What Makes an Artist?

Last week, as I reluctantly drove to my artist’s reception at Oak Hills church, I heard the news about one of the highest selling artworks at auction–a painting that sold for $110 MILLION DOLLARS. Unbelievably, the artist was only 21 years old when he painted it, and he died when he was 27 from a heroin overdose. As the newscaster described it, I was pretty sure that I would NOT like this piece of art. Primary colors, and a skull. Yuck. How does an artist become so famous? Is it just on the whim of another person, who likes the painting? Did the artist promote the daylights out of himself? Was he really talented? How does it happen?

At the reception, I enjoyed talking to my friend Teresa. I discussed how much I DON’T enjoy promoting myself. I did not want to “bother” anyone by asking them to come to the reception. Teresa said she had read a book that said most artists have to spend 50% of their time on promotion! (By the way, in the end, I very much enjoyed the artist’s reception. Not a lot of people came, but it was so fun to interact with people and hear what their reactions were to my quilts.)

When I got home I looked up the artist and the painting. Sure enough, I don’t like it. However, I do like the layers that are in it, and the complexity of it. And it was very interesting to read about the artist’s history–he was encouraged artistically from a very young age. He was always heavily involved in “the art scene.” It seems like his talent was noticed and appreciated from a very young age.

In general, I am more attracted to textile art. But even there, I don’t like all textile art. Here is a quilt that won $100,000 in Australia. I don’t like it either.

I know that I am attracted to certain colors and color combinations that I consider pretty. I appreciate handwork. I like circles and spirals. I like geometric compositions. There are lots of things I do like 🙂

I want to make it clear that just because I don’t like something, I am not denying its artistry. I am just musing over WHAT MAKES AN ARTIST? Its not always classical training, although that seems to help. I don’t think its always promotion, although for sure that helps. One thing that seems consistent for “successful” artists is that they are passionate about what they do, and they spend a great deal of their time working on their art.

In the end, I don’t think it will work to try to make art that you think is “artistic.” You have to make work that you yourself love, and that makes you happy. Why would you try to do otherwise?

P.S. Here are a few of the textile artists whose work I love:

Me and Kantha Stitching

A nice commenter asked a couple of good questions about my “kantha stitching.” Traditional kantha was done in India by using old saris, and other thin cloth, and using the simple running stitch in a variety of patterns to stitch the layers together. ( Anna Hergert has written an excellent article about kantha here.) Although I have the “big book” of Kantha now, my original inspiration was not antique kantha embroidery. The beautiful work of Marianne Burr was my original inspiration, and her work was originally inspired, I believe, by kantha. But her work has gone on beyond kantha, with her painting on silk, and her beautiful thread and color work.

The way I stitched the background of this quilt is similar to traditional kantha.

The way I stitched the background of this quilt is similar to traditional kantha.

So the way I do my kantha-style quilting and embroidery is this: I either piece together a top, or use a single piece and put together a quilt sandwich. The reason I do this is because the sandwich acts as a stabilizer for the embroidery. I have never ever liked using a hoop or a frame in any fiber craft. With the three layers of the quilt sandwich, I can stitch away and not have any distortion from the embroidery.

I have added french knots and lazy daisy stitches to the traditional running stitch of kantha.

I have added french knots and lazy daisy stitches to the traditional running stitch of kantha.

Sometimes I embroider through all three layers of the sandwich. This is usually around the outside edge of a motif (like a circle,)when I want to emphasize a shape, or to actually act as the quilting. But most of the stitches, especially the simple running stitches, are done only through the top and the batting. The reason for this is simply ease of work. Its much more enjoyable to stitch through one and a half layers than through all three layers.

I also use blanket stitch to raw-edge appliqué motifs to a top.

I also use blanket stitch to raw-edge appliqué motifs to a top.

My batting of choice is Quilter’s Dream Request Loft Batting. I started using this particular batting after a quilt teacher, Judy Danes, recommended it. That is where I learned to put my quilt sandwich together simply by steaming the layers together.  After I started the kantha embroidery, I tried various batts, but this same batt seems to work the best. It is easy to stitch through, and it does not generally “beard,” (where the batting will come through the needle holes to the surface of the quilt.) This is the thinnest of the Quilter’s Dream batts. I love the light weight of it, and the way it hangs.

I hope this is helpful. Just make yourself a little quilt sandwich and begin to play!



