Notes on Being an Abstract Artist

I will preface this post by saying that much of what I am going to say will contradict itself, but all of it is true. 

I work abstractly.
I work with a narrative in my head that may or may not be relevant to the piece I am working on.
Creating realistic images using cloth is never my goal, but I do sometimes work towards abstracting an image.
Sometimes I name my quilts after things that are real.
As an Alaskan artist, I am occasionally tempted and sometimes do succumb to the pressure to play the part, but only if it feels right.

Berry Picking is about all of the above.

Berry Picking by Maria ShellIt is berry picking season in these parts. And while I am not partaking this year, I have in the past. You can read about my brief but very enjoyable canning experience a few summers back in this post

The color of this jam is quite beautiful.

Berry picking triggers the gatherer in all of us. Training the eye to find a particular color and shape and then do that for hours on end is oh-so satisfying. There is nothing like holding that bowl of repetition in your hands.

Besides sugar, all you really need to make this jam is lemon, ginger, rhubarb, and raspberries.

It also speaks of leisure. The idea that I could right now take an afternoon and pick berries seems so decadent, so full of the freedom I currently do not have. The sun is shining, the air is cool and inviting, and I wish I were somewhere in a thicket with a bucket in my hand.

Raspberries August 2013In 2014, The Alaska Contemporary Art Bank (ACAB) purchased Berry Picking for their collection. The ACAB is a lending library. State of Alaska agencies and departments, legislative offices, and the university system can borrow art work from the collection to display in their offices and buildings for the general public to enjoy. Since 1975, the ACAB has acquired 700 pieces of art. From the 300 pieces submitted that year, ACAB purchased 11 new works and Berry Picking was one of them.

Berry Picking by Maria Shell  Detail #1To celebrate the purchases there was an open house at the Alaska State Council on the Arts offices where the work was currently on display. During the opening, I ran into a fellow who was part of the art selection process, and he asked me, “How is your piece about berry picking?”

This happens when you work abstractly. People want to see a direct connection between what you have named the piece and what they are seeing.

Berry Picking by Maria Shell Detail #2I have several answers. I listed them at the beginning of this post.

I made this piece during berry picking season.

I thought about images like these.

BerriesI have always loved how fruits and berries when sliced open have a surprise color scheme inside.

I tried to mimic those colors, but not in a realistic way.

1108p37-sliced-strawberries-xI suppose I should have used circles instead of rectangles, but I was working with lines at the time. So they are linear berries.

But the real truth is that the berries where chairs before they were berries. I know, but that is sometimes how things work. As an artist you might start out with one idea, but by the time it is all said and done, you have worked it until it is another idea.

Berry PIcking by Maria Shell Detail #5So the honest answer to that man would be all of the above. And the chair part too–which if  I were neat and tidy, I wouldn’t even tell you about, right? But I already did  here.

For me, what is first is color, line, shape, and if at all possible the use of traditional pieced quilt patterns. My goal is to create exquisite tension between these things. I frequently use pattern and repetition to achieve that goal.

Berry Picking by Maria Shell Detail #3My work is visceral not nostalgic.

And while I am working there is always a narrative in my head playing.  Maybe it is the Olympics, maybe it the latest book that I am listening to, or maybe it is the desire to go berry picking in the sweet sunshine of August.

Berry Picking by Maria Shell Detail  #4And that narrative in my head becomes part of the story of the making. So, even though the viewer can’t see it, I clearly can.

And sometimes I make sure the name does a certain amount work for the piece. I could have called the quilt Deconstructed Chairs, but do you think the Alaska Contemporary Art Bank would have bought that quilt?


This entry was published on August 30, 2016 at 12:36 PM. It’s filed under Quilt Stories and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

16 thoughts on “Notes on Being an Abstract Artist

  1. Love this post! I can identify with so many of these thoughts of yours.

  2. savagepinkus on said:

    I think ACAB would have bought that quilt if it was called “I Hate The ACAB”, because it’s a gorgeous quilt. Such a cool idea, a lending library of art. I love hearing about your ideas, your processes, here on your blog. Keep writing! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Lydia Morest on said:

    Excellent post, Maria! I always knew you were brilliant and philosophical, but the depth of your artistic sensibility continues to impress me!

  4. I always look forward to your posts, and this one is very special. Thanks.

  5. I love reading your thought/creative process. Thank you for taking the time to share. And I love the close up photos of your quilts and that you can see the quilting lines. Beautiful!

    • Debby- thank you! My photographer does a great job with the close up of the quilts. I particularly like the close ups of Berry Picking. They are, in some ways, complete compositions in themselves.

  6. Thank you, that was a fascinating post. I really like the idea of the narrative in your head and how it translates to the quilt. And how it can be pieces from different things.

    When I knit, I usually listen to books on tape. And when I’m done, I often strongly associate the story I was listening to with the finished knitwear. It’s not creative, I’m just following a pattern, but somehow it becomes part of the piece. It’s interesting to think that it could actually influence the direction of a piece I was creating (instead of just reproducing a pattern). I have to think about this a lot more and try out some things.

  7. Thanks for sharing the “inner Maria”. I wonder what inspires the names, and love the Berry Picking for the “season”. Each quilt really is about a season of your life. I have several IN BINS – marinating – waiting to be finished. I think my experience level when I tucked them away was such that I could not finish them as I would like, and I was dissatisfied with the “printed pattern”. I am currently working on a project that makes me dream about “the next piece”. From an art standpoint it is simplistic, but it is such a different style for me. I am loving LOVING loving the process…yet in the process, I am already thinking ahead to how I want to thread paint & quilt. I know I have to keep that in my head, yet slow down & finish. I hope you get some time to “slow down” and enjoy the last bits of summer, and at least indulge in a bit of berry eating if not picking!

    I remember seeing the “chairs” at a show in Tidewater VA about 3 + ago (February 2013) and KNOWING instantly it was your work before I even approached the display card. I can “see” the chairs in this piece; yet I do see the inside of the fruit. Ok, now I am thinking about the colors of the inside of an avocado…..You really inspire. 🙂 Don’t let the deadlines take all the fun out of the projects.

  8. I love this, these thoughts! I’m heading to the local blueberry heaven today and think I will Look with new eyes at the delight I find. Food for inspiration, for sure!

  9. Love everything about this ❤️

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