Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Tonight I found a quote from Sas Colby, a mixed media artist.

Creative people can draw parallels between diverse ideas and things, connecting seemingly disparate notions to come up with something new.

That quote made me feel a whole lot better about what previously seemed to me to the be the dangerously frenzied pattern of thinking that resulted in this quilt. I am not mad. I am creative :)

To explain:
I had no idea what to do for this quilt. I had nothing. Zero. Nada. Panic was brewing.
To calm myself I decided I could at least go and pull out the fabrics I had which fitted the challenge. First I set on my desk a piece of fabric I made by rubbing Markal sticks over revealed plaster when my kitchen was being renovated. Then I tossed down a folded fat quarter of deep blue acquired at PIQF and it landed slightly off the edge of the original. I stared it it. I liked the accidental shape. I have made quilts on top of quilts before. I could do that again.

But then what to do with it? I still had no real idea save that I wanted to keep my African theme if possible. I rummaged in the scrap box for a piece of bark cloth. Set it atop the fat quarter and... well, doh! Of course. This was to be a quilt about Falasha. Obviously.

Really - that's exactly how it happened!

And what are Falasha you might ask? They are Ethiopian Jews. You can get a longer explanation here but in essence they are Jewish people who have been for centuries practising their faith in Ethopia. Some think them to be the lost tribe of Israel, some to be the descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, others to have been converts to Judaism Whatever their origins by the time President Mengistu took over they started to have a rather bad time of it with 2,500 being killed and 7,000 made homeless.  Others were inmprisoned and all were forbidden to practice their faith. Ultimatley Israel orgainsed three sereis of airlifts under the names Operation Moses, Operation Joshua and Operation Solomon.  About 36,000 Falasha now reside in Israel.

So how on earth, I hear you saying, did she get to that? Well, simply, when I set the barkcloth vertically on the folded FQ it reminded me of a mezuzah - the small case containing parchemt on which scripture is written, which observant Jews place on the entry to their homes. The barkcloth comes from Africa, hence African Jews.

Once I saw the Falasha theme, the other symbolism rushed towards me screaming rather obviously to be included as I worked on the quilt. The bead on the sage background and with sage strings is an amulet. That refers back to my last Twelve by Twelve quilt but also to the common use of amulets to protect during travel - many of the Falasha had to endure a grueling journey on foot to Sudan to be airlifted. Many did not survive. The dangling strings refer to the tzizit which observant male Jews wear sticking out over their waisrbands from an undergarment -  they are knotted strings to remind them of the commandments. There is hand stiching from me which mimics the hand stitching already present in the African cloth. I did that in my last quilt too and it gives me pleasure to repeat a tradition from someone who went before me, just as the Falasha continue old religious practises. By repeating my own work I am also creating new traditions just as the Falasha introduced new ways of celebrations to Israel. The Mezuzah is almost straight but actually it is just slightly off, giving a slight uneasiness to the viewer. This reflects the experience of immigrant Falasha who have often found it hard to settle in Israel and have suffered discrimination from other Jews. They have been rabinically recognised as Jews, and yet....

The right hand side of the quilt is obviously quilted. This represents the overt Jewish life the Falasha may now live in Israel if they choose. The quilting pattern might be seen as desert pebbles or maybe champagne bubbles to celebrate their safe arival. The left hand side is more subtly handquilted representing the time in Ethopia when some discretion in their practise of their faith would have been necessary to survive. The quilting follows the marks on the fabric just as the Ethoipians followed the paths of fellow Jews in making Aliya to Israel. The hand quilting is broken representing the fractured families as some members have been left behind.

