October 10, 2014

Accepting Imperfection as Beauty

When I started quilting again years ago, I took a few classes to hone some skills.  Many instructors were sticklers for straight seams and perfect points.  Others were more concerned with the process rather than the result and were happy with any completed quilt, perfection be darned.  I often heard variations of the story wherein quilters (who must have been amazingly skilled) intentionally placed mistakes into each quilt to prevent offending the perfection of God.  I never have to work at the mistakes - they find their way in.  Although I love perfect-looking quilts, I never get remoteley close to the ideal.  

As an example, take a look at the pink pinwheel where four blocks meet.  Those points are way off.  Do I worry?  Rip out the seams?  I do not.  I've outlined my construction technique in a previous post, but it is important to point out that I am using silk and linen of many weights, weaves, and textures.  I make every attempt to sew carefully and accurately, but it is tricky to make everything meet in the correct places every time. Also, ripping and resewing can weaken some silks, so if it the seam is strong, I don't worry about anything else.
 All the silks are backed with fabric for stability, but even so, issues can arise during construction and quilting. Many silks are difficult to sew and a few insist on pulling out of seams during the sewing process.  After a quilt is finished, including the quilting, I go over every inch.  If I find a pulled or weak seam, I mark the area with a safety pin.

My usual remedy is to first repair the seam from the front, then embroider decorative (but sturdy) stitches along the seamlines for extra strength.  My favorite source of stitches is an old pamphlet my mother-in-law gave me years ago.  It has great instructions and a diversity of more interesting stitches than in most modern books.
Seams are embroidered and mended, usually with thread of a complementary color.  Usually I use floss (shown here) because many brocade weaves don't have the strength for larger pearl cotton.  Silk threads are beautiful, but can damage some of the silk fabrics by cutting right through.

Do I feel bad about these fixes for brand new quilts?  Heck no!  I've seen many old quilts, threadbare, mended, embroidered and loved.  I think the extras add to the personality of the quilt.  Honestly, most people don't notice for a long time that "extras" are included.  

My quilts are not perfect, but they are beautiful.  Part of the enjoyment is finding the unique aspects of each quilt.  A funny fabric here, a crooked seam there, an embroidered flower in a corner; it's all good.

October 3, 2014

Simple Rodents Anyone would Love

I'm preparing for a  few fall shows and have decided to add something new to the inventory.  It is standard practice for artists to have something small and inexpensive - perhaps as impulse buys or just because most people can't afford the big stuff.  This is an issue for me because my figures start at $295 and I really do want people to feel like they can afford something in my booth.  In the past, I took a variety of little bags or book covers made from cloth scraps, but the main problem was that these items didn't fit thematically with my main artwork.

I searched around for ideas (I was originally thinking of birds) and stumbled across pictures of cloth fruits someone had made.  I realized the pear shape is perfect to create the simplest of animal bodies.  After finalizing a pattern and making my first set of rodents, I was hooked. Although the idea is simple - make a pear shape out of six identical pieces of fabric, the reality is more difficult.  I work almost entirely in wool, which is bulky, so these tiny stuffed animals are tricky to sew.  The final seam requires six seams to meet at the tops and bottoms of the pear/rodent without catching the ears at the top.  Not easy and as you can see, my seams are far less than perfect!  Nonetheless, these guys are so cute, they are going to be a permanent addition to the repertoire.  In the end, the pattern could also be used to make birds - beaks in front and no ears.  Simple.

September 17, 2014

New Bird and Mammal Figures For Fall 2014

Shown: Jackrabbit, Belted Kingfisher & Pyrroloxia
The Fall show season is coming up and I've geared up to make a few new figures.  Some are old favorites, but a few are new.  Here's the rundown on what I'm working on now:

Returning species:
Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  I make these birds regularly, living in St. Louis they sell well.  (Hmmmm, I wonder why).  I remember seeing them in Tucson when I was a girl; it was always a treat. They are now fairly common in southern AZ, but this wasn't always the case.  Their range has expanded considerably due to climate change.  Good or bad?  Hard to say.

Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)  It's actually been a few years since I've made a roadrunner.  Of course, I have Paisano, but he's not for sale and he's huge!  Roadrunners are the iconic southwestern bird, so it was time to make a new one.  This guy's great.

Townsend's Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi This figure is actually a remake.  He was one of my figures featured in 500 Handmade Dolls, and had a needelsculpted and painted head.  I don't make heads that way anymore (but see a previous post for a how-to for animals) and I thought I could do a better job. He went from show to show, and nobody wanted to take him home.  I created a new head and a new coat.

White-Sided Jackrabbit (Lepus calotis)  I am fond of jackrabbits and make these figures regularly.  I seem to be able to capture rabbitness fairly well and consequently, the jacks are favorites with the customers also. This guy has great face.

Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)  Kingfishers are widespread throughout the U.S., but are under-appreciated.  Beautiful birds that always make up as elegant figures. 

New species: 
Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus)  This is another figure redo.  Years ago, I made a series of human figures with plague masks for a gallery show.  This was a special request of a friend and I never really liked the figures.  They were grey and boring and kind of scary.  Off came the human heads and, for this figure, on with a new bird head.  The coat and embellishements match the species well, so this was  a relatively simple redo.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)  Usually I make kit foxes - they are more interesting to me and people know less about them.  I get a lot of requests for the typical fox, so what the heck. 

Inca Dove (Columbina inca)  These doves are the prettiest of the SW doves, but they are also very annoying.  They never stop making noise! They are lovely birds and I an usually happy to see them - in short doses.  This figure has a lovely face and a really nice wool coat with painted lunettes that replicate the scaly look of the feathers.

Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii)  Even though I make a lot of jackrabbits, I've never actually made a real rabbit (jackrabbits are hares, not rabbits).  It was time.  This is the classic cottontail bunny type (stocky & quick), but the desert rabbit you only see in the SW.  This guy has the most amazing pissed off expression on his face - it's wonderful!

13-lined Ground Squirrel (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus)  I have a special place in my heart for rodents.  I love them all.  Strangely, I have difficulty making the heads the right shape and so usually avoid trying to create this type of figure.  This guy is ok, I still need to figure out those heads.  His coat is quite nice with beaded panels replicating the distinctive lines down the body.

Rock Squirrel (Otospermophilus variegatus)  These guys are found throughout AZ and NM, usually in rocky outcroppings.  They are a lot darker than most squirrels, and pretty hefty.  As with most of the ground squirrels, they have a ton of personality and I always feel I can't capture even a tiny portion in a figure.

When everyone is completely done, I'll post an update on Facebook and perhaps load some of the new people onto the website.  Stay tuned!

September 9, 2014

Making Feet the Agosia Arts Way

This will be my first foray into the world of video.  I hope this short tutorial provides some useful and/or interesting information.  (If the video above won't play for you, jump over to YouTube.) Why start with feet?  I get two questions all the time: 1) how do you deal with feet and shoes and 2) how do you make those tiny hands?  Feet first.

Many figure makers create 'normal' legs and feet, jointed or not, and attach separate shoes.  Quite a few of these craftspeople get tired of dealing with tiny shoes and try piecing fabrics together, aligning, sewing and cutting to create a one-piece leg with sewn in 'shoes.'  Then there are people like me who think even that is a bit too much work.

When I began making figures, the lower leg+foot was made of leather with an opening for at the toe for stuffing.  The overall look was that of a boot covering the lower leg and foot.  Why change?  Two reasons.  First, the foot still looked a bit sloppy and if the leather was thick, the toe was wrinkly and bumpy.  Not bad, but not great either.  Second, I needed an additional place to sign my name.  Usually, I sign under the shoulder or hip joints, but sometimes the fabric is very dark, and the signature isn't obvious.  By creating a boot with a lighter sole, I have the option of signing on the bottom of the foot.

I developed the idiosyncratic method of making lower legs shown in the video.  I don't claim this is the greatest method on earth, or the simplest or fastest, but it works well for me.  Perhaps it will be useful for someone else.  At the very least, it gives a behind the scenes peek into the creation of a figure.  Questions or comments?  Please let me know.

Stay tuned for hands!

March 21, 2014

Can you do art and science at the same time? Maybe...

Recently, I received a very nice email from a student.  Her question was a good one and I took some time thinking about my answer.  Perhaps I painted  a bleak picture - I didn't mean to.  In any case, I've shared the email and my response below (warning: it's long!):

Hi Alana, I recently read about your work in a magazine and after reading your biography I decided to contact you. I am also in the biology field, and I am planning on applying to a PhD program this year.  I am also an artist so I am always interested in hearing from people who do manage or have managed both a scientific career and an artistic drive at the same time.  I have been worrying a lot that during and after the PhD program I will be forced to put art and crafts aside due to the amount of stress and time involved in getting a foothold in science, so I\'m wondering if you have any advice or insights to share on finding a balance between the two, and just being both an artist and a scientist at the same time?  I would love to hear your thoughts.  Best, C

Dear C,

Let me begin by first applauding your enthusiasm for biology as a career choice and second, the personal incentive to ask strangers for advice (the second will serve you well in years to come!).

One thing I notice about students these days is they are more aware of career/life balance issues than when I was a student, 20 years ago.  Overall, young people today want to do meaningful work, be artistic and creative, travel to interesting places, eat great food and just have a fantastic life.  Well.  It can be done, but there are things to consider...

Let's address the issue of what's involved in graduate work and how it will affect your life.  I'm going to assume that you are aiming for a program in a large, research oriented university. If so, you will be expected to focus on a question, design and execute a series of experiments to address it, analyze the data, read, understand & be able to discuss hundreds of publications associated with your research, prepare funding proposals, present talks at regional/national meetings, and write up and submit your work for publication in peer reviewed journals. Although you may have assistance from others, the responsibility of completing this work is all yours.  During this 4-6 year period, you will also be expected to get A's in all your classes, participate in reading groups, collaborate with students & faculty in your research group, teach labs and sometimes classes, and read anything slightly tangential to your work. Somewhere in the middle, you may have oral exams (in which you can be asked anything, anything at all) to determine your worthiness to proceed. At the end, you must write everything in a format particular to your educational institution (usually a Kafka-esque experience) and defend your dissertation. Many buckle under the pressure, others begin using drugs and unfortunate romantic associations are common. Although it sounds bleak, this is training like no other in the world, and by obtaining a PhD, you have acquired and polished skills that are highly transferable and incredibly valuable for just about any path you choose from that point forward.

Based on my description, it may seem like there is time for little else besides breathing and eating when in grad school.  In reference to your questions about time management and stress, when I look back, it seems like a lot of students did all of the above plus one "fun" thing (besides drinking - everyone went drinking).  For example, one guy went to baseball games, another had an extensive garden, yet another fished constantly.  One woman rescued parrots, another did amazing, detailed beadwork. For those women with kids, that was their one thing (I know that sounds depressing, but let's be realistic).  For me, it was sewing.  So, when I started a quilting group, it was a big deal.  My adviser was a pretty good guy, but he was a typical male academic - his life was his work. In his mind, why would you want (or need) to do anything besides your research?  I had to deal with constant, low-level commentary about the amount of time (tiny, really) I spent doing non-biological activities.  My adviser knew he couldn't complain much because I worked like a slave and I was a very good student.  But still, the comments continued to the end...

Jump forward a few years to my days doing art fairs around the mid-West.  I was teaching part time (more typical these days) and was a horrible employee because I would cancel classes during the semester to travel and sell my work.  I noticed that, at shows, at least 10% of the artists were scientists and nearly all were young (30s & 40s).  No, they weren't leaving their students in the lurch as I was, they were striking out as full-time fine artists and craftspeople. They were not social misfits, retirees, nor had they been denied tenure.  These were all people who thought that they could not express themselves completely and satisfactorily in the academic world.  They left it behind and were all the happier for  it. These were all people who were still using their minds intensely, but in a different way that was less stressful and more meaningful to them. Most had never been involved in art/craft they were post-docs.

Jump forward to the present.  I now work part time at a public library and own two businesses (Agosia Arts is one).  I am no longer an active participant in the world of science.  Although my artwork deals with biological issues, what I do now is not science and I miss research like a lost lover. I live with it.  I would guess that, while I don't work as hard as when I was a graduate student, I now spend just as much mental energy creating new things as I did back in the day thinking about biological questions.  There isn't much down time for me - the brain is always busy.

I'm going to pick apart your question, "I'm wondering if you have any advice or insights to share on finding a balance between the two, and just being both an artist and a scientist at the same time"?  First, the balance issue.  If you are thinking about hours spent on a particular activity - you will have to make those decisions.  For someone going into grad school with an important psychological/emotional tie to their art, I think it is completely unreasonable to expect to do high quality science as well; I'll explain below. Becoming "good" at something requires constant practice AND focus, and there are only so many hours in the day.  Also, the balance depends on what type & level of art/craft you practice.  There's a big difference between knitting a sweater to relax and designing a sweater.  The former you can fit into any day easily, the second requires a totally different type of mental activity.

Second, your question points to a pervasive misunderstanding that our society promotes: that there is a distinction between scientific and artistic efforts.  That somehow the brain turns off one switch and another on.  That science and art are polar opposites.  Not so!  You use the same switch, the same mental activity, it is only the details that differ.  And that's why it can be difficult to do both well. When you go to grad school, a lot of your creative juices are going to be channeled in another direction. 

