Saturday, June 12, 2010

Susan Shie's Insightful "Philadelphia Freedom"

On first glance the background looks like a machine quilter gone mad with stippling. But on first glance you should also know that this is a Susan Shie. Her distinctive style is easily recognized. Every inch of this quilt is covered with words. Meaningful words that may meander across the cloth like stippling. But they are powerful, couched in emotion -- thoughtful rhetoric and carefully placed. If ever there were griots -- they are Susan Shie's fabric art. 

A true member of the hippy era, a step away from the Kent State shootings, and always, always, always, marching to her own drummer, Susan makes her voice heard, and loves fiercely. She's a true Subversive Stitchers armed with not only needles but courage and determination. And most of all she is the sweetest most generous woman I've ever had the opportunity to work with. Just know that she has a core of steel and will not stand down when it comes to defending what she believes in. We are so lucky that she has taken time to guest blog about her latest project: Philadelphia Freedom.

I believe the photos are self explanatory. The final two are of 1. Susan Shie and her Granddaughter Eva Miller and 2. Eva's depiction of her lemonade stand, etc. Another generation of the Shie talent growing before our eyes! -- Dawn

Susan Shie in Her Own Words

Lots of Baby Boom artists have designed their own Tarot decks. Mine is the Kitchen Tarot, which I decided to make, because it would allow me to work with many symbols of women, family, and nurturing. I believe that cooking for those we love is an exercise in the gift of healing, a supreme act of love. And it is my feminist choice to celebrate the strength that women pass from one generation to another, of providing for our families. Extend that out from the stove and table, to the community, the country, and the world. As the Communist Chinese used to like to say, “Women hold up half the sky.” (I think it was them!)

In making my Kitchen Tarot series of quilted paintings (art quilts), which I began in 1998, I’ve finished the 22 major cards, and am 5 art quilts into making the 56 minor cards. For the Major card quilts, I proceeded in chronological order, but for choosing which Minor card to work with next, I randomly draw a card from a traditional Tarot deck. This is because I think it would be boring to do all of one of the four suits all the way through, or one of the card numbers all the way through, etc. I like variety and surprises!

In the 13 years I’ve been making these pieces, their sizes and shapes have varied considerably, and they’ve shifted from being intensely hand stitched, mixed media, and beaded, to being very simply painted, written all over with tiny airpen writing with paint, and mostly machine, simple grid sewn. My art’s topics have shifted from being mostly personal diary imagery with a small amount of actual writing, to a mixture of personal, community, and world-events diary and imagery, with a stronger and stronger political lean since 2003.

Through the magic of Photoshop, all the actual Kitchen Tarot “cards” come out the same size, in spite of their physical disparity. The deck of my major cards coming out in August is a tidy packet of 3.5 x 5” cards, even though the actual art quilts vary from 32” to 93” high and are of varied proportions. (You can pre-order them now through Amazon)

In this blog I want to show you some aspects of the piece I began painting on April 10 and finished on June 4. “Philadelphia Freedom” is also my Kitchen Tarot card “the Two of Paring Knives.” Paring knives are my more kitchen-tooly version of standard Tarot’s Swords suit. Swords sound military and violent, but paring knives seem useful and practical. I love my paring knives in my kitchen! (My four Kitchen Tarot suits, compared to the traditional Tarot suits are: Pyrex Cups for Cups; Wooden Spoons for Wands; Potholders for Coins; and Paring Knives for Swords.)

Early on in making this Kitchen Tarot series, I would concentrate on the meaning of the traditional Tarot card and interpret it in terms of kitchen symbolism, throwing in a little personal diary, whose writing I would hand embroider over. Now I work more with current events or situations from history, lacing them with my own diary thoughts and commentary.

Often now the Kitchen Tarot aspect is very secondary to the current events / history stories. The political side of me, suppressed after the Kent State killings in May, 1970, started coming back to activism in the early 2000s, and my KT deck has had to accommodate that shift. (We artists get to be the boss of at least our own work!)

