Sunday, July 22, 2012

'The backyard' series

One of my ‘backyard: Blue Mountains’ has arrived home after well over a year touring to different venues in Australia. It was lovely to see it back - and I would have been equally happy had it sold! The exhibition of small quilts was sponsored by Ozquilt Network Inc ( In the previous blog I mentioned this quilt as an example of the free-cutting process I often engage in while creating a quilt. This series of small square quilts is very different in dimension to the double-bed size (approx 6’x6’) for Louise and Mick. Each square measures just 40cms (16”x16”), and I’ve tried to pack a mountain landscape view into each one.

I mostly use hand-dyed cottons, but some commercial fabrics often find their way in; the mono-print fern is my own. After completing four squares they formed a “four-patch”.  I had hoped to get to a nine-patch formation, but doubt that that will happen, especially now that 2 of the original four have sold, (not to mention working full-time). They express my feeling of deep connection to the land I live on, in and with. For me they are a way of getting to know my environment better, as well as being a type of veneration of the Mystery of Being as manifest to us here in our corner of the universe, and in particular my area on planet Earth, the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

The next Australia Wide (#3) will be launched at Fairfield city Museum and Gallery, being exhibited there from 4 October to 25 November 2012, and again travel widely.

EarthDownUnder: quilt for Louise and Mick

When I started working on a double bed-size quilt on commission for I thought it would be a fairly straight-forward process. The proposition was really quite simple and honest: earthy colours on a cream background, using a grid formation of about 5 inches. Great, I thought: a project I don’t have to ‘think’ about too much. Unlike the personalised quilt made for Jan, which required visual interpretation of a her story based on life events through values were questioned, re- formed, and were inherent to Jan’s sense of self and well-being – which I have to say I loved doing.

The way I work for a creative piece is fairly random, free-cutting to create the ‘fabric’, which provides a sense of freedom and sometimes the unexpected appears and leads in another direction. I then look at how each piece looks, decide where it fits in the assembled pieces to elicit a ‘mood’, or the falling of light (as in some of my scenes for the ‘backyard series’ for example, which can be seen on my website), which can be very exciting – especially when using the variations in hand-dyed fabrics. But it is a very different process from this brief, as I was to find out.

Using lovely hand-dyed fabrics (mostly obtained from ‘Dyed and Gone to Heaven’) in earthy colours to assemble blocks on spilt triangles surrounded by the cream seeded home-spun. As I usually do, I simply took the fabric and started cutting, though this time with a ruler – a big mistake I was to find out! Thinking I had it cornered, I started by cutting the 4 ½” squares in half to mix and match the colours. and quartered the square of the cream background to provide the triangles to go around each corner of the pieced colour triangles set on diagonal. Trouble was, the coloured triangles were being joined down the centre on a bias, and the cream corners left all edges of the block on the bias – horrors!

I do understand and appreciate that there’s a lot to be said for the beauty of mathematical precision, (especially in engineering) and also in having all the points butt up perfectly to each other on a quilt. Annoyingly, creating the blocks had led to each one varying slightly; sure, only by about an eight of an inch – doesn’t sound much, but just enough to be very frustrating when joining them! I started to see that problems might be encountered when joining a bias to a bias, or the external edges of a block were on a bias – such that each block required re-measuring and trimming in order to join them to achieve any sort of precision. So, I did have to ‘think first cut later’ after all – measurement wasn’t all it seemed!

It was the first time I’d used regular blocks for quilt creation in many years, and I knew there had to be a secret about the cutting process! I rang my friend Val Nadin, also an art quilter, and of course she had the answer: use the ‘golden rule’ by adding 1 ¼”(to the finished size) to create 4 triangles; the outside edge can then be used to join 2 colours down the centre on the straight to form the lozenge centre of the block. So, the colours were cut as 7” squares, and quartered diagonally. When the quarters were joined it resulted in a 4 ½” square made from 2 contrasting colours.  Adding 1 ¼” to that, I then cut 5 ¾” squares in the cream, which when quartered and joined to the 4 corners of the diamond, produced a block measuring 6 ¼” unfinished, and 5 ¾” when the blocks were pieced. I know it seems like doing the mathematics back-to-front, and to an extent that is what I did, because I’d already created quite a number of blocks (with the bias join down the centre) that I didn’t want to discard.

Although Lou’s quilt is geometrically structured, there is still an element of the ‘random’ in the way the colours fall together within blocks, and when they come together. This was accentuated by the use of Australian feed sacks, which are used to package organic grains. The edged cream pieces with partial text on them come together also came together quite mostly randomly, with some moves occurring when I laid them out and took a look at the connections of course!

