Archive for the ‘Ponderings’ Category

A story.

Friday, 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?

Wednesday, 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

Monday, 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.



Making it

Tuesday, 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.

Back from London

Saturday, 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.

But is it art?

Saturday, 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!

Tell a good story.

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Oh, goodness. It’s hard to write anything these days. I got out of the habit of documenting my work when a couple of venues got touchy about one’s work being published before a show. Now it feels very similar to when one goes without speaking for a long time and one’s voice is raspy. I don’t even know what to say, much less how to say it.

These will be at PIQF this week. They’re in the Domestic Mayhem series.


Shot From a Cannon

To be “shot from a cannon” is to be rapidly propelled into a new or overwhelming situation. This is about the feeling many of us have when we become parents, that we don’t know what the heck we’re doing and that the odds are against us, yet we have to keep trying. Sometimes we even feel like our lives have become a circus act.


Here’s a closeup. Dear lord, the squalling. The stench is probably overwhelming as well; there’s a good chance at least half of those babies are crying because they need a diaper change.



The Juggler

The Juggler is about the struggle we endure to keep all aspects of our personal and professional lives aloft. Alas, sometimes even six arms aren’t enough to avoid catastrophe.

I hope these will give people pleasure at the exhibit, although perhaps there’ll be the sort of “I wouldn’t give two cents for that!” reaction I once heard about a friend’s rather wonderful work. (Before – yes, I admit it – I loudly proclaimed that I knew the artist and I thought her work was very clever.)


Projectwise, I’m emulating Martha Ginn a bit at present. She’s a good person, a fine person to emulate; lately she’s been making a series of free-form quilts based on scraps and strips. Most of us have a bag or box of these squirreled away, and it’s nice to convert them to art, a bit of joy, even a utility quilt.


Mine are batik scraps which I bought for heaven knows what reason. I’m sure I thought the reason was good at the time, but the fact is that the bag has been languishing along with the many drawers of new, unused fabric I also had to have for “good” reasons. Once upon a time I would have looked at that fabric and regarded it as precious, that no project I could do could possibly live up to it. Now my relationship with “stuff” is changing as I peer down the years, hopefully decades, to my eventual demise. It is just stuff: it should either be enjoyed and used or given to someone else who will use it. I don’t want my legacy to be drawers of dusty, rotting fabric which went to waste and have to be thrown out when I die.



Although I’d like to get back to the point of creating some art, there isn’t much of me to do it at present. I’m wrung out. I sketch and I process ideas, but I’m not up to committing to a single idea, to a project which will probably take months to execute. A casual, strip-based utility quilt is a good project for right now, though. Fall is in the air, then there’ll be winter. It’ll be good to make something saturated and cheerful for the hound and the boy to snuggle under. A strip quilt doesn’t take much mental or emotional energy. I lay out the strips, find pleasing combinations, sew, trim. May the result give someone joy and use up some of those blasted batik scraps.

It has been a summer and a fall of mental processing. I do most of my processing in my journal, writing down incidents or thoughts as they come to me.

Sometimes my husband and I discuss the notion of personal “narratives”, or stories. We humans are great storytellers. I’ll go out on a limb and say that, barring the discovery that some other creature has language and an oral storytelling tradition, it’s one of the characteristics which differentiates us from other animals. We classify, we wonder, we tell stories. We tell stories about great human themes, as we try to understand our place in the universe, and we tell stories about ourselves.

We humans have lives comprised of many series of random incidents: we were driving to the store for a gallon of milk and saw a red sports car at the corner. We needed a job, and happened to run into an old friend who knew someone who knew someone. Tuesday we went in for dental cleaning. That kind of thing. There are millions upon millions of random incidents in even one person’s life.

We pick out salient bits and construct a story around them. A narrative. “I met my future husband when we were kids; he sat behind me in Trigonometry class. He was the most handsome fellow I’d ever seen. I was besotted. Over time, we became friends and started dating. We’ve been married ten years now, and they’ve been the best years of my life.”

Narratives can be really useful. We can’t and arguably shouldn’t analyze every tiny thing that goes on in our lives, every instance of a lizard scuttling across our paths or a piece of garbage ending up in our flower bed. It’s useful to be able to say “Oh, a kid must have tossed that there” and move on.

