Why not?

I’ve just gotten back from the Big Island. It’s a horrible place … waterfalls, volcanos, exquisite beaches and pastures. While I was gone, a good article on the No Place to Call Home! exhibit appeared in the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

The Loveland Museum/Gallery is possibly/probably the last appearance of this thoughtful show which highlights the condition of homelessness. The article provides a nice coda to the exhibit and the efforts of Curator Kathleen McCabe and the various artists, including me.

The show will be at the Foote Gallery of the Loveland Museum through September 16. If you’re in the area, please check it out.

I almost always get a thrill out of participating in group shows, and this one is no exception. While a solo show may provide insights into the work of a particular artist, a group show is an opportunity for a group of people to create something which is, potentially, greater than any one of them could alone. There are different perspectives, styles, messages.

Case in point: here are some shots from the Artist as Quiltmaker exhibit, which is running now through July 29 in Oberlin, OH.

This gallery is a lovely, crisp space for exhibiting and browsing through artwork. The Museum’s Curator, Ruta Marino, and the exhibit staff have used it to advantage.

Here’s a shot which includes my Siesta (the raccoon) juxtaposed with works which are very stylistically different. I think I actually appreciate my work and all of the others more because of this contrast.

Alas, I don’t get to participate in SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates) sponsored group exhibits such as No Place to Call Home! as often as I’d like. They just don’t mesh well with the way I work. At present it takes me several months to create one piece. In practice, that means that I make a schedule of the pieces I’m going to create and the shows to which I’ll submit a year in advance. That requires far more advance notice than SAQA-affiliated exhibits can provide. Once in awhile I manage to slip in a piece such as Leaving, which is smaller, more designerly and required less intense painting and threadwork than most of my work. However, that’s the exception rather than the rule.


For example, I really wanted to submit a piece to SAQA’s I’m Not Crazy exhibit. I had in mind an illustration based on the old rhyme:

Ding, dong, bell,
Pussy’s in the well.
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Green.
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was that,
To try to drown poor pussy cat,
Who ne’er did him any harm,
But killed all the mice in the farmer’s barn.

Ah, yes. That budding young sociopath Johnny Green. Even when I was a kid, something didn’t hit me quite right about that rhyme.

This idea came to me at about the time the news articles on child sociopaths were prominent. I made all sorts of sketches of the young man tossing a hapless kitty down a well. The most promising was looking up from the bottom of the deep dark well so one could see the cat twisting desperately in midair and the expression of detached curiosity on the boy’s face.

In the end, though, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The subject matter was gruesome and I didn’t want to demonize children who lack empathy. Not all of them become practicing sociopaths or societal scourges, after all; a fairly large percentage internalize rules of behavior. What do I know of being the parent of one of these kids? Would my work increase our understanding of the condition or merely take advantage of the horror of severe cases so as to shock people? Could I execute the work with any degree of quality in the short amount of time I had?

The answer to all of those questions was no. Unfortunately, that’s how most SAQA exhibit opportunities end up for me – toying with some ideas, a series of abortive sketches, then concluding that I can’t do the topic justice in the time allotted, not without giving up some other project which is dear to my heart. Instead, I usually create and submit work to exhibits whose deadlines are known about a year in advance.

One such show is Quilt National, whose deadline is coming up in a month or so. Recently Kathy Nida has written several meditations on the nature of rejection and strategies for applying to that particular show, this being the time of year one thinks about such things.

I’m in a different place from her, so naturally my approach is different. One school of thought says that one should maximize one’s chances of getting in a high profile show such as Quilt National by submitting the maximum number of pieces. That just isn’t happening for me right now, not with each piece taking several months to create. My personal philosophy is simply to always, always do my best work (“best” being a moving target), submit it, have a backup plan in case it’s rejected, and to immediately move on to creating the next piece.

Another school of thought says that one should submit several pieces so as to “give (the jurors) a good idea of your work.” I’m not sure that’s a factor in the case of Quilt National. The jurors have a massive number of works to get through multiple times during the course of a couple of days. During the first round, the jurors are simply sifting through 1000-1400 works as quickly as they can with no discussion. Yes. No. Maybe. Yes. Bam. Bam. Bam. I’m picturing a scene much like the one in Clockwork Orange in which Malcolm McDowell’s character has his eyelids propped open. Initially jurors have ten seconds per image in which to decide whether a work grabs them and they want to see it during the next round. It’s grueling gut-level work and, in the words of Quilt National Director Kathleen Dawson, “That does not allow them time to wonder about what they are seeing.” Maybe under other circumstances the jurors could contemplate the scope of one’s work, but that probably isn’t the case here.

We can also try to get inside the heads of the jurors by reading about them and their backgrounds. Personally, I’ve found that technique a waste of time. Based on researching the jurors for Quilt National ’11 and reviewing the content of previous shows, I thought my work had a snowball’s chance of getting in. I submitted it anyhow, using the deadline as a spur to get work done, and struck it lucky. Bottom line: we just don’t know. We can create work which we think jurors might like or make ourselves work abstract rather than figurative because “figurative work doesn’t get in that show”. We can take our work out in the driveway, throw on a bucket of paint, and drive across it a few times in a desperate attempt to be high concept and innovative. Maybe that works for some, but not me. I simply have to do the work I’m driven to do, do it the best I can, and take some chances.

Show curators and jurors have a vision for each show. It may be to maximize the number of works on display so visitors have lots to look at while they visit what is a glorified fiber flea market. It may be to create a thoughtful show on a particular theme, or to showcase innovative work. One’s work may or many not fit in. The jurors, who are human beings rather than automatons, may have an unconscious loathing for saturated colors or depictions of kids in broad-brimmed hats. It is what it is.

I’ve had a fairly good run for the past few years, and from a purely selfish standpoint I hope it continues. However, the externals won’t change the reasons I create art, why I struggled for years to find a way to make it a viable life option: because I’m driven to do so. The process of creation pushes back the grey. For awhile I feel alive and happy and outside myself. If the resulting work is exhibited or touches someone, that’s a bonus.

2 Responses to “Why not?”

  1. Martha Ginn says:

    Very well said, Tanya. I am fortunate to be at the stage of my life where I can make whatever art I want to make. If I have something to submit to a show, that’s great, but creating specifically to get in adds pressure. Of course, being accepted into shows is validation that someone approves of what we have done. Sales are also affirming, but donating and giving offer their rewards, too. You said, “I simply have to do the work I’m driven to do, do it the best I can, and take some chances.” I am so glad you are driven and that you then show it to us for our enjoyment and inspiration!

  2. Megan says:

    Agreed — I’m in a similar place with creating and Quilt National and deadlines (though my QN entry is finished, just need photos). It’s partly due to your encouragement that I’m entering! If I don’t get in, then I have a quilt to enter in other shows while I finish a quilt that’s going to take over a year’s work, beginning to end.