28 April 2015

Shades of Gray baby quilt

Design is Patio, by Monica Solorio-Snow.

No, these shades of gray have nothing to do with block-buster escapist literature. The baby quilt in the image above, held by DH in bright sunlight, showcases a type of fabric your correspondent loves: prints in shades of gray, or gray with one additional hue, such as pink or yellow.  I have a number of these old fabrics from the days when apparel fabrics came in a 36" width, and the imminent arrival of a baby girl gave me an excuse to feature them in a quilt.

Vintage fabrics in grays with yellow.

The fabric on the left in the image above was a sturdy old apron, carefully picked apart, and upcycled for this quilt - click on the image to enlarge it and check out the covered wagon and log cabin.  Shades of "Little House on the Prairie." 

Prints with representational imagery are properly called "conversational prints"; sometimes ebay sellers refer to these fabrics as "novelty prints" but the phrase "novelty print" is more properly applied to fabrics with flocking, metallic components, or some other exotic (novel) feature.

The name of the quilt pattern is Patio, design by Monica Solorio-Snow, of Happy Zombie quilts, and it's a simple-to-make design. (I have no connection to Ms. Solorio-Snow; just found the pattern while browsing Pinterest for modern quilts.)  I widened the borders, from 1" to 4", to make my quilt, at 38" x 47", a bit bigger than the finished dimensions given in the pattern.

Vintage pink and gray prints.

Initially I mixed in some shot cotton solids with the prints, as you can see below in this tentative layout on my felt design wall, but the solids elements were too singular - they called too much attention to themselves - so back to look for more prints. (I think the pattern would work very well in all solids; it was just the mix that didn't work.)

Early layout.

I didn't have enough gray-with-color prints - this pattern really requires at least twelve different fabrics - so added more from my stash and luckily found the silhouette fabric on the right, below, on ebay.  (Talk about serendipity.) Again, enlarge to see the fairy tale imagery in the print on the left.

Gray and black-and-white fabrics.

For the backing fabric I used another old fabric originally from retailer J. C. Penney. In the post-war era, Penney's sold lightweight cottons with "A Regulated Cotton Never Misbehaves" printed on the selvedge.  The individual fabrics in this line each had a title, as well - this one is "Banjo." The middle fabric in the image above, also from Penney's line, is "Florentine."  The "Never Misbehaves" part referred to the fabric - meaning that the goods wouldn't bleed or shrink excessively.  (I think the women wearing clothes sewn from the fabric could behave in any way they wished.) The "hand" of these fabrics is just wonderful.

For sashing I used Kona cotton in "Ash."  The quilt top was machine-quilted by Martha Garvey, who chose the pantograph quilting pattern "Cotton Candy," and a thread color called "Pearl."  Pattern and quilting thread were prefect for this little quilt, now finished, delivered, and  ready for baby "tummy time."

All pieced, waiting to be quilted.

24 April 2015

"Life of Cats" woodblock print exhibit at the Japan Society

If you are a closet cat lady, or a lover of Japanese prints, you will enjoy the Life of Cats exhibit at the Japan Society of New York, on view through June 7, 2015.  DH and I joined a free docent-led tour, and our excellent guide greatly enriched our experience of the artwork. We highly recommend the tour, offered Tues. - Sun. at 2:30 and Fridays at 7 pm.

Prints from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection, in Tokyo, have made a rare trip to the US. Ukiyo-e is the Japanese word for polychrome woodblock prints, many featuring scenes from the "floating world," the entertainment and pleasure quarters of Tokyo in the 19th century. Since these are prints, produced in multiples, many American museums have Ukiyo-e in their collections - who hasn't seen Hokusai's "The Wave"? - but many of the Life of Cats works are less well known here.

Japan Society, exterior, with banners.

A detail of one of the rarest prints   - only three copies are know to exist - is shown below.  Artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861) produced this print of 53 cats. Each cat's pose and activity forms a pun - for those who can read Japanese - for the 53 stations, or stops, on the Tokaido Road, the medieval route from Kyoto to Tokyo. As wordplay, it's a labored exercise, but the cats are nevertheless delightful.

Cats Suggested by the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, detail, 1847.

According to his apprentices, Kuniyoshi loved cats and shared his studio with several felines. In the print below, from his series Eight Selected Flowers from the Garden, he paired a beautiful woman, in a fabulous kimono, with a happy cat, no doubt purring up a storm as he gazes at the chrysanthemums from his pampered perch on the beauty's shoulder.  

Chrysanthemums, 1844-48.

The design of the exhibit engages all ages, and even gives us a cat's eye view of the world; this humorous touch reflects the light-heartedness of many of the prints.