Unfortunately, sometimes we discover that our narratives don’t match reality, that they must be adjusted. I discovered that with my family. One of my personal stories involved a family which was quirky, but generally loving and supportive. It turned out to be inaccurate. I was in denial about that fact for a long time because, I guess, I can be rather dense where people are concerned, particularly when I’m really invested in an idea.

My husband has compared narratives to scientific hypotheses. In science, one does an experiment, collects data, then sees if a theory explains the data. Sometimes there are outlying data points which one tosses out. These particular data points don’t fit the theory and there aren’t many of them; maybe they were due to errors in collecting the data, or due to some other phenomenon.

Similarly, when we’re looking at our relationships or our personal stories, there can be outlying points. A loved one is sick or is having a lousy day and says some uncharacteristically harsh things. We don’t dwell on those incidents too much; bad days happen. We toss that “data” out. When we start to see more of those types of incidents, though, or we become aware that many were there all along, we start to question our theory. That is what happened to me, becoming conscious of those outlying data points and realizing that they were the norm, not the exception.

One typical example, not to get too personal: I was visiting my “home” town with husband in tow. I didn’t go there often, maybe once every year or so. I phoned my folks to ask them to lunch. My treat. There was a place in town which had the type of food they enjoyed, a place they hadn’t visited. I hoped it would be a nice outing for them. A lunch date was set. My husband and I drove to their place outside of town to pick them up at the appointed time.

When we arrived, no one was ready to go. There weren’t any signs of life, other than the usual ragtag group of dogs sprawled in a fenced area which was perpetually caked in mud and dog feces.

Inside the house, my stepmother plotzed on the couch in polyester stretch pants, watching reruns in the perpetual dark. I’m not sure she even looked up at me when I came in. “Where’s Dad?” I asked. “Upstairs taking a nap,” she mumbled.

Things went downhill from there. Nobody was ready to go. No one was interested in going. No one was glad to see me or to have me visit, despite the fact that I’d traveled 1700 miles and hadn’t been around in ages. No one had had the politeness to say “Oh, thanks for the invitation, but we’ll pass,” when I’d called. We’d driven way the heck and gone out to the house for nothing. There wasn’t even edible food in the house, meaning we’d been deprived of lunch ourselves.

I made one last attempt, describing the restaurant and its menu. “Where is that?” my stepmother asked absently, not taking her eyes off the TV screen. I described it. “Oh, that’s that place that was shut down by the health department.” Zing. Bank shot.

This was typical of interactions with my family. This was mild, actually. Perhaps the saddest thing is that I was so dense that I truly didn’t understand what was going on, that I was being treated in a manner that went beyond casual rudeness. They could and did do and say whatever they wished and I wouldn’t protest, because I didn’t comprehend what was happening. I couldn’t understand why visits with them left me sick, feeling awful, stressed out to the point that I ground my teeth and cracked them. It wasn’t until I had a kid myself and realized that I’d never treat him in this manner that I began to understand.

My narrative was all wrong. I’d invested a lot of myself in something that was only a fantasy.

This isn’t a particularly original story, of course. This type of thing has been going on for millenia. Maybe someone else could have handled the situation with my family better. “Yeah, they’re rude as hell and basically hate my guts, but they’re my family and I want to make sure they’re okay.” I didn’t have the emotional tools. I couldn’t swat away the nastiness like an annoying malaria-carrying mosquito. Now I get to try to mentally untangle it all. Maybe it will come untangled in my artwork; maybe it won’t.

Our stories aren’t always about family issues. Some of us get invested in, say, the story of the marriage which has a few problems but is basically sound, nothing serious that can’t be worked out. We push aside signs of serious trouble because they’re frightening and we don’t want that stuff in our story. We want to believe that everything is basically fine and is going to work out. Then one day our husband sits us down on the bed and tells us about a pass he made at a woman at work, and how the situation was serious enough that he had to have his work schedule changed. “She was there and had on this little skirt. She turned around in it and asked me how she looked.” The desire for this woman is in his eyes. Everything shatters, including us, and we realize we can’t ignore the cracks. Or maybe there’s a drinking problem or an abuse problem, and we pretend to buy into the person’s story and we hide the issue from everyone – including ourselves.

