A Dozen White Shirts

For the past few months, my sisters and I have been emptying our parent's house to get it ready for sale.  This has been an eye-opening journey, full of emotional pot-holes, happy memories and a lot of hard work for three women of a certain age.  Ever on the look-out for textile detritus, I made a discovery in a basement box of rags.  Wadded and stuffed into the corner, as if in a time-capsule, were a dozen white cotton dress shirts.

The shirts are from the early 1960s, some even have the date of purchase written on the shirttail with a laundry marker.  All of the shirts were also marked with the Union Label, a rare sight today. My father was a high school social studies teacher, and my mother laundered and ironed six white shirts a week for him to wear to school, and church on Sunday. I loved the smell of the fresh laundry, the spray starch and the hot iron.  My mom would put up the ironing board and tune in "As the World Turns" on the black and white TV, ironing until her show was over. So many stolen hours spent washing, line-drying, dampening, starching and ironing. 

These white shirts are the focus of a new series of quilts in A History of Toil, all about laundry. I have done plenty of laundry myself, so I have a lot of imagery to draw from.  Coin Op Laundry, the first in the series, was selected for the upcoming exhibit of Artist as Quiltmaker, at the Firelands Association for the Arts, in Oberlin, Ohio, May 12 through July 29, 2018. 

Coin Op Laundry,  44" x 41", cotton, linen, found white dress shirts painted and dyed, hand embroidered and stitched

Coin Op Laundry, 44" x 41", cotton, linen, found white dress shirts painted and dyed, hand embroidered and stitched

I will write more about some of the textile processes I have used in these works as I go along.  The white cotton has been a blank canvas for all kinds of interesting exploration of surface design.

 

Spring Reading

Here are some of the titles I have read the past few weeks:  Happiness, by Aminatta Forna; An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones; Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen; The Flight of the Sparrow, by Amy Belding Brown; and Varina, by Charles Frazier.

Rites of Passage

Saturday my oldest daughter was married. Surrounded by family and friends, we celebrated the beginning of a journey, two young people venturing forth into a new life together.  An amazing handmade lace tablecloth came along for the party.  This beautiful domestic linen belonged to my maternal grandmother and graced her huge mahogany dining set. We gave it pride of place on a liquid-free welcome table, set with childhood photos of the bride and groom, some Jordan almonds and the seating chart.

Handmade lace tablecloth, from the Chicago home of my grandmother.

Handmade lace tablecloth, from the Chicago home of my grandmother.

This is a really big cloth, easily covering the standard 8 foot rectangular dining table, with some amazing handwork, in perfect condition.  I especially like the cupid motif around the edges, shown in the detail below.

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Women save these special textiles, hoping to have the special occasion to use them, kept safe in our cupboards and closets as reminders of the family matriarchs.  Grandma didn't make this, but she sure had an eye for beautiful things. It may yet see the light of day again in my lifetime for my other daughters and niece.  

My daughter looking into a crystal ball, about age 5

My daughter looking into a crystal ball, about age 5

We had some serious flooding here in South Bend, and after the 6-8 inches of water in the basement drained off and we dried the place out, I decided to go through the plastic tubs that were labeled "kids art." Had we not had that flood, I would never have found this gem, made by my daughter all those years ago.  To be honest, she was not a very princess-y girl, but did go through an artistic period of queens, princesses and brides, of which this is a surviving example. I framed this and had it on that welcome table too. So, many happy moments, memories and hopes.  I am writing this post, then heading to the studio to resume my art life!

Standing Amazed at Woman Made

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Shape Garden 1, from the Standing Amazed series, is on view in the Woman Made Midwest Open through March 24.  Woman Made Gallery has recently moved to 2150 S. Canalport, Chicago. If you follow the link you can see all the work selected for the exhibition. The stars are not going to align for me to be able to see the show, but I am hoping that my daughters that live in Chicago will be able to get over to see it.

Busy month ahead, I have a whole list of entry possibilities, I need to take some photos (my least favorite job) and write some proposals and statements.  Maybe I can squeeze in some sewing!

 

What I am reading:

Here are a few of the titles I have recently read:  American Rust, by Philipp Meyer; Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke; Elmet, by Fiona Mozley; Heart Spring Mountain, by Robin MacArthur; and The Story of Arthur Truluv, by Elizabeth Berg.

