A story.

September 12th, 2014

I keep many stories inside. Maybe I should start letting them out. Maybe I’d be less neurotic, less odd. I spent so many years around my family, certainly, trying to just say nothing and keep the peace. In the end, it did no good. Maybe if I’d been more open and less conflict-averse, things would have gone differently.

This is a story about a phone conversation I had with my stepmother, years ago. One of the last conversations I ever had with her, actually.

I asked after one of the family dogs, a dog from my childhood, how was she doing and so forth. In retrospect, it was an ignorant, silly question. Dogs have limited lifespans, and if she’d still been alive, it would have been a matter for the Guinness Book of World Records.

My stepmother laughed, a rather nasty laugh. “Oh, she’s been dead for ages. She had tick fever.  J___ (my father) shot her.” (“Tick fever” was their blanket label for what I’d call neglect, a culmination of bad diet, being confined to a yard caked in feces, extreme heat and cold, and the bare minimum of veterinary care.)

I started to weep. My stepmother continued, relentlessly. “It was really hot outside and the ground was too hard to dig a hole, so I put her in a garbage bag. Oh, are you crying? Ha ha, I didn’t mean to upset you, ha ha.”

There were more hideous details. I don’t remember how the call ended. I was sick imagining what had happened. It was all too easy to imagine, the poor dog getting old and sick, so sick that one day the humans had actually noticed. Then perhaps there’d been an argument with my father getting upset and emotional and my stepmother sarcastically poking at him. Then my father had gotten enraged, stomped away and grabbed his gun, and had blown a hole in my poor old dog’s head. I could imagine her surprise and her agony as she died.

Or not. Maybe that wasn’t what had happened at all. Maybe it was all very gentle and compassionate, with people having a mature discussion in which they decided to blow a gentle and compassionate hole in the dog’s head. However, if it had gone the way of drama and yelling, it would be unsurprising. That was most often the way things went in that household. One thing was certain: whatever had happened, it wasn’t what the dog deserved. She deserved tenderness and a last trip to the vet where she could float away without pain.

It angered me. Perhaps, fifty or sixty years ago, there were fewer choices about veterinary care, fewer options for keeping one’s dogs healthy and giving them a pain free death when the time came. Perhaps at that point, when your faithful old friend reached his or her end, the kindest thing you could do was to administer a bullet to the head. Perhaps that was simply the way things were when my father was a boy.

However, that is no longer the case. Around most moderately-sized towns, there are emergency veterinary clinics open around the clock. There are people available to help do what is necessary and to do it in a kind manner. If one has a pet, it behooves one to learn that information and keep it handy in case it’s needed. I’ve made that drive a few times myself. It’s horrible, but so much better than the alternatives.

Was it a matter of money, which seemed to be eternally in short supply in that household, despite their owning several airplanes, buying new cars, and having a plentiful supply of alcohol? Then why have pets or children at all, if one can’t provide for them? Why not put aside a little money each month for the inevitable? Why not ask me for the money, if it was so short? I would have gladly paid to have her euthanized.

Finally, what kind of person gets pleasure from delivering terrible news like that, from dragging out and embellishing the details? What kind of person laughs while she tells her stepdaughter about shooting her old dog and the body becoming stiff and stuffing her in a garbage bag?

I don’t understand any of it, any more than I can understand their other behavior over the years. I finally cut myself free and life is much better, but now and then I still hear echoes.

Why Knot?

September 3rd, 2014

I’m done. I’m done, done, done with the portrait which has been kicking my rump since May. Thank goodness: one more hour with it and I would have gone stark raving mad. Funny how one’s own creation can have that effect. Now I get to photograph it, show it to everyone, write a postmortem, and celebrate, right?

Well … sort of. I finished it just in time for a show deadline, that well-known exhibit in Ohio which showcases “contemporary innovative quilts” and routinely breaks 90% of applicants’ hearts. There’s just one thing about that show: they like their work super fresh. As in, not seen by much of anybody before it’s in their show. Oh, you can post photos on your own website, but if the images show up elsewhere, you’re disqualified. We all know how that goes, especially the celebrities who just had nude selfies stolen from their iCloud data: once it’s out there, it’s out of your control. Images can spread like malaria, with other users either willfully or innocently ignoring one’s copyright. I personally have had my photos spread around over the years, and there wasn’t so much as a titillating depiction of a nipple in the lot. During one particularly low point, I found my work being used as page backgrounds on MySpace; the images admittedly looked pretty amazing when juxtaposed with photos of drunk young women making duck face.

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to be deep-sixed from a show because my work doesn’t fit in, not because of silliness like my images getting reposted. Even though the risk may be minimal, it’s still non-zero. So. Compromise time. I’ll go ahead and write the postmortem, but illustrate it with pictures drawn by my son. (I’ve paid him $1/illustration. That seems fair; it’s about what high end publishers and stock photo agencies pay these days.) Then, come early October when notices go out, I’ll either celebrate and keep the portrait under wraps, or post the portrait and move on.

So here it isn’t, my newest work, Why Knot?


Simulacrum of Why Knot?

Why Knot? was inspired by watching my son practice knot tying, an exercise designed to torment the uninitiated. Knot tying is a Cub Scout rite of passage, along with using outhouses and hacking blocks of Ivory soap into crude golems of Polar bears. The Scouts have an unlimited supply of these activities, which are intended to somehow frustrate young men into becoming responsible citizens and members of society.

In Why Knot?, the metaphorical nightmare of becoming hopelessly engulfed in one’s own knots is made real. A docile length of rope should submit to being transformed into a half hitch or a sheepshank. Instead, the child’s hands are enveloped by a hideous tangled mass which threatens to swallow him up like a rope leviathan. His predicament is reflected in his expression of dismay.


Photography session

Although most of my work begins with a series of sketches, that wasn’t the case here. I knew I wanted a straightforward composition which honed in on the action. I needed a head-on medium shot, from the waist up, with one source light. Once I collected props and a white backdrop, I called in my son for a modeling session.

The boy is a good sport about modeling, even when one takes into account his innate greed and the fact that I pay him. He has a “rubber face”, able to assume any expression I could want.