Although there were several hurdles to be addressed in the process, and I may not have got it totally right, all in all, I feel the desired outcome has been achieved: a fairly small overall pattern on a cream background (with the added interest of text), using earthy colours and tones. The backing is also very simple and earthy. It is made from all cotton fabrics and batting is 100% Australian cotton, and looks lovely sitting on the bed, either horizontally or vertically.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jan's magpie totem quilt: part 2

Jan's magpie quilt: PART 2
I looked at the themes emerging from the memoirs of her journey that Jan has published with the title of “Coming home to myself”. While her memoirs indicated the processes she experienced over the years, the underlying theme was that of connection and involvement: from her youth to the many years spent in a Christian Church community; about commitment to her partner and children; taking action for peace at Pine Gap in the Whitlam years; flourishing as a feminist through activities with other women to establishing a local women’s health centre; and especially her return to the land, source of inspiration. There have been so many powerful expressions of her commitments to and in life… all leading to a deep realisation of herself as woman, as Her-Self as Goddess Woman – in spite of, and maybe ultimately because she embraced an ‘addiction to relationship’, named as co-dependency.  Reading Jan’s memoir, I saw her as a person who cares deeply about her personal world, as committed to the well-being of those with whom she is in personal relationship, with the wider community and humanity, and in particular, her deep commitment to women and the land.

Jan’s monologue is interwoven with poems, written at different stages of her journey, which have undoubtedly helped in bringing together the story as it was gradually revealed to her by the magpies. In forming the design for the quilt I constantly toyed with the idea of including some text from the poems, and some celebratory quotes from her monologue did eventually appear near the bottom of the quilt, sitting in close contact with the magpie that was gazing back at the various elements she had revealed, (reminiscent of Mexican and Latin American folkloric traditions of including text in nooks and shrines, as used by Frida Kahlo’s in her work, for example.) However, the poem titled “A mini journey” written in 1988 (my aim was to insert it here, but I have yet to find out how to transfer a scan from the book), a poem of deep gratitude that revels in her close association to her magpie friends, kept refusing pride of place on the front of the quilt, preferring to be attached the back, as though representing the foundation stone of a sacred site.

The back of the quilt was starting to build up in my imagination a ‘reverse quilt’, one made from patches printed of text – but I had to stop somewhere! However, another image called out to be included on the back of the quilt, one that I deem to be as equally as important as the symbols and images on the front. In fact, this single image seems to hold Jan’s story represented by the images of the different phases of her life story symbolised on the front. It is that of Monica Sjoo’s painting from 1978, entitled “God giving birth”, a painting that almost found her in a British court for blasphemy, so deeply entrenched is our image of divinity. (  The fabric chosen on which to situate these printouts seemed somewhat out of place with the sort of freedom suggested by the hand-dyes of the front. It is a printed navy blue cotton, full of small white daisies bursting forth. It came to represent the ‘flourishing natality’ that I felt in Jan’s courage to tell her story. (These terms are used by Grace Jantzen (1998: Becoming Divine: towards a Feminist philosophy of Religion).

This is how I have read Jan’s story, and tried to express it through the quilt she had asked me to make, naming it after her monologue, “Coming home to myself”. Though they are not included on the quilt, I’d like to include some excerpts from Jan’s text that resonate very strongly with its imagery. She wrote of her experience of the cycles of the seasons as one of connection, which ‘…has reconnected me to my inner processes… to live with the paradox of both beauty and terror in the power of the elements… I feel connected as I open myself to the darkness and the light… I need enter the place of the womb of transformation, of birth into light as part of the eternal cycle of life and death.  Of her spirituality, Jan wrote, ‘I am one with feminine divinity, the Goddess… she is expressed through me.’ And again, ‘…my sense of returning to the land is in fact my return to the Great Mother. I have discovered her within me, and surrounding me in the creation. I am flesh of her flesh and breath of her breath. She called my name and I followed.’ These sentiments are echoed when she writes: ‘the voice of the feminine is rising and I add my voice. Nowhere is that voice more powerful for me than in the land, the earth. The voice I was hearing and trying to communicate with was the voice of the archetypal Great Mother, from our collective unconscious. Our stories tell her story… She has been calling us from the beginning of time... She is calling us back to connection, back to our feelings, back to the womb, where we can be birthed again by the divine energy of earth.’

