Sunday, June 25, 2017

My favorite things 26


Sequoyah, the great Cherokee leader, born around 1776, fought in the War of 1812 under Andrew Jackson against the British.  He and his fellow Cherokee soldiers realized during the war that their inability to read and write was a serious problem: they could not write letters home, read military orders, or keep records.  After the war he resolved to create a system to write the Cherokee language.

He ended up with 85 symbols that represented syllables, and thousands of Cherokees learned to read and write the new alphabet.  By 1825 the Bible and many hymns had been translated into Cherokee, and Sequoyah began publishing a newspaper in 1828 using type produced by a Boston foundry.

After the Cherokees were driven from their homeland by their former commander, Jackson, Sequoyah had to abandon his printshop in New Echota, GA.  In 1958 archaeologists unearthed it and the type was cleaned up and used to print this proof sheet, which ended up in my father's possession and then in my own.  (This is just a display of all the characters in the font, not made into words.)























I am amazed at how tiny the characters are -- about the size of the stock market listings in the Wall Street Journal -- and how keen the eyes of the printer and his readers must have been to distinguish so many very similar characters.  Here's a contemporary version of the alphabet:

My dad acquired all kinds of strange and wonderful things in his long life and extensive travels, many of them related to printing, and they are among my most treasured possessions.  Although the technology of printing has changed dramatically within my own lifetime -- even within my own professional lifetime -- I am always inspired by reminders of the way it used to be.  One guy with a printing press, a font of type, and a vision can truly change the world.

PS Happy birthday, Dad!  I bet they have good newspapers in Heaven.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Thoughts on judging 3


One more response to a comment left on my post about judging.  Charlotte wrote that there's a difference between "shows" and "exhibits" -- that shows are composed of a bunch of different things while exhibits are curated around some kind of theme or concept -- and that exhibits need to be cohesive but shows don't.  I think that's a very good distinction, except I'd add that exhibits don't even necessarily need to be cohesive.  The only reason I even mentioned the C-word is that so frequently you hear it in statements like "don't be hurt if your work if rejected from a show; it's probably perfectly wonderful but it just didn't fit in with the jurors' vision of a cohesive show."  I've always taken such statements to be (a) untrue (b) patronizing and (c) smarmy.

She also commented that talking things over with others helps you develop your ideas, and she always gets more out of a show by going with a friend and discussing the art.  I would agree 100 percent -- if you're talking about simply looking at art.  Indeed, that may be the subject of a whole different post next week!

But that's a different context than jurying and judging.  I would hope that people invited to be jurors or judges have already developed their own ideas pretty well.  As a juror or judge, your job is to look at the artwork and make critical decisions -- and they should be your own decisions.

I am not totally against discussion in the jurying or judging process, because sometimes I have found it to be helpful in reaching a consensus.  Some shows have multiple jurors for selecting which quilts get into the show, but then have just one judge choose the prizewinners.  This may be a good compromise approach.  (At the 2014 Quilts = Art = Quilts show at the Schweinfurth Art Center, I served on the selection jury and then was the sole prize judge.  I can testify that making the decisions all by yourself is a lot harder than doing it as a group!)

Kit Vincent, Chaos: the butterfly effect -- I chose this quilt as best in show at  Q=A=Q 2014

I'm not sure I would like to have totally blind judging.  But I can testify to the danger of being swayed by the strong personality in the room.

I once was on a jury that got together the afternoon before a show opened to look at the quilts in person and award the prizes.  We circled the room and looked closely at all the quilts.  Then we sat down to make the decision.  The show sponsor gave us a list of six or seven awards to give out.

One of the jurors was way higher on the food chain than the others and spoke first.  She wanted to start at the bottom of the list -- first we'd choose who got the honorable mentions, then who got the special awards, then choose third, second, and finally best in show.

I thought this was a really strange approach and said I didn't think that was the best way to go.  No, no, that was the way she wanted to do it!!  But how is that going to work out?  No, no, that was the way she wanted to do it!!  I couldn't talk her down, and the other juror sat there without saying anything, so I gave up.

Sure enough, after we gave out all the minor awards we ended up with arguably the two best quilts in contention for best in show.  We argued.  Eventually we chose one and the other one, instead of getting second prize, got nothing!  I felt guilty, even though the quilt I liked got the prize, because I thought we had shafted the other person, simply because of the weird process.  But two of us weren't able to overrule the big-cheese juror on an issue that she really wanted to win.

Would blind judging lead to better shows and better art?  I have no idea.  But it's interesting to contemplate.  What do you think?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thoughts on judging 2


After I wrote about judging earlier this week, several readers left interesting comments -- rather than reply in the comment section, which people might not go back to, I thought it deserved a full post.

Irene commented that judges often focus on workmanship over design.  I think that may be true for shows that bill themselves primarily as quilt shows -- for instance, Houston and Paducah --  but less so for those purporting to have an art focus -- for instance, Quilt National and Art Quilt Elements.  At least I would like to think so.  I am continually amazed by the awards given at Houston in the categories labeled "art quilts" -- usually slavish copies of other people's paintings or photos get the big prizes.  Yes, that's good workmanship, but the task is simply one of accurately translating an image from some other medium into fabric.  It may take a lot of skill, but I don't think that skill deserves a $5,000 award.

Helen commented that judges are given way too little time to look at each quilt and don't seem to realize what they're all about.  That's true certainly for huge unjuried shows such as the state fair -- I've had occasion several times to be passing by during the quilt judging at the Kentucky State Fair, and they do whip through them pretty quickly (from the conversations I've overheard, they tend to zoom in on the quality of mitered corners and stitch length and then quickly move on to the next one).

In juried shows with a lot of entries there may be a tendency to zip through the early rounds too quickly.  I don't know if Quilt National has changed its procedures, but the first time I was accepted into that show (2003) there was much hoo-ha about their first-round system.  Each slide was put up on the screen for three seconds or so, and jurors had to vote yes or no.  Unless you got two votes you were out immediately. They were so proud of this system that they had a TV set over in the corner of the exhibit that was running a loop of about 25 actual entries, three seconds a pop, and visitors were invited to make their own judgments.  Some of the quilts shown had been accepted into the show and some had been rejected.  I remember this vividly because my quilt was one of the 25 in the guinea pig loop.  I have always wondered whether other people besides the jurors chose it on its three-second audition.






















Black I -- shown in Quilt National '03

Most shows that I have juried don't have that many entries and thus allow jurors more time.  Now that the internet makes remote viewing easy, I have usually been asked to look at all the entries at home at leisure and send in my initial votes, but the serious discussion and horse-trading happens when everybody gets together, either in person or by phone.

More comments to respond to tomorrow.

(Thanks, as always, to everybody who leaves a comment!  It's much more fun to conduct a blog as a conversation rather than a lecture.)  (And still time to share your thoughts about judging.  Leave a comment after today's post or after the earlier one; I'll read them all.)



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Thoughts on judging


Earlier this month we attended the finals of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, which occurs every four years in Fort Worth TX.  By the time we arrived, the field of 30 contestants, all aged 18-30, had been narrowed to six, and we got to hear each of them twice, once in a long piano quintet (piano plus string quartet) and once in a concerto with full orchestra.

From left: third-place Daniel Hsu, second-place Kenneth Broberg, first-place Yekwon Sunwoo

It was a great week for music but I've also been thinking about the scoring system.  During the whole three weeks of the competition the nine jurors were forbidden to talk to one another about the competitors or anything they played.  When it was time to cut the field of 30 down to 20, each juror was given a piece of paper with 20 blank lines, and wrote down the names of the 20 people he or she wanted to hear again.  A computer program digested the submissions and came up with the results.  At the very end, the jurors chose from among the six finalists by each writing down one name for first place (again, the computer digested the votes), then after the winner was decided, writing down one name for second, and finally one name for third.

The voting method was the subject of much discussion during the week, by spectators and by the jurors themselves.  Several of them, in a panel discussion, echoed the sentiments of the guy who runs the Cliburn, who said he was determined to have a competition without subjective decision-making.  He said too often competition juries make their choices by consensus, and thus the results can easily be swayed by the juror with the biggest reputation, the most forceful personality and/or the most articulate powers of persuasion.

This made me think about jurying in the visual art world.  I've participated in juried quilt, fiber and all-medium shows, both as an entrant and as a juror, and as far as I know, the prevalent model is for the jurors to confer among themselves.  Sometimes jurors look at the submissions independently to begin with, and might even winnow down the field with secret ballot voting in the early rounds, but the usual approach is for a lot of discussion and horse-trading towards the end, both in terms of selecting the entrants and awarding the prizes.

Often when there's a jurors' statement included in the show catalog, they will make a big point of how they talked it over for such a long time before they finally came to decision, or how there was much disagreement in choosing the winners.  I know from being a juror in several shows that the end-stage discussion can be heated and even testy.

And I wonder what would happen if art shows adopted the Cliburn method of scoring.  You might get shows with a little less cohesiveness (for instance, the Quilt National '13 that had hardly any pieced quilts!) but more variety, with more quirky outliers.  You might get shows with fewer of the usual suspects, those prominent artists whose work is easily identifiable and whom jurors sometimes seem embarrassed to leave out.  People who aren't on that usual-suspect short list might feel they have a better shot at getting into the show; people who are on the list might be a bit less complacent, a bit more likely to try something different and push themselves into new territory.

Would this make any difference in the world of juried shows?  Would it be better or worse than what we have now?  What do you think?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

My favorite things 25


To get into our house you have to climb five steps, whether you use the back door, the front door or come in through the garage.  We've always had a railing on the back steps, which open onto a fairly small stoop.  We installed a railing in the garage about ten years ago so my mother could do those steps more easily.  But the front steps were always naked.

Even as I got older and more decrepit and became an aficionado of railings and grab bars, I never gave much thought to our front steps because we never use them.  When we drive our own cars, we go directly into the garage.  When family members visit, they use the back door.  The only people who ever use the front door are the mailman and our friends, who always seemed to be there smiling when we opened the door, having obviously navigated the steps successfully.

But then I got into a book club where two members had progressive health issues.  It got to the point where they would call me as they hit the driveway, so I could open the garage door and let them use the interior steps with the railing.  But my friend Keith gave me a hard time and told me I really needed to get a decent railing for the front steps.

I took his nagging to heart and went shopping for railings, but everything I saw seemed too fancy-busy for the house.  So I got the idea to commission Dave Caudill, a sculptor and metal artist, to make us a piece of art that would conveniently be usable as a railing.  It looks like a big leafless vine, or perhaps a cobra rearing up out of the bed of hostas, a beautiful curve that provides a sturdy grip.  (And I do mean sturdy -- I watched when Dave installed it, set into a subterranean lump of concrete that's almost two feet deep.)











































For various reasons it took a long time to get the project accomplished, but finally the big reveal -- book club was going to be at my house!  And at the appointed hour, I got a call from Keith in the driveway wanting me to open the garage door.  "NO! NO!  I now have my fabulous new railing!  You can use the front door!"

But I had failed to realize that the fabulous new railing only got you up three steps to the porch; there were still two steps into the house with nothing to cling to.  So I had Dave make me a handhold next to the door.






















I'm embarrassed that it took my friends to shame me into doing what I should have done 31 years ago when we bought the house (and why didn't the builder do it in 1963???) but I'm delighted with my railing.  It's wonderful when art can be useful, and when useful things can be art.



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Protesting art, yet again


I guess it's sort of a good sign when people protest art -- at least it shows they are aware of art.  But many protests strike me as wrong-headed.  For instance, I just read about a protest of an artist from Mali who has an installation in Athens as part of Documenta 14, the big international show of contemporary art.

The artist, Aboubakar Fofana, set up natural indigo vats and dunked 54 lambs, turning them various shades of blue, to represent the 54 countries of Africa.  The lambs are grazing in a pasture during the run of the art show.  Sounds fairly benign to me, but animal rights activists have vandalized Fofana's studio and disrupted his opening presentation.

Since indigo is harmless (how many of us have walked around with blue fingers after a dye session and lived to tell the tale?) one might wonder what was so offensive about the stunt.  The vandals helpfully explained in a blog post, "You choose to say nothing about confinement, nor the massive murders of the industry, and you added to the humiliation (by using the sheep) as objects in the spectacle."

Hmmm.  So if I make a piece of art about an elephant, and I choose to say nothing about poaching and the illicit ivory trade, I deserve to have my studio destroyed?  (Did these activists protest when Chris Ofili got famous by incorporating elephant dung into his works?)  What if I make a piece of art about Germany, and I choose to say nothing about Hitler?

I think this installation, as described in my favorite online art newspaper, Hyperallergic, is delightful.  Fofana said, "I want to show something else with this special flock of lambs, and that is beauty.  Wherever African people move, we bring with us our culture and our traditions, and we fuse them with what is local.  And the new places we come to are richer and more beautiful for this fusion.  Out of the necessity of leaving, new cultures and traditions are born, nothing is static and nothing changes without creation.  Indigo itself is something which has travelled throughout and out of Africa along trade routes for thousands of years."

I believe that there's an important place for protest in today's world -- heaven knows there's plenty wrong going on -- and perhaps the industrial practices of the sheep industry belong in that category, although I have so far seen no evidence.  But this protest, and so many others I've read about recently, strike me as purely opportunistic.

It seems there are people with a cause who survey the world solely to identify a key word -- sheep! World War 1!  Ebola!  narcissism! -- and then do their damnedest to write an op-ed or get booked on a talking-head show or launch a Twitter hashtag or vandalize an artist's studio to flog their own cause or plug their new book.  Makes no difference whether the sheep in question is being mistreated or not, whether the new book actually has anything to do with the current event being "commented" upon.

Like so many other innocent bystanders in trainwrecks of various shapes and sizes, art gets trashed as collateral damage.  Oh well.  Only those who care about art are disturbed.