It pays to be clear-eyed about the stories we tell ourselves, to check them from time to time. We tend to look for facts or circumstances which support our narratives and discard things which don’t fit. Sometimes that’s harmless or okay. Simplifying things can help us make decisions, cut to the chase. However, sometimes we throw away information that was actually important. If we get too invested in a narrative which isn’t true, as I did with my family, it’s a bad way to live. The situation can be toxic, even dangerous.

Sometimes our stories have the power to alter reality, to come true. There’s that kid, for example, that rotten teenager who can’t do anything right. He starts trying to live down to our expectations. He flunks out of school, starts climbing out the window at night and doing heaven knows what. Sex, drugs, maybe turning over Port-O-Potties. Why not? He knows he’s a bad kid. Even his stepfather has told him that he’s a troublemaker and is going to wind up in jail. Sure enough, by the time the kid turns twenty, he’s been in jail a couple of times.

Then there’s the cousin who’s a “slut” rather than a “troubled young woman who could use encouragement and guidance”. She gets pregnant again and again and again. An adult could take her aside and try to intervene, try to get her into counseling or at least send the message that she matters. An adult could ask her about her plans for the future, encourage her to finish her GED and enroll in college, volunteer to watch the baby while she’s in class.

However, nobody does much to help the girl climb out of her hole because the story is that she’s a “slut”. Nobody expects much else from her because that’s what sluts do, run around and get pregnant. It’s too much trouble to actually do anything concrete. It’s far easier to gossip about her and call her a slut.

We humans are natural storytellers. It’s a necessary, useful skill. However, we can also damage ourselves and others with our stories. We should strive to be clear-eyed about the stories we write for ourselves, and kind and compassionate about the stories we write about others.

Tell a good story.

Home again.

Saturday, September 14th, 2013


Here’s Farmer Brown, back after an “exclusive three year tour of Europe, Scandinavia and the subcontinent”. (Obligatory Blues Brothers reference.)

Actually, I don’t really know where it’s been, other than off touring with Quilt National ’11. It left two or three years ago. Yesterday evening it landed back on my doorstep, borne by an exhausted FedEx driver. I was amused to see that the folks at the Dairy Barn had preserved all of my original packaging, including the pool noodle (priceless extruded polyethylene!) and giant plastic leaf/garbage bag (more costly polymers!). They are meticulous people.

My husband has always had a sentimental connection to this piece. It’s something I usually don’t relate to, at least about my own work. I see it differently, I guess, as the culmination of a drive or a set of processes which I either executed successfully or I didn’t. For now, this particular “culmination” will hang in the dining room, providing a backdrop to the Lego bricks which festoon the table and the dirty socks which eternally litter the floor. Then I’ll roll it up and put it in the Closet of Banishment. I could have put it up for sale, but sentimentality triumphed over economics. In fifteen or twenty years I’ll ask my son whether he wants it.

One chapter closes and another begins.

I’m not a big fan of accumulating UFOs (UnFinished Objects), but I seem to have a pile of them right now. Several more ideas for the Domestic Mayhem series, sketches for a new series, a partially stitched portrait, and an experiment in distorted geometry. The latter is particularly annoying because the stitching quality isn’t as I’d like. Maybe I should send it out to the garage to become an oil changing rag, or transform it into a sort of grotesque shopping bag.

I spent a month over the summer designing and starting a new piece for this fall’s IQA auction, only to realize that I couldn’t complete it according to my standards in the time allotted. I then did a panicked survey of the UFO collection and found one that was mostly complete and might be suitable; I’ll post about it another time. I noodled away at it until last weekend then shipped it off, just short of deadline.

All told, I spent about three months on this process and none on the work I’d originally planned. Since I’d given my word, I couldn’t very well back out of it. I’m not sure how other artists manage the business of donations. I don’t know if they don’t have youngish children, don’t do their own home renovations, or are simply more efficient. However, I may, regretfully, have to step away in the future. We’ll see. It’s probably a bit premature to make sweeping statements.

I need to design a new piece, a more personal piece, and I’ll be interested in hearing others’ ideas. More on that in a minute. I’ve been on a sort of mad painting frenzy, redoing the master bedroom and the exterior of the house. The latter is a painstaking process, since the last paint job was of very poor quality. There are drips and runs, peeling areas, overspray, you name it. Oh, and wasps. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of reaching up to remove a rain gutter cover and discovering a wasp nest the size of one’s fist right at eye level, covered with annoyed little buzzers. That was the day that I discovered that I can levitate.

