Imitation is the Greatest Form of Flattery

IM Pei’s Addition to the Louvre

I often get asked when/why I started making art quilts after focusing on traditional quilts for so many years, and the answer is somewhat complicated. The median age in my very first quilt guild was approximately 60 years old. My two friends and I were in our twenties with new babies at home, but many of the women were in their 70’s. Keep in mind this is Central Ohio in the late 1970’s. If you have a good memory, you will recall this was when Nancy Crow started making her wonderful abstract works, and I was lucky to see one of her first exhibitions at the Armory in downtown Columbus. This made a great impression, but I was heavily influenced by the women in my guild and the popular opinion was that Nancy’s work was definitely made of pieces of fabric, but they weren’t really quilts, why, rumor had it that she didn’t even quilt them herself, and the stitches were so big and they weren’t straight. Oh, my! So I continued making reproduction quilts for another 15 years, but I never forgot those quilts.

Artist Working in the Louvre

Then I started travelling and whenever possible, I visited art museums. First, just to see all those magnificent works I studied in Art History 101, preference was given to the Impressionists (still my favorites), those rablerousers that would not follow convention. Then I started to visit other museums like the Picasso Museum in Paris, Miro and Gaudi in Barcelona, Dali in Paris and Tampa, and Georgia O’Keefe in Santa Fe. I have also visited the Tate Modern in London several times as well as the modern wing of The Chicago Art Institute. I noticed that each one of these artists began their career copying conventional styles of the time and then developed their own distinctly recognizable style When I visited the Louvre, the place was littered with art students sketching and painting in many of the galleries (I wonder what kind of red tape one must endure to attain this privilege? I can see myself knocking over my easel, splashing paint on the irreplaceable treasures and being escorted either to jail or out of the country, not to mention the stress of being stared at by the throngs of visitors and being told that they preferred the original.)

In The Pink – 22×20 – 2007
My initial response to modern art was, “it’s interesting, but I wouldn’t want it hanging in my house.” Over the years, however, it seems to have seeped into my psyche and slowly but surely into my quilts. One of my favorite artists is Matisse and I have made two quilts that replicate some of his famous paintings.

You Sew Girl – 18×22 -2007

I feel that he is one of my main influences. I love the bright colors and simple shapes in his work. The blue nude was created towards the end of his life. Confined to bed, he was still cutting figures from paper and painting murals on the walls of his room with aid of a long stick. I hope I will still be making art in some form or other when I’m eighty. So, I guess art quilts just kind of bubbled to the surface in an unexpected way, after a long period of exposure to modern art. I love the juxtaposition of old and modern, IM Pei and the Louvre. I am working hard to develop my own style, but learning from the masters is a time honored tradition. Thank you Henri, you’re the bomb!

Wild, Wonderful…Wales!

Pembrokeshire, Wales

There are those seminal events in life that you never forget, like where you were on 9/11, or what were you doing the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Two such events are forever linked in my mind: Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon walk and they day my best friend Anne walked into my life.

Three Cliffs Bay, Wales

As a junior in high school, my mother decided it would be a great idea for our family to host a foreign exchange student during my senior year. The only problem was convincing my Dad that he also thought this was a great idea. After all, feeding another mouth for a year, and having a person in the house that perhaps did not speak English was going to require some doing on her part. My mother was nothing if not inventive, and like women across the ages, she usually came through the back door to get what she wanted, and she was darned good at it. My dad’s mother was English, and the apple of my his eye, so, my mother suggested we ask for a student from Great Britain. Voila! Mission accomplished.

St. Davids, West Wales

So, on a hot July day in 1969, after staying up all night to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, our family was off to the bus station in Columbus, Ohio to meet our new family member from Cardiff, Wales, Anne. Little was I to know the full impact of this event. Sure, we had a memorable year. I learned to sing a few songs in Welsh, and Anne learned how to eat corn on the cob (food for pigs don’t you know) and peanut butter. We had English tea and took Anne to see Washington D.C. , Williamsburg and Florida. We took her camping and hiking and I sewed her some dresses. We rode our bikes and made Welsh dolls for Christmas, but what really happened is we became lifelong friends and honorary sisters.

