A Gift From Earth

I’ve finished a new piece, A Gift From Earth.

This is a whole cloth quilt measuring 51.5 x 63″. It was rendered in ink on cotton, then batted and stitched.

A closeup of the head. The young man is Kip Russell, the recipient of the shipping container of goodies in the lower righthand corner of the quilt. The label on the shipping container reads:

Curt & Janice Reisfeld
Princeton, New Jersey

Kip Russell
℅ Clifford & Patricia Russell
Tycho City

Some may recognize this as an homage to Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit – Will Travel. I hope Heinlein would have been pleased, but since he’s dead, I can’t ask him.

There are a number of other homages and bits of silliness as well. I’d thought of running a contest to see if people could count them all. “First prize – one box of junk from my studio! Second prize – TWO boxes of junk from my studio!” However, I think I’ll do the world a favor and pass on the contest for now. I’m eager to move on to my next project.

Some of the toys from the care package.

A fictitious book conjured up for the purposes of this picture, Trees of North America. The book cover is an homage to a Golden Age illustrator, just as the round window the boy is sitting in is an homage to Rockwell.

Imagine growing up on the moon, with all barren and desolate, the largest lifeforms coming out of a hydroponics tank. Then imagine trying to wrap your mind around the notion of immensely tall trees and wild animals such as tigers and snakes. It would strain credulity a bit.

Here are the neighboring domes, which bear a mysterious resemblance to golf balls. Considering the amount of activity required to construct the domes, there’s a striking absence of tire tracks, boot tread marks, or rubble around them. I’ve wondered why this is, and concluded that aliens must have come and straightened things up. That, or Tycho city must have imported a small army of the gardeners who smooth the gravel in Japanese gardens. Really, there are any number of logical explanations for the tidiness other than the artist (me) being too lazy to render tire tracks.

Creating this thing was a bit of a slog. I began concept sketches in early October, 2011. At the time, I was a bit concerned by the fact that all of my recent work had been portraiture, either of people or creatures. Perhaps I should render something else for a change? Say, something like a city? And what better kind of city than my favorite type, the domed ones from science fiction potboilers? I used to devour science fiction by the box load when I was a girl, tales of young men venturing out to Dyson spheres or alien planets to battle bug eyed monsters. (Presumably young women hadn’t been invented when the authors were born, so they could only write about young men.)

As a matter of fact, here’s a little domed volcano and lagoon I made when I was about twelve. The whole thing is about the size of a quarter, carefully scraped together from modeling clay, Elmer’s glue, paint, and a gum machine capsule. I used to imagine that a miniature Tarzan lived inside. From this you may safely conclude that:

1. I was an insanely dull person.
2. I lived in an insanely dull place where there wasn’t much to do.
3. I had access to very few art supplies.
4. I didn’t have much of a social life, perhaps because of the miniature Tarzan thing.

Here’s another domed habitat, this time from an early quilt. The obsession persists, as does the stunted social life.

For research purposes, I got out Pyrex mixing bowls and my kid’s Legos. I was going to build a model of the domed city to end all domed cities!

Unfortunately, it was kind of lousy. The models tended to topple over at odd moments and didn’t make a convincing city. Also, the gravel in the photo stank to high heaven; it was some sort of synthetic scale gravel sold for use in model railroads, and probably full of carcinogens. But, no matter – the Pyrex-and-Lego test was a good proof of concept as far as building and lighting reference models. A nice starting place for sketches and thought, at least once the dizziness from inadvertently huffing synthetic gravel went away.

Only … I couldn’t just have a domed city in isolation, could I? Who lived there? What was the person’s story? Why did this city exist? I started doodling, and soon a person appeared in the picture. Just like that, I was right back to portraiture! Oh well – sometimes you just have to go with it.

I liked the idea of having a view of the other domes and maybe Earth. A window seat, too – I’ve always liked window seats. So who was sitting in the window seat? A kid? What was he doing? Reading? What was he reading?

I decided that he was reading about life on Earth. His grandparents, who lived on Earth, had sent him a care package of books and animal toys.

Armed with that thought and a basic positioning sketch, I began taking reference/lighting photos.

First I posed a kid in roughly same position as the kid in my sketch.

I found some toys which might be the sort of thing grandparents would send from Earth. After all, what is childhood without a rubber snake?

I even cut a strip of cardboard from a cereal box and taped it in a loop to simulate the window. Alas, that reference model has since been eaten by Dr. Trashcan, so it can’t appear here.

