Saturday, April 28, 2018

The first symbol

I still have several Bird-headed Snake Goddesses in my fabric store, as screen printed from a lovely linocut made by Sue Swanson, done what seems like eons ago! I remember a highlight of the trip to New York City in 2013 was seeing some of the small original, three-dimensional statues in glass cabinets at the Brooklyn Museum. These small clay images of powerful women with bird heads and snake bodies were plentiful along the Nile, and for me recall the deeply embedded association with nature people who lived along the banks felt with nature, nature that gave fertility of crops and animals and people; and nature that cleaned out the dross, consumed corpses and in some areas quite literally the dead of the community, cleaning off the bones for story in sacred shrines in households (as they did in the Neolithic city of Catal Huyuk, for example). They are also represented in other sculptured figures through Old Europe, as identified by Marija Gimbutas.
It is worthwhile recalling that in the world of symbolism the old ideas can remain and may be rediscovered today, in an age starting to review the basic premise of patriarchal ideas: domination through “power-over”. In doing so, we are attempting to restore the idea of “the great round”, non-linear jig-saw sharing of power and multidimensional, in which all things belong and fit, where ‘all parts relate reciprocally to all other parts’.[1] In an article from 2011, Miriam Robbins Dexter refers to this quest very well, so I’ll quote her in full:
In the twentieth-century we are attempting to extract, from prehistoric iconography and early historic myth, lessons which we can apply in order to construct a spiritual view which speaks to our time, a spirituality of wholeness similar to the spiritual system embraced by ancient women and men. Thus we look to ancient iconography for an integrating message.[2]

The figure of the Bird-headed Goddess with her uplifted arms take many forms and originated probably earlier than 4000BCE. The arms are always uplifted. Not only is the power evident, she connects the heavens with her bird head to the underground with her snake body, which regularly sheds its outer skin in order to give rebirth to the soul. As expression of the unity of all, maybe she is here now to remind us that the divine and the human are one in all of us. She was multifunctional as an integrated whole, presiding over wise counsel and justice as well as protecting the continuum that is our humanity in the giving and taking of life and its renewal.

It is difficult to decide top from bottom, when in fact the perspective is aerial: either from above looking down, as in hovering over the waters or looking skywards as though the quilt were hovering overhead. It takes an aerial viewpoint, whichever way you look at it – but by its nature will hang vertically on a wall. I have decided to solve this issue by having two possibilities for hanging the quilt and have created pockets along the shorter edges for a rod to go through to hang the quilt. And since the quilt is to be ‘reversible’, I will need another screen print of this powerful and beautiful anthropomorphic Bird-headed Snake Goddess for the other ‘mirror’ edge. 
Next to come into view is the Sheela-na-gig.

[1] Barbara Walker, 1998, The woman’s dictionary of symbols and sacred objects, Harper & Row: San Francisco

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Layering the spiral with leaf litter

The idea of using gum leaves on the quilt returns
 again. I love looking at the fallen gum leaves on the path as I walk the garden path that takes me up to the street…so many millions, yet so different each one. Those with bites out of the sides, tail/top ends cut off; some are brown, others pale beige, so many variations in colour, shape and size. Not all of the leaves are in perfect shape, as you can see, and some overlap to give the impression of layering. It seems appropriate to use these various shapes to swirl into and return out of the spiral shape. I think of the leaves as carrying our individual experiences, aspirations and realisations that have formed us in our becoming through our being in the world, at all points along the continuum, from the unconscious to the revelatory, all necessary parts of the whole. I had at first thought to write some thoughts as such on the leaves, then decided it is up to each person to decide on their own, as the journey of each is their own.
 I pick out some of my hand-dyes that have been hacked into previously – pre-loved scraps. I love using leftovers from previous quilts, and this is the perfect opportunity. Using the raw edge applique approach, each leaf’s shape is attached with fusible webbing, then machine stitched very close to the inside border to make a secure attachment. Then the outside raw edge of the fabric is held together by ‘skirting’ around the external border, very close to the edge of the leaf. So, each leaf gets a double stitching. Perhaps I could have added a lot more on the spiral, but had to stop somewhere! I nevertheless got some satisfaction in stitching more leaves onto the background surface – leaves floating on top of the water, or on the tree branches, waiting to be taken down into the spiral for rebirth.

The spiral was of course connected with the idea of the journey into death and rebirth, of entering into the womb-tomb and returning by the same route. It is found on many Neolithic tombs and monuments (such as Newgrange), on pottery and shrines. The prehistoric spiral at centre of the descending spiral of the quilt is from a drawing by Judy Foster, which she says was part of the symbols forming a proto language, with many examples of spiral designs in a wide variety of geographic regions. It is also symbolic of the snake as representing the dynamic life-force coming from the regenerative powers of nature[1] I have printed a simple single spiral in gold, to suggest the treasure that lies within.
You will notice that the “tail” of the spiral has been cut off! It has become apparent that it needs to be seen to be arising from the waters, from the arteries and veins too, which has now presented me with the decision of which way to hang the quilt – a ‘which way is up’ question. 