Just before I read the above quote I emailed Diane,  lamenting the fact that I felt a bit of a fraud. The rest of the group spend so much time on beautiful surface design and sometimes I feel I throw a quilt together quickly then pretend it is something profound to mask the lack of technique. Then I read that quote today and a lightbulb went on. My artist's life is not actually that disimilar from my lawyer life:  a good barrister can often distill piles of paperwork and months of client's anguish into a few succinct sentences and quickly wrap a case up much faster than that client expected. It is not that they cannot be bothered to spend a lot of time on the case but rather that they have spent so much time previously learning law and practising the craft of anaylsis and representation, that the years of study and experience result in a speedy resolution.

So it is I think for me. There is it seems an alarming amount of stuff in my brain just floating about in there being of interest. And given the right visual cue bits of it come flying out into the quilt. Why particular bits come out at particular times I have no idea but I am learning that in my search for a my quilting 'voice' I should not be suprised if what comes out through my fingers resembles what went into my brain through my eyes and ears. But I am looking forward to suprising myself again with the next challenge. And maybe to experiment by reading a lot about some entirely new topics and seeing how long the fermentation period is!


Gerrie said...

Ah, yes, we all think of you as the fraud amongst us!!! NOT! I think you are very innovative with your use of materials and surface design, always using it to make a point in the current story or lesson that you are telling us. The blue fabrics you created are beautiful.

Karen said...

This is amazing Helen, and I agree, you are not a fraud at all, I think what is in your unconscious brain gets triggered by what you are looking at. Years ago we traveled to Israel for our daughter's bat mitzvah, and we met with some Falasha and heard their stories. It's a sad complicated issue, and thank you for talking about it.

Kristin L said...

I just love reading about your train of thought and it's rather meandering journey! I am definitely in the school of thought that what goes in to a piece of art is merely the hours (or minutes) spent on a particular piece, but ALL the education, experimentation, and essays that came preceded it. Continue on as you are and enjoy the surprises, and please share them with us too -- it's so enlightening and fun. BTW, this particular piece, with or without it's accompanying story, is lovely to look at too. I prefer your aesthetically simple pieces like this.

Terri Stegmiller said...

Oh what a fun story of how your quilt came to life. Love it! And I love your quilt. Beautiful!

Diane said...

There are a lot of things to respond to in your piece and in your commentary. First, I'd never heard of the Falasha so this was very interesting and instructive. But most of all, I love how in this quilt, you've taken a deep meaning and represented it more abstractly than I think you've done before. Your piece is very pleasing and beautifully done, but it stands well alone without understanding that there is much more meaning in it. In your previous pieces, you look at them and *know* there is a story that goes with them. In this, it is a lovely piece that doesn't require the story -- but the explanation of the depth of thought behind this really adds to one's appreciation of the piece.

Dare I say that I think you are madly creative? And I mean that in the nicest of ways. :-)

kirsty said...

Helen, you are all that is right in my world. I need people with mad creativity to reassure me that I'm not alone!
Falasha has informed me AND fed my senses - can't ask for more than that!

Nikki said...

Beautiful and subtle. I love the background fabric -- it is so rich in texture. Your choices of embellishments are perfect.

I think might all feel like a fraud at times. Perhaps that is what makes this group so great. We aren't afraid to share both our highs and our lows. Plus there is no danger of another Twelve saying, "You know, you're right!" So trust us when we say you aren't -- You are deeply wonderful!

Terry said...

First I enjoyed the simplicity and elegance of the composition, then I enjoyed the beautiful colors you created and combined. Then I was deep into learning about the Falasha and connecting all the symbols to their meanings. And it was all I hope for from a Helen quilt--a fascinating story expressed graphically.

Then my granddaughter came and looked over my shoulder at your quilt and she said, "I think that clock is beeeee-utiful!" Clock? So she showed me that it is a tall grandfather clock. She showed me the window through which you see the clock face and the pendulums hanging down.

Now all I see is the clock. And it is beeee-utiful!

Vicki said...

I have been artistic all my life, but it wasn't until I stopped being all the 'other' things in my life and became an artist that I began to understand the meaning behind your quote. I always hated abstracts, but now I see the hidden symbolism and meaning behind what I call real art. So you have learnt too. Great work