Cat face room divider.

Framing our view.

Cats were not indigenous to Japan but arrived on ships from China in the mid-sixth century, accompanying Buddhist scriptures and helping to keep these sacred documents safe from rodents.  Cats were well-integrated into Japanese households by the early ninth century, and appear throughout Japanese art, folklore, and literature.

Kuniyoshi, Housewife Swats Cat, 1845. Right, detail.
Of course, all cats, of whatever nationality, love fish, and are not shy about getting it. In the print above, a woman  makes a half-hearted attempt to stop a cat as it steals a piece of dried fish, or bonito. The cat doesn't look too concerned, does it?  Any exhibit of ukiyo-e, whether cat-themed or not, will feature wonderful textiles designs, such as the brown and white floral fabric of the housewife's kimono.

Sometimes the cat images are even part of the costume of the humans, as in the print below, depicting a famous kabuki theatre actor, Nozarashi Gosuke, who played a warrior with a trademark skull-patterned kimono. Cat-lover Kuniyoshi formed the skulls out of white cats cuddling together, somewhat softening the horror of this otherwise gruesome  imagery.

From the series, Men of Ready Money with True Labels Attached, 1845.

During periods of the 18th century, censors tried to restrict the content of woodblock prints in an effort to protect public morals. Images of beautiful courtesans, famous kabuki actors, and other entertainers  were prohibited.  During these periods of censorship artists' designs for prints had to be approved before the sheets could be made  and distributed; many of the prints in the exhibit have a censor's stamp on them. However,  artists could evade censorship by using anthropomorphic animal imagery in lieu of human forms. This led to a lot of cat pictures, or neko-e; moreover, it was believed that displaying these pictures in the home would scare away rats.

A popular form of street entertainment in the Edo period (1615-1868) was pole jumping, the acrobatic feat of jumping along the tops of upright poles. To get around the censorship restrictions against depicting popular diversions, artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) depicted a cat performer leaping across the tops of upright, giant bonito, sticks of dried fish. The bottom half of this print shows a fox about to snare a human, using - what else? - a sack of coins as bait. The print could be cut and each half sold separately.

Hiroshige, Cat Crossing to Eat, 1830-44.

Inexpensive and fashionable, woodblock prints were sold in shops such as the one re-created at the Edo-Tokyo history museum, in Tokyo. So many prints were reproduced the sheets would be used as packing material; when Westerners unwrapped imported Japanese ceramics, they discovered the prints, which had a big influence on the Impressionists, among other Western artists.

Book and print shop, Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Patrons at a print shop, Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Inexpensive prints, called  omocha-e or "toy pictures," were also produced for children, who clamored for coins from their parents to purchase these play things.  The print below, with the somewhat unwieldy title Newly Published Applications for Cats,  features feline paper dolls - children would cut out the fronts and backs of the cat figures, glue them together, and dress them in the paper clothes.

Utagawa Yoshifuji, 1868 - 1912.

Cat paper dolls, detail.

In addition to the prints, ink paintings and ceramics in the show, there were also cat-themed books available to browse. Here's a partial list of cat-related literature, in no particular order:

Tales of Old Japan, A.B. Mitford. Folktales for all age ISBN 978-0756782016. 
Won Ton, Lee Wardlaw.  Picture book featuring Haiku-speaking cat. ISBN 978-0805089950.
Cat Town, Sakutaro Hagiwara. Poems. ISBN 978-1590177754.
Cat Lady Chronicles,  Diane Lovejoy. Non-fiction, joy of cats by a sane cat lady. ISBN 978-8889854983.
The Guest Cat, Takashi Hiraide. Novel, stray cat moves in with couple, saves marriage. ISBN     978-0811221504.
Three Samurai Cats, Eric Kimmel. Picture book; samurai cat uses brains to outwit monster rat. ISBN 978-0823418770.

The exhibit catalog is Life of Cats Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection, Miwako Tezuka, ISBN 0-913304-61-1.

Finally, in addition to the preponderance of cute, cuddly cats depicted in the prints, there is also a long tradition of cats as alter egos of witches. In the image below, illustrating a kabuki actor in a role from a famous play based on legend, a cat in human form is shown in her true guise as lamplight reveals her cat head-shaped shadow. In front of her dance two fork-tailed demon cats - in folklore, cats who live a long time begin to wear human clothes, walk on their hind legs and comprehend human speech.

Gountei Sadahide, Cat Witch of Okabe, ca. 1840, detail.

Hmm...my cat turns fourteen next week - if he suddenly sports a kerchief, we'd better watch out!

My cat helping to pack table decorations, 2014.