And the spiral has not yet been permanently attached for the practical reason that it is much easier to work with attaching the other leaves and symbols without it in place, and I can play around with placing it into position.

[1] Judy Foster and Marlene Derlet, 2013, Invisible women of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six thousand years of war, Spinifex Press:Victoria. p.51

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Going into the spiral

You would think it would be easy to come up with a piece for the backing, given my very large stash of fabrics, but making decisions is the difficult part. Feeling too uninspired to push through the process, I resort to procrastinating by tidying up and putting away fabrics left over from the previous quilt. Then I go with the flow and choose a very earthy-coloured hand-dyed cotton, one that will show up the distinctive quilting lines from the front, and also allow me to add extra to the back if the ideas germinating want to come to fruition. Having stabilised the completed background by adding the backing and batting and quilting through the three layers, I can now get on with creating the spiral as an independent piece.

Hearing the statement on a quiz show that “We live in the spiral galaxy of the Milky Way”, which then asks how many arms of the spiral there are, my instant response is two: one in and one out. Think the answer was more like nine – but that is in 3D in outer space! But it really does test one’s visual acumen to respond to something seemingly simple to represent. Jan has particularly asked that the spiral be “3D” – I assume meaning having a visual aspect that takes the eye both into and out of the formation.

I thought about using fabric paints directly onto a background fabric, meaning the spiral and background would be one piece. I tried this with a purple spiral painted onto hand-dyed cotton fabric, when I realized it would have to be stitched through on the outer edge to attach it to the larger background. Even with the machine, stitching through fabric paint is no an easy thing to do. The paint makes the fabric almost like plastic, so that the needle sticks. So back to the drawing board, meaning a return to considering fabrics for both the spiral and its background.

I discarded any ideas of silks or satins, in spite of feeling they would add texture and vibrancy. Though the finish might be nice, the technique by which they would be attached, (namely, raw edge applique) would make them unsuitable because of their tendencies to fray at the edges. At the moment there is a large hole at the centre of the quilt, which the spiral will sit over, but no background fabric. Here’s another challenge: choosing the background fabric to sit the spiral on, since they are not to be one piece. One light-bulb moment came with the thought of using a plain-coloured cotton homespun for the spiral, since I’ve been thinking about printing onto it, and a hand-dye for the background. Now that is sounding promising….but…not very exciting.

Finally the choice for the spiral colour comes by finding a small piece of hand-dyed leftover mauvish purple fabric. I had cut out the spiral from a hand drawn template, enlarged from my small A5 size drawing, to a bit larger than an A3. It wriggles around like a snake as I struggle to put it down to trace onto the paper-backing of the fusible material, wanting to make sure that the spiral will move in an anti-clockwise direction. As I make some moves in this direction, trying to make some progress, I am overcome with overwhelming tiredness, and meltdown occurs unexpectedly. I do manage to work out the direction to trace the spiral in reverse on the fusing material, but then all energy leaves me. At times like these, the spirit is willing…  

The orientation of the spiral continued to raise concerns, by which I mean making decisions about which direction to position it on the background. I had thought to bring it in from the side, but arising from the lower edge gives the powerful appearance of a wave rising to its fullest before breaking, which is a nice concept for a croning quilt. Then the wave breaks on me: there is no top or bottom to this quilt. It presents an aerial view, looking down into the watery abyss. Now I can play around, work with the ‘bottom’ section, which needs ‘closure’, quite literally, in order to make the background one whole piece – albeit with a hole in the centre.

When I pay attention to my intuition, both design elements and how to implement them begin to move. When I push through, without due attention, earlier work often has to be undone – hand unpicked, and restructured. The flow of line is very important, as are the dimensions, and the positioning of elements on the background that I am creating. It can be unnerving to trust my intuition, because the fullness of the end design is not yet in sight, not there to follow. Although when you talk about lines and dimensions and positioning, there is nothing really totally logical, rational or linear about the process. It’s not like building the Parthenon, I know! The creative process is more about remaining aware and intuitive than having a plan of attack – though, it is possible that you may think that you have one.

It takes a bit of courage to acknowledge the influence and work from our intuition, because it is not one of the aspects of our human nature that is admired or nurtured. Yet it is a powerful force there in our psyche for us to call on and reconnect with – and though it can be a frightening, or off-putting experience rousing either anger or grave doubts, it is often to our advantage to take heed if that niggling feeling that something is not quite right in the creative process. It can be working too fast, an eagerness for some sort of movement, without any constructive self-criticism – or too much of the latter! On this occasion of intuition I decide to cut off the tale of the spiral (paper version shown here) so that it might emerge from one of the 'veins/branches' as the source of its power, with the effect to be seen in the next post.