Sunday, November 16, 2014

JoeTheQuilter Cunningham shows his unique voice

San Francisco quilt artist Joe Cunningham at the Nov. 8 CQA meeting

"Jules is a slut!"

This wasn't the opening line of Joe Cunningham's presentation to CQA members and guests at the group's November 8 meeting, but it was just one among many laugh-provoking comments that marked the San Francisco artist's highly entertaining program. (The pertinence of this line will be disclosed in due course...)

Joe took up quilting in 1979 after a 10-year career as a musician (guitar player), in his native Michigan. Formal art study or training was never among his activities, but art and music were always his interests. "The Detroit Museum of Art was my favorite school-skip location," he laughed. "Art is intimidating, but quilting is endearing," he added, as a way of explaining how he came to create his own art through quilting.

Joe points out the combination of traditional, modern, and "maker's choice" elements in the free-form design of this antique quilt from his collection. He is inspired by antique quilts where the makers did anything they wanted!
He took as his quilting mentor Hungarian-born Mary Schafer, a strict traditionalist who taught that you engineer the border of a quilt around the center, and "If it's not tradition, you can't do it!" Joe threw himself into the study of the quilting traditions, and from that viewpoint, gave the CQA audience a capsule history: Quilting began with the elaborate European bedspreads, but by the time quilting migrated to this country, American women began to throw out this idea in favor of creating quilts as useful objects--as gifts, or as blankets to keep the family warm.

And, as this was a "woman's pursuit," there was no money in it--at first. There were very few actual quilt patterns in the period 1810-20 or so, but by the 1840-50  period, thousands of patterns existed. The first quilt kits appeared in the 1940s, and thereafter there were more quilts being styled by designers than by ordinary quilters. Through the '60s, '70s and '80s, the traditional quilt was a box, with limits clearly defined. This "standard" was spread by show categories, reinforced by what quilts won, what quilts got published.
This is Joe's "anti-medallion" quilt, where he followed his desired path of "starting by putting any two pieces of fabric together," and of course ignoring the traditional center-medallion design.

In attending numerous quilt shows, Joe soon found that he was noticing quilts in vendor booths that were 100-150 years old, yet were not considered traditional...they were often odd designs that quilters had just made up. It was these quilts that most attracted him, and that he began to collect and use as inspirations. His mantra is "Start by putting any two pieces of fabric together, any way you want!" He says he's still "making a blanket," adding that a philosopher friend riffed on this idea when calling a quilt "the perfect existential object." Joe redefined this as "wrapping up against the coldness of the universe!" He said he's on a one-man crusade to make quilts/blankets "art to go on a wall."
"Island in two parts" is Joe's "anti-Amish" quilt. The larger area is a single piece of green-and-white striped fabric cut into chunks and turned in various directions to add interest and dimension.

Joe likes to buy fabrics by price, and "the cheaper, the better!" He's the guy who scours the sale tables, saying "I have a flair for the unattractive. If the fabrics actually go together, I toss 'em!" He adds, "Beautiful fabric doesn't make a beautiful's the quilter who does that." He has no interest in color theory; he prefers to do things never seen before.
Joe's version of "New York Beauty." Again, he prefers to start with fabrics that don't go together: "I have a flair for the unattractive!" These came from 3 different sale tables. The pinkish fabric is a stripe that Joe cut into pieces of varying sizes and re-sewn at varying angles for texture and interest.

Using a design wall, Joe will construct a piece in chunks, often using the same fabric across seams so the seams are not so obvious. At the same time, he will often cut a striped fabric into numerous pieces, sewing them back together at different angles, so that the seam contributes to the resulting textured appearance.
This "crazy quilt" was inspired by an aerial view of protesters in Kiev's main square, inside the barricades. This is his first time to use fabrics that do indeed go together, but they are at least from all over the world.
Joe programmed the quilting design to show the barricades, sleeping protesters, etc.

