On Market…

I love Market; I really do. I get to see people, talk about stuff, and see a few incredible new things. Market is fun, but each time I go to Market I also come away with a few things that stick to me awkwardly. I think that’s the nature of Market; it is a bit of a hot box.

Normally I can just brush those things aside in a day or so and move on to the next awesome thing I get to do (and by “get to do” I also mean “have to do” cause those bills are always there). This time, though a couple of things we said or happened that have really shaken me to my core, have left a dreadful taste in my mouth, and even once reduced me to tears (and I don’t generally cry because I pretty much dead inside).

So, here I am again. I know it has been far too long since I’ve done a blog post, but this is where I come to talk about the issues in my life/career that seem important to share. It is partially cathartic for me, but I also think a lot of these things just need to be brought out into the open and I am just dumb enough to do it.

So let’s dive right in:

1. If you have a penis in this industry you get to be a celebrity.

I find this so profoundly insulting, not just to the men who have succeeded, but to all of those male quilters who haven’t, or don’t want to.

At first blush it seems witty and true. There are a bunch of men showing up and many of them are doing well (in small and/or subjective ways). And I think this is great for the growth of the industry. But to say those men are getting there just because they are men is utterly dismissive of the work and effort they have put in, the years of experience they bring to this industry, one that is only now really starting to embrace men.

How much do you know about David Butler besides the fact that he is married to Amy? Did you know that he has been a working artist and illustrator for approaching 30 years? Did you know the he made the first sculpture I ever bought way back when I was an undergrad, and he sold it for seventy-five bucks, because that what you do when you are starting out? Did you know he illustrated on of my daughter’s favorite books? Not to single out David (and I hope he doesn’t mind me talking about him here), but what do you really know about the background of the men who “get to be celebrities just because they have a penis?”

For the most part I think a lot of men hit the fabric/quilting scene running because it is just now that opportunities are opening for them here, and the decades of related and transferable experience goes a long way to help them make very good work very quickly.

That is not to say that a lot of companies are not entirely mercenary and want to leech notoriety off of the fact that a designer is a guy; companies will suck value from whatever they can. This isn’t a complaint; it’s just a blunt reality. But no company will continue supporting an artist, male or female, if the work isn’t getting that company what it needs.

2. You are new here, so surely you don’t know what you are doing.

I get this a lot, and it often connects to issue 1. The assumption is that one day I just decided to design fabric and since I have a penis everybody wanted to make it so now I am a celebrity (which I am totally not; I’m the guy who’s going to be elbow deep in crappy nappies in three months).

This actually offends me more than the whole celebrity penis thing, because it is dismissive of all of the work I have done in the past two years to get to the tiny spot I have found, and furthermore is dismissive of my whole life of study, practice, work, and experience. This issue isn’t just about me, but I’m going to go ahead and use myself as an example and tell the whole, complicated story of how I got here. The thing is, I am pretty sure just about everyone has a story every bit as labored, but right now I am going to go ahead and stand up for the men in this industry who get so frequently and easily dismissed. So, let’s take a peek at just how easy this was for me (it’s a long convoluted story)…

It really all started when I was about ten years old. Not only was I a math geek, I was a mathlete. I couldn’t draw to save my life; in fact, most teachers would actively discourage me from touching crayons to save the class from seeing the horrifying results of my scribbles. I’m pretty sure the ineptitude of my attempt at a puppy traumatized at least a couple of my classmates. Anyway, around that time the Math Team went to the state competition, with me as the star and a bunch of regional trophies, in Princeton. It was there that I realized that there was a place where your job was to get smarter, to learn for a living. I knew then and there what I wanted to be when I grew up: a professor.

So, zoom forward. My interests changed over time, but that goal of being an academic never shifter. It is the only thing I remember wanting to be, other than wanting to be a fire truck when I was three. Late in high school I finally got bored with math as it shifted to being about formula memorization. So, I decided to take on another challenge: art. Since I had never gotten a grade better than a C in art I decided to take it up out of spite. (Yep, I’m a spiteful dick.)

I then went on to Kenyon College as a History and Art double major fully expecting to go on to a PhD in history and follow that academic course. But two things happened at Kenyon: I met Barry Gunderson and my future wife K. Barry was my sculpture prof and is probably the second biggest influence in my life (behind K, and now maybe Bee). Barry Gunderson made me cry in a public critique my junior year. It was the most brilliant and insightful critique I have ever had. It was not mean or cruel; it was done with such care, compassion, and respect. That was the day I became an unspoken colleague of his because he offered me a truly authentic critique; he spoke to me as he would to himself. It was horrible in the moment; I saw how insufficient my thought and labor was; I saw what I could be aspiring to; most importantly I saw that he believed I could achieve those things. I cried in shame and disgrace, but the next day I finally started making art. Critical is not a dirty word; it is the authentic sharing of thought. Having been a professor myself I know just how much effort, thought, commitment, and love it took for Barry to take that chance with me and give me the gift of his effort.

