Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Steal Like an Artist: Inspiration in the ether

During the Easter weekend, I brought Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist with me to my parents' place. Whenever I needed a timeout from family, I snuck into the guest room for a read. Kleon talks about emulation being a higher practice than imitation. With emulation you take inspiration from the work of many people and play with it until you make it in your own way, with your own voice. It pays to emulate from the best. 

This week the work of two artists is inspiring me to emulate from the best:

First, I found Florencia Walfisch's work via Pattern Pulp. Her combination of machine stitching and chunky hand stitching is something that I'll play with in my own way. Her work is loose and sculptural, a quality that I admire. My work tends to be precise and I'm always striving to make it a bit more messy. 

Judy Martin is the second artist whose new work, time, dream, memory is knocking my socks off. Judy's work is most often monumental. time, dream, memory is a shift for her. It's intimate and invites the viewer to come in close for a long look.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Quotes: Louise Bourgeois

"Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented – which is what fear and anxiety do to a person – into something whole." – Louise Bourgeois

Friday, 25 April 2014

Studio Series: Insight Quilt Before and After

Shadow: Insight © Karen Thiessen, 2006
Shadow: Insight is proof that duds can be rehabilitated. It's a large quilt that I enjoy napping under on cold winter Sunday afternoons. Most of my work is for walls, but I have three that I actually use to sleep under. Two are on beds and Shadow: Insight is in the family room ready for Sunday sofa naps. Using my quilts is a relatively new experience that I still find novel and pleasing.

In its previous life, Shadow: Insight was called Fog/Denial. I made it while I was a NSCAD student. At the time I was trying to change how I used colour and with this quilt I eliminated dark colours from my palette and once I pieced the top, I hand-quilted the whole thing... and it didn't work. Not at all. This large double-sized hand-quilted quilt was a dud, a complete failure.
Fog/Denial © Karen Thiessen, 1998
Failures are part of any creative process. I tucked it away and carried on. My colour palette did change radically and the Journey series, Red series, are evidence of this, so in the end I succeeded. I graduated, moved to Ontario, became an artist-in-residence in the Textiles studio at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto where I worked in a safe dye studio. So, I took Fog/Denial and brushed liberal amounts of black Procion dye onto it, let it dry, steamed it and then washed it. Dyeing a large quilt in this way wasn't easy but I got the job done. Then I stitched a white grid onto it and added white pearlescent buttons. I love how each fabric absorbed the dye differently. In the old days, I used cotton/polyester fabrics occasionally and that is what those blue strips of fabric in Shadow: Insight are. I've since removed all fabric made with polyester from my stash, given that it contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen. 

I've written about problem children (failed artworks) before. I still believe that they are necessary for any long-term studio practice to evolve. Problem children push me to reinvent them, to problem-solve, to consider solutions outside my regular way of working. This year I look forward to reinventing a few quilts that don't meet my standards.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Lois Schklar @ Hard Twist 2014

Lois Schklar Hanging On: Balance, 2013; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen 2014
Hanging On: Balance is brilliantly odd and a bit creepy. In a good way. I've long admired Lois Schklar's work, which constantly changes. A few years ago she was creating ethereal drawing/installations that I could not get enough of. When I saw that she was exhibiting at Hard Twist 2014, that is what I was expecting. Nope. Schklar has moved on.
*Days after posting this, I realized that many of the stuffed textile components remind me of arms, legs, and thighs. Then I remembered that early in her career, Schklar made dolls. I never did see her early work, but her mid-career dolls were very abstract and sculptural––absolutely gorgeous.
Lois Schklar Hanging On: Balance detail; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen 2014
The five pieces making up Hanging On: Balance are for sale individually (at $350 each). Several of the pieces appear to include units made with pantyhose (the first, third, and fifth modules).
Lois Schklar Hanging On: Balance detail; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen 2014
I like the fact that I don't know what each component was in a life prior to Schklar's imaginative transformation of it. Mystery is a good thing. My favourite memory of Mrs. Thompson's grade three class was a guessing game where each student had to reach into a cloth bag and blindly identify each object and then record those objects on a list. My classmates and I had a week to feel around the bag and tease out the identity of each shape and the student with the most correct items on the list won a prize. One of the items was a potato that I liked to dig my fingernails into. The pantyhose encrusted objects remind me of that tactile guessing game, except without the potato.
Lois Schklar Hanging On: Balance detail; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen 2014
If my walls weren't already full and I could buy one piece, it would be the fourth, with its expressive coiled wire and the bonus cast shadow. I wonder if Schklar was aware of the gorgeous shadows when she was making this body of work. Sometimes we make things in the studio and then discover more about the work when it is in a gallery hung on clean white walls and lit properly.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Lenten Intuitive Mark-making 2014

Lenten Intuitive Mark-making practice © Karen Thiessen 2014
It's hard to believe that Lent is over. I see myself continuing this intuitive mark-making practice beyond Lent. Some days I'd make several unattractive drawings and the fifth would be a game changer. All of the tools that I used are found in most households: marker lids, a plastic razor blade dispenser, a pizza cutter, a metal tea tin, the bottom of an ink bottle, the plastic lid of an ink bottle, a key, the lip of a glass beverage bottle, and a wooden chop stick.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Lenten Intuitive mark-making update

Bicycle Tires © Karen Thiessen, 2014
Lent is nearly over. Here's my blatant attempt at replicating Jennifer Shamo's lovely lines. Mine aren't quite so fine and delicate, but I did learn a lot about how to use my brush (and obviously how not to). Although I admire Jennifer's mastery, I don't mind this loose first try. Happy Easter to all who observe it!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Valerie Knapp @ Hard Twist 2014

Valerie Knapp Post, 2013-2014; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
A few weeks ago I ambled down to the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto to see Hard Twist 8: This is Personal. My mission was to view the exquisite post cards of Valerie Knapp, a former professor of mine, and to see what Lois Schklar is making these days. In the process, I discovered other inventive textiles not on my radar. I'll share these discoveries in future posts.

Valerie's Post was the piece that stayed with me the most. It has inspired me to play with the spiral in my own way. Her spiral has the feel of a delicate nest. I dream about this piece.
Valerie Knapp Pressing Matters, 2013-2014; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
Above is an overall view of her installation. It was difficult to photograph since it's in a narrow hallway, the glass protecting it is highly reflective, and a cleaning cart was parked in front of the end of the piece, thus limiting my options for an optimal photograph. Pressing Matters consists of 14 Japanese kozo postcards (hagaki), each 4" X 6" in size. She incorporates embroidery, relief print, drawing, assemblage, paper, pressed plants and thread into her mixed media artworks.
Valerie Knapp Headspace, 2013-2014; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
Headspace incorporates plant matter, collage, stitching, and drawing. A long look at this postcard invites the viewer to conjure up a handful of stories. What is the woman thinking? Could the woman be a romantic poet who speaks in flowery language? Do you see what I mean?
Valerie Knapp Red Shoes, 2013-2014; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
As much as I am a sucker for shoes, it's the woman's hat that grabs me in Red Shoes. At first I thought that the woman was a young Queen Elizabeth, or her sister Princess Margaret garbed in fanciful clothing.

I would love to see Knapp's intimate, thoughtful work paired with poems or short stories written in response to each of the 14 postcards. The work is imaginative and holds narrative qualities. Pressing Matters is one of the strongest works in the Hard Twist 2014 show. The show is on until April 27, 2014.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Jennifer Shamo @ Hamilton Artists Inc. II

Jennifer Shamo Untitled 2013; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
In the two Untitled watercolour-based mixed media works in this post, Jennifer Shamo carries forward her theme of life cycles and plant biology with an autumnal colour palette. The imagery in the above artwork references the underwater plant life that one would see snorkelling along the Great Barrier Reef.
Jennifer Shamo Untitled detail 2013; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
The longer one looks, the more one sees.
Jennifer Shamo Untitled detail 2013; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
Jennifer Shamo Untitled 2013; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
From a distance, this piece looks like an abstract face. Of her works, this is the most tightly clustered and centred on the paper. While the previous artwork had an underwater quality, this work is decidedly above ground. I see wheat sheaves, tree rings, and seed pods.
Jennifer Shamo Untitled detail 2013; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
Shamo plans to attend teacher's college and graduate school in the future. I hope that she intends to devote herself to a studio practice because it would be a waste to let her raw artistic talent and sensitivity to her surroundings lie fallow. Jennifer Shamo is an emerging artist to watch.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Jennifer Shamo @ Hamilton Artists Inc. I

Jennifer Shamo Tree Rings 2013; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
Ignition 2 was an exhibition of three exceptional McMaster University Studio Arts Program students who graduate this year at the Hamilton Artists Inc. (March 6 to 29). Jennifer Shamo was one of the artists whose work caught my eye and I haven't stopped thinking about it. As I have written in a previous post about the work of Harold Klunder, normally watercolour isn't my cup of tea. In the hands of Harold Klunder and Jennifer Shamo, it's brilliant, fresh, and innovative. To be fair, Shamo uses more than just watercolour. She employs pencil, oil pastels, acrylics, thread, and possibly gouache to render her ethereal mixed media works. The work is simultaneously delicate and strong.
Jennifer Shamo Tree Rings detail 2013; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
Shamo's line quality and use of colour are exquisite. Her contrast of light, translucent washes and bold, opaque colour are what make the work so successful. It's not easy to balance delicacy with assertive colour. She uses enough white space to give the work room to breathe.
Jennifer Shamo Tree Rings 2 2013; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
Shamo is a first generation Canadian who is influenced by nature. In her artist statement she states that process and exploration are important to her art practice and "I attempt to create an ethereal place that draws influence from the natural world through a spontaneous process. Only after completing my work do I analyze and make connections to plant biology, life cycles and a fluidity of motion." Before I set eyes on her statement, the words ethereal, fluid, and life cycles came to mind. Tree Rings 1 and 2 have a feel of female fertility.
Jennifer Shamo Afloat 2014; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
Afloat is a departure from her watercolour-based mixed media pieces. It's a large piece on panel, and although it lacks the luminosity of the Tree Rings artworks, it still conveys a balance of delicacy and boldness.
Jennifer Shamo Afloat detail 2014; Photo credit: Karen Thiessen, 2014
Don't you agree that her line quality is gorgeous? I'll write more about her work in another post.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


Baldwin Village Fence; Photo credit © Karen Thiessen, 2014
Spring is here and I'm happy to be alive to enjoy it. My husband and I had a close call last weekend: we were rear-ended (a chain reaction with two cars). Then the driver who caused our 3 vehicle accident made an improper U-turn and smashed into another driver, totalling both cars in the process. Oh, he was on his cell phone when he caused the second accident! My husband and I watched the second accident, helpless to prevent it. No one died, thank God. 
Baldwin Village Fence; Photo credit © Karen Thiessen, 2014
Earlier this year, I read Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby. In it she spoke of "rupture events" that have the capacity to change us. A rupture can be a divorce, a serious illness, an accident, the death of a loved one, anything that shifts our thinking. To quote Solnit: "A major illness or injury is a rupture that invites you to rethink, to restart, to review what matters. It's a reminder that your time is finite and not to be wasted, and in breaking you from the past it offers the possibility of starting fresh (Solnit, p. 137-138)." Later she says: "Many lives have a moment of rupture that is an awakening and a change of direction (Solnit, p. 151)." I wonder if experiencing an accident and then witnessing another is my latest rupture event, and if it is, what changes will it introduce?

Monday, 7 April 2014

Studio Series: Poetic Memory visual research

Poetic Memory visual research © Karen Thiessen, 2014
The new series that announced itself to me on January 1 finally has a working name: Poetic Memory. It is from a quote from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I stumbled across on the Art Propelled tumblr site"The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful (Kundera, p. 208)" The quote fit the feel of the new series like a glove, so I read the book to learn its context. 
Poetic Memory visual research © Karen Thiessen, 2014
This new Poetic Memory series is emerging in unfamiliar ways. It has called me to read poetry, create a soundtrack, and to make my first book to record my research and insights – all firsts for any series that I have made. I am reading the poetry of Mary Oliver, Jean Janzen, Karen Enns, and John Terpstra and am listening to Rachel Zeffira, Woodpigeon, and Rebecca Pidgeon and others.

By the time this series is made, resolved, and exhibited it will look very different from its starting point. I am wandering in the wilderness and I have never felt more alive.

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Art Guys: Suitcase Wheel, 1995

Suitcase Wheel, 1995 by The Art Guys
When a friend travelled to San Antonio, Texas last year, I asked him to snap a picture of the Suitcase Wheel, a sculpture of 1950s and 1960s Samsonite suitcases by The Art Guys, installed at the San Antonio International Airport.
Suitcase Wheel, 1995 by The Art Guys
The wheel is 16 feet in diameter. I have a few of these suitcases and what bugs me about them is that they are wider at the bottom, which means that they create a slope when stacked. Clearly the wider bottom is an asset in creating this wheel. The vintage tags are a nice detail.
Suitcase Wheel didactic panel, 1995 by The Art Guys
The sculpture is on exhibition until February, 2015, so if you are heading to San Antonio, take a look.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Studio Series: Lent 2014 intuitive mark-making update II

Dip Pen Drawing in Red © Karen Thiessen, 2014
The above drawing looks fairly simple. It's not. It's the result of several hours of practicing using the dip pen and then deciding that it was time to clean my nib of excess ink and move on to other work. As I was blotting the pen on a scrap of paper, The Steel Wheels' energetic song Long Way to Go came on, and I discovered in that moment that I could scribble with a dip pen. A week before this, I could only make slow strokes. I filled several pieces of paper with dip pen and acrylic ink scribbles before I could stop for the day. Practice + happenstance = new discoveries.
Letraset drawing 1 © Karen Thiessen, 2014
Another exciting development in my 2014 Lenten practice of intuitive mark-making is playing with Letraset (dry transfer of lettering) in unconventional ways. Three years ago my friends Bob and Michelle dropped off a small cabinet containing sheets of Letraset. Prior to that, I bought out the Geotype (similar to Letraset) inventory of a local stationary store when it was going out of business. On Monday I was sucked into a Letraset vortex and did not re-emerge until more than two hours had passed. The next day my wrists were a bit sore: rubbing with pressure is hard work. The above drawing is actually the used plastic sheet on which the letters were adhered that I almost discarded before I realized that it was a thing of beauty. In all I did nine drawings with Letraset & Geotype, some more successful than others. I'm excited about this new discovery and am eager to push it further. My energy for this Lenten practice continues to be steady and I'm practicing an average of 47 minutes a day instead of the 15 minute minimum.