I think I gave one of the neighbors a bit of worry. One evening I went out on a date with my husband and, since I have very low alcohol tolerance, came home utterly lit after just one margarita. That was when I had the brilliant notion of removing the wasp nest. Why not? It was nightfall, cool out, and the wasps had probably all returned to their nest. I think my husband had gone in another room or something; otherwise he surely would have stopped me.

Up the ladder I went in my little black dress, drunkenly emoting to the wasps. “I’m very sorry,” I told them, “but I’m going to have to kill you. It’s nothing personal.” I sort of dimly heard a neighbor’s sliding screen door open, but it didn’t register. It was taking all of my concentration to balance on the ladder with the can of wasp spray. “I’m so sorry,” I repeated, “but I’m going to have to kill you. I hope this will be quick and it won’t hurt much. I just can’t paint with wasps buzzing me.” I let loose with a vast toxic stream of wasp spray that cascaded over the rain gutter, then I lurched down the ladder. The neighbor’s screen door opened and closed again. I can only imagine what the person was thinking.

As for the bedroom, this summer I suddenly realized that the business of being a Woman of a Certain Age is upon me. I know this is a first world sort of problem, the sort of issue people living in mud huts would love to have. However, I really don’t want to be a Woman of a Certain Age without ever having had a proper bedroom. A bedroom with matching furniture that my husband and I selected, as opposed to a motley pile of crumbling junk, some of which I’ve had since childhood and never liked to begin with. A bedroom with a real bed with a real headboard, not a mattress and box springs thrown on a metal frame with wheels, a frame which lurches around like a roller coaster when someone gets up to use the restroom. Did I mention the headboard? Yes. A headboard, not a disgusting grease spot on the wall behind the pillows.

I admit that I have a fairly wide tacky streak, that I enjoy things like flamingos made of old car tires and taking my dog outside at night so he can watch rats scurry across the power lines. However, even I have my limits. I don’t want to reach my fifties, sixties or seventies sleeping on a sagging mattress with a grease spot behind my head. I just don’t. And if I don’t take action, some of these things won’t change.

Accordingly, this summer I began muttering about headboards and beds. Should I design my own or look for plans? What of the dresser and nightstands? Should I go price maple? Practice making mortises on scrap wood?

Did I imagine a fleeting expression of alarm on my husband’s face? He stated, in his usual diplomatic fashion, that he had no doubt that I could design or build whatever I pleased, and that it would be wonderful. However, perhaps we should at least go out and look at beds in stores to see what was out there and get some ideas. His evil scheme worked: a day or two later we’d ordered new furniture, a sort of Mission Style meets Shinto affair, much nicer than anything I would have designed or built. Bless the man.


Of course, once there’s new furniture, one has to think about other aspects of the room. Light fixtures, for example. I found the perfect table lamp for the room! It’s a blue dragonfly lamp executed in stained glass, made by Tiffany. Unfortunately, it’s in the Chrysler Museum of Art. I’ve found a number of other fixtures I like almost as well; they’re in the $50,000 range. Perhaps the business of lamps will require more thought. It would be good to find lamps which can actually, you know, be purchased or made. Something a little nicer than suspending flashlights from the ceiling with a piece of yarn, but not soaring into the five figure range.

I also want new art for over the bed. Originally I was thinking in terms of a giant wood carving. Now I’m thinking of making a new piece of fiber art, to be mounted on a stretcher frame. Something lush, lyrical and romantic. A piece evocative of Pre-Raphaelite art, Art Nouveau, or the golden age of illustration. However, not the type of thing one would see painted on the side of a 70s panel van or in a children’s nursery. We are adults. We don’t need to be eyed by dragons or teddy bears or have Humpty Dumpty leering at us as we get dressed in the morning. Of course, other than that, I have no idea of the subject matter. This is completely the reverse of the way I usually work. Maybe I should just jam some glow-in-the-dark plastic stars over the bed and call it done. After all, I still have a third of a house exterior to paint. I should focus on that and get it done before the weather turns nasty.


Friday, August 9th, 2013

(With summer photos randomly inserted to make the text extra difficult to read)

In one week, the boy will be back to school. I will miss him, worry about him, and the regular routine of art, exercise, home repair, and after-school activity will resume. I hope it’s been a good summer for him. His presence was a blessing to me.


