Author Archives: Laura Foster Nicholson

Sandra Brownlee, Inspired Artist

Sandra Brownlee, Weaving in progress, Pages Series #1

One of my dearest and most creative friends of all time is the Canadian artist, Sandra Brownlee.  We studied together at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the early 80’s, and I learned an enormous amount from her freshness, her curiosity, her generosity, and her openness to learning.  A born teacher, she has taught itinerantly for many years, workshops mostly but also at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now Philadelphia University), Philadelphia College of Arts (now University of the Arts), and Nova Scotia College of Art & Design among other places.

She has been on my mind lately.  I owe her a phone call, and we are always plotting to figure out how we can get together, since Halifax, where she lives, is an expensive plane ride away.

I looked her up online today with an idea to finding out her teaching schedule, and I found that she has won another prestigious award, this month.  There is a Youtube video of Sandra musing as she works.  Watching it made me fall in love with her all over again.  Her philosophy is a simple one, in fact it is the same one I have for working:  “Make a mark.  See where it goes.”

Here is the transcript from the video (taken from the Youtube site):

Published on Mar 4, 2014
2014 winner, Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts

Directed by Tim Wilson
Presentation of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Independent Media Arts Alliance

For more information, visit: ggavma.canadacouncil.ca
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Sandra Brownlee — Transcript

You have to begin. You have to make one row, one row of weaving. That’s all you have to do. And then, you look at that row and you take the very first thought you have in your mind: “Oh, I am going to make the next row this way… then the next row this way.” And it just starts to grow.
The way I basically proceed is: What I feel like doing, I do. I don’t question it so much, I just do it. I often start my day in the studio with some kind of repetitive drawing exercise. So, here’s another circle. This is made of soil from my vegetable garden, and I rubbed it with my hand into the paper.
I’m very tactile oriented and through touch and all my senses is how I access ideas and feelings… and knowledge, really. I’ve found a way of working that really suits me, which is this improvisational weaving. Very low tech. It’s like I work with a limited palette of black and white usually, and a few tools. It’s sort of like drawing and handwriting.
Almost the moment I sat down at the loom I felt at home. First of all, you have a piece of equipment that you’re sitting at. You have a place to be. You have all these procedures. And it was just exactly what I needed as someone who gets quite distracted. It was just very calming for me, and it made me feel secure and all settled so that somehow, I was able to go deeper within myself. And at the same time, going beyond… using it as a way of somehow witnessing to life… my life.
Make a mark. See where it goes.

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Gotta go: time to call Sandra.

Winding the Warp, Meditation, and Yoga

Earlier this week I put my back out, badly; probably due to unwise handling of a snow shovel.  Yoga, my usual remedy, didn’t help and maybe made it worse.  Mindfulness didn’t help, nor did swimming in a blissfully warm pool.  Four days of ache, but studio work must go on.

Yesterday, having gotten the go-ahead for a lovely commission which I am really looking forward to weaving, I decided that despite the back I wanted to start winding the warp.  Many people dread this process: very repetitive, much counting.  I view it as another meditative act, requiring deep mindfulness and focus.  I do it the old fashioned way, on a warping board on the wall.

For those of you who haven’t done this, one winds the thread continuously around the pegs, spaced one yard apart, for the distance required for the length of the warp.  Down, then back up = 2 threads.  Counting is essential, and so there is a rhythm and focus required.  I have evolved a slow swaying movement of my body to follow the motion of the arm as I go back and forth, peg to peg.  It can be a beautiful process: it works best when I focus on the anticipation of weaving something wonderful.  Silence is important so I can keep count.  Please don’t write in with a better, faster, more efficient way: I need it to be like this.

Anne Wilson honored this process with a very elegant performative exhibition, first shown at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago in 2008.  She called it Wind-Up: Walking the Warp.  It featured pure maidens in white leotards reverently winding the miles of warp (later exhibitions featured community weaving of these warps).

From Wilson’s statement:  “Nine participants accomplished the performed labor or “walking the warp,” converting the front gallery into a six-day performance of walking, counting, rolling, and winding. The rhythmic act of building a 40-yard weaving warp on a 17′ x 7′ frame was viewed from the Peoria Street sidewalk and resulted in a sculptural presence within the gallery. “

I have puzzled over this project for years.  As an active weaver and devoted maker, I wondered at the pomp of her performance.  How ironic that in writing this piece today, the penny drops and I get it.  That’s right: how few people understand the depth of this slow labor.  When a blue chip art gallery puts the microscope on it, is it made more understandable, or more arcane?