Joe likes black-and-white he's unfolding one that's just black thread all over white fabric.
The front and back (oddly enough!) are the same. Joe drew a low-res image of the quilting design and blew it up to 6x7 feet in size. Then he computerized 130 individual drawings as 7" blocks in rows of 10, to be able to quilt the overall design.
Close-up of the tree at the center of the design.
Close-up of window, bricks, on the black-and-white quilt.
Several years ago Joe embarked on his "bias tape" period, creating design lines of a number of his pieces with commercial bias tape. It all started when he spotted a huge spool of bias tape at Britex, the San Francisco mecca for fabric lovers, at a really cheap price. He bought 100 yards of the tape and stitched some of it on a blank section of an in-progress quilt. He liked the result so much that he posted a note, "Seeking bias tape!" on his website...and had to take it down after a month to attempt to stem the deluge of incoming tape! "I still have a huge bundle," he laughed, then added, "and I'm still buying the stuff on eBay when I spot a bargain. I'm the guy who pays $3.98 for a spool of it--plus over $12 shipping!"
The "Cunningham Ancestral Line," done with black bias tape.
"Winter Twister," again done with black commercial bias tape.
Close-up of part of "Winter Twister"
"Defunct Civilization" is a great example of fabrics most quilters wouldn't put together! The design lines--a Roman aqueduct and fallen columns at top, an old car at bottom, are done with bias tape.
Back side of "Defunct Civilization." Quilting design is a repeating pattern Joe drew, representing the layout of a V-6 automobile engine.

One of Joe's more recent projects is a series of portraits, self- and otherwise, several of which make use of his favorite bias tape as a defining line.  One of his wife was done somewhat in the pop art style of Roy Lichtenstein, complete with the iconic "thought balloon." Asked how his wife liked the result, Joe said "Oh, she likes the quilt, but she says it isn't her!"
More "unusual" color combos in this portrait of Joe's wife, but it's the bias tape lines and "thought balloon" that capture the eye first.
The "thought balloon" words were printed on Joe's computer printer.

Another "bias-taped" portrait was one of fellow fiber-artist Luke Haynes.  With the portrait nearly completed, Joe felt it lacked something to finish off the bottom. His son, Jules, offered the use of some of his old jeans. It needs to be explained that Jules had been the only male student, along with 24 teen-age girls, in some sort of alternative arts program...and the girls had written various comments on Jules' jeans. Not until Joe began hand-quilting this denim section of the quilt did he discover that some of these writings were legible...including the comment about Jules that opens this article. "Once Luke heard about this," Joe laughed, "he said he had to have this quilt!"

Portrait of fellow artist Luke Haynes includes bias tape, rick-rack and buttons...and the inked comment about Joe's son Jules in the bottom section comprising used denim jeans.
A quilt Joe completed just before his appearance at the CQA meeting is a self-portrait utilizing silk-shirting scraps in tan and black, remnants from a manufacturing operation.

Joe's self portrait. The black and tan fabrics are silk-shirting remnants.
Close-up of quilting pattern Joe designed.

[Above and below] More close-ups of quilting pattern on Joe's self portrait. Note the raw edges of the tan and black silk areas.

With all the desired pieces of the design stitched in place, Joe programmed his longarm quilting machine with his chosen quilting pattern and went off into another room to eat, read, etc. All was going fine until he realized the machine had begun to make strange noises and, finally, shut itself off in mid-stream. Returning to the room to check out the situation, Joe found to his horror that the machine had jammed on some of the loose edges of the silk-shirting patches and "stitched/ripped" two holes in the quilt, then managed to break some expensive internal part of itself! This explains, he said, why there is a flower on the self-portrait quilt...and why it's in just that spot.
Joe points out the flower that "rescued" the self-portrait quilt when his longarm quilting machine "ate" two holes in the quilt. "At least the eyes of the figure are looking in this direction,"he laughed.
Close-up of the flower that covers up the offending holes.

Joe has taught and lectured all across the country; his quilts are part of both private and public/museum collections. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books on quilting both traditional and modern, including six with traditional/"liberated" quiltmaker Gwen Marston, as well as 2010's pioneering "Men and the Art of Quilt Making." Read more about Joe and his quilts at his blog, and on his website,

Friday, October 17, 2014

Marjorie Fiddler, quilter to weaver

Marjorie Fiddler at CQA's Oct. 11 meeting, wearing a "vest/coat" woven of silk and linen threads.

Marjorie  Fiddler's first quilt, started when she was in college in Northfield, MN, was intended for a friend getting married. After wrestling with sandpaper templates ("to prevent them moving") and the severely limited fabric selection in Northfield in 1965, she abandoned the quilt...for more than 30 years! At the October 11 meeting of Contemporary QuiltArt Association, the Seattle-area artist told how, in the decades following that first effort, she combined her love of quilting with a subsequently discovered talent for weaving.