The creation of Jan’s magpie totem quilt has been a privilege and honour, and occurred on and off over perhaps a 12-month period, or longer. It has taken me through the cycle of creation as identified in the seasonal cycles of change many, many times over. As such, it has been quite a fascinating journey of the creative process, in which I have felt a coming home to myself, re-creating and deepened my connection to my own understandings and expressions of a personal spirituality as Goddess, as Woman, as a Creator. And, I now feel a personal and spiritual connection to magpies in a way I’ve never realised before and will never lose as my understanding of the interconnectedness of all life and non-life continues to grow and be blessed. Borrowing the words used by Jan to tell of reunion with her ‘beloved companions’, the magpie’s song now speaks to my spirit in ways that words can not.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The story of Jan’s magpie totem quilt

I’m not sure how long ago Jan asked me to make a quilt to represent her connection with magpies, starting from when she was a young girl and throughout her life as her journey unfolded through memory and in her writings. Her story, entitled ‘Coming Home to Myself’ and as described in the fly-leaf, is ‘the story of a woman’s journey to find herself through the maze of deep, unconscious feelings...  of depression, child abuse, addiction and recovery, confusion and hope… in a time of rebirthing of feminine consciousness… of women speaking out and reclaiming their lost tradition.’ A Jan took to writing her story in 1994 as ‘part of the healing process’, I have often thought that the healing was somehow continuing through my process of putting together the stages of her story in the various sections of the quilt; and hopefully will continue for us all through the now finished piece, with the voice of the feminine shining through to nourish and celebrate ‘the collective wisdom and voices of the women who have gone before us.’

The creative process begins:
One question I’m often asked is ‘how long did it take to make?’ The answer to that is not as easy as it may sound. My internal response is ‘How do you measure the time of preparation, collection, sorting ideas, and all the instances that the mind wanders back to the quilt in creation?’ I guess the time sitting behind a machine can be measure in hours, days, weeks – but I always forget to record the hours, because there are always interruptions, breaks in the process, some of which may last for years! And it’s impossible to record the other internal process in the sequence of minutes that we call time.

The creative process according to the Wheel of the Year was a focus of my PhD thesis, and as I create I am becoming more aware of the various stages in the process, stages that, as they are seen to resonate with the cycles of nature, are necessary for creation to occur.  Setting its own speed, or rate of progress, the creative process can be quite quick – all the seasons experienced in quick succession; or very slow. And of course, each stage is often repeated over and over, in repeating cycles during the creative process.

After Jan asked me to make a totem quilt for her deep connection to magpies, I started by reading the poem she had written early in her monologue under the chapter heading ‘The Story of the Magpies’. In a series of interconnected stories, the text is divided into quite distinct stages. Nevertheless there is an underlying thread of the magpie story present throughout, although not always directly referenced. It is as though her ability to hear the song of the magpies and the story they told through song, was the way deeper realisations about the stages in her life’s journey were revealed, bringing understanding and healing. Clearly  the magpie as a beautiful Australian bird was the central motif, but there was so much more that needed to be told.

Contrary to religious teachings, that all that is in Creation comes out of nothing, I experience creativity as beginning with a collection of all that may be something else in itself at the time, namely scraps of fabric and ideas, brought together much as a collection of ‘seeds’ from the ‘fruits’ of a previous harvest. What we fondly call our ‘stash’ is our collection of seeds. Long ago I started pulling out different fabrics from my collection, putting them into a plastic tub as ideas about what to ‘re-present’ in the quilt were gestating.  I knew they would not all be manifest in the 50 by 90 cms quilt. Jan had given me the size, which helped contain the profusion of ideas and forms that came flooding in as I read her story, thought about the physical landscape of her habitation and the invisible landscape of her soul.  The colours and textures of the former were aroused by my memories of the Australian bush, rocky, mostly drought-stricken; and the knowledge that she lives with the husband on a property outside Wagga Wagga, with a 360 degree view of her surrounding landscape, scattered with yellow-box eucalypts. The soul landscape I’d absorbed from her text aroused visions of travelling through the dark night into the fullness as experienced in watching moon cycles; our menstrual cycles as the ultimate creative expression for women; and of course, the seasons.  This resulted in including into the tub full of shades of earth browns, bush greens, black and whites for the magpies. Most of them were hand-dyes, since I like their natural feel, though I had no idea how they were to manifest for this ‘magpie totem quilt’.

Then there were the Goddess screen prints I treasure, left over from previous quilts. I had two goddesses in various colours: the Bird-headed Goddess form ancient Egypt and the little Goddess Mother from Willendorf. Then I started to think of other ways to increase my Goddess stash, with those I’ve loved for a long time. This idea, together with the need to ‘observe’ the shape of magpies, took me to the computer to search and scan. I decided to do some fabric printing onto fabric using the Bubble Jet Set stuff: some text from Jan’s book, the poem, some magpies and maybe some more goddesses.

