Friday, November 29, 2019

Object Seeking a Purpose in Life

Collaged kimono fabric

During a trip to the "Kimono Refashioned" show at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco last spring, my final stop in the exhibit was in the hands-on activities room, where visitors could play around with scraps of kimono fabric (some of which were fabrics actually used for kimonos in the show). With a hungry companion and no time to linger, I picked up a few scraps of the fabric and tucked them in my pocket, figuring why should the museum care if I did something with them at the museum or at home. 

A few nights later, overcome with the itch to stitch, but with no particular project in mind, I put the scraps on my work table, moved them around a bit, and then stitched them together using Japanese sashiko stitching (though in places they also look like Indian kantha cloth).

So now I had what was, to me, a very pleasing, oddball piece of textile with absolutely no purpose in life. For a while I put it under a vase of flowers, which I will admit was very pleasing, but in the long run not really this textile's purpose. Then it simply sat on the sideboard in my dining room, waiting for something to come along.

And what came along was succulents. For no particular reason I began to pluck (using the correct, internet-approved method of twisting gently) single leaves from succulent plants I passed on my walk, then letting the stem end callous over and waiting for the thrilling little hair roots to appear. During this process I needed a place to let the succulent leaves rest and generate roots. My eye fell on the textile suffering from an existential crisis and the question of what this textile's purpose in life is was finally answered — it is a succulent nursery.

The succulent nursery

Little root hairs appearing

The moral to this story: Never hesitate to create something beautiful even though you don't know why you are doing it or what it is for.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Advent Calendar: Mistakes were Made

This is the ninth in a series of decidedly secular advent calendars. This year's theme is climate change since the recipients, now ages eight and ten, are becoming increasingly concerned and even skipped school to go see Greta Thunberg at a protest rally. Thus the title: Mistakes were Made — by many humans over many years, including probably you and me. 

However, it is also a double entendre —I made more than a few mistakes myself in the course of making this advent calendar (like forgetting to put something in one of the ornaments before sealing it closed with several layers of papier-mâché). This led to a number of weird little notes that direct you from one ball to another ball, and a lengthy, two-page "Advent Manifesto" explaining how all of this works. For you rugged readers who make it to the end, you will find the manifesto there.

I started off with one  papier-mâché ball because the idea of using recycled paper seemed to suit the theme, without thinking much about what kind of commitment that would entail when I needed twenty-four, one for each day of December leading up to the 25th. My work room was awash in flour-water sludge for weeks.

The larger balls hold climate-change-related projects, while the smaller balls hold a chocolate, foil-wrapped "coin" along with a climate change joke. And believe me, climate change jokes aren't easy to come by. I got most of the ones below from a German site, Die Klimaschutz Baustelle

Climate change jokes - click to enlarge

Just to make things a little more difficult I decided to add some papier-mâché birds, thinking in terms of the planet earth and the "fowl of the air, fish of the sea" sort of vaguely biblical thing.

Crazed polka dot cardinal

Little yellow bird

A pigeon so gorgeous it warrants several photos...

Pigeon close-up

Pigeon closest-up

And on the twelfth day arose the problem of the fish of the sea. Happily (and it took me half-way through the project to realize/remember this) I have an entire school of papier-mâché fish suspended from my bedroom ceiling. It was simply a matter of reeling in a few, gutting them by cutting a little hatch cover in their bellies, stuffing them with goodies, and papering the hatch cover back in place.

The fish of the sea
The trout

The goldfish (which is truly huge)

The objects inside the larger balls, fish, and pigeon were all accompanied by copy explaining the objects. They included things I've featured on this blog in the past, like DIY Seed Bomb Bangles and Living Mold Jewelry, and futuristic baskets made from recycled plastic and soda top tabs.

Inside of the gorgeous pigeon are several little bags of vintage buttons with the following copy:

While in the midst of making all of this, I spotted and bought two whoopee cushions at the Dollar Store, stuffed them into one of the larger balls and accompanied them with this copy:

Other items included bracelets and necklaces made of corn, peas, and beans that you could plant or eat, a shrine for old sewing needles, pins made out of rusted metal found on the railroad tracks, bee pins with copy about the importance of bees, and much, much more.

My original plan had been to create a garland out of recycled lace, with the objects hanging from the garland. As the project progressed I realized trying to assemble and pack a garland with so many unwieldy objects at this end and having them try to unpack and hang it somewhere at the other end seemed insane.

The garland idea

As a result, and because I was exhausted and had to get this in the mail, I decided to make it a "some assembly required" piece, including all of the lace and hanging supplies, but leaving the decision about how to hang it up to them.

I could not resist accompanying the entire package with the following manifesto. And yes, I hand-drew a picture of the chandelier-style hanging option on page two of the copy I sent. You will simply have to imagine it.

Manifesto page one - click to enlarge

Manifesto page two - click to enlarge

And great good luck to the recipients at the other end!

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Pounded Flower Textiles

What better time than a trip to a friend's house in London to experiment with eco-dyeing with pounded flowers? I have tried this technique before, oblivious to lessons learned by those who have gone before, and the results were a miserable failure. That earlier experiment involved white T-shirts, lots of flowers, and vigorous pounding with rocks on a concrete surface. The result? Colorful torn T-shirts with ragged, gaping holes. They would have looked sort of punk except for all of the florals.

