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cats on hand

designing with cats

I usually find that my cats are fairly uninterested in my world, unless it directly overlaps with their own in terms of being fed, getting the head scratched, whatever.

The two cats at my studio have recently begun piling up directly in front of my computer, begging for attention. My attention is focused there,  hence it is their main mission to distract me from my work so I will pet them.

This morning, after the usual frantic purring and thrusting activity from the grey cat, however, she settled back to rest and purr.

Later, I noticed that she wasn’t sleeping. She was intently watching the computer screen as I made changes to a design. Who knew? I have held cats up in front of mirrors as they demurely refused to acknowledge the image of the kitty opposite, so I had assumed that they simply were not interested in two dimensional representation.  My story is now being corrected.

Labors of love?

I have been extremely fortunate throughout my career as an artist, to pursue whatever I want to.  That is, unless I need money!  But when it comes to the money part, I find it almost amusing to consider systems of evaluation.

When one is engaged in a craft based art, a frequent question becomes, “How long did it take you to make that?” With the idea more time spent, the more value obtained, rather like the electrician’s bill.

But here is the thing.  The craft is essential, a mark of something finely considered, made via a deep experience with methods and materials. It has value, unless you compare it with goods made in China or other competitive places and sold en masse at low cost outlets.

Your average audience is not equipped to contemplate the difference between skillfully (albeit hastily) stitched pretty things, and your MFA differentiated specialty. Your loss.

When I speak to folks about why some of my work is so relatively expensive (heck, I am not world famous like Mr Picasso), I can only offer up what my vision of art is.

Art is the magic. It is whatever helps the maker to transcend everyday vision into something so meaningful that it takes your breath, or it reiterates your dreams, or it projects you to a different dimension of being.  

Your questioner, then, can base her decision as to whether or not to purchase based on any of the following:

how long it took you to make it. This must inevitably be valued at less than her own hourly value at her profession.

or, the relative value of the materials you used (not silk? Why not?)

or, trend. (Sigh)

or, the near orgasmic experience of looking into a world which has real meaning to her (regardless of artist’s intent!)

I write this tonight as I am spending time stitching closed sachets, made of fabric digitally printed to my own design, derived from highly labor intensive tapestries, and stuffing them full of glorious dried lavender.  Deep pleasure in the making.  Hardly worthwhile to make, based on cost of materials and minimum wage.  Selling at $20 each, a huge expense, and a relative loss.  I am paying you to buy them: the scent is true glory and magic.

I have spent the last six months re-evaluating just about everything in my life, from personal relationships, to how I spend my day, to what is the most essential part of my artwork.

It is a tedious task. You would think it would require an afternoon in an armchair, thinking; a few conversations with close friends; an analysis of the bank account. It certainly does, but it is so finely detailed and so incremental I can hardly tell when any progress is being made.

One of the more amusing things I have experimented with while considering the subject, was to take a number of things I had made, ranging from a small hand woven tapestry to a hand-printed tea towel of the sort I sell at the farmer’s market, to be entered in the “Open Entry” section of the local 4-H fair last week. When in Rome, I thought….

I thought it would be interesting to lay out a few things I spend my creative time on, to the kinds of people who are deeply involved in 4-H around here. I am sure we have a lot in common regarding topics like cooking, good vegetables, and what constitutes a well-sewn seam. It was, in fact, a sort of astonishing experience.

First of all, after paying my $1 fee per entry, I had my items examined by the intake crew. Hand-printed towel? I didn’t sew it, only printed it? Hmmmm. Let’s put it under fabric, hand-painted. OK. No mention of whether the design was original (why would it be?).

Second entry: the tote bag, made from my own design, quilting fabrics and ribbons.  Category: sewing.  Subcategory: totes.  Oops! I noticed just before handing it over that the stitching was far from perfect.  I had just been thinking about the wonderful design of my fabric.

Third entry: a hand woven tapestry of a butternut squash, in a nod to all the lovely vegetables entered around me.  Not mounted, so they could see the back, (I quickly surmised that, since it was not framed, it would have a hard time competing as Fine Art, so entered it under “crafts”. Of course.)

What a palaver!  was it stitched? no! painted? no! what then, woven? hmmmm.  Well, next year they guessed they better have a category for Hand Woven.  So it went into Crafts: Misc.

At this point I was thinking longingly of how relatively easy it had been to acquire an MFA from Cranbrook, where these distinctions might have been debatable but the world of definition was ever expanding.

Five days later, after a busy week, I returned early enough to see the exhibition and then collect my poor trusting entries.  The results were humbling.  In a world where every entry gets a ribbon (think youth soccer), I still was deftly and strictly judged.  All were happy with my cute printed (painted?) towel, which depicted a local kind of melon.  Blue ribbon there, and all potential factors deemed Excellent. The tote bag only got a red ribbon, as the stitching was “faulty”, though the colors were noted to be “nice”.

The hand woven tapestry?  Well, the judge felt that its usefulness was questionable, the finish so-so, the materials appropriate.  But it was “very cute” and had “nice muted colors”!

laura foster nicholson tapestry

Butternut Squash, handwoven textile, 11″ x 10″, 2014

At the end of this trial, I felt satisfied.  I had undergone a trial by my current peers in a rural community, and had been judged “good”.

The larger question remains, though.  Do I want to remain among people who are bemused by my activities, or do I want to return to an arcane community which holds great meaning for me but leaves my current neighbors untouched?

January Harvest

In this squirrelly, unpredictable new kind of winter, we get some 50 degree days in southern Indiana.  Last weekend on a warm day my friend Steve announced he was planting spinach and chard.  For my part, I have been overwhelmed in talking the talk – lots of talk — but not necessarily finding the time to walk the walk.  I had not even taken down last summer’s tomato vines, though I had planted some Chinese cabbage last fall which survived the big post-christmas snow storm.

I am a real advocate of growing your own food, buying local food, growing year round — but often, I lack the time and the back strength to really carry on in my own garden. Excuses!  So when it was warm for a while this weekend I went out and pulled out all of the dead tomato plants, weeded the old (still living ) weeds, and turned over the soil.  In doing so I found some little surprises: a few tiny potatoes, a very few small beets, odds and ends of arugula plants, green onions, a teensy daikon radish, a small carrot.  Nothing better than buried treasure!  It made a sweet little supper.

What I want to do is actually grow food year round.  It is more than possible here in southern Indiana.  I have seen that it is possible in Maine (see Elliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook), and an old classmate of mine is attempting the same (in unheated greenhouses) in Homer Alaska.  These things inspire me: as ideas, as visuals, as a new way to approach my life.

HIbberd/McGrath Gallery

Following on the heels of the loss of the gallerist, Martha Hibberd, early this spring, I received a sad phone call from Terry McGrath, partner in the gallery Hibberd/McGrath in Breckinridge CO, that she was closing the gallery for various reasons. 

Marty & Terry were fabulous gallerists and warm, embracing people.  Although I had never set foot in the gallery, I had visited them at SOFA Chicago year after year and we struck up a professional and friendly relationship.  I had two solo shows there and was in a few group shows, and the work was beautifully displayed and then sold to discerning collectors. I have rarely had such a comfortable and honest relationship with a gallery as I had with H/M.

So today the long parcels arrived, carrying my “inventory” home to me.  It has been rather like a birthday unwrapping them all:  over a decade’s worth of old friends up to the most recent body of work which I had shown there last April.  As I have not woven anything significant since shipping the balance of that work to Patina Gallery last fall, it was a redemption to see it all: some of my best work, all beautifully packaged interleaved with acid free tissue, carefully and lovingly preserved and sent off.

After 6 months of questioning my art and my purpose, it is reassuring to have them here for the moment, so I am going to show them all to you right here.

And then, please comment:  I need another gallery now! Any ideas?

Bemused, 29” x 28”,  wool with metallic 

Haven 17” x 29”, wool with metallic

Butterflies & Caterpillars, 2005, 43″ x 17″

Small Orange Barn, 2007,  wool, cotton & metallic, 26.5” x 17.5

Bee Swarm, 2009, 32” x 30”wool with metallic, silk and cotton

Pink Cakes, 2004, 23.5” x 27”

Bee Hives & Lavender, 2006, wool, cotton, metallic  

Green Jug at the Lake, 2005, 63.5” x 35”

Jelly Beans, 2004, 26” x 28.5”, wool with cotton

Study for Burning Barn 20” x 18”, wool with nylon, cotton

Cakes  2000  95” x 22”, wool with cotton

Bread Bins,  2001, 27” x 38”, wool with cotton

Spinning Oranges 74” x 17”, wool with cotton

Purple Loosestrife, 2006, 24” x 34”, wool with cotton

Horror Vacui: Brush & Spoon  1998, 50.5” x 8.5”, wool & cotton

Tomatoes  (detail), wool & cotton  2000    108” x 20”