Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jane Dunnewold, One Artist's Evolution, What Matters?

CQA Meeting September 10, 2011
by Lorraine Edmond

A full house of enthralled artists attended the September CQA program to hear speaker Jane Dunnewold. Jane is well-known nationally and internationally for her artwork , her teaching, and her writing, especially the influential books Complex Cloth, and Art Cloth. She is now serving as the vice president of the Surface Design Association and will become the next president.

Jane began her talk by noting that this is a fortunate time to be involved in the surface design movement because there are so many techniques and tools available to us now. She also suggested that we learn some “guerilla tactics” to overcome the tendency for others to isolate us in the “fiber ghetto.” (Apply to shows that accept “mixed media” even if they say specifically “no fiber,” redefine your work as a “construction” instead of a quilt if that will make your audience see it differently.)

Next, the audience was treated to a large collection of images going back 25 years or so, (all of which looked like they could have been 21st century pieces, however.) Jane began by showing a collection of her photos of clotheslines from around the world to illustrate that she was always drawn to textiles and fiber due to their role in the legacy of women. She explained that she was “attracted to the basic necessity of fabric,” and that translates into her studio work.

Her earliest work included collaged paste papers and solvent transfers on silk. Even decades later, she insists “I’m still basically low-tech.” Other early work included a quilt made from old dish towels along with sandpaper and screen cloth. Her first quilt in Quilt National was called “Baby Quilt” and was composed of solvent-transferred baby photos and bordered with birthday candles that she lit to form an uneven burned edge.

Jane believes that we find techniques we’re drawn to and we know that we love them, but only later may we find the thread of meaning that begins to assert itself. “We think we’re bouncing around, but we’re really filling up the toolbox, deciding what to keep and what to discard.”

At some point, she decided to focus on cloth, on layering, on wet processes. This immediately resulted in issues of presentation—how to show the work so that it didn’t look like a curtain.

After some years of doing this work, she began to feel “strangled” by art cloth, and wanted to move into new work. She found resistance from galleries and others, but she persevered. At this point, she spent a year listening to the Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell translation) and making lists of every visual image that came up. Those images were turned into tools to use for the next series of work. The series grew to 14 pieces and was shown in Santa Fe just two days after Sept 11, 2001.

Like most artists, Jane says she has long dry periods when she wonders if she will ever make anything again. She spends considerable time collecting images and symbols before plunging in to new work. And then, sometimes …. “you just gotta get a new tool!” In her case, a recent example was a needle-felting machine (or two). “You work with it until it distills into what you are meant to do with it—if you sit around thinking about what you’ll do with it, you’ll never do anything.” Other times, you plunge into a new technique, as her recent work with soy wax exemplifies. It’s the rare artist who is not seduced by new tools--see Jane’s work with digital imagery printed on fabric at for several examples in the Sacred Planet series.
After some time spent on the digital printing path, she returned to her roots—starting with plain white fabric. She believes it is helpful to provide limitations in order to structure the work—a limited color palette, a specific shape or size or materials or techniques—any of these can work. Jane chose to work with black, white and gray, silk fabric, some paper, simple organic images, and using some sand-embedded screen prints. She worked on 5 pieces a week, as she had 4 months to make work to fill an exhibition space with 290 running feet. The result was 48 pieces in the Etudes series. After the first twelve, she couldn’t stand the black and white restriction, so she added pieces of a quilt to the work. Color continued to insert itself in the form of deconstructed clothing and hand stitching. As the series progressed, the pieces simplified—she said she was really “settling into it” by number 40!

Visit Jane’s web site ( to see examples of her work. The Sacred Planet, Visual Poetry and Etudes series all have their own galleries of images. She also has lists of resources and a generous collection of .pdf files on a variety of topics that you can download.