Letting Go

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I checked out this slim little volume at the library a couple of weeks ago.  Since my father's passing at new year, and my mother's last spring, my sisters and I are faced with the dispersal of a lifetime of stuff from the family home.  The questions around what people choose to keep and what they eventually let go of,  are central to my practice as an artist.  Most of the materials I use, even the threads, have lived in other places, been kept by someone, for some reason. So much of it came from the basement and closets of the same home we are now cleaning out, piece by piece. In the book, Margareta Magnusson is advocating we do our "death cleaning" before we die.  I'm on board. Deep breath.

Mother Nature and climate change did some of my stuff reduction for me.  In the late summer of 2016, we had 11 or 12 inches of rain in as many hours, unprecedented, and in amounts that our aging storm sewers could not handle.  For the first time in the 30 years we have lived in our 1920 house, the basement flooded, badly. The water receded quickly, leaving behind a sodden mess. A lot of the wet stuff was paper--mat board and cardboard, college papers from the whole family, notebooks, lesson plans, my high school diploma, college portfolio, yearbooks, 35 years of National Geographic; all hard to discard when dry, not salvageable when wet.  There is more to be done down there, but the total was reduced by at least half. We also have a walk-up attic, full of carelessly stashed stuff.  Another deep breath.

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I have been working on a large series of work focused on laundry.  Based on fragments from a dozen found white men's dress shirts, cotton and wrinkly, this series is yet another chapter in the history of toil.  The white shirts were a perfect canvas for mark-making and fabric manipulation. Dr. Ruth R. Benerito, a chemist working for the USDA, is credited with the discovery and development of wrinkle-free cotton and permanent press fabrics.  No surprise this revolutionary idea was pioneered by a woman. More on this series to come.

 

Reading List

Here are a few titles from my 2018 reading:  The Music Shop, by Rachel Joyce; The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, by Janet Peery; In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende; and a blast from the past, Birdy, by William Wharton.

The Wool Season

Mike and I spent the winter solstice eve at a special "Here Comes the Sun" performance by Molly Moon and Riley O'Conner as a benefit for new solar panels on the roof of the Purple Porch Food Co-op--how crunchy is that? This was a fun evening, followed by a fresh snow on Christmas Eve that left us with about eight lovely white inches on the ground. Now, a few days later, we are staying warm indoors as the temperatures go into digits minus zero.  Winter in northern Indiana is a time for making things with wool.

I like to have some portable projects for when I am a passenger in the car, or just watching the news or a movie at home.  I unearthed a horde of single and damaged work gloves in my parent's basement and then cut them in half and embroidered them to tweedy whole cloth with wool tapestry yarn.  Who knows why so many gloves were saved (there are dozens, all colors, sizes and fibers), or what possible purpose they were intended for, but here I am, finding a purpose for them! These are evidence of the power of depression-era thinking. I know I have not yet found them all.  Many of my friends have passed on to me other textile caches, found when they eventually needed to empty the family home for sale.  Those are artifacts often loaded with memory and grief, but these gloves, they' re just wacky.

Embroidered work gloves, a few of many

Embroidered work gloves, a few of many

I have started to combine the individual gloves into a larger whole with felted wool from deconstructed garments and blankets.  I love working with wool, but only in the winter,  it needles so nicely, and the colors are so deeply saturated. I am using mostly wool for the stitching, and a bit of perle cotton.  Here are a few details:

 

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What I Am Reading:

I reread The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  I read it in the 80's, and it was just as chilling in 2017.  Also, The House Among the Trees, by Julia Glass, The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman, Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich, Under a Pole Star, by Stef Penney, and State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett.

Happy New Year, and best wishes for 2018!

Flightless Birds

 

In March of 1911, horrified New Yorkers watched as garment workers, mostly young immigrant women and girls, plunged to their deaths from the burning upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  The doors to the workroom were locked, the elevator stopped operating and the flimsy fire escape collapsed. I used a delicate shirtwaist blouse from that time to imagine a terrible choice; to perish in the flames or step off the window ledge.

Artist Statement, Quilts=Art=Quilts, 2017

I have been working with the theme of women and toil for a number of years. I read a novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman, that was set at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, and this sparked a year of research about the fire, including photos, first person accounts and primary source documents.  This is a story that touches on many issues relevant today.  It is a story that made me sad and angry.