Anne Wilson, Wind-up: Walking the Warp.  Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 2008
(photo by surabhi ghosh, from Wilson’s website)


But back to my back story.  The slow swaying, back and forth, back and forth, spine mindfully erect, worked out much of the misery of my pinched lower back.  Ahhh.  There is another benefit of mindful labor.

Rowland Ricketts III Talking about Indigo

Today I had the great pleasure of going into nearby Evansville and hearing Rowland Ricketts III speak about his life in indigo.

It is always a treat to see Rowland.  Here is a man who is so wholly devoted to one substance, one central process, that his entire conceptual being is wrapped up in a single integrity which is hard to match in today’s world.

I have known Rowland for about 8 years now, watched him move from a man with a vision to a man with an intense reality.  He grows his own indigo, processes it, ferments it, adds his home made lye (made of wood ash from his woodburning stove) and dyes his heart and everything else deep, calm blue.

Immanent Blue, Installation at New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art, 2009.
gradated shades of dyed indigo panels; dried indigo plants

One of my favorite tangible things about him is his always-blue hands.  In the plants, in the dye, every day. An additional beauty is that this dye is non-toxic and he CAN stick his hands into it with impunity (a question on his Facebook Page, Indigrowing Blue: Can I use our kitchen blender? I don’t think there’s anything harmful in the Poligonum tinctorium leaves. ”  His answer: “ I use just water and leaves. As much leaf and as little water as possible. You can use your kitchen blender.”) 

I am Ai, We are Ai. Installation of fabrics individually dyed by master dyers of Japan.  Tokushima, Japan, 2013

Today’s talk underlined his deep commitment to process as content.  The integrity of the process, the deep craft, becomes his purpose and give meaning to every step.  This is the way it is done.  This is the way it has always been done, because this is the only, best way. From growing the plants, drying, pulverizing, sorting, composting and storing the final blue dye powder, to developing and fermenting the mysterious, alive and potent, indigo vat, Rowland’s world is deep, deep, deep.

Dried and crushed indigo leaves, ready for composting (from www.rickettsindigo.com)

dip-dyeing paste-resisted fabric panels in an indigo vat  (from www.rickettsindigo,com)
Ramie panles printed with indigo dyes.  Shown at Melvin Peterson Gallery, University of Evansviille

For information on the processes of growing indigo, processing the leaves into dye, and preparing the dye bath, there is a very helpful website that Rowland (consummate teacher that he is) has prepared about his Indigrowing Blue venture at Indiana University, where he is assistant professor of textiles.  The site covers the process from saving seeds and planting them through harvest and drying the plants.

Rickett’s indigo vat at Indiana Univesrsity, fermenting away.  Photo from www.rickettsindigo.com

Sightings of Orchid

I will confess to being a bit dubious when Pantone announced “Radiant Orchid” as its Color of the Year for 2014.  Quite a peculiar color, often accompanied by sounds of mock retching!  But the genius of The Pantone Institute is that when they want to bring attention to something, they just can.  Sometimes I wonder if they chose orchid because of these negative reactions, feeling ornery and contrary.  But as I was going through my myriads of photos from the Houston International Quilt Market last fall, I realized that orchid was already a going thing, long before the announcement.  (And, if you have access to www.pantoneview.com, which I write for, you might have seen the video about the choice of Radiant Orchid as 2014’s color, and noted like I did, that it was filmed in February 2013).

What is so interesting about watching color trending is how the psychology of it all works.  Pantone twigged onto the fact that orchid was in use and still under rated, so they grabbed it and made a fuss, so it sells even more.  OR maybe Pantone set us all up for that.  Trends are interesting and trackable, and perhaps can be seeded into culture much like clouds are seeded to make rain, but for me, intuition is the most valuable resource I have and I am always paying attention to my peripheral vision.  What inspired today’s post for me was an emailing from mainstream craft giant Joann Fabrics about Radiant Orchid.  Clearly, this color is carrying through its destiny.  I don’t remember the same happening for 2013’s Emerald.

I have written at length for Pantone View about the color trends at the Quilt Market this past fall.  As it has not gone live yet, here is an excerpt from my article, on the life of orchid among savvy quilters.  Most of the images are drawn from the quilt exhibits, but some are from commercial vendors as well.

SIGHTINGS OF ORCHID AND GREY
Orchid crept frequently into the mixes, adding a quirky and sophisticated twist to both muted and bright near primaries and deep pastels.  Grey works very well with orchid, either as warm neutrals or nearly inky cool tones.
Credits top to bottom (all photos by Laura Foster Nicholson):
1.       Chimney Sweep, Quilt by Kaffe Fassett (detail)
2.       Archicoop, quilt by Jenna Brand (detail)
3.       Night Sky, quilt by Tula Pink (detail)
4.       Striped Rice Bowls, quilt by Kaffe Fassett
5.       quilt by Aardvark Quilt Patterns
17-3020 TPX Spring Crocus,  17-3907 TPX Quicksilver, 17-1558 TPX Grenadine, 
19-3926 TXP Crown Blue, 13-1310 TPX English rose, 15-1247 TPX tangerine
In making a palette, I need to look carefully at the array of colors presented and choose the colors which for me, make the whole vision exciting.  Limited to six colors, it is tough to grab all of them.  In the end, the palette itself is the goal, and it becomes a whole new animal with DNA extracted from the assembled images and recombined to give a sense of visual satisfaction.

Weaving again!

This has been a pretty tough couple of years for me in terms getting myself to weave, which is, paradoxically, the activity most central to my identity as an artist.  Weaving is the calming, centering, intellectual and creative activity that allows me to make things that I feel are profoundly expressive.  All other creative activities — design, sewing, crafting little things — are fun, make money, but are peripheral to the core.

A bit like writer’s block, I hit a bad snag in my creative flow a couple of years ago and just stopped working.  I questioned the value of making art at all.  It seemed to be piling up here, the economy was making it nearly impossible to sell it, I had to turn to more intensive textile design work to get by.  And once I broke the continuum, it has been terribly difficult to raise up the faith to get back to work.  But I have begun.  I finished my studio sale, and the local Christmas fair the week before, sold a lot of pretty little things I had made, (even sold a real tapestry!), and then I sat down, sighed in relief, and decided it is time to lay off the little stuff and make more important things.  I began a new piece based on a photo I took earlier in the fall while driving through southern Illinois.  I made myself a sign to keep me on task.  And I finished hemming the tapestry this afternoon.

Illinois Field, 2013,  24″ x 27″, wool with cotton & metallic Laura Foster Nicholson

Sunday with Robin & Rita

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A couple of weeks ago my good friends Rita and Robin invited me up to the farm for Sunday lunch. Beautiful weather, up at the top of the hill, lunch from the vegetable garden made by both of them — heavenly day.

But what I love about them is their immensely creative life. They live in the farmhouse where Robin grew up, surrounded by cornfields. Over the years they have transformed the house into a song of elegant simplicity with painted and stenciled floors, carefully selected antique items (often quite curious), and their artwork. Robin was trained as a ceramist and Rita is a self taught folk artist. Both now make their living at selling antiques, but their lives are those of artists. I always love creeping around and examining their work and their peculiar and wonderful objects. Here are some snip of that day’s “show and tell”.

African Fabrics in Paris

While in Paris a couple of weeks ago I was determined to source out the Veritable Dutch Wax Process African prints I had seen over at Christine’s house, and of course many other places. Christine told me she had gotten hers at the African Barbes area in Paris, so off I went, first day there, to find some. I found a particularly wonderful shop at the point of the convergence of two streets, Sonna African Textiles. A large operation, it has locations in Paris, London, Antwerp, Accra, and Washington. You probably know this kind of fabric – more notable versions that Americans are aware are show dollar bills or President Obama. The prints are splashy, imaginative, and bold.

I was totally thrilled by what I found. It was really hard to choose from the array: the fabric comes in 6 meter lengths, labeled as Genuine Dutch wax, and price varies by quality. You could get pieces for €20 (about $30) up to €80 ($120). The less expensive lengths might have poor print registration, fewer threads per inch, less trendy designs. I noticed in one shop they sold by the kilo – the more expensive fabrics are actually heavier. I was actually restricted by weight myself, hating heavy luggage, so I only bought 3 pieces to bring home.

Around the corner I found a shop with the block wax prints but also a highly polished cotton brocade fabric called “Bazin”. It begins as a fine cotton damask woven in (I believe) Belgium, imported into various African countries where it is dyed (sometimes flat color, sometimes tie dyed) and sold for formal wear. I saw a man dressed in an elegant long tunic and pants in a pale mauve Bazin and wished I could have photographed him. Having hit my weight limit, I didn’t purchase any of that but observed it was sold either in 6 meter lengths, or by the kilo for other cut lengths.

I could not find much information beyond what my eyes told me, when looking later online, but was confirmed in my thinking that the high polish was due to a pounding process (although I wonder if some of it is calendared these days.

More Crochet by Sophie Digard

As one might notice from the article immediately previous to this one, I am a big fan of Sophie Digard’s amazing work in crochet. I have a small collection of her scarves that I add to as I can afford to; having found my first one at the Robin Richman shop in Chicago many years ago.  Here are some of the photos I have taken or collected over the years, without further commentary.  I hope you find them as rich as I do!  For more images and the opportunity to indulge in buying one, you can go to my favorite place for textiles,  http://www.selvedge.org/shop/sophie-digard

Interlaced Color in Textiles

wool scarves by Wallace # Sewell

PLIED COLOR

In the world of constructed textiles, solid color is only truly possible when all of the yarns constructing a cloth are of the identical hue.  Even then, color is still modulated by surface texture, light and shadow.  The genius of constructing textiles with multiple threads of varied colors, plied or woven together, is endlessly subtle and rewarding to close inspection.  Plying color shatters hues like a kaleidoscope, bringing one or another color to the surface unexpectedly, creating secondary patterns in its random wake.

Like pointillism, color theory applies:  the eye will optically mix red and white to get pink; red & green to get brown.
 
This twisted color is satisfying as a layered experience: the softened haze of the textile surface from a distance gradually focuses into a world of intricate subtlety.  The surprise discovery that a soft earth tone is made up of complements is a rich reward.
wool and cashmere tippet by Wallace  #  Sewell

WOVEN COLOR

 
Warp crosses weft, weft crosses warp.  Warps of varied colors cross wefts of varied colors.  A tiny pixelated color grid emerges, bold like a tartan or a subtle ombre blend. Occasional blocks of one pure hue emerge when a color crosses itself; when one set of threads is so dense it hides the crossing set, the colors can appear totally solid.  When the threads are twisted together in the fringes, the color shatters like a prism.  When threads weave together at right angles, each intersection might be thought of as the equivalent of a pixel.
Combinations of dark and light, saturated and neutral, break up surfaces.  Plying colors of similar values give a more cohesive effect.
 
 
(top) Wallace + Sewell wool and cashmere shawl. Photo courtesy Wallace + Sewell; (bottom) wool and cashmere tippet by Wallace  +  Sewell,  wool and silk scarf, Margo Selby; from  Santa Fe Weaving Gallery

KNIT COLOR

Knit consists of a single thread, looping its way through the air, back & forth in straight lines, until a fabric is constructed.  Linear in quality, the lines of color can be broken up by using threads of several hues, plied together.  Color can be swapped out in the midst for a change.  Solid colors appear more saturated against a ground of plied colors.  The pop of saturated intarsia color against a ground of finely twisted threads gives a satisfying lesson in color addition, subtraction, and multiplication.

 
 
(Top & Bottom), knit scarves by Catherine Andre Paris, from Santa Fe Weaving Gallery)
CROCHET COLOR
 

Crochet is made by pulling loops through loops until a construction holds.  The progress can go linear, back and forth, until fabric is constructed, but it can also go round and round, and be added onto at whim in a non-linear fashion.  Threads can be twisted together prior to construction, or changed out during construction.  One can start with a palette of limited colors and by randomly recombining achieve a great diversity and subtlety of hues.  

When color is not subjected to the geometry of linear structure, it can develop and mass more freely.  Rings of varied hues can be crisp or soft depending on the combining and recombining of a relatively limited palette. 

 
crochet scarves by Sophie Digard, Paris.