This time around I tapped into the expertise of a master. Check out Samorn at, who will brilliantly guide you through the basics. Key tips include wooden mallets and cardboard-covered surfaces. The results below are stage one in ongoing experimentation with use of these eco-textile florals as base materials for future creations.

In between visits to museums, galleries, and button vendors, I leisurely collected likely-looking flowers and leaves on lovely walks through the October rains.

Foraged flowers

The yard of 100% cotton I had brought with me was pre-died with what resulted in very faint, base colors using both regular Twining tea and a blend of Indian teas which included saffron, turmeric, and other spices. Here is the cloth drying above the Aga stove.

Drying cloth above the Aga

And below are the gorgeous results of the flower-pounding process. I left half of my creations with my host, who loaned me her solarium as an art studio during the stay. The other half are about to become something wondrous. 
Stay tuned.

Click to enlarge

What flowers and leaves work? A large part of the fun is experimentation, and it would have been nice to have been scientifically methodical and keep track, but I didn't. You can see some gorgeous pansies above, and I vaguely remember begonias and fuchsias working well, but I had no idea what most of the flowers were to begin with.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Postcards from the Edge 2020

Click to enlarge

A friend in Manhattan alerted me to the "Postcards from the Edge 2020" benefit sale run by Visual AIDS, coming up on January 3-5. This is the 22nd year of this unique benefit show and sale of original, postcard-size artworks by established and emerging artists. All artwork is exhibited anonymously and the identity of the artist is revealed only after the work is purchased. Proceeds benefit Visual AIDS programs.

This is my entry, ready for shipping. The deadline is November 25, 2019, so consider creating and submitting a contribution of your own for a very good cause. The Web site again: Visual AIDS.

Click to enlarge

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Immortality and Family Heirlooms: The Book of Secrets

Cover: ecoprint with cabbage and eucalyptus

I have a long-held belief that you continue to exist as long as someone living still remembers you. My great-grandmother, born right after the Civil War and a huge influence on my life up to the age of sixteen, still lives vividly on in my memory. My best shot for this kind of immortality lies with my two grandnieces, whom I have been doing my utmost to impress in an artsy, maker kind of way for the past eleven years. It occurred to me that I don't have all that much longer to sum it all up, try to pass on what I have learned over the course of a lifetime through trial and error, and hopefully save them from the same mistakes I made. And here you have it — an instant family heirloom.

Inside cover and first page

Materials used are cotton and silk and a lot of eco-dyeing and ecoprinting

Second round of dyeing for ecoprint bundles

Once the cloth was dyed, each sheet of fabric was folded to form two pages, front and back. A page of poster board was inserted between the pages, and all paired-page edges are hand-finished. I figure that years from now, even if the people who stumble across the book have absolutely no idea who I am, they will take one look at all of that maniacal stitching and feel there is just too much work in this piece to casually throw it out. Which leads us to the second immortality strategy — heirlooms. Even after all who remember you are themselves dead and gone, the heirloom may live on. So here you have it: The Book of Secrets.

Inside cover: cotton dyed with cabbage and eucalyptus

The book is a joint gift for the two girls and their grandmother (my sister). She is in the habit of reading aloud to them and then engaging the girls in animated discussion. The idea here is that The Book of Secrets works a little like the I Ching: You randomly flip to a page, read it aloud, and then all present discuss what it means and the relation to their current lives. As with the I Ching, as your life changes the meaning you draw from the text also changes, so the book itself has a kind of built-in immortality. These are the lessons I wish someone had taught me when I was a child. Now, at age 71, I am still trying to master these strategies, sometimes succeeding, often falling short, and continuing to learn.

Page one: silk dyed with rose leaves, smoke bush flowers

Page two: silk dyed with maple leaves, rose leaves, smoke bush flower

Page three: silk dyed with rose and eucalyptus leaves

Page four: silk dyed with rose and eucalyptus leaves

Page five: silk dyed with maple and rose leaves

Page six: silk dyed with smoke bush flowers and rose leaves

A pause here to acknowledge that yes, there is a mistake in the printing on this page. Instead of dismay, my reaction was delight; mistakes are perfectly in accord with the secrets in this book. Regarding the printing itself, I used a vintage children's printing set with individual stamps for each letter and a pad of archival ink.

Page 7: silk dyed with tea

Page eight: silk dyed with tea

Page nine: cotton dyed with cabbage and maple leaves

Back cover: cotton dyed with cabbage and maple leaves; patchwork with sashiko stitching

Why not add a little mystery to the heirloom? When the girls were born I decided I wanted them to call me Tante Minna, which offers a tiny bit of extended immortality to two people from the past whom the girls never met. My great-grandmother was part of a group of friends from early childhood in Germany who called themselves "the jolly ten."  We called each of them by the honorific "tante" (aunt). As a child, the name Tante Minna, one of the ten, always struck me as very funny. A hundred years from now no one will have any idea who Tante Minna was, but through this book I, my great-grandmother, and the original Tante Minna live on. Until, of course, climate change makes the entire human species a vague memory.

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