Sometimes I have to write a post just to remind myself that I am getting work done. I titled this “Dabbling,” which I did indulge in a bit. But I also, I can see now, have progressed forward in my intentional art. And because of this blog, I can look back and see that it really was just a week ago that I posted about “switching gears,” because I wanted to get back to my rug hooking.

The thing about rug hooking–its that old saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Suddenly, I get all sentimental, and miss my quilting horribly. And I think of all kinds of new, wonderful ideas that I MUST. TRY. RIGHT. NOW.

My box of little two inch squares was calling to me! What if I made long chains of the squares. Wouldn’t that be fabulous?



Then, I got a card that had painted flowers on the front. MUST TRY to reproduce those flowers! I pulled out a huge stack of pink, coral, and golden solids. Free-hand cut the fabrics for these.


Not that fabulous. Plus, I think its been done before. Like in the 70’s or something.

I had seen the work of this artist at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. French Knots! Must do french knots!

I do think I started this more than a week ago, but I worked on it a lot this week:


Of course, JUST french knots did not last very long. And I did not do all this embroidery in the past week. But I did do a significant amount of it, just as way of avoiding other stuff. DSCN2820

This is a fun little bit to do. Marianne Burr taught me this.


I am always so inspired when I see the work of an artist who does everything by hand, like Marianne Burr and the french knot artist, and most recently, I came across this woman’s work. And then I start on a little piece like this, and inwardly I am whining, “but it takes soooooo lonnnnggg.” I can only laugh at myself.

And I did continue to work on the “what they said” series a bit. I am enjoying embroidering the lettering, and thinking about the thoughts behind the words, and how I can convey those thoughts and emotions through the way I do the lettering and through the simple machine quilting. (You can see I use the disappearing blue pen for some of my lettering. Don’t worry. It always disappears.)


I made myself finish the quilting on the first one, and used Ricky Tims’ clever method of facing.


And really, I did continue to do some rug hooking. Each section requires a bit of thought and of course a lot of angst. Is that color right? Is there enough contrast? Too much contrast? Am I just indulging my love of using ALL THE COLORS ALL THE TIME? 



Mostly I’m very happy with how its coming along 🙂

Wow. I am surprised at how much I have gotten done. I thought my week had been disrupted by OTHER STUFF, like exercise, gardening, and housecleaning. If you just insist on continuing on, it is surprising and rewarding to see the body of work that you can eventually produce.

What Happened Next

This post could be subtitled “The Extreme Value of Having a Mentor.” I have spoken frequently of my love for the work of Marianne Burr. I have mentioned occasionally that she has been a real mentor to me. 

After my last post, here is what happened next. Marianne Burr sent me an email offering her ideas to fix the little quilt, but only if I wanted it. Did I want her help??? What followed were a series of emails that ended with me actually cutting off a bit from two sides of the quilt to take the cross out of the very center of the quilt. And I added a second “circle” of hand-stitching to echo the one circle. I used a contrasting fabric for the binding. There are some other ideas that Marianne (and also Loretta, in the comments) added, and I might eventually add even more to this little quilt, but with Marianne’s encouragement, I did as much as I could before the deadline, and then actually entered it in that competition. I have no illusions that it will win, but the whole process of continuing on, re-evaluating, and refining a piece of work was extremely valuable for me.

Here is the quilt, with the changes made:


And a close-up:


Do you have a mentor?

Hello Again

I do wish I could be a more regular blogger. The trouble is, once you get out of the habit its very difficult to start back up. At least that’s been my experience. So I won’t try to fill in all the details of the past month. I’ll just start again from where I am today.

Between trips (Sherri Woods workshop, ATHA rug convention, and PIQF) I have been working steadily on a number of quilts. I thought this one was finally finished, and I had a new idea. I think I’ve mentioned that one of the series I am working on is “The Signature of Jesus,” and that each quilt will include a cross, and for the most part I am planning to put the same words on each quilt “God so loved the world.” So I was thinking about where to put the words on this quilt, and I had the idea to do my running stitch embroidery at the bottom, in a partial sphere in blue and green thread, to indicate the earth. That will take quite a bit of time, as this is a large quilt (maybe 48X60) but it is the kind of stitching I enjoy–not a lot of choices to be made–just which color of blue or green thread I will use next. I already have my little case of blues and greens picked out!