Thornhill Farm

I have lost track of how many times I have visited Wales over the last forty years. Anne and I travel together frequently, and she is always willing to indulge whatever weird interest I have going on at the time. She has driven me to Yorkshire to buy textile art supplies, taken me to garden centers when I wanted to see how the Brits do it, followed me through Laura Ashley shops to look at fabric, eaten lunch with me in the crypt at St. Martins in the Field and walked through the Egyptology exhibit at The British Museum to mention just a few. The last time I was there, I asked her to drive me around so I could photograph some trees, “You know, you really have some good ones over here,” I said in my most convincing voice. The majestic oak tree I photographed at Thornhill Farm, not far from Cardiff, was later translated into a quilt. I once asked Anne if there was any of my wacky ideas that she would not indulge. After some thought, she stated that she drew the line at bungee jumping or watching sporting events of any kind. Whew! I’m off the hook there. That’s where I draw the line, too!

Italian Inspiration Part 3

Toscana II – Siena – Church of San Domenico

Piazza del Duomo – Siena

As luck would have it, we arrive in Siena (yes, the paint color, Burnt Siena originated in the earth surrounding the city) just before the latest James Bond movie was due to be filmed in the city. There was scaffolding everywhere to film the action, but not a movie star in sight. We were lucky to have a local tour guide for an hour and we learned a few things about this part of Italy from an insider’s perspective. First of all, Siena and Florence were arch rivals in the Renaissance and the time of city states, apparently giving even the OSU – Michigan competition a run for the money. Secondly, renaissance art is revered and modern art is found to be an abomination by the locals.

Although the guide book described this church as “architecturally uninspiring,” I found it to be charming for several reasons. Very modern wrought iron sculpture encircled the entrance, and there was a fabulous modern art glass window that was so stunning it commanded your immediate attention. The guide stated that the residents were up in arms about the travesty of these installations and had repeatedly complained to the church to have them removed. Secondly, St. Catherine, patron saint of Italy, grew up right around the corner. One of a gaggle of children born to a family of weavers, I already appreciated the textile connection. Then I learned why she was beatified. As a teen she went to Avignon and brought the Pope back to Italy. Now my wicked imagination takes hold and I am wondering why a teen aged girl had to bring a grown man back to town? Was he unable to read a map? Was he frightened of horses? Did he take courage from hiding behind a young girls skirts? Who knows? But I say, “You go girl!” She was so revered that after her death everyone wanted a piece of her, literally. Her bones were divided among the churches of Christendom, supposedly via a lottery system. I think it was rigged because the Church of Dan Domenico got both her skull and a finger, which were prominently displayed for all to see. Eeyeew!!!

Toscana IV – Siena – After Lorenzetti (detail)

Not far from the Duomo is the remains of a medieval hospital called Santa Maria della Scala. After all the religious iconography, I was interested to see some secular work and this is the place to go. It featured some absolutely intrigueing frescoes of medieval hospital life, but that’s not all. Visitors virtually have the run of the place. We travelled into the bowels of the hospital, originally used for storage. We made our way in the near dark, on faintly lighted board walks. Every once in a while there would be an Etruscan funerary urn to remind you of your own mortality, and wouldn’t you know it, there was another human skull in a glass case on the wall. This place was seriously creepy! We only saw a few other people, and I was beginnig to wonder if we were about to star in one of those slasher movies. But not to worry, another glass of wine and little sunshine and we were ready for the next adventure.

Toscana IV – Siena- After Lorenzetti

I promised I would reveal how I used the fabric purchased in Florence. Take a look at Toscana IV. The red and blue in the women’s gowns, and the tobacco colored fabric in the outer border are my treasures from Florence. The black gown is a man’s sports jacket I purchased at Goodwill, and the batik fleur de lys fabric came from Michael and Debra Lunn’s annual fabric sale.