I'm going to assume that most of the biology you've done to this point has been under the direction of a faculty member, and I'm going to make the horrifying assertion that up to now, you haven't really been doing science.  Before you become completely insulted, hear me out.  Scientific inquiry is a demanding practice.  It requires a huge expenditure of mental energy to consider the entirety of a body of knowledge and formulate a manner to add to it meaningfully. This is an incredibly creative and time consuming process.  There is a big difference between 1) going out to the field to collect insects,  and then 2) going back to the lab, analyzing the data set 50 different ways, redoing the experiment, agonizing for months about it and trying to figure out what (if anything) it means, then starting over.  The collection part is visible and what most people think scientists do.  The other parts aren't usually discussed, but are 95% of the effort, and arguably, the most important.  

So, if you go to grad school, you are going to start doing science.  The real stuff.  We're talking a lot of effort.  It will be a challenge, sometimes fun, often not fun, but definitely worth every second of hassle.  Moments of discovery will pierce your mind like nothing else. You need to realize that it won't be easy; it isn't supposed to be easy.  You will have to learn to manage your time.  There will be sacrifices. When you're done, you may not have a job (that's another issue and we won't go there now), but you will be, as a former Department Chair often said, "one of the most highly educated people in the world".  That may sound a bit uppity, but it isn't meant to be.  If you survive the process to obtain a PhD, you really can do anything with your life - and that's empowering!

What advice can I give that you haven't already heard?  Be true to yourself, do what you love, and so on.  All of this is true, up to a point.  So here's what I suggest: think about what you do, enjoy, and want, from a strategic point of view.  Think about the ends and the means to get there.  Graduate school is basically an apprenticeship program and it sucks up a lot of time. You will be trained to think - and think well.  If it is important to you to hone other skills, you must be honest with yourself and your adviser about your needs and goals.  Becoming a good painter goes beyond spreading some color on paper; one must learn to see, analyze details and practice - the very same skills needed for science.  In an ideal world the disciplines are complementary and not antagonistic, but success takes self awareness and discipline.

I don't know if I've helped or not.  I don't want to dissuade you either from grad school or artistic endeavors.  But, you do have to realize that both can be tough.  I think the main reason is love.  When you are an artist, your work is personal; the same for your doctoral dissertation.  You can pour so much emotional energy into either one, that it drains you dry. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it certainly is normal.  I wish I had the magic equation.  No one does.  It does seem to help if you are honest with yourself - really honest.  Sad to say, that is one of the most difficult skills to acquire in life.

The last thing I'll leave you with is this: focus on the positives.   In grad school there will be plenty of people telling you what you can't or shouldn't do.  Find people who are kind and encouraging and be nice to them.  These are the gems who will get you through the day.

Best regards, Alana

February 7, 2014

Lone Stars and Silk Ties

Recently, I have been thinking about making a star quilt similar to the 1855 antique I described in a post a few years ago.  It was a stunning little quilt and displayed the fine skills of its maker.  Sadly, I don't have the time to devote to create such tiny stars with so many tiny points.  Perhaps a small-scale lone star would do the trick.  A few months back, I read a book (Little Lone Star Quilts by Lorraine Olsen) that described a unique paper piecing technique for making perfect lone stars.

This weekend, I tried a sample.  As usual, I was using necktie silks, but in this case I didn't use a fine batiste to back them (visit this previous post for why I use batiste).  I thought the added fabric would add bothersome bulk and was willing to see how the silks behaved with only a paper backing.  All went well, except the process is quite slow.  It took me two hours to make one star - that does not include its insertion into a block.  This is a concern because I think a quilt would need at least 16 stars.  That's a lot of time!  Remember, I make these quilts to sell.

The star itself is very nice and the points match well.  After making the sample, I do have some concerns unique to my process.  First, the directions indicate the paper backing should remain until the quilt top is completed.  I agree with this, but I am deterred by the huge number of tiny paper pieces that must be completely picked out.  Second, because I work with linen and silk, the silk stars will be much thinner than the linen backgrounds.  I'm not sure the silk will be stabilized enough.

I will need to experiment a bit more before I decide what to do.  I went though one of my favorite quilt books (The Art of Machine Piecing by Sally Collins) and she had some alternative stars that have fewer pieces and would be faster to sew.  I will give those a try before deciding on my final design.  Stay tuned.