"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Friday, December 17, 2010

More on the Power of Limits

Anyone familiar with traditional quilting knows it originated, at least in part, from the need to use worn out clothing and scrap fabric. Sewing bits together was a functional act of making driven by the goal to produce a bed cover that would keep someone warm on a cold winter night. Who knows when the tedium of hand stitching ignited the veritable inner light bulb – the maker’s realization that the scraps could actually be sewn together to produce a pleasing pattern? A single thought possessed the power to turn an endlessly tedious chore into an exciting task charged with potential.

Welcome to another conversation about the power of limits. This week I’ve been with my sister, logging a week of chemotherapy. Sitting and thinking, or trying not to think, is part of the game. I brought along twelve pieces of a current series, each of which required hand stitching in order to be complete.

I thought I brought all the thread I needed, but in one of those last minute packing flails of omission, I never packed four of the perle cotton colors I intended to bring along. Drat. A small town. Twenty four inches of snow. What to do?

The second morning I walked to a spiffy store called Dig. In addition to the fresh home furnishings, indy craft books, and objects Dig features, there was a rack of sewing thread. Not the richly saturated perle cotton colors I prefer, but a solid selection of cotton sewing threads. I switched mental gears and selected the colors I needed, and then a few more.

As is often the case, the lighter weight thread was a better match to my art work than the perle cotton I’d brought, which was all wrong in terms of scale. Making blows my mind on a regular basis. The thing I think will be the perfect resolution is too big (and overwhelms) too small (and disappears) the wrong color (I didn’t take the colors around it seriously enough) or just plain wrong. (Get out the critique sheet and figure out what went screwy.)

But the thin, sewing thread was just right. And there were enough color choices in the stash I’d purchased to make every combination of background and thread perfect. No settling. This Goldilocks was a happy camper.

Once the immediate design decisions are made, there is plenty of sweet time to think. I thought of an exercise, which is a variation on others I’ve taught in the past:

Pick a color, or a stitch, or a thread. Or a pencil. The first part of this has to be tailored to whatever it is you do and hopefully love.

Painter? Pick painting. Poet. Pick haiku. Stitcher? Pick the Wrapped Back Stitch.

What can you do with what you’ve chosen? How will limiting what you use to one primary action or format actually free you?

This sort of experiment is perfect once a day for a few minutes. You may sit and stare at the color, or the pencil or the needle at first, but try to get past the fear and begin. When your hand is moving your brain can engage. It’s a bit like learning to drive a car with a standard transmission. You can sit and stare at the clutch for an hour, but the car won’t move until you put it in gear and hit the gas.

Practice turning off the Judgment Function in your mind. Tell yourself you are just seeing what will happen. You are curious where this could go. If it really doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, lighten up. Make it a meditation. Draw or stitch straight lines for the whole session. Cut the paper you painted up into strips or squares. Keep your hands moving. Really stuck? Switch to a material you’d never think of taking seriously. Glue black bean designs on 5” squares of cardboard. Really.

Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Observe the ideas that flow once self-conscious awareness disappears into the activity at hand. Write those ideas down before you forget what they were. Present time thinking is fodder for future projects. Sit in the moment of making and relish the simplicity of working within limitations. Anticipate where it will lead.

And then get up and do some laundry. Or the dishes.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Limitations: Clearing Out Stuff

This is a season focused on giving and receiving. In an effort to continue the discussion on the power of limitations, I invite you to think about what you could give away.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve already got too much stuff. I don’t want any gifts this December. If anything, I want a gift I can give myself – of inventorying my stuff and divesting of as much of it as I can.

Recently I noticed a property for sale in my neighborhood - perfect for a retreat center/teaching studio. Never mind that it’s on the market for way more than I can afford. I had to have a look. The formerly grand 1920’s house stands on a promontory with a view of downtown San Antonio. Situated on over an acre, there is plenty of space for a new studio building – and maybe even a guesthouse. (Let me know if you have some funds to invest!)

While I practiced active imagination envisioning what I could do with the house I noticed something else about the property. It was clear the owner had issues when it came to parting with stuff. Two cars, carrying plates that hadn’t been current since 1999, were parked in the large driveway. The inside of the house confirmed its occupation by a seasoned stuffologist. Every room was stacked with boxes. The spare bedroom had been turned into makeshift closet for hundreds of pieces of clothing – more than any person could wear in one lifetime. I felt sad for the owner, and also slightly claustrophobic.