Symbols arousing memory
When I think about this quilt, it could be presented as a portrait, because it is a portrait, in the same way that this year’s winner of the Archibald Tim Storrier conceives of portrait – through representing life events and symbols, rather than a personal likeness. The significant events of Jan’s life as she refers to them in her memoir form the basis of the design for her quilt. Four phases of the moon are another symbolic thread from which Jan’s story could unfold, starting with the full dark moon, moving through to a new moon, waxing moon, arriving at the fullness of a golden-pink harvest moon. The first ‘block’ to come forth was the fronds of the tree fern, gradually unfurling as memory unfurled. The river was an important symbol in the poem, of the joy and freedom of the magpies, and eventually the ancient bird-headed snake Goddess found her way to ride on the waters in her freedom and triumph – this time in the boat of a eucalyptus leaf! Another Goddess symbol is the Great Mother (of Villendorf) is encased also by eucalypt leaves as she gives birth of self and all-that-is from her connection to the life-giving energies of land and waters out of which the yellow-box eucalypts live, die and are reborn. A rainbow is mentioned in Jan’s story, a clear symbol of hope, new life, as are dragonflies. In the quilt a dragonfly hovers almost invisibly over the circle of leaves reminding us of the ever-rotating cycle between light and dark that is Earth’s Creation, shown in the creative cycle of the seasons.

After having ‘collected’ many different magpie images, and playing around with their positions on the quilt, finally a single magpie found her place at the bottom, looking up as witness and to celebrate Jan’s story, the Mother having given the magpies the ‘special task of calling forth her spirit into the light of exquisite, pure sound… in ways that words could not…  to bring messages of hope and comfort; meaning and connection; of pure delight and celebration; of healing.’

There is much more to say about the process of making the quilt, but this will suffice for now!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Trip outback - to 'the womb of the Mother'

Our trip out to Broken Hill and Menindi was over 10 years ago. Leo would remember which year he was in at school – year 8/9? My notes say September 2000. It was a fabulous trip, where we stayed in GlenYs' friend, Taffy’s on-site caravan just on the Menindi Lakes, a spectacular place, full of peace an quiet, 100K out of Broken Hill.
The original quilt was one piece and is now a diptych and has been re-quilted. It expresses the wonderful variety of flora and fauna, the colours of the land on our journey out to the West. These colours included the human intervention of crops and weeds (such as the introduction of a purple weed supposed to feed cattle, known as Patterson’s curse, or is it known as Salvation Jane, for its capacity to survive the harshest drought). There is the yellow of Canola crops – also the yellow in the many forms of acacia. The Sturt desert-pea is also present, and reminds me of a very near accident we had with another car just outside the town that shares the border with South Australia. It was driven by aboriginals, who obviously had the ‘outback’ another understanding of when the car ahead indicates a right turn, it means OK to pass – but I actually was intending to turn right into a siding to look at the brilliant red flowers of the Sturt Desert pea up close.
We had travelled around 1400 Ks from the Blue Mountains, and the distance from Broken Hill to Adelaide in SA was around 650 Ks! The sense of space and distance was quite palpable – both on the ground and from an overhead viewpoint – and the land being artificially divided up for farming. The design of the quilt has an aerial aspect, showing the colours, arriving from memories of spatial distance. I also wanted to try a new technique, of ‘embedding’ different pieces into another, rather than simply ‘piecing’, which means joining one piece of fabric into another by doing a type of “L” turn by making a 45 degree nick through both layers to do the turn. After the right-angle turn is made, a seamline is sewn and the bottom fabric is cut away to create a ¼” seam for the top edge where the fabrics are joined, (thus removing the excess fabric from the bottom piece). Another turn could be made to complete the inset of the top fabric on 3 sides. Quite difficult to keep corners really precise and neat, but not impossible with practice! I think the quilt started out with some of my ‘practice pieces’, which grew and took on shape.
On the drive out west the road pushed ahead like a ribbon; at each slight rise the expectation of something different on the other side was usually thwarted – by more road looming straight ahead for miles. But there were noticeable changes in vegetation types every so often, with trees becoming more stunted. 
The machine quilting emphasises this seemingly endless straightness, as though heading towards infinity. Wherever we went, the horizon seemed to move ahead of us – and was also behind, and around. The overwhelming sense of ‘presence’ obliterated the past and future, being literally ‘in’ the horizon, suspended in a sort of timelessness. At times we seemed to be taking a ‘road to nowhere’, with the only indicators were precarious manmade signs in which we trusted as we soaked in the circular horizon.
On reaching the Lakes, there was quite a lot of water in them, and dead trees were standing out of the water like silent sentinels to times of perhaps both drought and flood. The sun setting in the west over the lake’s horizon was a fierce golden ball, lighting up the clouds and showing a gentler mood as she slipped below the water. It’s all there in the quilt – now a diptych – called ‘Road to Menindi’.