Italian Inspiration – Part 2

Toscana III San Gimignano

Pisa, the Leaning Tower and The Field of Miracles

Following an absolutely stunning two days in Florence, our English tour guide, Elaine dutifully herded us onto our tour bus and we left for Pisa with dire warnings about gypsies, tramps and thieves. I had on my money belt (which caused me to perspire, and I handed out damp Euros for the rest of the trip), so I wasn’t worried. My friend Anne, however, was pick pocketed within one minute of departing the bus. A pall fell over us that lasted the rest of the morning, we moped around the Field of Miracles, not feeling quite so miraculous while Anne’s son in Britain sorted out her finances, cancelling credit cards, etc. Once this was settled, we settled down too and were off on the second leg of the journey, a lovely little hill town called Lucca, home of Puccini. Again we exited the bus, this time with dire warnings not to be even one minute late on return, as the driver would not wait. We had a lovely lunch of the best pizza on earth, did some requisite shopping (I am now in possession of a lovely Italian leather handbag, thank you very much), and a had charming stroll on the Roman wall amid poppies and other spring wild flowers. As we walked we engaged in a discussion about the time we were meant to return to the bus. We each had our own opinions so we split the difference and walked faster. To our utter amazement and shame, the entire bus was loaded and our fellow travelers were looking out the window at us as we approached. As we boarded, the entire bus of Brits gave us a resounding round of applause. Is it actually possible to melt into one’s seat like the wicked witch on the wizard of Oz?

Volterra – Chiesa di Allessandro

The next day we travelled to the town of Volterra, an ancient Etruscan city and our home for the next three days. Our hotel was at the foot of the hill and we walked about a mile up a winding path to the city several times a day to eat or shop. I now know how the Italians can eat so much pasta and not have the obesity problems so common in the States. We passed this picturesque church along the way.

San Gimignano

If you have seen the movie Tea with Mussolini, you might recognize this photo. The city is famous for it’s towers, which are actually fortified homes. The rooms are stacked one on top of the other like layers in a cake. When attacked, the residents merely pulled up the ladder and battened down the hatches. We used Rick Steve’s guide for restaurant selections and his choices were superb. In this tiny town we ate lunch in a garage attached to the restaurateur’s home. It was just large enough to hold three tables. As we arrived, the baker delivered a huge brown paper bag filled with loaves of bread that were still steaming. Then the owner came out of her home and sliced fresh Italian meats with a meat slicer that sat on the counter and made incredible sandwiches served with homemade Tuscan white bean soup and the local wine. That was a meal I will never forget!

As I contemplated this trip I was prepared for fantastic scenery and savory Italian food. What I was totally unprepared for was the extreme difficulty I had sleeping. I would hear Anne peacefully breathing across the room while I tossed and turned all night long. Why? Because of the extreme creative process that was being generated by total immersion in this art-filled environment. I was actually designing quilts in my head when I was supposed to be asleep. Then I started having what I will call, “historical dreams.” Being a big history buff, I found my dreams inhabited by the ancient world. All in all a very strange experience that lasted for the entire two weeks. In the end, I decided to write down my ideas for quilts in a journal, and photos were taken with an eye for translation into fabric. When I arrived home my sewing machine hardly had time to cool off between quilts, and the Toscana series was born.

Italian Inspiration


Where do artists find the inspiration for their work? For me, the answer is often in my travels. Journey is one of the recurring themes of my art. Almost two years ago I had the extreme good fortune to spend two weeks in Tuscany and Rome. My best friend Anne and I travel together and we decided that what with the sunshine, art, food, wine and Italian men, we couldn’t go wrong with Tuscany. We usually prefer do it yourself travel, but couldn’t decide on the best way to approach this trip. We considered driving, but since she is British and we were contemplating driving in a country that drives on the right side of the road, the driving would fall to me. Normally this is no problem, I love driving, but frankly I had heard some horror stories about the high rate of speed that is preferred by Italian drivers. Let’s face it, I chickened out so we booked a coach trip that took care of the transportation and hotels.

Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, Piazza della Signoria, Florence

We arrived in Pisa and took our places on the tour bus. Very quickly we were in the luscious Tuscan countryside and listening to Puccini and Andrea Bocelli as the vineyards and olive orchards whizzed past. Soon we were transported to the birthplace of Renaissance art, Florence. We quickly dumped our gear in the hotel and walked a short way to be greeted by views of the Duomo. We gorged on gelato which is really homemade ice cream with the most spectacular flavors like tangerine ( I always thought it was sherbet); the presentation of this confection is a work of art in itself. Then we imbibed in what we later calculated to be a ten dollar cup of coffee in the Piazza della Signoria. It was worth every dime to sit in this spectacular place and soak up the art, culture and architecture.

Boboli Gardens – Pitti Palace, Florence

Florence is the kind of place where you can collect views of world famous art like charms on a bracelet. The next day we were blessed with a coveted ticket to the Uffizi Gallery. A fantastic opportunity to view so the famous works studied in Art History 101. Botticelli.. check..DaVinci.. check.. Donatello ..check. Well, you get the idea. One needs a break to get perspective and truly appreciate the experience. Always willing to indulge my quirky interests of the moment, Anne was easily persuaded to visit Boboli Gardens. We strolled and smelled the abundantly blooming wisteria and the first pale yellow roses of the season as we caught a view of the Duomo from afar.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Like any textile artist worth their sewing machine, about now I was desperately in need of a fabric fix. Luckily, I had done my homework and we trundled over to Casa Dei Tessvti on the Via de’Pecori, in search of some silk. After all, Florentines had made it rich on the silk trade back in the day, and this must be the place to get a great deal. We walked in the front door and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. I had been transported back a hundred years. The fabric rolls were neatly stacked clear up to the ceiling, requiring the use of a rolling library ladder to reach them, and all the cutting tables and casework were deeply grained and patina’d wood. We were greeted by a dapper septa or octogenarian dressed in a cream linen suit and bow tie. Within a few seconds, and without me even asking, he unrolled a stunning, embroidered, cinnamon colored silk, stating, “It matches madame’s hair,” and you betcha it did. I was drooling. I had learned some basic Italian for this trip like, where is the ladies bathroom and how much does this cost? I was nearly knocked to the floor when he said 250 Euros a meter. Still hopeful that I could own a small piece of this textile work of art, and thinking of American fabric shops, I asked if I could purchase a quarter meter. Now it was his turn to be knocked out of breath, “No, madam, a full meter is the minimum amount that can be purchased.”

Brunelleschi’s Dome – The Duomo, Florence

He then inquired how he might be of service. I told him that I was a quilter from America. Ahhhh.. yes he knew of quilting and thought perhaps some cottons would be useful. Ah, yes, cottons. Slightly disappointed, at least I wouldn’t go home empty-handed. With a flourish, he pulled out some cotton shirtings , a mere 45 Euros for some striped material of no particular interest. “Could I just look around?” After a thorough search of the store I ferreted out five bolts of fabric that looked like silk. Amazing colors, and at last, only 18 Euros a meter, this I could afford. Now I knew this could not be silk at the labeled price and I was darned if I was going to pay that amount for polyester, so I asked. I thought the poor man was going to stroke out before my eyes, and I never could remember all those steps in CPR. He assured me that his shop would never carry polyester and that these were Viscous. I checked my internal catalog for the composition of Viscose, but could not remember what it was made of and I did not want to actually kill this dapper Florentine with another stupid question, so magnanimously I said, “I’ll take all of them.” The first smile appeared of the morning and he carefully cut and wrapped each piece in tissue and placed them all in a lovely cloth bag with their logo. He toted up the bill by hand, licking his pencil, and was somewhat stunned when I presented a credit card and he had to use the machine. He did tell me that the shop services clothing designers and is teaching a brand new group of young students how to sew couture clothing. I was impressed and I will never forget this textile adventure. Check out future blogs to see how I used this treasured fabric.