To break free from that level of acquisitive behavior probably requires help. We all know people who can’t give anything away. I encounter them in workshops all the time. One student I adore had five bags of denim in her studio, just waiting for the right project to present itself. That alone might not have been a problem, but the garage was full of stuff too. And neither you nor I can pass judgment on this. Last April I helped my mother clear out a basement’s worth of stuff, in preparation for a move to a new home. Our time together in the basement produced touching memories and several belly laughs. It’s hard to get rid of things that remind us of the past. The electrically heated melamine baby dish with the shiny moon and stars on it (my youngest sister is in her mid-forties) tugged at both our heartstrings, but it had to go. And what about the dozens of cereal box fronts, carefully trimmed into 9” x 12” pieces? “You never know when you might need a good piece of cardboard,” my mother explained sheepishly. We both laughed. The cereal boxes went into the paper-recycling bag, although I can’t help but wonder whether some of it was vintage, and worth something.

And that’s the hook. We’re easily duped into keeping far more of the stuff we own than we will ever need or use, because we are sentimentally attached, or motivated by a belief that somehow the stuff will bring us money. If we got busy and listed everything on Ebay, or tagged it all and filled up tables in the driveway, it would. But there’s one niggling detail. Actually doing it.

My point is that the more stuff you have, the more stuff you have to take care of. Sooner or later there’s a tipping point. You’re serving the stuff instead of allowing the stuff to serve you.

So give yourself the gift of dumping some stuff this season. Face the facts. Will you ever get a garage sale organized? Will you ever learn how to use Ebay? For that matter, will you ever use those five bags of fabric scraps you’re currently hoarding? Or all of the old copies of Quilting Arts you have stacked in the corner of the bedroom? Do yourself a favor and clear some stuff out. And don’t focus on how much it cost originally, or whether it’s worth money now. Pay it forward, and give everything away. Use freecycle.com or send a note out to fellow artists. I know one group in San Antonio that hosts a clothes swap twice a year.

How about an artists’ swap? Or the good, old-fashioned Salvation Army? It’s been proven that those who give without worrying about getting anything back have actually healed physical maladies. Check out Cami Walker at 29gifts.org. Suffering from multiple sclerosis, she determined to give 29 gifts in twenty-nine days. Amazingly enough, during the course of the giving her symptoms actually abated.

I know when I cleared out my closets and studio in September it was as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Is it a coincidence that the pain I had in my back also went away? I don’t know. I do know the coats that went to the homeless shelter are needed this morning. And that all the textile paints I’d accumulated but was never going to use found a good home with a young student living on tips as a waitress. And it makes me smile – and feel considerably lighter on my feet – to imagine what someone must have thought when they encountered the original artwork (old and no longer viably salable) that I donated to Goodwill. I just hope it didn’t go into a bedroom stacked with so much stuff it won’t ever be truly enjoyed.

But that can’t be my concern. All I can do is keep clearing out – creating plenty of healthy psychic space for new ideas and new work. Which is just another version of working within limitations and staying in present time.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why "Art Cloth?" - A Guest Opinion

Marie-Therese Wisniowski is an artist, lecturer and writer from Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia. She recently wrote this essay in response to a review published in the Winter Edition of the Surface Design Journal. I felt it was worth printing in order to share her ideas with an audience beyond the SDA membership.

Art Cloth was a term coined by Jane Dunnewold at the dawn of this century. Since then it has been widely used to embrace a myriad of “Art” that utilizes cloth as its medium. Jessica Hemmings in reviewing – ArtCloth: Engaging New Visions (an exhibition in which I was the curator) questioned whether the term Art Cloth was necessary, since she thought that “...textiles provide a rich medium for sophisticated communication of conceptual ideas. But I don’t think that textile needs yet another name” [1]. My answer to her assertions is that as much as I respect Jessica’s opinion, I disagree with her viewpoint on this matter.
The history of art is one of continual change. Art is dynamic and so serious philosophical questions have been raised as to whether or not it can be logically defined, identified or even classified [2]. There are numerous philosophical treaties exploring these ideas [2].

There are three basic ingredients (as opposed to definitions) that all artworks possess. When “engaged” they are non-functional, and aesthetic. “Engaging” is an important ingredient, since an unknown buried work is not art. These three conditions are “necessary” conditions and not the “sufficient and necessary” conditions that all logicians are searching for [2]. Note: I use the word “engaged” in a generic sense and so for example, that if all human species were blind we could perhaps “engage” sculpture artworks, although I doubt if water colour paintings would be in our art lexicon.

Historically what is now considered art - by individuals, cognoscenti, populous at large and by art institutions - has dramatically expanded. Furthermore, once a form of art has been accepted, like a biological cell when taken root in a particular form, it can divide and sub-divide itself into smaller sub-units.

Most areas of art are defined by doing nouns (i.e. nouns that evoke images of action): painting, sculpture, and performance art (just to mention a few). Once an area or cell of art has been loosely defined a number of sub-divisions miraculously occur. For example, let us consider the art making area of painting. It sub-divides on process (e.g. oil paintings, water colour paintings, and fresco etc.), on subject (e.g. landscapes, portraits, and seascapes etc.), on art movements (e.g. Impressionists, Post- Impressionist, and Cubists etc.) Those interested are not confused nor fear such sub- divisions or overlapping labeling. Rather their mere existence indicates a growing conscious interest, articulation and sophisticated appreciation of this form of art.

Let us define what is a textile. Basically it is defined as “any material that is woven” [3]. Clearly canvas is a textile and so technically speaking paintings on canvas, linen, velvet and silk are all textile art. Alan Sisley (Gallery Director, Orange Regional Art Gallery, NSW, Australia) is bemused that textile artists exclude canvas from their definition of their area of artistic engagement. “There is a lot of harmonious colour and thoughtful composition in this show [Engaging New Visions] . . . the same things we would praise were it an exhibition of paintings. When you think about it, canvas is also a fabric, so really what is the difference between printed or painted silk, painted canvas or paper?” [4].

The definition of “cloth” is similarly as broad, namely, “ a fabric formed by weaving, felting etc. from fibre used for garments, upholstery and for many other purposes” [3]. The same arguments could be applied against the use of “Art Cloth” as a generic identifier for artworks on fibre - other than canvas - as those that were used against “Textile Art”. There are nuances that tip me in favour of the use of “ArtCloth” in place of “Textile Art”, “Fibre Art” and “Surface Design” etc. For example, the use of “cloth” to define clothing or garments is now obsolete [3]. However, the use of “textile” or “fibre” always evokes textile or fibre design, so important for the Bauhaus school-of-thought that it was plundered by commercial needs to sell fabrics to a large and discerning market for functional use [5] (in defiance of one of the necessary conditions of artwork – its lack of functionality). Whilst its practitioners have spawned future art movements on canvas (especially in the USA) it lost its way as the poppet head of future art movements on fabrics. “Art Cloth” unlike “Textile Art” or “Fibre Art” therefore evokes the three necessary conditions (see above) that all artworks possess.

The word “Art” in general, may be considered by some (but not me!) as too broad a descriptor to attach to “Cloth” since it evokes a non-doing noun. If I had been there at the beginning of Jane’s thought bubble I would have suggested that she should consider the descriptor “Fine Art Cloth” since “fine art” now evokes - “an art form categorized as one of the fine arts, namely, those arts which seek expression through beautiful or significant modes” [3]. “Art Cloth” naturally assumes this role, even though “Fine Art Cloth” technically nails it!

The medium of cloth engages more of our physical and unconscious senses than most media used in art. In theory you can touch it, smell it and see it. The hue it offers is impossible to recreate on canvas. It is no wonder then that Leslie Rice used black velvet to paint his self-portrait to win the 2007 Australian Moran National Portrait Prize [6]. Cloth is like having available to you a Steinway rather than a harpsichord.

I am not at all fussed that Art Cloth is sub-dividing itself. I have often stated that Art Cloth works are exploring a new continent in art [6]. To take this analogy further - like any continent there will be different flora and fauna, landscapes and climates in different regions of the continent – all happening at the same time. The more mature these explorations become, the more sub-divisions appear.

Like the mature art of painting, Art Cloth can also be sub-divided on process (e.g. shibori, batik, and digital etc.), on subject (e.g. landscapes, post-graffiti, and social comment etc.), and on movement (e.g. post-modernism, abstract expressionism, and De Stijl etc.) [6]. Those interested in Art Cloth will one day identify new art movements in cloth being born, developed, appreciated and then perhaps discarded. These statements are not predictions, but rather are the artistic cycles witnessed with the exploration of any art medium.

We do not want to lose focus on what is important to us – definitions may come and go and undoubtedly, will keep art theorists and publishing houses very busy producing a vast array of tomes [2]. However, what motivates the practitioner is simply to do and to “engage” Art Cloth! Enjoy, and let those less fortunate and gifted than you argue about such nuances.

Marie-Therese Wisniowski (BFA) is a full-time artist, researcher, author and casual lecturer at the University of Newcastle (Australia). She maintains the Art Quill Studio at Arcadia Vale, NSW, Australia. She has written articles on the Art Cloth movement for scholarly journals as well as for art and craft magazines and e-zines. She gives lectures and workshops on the concept and techniques in Art Cloth. She is the curator of the - Art Cloth: Engaging New Visions – exhibition that toured Australia. She specializes in the area of Art Cloth and limited edition prints. She has created a number of silk screening techniques (e.g. “Matrix Formatting” and “Multiplexing”), which she employs in her works. Her current work explores contemporary issues and she employs dyeing, discharge, stenciling, hand painting, digital imaging and silkscreen printing to explore issues via her large format works. For more information – see http://www.artquill.blogspot.com.

[1] J. Hemmings, Surface Design Journal, Fall 2010, pages 56-57. [2] N. Carrrol, Philosophy of Art, Routledge, London (1999). [3] The Macquarie Dictionary, Third Edition, Macquarie University, NSW (1997). [4] A. Sisley, ‘Audience Cottons onto Exhibition’ Gallery Pages, Central Western Daily, Orange, 15.5.10 [5] Editor M. Kemp, The Oxford History of Western Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford (2000). [6] M-T. Wisniowski, ‘Exploring A New Continent in Art’, Crafts Arts International, Issue 73 (2008) pages 67-72.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thoughts on Focusing

The question of how to focus comes up in almost every discussion I lead on the creative process. I think when people talk about focusing what they’re really wondering is whether their work would improve – be stronger, better or more satisfying – if it wasn’t going so many directions. The wealth of available materials and processes is seductive! I’ve been writing about the power of limits in my personal work, so it’s not surprising that I get letters from readers who want to know what they should do to bring some focus to their work, too.

Which led me to this evaluation of the various styles Artists employ when they are making. Where do you fit? If you can’t decide, ask a friend. She’ll be able to tell you!

The Six Approaches to Making

Spontaneous: Throw anything at it and see what happens.

Tentative: Tries something out but can’t decide. Lives with it awhile and one of two things happens: Likes it so far; and continues, Or can’t decide; so it collects dust.

The Planner: Regularly diagrams, journals and plans. Thinks about color, makes lists. The planning is more fun than the execution, so no piece ever gets made. But some great journals come out of the process…

The Pragmatist: Uses what she has, right or wrong. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least she finishes things and stays within her budget.

The Collector: Constantly shopping and/or acquiring. Sees Big Ideas when she’s in the middle of a purchase, but nothing ever resolves. Loads of stuff in closets and under the bed.

The Worker Bee: Never didn’t finish anything. What starts as a sample must become a vest or a pillow. Everyone is in awe of how she gets it all done. The downfall? She never moves beyond samples into deeper work.

I bet you’ll see a bit of yourself in at least one of these descriptions. I’ve got bits and pieces of each of them in me, depending on my mood.

But no matter where you fall out on the above list, sooner or later, it begins to wear on you. You tire of the collections, or wish you could do differently, or better. Maybe you begin to realize it could feel great to buckle down and make something you’d be really proud of.

Which leads back to focusing.

I think focusing loses its appeal because we make the mistake of believing that if we decide to focus our efforts, we’ll leave something else wonderful behind. That somehow we’re choosing forever.

Not true! Focusing doesn’t mean you can’t do everything you find appealing. It just means that for some pre-determined period of time you are going to choose INTENTIONALLY to work with some limits. Picture the old mother in the shoe, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do. Every mother knows that each child requires at least a few minutes of individual attention every day in order to blossom into a human being with healthy self-esteem.

So this is your approach – and the first assignment (of which the next blog entries will suggest several…)

Don’t be the old woman in the shoe – with so many projects you don’t know what to do.
Think about each project, technique or how-to book that interests you. DO make some notes about what appeals and then do a little mental ranking. What do you want to do MOST right now – in this space of time? Think about concentrating your efforts on one interest – either for a specific period of time, or until you complete a certain number of works employing the technique, OR until you feel you have mastered it.

When you feel really good about the project or process from one of those angles, you’ll feel equally good about moving on to something new. OR perhaps, about sticking with it even longer – because you have discovered how much more there is to explore.

It’s a win – win proposition.