After getting my camera set up, I came out from behind it and shot with a remote shutter control. This allowed the boy to relax a bit rather than concentrating on the camera. To encourage sincere facial expressions, I engaged him in unhappy topics such as “After this, I need you to pick up the dog feces that’s in the back yard.” and “How are those nine times tables coming?” The remote also made it easier to adjust his arm position as we worked, so that the mass of rope was neither blocking his face nor drooping out of the photo.

I took a lot of shots. My philosophy is that it’s better to have too many than too few. Sometimes one strikes gold with a single shot, and sometimes it’s necessary to composite multiple shots.



Retouching and compositing

After the photography session, I headed to the computer to review the photos and begin the compositing process. Thanks to the use of a white backdrop, knocking out the background was trivial. Further edits would require thought.

One of my goals with this piece was to try combining stitch with photo-printed fabric, a technique which is faddishly popular right now. However, I was concerned about avoiding the appearance of simply sewing on a photo, which so many pieces of this type have. Although I can absolutely see that working if, say, one is making an editorial statement – imagine playfully sewing devil’s horns over a photo of your least favorite politician – it isn’t the effect I strive for in my own work. I prefer to have the stitch and image layers unobtrusively meld into a harmonious whole.

I concluded that that there are two or three key factors at play. One is background/composition. Most people don’t have the luxury of staging photos exactly as they’d wish. They may be working with a single shot of a fleeting moment or a significant photo of a deceased loved one, an image which may have sentimental value for them. They can’t control the fact that there’s a hot pink Airstream trailer or a pair of belching smokestacks in the background, nor do they have the wherewithal to digitally blur or edit them out. Unfortunately, these are the types of distracting details which shout “photo”.

Another factor is the level of detail. Although some painters and other artists are photorealists, it’s unusual to see detail down to the level of individual blemishes or nostril hairs in textile art. Such information sends a signal to our brains that the base image is a photo. Also, when we have that level of fine detail in our base image, we often don’t know how to complement it with stitch. This can result in our obscuring the area with thread, leaving the area unstitched out of a sense of intimidation, or using a stitch which fights with the base image for attention.

A third issue I’ve seen is poor color or dynamic range, in which the source images are muddy or washed out and no correction has been done. Although that may not signal that the base image is a photo, it can drain much of the life from a composition.

With these factors in mind, I adjusted the dynamic range of my image, then edited it to have a more painterly appearance. Using Photoshop, I carefully brushed and smoothed out areas of unnecessary detail while retaining crispness around the eyes, mouth, and base of the nose.


The infamous “Pretzle” knot

The final step in image preparation was selecting a background. I wanted the boy in the foreground to be juxtaposed against a knot-tying guide, one of those instruction cards which depicts a dizzying array of unlikely-looking knots for every occasion. The canonical knot guide is, of course, the Boy Scouts’. However, I didn’t want to violate their copyright by simply reproducing theirs. Instead, I searched for knot illustrations through stock agencies and actually paid money for a piece of stock art. Guess what? When I compared it to the Scouts’ after the fact, the illustration was exactly the same!

However, the names on the knot guide seemed a little tame. Who wants to tie a Double Overhand when you can whip up a Squid’s Beak or Lord Baden’s Scowl? With the assistance of my spouse and a glass or two of wine, I came up with my own list of suitable knot names, which I composited into the image.

Before I forget, I should acknowledge the similarity between my composition and Norman Rockwell’s Tattoo Artist, which depicts a figure against background full of tattoo designs.

I didn’t have his painting in mind when I began my portrait, but once I remembered it, I did inspect it for ideas. I didn’t end up modifying my design as a result, but it was nice to have Rockwell’s company along the way.


Flatulent dog

In the illustration above, we see a dog passing gas. This has nothing to do with the topic at hand, getting the composite image for Why Knot? printed on fabric. After reading reviews and considering my options, I outsourced the printing to Spoonflower. Although there are a number of businesses which will do a good job, I was pleased with Spoonflower’s online help and their ordering mechanism, which meant that I wouldn’t have to interact with another human being.

Printing and shipping took approximately forever, which is unsurprising given the popularity of Spoonflower’s service and the fact that I paid the bare minimum for shipping and production. Want it faster? Pay more. When the fabric did arrive, I was quite pleased with the general quality of the print, which was a crisp reproduction of the file I’d submitted. Now all I had to do was sew.

Although the stitching was in some sense the least complex part of the project, it took weeks. I guess that makes sense given that the stitching is in some sense the heart of making a quilt-based portrait, the reason we’re using fiber rather than some other medium. Stitch gives us an opportunity to enhance the base image and add texture.

I spent many, many hours listening to NPR and TED talks while I stitched, learning about the hideous spread of Ebola and wondering why I’m a slacker compared to those people on TED. TED speakers are out piecing together solar arrays from sticks and used aluminum foil, asking why the universe exists, and making fungus-embedded suits to decompose their bodies after death. I’m just sewing away while my weiner-basset passes gas beneath my work table. (Maybe I could do something with that, harness the dog’s flatulence as an alternative energy source. I can see myself on the TED stage, showing slides of a group of dogs with gas-collecting funnels duct taped to their rumps.)

After stitching, I made adjustments with ink and paint, enhancing shadows and highlights. Did the boy’s hair look bristly enough, reminiscent of a hedgehog? Check. Did he look appalled enough? Check. Did the rope have a convincing texture? Check. Had I beaten the portrait into submission, so that it laid flat? Mostly.

Although it can be hard to know when a piece is truly finished, sometimes we reach a state of exhaustion, can’t see straight, and conclude that it’s “done enough”. After five months, I’d reached that state. It was time to send the portrait off into the world to seek its fortune.

What I did on my summer naycation

August 18th, 2014

Show stuff: The Thief will be at IQF Houston this fall, and Flooded is making an appearance at the AQS show in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I hope there’ll soon be more show news, provided that I get my rump in gear.