I consulted photos from the Apollo missions. That was enlightening. Many of the visual cues we take for granted on Earth don’t exist on the moon. Rocks appear sharp because they haven’t been weathered by water and wind. Shadows tend to be harsh, not diffuse. Since there’s no atmosphere, one doesn’t get graying and lightening with increasing distances. Finally, even though billions of stars were undoubtedly out in the sky, they weren’t visible in the photos.

I looked for images of the Earth as seen from space and from the moon. Surprise, surprise – North America isn’t necessarily front and center! It’s almost as though country divisions don’t matter in the grand scheme of the universe. Weird, huh?

With those visual references, I created a tighter cartoon of the whole scene:

At this point, I suppose I could have cheered “Oh, hooray! Only six more months to go and I’ll be done!” Happily, I didn’t know it would take that long. I thought it would take two or three months, tops, to trace this thing on to fabric, paint it, and stitch it. Ha ha ha! (Hollow, somewhat hysterical laugh.)

Here’s a quick color composite, executed on the computer. The radioactive orange skin combined with glow-in-the-dark-blue uniform are rather grotesque. However, this was a useful exercise for straightening out compositional issues. Specifically, I was curious about how dark to make the lunar background. I also wanted to see if the shape-similarity of Earth, lunar domes, head, and window would tie those elements together and lead one around the picture. I also wanted to try confining color to visual elements which were alive or came from Earth – the Earth itself, the boy, the toys which were emblematic of life.

Finally, after all of the sketching and research, fabric painting got under way.

Painting the head.

Stitching the head.

Poor kid. He has long thread-like strands sprouting out of his head. Maybe it’s a disease peculiar to the moon, a fungus of some type.

At exhibits, visitors frequently ask how I decide how to stitch these things. This is how. I make a printout of the relevant part of the cartoon and draw on it. In the case of a face or skin, I may be trying out contour lines. Sometimes it takes several attempts and quite a bit of erasing to develop an arrangement I’m comfortable with.

My personal goal with stitching is to emphasize or reveal an object’s inherent texture or contours, or to convey a hidden message or mood. Sometimes that’s straightforward, as with the cushions and the contour lines around the shipping container. Sometimes, though, designs give me fits.

What’s the texture of nothingness, of the featureless void of the vacuum-filled sky? What kind of stitching does one do inside a bland, sterile environment like the domes, where the walls and floors are devoid of interest or grime? Sometimes there aren’t easy, obvious answers. Sometimes if a design is at least innocuous and doesn’t fight with the other visual elements, that counts as success.

It’s done. I’m so glad. Onward.

14 Responses to “A Gift From Earth”

  1. Judy Warner says:

    Hi Tanya,
    This is simply wonderful. I love the detail of your project and the concept of receiving a package from grandparents on earth is fascinating. This was well worth your effort!

  2. Patricia Cummings says:

    How wonderful to see the progression of ideas that led to this terrific one-of-a-kind quilt. You lend new meaning to the term “wholecloth” quilt. This was fun to see but even more fun to learn what led up to it making. I hope we’ll see a lot more of your work! Congrats!

  3. This is a beautiful quilt. I love reading about your thought process as you worked. It made me think of my relationship with my grandson and what I might send him if he lived on the moon. Your work is truly inspirational. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  4. Betty Busby says:

    What a great post, thanks so much for the insight into your creative process.
    It would look great hanging in the Jetson’s house :D


  5. DianeL says:

    Awesome! From start to finish…Awesome!

  6. My goodness! I love how your mind works. The whole process was fascinating. The quilt is super.

  7. This is a wonderful piece!!!

  8. Linda Steele says:

    Thank you for showing us your process, what a fantastic post. It’s very inspiring. Another winner for sure.

  9. Kathy N says:

    Very cool…you work hard and it shows. Looking forward to the next one.

  10. Martha Ginn says:

    Tanya, this is an amazing piece–I should say another, after your unforgettable boy walking in the rain. Thanks for all the in-progress descriptions and photos.

  11. The first sci-fi novel I read was Have Spacesuit Will Travel, when I was 12 years old, many decades ago. I was hooked on sci-fi and on Heinlein. For me this is truly an evocative work of art. Thanks for the memories.

  12. Megan Farkas says:

    Love it! I particularly like seeing your process with this, so thanks for documenting so many of the steps.

  13. Amy says:

    Lovely quilt and love the back story.

  14. 2ne says:

    WOW, love your work – you are soooooooo great :-)