25 December 2013

Modern Quilting Exhibit and Denyse Schmidt Workshop

Snake Charmer. Designed by Denyse Schmidt, made by Barbara Bergantz and Janice Roy.
In November my quilt lust took me to the New England Quilt Museum (NEQM), for a modern quilt trifecta:  1) The Roots of Modern Quilting exhibit, 2) a lecture by Denyse Schmidt, sort of the godparent of the Modern Quilt movement,  and 3) a companion workshop led by Ms. Schmidt. The exhibit, on display from October 10 - December 28, 2013, and curated by NEQM staff curator Pamela Weeks, featured both modern quilts and historic examples from which the modern quilts are derived.

Snail Trail, maker unknown, c. 1940. Pilgrim Roy collection.

Denyse Schmidt's Snake Charmer has its origins in the traditional Snail Trail pattern, also known as Rattlesnake. Traditional quilt patterns often have multiple monikers, often varying by region or time period. 

Visitors at the exhibit.

So, many modern quilts abstract or simplify traditional patterns.  Another characteristic of modern quilt making is an improvisational approach to design, as seen in the image below, a detail of a quilt by Angela Walters Kearney. Ms. Kearney describes her process in  making this quilt, which is pieced using a additive method based, ultimately, on traditional log cabin construction:
I started with the technique and let it build from there. I wasn't sure what it would look like until it was finished.
Yet, there is nevertheless an element of control  - improvisation does not equate with random - as the color palette is carefully balanced, with the white fabric used in every third or fourth row.  Again, this approach is rooted in tradition, as the rural and impoverished quilters of Gee's Bend - improvisers  through necessity -  also used the materials at hand in a deliberate and thoughtful manner.
Impracticality, Angela Walters Kearney. Detail.

In addition, many modern quilts have a social or political message, such as the striking quilt below, a commentary on gun violence in Chicago.  This artifact juxtaposes medium and message - the soft tactility of the fabric medium versus the harsh reality of the message - to great effect.  Although this was not highlighted in the exhibit, quilts have long been used to express political beliefs, so this work of social commentary is also part of the quilting tradition.

Bang, You're Dead. Jacquie Gering.

The parallels drawn between historic and new quilts are attenuated by the awkward compartmentalization of the exhibit space, and there are some omissions, most notably artists Weeks Ringle and Bill Kerr, but overall Ms. Weeks has curated an important and noteworthy exhibit.

Left: Hawaiian-style applique, Denyse Schmidt, 2011.  Right: Blue Hawaiian, maker unknown, c. 1920.

As part of this exhibit, Denyse Schmidt gave a lecture and workshop at the museum.  Since 1996 Ms. Schmidt has been creating quilts at her workshop in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her lecture led us through her history of making things, rooted in her parents' confident craftsmanship in woodworking and home sewing, and their expectation that if one needed something, say, a graduation dress or shelf unit, one could most likely make it.  In addition, Ms. Schmidt grew up in central Massachusetts at a time when mill end stores were next door to actual textile mills. This background, interwoven with various threads in her life (pun intended) including folk dance, and graphic design studies at RISD, eventually led to quilt-making.

As Ms. Schmidt makes clear in her recent book Modern Quilts Traditional Inspiration, her contemporary quilts are very much based on classic quilt patterns, distilled to their essence, realized in Ms. Schmidt's color palettes, with a result that is quite contemporary.

Sewing stations and Denyse's scrap bags, ready to go.

The sold-out Improvisational Piecing workshop started with a deceptively simple assignment: beginning with the "small" bag, pull scraps at random and stitch together in the log-cabin technique. With a twenty-minute or so deadline, we had to work quickly, trimming as necessary, and drawing from the "medium" and "large" bags as the  blocks grew and required larger pieces.  The time pressure and the random selection of fabric pieces - no peeking - prevented the second-guessing, doubt and general indecision that can sometimes paralyze the quilt maker.

A fortuitous combination of fabrics.