Of the 146 people who died in the fire, almost all were young women and teenage girls, recent immigrants from Italy and eastern Europe. Working long hours, for a few dollars a week, most of these girls were helping to support their families, looking forward to new lives in a new country.  The tragedy fueled activism by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as well as other groups of advocates for worker safety and improved working conditions in the garment trade. We should know more about this fire, we should remember what unregulated corporate greed looks like. The Cornell University IRL School has a comprehensive research collection online, with a wealth of information about the fire, all in one place.

I had a delicate cotton shirtwaist blouse in my archives, given to me as a child by a friend of my grandmother for dress-up clothes.  Somehow it survived these many years and  I could use it in the quilts I made for this project. This was emotionally difficult work to do.  I was very pleased to have two quilts accepted for exhibit in Quilts=Art=Quilts at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn NY, where they will be on display through the end of the year. There are many other wonderful quilts in this exhibit, and the Schweinfurth has made a  video available to show how they have been displayed.

The Triangle Fire: Flightless Birds 1

The Triangle Fire: Flightless Birds 1

The Triangle Fire: Flightless Birds 2

The Triangle Fire: Flightless Birds 2

Outspoken in San Diego

The exhibit Interpretations: Conversations opened this weekend in San Diego at Visions Museum, on view through January 7, 2018.  My quilt, Outspoken, was selected for this juried show and is part of a series of work I created that draws from my experience teaching middle school art.   

Outspoken, 2017.   

Outspoken, 2017.   

"Words out loud, speaking the change from child to adult, noisy with energy and emotion, unconstrained by the buttons of a middle-school uniform".

Reading List

Here are some books I have read lately:  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy; How to Behave in a Crowd, by Camille Bordas; Do Not Become Alarmed, by Maile Meloy; Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner; The Plover, by Brian Doyle.  I often listen to audio books when I am sewing, and always have a paper book going at the same time.

Old Bones

Another fall, two more fractures.  My father is breaking apart, body and mind. So, the fragile nature of bones is in my mind. Last summer I made a number of pieces of cloth using cyanotype chemicals and plastic Halloween skeletons. I really love the deep blue that results when the treated cloth is exposed to sunlight. I used an old cotton tablecloth, as well as a few other household textiles of unknown origin, just small pieces to make the process manageable. 

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I brought these cloth pieces and a bunch of other fabric in a laundry basket and drove, once again to Michigan, and set up a mobile studio in the home of my childhood.  I wanted to do a little machine piecing, but did not bring my Featherweight, so I went to the basement and found yet another salvaged sewing machine.  This one looks like it was a treadle model, later put in a portable case and rigged for electricity.  What could I do but plug it in? Works like a charm, has that great old sewing machine smell too.  And a beautiful straight stitch, with perfect tension.  May I also mention the elaborate gold decals, with Egyptian theme?  I checked the serial number on the internet and found out it was originally made in Elizabeth, NJ, in 1904.

Singer, made Elizabeth, NJ, 1904.

Singer, made Elizabeth, NJ, 1904.

Now I am working with this cloth, trying different ideas, searching for a way to put an image together.  

Out Loud

Last week we drove from Indiana to Denver to help our youngest get settled in her new apartment and visit with family and friends. I had the opportunity to go to the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins for the opening of the 35th Annual New Legacies quilt exhibit. Here is a photo of the piece I have in the show.  There are many interesting and innovative works by wonderful fiber artists on view and I was honored to be included.  

This is a pretty large piece, 44 x 46", and it has large chunks of machine piecing, as well as a bound edge, unusual for me. I have recently made a series of works embroidered on school uniform shirts, sewn to whole cloth and mounted on canvas stretchers.  Out Loud is an extension of that series, based on my experiences teaching middle school art.  I am the low-key, quiet type, so the noise level of middle school was somewhat jarring, and the unedited things kids would say was often surprising.  I think this quilt has a pretty chaotic visual noise level, and the large ivory and black print, sliced and randomly rearranged, then pieced together again, looks like language to me.

Out Loud can be seen at the Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, CO in the 35th New Legacies: Contemporary Art Quilts exhibit,  through August 26, 2017.

Books:

It is summer, and my taste sometimes runs to mysteries and thrillers:  Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins, I Found You, by Lisa Jewell, Mercy Snow, by Tiffany Baker, and a great book that came out years ago, by a favorite author, Behind the Scenes in the Museum, by Kate Atkinson.