Ten weeks ago, this was the scene in the morning:



This was the scene that afternoon, the last day of school:



I had all sorts of plans for the summer. I was going to be super productive and crank out a bunch of artwork. The boy and I were going to build a hovercraft, a go-kart, and a bird feeder. This is what actually got done, a “water blob” made from a water-filled sheet of plastic whose ends were fused together. It began leaking by the next morning. “Oh, let’s drain it and drape it over the bench,” I told the boy, “I’ll get out the iron and fix it later.”

It’s still on the bench.



Other than worksheets, acting and ice skating camps, and drilling the boy on math, we didn’t get too much done. We did get out a bit, though, and visited the Pez Museum in Burlingame. $4 total for a personal tour by the proprietor, who’s a super nice guy. Such a deal!



We went to the amusement park. Dear lord, did we go to the amusement park.



This milestone occurred. I suspect that deodorant and other significant events will soon be in the offing.



We celebrated Father’s Day by tying a ribbon around a box of spark plugs that happened to be laying on the dining room table. I figured it was the least I could do. Note the Mobius Strip bow on the bottom center package.



We tromped all over Lick Observatory, way up on Mount Hamilton. I may very well have set a new world record for becoming car sick on both the journey up and back, despite the fact that I was driving and was therefore theoretically in control of what occurred.



We visited the Carmel Mission Basilica, a gorgeous remnant of California’s colonial mission system.




Since Carmel is right by the ocean, we sent the boy in for a dip, which coincidentally washed off a few days worth of dirt.



I took many awful, blurry photos of cars at the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in Danville.



Here’s a sight one doesn’t see every day – these were, I think, in a shopping center in Danville. Group crapping, anyone? (To the tune of Dueling Banjos.)



We took in the water temple in Sunol, which I’d driven past for years but had never seen up close.



At some point I looked at my studio, realized that it needed cleaning, then thought better of it. It’s still a disaster. I’m trying to care.



We made our annual pilgrimage to the Adventure Playground in Berkeley, one of only a couple of adventure playgrounds left in the U.S..



A new motorcycle was acquired. (There goes the neighborhood.)


I chaperoned three days worth of Cub Scout camp, which felt like an eternity but was quite a bit less than many other parents did. I also demonstrated my capacity for bellowing, which horrified the other adults.



This summer I read an article which indicated that many people are depressed by Facebook, due to the relentlessly positive and unrealistic depictions of others’ lives. I vowed that I would offset this by showcasing some of the worst and messiest aspects of my life, so that people could feel good in comparison. My vow lasted for a couple of photos, then I forgot about it.

The dining room table still pretty much looks like this, only now it’s covered with books, Lego, and Hexbugs.



The boy and I visited the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito. He’s mostly aged out of it, but it was fun.





We walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s incredibly noisy.



We took in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum in the city.




Later we visited Yerba Buena Gardens, which has this ridiculously short maze (How are you supposed to lose your child?), then tried making an animation at the Children’s Creativity Museum.



There were Cub Scout events, bowling and this water fight. It’s nice to see that the boy hasn’t lost his penchant for sticking strange objects on his head.



We headed down to Big Sur.



One of the murals in the restroom at Nepenthe.



A brief hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park led us to this nice waterfall overlook.



Down near San Simeon, we ran across a large group of elephant seals. From the highway, they look like giant flaccid sacks of laundry.



Hearst Castle.





A giant mucous plug of rock, which some now-dead volcano once rather rudely sneezed out.



My husband scored an awesome hotel for us, which I relished. There were gardens, deer, woodpeckers, and jays.




After the Big Sur trip, we visited a horribly overcrowded Lego show, where we nevertheless managed to do a little shopping:



I decided that since the boy is beginning to hide out in his room more, it should be arranged to look more like a lounge. This weekend we scurried around and found pillows, and I spent a day sewing covers. (I didn’t choose the color scheme!)



This was the scene this morning, as the boy headed back to school. I imagine that if anyone asks what he did this summer, he’ll say “Oh, not much.”



It’s time for me to get back to work.




June 1st, 2014

This arrived in my mailbox:



A nice surprise. One of my pieces is in the current edition of American Quilter.



Whoever handles their layout/retouching does a nice job. This is one of the most accurate reproductions of this particular quilt that I’ve seen.



Last week I bought a planer. It was on sale due to Mother’s Day or to honor deceased veterans or some such. I put a yucky, rough board through it. The planer transformed it into a satin-smooth length of wood with beautiful figure. I am in love.


So in love, in fact, that I made a cozy for the planer. I briefly considered a touch of machine embroidery, too. “Planer”. You know, in case I confuse this tool with the lathe or the drill press or the table saw, none of which it resembles in the least.

I like to keep my tools nice and clean, wipe them off after use and cover them after they cool off. I have no idea whether that makes them last longer, but it makes me happy. I don’t suppose Quilting Arts Gifts wants projects like this, “Cozies For Every Tool in the Shop”? No. I didn’t think so. There probably aren’t too many folks who work with both fiber and wood. There are probably even fewer who want their tools covered with chintz or a bold botanical print.

Actually, the real reason I made the planer cozy is that I’m going nuts with impatience. I thought I’d imitate the cool kids, you see, and have some fabric printed up at Spoonflower. I duly made a digital painting and sent it off, but didn’t pay rush fees for production or shipping. Tomorrow will mark two weeks since I sent the file off. The order’s current status reads “We estimate that this order will be shipped in the next couple of days.” I found that encouraging last Thursday or Friday. Now I’m wondering if I will see the shipment by the end of the week.

This isn’t meant as criticism of Spoonflower, by the way. Their production isn’t taking much longer than any other commercial printing I’ve ever had done. It’s just that if I’d thought about it and added up the numbers, I might have either said “You know, I should really pay a rush fee” or “2 1/2 – 3 weeks is too much of a delay before starting on this project. I’ll be better off if I just slap paint on the cloth myself.” I may very well end up doing that anyhow if the print isn’t what I expected.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Please may the order get here before I’m forced to make another shopping bag or a cozy for the lathe. I only have five days before school is out and I’ll have to somehow shoehorn this new project in around child care.

Making it

May 27th, 2014



Here’s the latest. It’s a filler project, the sort of thing one does while tapping one’s foot and waiting impatiently for art supplies to arrive.