Once we had completed our first blocks, Ms. Schmidt pinned them to a large piece of felt.  Due to the standard piecing technique, and communal scrap bags, the blocks "played" together surprisingly well.  Following some discussion of our reactions to the process, it was back to the bags and sewing machines. 

Denyse gives us encouragement.

The wall of blocks.

I have always enjoyed unconventional color combinations, and just went with the flow.  I've found, over years of attending workshops, that I'm a happier camper if I don't worry too much about the end product, but just try to follow the teacher's methodology and "try it on for size."

During the latter part of the workshop we were allowed to incorporate one fabric we brought from home, using it any way we wished, thus recovering some degree of control over fabric selection. Decisions regarding how much of our fabric to use, and where, highlighted the need to constantly question assumptions about color, value and scale.

We used blue painter's tape to view our blocks.

My blocks, now in Bridgeport.

Ms. Schmidt asks workshop attendees to kindly consider donating one or more blocks, which her studio incorporates into quilts which are raffled off, with the proceeds benefiting a local charity. While I will miss my blocks, I hope they will be made into one of these donation quilts.  Utilizing quilts, modern or classic, to raise money for a cause has long been part of our quilting heritage.

14 December 2013

Old Ship Meeting House, Hingham, Massachusetts

Walking up to the entrance.

In November, as part of a professional conference, I joined a group tour of the Old Ship Meeting House in the town of Hingham, in an area called the South Shore, about one hour's drive from Boston by group tour bus.

Hingham was established in 1635 by Puritans, religious dissenters originally from England. The meetinghouse erected by this community in 1681 is a survivor -  the oldest ecclesiastical building in the US and the only remaining New England meetinghouse from the 17th century. The civic community and the church community were one and the same at this time, and these structures functioned both as places of worship and for town business.  Peter Benes has written a remarkable book, Meetinghouses of Early New England, for further reading.

From the outside, the hip-roofed building is a rather chunky yellow presence, atop a small hill. It's the interior that makes it so remarkable.

Timber truss roof with king posts.

The roof is a heavy timber truss structure.  The inclined members forming the top of a truss are called chords and the gently curved chords of this truss were not carved - rather, the builders sourced trees whose trunk and limbs displayed a natural curvature, felled this stock and used it for the structure.

Rafters and sheathing sit atop these beefy truss members. It was difficult for me to get good photographs, but looking up into the roof is rather like looking up into the inside of an overturned ship's hull.  The somewhat fanciful name "Old Ship" was first applied in the romantic 19th century, and may refer to ship hull imagery, but this is speculation.

Our tour was led by preservation specialist Andrea Gilmore and structural engineer David Odeh, team members who developed the plan for the recently-completed  restoration of the meetinghouse. This restoration was top-to-bottom - new wiring, sprinkler system, etc. - and included structural reinforcement to one of the beams located in a difficult-to-reach attic space. Introducing a steel beam through a small dormer window was an event  master-minded by a skilled builder, whose name I believe is David Gillespie, and a talented team of craftsmen.

Easy does it, as steel nears dormer window. Credit: Rob Bayles.

For more views of the project during construction, visit the Flickr site.  Thomas Willson, church member and owner's representative for the project, shared the history of the restoration from the client's perspective and once again demonstrated that great clients are necessary for great architecture.

We also learned about previous interventions over the centuries - during the Victorian era, the church was carpeted and wallpapered, and the amazing heavy timber roof was cut off from view by a dropped plaster ceiling.  The entrance, pulpit, organ and circumferential galleries have been moved and altered, but the massive brown beams steadfastly sheltered all the activity, an embodiment of continuing faith.

View of gallery and organ.

Admiring the new structural steel reinforcement.

As part of our tour we scrambled up a steep ladder - we architects know how to have fun - to a sort of attic space and got a good "behind the scenes" look at the structural repairs.

The church can be visited during the hours of worship on Sunday, of course, or through arrangement.

The church community was established in 1635.

27 November 2013

Elin Noble, Fiber Artist, Open Studio

Hand-dyed threads.

