I don’t stitch and I don’t sew. So what am I doing going to a lecture by Janet Bolton. Before last week I knew very little about her, but a magazine article provided an introduction and made me curious to visit a local exhibition, and then hear her speak about her life and work. I was quite unprepared for the affect this would have on me, and the chain reaction as I found myself looking and thinking differently about textiles and fabric.
Janet Bolton is in her sixties and for thirty years has sustained a gentle (and international) reputation as a textile artist whose work crosses the boundaries between craft and art. This lady puts pieces of fabric together to create patchwork pictures and assemblages that are unforgettable and play with the imagination like few artists I know can. For her the commonplace image – a kite, a lighthouse, a sheep, the button – become symbolic elements that we take into our imaginations. We can all take part in her pictures.
What she has done is take the essence of patchwork quilting, and fashion it in a way that puts it in a new and more general context. Quilting, if what little I know of it is correct, has a very long and on-going tradition that seems so bound up with a woman’s world of family and friendship. It has its own aesthetic and ethnography. I dipped into Cheryl Torsley and Judy Elsey’s book Quilt Culture and was taken aback by the way this activity of both personal and communal design and craft had seasoned literature (such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved) and fine art (Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed) Here’s an abstract from an academic journal article titled Quilt Language: towards a poetics of quilting.
The aesthetics of quilt making can be defined by exploring three ways in which quilts speak: through their formal qualities, their use of fabric, and their social context. The discussion here is focused primarily on nineteenth-century America, where quilts were important historical documents that transmitted information about women and their lives that might not have been available through other means and that otherwise may well have been overlooked. Quilts speak through their ‘graphic wit’, their use of formal elements, and their makers were adept at manipulating shapes, colors, and patterns to achieve dazzling visual displays. Fabric was also an essential element through which quilt makers expressed themselves. As well as providing the basic ‘palette’ of a quilt, the fabric was significant in its own right, whether it was purchased new or it was recycled for its emotional resonance. Additionally, although women made quilts, their significance often transcended the domestic realm. Finally, women used their quilts as a way of making utterances: whether to tell stories about the Bible, to collect images related to their lives, or to connect to other people, living or dead. The quilt aesthetic is still a thriving tradition and the transformative potential of using fragments to piece together a whole is especially relevant today.
Strong stuff, and a perhaps a world away from Janet Bolton, who, by her own admission seems surprised at the reaction her gentle ‘home-made’ work has drawn – from serious galleries and art critics as well as enthusiastic quilters and craftswomen (who speak with such joy and enthusiasm about her workshops). Here’s a great example I discovered, a blog I thought quite delightful and life-affirming.
The ingredients that seem to have made Bolton’s work so popular, accessible and truly unique are size, simplicity, care about complexity of content, and irregularity of fabric structuring matched with precision of stitch. Very little is made that is larger than 30cm by 30cm, and generally much small (you can’t put these patchwork ‘quilts’ on anything but a very small cot!). The scale just seems to suit the amount and nature of content. The fabric is varied, and is often surprising – but is never crowded. You’ll see a cotton remnant next door to a piece of fine Japanese silk . . . and it works. The colour tones can be close – they can be way apart. And the content – well this is the masterstroke – the content is what belongs to us all, what we all recognize, and what so often pulls the heartstrings of memory, even memories we don’t actually own to ourselves, but ones we have read about, seen on TV perhaps. My wife said when she looked at Janet’s pictures: ‘they have the same magic as the books (and illustrations) of Shirley Hughes’.
Let me tell you about one image Janet showed in a really excellent sequence of slides in her lecture. Here were four girls in cotton frocks. They were standing as young girls do with legs and arms all over the place, no sense of balance and deportment here (sorry – but I couldn’t find the image anywhere on the web). This is what you recognize from holiday photos – sisters and cousins on the beach leaning on one another. You imagine big smiles, noisy voices, ice cream, sunny days, the sound of the sea, picnics . . . get the idea? In Janet’s work this is the stuff that floats across your inner eye as you gaze at this ‘simple’ assemblage of fabric, fabric that speaks about the perennial pleasures of life: a sheep in a field, a balloon in the sky, kites flying, collections of trinkets on a dressing table, a vase of flowers at a window. Why, why is this all so meaningful, always so meaningful it can make you cry with longing, laugh with joy? If I knew the answer I would be a much wiser person than I try to be . . .
Janet’s website is a model of simplicity and has a good selection of images. It’s worth a look. That said, there are themes and instances of design and content that are missing. So although I’ve illustrated this text with some of her work I have decided to include a few of my own sketches made during the lecture to amplify things I liked and noticed.
The most striking omission from anything I could find on the web was her fascination with H shaped images and what she called ‘arrangements and assemblages’. So I include both in my two sketches. I think they speak for themselves.
The day after Janet’s lecture I found myself thinking very hard about what I’d seen and heard in the context of my own making. Was there something within woven textile design I could weave into my own work? Are colours and patterns of weave themselves meaningful, or could one find a way of bringing such direct images and forms into woven structures through hand-manipulation of some form? I know people do this – think of those pictures and patterns created using pick-up sticks in double weave – but I really dislike most of it! As I considered this I came across in my Sunday paper an article on painting by Fiona Rae. She is an artist who says ‘I feed an image into Photoshop and flip the colours around. Then I paint it for real’. She doesn’t draw from nature – she likes her images mediated through culture. ‘So while Mickey Mouse is a huge inspiration, a real mouse isn’t’. Her source images are little blobby angels, hearts, pandas . . . get it? This is Janet Burton territory with a post-modern slant . . . and it works.
Here’s what a critic said about Fiona’s recent work:
Fiona Rae is a graphic designer’s dream. She uses paint like it was produced on Photoshop. Her colours and textures are so wide-ranging but put next to each other in such a clean cut way, and her style so print-perfect you could see a designer making them. But it wouldn’t be half as good, because it wouldn’t be painted by hand. And it is the extra dimension of texture, and the possibility of human error, that makes the difference. For instance the marbled effect she creates as an under layer to some of the paintings. This is a purely random out come you could only create with a human and a brush.
My final encounter with those images and symbols we all recognize can feed our imagination came through the post this week – a copy of Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, a (rather battered) edition from 1946 with paintings by the ornithologist Peter Scott. I’ve acquired this book because my treasured copy has disappeared and I want to share this affecting book with a friend to whom I have just lent William Fiennes’ The Snow Geese, a recent book about migration, home-sickness and a journey of recovery after illness (and, incidentally, snow geese). I remember exactly when I read and fell in love with Gallico’s novella. I was eleven years old and sitting in my school library. It was snowing and there was ‘no games’ that day, just a well-banked up library fire to sit beside. Then, I had never experienced the Essex marshes. I think I’d read about Dunkirk, but never sailed a boat, and had no idea about landscape or portrait painting. As for snow geese . . . but there was something in the images that book brought together in my head (it wasn’t the illustrated edition) that must have been somewhere in my genes. Since then my relationship with that book has been informed by all the things I didn’t then know and possibly my love for North Norfolk (listen to my Spring Manoeuvres radiophonic documentary), landscape painting, sailing and the rest has been amplified by this (very sentimental – but wonderful) book.
On the loom I’ve just retied the double weave warp I created for my final college first year project in mid July. I’m planning to weave a piece that opens out to double the width, something I tried to do with my last swatch for my college project (but failed – a few mistakes made it impossible). I’ll do it this time. I’ve been planning, carefully, a method of making this work for me. It is probably a little unorthodox, but it’s worth a try. I still love the colours (from my study of sea and sky back in June) and the warp seems as beguiling as it was 2 months ago. It’s going to be a present for my mother in law Margaret. A very late 80th birthday present.