seasons of making

new work in progress, by KF

Back in the studio, after some weeks away from making things with my hands.  Been busy with Cultivate, a new project I launched this summer to grow the community for contemporary dance and performance up here in the North Country.  Feeling nourished and fed and full-up happy after hosting a crew of crazy gifted and generous artists, and watching the little town of Bethlehem come alive with dancing, laughing and art-centered mingling.  Hoping to side step any post(performance)-partum by heading directly into the sewing room, and taking this happy residue with me.

I’m still working with bits…of words, text, graphics and fussy-cut fabrics. (Yes, fussy-cut is an actual term!) Something about maps or messages, as per usual…  grids, like farm landscapes as seen from above, arranged to make layers of meaning.  Obsessed by the combination of words and image and fabric.  And of course, the intimate nature of an object meant to be worn, and the casual (read:non-precious) nature of, in this case, the sweatshirt.  Add to this the textural|textual juxtaposition of the pieces themselves (remnants and scraps of flour sacks, feed bags, work aprons, antique doilies and commercial ribbons, delicate vintage tea towels and rugged denim and hand stamped pieces from my to-do list series, and it’s a recipe for tactile delight.

new clothing collage work by KF

what stays

When my mother was first diagnosed with colon cancer, I stopped dancing.  I couldn’t bear the way my dances disappeared as soon as they were over.  As an improviser my work is so ethereal anyway, hardly even there even while it’s happening.  Even choreographed or set material only really exists while a live body is moving it.  I couldn’t make sense of any of this, so for a while, I stopped making dances and threw myself into making quilts.

The Neighborhood | KF 2000

For months I pieced together these little houses (inspired by Gwen Marston’s liberated quilting techniques) and watched the neighborhood grow on my design wall.  When the quilt had reached queen size, and I finished the top, I smoothed it flat, layered it with a backing and soft batting and secured the layers with rows of safety pins to prepare it for quilting.   I decided to quilt it by hand, an enormous undertaking even for an accomplished sewer, which I was not.   Even in my confusion and grief, I knew what I was doing. I was trying to make something that would stay, something that would not die or disappear… thinking as long as I could keep stitching I could keep my mother alive somehow, keep her from leaving…

The summer before she died, we had planned to rent a beach house in Nagshead, North Carolina for a week.  It was one of her favorite places in the world, and she was determined to have a real family vacation there before she died.  As it turned out we spent most of that summer in the hospital, and when the time came, she was too weak to go.  She was so broken-hearted, so miserable in that hospital, and so angry at the doctors for insisting she stay there.  She knew she needed to get to the water.

So I made her this quilt, with many pieces of blues, greens and greys, with some fabrics from Japan, patterned with waves, and fabrics from Bali with batik images of seaweeds, and curved pieces, like swells or crests…and the quilting stitched in spirals and watery shapes.  I worked on this quilt for three days straight, barely taking a break to eat or sleep.  I turned my mind off and just let my hands be busy, trying to lose myself in making something that would last, something that would stay…

Ocean Quilt, KF 2001

Watching my mother slowly leave this world taught me something I’m still trying to find the right words for.  I started to understand that everything is on its way to becoming something else.  Everything always in some kind of transition.  Nothing stays, and nothing stays the same.  Or maybe the essence remains, but the form changes.  This understanding, found in the tender, raw heart of grief, unfolded slowly, like a sunrise, and gradually showed me the doorway back into dancing again.  Oh, I see…I remember now… these are forms, and they change, nothing is permanent. Not these dances, and not these quilts, not these hands, or these houses.  Everything and everyone…each of us simultaneously here for now and on our way to becoming something else.  Deep lessons in loving what is, for as long as it is, and letting it go when it disappears…

piecing together a life that makes sense

friend and colleague clyde forth in performance|orange block study (work in progress)

As I mentioned in my last post, I am among other things, a dance artist and teacher.  It’s been a curious balancing act, making dances and making quilts. It hasn’t always been easy to keep a foot in both worlds; they are such different endeavors, and pull me at times in very different directions.

Being a dance artist means a lot of moving out and into and around the world. It’s actually very social.  Finding resources for projects, opportunities to dance, applying for grants and festivals and performance venues.  The dancing life means a lot of casting the nets wide and reeling them in to see what’s come back.  Unless I want to make dances in my living room (which I’ve done plenty of, believe me) I need to find space out there, rent a studio, borrow a church basement, find an open space with a decent floor. Making dances, unless they are solos, means working with other bodies, making friends, connections, or being part of a collective.  The rehearsal process, be it for choreographed or improvised work, is dense with outward communication, and I’m often looking for ways to find language for material that is either pre-verbal, or beyond the realm of words.  Classes happen in groups, performances are offered to the masses (I joke here…if you know anything at all about contemporary dance, you’re at least smirking, if not laughing along with me!)   It’s a lot of diving in deeply, and then reaching out.