This quilt has a LOT of hand embroidery on it in the squares that are part of the cross. I did most of the stitching in neutral or dull colors. I am not sure the final product is worth all the time it took. But maybe it is one of those elements that the viewer will enjoy looking at up close.


Lastly, I want to direct you to take a look at one of the latest quilts of my mentor, Marianne Burr. I just discovered this morning that I could click twice on the picture and get a really great close-up view of her beautiful work.

I’ll sign off for now. No promises, but I will try to check in with my latest work a little more frequently!

Miss Bess perched on the arm of the sofa, waiting for me to finish on the computer!

Miss Bess perched on the arm of the sofa, waiting for me to finish on the computer!

C’est Finit!

I finished the raw edge log cabin!


Here’s what I had to trim off of it after I washed it.


I think its so pretty, and I love the oriental heron blocks that I added. I also added some fun fabrics in the border. I did it just like I said, with just the log cabin, the muslin (that the log cabin was constructed on, ) and the backing. Three layers of fabric (no batting) for a nice lightweight topper for my bed this summer.

This comes under the category “if you think of it, try it!” Those have been words of wisdom for me from Marianne Burr. In evaluating whether this was a worthy technique, here are some of my observations: I don’t think it saved much time to make this raw edge. I sewed twice as many seams (maybe unnecessarily, but I wanted to be sure the raw edges were secure.) And then there was the endless trimming after I washed it, and again after I dried it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I have used this technique before in collage quilts.

The positive values: no ironing! If I had been doing a one inch log cabin (come to think of it, I have been working on one for a few years now…) there would have been a LOT of ironing of little seams as I went along. And as I placed each block on the backing I quilted it in place, so essentially as I pieced the front, I also was quilting it. I decided that to keep with the raw edge theme, I would not add a binding. I just sewed around the edge twice more to make sure it was secure, and then I cut the extra backing off with scissors. I didn’t worry about “squaring it up” or using a rotary cutter. Very freeing.

Solids, Attempts Number One and Two

So, even though I said I didn’t like fusing, I decided to give it a try.  I had a bit of an idea in the back of my mind, and a picture in a magazine that was intriguing, so I went ahead and picked out some of the fabrics I wanted to use, and pre-fused them with Wonder Under, Melody Johnson style.   Ack.  Did I mention I don’t like fusing?  Anyway, I carried on, and finished fusing this little piece.  I left the middle blank because I wanted to feature this verse that I just love:

“And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart, till the Devil whispered behind the leaves ‘It’s pretty, but is it Art?’”–Rudyard Kipling

Isn’t that the fear that most of us have–“Is it art?”  Anyway, I am happy enough with this little piece.  I will finish embroidering the verse, and add some more embroidery touches, then add the back and quilt it a bit. And then it will be done.  I think it is a very unbalanced piece, but somehow that seems perfect for the tentative question in the verse.

Oh, and one more thing.  You might be looking at this and saying, it doesn’t LOOK like solids to me.  And you would be right.  I ‘allowed’ myself to add a few batiks into the fabric choices, and then they were basically almost all the fabrics I chose to use.  So now the batiks have been banished to the cupboard so I will be FORCED to work with solids!

So then , before I finished this little piece, I came up with what I thought was MY BIG IDEA.  I was very excited about the prospects of this project.  It involved doing some strip piecing for the background and then appliqueing circles and shapes on top for my perle cotton embroidery.  I love the work of Marianne Burr.  I actually was fortunate enough to take some lessons with her last summer.

I re-organized my piles of solids into lights for the background and medium darks for the foreground, with the third pile (in the background) available for accents if necessary.

I finally had a free morning and I got busy cutting strips and piecing them back together.  I put them on the design wall and then plopped some of the darker fabrics on top to see if there was enough contrast.  Meh.  I didn’t really like what I had done that much.  Sometimes I will leave something on the design wall for a while to see if it grows on me, or if maybe I’ll get the NEXT BIG IDEA.

At this point I was quite discouraged with myself, so I took the doggies out for a walk, and then I came home and sat in the big chair thinking about what a failure I was.  Finally I picked up a pile of old quilt magazines and thumbed through them looking for ideas.  I cut out little pictures of what I liked, ideas that might work with solids.  That was Fun!  And eventually, I came up with the NEXT BIG IDEA.  But you’ll have to come back tomorrow for that one!