Shot at Legoland in glamorous Carlsbad, CA


Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Each summer, I vow that things will be different. Perhaps everyone does. I’ll produce new, high quality works at breakneck speed. I’ll spend quality time with my kid, take him on a wide variety of day trips, and help him stay up to speed for the next school year. I absolutely will not let the joint descend into a state of squalor worthy of the city dump. I won’t lose my temper or say bad words. I won’t transform into a caricature of a Tennessee Williams character, the woman who swans around the house in a dowdy slip with support hose rolled down around her ankles while sucking down whiskey sours.


Zip line at the Adventure Playground, Berkeley, CA


A view of Alcatraz

Well, I achieved one of those goals. I spent time with the boy, although I’ve let up on the math and spelling practice during the past couple of weeks. Oh, and I didn’t drink any whiskey sours. I actually don’t care for whiskey, and I have a thing about drinking alcohol in front of kids.


Ants painted to look like people at the gawdawful Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum on Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco

It was the summer of listening to my son and building with Legos. It has come to me that one of the most important things we can do as parents is to facilitate our kids finding direction and developing into whoever they’re going to be. Maybe, probably, that won’t be the same as who we are. Maybe we could care less about fishing or magic or baseball, but it behooves us to try to make a smorgasbord available if we can. Try to listen up, act interested, invest in new experiences. Maybe somewhere out there is the experience that will spark an interest. Maybe it won’t be anything we personally care about, and that is fine. We can still be supportive. We can show interest and encourage.


My kid darned near getting killed at Belmont Park, San Diego

It was also the summer of pondering, as I became poignantly conscious of the death of other relationships, and thought about the causes. My theory has long been that I am the common factor in all of my failed relationships, most of which are with family members, so there must be something wrong with me or with something I’m doing. If I wish to be charitable to myself, it could be as simple as being someone who unconsciously seeks out or tolerates a certain type of relationship.


At the Exploratorium in San Francisco


Fort Point, San Francisco

So I sat with the boy, trying to comfort myself by nurturing him while I mourned the loss of something which had turned out to be a fantasy. I’m a big believer in gathering data, you see. Sometimes a person can grow up with a distorted notion of reality, say if there’s been profound mental illness or dysfunction in the family.


Golden Gate Bridge


Legoland Hotel, Carlsbad, CA

At some point, though, one realizes there’s a disconnect between what people are saying and what they’re doing. The two things don’t match. So one gathers data. One looks at the data over a period of years, even. One may realize that one’s model of reality was wrong and that one needs to create a new model. A healthy, more realistic model.


Meerkats at the San Francisco Zoo

I will state this minor yet not-so-minor thing in case it will help someone else: I recently went through six to eight months of artist’s block related to this issue. I still fight it now and then. I can thank Julia Cameron and her book, The Artist’s Way, for helping me to climb out of it. In it, she has a number of extremely helpful weekly exercises. I did them for about two weeks and found them very annoying, so I quit doing them. However, the journalling helped, so I thank her for that. It helped me get to the core of what was blocking me.


A model posing for her public at the San Diego Zoo

There are people out there who are broken in some fundamental fashion. Sleepwalking through life, angry, closed off, abusive, toxic, judging, unable to feel joy for others. Sometimes we’re related to them. Sometimes we’re even related to a whole batch of them. It’s hard to realize that and it’s hard to move away from it. There’s no joy in it. Even when the consequences are the same – I won’t be notified when my father becomes ill, or I won’t ever see photos of my early childhood – it feels different when consciously making a choice as opposed to simply having it happen.


Tiger, San Diego Zoo

There are people who control by withholding interest or approval, who will deny your very point of view. It’s the tip of the iceberg as far as what had been going on for decades, in terms of rude, untrustworthy, sometimes abusive behavior, but that was part of what was holding me back artistically. I’d gradually learned to quit saying anything at all, lest it be used as a weapon to hurt me. The participation in Quilt National, winning an award, a cherished book appearance, the very work I did. I started doubting the validity of my work, and had a harder and harder time working at all. Each time something good happened, I would make a mental note to say nothing about it. Double that if it was something bad, because people would rejoice in it.


