Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Prayer flags -- good or bad (the other side)

Having done a good job yesterday of putting forth why prayer flags are bad, let me do the other side of the coin today.  I checked into some of the recent blog posts about how prayer flags are being used in real (non-Buddhist) life and discover that they're being used as little banners or cheerful signs rather than having much religious or symbolic significance.  They're being hung over sickbeds or outside houses, conveying good wishes to people having difficult times.

And what's wrong with that?  Nothing, except maybe the name "prayer flags."

I've made little doodads for similar occasions, sometimes tiny quilts and sometimes collages.  They're perfect for times when you want something more than a card to say thank you or happy birthday or get well.

I suppose if you made a bunch of these and hung them from a cord you could call them prayer flags, and they would have exactly the same spiritual significance as the prayer flags being made by some in the fiber art/craft community today -- or as the get-well cards that other well-wishers might send.  In other words, whatever fond wishes or prayers you put into them will be received in whatever frame of mind the recipient is in.  Maybe they will have religious content, maybe not -- it doesn't really matter.

If people called these little doodads "get well flags" or "wish pennants" or something, I would have absolutely nothing to quibble at.  In fact, I would cheerfully sign up for a blog hop or whatever to show some that I have made, and suggest ways that other people could make some for their own friends.  But something about the term "prayer flags" strikes me as inappropriate, not least since prayer may or may not be a part of the package.  It's just as inappropriate as if people in some non-Christian culture were to wear cute necklaces that they called "rosaries" or in some non-Jewish culture were to wear little knit caps they called kippah or yarmulkes.

And finally, let me walk back some of my comments from yesterday's blog post, when I was complaining that when you appropriate images or symbols from another culture it can't lead to good art.  I still stand by that statement, but I was probably too harsh in discussing the prayer flag trend in terms of art, just as you can't use the term art when discussing much of the stuff described and sold to or made by fiber craft enthusiasts.

Again, it's nomenclature -- maybe if magazines promoting wish pennant challenges wouldn't use the word Art in their titles I wouldn't be roused so frequently into crabbiness.  What most quiltmakers produce is decorative craft, even fine craft, but it's probably not art, certainly not High Art.  If we could all agree on that we (and here I mostly mean I) wouldn't get caught in the quicksand of trying to apply the standards and expectations of High Art to stuff that isn't in the same ballpark.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prayer flags -- good or bad?

The Quiltart list has been abuzz with discussion of prayer flags, a discussion that I kind of started.  Somebody had posted to the list about a project having to do with prayer flags, which elicited a few comments.  But then I happened to be browsing in one of the online fiber art shops and discovered a bunch of prayer-flag things for sale -- magazines, books, kits to help you make prayer flags.  Apparently one of the quilting magazines had sponsored a challenge in which readers had to make prayer flags.  There's even a blog devoted to a "prayer flag project."  And I was mystified.

I wrote back to the list:  "So what's with the prayer flags?  ... Is there a sudden nationwide Great Awakening of Buddhism?  Or is this some kind of trendy appropriation of some other culture's sacred objects because they're small, cute and easy to make?  Next year will everybody be making (and buying kits for) little slips of paper to leave between the stones at the Wailing Wall?"

In the ensuing discussion, somebody commented that she asked several of her Buddhist friends whether they were offended by non-Buddhists making prayer flags, and the answer was no.  In fact, she wrote, "the spreading of beauty, and the dialogue that may be generated by the creation of a prayer flag, would be a positive impact."

I think that's a remarkably generous response from members of a group whose religious artifacts have been hijacked.  I'm not sure we'd see similar tolerance if, for instance, people from other cultures  -- or even from our own culture -- appropriated Christian symbols and practices.  Heck, we already haven't -- look at the outraged response when Chris Ofili made Madonnas supported on feet of elephant dung or when Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix submerged in a bottle of urine.  And that happened even though arguably the artists were treating the religious symbols with respect.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary

Another post to the Quiltart list said, "It never occurred to me that a sacred image, used in a reverential, thoughtful way could ever be offensive."  Obviously it can (Serrano describes himself as a devout Catholic but his work has been destroyed several times by people who said they were offended by it), but that's the subject for another discussion.  My question is whether the prayer flags are actually being used in a reverential, thoughtful way.

But avoiding offense is only one reason to be cautious when appropriating the symbols and sacred things of another culture.  The other reason is that it's often a sign of artistic bankruptcy.

When an artist uses a preexisting symbol, image or concept in his own work, it should be for a reason.  If you use something from your own cultural heritage -- let's say, for instance, a quilt -- it's generally because you're wanting to comment on how that heritage has affected you, how it has changed or not, or how it relates to today's society.  If you use something from somebody'e else's heritage, viewers will justifiably wonder why you have chosen it as part of your message.

