Thursday, June 25, 2009

My View: Learning from a legend via her book

by Dawn Goldsmith

A few years ago I checked out the legendary quilt artist Ruth B. McDowell’s gallery on her website.
Among her award winning and should-have-won-awards quilts was one that drew me to this woman and gave me a different perspective. I want to say the title of the piece was nude reclining, but it was a self portrait. When I clicked on the words my brain was trying to conjure up a woman who would post herself nude on her website. Most of us feel flawed and prefer not to flaunt it. How brave! Maybe a “Nude Ascending Stairs” kind of fractured image, I thought.

I stared at the quilt. Then laughed. Two ‘bare’ feet took up almost the entire little quilt blocking out any of the ummm more titillating parts. Yet, our feet are probably as intimate a part of our anatomy and the least seen, especially the soles. She was in essences baring her soul (sole). It was that moment that I knew I loved this woman’s sense of humor and sense of self. They shine through in everything she makes, this juxtaposition of empathy, caring and warped sense of humor that coordinates beautifully with her artist’s eye and passion for detail.
[Photo above: Daylily with ruffles. "Many modern daylily cultivars have a degree of ruffling along the edges of the petals. After doing the drawing for this quilt and figuring out how I could give a pieced interpretation of the ruffles, I went to my fabric stash to see what color daylily to make. It could have been anything from pale to deep yellow, orange, rose, red, burgundy or mauve. A lovely soft red hand-dyed fabric from Judy Robertson caught my eye. It had enough variation to make the large pieces interesting and could be selectively cut to make some lighter and darker areas as well. "]

But with my diploma still wet from graduating nine-patch piecing, and untried when it came to star patterns, I never considered making a Ruth McDowell type quilt until I picked up her book “Design Workshop, published in 2007 by C&T Publishing. It is a companion to her piecing workshops and takes for granted that the user is already familiar with her freezer paper piecing method as taught in her piecing workshops. But the book has value without any of those workshops or knowledge.

For me the ah-ha moment came when she discussed elements of pieced designs. I was raised by traditional quilters who took pride in perfectly aligned seams, points, corners, and lived by the word ‘precise’ when it came to quilting. Ruth pointed out that shifting end points wasn’t a mistake but a conscious choice, that in actuality these misaligned points could add interest and movement to a quilt. I didn’t agree when I saw her Lightning Strike quilt with the diagonal yellow bars not quite matching. I really wanted them to match. Needed them to match. Yet, in a diagram of a simple tulip pattern the striking difference jumped out between precisely pieced tips and the shifted edges of the same pattern.

She went on to write about moving diagonals away from the corners. Then she took my favorite little four-patch and discussed intersecting seams, demonstrating the effect of offsetting the intersection a bit. She pointed out that the continuous seam became stronger, visually, drew the eye to it, while the interrupted seam takes a secondary or weaker position.

The book includes a discussion of shifting focus in a landscape, fracturing to subdue an element, and using fracturing as a design element.
[Photo: Moo In the golden light of four o'clock on a summer afternoon, the colors of a herd of cows waiting by the barn stopped me in my tracks. Leaping from the car, I ran around photographing groups of cows, and later combined several images into this quilt.]
Perhaps art students understand all of this or it comes naturally to some, but this was new to me. I, who am excellent at misaligning and fracturing, embraced the fact that maybe, just maybe there was something in life beyond precision.

My life changed in only 14 pages, and 81 pages remained. Her section on preparing a piecing diagram simply blew me away as she taught about the various seams and intersections, what works and why, and some things to avoid that make piecing easier. She describes animals, nature, people, and landscapes in an effort to help overcome difficulties and learn the basics of each. Even a chapter or tessellation.

She speaks about beginning with a drawing, or a sketch from a photograph, and then she moves on into fabric. We who naturally collect fabric might need a few guidelines to make that stash as useful as possible and she addresses ‘building a stash.’ “You probably have more bright colors and medium-value fabrics than you may need, but not enough subtle shades and mixtures, large-scale fabrics, and light fabrics or very dark (not black) fabrics.”
[Photo: Baron Von Ruffhausen. My daughter Leah's Bernese Mountain Dog, Harvey, at about 7 months old. Loving, intelligent, polite and a confirmed pacifist, Harvey is also a giant - a Clydesdale of the dog world.]

She speaks of color choices, using plaids and how to use fabrics in landscapes. She walks you through her choices for Muir Woods, a lovely landscape piece she made in 1997. And then she uses the flamingo demonstration. Simple but effective in demonstrating how to visually read a quilt and place contrast where needed to bring out details. There are sections on backgrounds, borders, quilting and embellishment. For anyone who wants to move away from traditional and into the innovative, creative, one-of-a-kind ‘art’ quilt – this book is a fantastic intro to the world whether your background is art or quilt.


Barb Forrister said...

I have been looking for a good book on design and this one sounds most intriguing. Thanks for sharing

Dawn said...

Hi Barb,
Glad to hear the review was useful to you. I'm a long-time fan of Ruth McDowell, but it wasn't until reading this book that I realized a novice like me could make the kind of quilts she creates. It really got me to thinking in new ways. I'd be interested in hearing how you liked the book.

Glad you stopped by Subversive Stitchers and left a comment!


Karen said...

Beautiful daylily quilt.