A few years ago, for environmental reasons, communities in California’s Bay Area began phasing out the use of one-use plastic shopping bags. That led to my purchasing reusable polypropylene bags, many of which are now wearing out. When I get a few minutes now and then, I make sturdier replacement bags from fabric. Hopefully this is a net positive for the environment, plus it never fails to remind me how much I genuinely don’t enjoy utility sewing and can’t wait to get back to making artwork. (When will my supplies arrive?)

This bag, which I just finished, is almost entirely made of leftovers: narrow batik slivers, hideous substrate fabric, salvaged batting, old cotton bedsheets, leftover quilted strips. These are the sorts of things which anyone else would have the sense to throw out or send to a fabric recycler.

To create the bags, I first make a sort of Frankenfabric by fusing the batik slivers to substrate fabric, then make the standard sandwich from that, batting, and the sheeting. The quilting is a good opportunity to try out different stitching motifs, or so I tell myself until the process becomes annoying.


Here’s an interior shot of the bag, showing  the bedsheet lining. This lining happens to be blue. I tend to wear giant holes in the middle of our bedsheets, leaving vast swaths of fairly decent cotton around the edges of the sheets. While I’d be reluctant to use these pieces in a serious project, they can get a decent second life in shopping bags. When I’m doing some dyeing, I throw these chunks into the dye bath as well, so that I have a ready supply of hippie fabrics. You know, in case a wormhole sucks my house back to 1969.


Here are some of the quilted strips from which I form bag handles. I have many yards of these things, a result of my trimming off the edges of art quilts to square them up. They’re pretty densely stitched, so they’re fairly sturdy. After serging the raw edges of these trimmings, I color them with some old fabric paint that I’m trying to use up. That helps them give a more unified look with whatever bag I’m creating. It may also help disguise some of the filth inherent in being carried around or thrown in the back of the car.



Sometimes there are odd bits left over after one has cut out the rectangles for the bags. These make decent bookmarks, coasters, and cup cozies. I have no idea whether any of the Native Americans in the family tree chased down and ate buffalo. However, the old story about their using every part including the dung comes to mind when I’m considering these fabric tidbits.

Alright. One bag down. I hope the art supplies arrive before I’m forced to make another.


Several weeks ago, I read a Slate article on 3D printers.

3D printing is an enticing, exciting technology. Although 3D printers have been around for years, interest is ramping up. Everywhere you look, it seems that people are doing inane or amazing things with 3D printing – printing pancakes, printing dental casts, trying to print with cells so as to create human replacement organs. The temptation is strong to go build one and experiment oneself. How hard could it be?

Then I think about what I would probably do with such a device: print up a few flimsy replacement parts for broken things, then fill my house with hideous little printed sculptures. After a month or so, I’d grow bored or distracted and the printer would begin to gather dust along with the iPhone microscope, child washing station, PVC marshmallow shooter, and other things I just had to build. In the meantime, technology would continue to advance and new, more efficient, less costly printers would come to market. Such is life on the bleeding edge.


The kid wash, used here to form a low rent water slide. It totally makes sense to build a water toy in an area experiencing serious drought. See Instructables for a parts list and how-to.


Thus, I found myself nodding in sympathy with Seth Stevenson’s description of trying to print out a simple bottle opener. Oodles of expensive plastic filament wasted, jammed nozzles, plastic blobs generated, printer giving up halfway through a job. Yep. Standard stuff when the kinks are being ironed out of a developing technology. I’m sure these sorts of issues will steadily get resolved, but at the moment there just isn’t a compelling reason for me or most other consumers to run out and buy or build a 3D printer. I’m not doing a lot of whizzy product design which requires prototypes, nor am I doing medical research so that people can walk into a doctor’s office and have a new kidney printed on the spot. I’m not in a situation where the benefits of this technology outweigh the current annoyances. Besides – if I get the yen to print, the local library has a 3D printer.

I found myself nodding in sympathy, that is, until I got to this paragraph:

“Consider: Once upon a time, people purchased sewing patterns (like a program from Thingiverse) and yards of fabric (like filament) and they made their own clothes. I wasn’t alive back then, but I’m pretty sure the process sucked. It took lots of time and effort and the clothes were often amateurishly constructed. Sure, consumer sewing machines got better, and made things faster and easier and more professional looking. But nowadays, save for DIY fashion enthusiasts and grandmas with lots of time on their hands, people aren’t buying many at-home sewing machines. They’re a novelty item with little practical purpose. Most people would much rather just get their clothes from a store—already assembled by people employing industrial-level efficiency and a wide variety of materials.”

Bwaaaa? Speak for yourself, Buddy.

I’m neither a DIY fashion enthusiast nor a grandma. My sewing machine is not a “novelty item with little practical purpose.” It’s a tool, one tool in an arsenal of tools with which I create or repair. I have tools for woodworking, gardening, repairing plumbing and circuits, and so forth. I used to have automotive tools until I threw that task at my husband. (I can repair cars. I really don’t enjoy it.)

My sewing machine probably gets more use than all of the other tools combined, with the possible exception of the plunger. Perhaps Stevenson could have chosen a more accurate analogy.

Alexandra Lange, an architecture and design critic, has also written a response to this article, “3D Printers have a lot to learn from the sewing machine”. She makes several points which didn’t occur to me.

Hmph. “Novelty item with little practical purpose” my foot.

The Thief

May 20th, 2014


I’m calling this done. Its title is The Thief; it’s based on a true story.

One day when my kid was slouched on the couch devouring a hot dog, our hound snuck below him, sort of submarining beneath his legs, and started chomping the other end. Of course, when such moments occur, one usually doesn’t have a camera at hand. Even if one does have a camera ready, the lighting and composition aren’t likely to be great; life’s snapshots may be enjoyable and inspiring, but they don’t necessarily make for good source material.

Fortunately, if one has models who are mercenary, a few props, and some rudimentary ability to sketch, one can bring one’s ideas to life.



What comes next? I’m tossing around ideas and have a couple of things in process. Here’s a clue:




Sometimes it’s hard to crank up again after a long project. At such times I like to remember Chuck Close’s statement, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work”. Sometimes when I show up and get to work, I become enthralled with whatever I’m doing – or realize that I hate it and I’d rather be doing a different project. Either way works.