So, zoom forward. After I finish undergrad I start working as an artist (by which I mean working various crap jobs while making art out of whatever materials I could afford). I did 7 gallery shows (in shitty galleries) in 18 months never reshowing a piece. I made an insane amount of work trying to figure out how to be an artist after school. I think of that as my first apprenticeship, and almost all of that work went into a bonfire the night I headed off to my first MFA. Yep, I burned it all. It was not some spiritual catharsis; I just couldn’t store or ship it all, and to be honest most of it was crap. I had only been making art for a few years, and making art ain’t easy. Just because it gets made doesn’t mean it should stick around forever; I had gotten what I needed out of them—I had learned.

So I went off to do an MFA in sculpture at Ohio University, but by the time I got there I was done with sculpture, which was fine because art is big and academic artists tend to be really smart and my department simple told me to make good work. The problem was that I didn’t yet know what that was. I became interested in process and language and started making things will millions of little pieces and things that consisted of a single word only visible through a telescope. I studied philosophy and crammed in an extra 50 credit hours of graduate philosophy courses on top of the courses for my MFA. I drank coffee and whiskey. I had no time for sleep, but that was okay because I was in my early twenties.

After that I took time off to follow my future wife; she had been doing an MPhil at Oxford and then an MA at the University of Toronto and I knew if we didn’t get some time together our relationship was going to come apart. So I moved to where she was doing her PhD and worked a shitty job because I loved her more than air. And we got married. We got married just after I had gone off to do a second MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art because that shitty job was killing me. We got married and then didn’t live in the same place again for five more years because the lives of two academics in love just kind of suck.

Anyway, I finished my second MFA and accepted a tenure-track position teaching art and design at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. I had actually achieved my goal. I was a professor at a really good school in a really good program that really, really supported the fact that I made really strange work. Luckily they thought it was strange and smart, because smart was really all I had going for me since I still couldn’t draw, paint, make prints, or sculpt in any way that would generally look like any of those things, representational or abstract. The only problem was that I was a thousand miles from my wife.

So after a few years she got a tenure-track offer from a great school on the east coast and I resigned my professorship (the one thing I had ever wanted) with vain hopes of finding another, trading that for the goal of starting a family. Shortly after I moved there I miraculously got a call from the local state university campus essentially offering me a tenure track job (my little ego jumps up and down and says I am just that damn good because tenure track jobs don’t happen like that, though in reality I know they just couldn’t actually get anyone to move there). We had the dream: two tenure-track jobs in the same town, a new house, and a baby on the way.

And then it fell apart. I became mysteriously ill. And then I got worse. And worse. No one could tell us what was wrong. We took our newborn daughter with us from hospital to hospital. Johns Hopkins advised us to get my affairs in order. My wife cried herself to sleep every night (when she got to sleep at all). My daughter only saw me a few minutes a day when K would lay her on my chest. I mostly lay paralyzed in bed trying to breath. Throughout that year all we had was despair.

Then we met one last doctor and he changed everything. Well, actually, our dear friend’s mother sent us a link to a possible disease (she had been searching the rare diseases database for us) and that started the path to a diagnosis. That last doctor not only confirmed a diagnosis of a rare neuromuscular disorder, but also began an aggressive form of therapy. I started to walk, to spend a few hours a day out of bed, and over the next year began to return to humanity. The problem was that there was no way to predict episodes, and it was a rare day I did not have problems. My ability to maintain a schedule was gone; my academic career was over. Even as I celebrated my recovery, and my return to my live, I went into mourning.

But one day, while my mother was visiting I decided to make a dress for my daughter Bee. Using the sewing machine my mother-in-law had given K when Bee was born my mum gave me a quick sewing lesson. To be honest it was easy for me; not because I don’t think sewing is hard, but the basic physical movements are very similar to using a band saw and over my career as an artist I had easily logged a thousand hours on a band saw, and that experience translates.

I loved making that dress and immediately set off to make more. I used the same pattern from Joann’s and terrible fabric from Joann’s, but designed a new appliqué design for each one, eventually finding a quilt shop for fabric along the way. Here that decade plus of being a designer and design professor really helped. Soon some people started asking to buy them and I opened an Etsy shop (like everyone else), but soon realized that cranking out dresses would drive me nuts. While I loved sewing, that was simply a technique, I was and am still essentially an academic.

So I decided to try my hand at fabric design. I wrote to designers and sought advice. I looked and looked and looked. Over that first month I probably designed 150 different prints, not just sketches but fully elaborated designs. I worked non-stop. Whether up or semi-paralyzed I worked. I put together three complete collections in colorways in a month, drawing on my 20 years of being a working artist, designer, and professor. Two of those collections sucked and one was Savanna Bop.

I submitted those designs to Andover, and what they saw was one good collection and then the breadth of someone who knows how to do the work of designing. Each print was in perfect repeat; each collection had broad variation. Were they great? No. Were they good? No. Am I happy they are in the shit-bin? Absolutely. That is where they belong, just like all the work I threw on the bonfire all those years ago. Andover wanted to make Savanna Bop, but what really sold them was the way I displayed my knowledge of how to do the work of design. I was not going to be a one-hit wonder. Designing one collection is easy; producing twenty, thirty, forty over a career is where the work of really designing comes in.

In the time it took to go from first contact with Andover to signing a contract I designed four more collections, two of which saw the light of day: Pear Tree and Flock. I love both of those collections, but they are both serious learning curve collections, and Andover and I know it. The learning curve for me is not how to design, but how to translate to fabric and what fabric is. Andover saw that coming, but also believed that there would be a payoff to letting me learn on the job.

Let me tell you a bit about what goes into designing a collection for me. All of my collections start with a tiny random idea, much as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past begins with a lavender madeline. But that is only the tiniest beginning. Over the next three to six months I write extensively, pulling on every tangential thread, build an enormous library of stories and a lexicon of cultural, historical, and artistic reference. I build up and entire world for the collection, whether it be the personal and art-historical manifesto on decorativeness that is Frippery, or the ruminations and reflections upon growing up near the post-industrial amusement park town of Asbury Park, NJ, a town that offered so much delight and wonder twenty years before I got to experience it, that led to Asbury.

There are no accidents in my designs; everything is labored over, considered, layered densely with references so that the people who see it can pluck out the strands that resonate for and with them. I don’t want to tell you my stories; I want to share the possibilities within mine to allow you to find yours. There are hundreds of hours of work put into each collection before the first mark is made even if it may only take me two incredibly frenzied and sleepless days to complete the firs draft. And then there are hundreds of more hours working through variations, recoloring, redeveloping, and finalizing. Collections do not just happen; they are not just pretty drawings (at least not the way I do it) they are undertakings meant to speak to a wide set of issues whether they be aesthetic, conceptual, or social. And that is just the fabric.

The moment I signed with Andover I began quilting. I finished my first quilt less than two years ago, but in the intervening time I have made well over 50 quilts; I have lost count because I often give them away as fast as I can make them because I believe in quilts as living objects not just artifacts to be admired. The first quilt I finished entirely was completely paper pieced. I have never made anyone else’s pattern; I design all of my own quilts in order to learn the art of quilt design. I piece almost all of my own quilts and set myself technical tasks to learn. I work with everything from Jay McCarroll to Jo Morton. I love good fabric and do not care what era it refers to. I will make and remake a quilt until I get it right, though I am perpetually willing to ask for help when I know a technique is beyond where I am now. I am proud of my skills, and humble enough to know that others have more. What matters is making the work and I gladly seek the guidance and assistance of others.

My first year’s worth of quilt could join my early sculptures on the bonfire, but I would never do that to a quilt. We love them and sleep under them, but they are not yet what I want to be making. Again, I put myself through an apprenticeship. Now I am beginning to truly make my quilts, but I am not showing them yet. I am the first to admit that I have an agenda with my quilts, just as I do with my fabric. I am invested in the symbolic history of quilting and want to make work that addresses and responds to that tradition, not just variations, but also an expansion of the vocabulary. I want to make extraordinary things.

I think it is that last statement that gets me in trouble. To some hearing that from someone “new” to the industry feels like a condemnation of what they are doing, as though this world were purely a competition. My wanting to expand a vocabulary or make extraordinary things does not denigrate your vocabulary or imply that your things can’t be extraordinary too. Life is not a zero sum game. It simply means that I have expansive ideas and lofty goals.

