Right sides together, and catching only the fabric.

All sewn together, wrong side view.
Pieces are labelled on the back, as the front labelling is now covered by fabric!

One correction - it's really not necessary to baste the outermost edges of the design; doing so is just a waste of time. Once all the pieces are stitched together the basting thread is cut and pulled out. The paper pieces are removed, carefully, as they can be re-used.

Paper pieces removed - slightly creased, but good for at least one more fish.

Design and outcome.

When I do this again, I will make sure to have plenty of fabric options for the background, which I think came out a bit boring. Overall, not bad, though, for a first effort at paper piecing.

Supplies used:
Sewing needles (I used betweens) and thimble if you use one

Straight pins

Selection of sewing thread to match fabrics

Scissors, both paper and fabric
Pencil and eraser

Card stock or other stiff paper
Ruler, clear drafting triangle if you have one

Nature images from magazines, calendars, etc., for inspiration