I do constantly find myself falling into making portraits or scenes. From a career standpoint, it’s kind of a shame; I don’t feel that they get as much respect as, say, abstracts or cubist-inspired works. Part of that may be due to the subject matter, which some may equate with gawdawful collectable plates with decals of large-eyed dogs, or Kincaid’s Paintings of Shite. I’ve also encountered an obnoxious (not to mention wildly inaccurate) “Oh, how nice; you took a photo and put it on a wallhanging” attitude. However, I enjoy telling stories. Most of the stories I tell are lighthearted, simply because I start to emotionally drown if things get too heavy. Too much violence and abuse witnessed and experienced. I can deal with other people’s trauma, but I can’t deal with my own.

Alright. Onward. Less than three weeks of school left, which means that I’d better get cranking. It’s great having the boy around and I wouldn’t miss it for the world, but things are naturally different. More coaching him through building catapults and drawing zombies, less slapping paint and thread on fabric. Focus and efficiency are required.

We’re almost through Hell Month, which is what I call the portion of May which includes my birthday, Mother’s Day, and our wedding anniversary. Can you imagine what a marital minefield this must be for my husband, or would be for anybody? I can barely get through choosing one present for him that isn’t lame, and that’s with holidays a month or more apart. He always dances through with great savoir-faire, though. A mango-raspberry mousse cake for my birthday, dinners out, roses, a full complement of presents for every occasion (Emerald earrings! A book on Mary Blair! Bluetooth headphones!) My sister-in-law and parents-in-law were similarly kind. It was one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had, actually, relaxed and free of angst. I am grateful.

I’ll close with this song from Gunhill Road, which has been ringing around in my brain. It’s from the era when men cultivated entire forests of hair on their bodies and my parents’ marriage was taking its last pitiful, violent wheezes.

I guess Gunhill Road made several versions, at least one of which has a less oblique reference to drugs. I like the contemplative cycle-of-life lyrics of this one, though.

Back from London

April 26th, 2014



Interior courtyard of the V&A, London

Lest I forget to mention it, here’s a website which has given me much pleasure, Collectors Weekly. From its title, I’d expect tedious articles about buying vintage cow-shaped creamers off EBay or the worth of grandma’s poodle skirt. Instead, it’s full of wonderful long form journalism about culture and design. A history of chopines, the use of government surplus tools at the Exploratorium, an analysis of Frida Kahlo’s lost wardrobe. Thanks to this website, I suddenly realized that the clattering mass of keys, ID badge and so forth worn by my son’s teacher is a modern day version of a chatelaine.

Design is on my mind. I got back from London a week or so ago. While there I made a pilgrimage to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which modestly bills itself as “The World’s Greatest Museum of Art and Design”.  I haven’t made an extensive survey, so perhaps it is; its collections are large and varied, ranging from sculpture to fashion to ironwork. I’m not a huge fan of ironwork, mind you, but it’s nice to know that if I get a yen to study it, a great collection is just a jet ride away.

I don’t talk about my formal art education much. The truth is that I had to assemble it in bits and pieces, taking art classes during the scant hours when I wasn’t making Z particles at a particle accelerator. My side pursuit wasn’t particularly well respected, so I had to do this in a desultory manner. Announcing that one had taken an art history course – one of the most marvelous classes I’ve ever taken, since it tracked the course of human history – was akin to passing gas in an elevator. Far better to stick to magnetic fields and relativistic charged particles.

At some point, for reasons I don’t quite remember, I enrolled in a graphic design program. I studied for years, only to drop out when I lost patience with my instructors. All were practicing designers here in Silicon Valley, with big name contracts. One would think that exposure to high quality design and business acumen would be a great educational advantage. However, the instructors increasingly seemed unaware of up-and-coming movements, such as 3D CGI, and they were loathe to share their business expertise. Worse yet, there was a sneering attitude toward my landing design and illustration contracts. I was supporting myself off my artwork by that time. I dropped out just short of the end, thereby depriving myself of yet another class in typography or Archaic Ways with Rubylith or whatever the heck they had in mind to torture aspiring graduates.

So there you have it, my secret shame. I have a physics degree, but I’m a design school dropout. I can never apply to organizations which require an art or design degree.

A couple of years after dropping out, I was at a gold rush era startup. I needed to outsource a design project. My mind immediately turned to a former instructor, a fellow who’d impressed me with his demeanor and design expertise. I wanted the best for the company.

I duly phoned him and mentioned the project and the company. Its name evidently didn’t ring a bell, despite the fact that it had been much in the news. I think it’s still on the top ten list for first day stock price gains. Thanks to the CEO’s ethics and business acumen, the company had strong fundamentals and some truly brilliant employees.

“I don’t do small projects,” my former instructor replied snottily. Ah. Sorry to hear that. He didn’t sound interested in the project, so I didn’t trouble him with the fact that it had a six figure budget. Perhaps that would be too small for his shop. I ended up using an agency from San Francisco, a very professional and talented group of people who bent over backward to do an excellent job.

Awhile back, I poked around to see how my former instructor was doing. Judging by the street address, his work space had downsized from nice offices in Palo Alto to a small shop run out of his house. His website was very buggy and barely functioned on a tablet. Not good, given that part of his business involved web design.

Rude to a former student, unaware of current business events, hadn’t kept up with design and technology trends. Perhaps there’s a connection between these events and his having to teach in order to supplement his income. Perhaps that was true of many of the people at that school.

As for me, I did four years at the startup, then left in a not entirely gracious manner, although I did try to protect the company’s interests. They were good people and I learned and gained a great deal there, but things went sour. Day after day after day of high stress tends to bring out the worst in people. Some people destroyed the company’s property on their way out (computers, data, lawsuits, damning press releases). Some people destroyed themselves (suicide by hanging). I left quietly one morning, after a few weeks of back-and-forth with my VP and money being dangled, then coming in around five A.M. to ensure that I’d left emergency manuals and a paper trail that someone else could follow. By eight A.M. I’d locked up paperwork, passwords and my badge and left the key for my VP.