In 2007 I began putting Barack Obama into my Kitchen Tarot and all of my pieces, my work became much more polticial, and Obama and politics remain as strong elements in my work. So let’s use President Obama as the way to shift from taking about the whole Kitchen Tarot deck to the specific piece that I just finished, “Philadelphia Freedom.”I knew I wanted to put Obama into my next Kitchen Tarot piece. But then I was asked to participate in Michelle Flamer’s exhibition project “The President’s House: Their Untold Stories in Quilts,” which is about President George Washington keeping nine slaves illegally in the President’s House mansion in Philadelphia, the temporary US Capitol during his and John Adams’ presidencies.  

I did a LOT of sketches to figure out how I would illustrate this historical fact, and one of my first ideas was to have Obama sit down with Washington and have something similar to one of those “beer summits,” to try to work out the problems. But that seemed not nearly serious enough, even though I meant it seriously. No matter how I wiggled it around, it was going to come off as humorous, which was not at all what I wanted.

In a March 27 drawing, I showed Washington with the slaves as birds in a cage, under the Liberty Bell, then turned Martha’s skirt into a cage with the birds in it. Many sketches later, on April 10, I decided to jump in and make my final decision about how to portray the Washington slaves issue, so I could demonstrate drawing on a large piece with an airbrush, for my students at my home Turtle Art Camp. 

That morning the students and I had met a woman in downtown Wooster, who was walking her Cockatoo, in a sort of baby-carriage/birdcage combination thing. And that threw me back to my earlier idea of Martha’s skirt being a birdcage. But as I got ready to paint, I made one more sketch: of a larger Barack Obama reaching down and opening the door of the cage, so that the slaves could fly out. These slaves were people with wings, and the woman with her Cockatoo was walking past. But the slaves looked like dead people, angels, since I’d given them wings. So I went back to the earlier idea of them actually being birds, but now they were escaping, thanks to Obama.
When I actually drew the images on my big blank cloth, using my airbrush, I wasn’t looking at the sketches, as I don’t like to get inhibited by trying to copy from my planning drawings. I like for the sketches to just help me develop my ideas, and then I like to just sail off into making the big drawing in free sweeping motions with my airbrush. I drew Martha, then George, and realized I didn’t have room for a much bigger Obama above them. So he became another bird, facing the ones flying up and out of the cage. I decided that he was the beacon of hope for the slaves.

After I made the airbrushed painting on the 82” x 72” fabric, I made a drawing of how the painting came out, since it didn’t follow any of the sketches much. It was after making that drawing, during a “library time” in our art camp class, that I got the name “Philadelphia Freedom” for the piece.

It is, of course, the name of an Elton John song, but it seemed perfect, to me, to serve as title for the piece, since slaves in Philadelphia were, at least in MY VERSION of the story, being freed.

Then I switched to taking weeks and weeks to write on the painting with my airpen and fabric paint. Washington’s slaves were the main story, and the secondary one was the murders at Kent State, for which this year’s May 4th was the 40th anniversary.

I never know what will end up as my writing topics, when I begin one of these Time Capsule pieces, essays of life as we move through it. But I try to include anything I feel to be significant, and it’s even better when there’s a connection to the work’s basic theme. I think Kent State and the President’s House have a common thread of the injustice of authority’s hold over common people. There are lots and lots of other current events stories here, including the start of the Gulf Coast oil spill and the new immigration law in Arizona.
It was after I showed my big painting on fabric to Michelle Flamer, that she mailed me a rubber stamp she had created years ago, for making a Juneteenth card. It said “Fly away,” and my piece reminded her of the stamp and the song “I’ll Fly Away.” I told Michelle that I would use the stamp on my piece somehow, but during the long time when I was writing all over the piece with my airpen, I didn’t add the stamp. 

When the painting was finished and I’d machine quilted it, I felt I still really needed to use that stamp. It would mean a lot to me, to collaborate with Michelle in this way, plus it would be fun to take the risk of using it, when the piece was done! I had never stamped on a padded quilt before, so let’s go!!!!

It worked, only the first time I stamped upside down by accident - right on President Obama’s face! After a short freak-out, I hit on the idea that this would be code for the slaves: Fly Away (upside down!) I flipped the stamp right side up, to stamp onto George and Martha’s faces, Martha’s ankle, and the hem of her skirt. I used red paint, so it would be very visual and look kind of cautionary.