Out of college by the early '70s, Fiddler found herself in Boston, where an occupational-therapist friend employed at a local hospital gave her access to an unused workshop full of weaving equipment. "There was an old counter-balance loom missing some parts and pieces," Fiddler said, "so I spent the summer rounding up materials to repair the loom, acquiring fibers to weave, talking to every weaver I could locate, reading a ton of books on the craft, and so  on." Soon she was creating weavings of her own, from simple curtains to a complicated, colonial-style overshot bedspread. "Weaving is very step-by-step, and that appealed to me," Fiddler added.

In 1989, Fiddler arrived in Seattle with a year off to explore "something brand new," and the first thing she tried was watercolor classes. "I found out pretty quickly that I couldn't draw sufficiently--which was good, as I spent my time learning to blend colors," Fiddler said. Dealing with color came in very handy in her next exploration, which was a quilt-design study group. Here she learned to not second-guess herself,  to have faith in her own work and not gauge everything by how others responded to it.

From roughly 1989 until she retired in 2004, Fiddler was involved primarily in quilting. "What I loved about quilting was that the cloth comes already colored and frequently with patterning...and you can work piece by piece on a design wall," she said. "In weaving you have to decide so much in advance."
Fiddler's first finished quilt taught her a lot about scale!
Nicole McHale, left, and Bonnie  Brewer check out Fiddler's "Friendship" group quilt. All hand-quilted in a traditional  basket design, it was featured in the first show of the Assn. of Pacific NW Quilters, 1994, and traveled to Christchurch, NZ in a "sister city" exchange.
Bonnie Brewer studies Fiddler's "Batik Jewels" quilt, one of her early pieces created from fabrics a friend brought back from Micronesia. Fiddler found she liked the use of narrow inset lines..something used extensively in weaving.

"But some of the same principles basic to quilting are also critical to weaving," she adds. "Value is more important than color...a piece needs to 'read' both from closeup and at a distance. Line is another common element. I like to work on a grid, for the geometrical interaction of the lines. Scale is also important. And for me personally, I like having a limit, or boundaries...and you get that within the confines of the loom. I don't do tapestry weaving, as that has no boundaries."

Fiddler's 8-harness rug loom
View of part of Fiddler's studio and her 16-harness loom, used for yardage.
Given the freedom of retirement, Fiddler chose to return to weaving as  her creative outlet. A class at Weaving Works in Seattle in 2005 was followed by her joining the Seattle Weavers Guild. Then, through a family connection, she inherited two large floor looms--one, an 80"-high, 8-harness rug loom, the other a 16-harness loom for weaving yardage.

"Having these large, wonderful looms signaled to me that it was time to have 'a room of my own,'" Fiddler said, so the next step was rental of studio space outside of her home. "This also meant I now had something of my own space within my head....I was no longer worried about making pieces just for sale--though I do sell  pieces--but from then on, the projects were just for my pleasure," she added.
A sample of plain weave, where both the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads show.
Sample of weft-faced weave, used for rugs. Here, only the horizontal weft threads (yarn) show.

Fiddler showed images of "plain weave"--where the warp (vertical) strings are visible in the finished product--and "weft-face weave," where the weft (horizontal filler) yarns entirely cover the warp. This latter weave style is what Fiddler uses for rugs, which are her most frequent projects. She uses linen threads for the warp and 2-ply wool for the weft (mostly purchased from Henry's Attic).  Fiddler does most of her own dying, sometimes using natural dyes, but primarily using washfast acid dyes from Dharma. "Once I was concerned with consistency in dyeing, but I've learned to let it go," she added.
Vertical stripes can be done in weft-face weave by manipulating the looms harnesses.
Samples with vertical stripes.
Samples of "standard" horizontal woven stripes in weft-face weave.
Closeup of horizontal weft-face weave. The little "specks" of color come from tightly pounding down a single"shot" or thread of yarn.

Even in the weft-face weave, Fiddler can product vertical lines as well as the basic horizontal lines, by manipulating the loom's harnesses to create stripes. Non vertical/horizontal-line patterns can also be created through the use of ikat dyeing--basically tie-dyeing on a thread-by-thread basis. Sections of yarn are wrapped with some sort of resist, e.g. threads, plastic bags, tape, etc., then the yarn is sequentially dyed, first with the resist in place, then without (or vice versa, depending on the desired color combinations). The ikat process does require advance measuring in order to have the "second color" appear in the right place in the final piece, added Fiddler.
A setup for ikat dying, showing the "resist" wrapping. Inset shows a woven sample from ikat-dyed yarn.
The purplish irregular sections are ikat-dyed.
The final appearance can be changed by manipulating the ikat-dyed yarn section.
Finished section including an ikat-dyed portion.