Then I came home. I pounded the crap out of the floors in my house, chiseling out old defective oak boards and banging in new ones each time an angry thought came into my brain. It didn’t help that every time I’d go to the library or a  bookstore, I’d see work I’d done staring at me from the backs of magazines. Work I couldn’t even admit to doing, because the company would really prefer to not have it known that they’d used a rendering rather than a photo. It was emotionally similar to going through a divorce. The floors in my house took a great deal of abuse. Better that than taking it out on the company, though. These things happen. They really weren’t bad people. It was just time to go.

I have a good and easy life, thanks in part to the startup. I have a great husband and a kid. I get to stay home and work on my artwork and other projects without regard for whether they will please anyone else. Now and then I get to visit places like the V&A in London.

Reckon I can’t complain.

On projects, 3D, and stitched photos

January 25th, 2014

I keep hoping for bad weather. Bad weather would give me an excuse to huddle inside during the daylight hours, finish some art projects, maybe engage my kid in board games or Lego modeling. Alas, while the rest of North America is getting the foo walloped out of it, the weather here is consistently pleasant: clear skies, temperatures in the sixties or seventies during the daytime. That’s about to be a problem, since the record lack of rainfall here and dearth of snow in the Sierras will lead to a nasty drought. Water rationing is ahead, methinks, along with my shambling out to the garden with buckets of water salvaged from luxurious two minute showers.


I’m getting some stitching done nevertheless, although the work on the skin is tedious. I break up work/stretching cycles by listening to NPR or TED talks. Thus, the section outlined in green occurred during NPR Fresh Air’s “Klansville, U.S.A.” (37 minutes), and the section outlined in blue occurred during Luke Syson’s TED talk (13 minutes). And here I go focussing on the “how” (number of stitches, number of spools of thread used, techniques) rather than the “why” (drive behind the artwork). Perhaps the how is simply easier to talk about than the why.

While working, it occurred me that I’d really like to see a book which focussed on fiber art series, each artist showing 5-6 works in a particular series and talking about the “why”. Not a guide to working in series, not a how-to or exercise book, but rather a gallery in which people talked about their series. If someone could bribe Martha Sielman to create this book, I’d buy a copy. She’s done a wonderful job on the Art Quilt Portfolio series, as well as the Masters: Art Quilts books.

I stumbled across this the other day while cleaning my desk. Do you know what it is?


It’s an early 3D print, a functioning roller bearing. As in, it was printed out in this form with contained bearings. It was made by, I think, infusing layers of cornstarch with CA (Cyanoacrylate). Z Corporation was handing them out at SIGGRAPH, circa ’95 or ’99. (Yes, it is true. I don’t clean my desk very often.)

I remember watching their print head splutter back and forth across a bed of white powder, and realizing the possibilities. Yes, this particular roller bearing might be made of cornstarch and might not be particularly strong or operate smoothly. However, the potential was there. The potential for individuals to prototype or fabricate whatever was in their dreams.

Now, some fifteen or twenty years later, 3d printers are becoming mainstream. My local library has one. HP is muttering about making one. For a few hundred dollars, you can make one. Artists and tinkerers use them to create sculptures or Lego components. There’s talk about sending 3D printers on space missions so as to print spare parts or, for all I know, food. People have models of their fetuses printed to commemorate their pregnancies. There’s ongoing research in printing replacement organs for people, organs based on the person’s own cells. Imagine that, being able to print a new liver or kidney which wouldn’t be rejected, instead of waiting for a donation with all that that implies.


Under the category of TMI, or more than you ever wanted to know about me, here’s a 3D print commissioned by my dentist. I had some work-related stress which led to grinding and cracking my molars. That in turn led to dental visits and crowns. Even if one has a marvelous dentist, which I do (drop me an email if you’re in Silicon Valley and you want a referral), getting a crown isn’t fun. My dentist would do what he could to make it less ghastly, including plopping headphones on me so I could listen to music as he worked. However, there would still be a mouth full of nasty dental alginate while a mold was made, as well as drool. Lots and lots of drool.

Not anymore.

The last time I needed a crown, Dr. Smith got out a scanning wand. In a matter of minutes, my mouth had been scanned and a 3D computer model was made of my teeth. He sent the model off to a lab where a 3D print was made of the relevant area, then a mold to fabricate a crown. Fast, accurate, less annoying. No slobbery alginate! He even let me keep the 3D print. Any time I feel the urge to grind my teeth, I can do it with the 3D print instead of the teeth in my mouth.

That is the power of 3D printing, the power of 3D imaging period. I think that, increasingly, 3D visualization will be a good skill for people to have.


My Pinewood Derby car

It doesn’t all have to be about printing Klein bottles or fabricating parts for astronauts on their way to Mars. Here’s a Pinewood Derby car I made, which was based on a 3D model. It’s hard to get much more mundane than that!


The boy’s car

The Pinewood Derby is a race held for Cub Scouts. The boys carve cars from chunks of wood, then send these monstrosities careening madly down a track whilst hooting at each other. My son knew he wanted his car to be a coffin on wheels, but what should I make for the other car, the one to be entered in the family race?


Enter the 3D program. I made a virtual block of wood, the same size as the block issued in Pinewood Derby kits, then began messing with it. I didn’t know what I was trying to make, but I had a general idea of narrowing the body behind the front tires and tapering the front and the back. As I altered the block digitally, it dawned on me that it looked a bit like an ant! Well, why not?


After just a bit more work refining the top and side cross sections, I arrived at some drawings that I could paste on the side of the wood block, then cut out on the band saw.


Here’s the final product, which I’ve dubbed the Mandiblur. (“Mandible” from the fact it’s an ant + “blur”, a touch of optimistic hubris.) It really is quite handy to be able to visualize things before you build them.

Here’s some other work I’ve been doing, although it’s not original. These are from some (free!) video tutorials offered by Little Web Hut, the artistic equivalent of slavishly duplicating a quilt from somebody else’s pattern. I encourage anyone who has the least bit of interest in learning Blender to go check these tutorials out. The speaker has a clear, well-organized style.


Rendered view


Wireframe for comparison, to drive home the fact that this is an object and image we’ve created on the computer.



Rendered view


Wireframe for comparison

The one with the peppers amuses me. I’m not sure what the backstory is, why we’re hurling virtual peppers into a tank of virtual water, but it made for an interesting simulation. Maybe they’re dirty peppers, peppers we picked or purchased, and we happened to have an aquarium full of water standing by for just such an occasion. Yes, I think about such things. (Evidently it runs in the family, too. Last night my son asked my husband about a cartoon character, “Why is he able to shoot laser beams out of his eyes?” My husband looked at him incredulously. “Let’s get this straight. We have a cartoon character who’s a giant bearded package of french fries, and you’re asking me whether it makes sense that he can shoot laser beams out of his eyes?”)

I made these in Blender 3D, a 3D modeling and animation package which is free for the download. Some denigrate the software but, you know, it’s free and has tons of features. I’m sure its competitors such as Maya are very nice, but Maya costs a few thousand dollars. I can stay busy for quite awhile with the features in Blender.

Where I may be headed … I’ve always loved working in 3D. It’s utterly enchanting to be able to bring the worlds, the ideas in one’s head, to life. I may want to experiment with printing some renders on fabric and augmenting them with stitch. It’s a natural progression from my modus operandi of painting on fabric and stitching over the paintings. Really, though, it depends on the style of the render and whether stitching adds anything.

One obvious corollary is people printing photos on fabric and stitching over them. Alas, I’ve seen very few examples of quilted photos on fabric that I’ve cared for. There is some wonderful work out there which was informed by photography. Mardal and Hougs’ stitched fiber paintings come to mind, as do Jayne Gaskins’ and Carol Shinn’s densely stitched, photorealistic images.

Alas, many examples of stitched photography suffer from muddy hues, poor dynamic range, badly composed photos, poor image editing, and the stitch remaining a separate, jarring visual layer from the imagery. The latter is perhaps the greatest “sin” in my mind, rendering the whole exercise moot. The stitch contributes nothing. It’s as though a four-year-old shoved an 8×10 through a sewing machine: there is no unified whole.

That might not be an issue in the case of, say, making an editorial statement. For example, if one stitched horns over the forehead of a reviled politician, that would constitute a statement even if the stitch layer remained jarringly separate. By and large, though, that isn’t what’s happening.

Thus, we shall see if my experiment in printing renders on fabric then augmenting them with stitch pans out. I may very well end up with some expensive, laboriously created liners for the dog’s bed!

But is it art?

December 21st, 2013

Before I forget, happy holidays to everyone:


This is from this year’s Christmas cards. I should have aligned the text differently for the screen. It looks rather uncomfortable sitting there, left aligned but relating to nothing else on the page. But, you know, lazy. Hand me some spiked eggnog and watch me get even lazier.

I never thought I’d view cold weather as a luxury, but my perspective has changed this year. I spent the fall clambering up and down ladders, repairing and repainting the house. I was out there so long that I became notorious among the neighbors, with the lady across the street repeatedly asking “aren’t you done yet?” and a few women making pointed comments about having “a man” do something. (Because, I don’t know, maybe the dangly bits act as ballast so men aren’t as likely to fall off ladders? Surely there’s some logical reason for specifically suggesting “a man” beyond sexism?)

For their part, men would stop by on their walks and chat companionably about ladders and air compressors. “Yep, that’s a GOOD ladder you have there,” one elderly man wheezed, “My son-in-law, his ladder wasn’t good. He fell off, got hurt really bad.” They would often bring dogs along, so I got sniffed and licked by many neighborhood hounds. That was nice.

In addition to painting, I sprayed foam insulation in every crack I could find. We had rats in the attic last year. I don’t hate rats, but I don’t want them up in my attic having turf wars and extramarital sex, growing fat on Cheetohs stolen from hapless schoolchildren. I don’t enjoy the whole live trap and peanut butter toast thing, loading bewildered rats in the car and deporting them to distant fields. (Where, no doubt, they’re simply killed by hawks instead of me.) The problem is, rats are smarter than me. Darned if I could tell where they were getting in and out of the house. Although spray foam won’t stop them from getting in – in fact, they’ll snicker at me while they chew through it – maybe the evidence of chewing will tell me where they’re getting in. That would be something. I really don’t want to call an exterminator and have them killed.

There’s more to do out there but – oh dear – cold weather is here! Gosh, I just don’t feel up to shoveling or shredding when it’s thirty or forty degrees out. Nope, I’ll just have to hole up inside until the afternoon, when it warms up a bit. I’ll just have to do inside things.


Things like this, for example. Get yourself some squashed toilet paper tubes, some spray paint, a few red beads from the junk jar in the laundry room, and you’ve got a low rent wreath. Is there anything toilet paper tubes can’t do?

I glued eyelet to the individual panes of the window, too. The yellowed, 1970s-era door curtain finally got to me. It spoke of stained shag carpet, dim rooms, and people chain smoking around a 13″ TV set. It turns out that the eyelet provides a pretty good degree of privacy and lets in a gentle glow as well. If we grow to despise the eyelet, it’ll scrape right off with a razor blade.



Perler beads. Why did I think that we needed TWO LARGE CONTAINERS of fusible beads? We have an energetic male child. I’ve engaged him in craft projects. He prefers to bash things with foam swords and swing from chandeliers. In fact, one of his fantasies is that I’ll build him a zip line with a chandelier hanging off it, so he can simultaneously go down a zip line and swing from a chandelier.

Anyhow, it turns out that if you smear vegetable oil on the inside of a glass bowl, put Perler beads inside, and put the whole mess in the oven awhile, you can make yourself a flimsy, ugly bowl. It’s a far less tedious process than making anything else with these beads. It also is reminiscent of Dominic Wilcox’s War Bowls, which I covet greatly.



Perler bead Minecraft gear. I have no idea why anyone would want this stuff, but my kid was delighted with it. He spent one entire dinner whacking at a roll with the little axe, which I guess says nothing good about the level of etiquette we adhere to in this household.



iPhone microscope. This conversion stand, which includes a lens filched from a laser pointer, allows one to use a smartphone as a digital microscope. I found the instructions over on the Instructables site, courtesy of Yoshinok.