To read my full statement about this piece, visit my 2010 Gallery on my Turtle Moon Studios site. When you read this statement, you’ll go through a list of some of the current events topics I wrote about, besides giving long explanations of the main event of this piece. You’ll see reference links to my airbrush painting development of the composition and to Edward Lawler, Jr’s articles about The President’s House. Please note that, though here I’ve referred to the nine people as slaves, the better term, as chosen by descendants of slavery, is “enslaved Africans,” because this shows them as who they were, before the condition of slavery, which was thrust upon them.

My writing used to be all off the top of my head, just like you’d write in a letter or email or diary. Since Obama’s campaigns, I’ve gotten used to adding long copied articles and speeches, sometimes verbatum, sometimes paraphrased. What I want is for people to really learn something, if they take the time to read my stories on my work. But at the same time, I have to anticipate that some, maybe most people won’t read any of my writing. So it has to work visually, as a design element in my composition. I try to make the writing flow with the shapes and lead your eye around the painting nicely.

I think the small words now take the place of the massive amounts of small embroidery stitches I’d gotten myself into, before I got my airpen in late 2002. By 2006 my fingertips were numb from hand sewing, and I had to back off. I started switching to machine free gridwork sewing in 2004, and after the hand numbness, have almost completely stopped hand sewing. To me, it’s the messages in my work that count.

If you’d like to see the photo essay of me airbrushing the painting for “Philadelphia Freedom,” (with photos taken by my students at my July, 2010 Turtle Art Camp here in Wooster, Ohio, most pix taken by Marsha Boasso, but also by Kathy Zieben and Bonnie Zieben), please visit here.  

Susan Shie
Wooster, OH 
Turtle Art Camps for Summer, Fall 2010 now listed


Susan Brubaker Knapp said...

I adore Susan's work. Almost no one puts as much of herself in her work as Susan. Her imagery is fascinating, and her narratives record her thoughts and emotions at a particular point in time. I love how free and unassuming and powerful it is. Thanks for sharing her work with your community, Dawn!

Anonymous said...

"Once again I find it exhilarating to listen to Susan talk about her work, her beliefs and her family. We are almost the same age, and when I went to "art camp" in Wooster years ago,I swear it changed my life! Not just because she encouraged me to forge ahead with my new idea to work in fabric. But just BEING there with Susan an Jimmy and absorbing the intense honesty and passion that I once had as a young woman. Hers is still there and thanks to knowing her, I seem to have halted my own descent into apathy and anger over life's events. HaHa I remember it was only after one day in her household that I abandoned all the hairdo and makeup and went au naturelle for the first time in decades. You see it just didn't seem to matter to anyone!Susan never fears to express her views, her politics and her generosity and why not? It brings so many rewards and even tho' some may be taken aback, I have learned from people like her, that life is too short not to stand up and be counted. So what I could have said more succinctly is I love Susan's work, her attitude and her.

Pamelala Allen"

Pattyskypants said...

Susan, thanks for directing us here via Facebook! I've been searching for this blog my whole life! xxoo Patty

Carol said...

I've been to all the links, and only wish I had the time to read all of your writings. I'm sure I could learn a thing or two. There's so much to see, it is overwhelming.

Anonymous said... Eva's drawings......think she is going to take after her grandmama........carol

Rachel Biel said...

How wonderful to see Susan's work here! I got to know her a bit when she joined TAFA ( and then more on facebook and hope that we get to meet in person someday. Love her work and her spirit!

Gayle Pritchard said...

Susan's work is here is inspirational as always. She always takes my breath away, and I feel "Lucky" to know her. Thanks for posting!

Rebekah Crown said...

It is so inspiring to hear this artist's journey. So interesting bringing the political back into the work. It seems many of my generation became so discouraged through the 80's and 90's.During the 80's is when everyone started wearing black all the time; not just for funerals, cocktail parties and classical music concerts. There is definitely change in the air. We see it even in the colour that has come back into fashion. Thanks for this story