Saturday, July 23, 2011


As a student, I sat through so many critiques in college, that it became hard to just sit and give a general response to a work of art.  I was constantly picking everything apart.  In studio, at the conclusion of a project, we would discuss what worked, what didn't work, what we liked, what we didn't like, what could be improved, what couldn't be improved upon, what might the piece look like upside down, inside out, vertical, horizontal...and I could go on.  The point of critique for me (beyond the obvious learning tool) was to unbend my artist's mind. A very important process, because I see something in my minds-eye, and then I execute it, sometimes exactly, sometimes not.  And by sitting through a critique, I'm forced (sometimes...sometimes I'm grateful) to hear what other artists think or see about my particular piece that's up for discussion. Sometimes it's a critical response to the craftsmanship or technique. Sometimes it's a reflection upon the emotion or symbolism evoked by the art. Sometimes it's neither.  Either way, critique can be helpful and instructive as much as it can be brutal to the artist.

During the first week of our class, Wendy Osterweil put a new twist on the critique. At least it was a different way for me to think about the art.  We were to respond to another person's printed fabric, using adjectives, short phrases, and describing words.  Because it was disjointed, I really disliked the first fabric that my classmate, Sheila Shuman, and I printed together. The top part (mostly directed by Sheila) was great, in my opinion. The bottom half (where I made most of the decisions) was just a mess. Or so I thought, until I heard the response to our cloth.
seemed like a mess to me, until I heard the response

The response:  energy, finding nemo, sea-like, wild, sick, random, separated, earthy, free, unity, abstract, growing, polarized, organic, complimentary, fuzzy, moldy, eroding, natural, contrasting, dynamic, infinite, rotted, deteriorating, mysterious.

After hearing those words spoken out loud, I gained a new appreciation for something I would have completely dismissed. In fact, I fell in love with the bottom half of this fabric, and used it in the quilt I'm still working on!   At the time of our "response" I was almost too embarrassed to put it up there amongst all the other wonderful printed fabrics.

all of our 'firsts' hanging up for a 'response'

So I re-learned a simple fact that I apparently had forgotten. Sometimes, it's too easy to call art "Good" or "Bad" or to say "I like this" and "Wow, That's terrible art! How can they call that art?!?"  I know for myself, from now on, when I look at a painting on a wall, or a quilt, a weaving, a sculpture standing in a museum, or anything, I will make a list, in my head, of all the words that come to mind.  And maybe, just maybe, something I disliked previously, will take on a new respect and understanding.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Week My Brain Blew-Up

...or maybe "Melanie Takes a Class" would perhaps be a better title.

It started out innocently enough. Barbara Schulman, my fiber-arts professor from Kutztown University, stopped into our Gallery on the last day of Size Matters.  "How's retirement?" I asked.

"Well, I'm not quite retired yet." she replied. "I have one more class to teach, a summer institute..."  She began to describe the class: one week of screen-printing taught by Wendy Osterweil, and another week of quilting from our homemade fabrics taught by Barbara.

As I listened, my eyes goggled, I'm sure of it.  I might have even drooled just a little, but Barbara was kind enough to not point that out.  Instead she offered to see if I could somehow squeeze into the class for non-credit.  Two weeks of non-stop fiberlicious-yummy-goodness?!?   Two. Whole. Weeks. To myself. With no interruptions??  I practically spontaneously combusted on the spot from my excitement.  Of course, this was the week before the class was to begin, and of course, by the time I found out I was allowed admittance, I had two days to gather all my supplies before going away for the annual Fourth of July Family Holiday Weekend.  But really, was I complaining? Ok, maybe for just a nanosecond when I trudged in and out of the heat from store to store. However that was quickly dispelled by my over-abundant enthusiasm.  Such a small sacrifice for so much fiberlicious-yummy-goodness was totally worth it.