Aside from the phone, the project is incredibly cheap. All it requires is some acrylic, a few nuts and bolts, the lens from a cheap laser pointer, and a chunk of wood. Here we can see the microscope lined up to magnify a dime.



Another view of the iPhone microscope, with FDR’s metal visage onscreen. I should really find a teensy LED flashlight in case we want backlighting. You know – for that theoretical day when I manage to tear my kid away from Minecraft and bashing things with foam swords and force him to inspect the world around us.



Here are a couple of recent print appearances of my work. This one is from the latest issue of International Quilt Festival: Quilt Scene, which had a gallery of some of the work at IQF Houston. My portrait, Under the Ginkgo Tree, is on the left. Karen Eckmeier’s Random Rose Garden is on the facing page.

I appreciate being featured in the magazine. That has to be a job and a half, combing through several hundred works to decide which to show, not to mention the layout and design. It looks as though they tried to feature a wide variety of styles and techniques. I hope that’s inspiring for those who couldn’t make it to the show.



This is from Mary Kerr’s Cutting-Edge Art Quilts, which was published earlier this year. I was happy to see that she and the publisher did a wonderful job. Tasteful layout, interesting information, nice variety in terms of style and technique.

Yeah, that conservative-looking woman in the little postage stamp-sized photo is me. If I had known that photos of the artists would be required, I wouldn’t have submitted work. However, I would have missed out on being in a nice book. I won’t be offended if people who own a copy draw a mustache on my face.



Another spread, this time featuring Creepy Boy, Siesta, and Suspicion. One of my friends squinted at this photo and asked “What’s that pink hairy nipple thing in the lower righthand corner?” Well, thanks. From now on, when I see Suspicion, I’m going to think “pink hairy nipple thing” rather than “napping flamingo”.

It’s good to see Creepy Boy in print. I never submitted him to any shows because I didn’t think he’d be well received. People who see him in person usually shudder and go “ewwww!” However, it’s actually one of the pieces I’ve found most effective.



Whee! I can use a plugin to create a tree skeleton!

Meanwhile, I’m off studying Objective C and Blender 3D.  There are things I want to do.

I’ve missed doing 3D CGI. Aside from some product-related 3D work for advertising, I mostly had to put it aside during the goldrush era, when I was frolicking at one of those infamous Silicon Valley startups. Then there was the whole having-a-baby thing. That period doesn’t last forever, it’s an investment in the future, and I kind of feel one should be present to whatever degree one can. However, it sure can bring other pursuits to a screeching halt, particularly if there isn’t outside childcare.

Time marches on. Kids’ needs for intense, constant attention taper off as they continue down the long path toward independence and adulthood. There’s school, peers, outside interests. I’m now at the point of having to schedule regular outings with my kid, to ensure that the time doesn’t simply ooze by unmarked and that he has memories other than my badgering him about penmanship and multiplication tables. For the parent, it can be like a miniature version of a midlife crisis: “Wow. I have more time. Who am I? What was I doing when this all began? What do I want to do now?”

Well, I miss working in 3D. I miss making my own strange little worlds. I have no idea how or whether my 3D work will tie in with my fiber work or portraits. I’m simply tired of telling myself no. Sometimes we have to embark on a hike into the wilderness and see if it leads anywhere.

On that note, here are some things I’ve been taking on that hike, things I really appreciate:

The Blender 3D Noob to Pro Wikibook
Blender is a marvelously full-featured 3D CGI package, a free one at that. Alas, it has a notoriously quirky interface and can have a steep learning curve.

The people who put together the Noob to Pro book have made the process less hideous, though, by stepping through each feature and obscure set of key commands and providing tutorials. They don’t get paid for their work and have done this out of the goodness of their hearts. Bless them.

Matthijs Hollemans’ iOS apprentice series.
I’ve coded in a wide variety of languages. However, there’s quite a bit of distance between fixing a problem in an emergency, hacking together an ill-conceived application which may break if one sneezes at the wrong time, and writing clean, elegantly conceived code.

Amateurish tutorials and books abound, their covers festooned with claims that they’ll teach you a language “In 24 Hours!” or have you publishing your own gee-whiz apps in no time at all. Many of them contain slapdash code, bizarre variable and function names, and lousy explanations.

Hollemans’ series is far superior to these in terms of clarity of writing, helpful screenshots, and decent coding practices. It’s also saving me the annoyance of having to shower, put on clean clothes, and sit in a classroom to learn a new language.

I’m not a fan of video-based classes. That’s particularly the case if the speaker is a novice in terms of teaching, is disorganized, or is a mumbler. Give me written material and I’m far, far happier. However, CartoonSmart consistently offers a wide variety of inexpensive tutorials and kits on hot or fun topics. Want to get up to speed making giant robots in Flash or get a quick introduction to Maya? They’re a good place to start. Whenever I’m in the mood to try something new or quirky, I scan the classes at CartoonSmart.

Here’s to adventure in 2014!

IQA Silent Auction

October 28th, 2013

This piece, Paisleyfish II, is my contribution to the International Quilt Association’s silent auction, held at the International Quilt Festival this week in Houston.


It has about the same dimensions as the side of a ten gallon aquarium. My original thought was to create a piece which would give a feeling similar to having a somewhat strange aquarium at hand, without having to remember to feed the residents, clean filters, or deal with aggressive splashing from the fish.


The fish are extravagant paisley-shaped creatures, thus the name of the piece. As a child I wore some really grotesque hand-me-downs which dated from the 1960s. Some of them featured paisley; I became convinced, perhaps irrationally, that they were fish in disguise.

The contours of these paisleys are based on the Paisley and Paisley II fonts created by the House of Lime.


Here is a “No Fishing” sign, a ubiquitous kitschy touch in real life aquaria.

Although this donation piece may appear deceptively simple, between design time, painting, and stitching, it used up three months of discretionary time. While I would like to continue to use my work to help support organizations which I believe in, I probably won’t be creating quite as many donation pieces in the future. For those who’ve wanted to acquire a piece of my work and would like to support a worthwhile organization as well, this is a good opportunity.