The boy at Fort Point

These things happen. I will never understand why I wasn’t worthy of their love and respect, although I suspect that simply existing was sufficient. I’m not sure how one comes to terms with such fundamental rejection. However, based on what I’ve seen from friends who’ve experienced a great loss, there’s solace in turning outward. In nurturing one’s child, in quiet conversation with one’s husband, in taking interest in others and rejoicing in their successes. It seems like a good thing to practice.


An ancient Mayan lidded jaguar vessel at the de Young Museum, San Francisco

Bless the boy for his company this summer.

That’s crap.

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

When I’m visiting a show or a museum, I’ll sometimes hear disparaging comments about the work. “I wouldn’t give two cents for that,” one woman sneered at a piece I found rather clever. An artist in a prestigious show characterized another person’s work as a “gimmick”, even though she wasn’t quite sure her own piece had been hung right side up. (Seriously. She had to go stare at it for awhile before calling a staff member over to flip it.)

Well, we’re all human here. I do the same thing, although I go to some effort to keep a filter between my mouth and my brain. Inside, though, my critic-mind is merrily commenting away. I see a lot of work and think “That’s crap” or “You’re boring me” or “Seriously? People used to paint that kind of thing on the sides of vans.”

The thing I try to remind myself of, though, is that we’re all on different paths. The people learning a new medium, who dip their toes in by trying someone else’s technique. The people whose experience of art is enhanced by translating a master work to a different medium. The veteran artists who attended RISD and have established themes and personal styles. The latecomers who are struggling to sing and express their souls after years of having their needs take a back seat to everyone else’s.

We often don’t know, really. We can simply react to what we’re seeing – perhaps appropriate in the case of illustration or graphic design – but if we don’t know about the creator, we may not see a piece with clear eyes. Perhaps it’s best to try to retain a sense of compassion, even when we think something is gawdawful. While we may not find a particular artwork compelling, on some level it’s wonderful that the person created. Maybe that was an immensely courageous act, and showing a series of badly rendered drawings which reek of cigarette smoke is a high point in this person’s life. Let’s applaud that, even if we aren’t moved by the work. Compassion.

With that notion in the back of my mind, I recently viewed a show, Menagerie, at the Mingei in San Diego. Menagerie was comprised of renderings of animals from the permanent collection. I wandered through, some things catching my eye and some not.



Sitting firmly in the “not” category was this collection of animals. I walked by them rather dismissively, thinking “meh, a bunch of animal blobs”, then forced myself to look again. Perhaps the museum had a good reason for adding them to the collection. Perhaps I’d learn something if I studied them.

There was a card with the collection:

Sonabai Rajawar
Animals, c 1985
Clay and Paint

Sonabai Rajawar lived in forced isolation for 15 years in a remote village in central India, unable to see or be seen by anyone other than her husband and child. Through the necessity of expressing her own vision in the face of this adversity, Sonabai created toys for her son and sculptures for her home, imagining a world full of color and light. Using available materials, she created whimsical animal sculptures exclusively from her own vivid imagination.

And there it was: I was hooked. I wanted to learn more about this woman, but I could already imagine her. Married to an abusive loon of some sort, I guessed, someone hideously controlling who kept her locked up until he saw the dollar signs emanating from her work. Or maybe he died first, then she gained freedom. I would have gone nuts in such circumstances, had my spirit totally crushed, but she came up with a coping mechanism, a means of expressing the beauty and goodness inside. Unbelievably admirable.

“She dug clay mud from around her well,” one of the museum staff told me, “she made the paints herself, from things she had on hand.” Imagine that, grubbing around in the dirt and grinding up spices and seeds for pigments, perhaps, in order to make toys for one’s child. Quite literally creating something out of nothing. Evidently she visited the U.S. near the end of her life, when the Mingei mounted an exhibit of her work. She was amazed and delighted to discover the existence of ready-made tempera paints in a rainbow of hues.

And I, in my hubris and with my access to the endless array of supplies we have in the west, was initially dismissive of her work.

I will close with a picture of something that is literally, but not metaphorically, a piece of crap:


That’s right. This charming little dog was made from dung. As with Sonabai Rajawar, that may have been the only material this artist could access, yet the creative spirit burned so brightly. It’s something I’ll try to bear in mind the next time I look at someone’s work and am tempted to dismiss it as crap.