That's my problem with a lot of the mixed media work seen in the craft magazines, especially in theme challenges.  When readers are asked to make prayer flags or shrines, or to make collages using birds or 1930s luggage labels, they are in fact being asked to adopt images and practices that mean nothing to them.  And when you make art based on arbitrary images and concepts that mean nothing to you, how can it be good art?

Years ago there was an equally spirited discussion on the Quiltart list about people who make art with trendy images such as mushrooms, butterflies, frogs or whatever the tchotchke du jour happens to be.  People commented that there's nothing wrong with that if you really like mushrooms, butterflies, etc. I suggested at the time that if a student of mine showed up wanting to make art with butterflies I would probably ask her:  How long have you been using butterflies in your art?  What does the butterfly mean?  Is the butterfly you?  What's this butterfly doing?  Is this artwork optimistic, pessimistic, fatalistic, cheerful, sad, or what?  Has your treatment of the butterfly changed since you have been using it?

I suggested that answering these questions (or not) would quickly separate the artist who is validly using the butterfly from the dilettante who has just grabbed up on the cutesy little doodad of the moment. But meanwhile I'm skeptical of the prayer flags, and unhappy with the entrepreneurs who encourage people to use them in faux art and sell kits to help with same.

Monday, April 14, 2014

My first quilt

So Quilting Daily, the emailed newsletter from Interweave Press, is daring us to write the story of our first quilt.  Never one to shy away from a challenge, I will take up their prompt and take you back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when I was still in high school.

I had started sewing my own clothes, and got the idea to make a quilt from the leftover bits.  I can't say why I got the idea; my grandmothers had both quilted, but apparently looked upon it as work rather than creativity and neither one of them thought to pass the skill on to me, even though they had been enthusiastic about my embroidery and garment-sewing.  But somehow I had come to know that you could stitch fabric down to a ground, and maybe put some embroidery on it, and eventually you would have a quilt.

This was pre-polyester, so at least my first quilting attempts did not involve double knits.  My leftovers were cotton, many of them in a weight that we would today call quilting fabric, although there were some heavier ones in there.  I was especially fond of a fabric called Kettle Cloth, resembling homespun with some slubs, but more firmly woven.  It made fabulous dresses and I had used it in many different colors (interestingly, I only saw one printed Kettle Cloth in all the years it was on the market, and some of it is in the quilt).

two colors of Kettle Cloth -- the green has faded, the turquoise is just as it was

This was also before the quilting craze hit the U.S. and I had no books or magazines to provide helpful hints.  So, for instance, I used 5/8" seams, just like in garment sewing. And despite my math proficiency, I somehow hadn't figured out that it would be a good idea to make all my blocks the same size.  But eventually, over a period of several years, I accumulated enough scraps, and enough blocks, for a quilt, and got them sewed together.

I did lots of embroidery, and sewed on bits and pieces of upholstery trimming and other miscellaneous fabric-like substances.

I knew that quilts had three layers.  I chose some nice sturdy mattress ticking for a back, and flannel for batting.  I tied the quilt with embroidery floss, faced it with one-inch bias tape, turned the bias to the back and sewed it down with a decorative machine stitch.  It went on my bed for a while, then I put a sleeve on it and hung it on the wall.  I loved it -- in addition to having cheerful colors and pleasant composition, it was a scrapbook of my high school and college wardrobe.

Decades passed.  We moved.  I noticed that the quilt was covered in dust and worse, so I threw it in the washing machine.  Oops.  Mattress ticking shrinks about 10%, while most of the rest of the quilt didn't.  And since it was tied, rather skimpily, the new effect featured bulges and droops.  After I kicked myself for a while, I decided the quilt was still beautiful and hung it back on the wall, droops and all.  And you know what? The light wasn't very good in that room, and nobody even noticed the droops unless I masochistically pointed them out.

grosgrain ribbon -- obviously shrinks more than other fabrics

More years passed.  I inherited a huge painting from my father and the quilt wall was the only place to put it.  I took the quilt down, inspected it, and decided it needed a second life.  So I washed it again and took it apart.  Note to self: don't use decorative stitches if you plan to unsew later -- the stitches were so close together I couldn't get a seam ripper in.  It took weeks of TV watching and cussing to get the facings off.

The flannel "batting" layer had started to disintegrate, so I pitched it. The mattress ticking, which I had also enhanced with additional decorative stitching, still looked fine (although it was several inches smaller than the quilt top).  And the quilt top itself still looked great -- at least from the front.  From the back, it's obvious that I didn't waste any time worrying about workmanship, pressing, or other such niceties.

I bundled everything up, stuck it in a bag, and stashed it on a shelf.  Here's the top, wanting to be re-quilted so it can come out in public again.


Update:  If this turns out to be the best first-quilt story in the bunch, here are the five books I want from the Interweave store (which by the way has a bunch of nice marked-down books that you might want to check out: