Our reveal for the fourth challenge quilt in our art group, Four-in-Art Quilters, was yesterday and today I’ll tell you how it came together.
I first started by looking a what seemed like billions of photos of owls. I did a lot of this through Flickr, where I found this photo:
I wrote to Matt Smith, the person who posted it, and asked permission to use this photo and he gave it to me. And then I sat on it for a couple of months, not knowing how to approach this. Did I want to paper-piece it? Not really. Embroider it? Pixelate it into little squares? None seemed satisfying. And then it was in the background reading that it came to me that I would fracture it, play with it a little and see where that went.
I digitally chopped the owl picture into fourths and then chopped into fourths again, making sixteen parts. And then I began to play with filters, one of the least used, but really fun parts of Photoshop. I applied at least one, and sometimes multiple filters to each segment, approximating the sizes so I could get this bird back together again in the end. You can see the mock-up on the lower right. That was me, trying to reassure myself.
Then I printed it off on paper, cut it apart, and still tried to reassure myself. I grabbed a previous art quilt off the wall (I knew it was 12″ square) to use as a template. It seemed okay. But how to get it to fabric? I usually iron freezer paper to the back of a piece of fabric, tape that to a piece of paper like I did in English Elizabeth, then run it through my Epson color printer. But I’d read in a blog about someone who simply ironed the fabric and freezer paper together, making sure it was a standard paper size, and then ran it through the printer.
Don’t you love the ink smudges? The next time, I made sure the freezer paper was really well-adhered to the fabric, then set the printings for thick matte paper on high quality and ran it through again, using a long thin tool to assist it through the last phases and so the fabric wouldn’t touch anything. The closest thing I could grab was a nail file — but it worked.
I peeled off the freezer paper carefully and cut apart my sixteen squares of Mr. Owl.
Layering the background — Kona Ash — with the backing and batting. Kona Ash? Light taupey gray? Cindy of Live a Colorful Life is probably laughing her head off now because she knows how much I hate gray. Really, I do. In so many modern quilts it acts as a big hole in the composition, especially if it’s a medium gray. I think if a quilter has to go gray in a quilt (and I’m not talking about those low-volume quilt compositions where it is intentional and where it works) they ought to go charcoal. Or slate. Ash is what I had on hand, as I don’t generally keep gray around (I bought it for a bee block I had to do). But it worked for this as the picture, except for the owl’s eyes, is all in taupes and grays. Yeah, low-volume.
Using the paper mock-up as a guide, I start layering the cloth images onto the backing.
Moving things around, trimming down the pieces so some aren’t square, trying for balance. Trying for that little artist’s lightbulb to go off in my head. I got about a night-light’s worth of illumination, but from my writing in grad school, I knew that showing up wouldn’t get you anywhere–you have to keep trying. To fully put this concept into action, I went to dinner, then let it sit for a week while I went to our quilt retreat.
Then one morning it was simply time to tackle it again. I couldn’t decide between satin-stitching a thicker line (close zig-zagging) or straight-stitching a narrow line of thread around each piece. Narrow won. I trimmed it up to 12 inches and then thought I’d like to try a faced binding (tutorial on how to do a faced binding coming in a couple of days).
I cut strips to match the backing, sewed them on.
When I ironed them to the back on a couple of sides, it became apparent that I needed that “frame” of the binding for this particular quilt. Rip off the binding.
I kind of liked the way the binding corralled those tiled pieces.
I made the label, sewed it on, then went outside to photograph it. I made an interesting discovery.
This lower section of the feathered wing imitated the gnarly bark of my silk oak tree in my backyard. Maybe because I’d dampened the literal image of feathers with Photoshop filters? I don’t know, but I liked the effect.
So, all the incongruent small pieces — the images, the tiling, the layering, the stitching — all merged into a lovely congruence of an owl, just like the metaphoric meanings discussed yesterday. All combine into that creature that captures our imagination while mystifying us as well.
And now I leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver, that I think captures this idea:
“Praise,” by Mary Oliver
in the ferns
at the edge of the whistling swamp,
I watch the owl
with its satisfied,
as it flies over the water–
back and forth–
as it flutters down
like a hellish moth
wherever the reeds twitch–
whenever, in the muddy cover,
some little life sighs
before it slides into moonlight
and becomes a shadow.
In the distance,
awful and infallible,
the old swamp belches.
It stabs my heart
whenever something cries out
like a teardrop.
But isn’t it wonderful,
What is happening
in the branches of the pines:
the owl’s young,
dressed in snowflakes,
are starting to fatten–
they beat their muscular wings,
they dream of flying
for another million years
over the water,
over the ferns,
over the world’s roughage
as it bleeds and deepens.
from House of Light, 1990