I’m imagining a gesture here that accompanies these words: a movement that starts with the fingers tinkering over the solar plexus, like sprinkling salt over a soup and gradually moving out with both arms, fingers open into a wide-armed full wingspan reach, the eyes bright and blinking wide open.

Quilting has another gesture altogether and the movement goes the other way, from full wingspan to tiny hands holding threads over the … is it the heart?  The head curves forward, (as if bent over a sewing machine!) and the eyes squint, the brow furrows a bit…the focus is inward.  Of course I’m over-simplifying here, in an attempt to get at an embodied understanding of why I feel so drawn to both worlds. I don’t mean to imply that dance-making is all external and quilt-making makes me an introvert, but the two ways of being, the two lifestyles, live mostly for me at the opposite poles, at least when it comes to how social I need to be, or the details of how to organize my time.  And it’s been a challenge maintaining a deep practice of both simultaneously.  When I say challenge, I mean, nearly impossible. I find myself moving through seasons with each practice…when the dance work is plentiful, I throw myself into it and let it take me over, often traveling and touring for weeks or months at a time.  When the dance work is sparse, or when I come home full from a trip and need to integrate, or in the deep of the winter when the days are short and the introspections are long, I make quilts.

I need both in my life.  (I actually need more of both in my life, but that’s another story.) For nearly twenty years I’ve considered dance improvisation as my life’s work, and quilt-making as my hobby.  Problem is, I hate  that word, hobby.  I’ve also noticed, with some chagrin,  a subtle tendency on my own part to diminish or de-value my work as a quilt-maker.  In seasons of doubt or discouragement, I can fall into that awful trap of labeling.  Or worse…ranking.  Work I make with my hands is not as important as the work I do out in the world.  It’s not intellectual, or significant, or relevant.  It certainly isn’t great for paying the bills, but then again, neither is dance.  When I’m doing one, I miss the other.  I keep trying to find some balance and piece the two together.  The obvious patchwork metaphor is not lost on me here, I am living it every time I lay right side to right side and glide it under the pierce of the needle.  Every time I press those seams and smooth open the newly joined sections, I feel something come together inside my mind, like the simple and quiet satisfaction of  a question answered.  In that small moment, my life makes sense.  I am fully present and at peace with exactly what is.

Interestingly enough, it’s my other passion – writing – that is acting not only as a bridge here, but as a powerful catalyst.  Helping me navigate this territory, uncovering layers of what I know in my bones and have forgotten, guiding me out of the seasons of doubt.  The work I make with my hands is relevant.  It’s completely relevant, and completely connected to who I am and why I am here.  It’s not an either/or.  It’s a both/and.  And so I keep going, keep piecing, keep dancing, keep asking…keep following the threads of what shows up my life, and trusting in the simply beauty of what emerges when I do.

focusing the eyes, following the thread

detail of "materials" by KF

I am a dance artist, educator, writer and maker of many handmade things, most of them improvisationally pieced art quilts.  For years I’ve made myself slightly crazy trying to make my way simultaneously through these various fields of creative research.  While I’m far from figuring it out entirely, and feel most days like I’m walking around in the dark, bumping into my limitations and shortcomings, I do feel like I’m starting to get somewhere.  I’m learning, over and over again, that patience is a practice.  I’m learning to let what I make show me what I need to know..to show me the next move.  I’m learning to focus and follow the thread…

There’s a subtitle to this blog, or will be, once I figure out which one it is, out of the many that are hovering in the air as possibilities.  The fact that the exact right one hasn’t appeared yet, while mildly frustrating, won’t stop me from forging ahead anyway, given that my underlying philosophy and strategy in most endeavors is to simply begin anywhere, keep going, and trust that the process will lead somewhere fruitful.

Here are a few of the many versions and variations that have been filling the pages of my notebook in the last few days.   None of them sounds exactly right quite yet, but all of them have a good dose of what I’m after here.

following the thread:

life lessons from the sewing room

pieces about pieces and how they come together

what i’m learning about life from making things with my hands

how quilt-making teaches me everything i need to remember about why i am here.

what happens when an improviser sits down at the sewing machine and listens to fabric

I’m sure there will be more, as the pieces emerge.  That’s the beautiful thing about improvising: watching things take shape, find form, come into being.  Paying attention in this way is at the heart of my practice as an improviser, not just in the dance studio, but in the sewing room.

I’m glad you found your way here, and I hope you enjoy following these threads…



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