To some it may seem arrogant for someone so “new” to set such lofty goals; they may think back to their first two years sewing, which may have happened when they were 8 or whatever and equate my time to theirs. I’d like to take a moment to point to something recently brought to the fore in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, the notion of the “10,000-Hour Rule.” In brief, it states, “the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.” I have always been a believer in this principle; it was drilled into me as a student I and in turn shared that philosophy with my students.

So, to be blunt, I’d like to address the central issue of the last couple thousand words: my newness. Over the eighteen years of my career before I became catastrophically ill I probably averaged 60 hours a week working on the problem of being an artist. This takes into account the scholarship side and the technical side, which I believe are inextricable anyway. I am probably underestimating the amount of work because there were years where the number was certainly closer to 100. Anyway, that would add up to about 3,000 hours a year, or 48,000 hours over that period. The fact that I am not better than I am just points to my lack of talent.

Now I may be new to the fabric and sewing world, but I am pretty sure I can bank a whole lot of those hours toward what I am doing now. Certainly all of the conceptual and scholarly stuff, much of the digital and design side stuff since I start almost everything on-screen, a whole lot of the physical skills from sculpture cross over too. And lets not forget the critical skills developed in running critiques week after week as a professor, and to be blunt all the writing skills don’t hurt either. But hell, I throw out half of my experience and I’m still starting here with 24,000 hours banked.

Now let’s look at my last two years. Just check with my wife and I bet she’d confirm that I put in at least 70 hours a week, which involves a lot of me being up at two in the morning tapping away at the computer trying to solve one design problem or another. Add that up and I’ve likely put in at least 7,000 hours in the past two years. I do not just do a little sewing on the weekend; I don’t just sit down and sketch something up and have a company accept it just because. I work like a fiend at this and barely make enough money to cover my expenses. I have no helpers, no assistants. I desperately need one, but in order to pay that person I would have to pull Bee out of pre-K and give up our health insurance.

I may be “new” to this industry, but I am in no way new. I have an enormous wealth of knowledge and experience that I draw on; I have put in the hours and I continue to rack them up striving to get better. I am not unique; I am just like everyone else who has had success, and just like every other “new” designer who is so frequently dismissed.

In fact, when it comes to the dismissiveness I think this penis between my legs works against me. Not only is there the tendency to dismiss men because they are obviously getting what they get due to the novelty of being a guy, they also get dismissed because they are new.

No, I don’t write this all just to tell you how hard I work, thought that is part of it. I am writing this to remind us all to be very cautious about judging before you know what you are talking about. It seems like that wouldn’t be a necessary reminder here, but after my weekend at Market it seems it is. Feel free to judge me; that is your prerogative, but I beg you to not prejudge me. If you want to know about me, ask. I have strong beliefs about art, and quilting, and design, and life, and love, and coffee, and the ineffable void at the center of the universe. I do not know if they are right, but they are my beliefs. You can try to change them, but it is my right to hold on to them. And just because I express them passionately does not mean I think you must adopt them.

And that leads me to my final point:

3. Respect.

Just because I want to expand the conversation does not mean I do not respect the tradition. Much of the “modern” community is maligned as disrespectful simply because they want to address different things. Some of them are disrespectful, but most are not. Just as there are a plenty of “traditional” quilters who could learn a few things about being courteous.

The thing about respect is that it really is earned. I don’t expect you to respect me; honestly it doesn’t really matter to me. What I do expect is that you don’t disrespect me until you actually know something about me. If at that point you still think I am crap I will be the first to hand you a megaphone to shout it to everyone. Conversely, don’t expect my respect simply because you have been doing this a long time. If you think longevity itself equates to respect you misunderstand the word; what you are asking for is reverence.

But there is more at stake than just respect, disrespect, and reverence here; this things have implications on how we behave. Just because you (and I am using “you” here in a general sense) have done this for a long time does not mean you know everything, that you know what my business needs or what my vision should be. You have valuable insights and experiences, but those may well not translate to my goals and needs. It is condescending to assume that your truths are universal, that your path will be anything like mine. Hence, I will forever hold on to my right to tell you that you can “blow me” while standing in the middle of the Quilt Market floor as you walk away wagging your finger at me.

All that said, I want to respect you. And if you sit with me for a moment and ask me about my feelings about the quilting tradition you will quickly learn just how deep and profound my love and respect for quilting is.

***********

But those experiences were a minority; I really did have a wonderful Market. Over the coming days and weeks I will share some of the quilts, some of the stories, the gifts, and the love. I will share news and inanities, but I want to do that with a fresh slate, and properly share the wonders that surrounded me.

Yay wonders!!!

-T

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