Saturday, August 25, 2007

Gee's Bend Quilts and more

Better late than never. Yesterday I finally got to the Gee's Bend exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. It closes tomorrow. It's been running since mid-June and between traveling and procrastinating, I just never quite got there. It closes tomorrow so I was just in time.

So what did I think of it? No matter what you think of the Arnetts (the promoters) it's easy to see that they have done a magnificent job in bringing these quilts to the public. Books, museum exhibits, licensing agreements, rugs - they have explored many outlets for these designs.

In the exhibit were quilts from the early 20th century, before the Gee's Bend quilters were discovered. These quilts were utilitarian and made from old clothes and other used cloth. Work pants were a favorite resource and it's interesting to see the pockets included and notice that the worn knee areas are incorporated into the design. In the 70's Sears Roebuck contracted the quilters to make pillows out of corduroy and so they were able to recycle the corduroy scraps into quilts. Lots of avocado green showing up in these pieces. Working with such heavy fabric had to have been difficult.

The modern pieces, at least some of them, show a definite concern and skill with design. Others look like they were made because the designer wanted to be included on the band wagon. Often the photograph of the work presented it in a far better fashion than the original piece. I found some of the unskillful workmanship offputting. I am not one who counts stitches per inch or obsesses about perfect points but when technique jumps out and grabs you because it's so noticeable, it had better be good. Not totally the case here. I think the photographs were able to emphasize the graphic quality and design, which are the strong points of these works. If these quilts had been done by middle-aged, white, suburban women they would not have received the kudos and exposure these pieces are getting. Of course, part of the interest lies in the ability of the Gee's Bend women to make art with such limited resources and in such relative obscurity for so long. In this case, the maker is just as important, or more so, than the work.

And other stuff...
I've been working on deconstructed screen printing, after getting my interest flowing again. I had some packages of Print Paste mix from ProChem that I had purchased a while back, sitting in the closet waiting for just such a moment. The Print Paste is pre-mixed with all the chemicals needed and all you need to do is add water. I mixed it up, and added dye powders, and started making my screens. And much to my dismay, the dye pastes haloed on the screens. Where I had drawn a line with a syringe, the color oozed away from the line and spread out. Nothing stayed crisp. It was difficult to get the screens to dry.

See what I'm talking about? Those X's are bleeding all over the place. I suspected that the urea was the root of this problem. Urea is the wetting agent - keeps the dyes moist so that they can batch, or fix, over the 24 hours that they need to work. Looking at the recipe for mixing up print paste from scratch (on the ProChem site) and comparing it to the one that Kerr Grabowski gave us, I realized that ProChem's recipe used twice as much urea. I think that their premix also has the same amount of urea as their recipe. This may work great in Arizona where it's dry and keeping things moist is difficult, but in Maryland in summer, moist is not our problem.

I was stuck with the dyes already mixed in the print paste. But I have more alginate, and made up a new batch of print paste from scratch and omitted the urea entirely, then mixed that with the clear print paste. That cut the amount of urea in half. I also used a hair dryer to help dry the dye paste on the screens, and set the screens in front of a fan to keep the air moving. All of this seemed to help.

This is the fabric screened from those X's. OK, but the halos make for blurry outlines, not those cool edges I got while at QSDS. It's part of the process to be very unpredictable. However, I'm glad I was able to see the differences between QSDS and home because I would have been discouraged if all I had to go on was those blurry images. I'm still working on this and have lots of dye paste left. As usual, I mixed up way more than I probably needed.


Gerrie said...

I am finally going to see the Gee's Bend quilts in October in Tacoma WA; I have heard others make the same comments that you made.

I have never done deconstructed screen printing, but In my regular dyeing and dye painting, I never use urea. Is it something that is needed for the deconstruction process?

Cathy Kleeman said...

Gerrie - supposedly the urea is to keep the water 'wetter' so that the dyes stay moist enough to let them fix. People who live in areas that are already humid, as you and I do, would seem to need it a lot less. My next batches will have considerably less urea. It's amazing what a difference it's making - too much makes everything blurry because the dye print paste on the screen never dries enough to have good edges.

TALL GIRL said...

Hello? Thank you for having the guts to speak the truth about the Gee's Bend quilts. I know several who have mumbled the same under their breath. The notoriety that has come from the exhibit has done wonders for bringing quilting back into the public eye. But my neigbor's 5 year grand-daughter could do better work!

Karoda said...

Cathy, I agree with you on the graphic quality of the quilts which I think is exceptional and unique regardless of who made them and the technical quality leaves a lot to be desired...but if I embrace the idea that if they where made by white surburban women the quilts would not have garnered the attention, then I would have to fully embrace my impression of looking at much visual art and wondering if the maker had been non-white or non-white and female if it would have garnered a solo show or sold for as much, etc. I want to achieve art standing on its on and speaking on its merits and flaws regardless of who made...maybe this is impossible to achieve in our world where so much of the outcomes and consequences are impacted by gender, race, and economics. If I can find the article at the African Painters blog on Fine Arts Schools becoming ghettos for White Females I'll send it to you.

Rayna said...

oh, god, Cathy, I've got a screen with X's on it sitting in my studio that I made last week. How scary is that?

I don't use urea at all and I don't like the print paste mix - I much prefer alginate, which is much more expensive but lasts longer and you use less of it.

Anonymous said...

Wish I could see the Gees Bend exhibition. Is there a book from the exhibition?