Here, only the gray section(s) were ikat-dyed.
The irregular grayish sections were ikat-dyed.

With the experience she's gained over the years, Fiddler says she can now sit at the loom and design as she goes, without working from a precise plan or a sketchbook. The basic design principles of design she first learned in her years of quilting--and that transfer directly to weaving--now stand her in good stead.
Done in a twill weave, this is Fiddler's first piece that doesn't have top/bottom mirror image, a result of her running out of some of the yarn!
This piece was over-dyed with indigo, and again, is symmetric rather than mirror-image.
Deciding she'd not been using enough different colors in her work, Fiddler used a triad color scheme for this piece. She found she needed to change colors more often than usual!
"Reflections"--an ikat piece with both horizontal and vertical lines, somewhat designed "on the fly" as Fiddler ran short of some of the yarns and had to modify as she went.

For more about Fiddler and views of her weavings, go to

Friday, August 15, 2014

Deborah Kapoor uses ancient technique to create very modern art

Artist Deborah Kapoor at CQA meeting
Seattle-area artist Deborah Kapoor calls her work mostly experimental as she continually pushes to new boundaries. That she does this using one of the most ancient of art media--encaustic--intrigued the members of Contemporary QuiltArt Association as she spoke at the group's August 9 meeting.
The materials of encaustic: beeswax, pigment, resin (R&F Paints)

Encaustic work uses a mix of beeswax, pigment and resin that functions as paint and that can be used in much the same way as oil paints, but with the added ability to encase three-dimensional objects within the wax. Some of the earliest uses of encaustic date back to 500 B.C., and the medium was used in mummy paintings by the Egyptians around 100 A.D.

"Hot boxes" or palettes (R&F Paints)
The wax, pigment and resin are mixed and melted on top of a "hot box" or palette, and applied with brushes or spoon- and knife-like metal tools. Modern encaustic materials have an advantage over oil paints in that there's no need for solvent--they can be cleaned up with soy wax, then soap and water.

"BloodMilk"--encaustic with plaster bandage, wire, thread, book pages, onion skins, lace, Saral transfer, string, dryer sheets.
Encaustic pieces are archival--as long as they are not subjected to uncontrolled intense heat--and can be reworked at a later time by applying heat to any given area. They can crack if dropped--but the artist can then simply reheat the affected area and fix it!
"Retention of Life Force"--Encaustic,wire, paper, yarn.
"Non-Violence"--Encaustic, lace, paper
"Swinging Between External and Internal"--Encaustic, ink, fabric, ribbon

Kapoor was into painting and drawing in graduate school, then found herself cutting things up and adding stitching to her paintings. Soon she was integrating cold wax into her paintings to create layers, so it became an easy move to encaustic.
"Vehicle of the Gods"--Encaustic, dryer lint, thread, batting
Closeup of "Vehicle of the Gods"
"Inexorable Passage of Time"--Encaustic, old greeting cards

Many of her works spring out of three main themes--nature, the body, the self--each of which offers numerous paths for her to follow. Her husband is from India; that, combined with travel to India and study of Indian philosophy, has resulted in a good deal of her work exhibiting themes from Indian culture and traditions.
"Small Acts of Kindness"--Includes rubber bands in encaustic
"Village Gods"--Encaustic, paper, ink, thread
"Sense Base"--Encaustic, Satsuma peels
Back side of "Sense Base"

Kapoor takes full advantage of encaustic's ability to "hold" three-dimensional objects within the wax, and she collects and uses materials as disparate as bags of fibers, rubber bands, eye makeup-remover pads, dryer sheets, dryer lint, greeting cards, batting, "plaster bandages," plastic wrap, Satsuma peels and madrona bark in her work. She often includes prints and/or printed materials, and some pieces include hand-written mantras.
"Inner Soul"--Encaustic, thread, paper (with written mantras)
"Divine Mother"--Encaustic, felt, ink, paper, cord. Part of "Remembering" installation honoring Kapoor's late mother-in-law.

Installation of "Remembering"
"Cosmic Consciousness"--part of "Remembering" installation. Encaustic, paper, found objects, brads, cord.

"Remembering: Bones"--Encaustic, cord from pajamas

Kapoor began teaching encaustic classes at Bellevue College last year, and this winter will be teaching classes in Color Theory and Encaustic and Color. Her work can be seen at Art Exchange Gallery in Seattle, and on her website:
Students gather around Kapoor in encaustic class at Bellevue College.

For more information on encaustic history, materials and techniques, go to R&F Paints,