On November 23 DH and I drove about an hour from our home to New Bedford, a New England town once famous as a whaling port, and then, when petroleum made whale oil obsolete, as a textile manufacturing center. There is a remnant (no pun intended) of the garment industry still here, as Joseph Abboud's line of menswear is still made here.

Other types of textile work continue, in the form of Elin Noble's hand-dyed fiber art. As part of the annual New Bedford Open Studios event, we visited Elin's studio, housed in an old industrial building.

Elin tells us about her process.

Elin's medium is fabric -  folded, clamped, dyed, discharged and otherwise manipulated in ways that may seem almost magical but are the result of deliberate and well-practiced technique. In some series the finished fabrics are layered and quilted. After many years of quilting even very large pieces on a domestic machine, Elin added long-arm quilting to her repertoire, and the results are impressive. The quilt world has acknowledged her achievement with the 2013 Quilts Japan prize.

Studio visitor admires art and long-arm quilting machine.

Wall of thread, for use in the long-arm.

In addition to finished artworks, Elin offered fabric, thread, garments and other items for sale. We also met Elin's partner, Lasse Antonsen, an accomplished sculptor.

Hand-dyed fabric for sale.

After making our purchases - thread for use in sashiko  - we realized it was lunchtime and on Elin's suggestion we motored about a mile to Cork, a tapas and wine (and beer) bar near the waterfront. Elin didn't steer us wrong - risotto cakes with spicy pimenta moida sauce and pan-seared scallops over rice and mushrooms with macadamia cream sauce were just delicious.

Cork restaurant.

09 November 2013

Meet Bombyx Mori at the Silkworm Farm

The beautiful farmland of Gunma Prefecture.

Mulberry bushes, pruned for easy leaf harvest.

During our 2012 textile study tour of Japan we visited one of the last remaining silkworm farms in Gunma Prefecture.  China has supplanted Japan as the world's leading silk filament supplier, but a remnant of the industry remains.

Our group, at the entrance to the silkworm barn.

Silkworm barn, with removable tarps.

Silk is a natural protein fiber, produced by the silkworm, Bombyx mori, as it constructs its cocoon and enters the metamorphic part of its life cycle.

Silkworm barn, interior.

Thousand of silkworms live in this barn, in mesh hammocks slung from a simple framework.  The caterpillars munch voraciously on mulberry leaves, their exclusive food source, so the farm must maintain a ready supply of mulberry leaves during the lifecycle of the silkworms.

Fans and removeable side tarps control air circulation, as the critters are sensitive to changes in heat and humidity.

Silkworms and mulberry leaves in hammocks.

Once the silkworms have spun their cocoons, the small pupae are placed in wooden racks for transport. At some point the cocoons are boiled or steamed; this kills the emergent moth inside which would otherwise create holes to escape from its cocoon. The holes mean the silk filament would be discontinuous - it would unspool in pieces, rather than in one long continuous filament. Economically, the continuous filament is much, much more valuable.

A few moths do escape, and their offspring inhabit the rafters of the barn, as seen below.

The cocoons of escapees.

We were not allowed into the barn, and rightly so, as a herd of tourists, however well-intentioned, might introduce pathogens or other problems. However, the farmer and our guide brought out a large plastic scoop full of busy silkworms and we all got a good look.

We  admire the silkworms.

Farmer bows in appreciation of Gale's gift.

In the image above, the farmer bows his capped head in appreciation of a small token from an appreciative tour participant.  The farmer wears split toe boots to accommodate tabi socks. To the right of the farmer stands his father and, at the far right and holding his backpack, is our helpful and informative guide.

Last look at the farm.

26 October 2013

Rising Star Quilt Guild Show

Overview of show, held in Cary Memorial Hall, Lexington.

The Rising Star Guild, based in Lexington, mounted its annual show October 27 and 28. This guild is a sort of "sister" to Quilters' Connection, the guild to which I belong, so I like to show my support by attending the show. It's not much of an imposition, as the quilts are varied and delightful.  The few shown below just happened to appeal to me personally; all the quilts are heartfelt creations.

Entrance to show floor.

California Cappuccino, Diana Bailey.

Effective quilts can be made from relatively straight-forward patterns and a narrow range of colors...

Blue & Tan for Dan, Evelyn Rossin.

Detail, Tropical Rain, Beth Valliere.

...and with more complex patterns executed in polychrome palettes.  Sometimes a traditional pattern receives a new interpretation...

Variation on Goose Tracks, Susan Dresley.

...and sometimes a pattern morphs altogether into something quite modern and new.

 Detail, A Dash of Brown and Aqua, Christina Crouch.

Representational quilts were in evidence, portraying subjects from Dostoevsky...

Multi-faceted Dostoevsky, Susan Bennett.
 ...to dogs.

Roberta Jeanne, Jeanne Funk-Gedies.

While many quilts were made totally by machine, several featured exemplary handwork.

Detail, The Secret Garden: Spring, Atara Halpern.

Detail, Maine, the Way Life Should Be!, Deborah Cerundolo.
Some of our quilting tools are shown in the quilt below.

2nd Cousins, Kendra J. Dowd.

A special feature of this show was an impressive exhibit by the junior quilters, ranging in age from 8 to 13. In addition, my admission fee included a traditional show booklet, with the quilters' brief descriptions of their quilts, in their own words, as we say.  My guild decided to save money by not having a booklet at its most recent show; this decision felt like a "silencing" of our voices, and I hope the  guild will reconsider in the future.

Detail, Take One Down, Pass It Around, Erin Scott.

Finally, in this play-off season, I have to include a detail from a wonderful quilt which includes a nod to our home team. Go Sox!

23 October 2013

Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim

Baptismal Font, circa 1226. Copper alloy.

In October, DH and I took Amtrak from Boston to New York for a presentation at the Metropolitan Museum. Before the evening event, we took in an exhibit of  medieval art visiting from Germany. If there were more evidence that the old historical label for this time period, the "Dark Ages," is a complete misnomer, this show provides such proof. The art displays technical excellence, especially in metallurgy, and an ability to crystallize - and elicit -  a full range of emotional response.

Baptismal Font. Virgin Mary with Jesus.
Baptismal Font, detail. Moses parting the Red Sea.

Formally titled Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim, the art is on view through January 5, 2014 and was reviewed by Holland Cotter in the New York Times.  Whatever  one's religious beliefs, or lack thereof, the show is accessible in both size - one room - and in theme: the ability, indeed the compulsion, of men and women to imbue inanimate objects with meaning and power.

Reigning from 919 AD until 1024, the northern German Ottonian dynasty established Hildesheim as a royal power base, anchored by a grand cathedral.  Hildesheim is located in Lower Saxony; this is the Saxon in "Anglo-Saxon."  Successions of Ottonian Holy Roman Emperors and Saxon bishops utilized their wealth to fund and commission architecture and artifacts during the brief Carolingian/Ottonian renaissance. What Holland Cotter calls the  "material richness" of this movement was heavily influenced by renewed contact with Byzantium.  The wife of Otto II, Theophanu (ca 960 - 991), was a well-connected Byzantine native who supposedly introduced the fork to Europe.   In addition, noblewomen of the period, such as Matilda of Ringelheim, founded abbeys and convents for which devotional objects were needed.

Another leading figure in this renaissance, Bernward, bishop of Hildesheim from 993 to 1022, is a presiding spirit in this show. His gospel book, a French import, was about a hundred years old when Bernward commissioned a new cover, with a Byzantine ivory plaque repurposed for the front, and Bernward's name in large rune-like letters on the back of the volume. But the encrustation of the precious text didn't stop there, as the large pink and blue cabochons were added after Bernward's death, perhaps to celebrate his canonization.

Gospel Book, cover ca. 1000.
Back of Gospel Book.

Although most of the treasures now on display at the Met are small items, a few large sizeable artifacts made the trip too, including the Baptismal Font featured at the beginning of this post. That this masterpiece of the foundry survived at all is miraculous, given that so many liturgical objects were victims of religious and political upheavals and were melted, smashed, bombed, burned, defaced or discarded.

Another survivor is the wood sculpture of Christ on the cross, in the image below.  Nevermind that it lacks its original paint and that the arms are 12th century oak replacements.  What remains is more than impressive. Christ's body and head are carved from a single piece of linden wood.  According to the Met's website, the slight twisting of the Christ's body - his knees point in one direction, his head in another - is unique in medieval representations of this time; the rotation, though subtle, gives an unexpected realism and poignancy to this figure.

Ringelheim Crucifix, ca. 1000, before 1022.

While the crucifix would have been a stationery object of devotion, many of the works in this show were made for personal or public use, including several croziers, or staffs, part of the regalia of bishop and abbot. Croziers are shaped like shepherd's crooks; the bishop or abbot is symbolically the shepherd of his flock.  According to the Met, the one in the image below shows God evicting Adam from the Garden of Eden.  The stem of the crozier features Eve, the apple and a snake; a curving tree branch forms the volute in which God is exiling Adam from the Garden.  It appears that God  is handing something to Adam - perhaps the clothes that God fashioned for Adam and Eve? 
 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them. - Genesis 3:21
Crozier of Abbot Erkanbald, before 1011.
Bishops with mitres and croziers, 1958. Source: http://theratzingerforum.yuku.com/sreply/61932/Papal-clothing-and-liturgical-practices#.UmcRhyQrNn4

Other items were designed to be "campaign furniture" for ecclesiastics, including the portable altars used for celebrating the Eucharist outside of a church.  Bread and wine would have been placed on the surface.  A particularly colorful example is shown below; I think it represents the six apostles and assume the remaining six are on the other side.  Would that museums would utlilize technology, or even mirrors, to show more sides of objects on display.

Portable altar, early 12th century.

In the same case as this altar are displayed three circular liturgical fans, along with candlesticks, more portable altars and a reliquary. Liturgical fans were used in processions and to fan the altar; these look too heavy for actual use and stood decoratively behind the altar in Hildesheim Cathedral for centuries.

Three liturgical fans, and other objects, from Hildesheim.

Below is a snapshot of celebrants holding liturgical fans to either side of an icon.

Source: http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2007/05/common-liturgical-roots-found-in-oddest.html#.UmcT5yQrNn4
Liturgical fan, 1130-50, copper alloy, rock crystal, ancient intaglios.

Liturgical fan, 1130 - 50.

The openwork foliate patterns of the fans are beautiful, and cast intriguing shadows. In the cathedral interior, foggy with incense, the rock crystal would have gleamed like an earth-bound star.

Left: Arm reliquary, 1130-40. Right: Arm reliquary of St. Bernward. ca. 1194.

Whatever the medium, the medieval artists have cleared expended much effort in the depiction of fabric and costume. The above reliquaries, of wood overlaid with sheet gold, were designed to contain and protect precious pieces of sanctified materials or saints' body parts.  The left reliquary was designed to hold the arm of Maurice, a saint with a military background; his snug-fitting tunic sleeve rises out of a shield and is shown slightly scrunched up.  The sensitively modelled fingers may have held another object at one time.  The arm reliquary in the right side of the image, in contrast, mimics the flowing ornamented sleeve of an ecclesiastical robe, and the fingers point heavenward. The gesture is conventional, but nevertheless an important reminder of the goal of the consumers of this art - a place in heaven and the reward of eternal life.

In addition to metal workshops, Hildesheim supported busy scriptoria producing illuminated books. Bernward commissioned several books from monk Guntbald, including the Gospels shown below.

Guntbald Gospels, 1011 AD.
Gospel Lectionary and Collectar, monastery of Reichenau, c. 1010-30 AD.

I love the depiction of David with his harp, surrounded by other musicians, in the image above, from the scriptorium at Reichenau, a monastery near Hildesheim. They will "play us out."