Portable Print table
Monday arrived, and Wendy displayed a variety of her fabrics and a few of her quilts. Wiping the saliva off my chin, I couldn't wait to get started.  She began by explaining how she makes her portable print tables. Lightweight and extremely easy to make, my mind went "WHOA" which began the 5000 revolutions per minute that didn't let up until, the writing of this post, I'm still in class, so I haven't stopped thinking once. I might have even pulled a brain-muscle. And I'm fairly certain there has been smoke puffing out of my ears for the last six days.

prepping the screen
 From the print table to the pinning of the fabric, we were now ready to get rolling with our printmaking.  I assumed this would be a very tradition kind of screen printing, and was I ever wrong.  Wendy demonstrated how to pull textures onto our screen using dye which acted as the resist or barrier, for the first couple of prints. But after two or three passes of the squeegee on the screen, the dye on the screen would mix with the dye pressed through the mesh and magic would happen.  I mean, MAGIC. Pure, unadulterated, no-tricks-up-my-sleeve, magic.  My heart pounded nearly out of my chest with excitement.  It had been way too long since I last took a class. 

My screen, prepped for printing. I used an old weaving as the main texture.

The first print through the above screen.

Sitting in the middle of the workspace, we had a table full of dyes in plastic containers. The whole rainbow was at our finger tips, and it only needed our creativity to unleash it onto our cloths.  We mixed, and experimented, tweaking this, adjusting that, like mad-scientists standing over our creations.   When we were finished with our colors, they'd be returned to the middle table to either be used, or transformed into yet another hue. Between the multitude of textured objects and the varied and sundry colors, the printing process continued and sustained itself throughout the week with infinite combinations and permutations, each maintaining its own unique unrepeatable existence.

On the second day, we were shown how to pull the carving from a stamp onto our screens, allowing us more direct imagery than we had the day before.   Using this technique, we were able to print positive and negative images which would begin to mutate with each print.   Like an addict, I was hooked.  I raced to the mega-monster-craft store to find some rubber stamp material to make my own carved blocks. 

Wendy demonstrated using her own blocks.

The block "stamp" images on the screen

We learned how to make a stencil using freezer wrap on the third day. Between the textures, the stamps, and the stencils, the mind boggled over the insane amount possibilities. All week, I found sleep elusive as I turned over one idea to another, tomorrow I'm going to work with this color.  I wonder if I did this, what would happen? Could this work? I can't wait to try that...

one of my fabrics, in progress.
 And yet, I struggled with the serendipity of the printing each and every day.  I wanted to understand what was going to happen so I could predict what my next move would be.  Gee, I guess that's why it's called "Free Form Screenprinting."  I couldn't let go of my need to anticipate what was going to end up on my cloth.   While there was a level of predictability to the experience, I found that I was completely unable to respond to what was happening and make adjustments as I went along.  But with each pass of my squeegee, and each fabric I printed, I felt I gained more and more successes. Not necessarily in the aesthetic sense, but in the ability to just roll with the printing. And as I re-invented my artistic self throughout the week, I found I enjoyed the results of my screen printing more and more.  It no longer became a matter of "This cloth is Good" or "This cloth is Bad" because I began to see the value in the parts and pieces as well as the whole.  

I used a scrap of handwoven material to experiment on

One of my favorite cloths I printed
Hanging our fabrics for the end of the week 'response' time.
While the sand slipped through the proverbial hour glass on the fourth day, my mood transformed into a desperate need to finish "JUST ONE MORE" printed cloth.  I had to keep reminding myself that just because Wendy was returning to her studio, it did not mean I would never ever ever  print another piece of fabric. In fact, I have great plans to make a print table, buy some the materials to make more screens, and set myself up once our 'wet studio' is finished at 'some things looming.'  But before that can happen, I have to do the scary part: cutting into "my precious," one-of-a-kind-can-never-be-duplicated fabrics for the second half of the class: Art Quilts.

The class' fabrics, hanging out to dry be continued, next week...