Quilt Design Coloring Workbook: And Then There’s the Art…

About halfway through what I thought was to be the final outline for The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook a realization struck me: all the coloring quilts and design prompts were making so many references to the modern art tradition that clearly I needed to discuss the ideas and aesthetics that inspired me. I had planned introductory essays for each group of designs, but as I began playing with the designs the text I was envisioning just felt flat, abstract, and needlessly obtuse.

So, I made a quick call to my wonderful lit agent Kate (who actually got this project started off in the first place) and threw the idea out there. From there a quick chat with Storey and boom, I had the go ahead for 25 images (and all the licensing hassle that goes with reproducing art). That, of course, led to the hardest part of the entire process of pulling this book together: how to narrow it down to 25 pieces, how do something comprehensive yet meaningful and specific? Looking at a window of about 100 years of art, how the heck was I going to get down to just 25 works?

First thing I did was head up to the attic and get out all my old art history books and plow through thousands upon thousands of pages trying to find some kind of structure, a criterion, some useful organizing principles. I spent about eight hours at the local pub drinking tonic water and got absolutely nowhere, or to be more accurate I found myself with a list of about 200 artists that absolutely had to be included. Clearly I needed to simplify things.

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After cheating on my dietary restrictions a bit and having a Tangueray and Tonic (see Ramones) it dawned on me, the perfect system, a means of strict limits that still provided endless possibility. I needed to go to MoMA; I’d find my answers there. After consulting with K about timing I booked train tickets to NYC and a hotel for a night and was off. Here was the rule: I can only use work that was hanging in MoMA at that day. How simple, how concise, utter brilliance!!!

(If you haven’t picked up on this yet from me I am all about establishing a framework within which to work, a means of escaping the overwhelming burden of infinite possibility.)

It only took me three hours at MoMA and I was set, not only which works but also how they fit together with each other, the essays, the coloring, and the design. The whole shebang. You may think three hours is quick, but that is an eternity in a museum for me; after 25+ years in the art world, seeing hundreds of thousands of works, countless hours in critiques, more lectures than you could shake a forest of sticks at I take in work insanely quickly. I can absorb entire galleries without slowing my pace even a jot.

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And once I finished at MoMA I headed straight to my favorite writing venue: the nearest semi dive bar. That may sound odd, but it is impossible for my brain to focus in the quiet; a million worries creep in, the slightest noise or movement distracts me. Music doesn’t help, nor does the TV, the radio, or a combination of all three. Dive bars (unlike upscale establishments) provide a thousand distractions at once, which force my funny little brain to block them all out. Only then can I really find the zone and get to work. Over the next twelve hours I sat there at the end of the bar and wrote a complete first draft of the book, adapted or created the vast majority of the quilts for coloring, and took a big bite out of the design prompts. Between the hours of 4PM and 4AM I went from an uncertain outline to something that closely resembled The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook, which was a good thing since I had a preliminary schedule of six weeks to start to finish for the book.

(Let me pause for a moment: I realize this last paragraph may sound insane, but that is the way I work. Heck, up until my first run in with catastrophic illness back in 2008 that is how I worked almost every day. I was insanely productive back in the day. My mildly obsessive nature, combined with the absolute joy I find in diving deeper and deeper into the details and the fact that I generally feel more comfortable in the land of ideas than people, has long meant that my typical work weeks have started at about 80 hours going back to undergrad. I have not always been an easy person to live with…)

I’ve just realized that, in typical fashion, I’ve spent the last 500 words covering the how of the inclusion of so much art in The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook, and have entirely neglected the why. So, to keep from rambling on forever I shall try to be brief.

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As I stated early on in this post, the introductory essays felt too abstract to be useful without the art I was writing about. So, in including specific examples I found I was able to offer concrete lessons, to get behind the appearance of the work and discuss why such a wide range of aesthetic approaches arose in the era of Modernism. Instead of discussing the fragmentation and recombination of space (taking the first chapter of the QDCW as an example) in modern art in theoretical terms I could now just point to specific characteristics while explaining why those artistic, aesthetic, and conceptual concerns arose. In short I could explore the art as a process of translating ideas into form and color, as a practice of design. What once seemed inevitably obtuse was now concrete; Picasso’s fragmented space, Matisse’s remarkable confusions of foreground and background space, Cezanne’s compressions of depth and surface became ready touchstones for the coloring exercises and the design experiments.

And that really is the point of the whole book, to transform the often foreign-seeming visual vocabulary of Modern Art and make it make sense, to connect the dots of concept and form, to reveal a remarkable language that is infinitely applicable to quilts. Rather than look to quilt history to find examples that “looked modern” in ways we might normally imagine modern art, The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook is about offering keys to the Modern encyclopedia. In looking into the reasons different aesthetic practices in Modern Art arose, and what they meant to those artists, the short essays, the images, the coloring quilts, and the design experiments all work together to expand the visual vocabulary of quilting, to offer novel approaches, unique insights, and more ideas to help quilters in their practice. And in doing so I hope I have made something in the QDCW that extends beyond the quilting world, something that speaks to crafters, makers, designers, art lovers, and color enthusiasts across the spectrum. In digging deep into the details (as I cannot help but doing) I tried to make something big, something that speaks beyond the specifics and gets at the heart of creativity, of making, itself, a book that transform play into experience, fun into knowledge, color and shapes into meaning. At its core the Quilt Design Coloring Workbook is a reflection of my 25+ years in art, of everything I have learned and all that I hold most dear. In short it is a glimpse of what is most me, and I hope it find homes out there with all of you.

More later,
-t

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