During the last few weeks I've had two very interesting opportunities. First, I was asked to jury the student art show at nearby Benedict College, the historic African-American school located about a mile from my house. I am friends with just about every faculty member and truly think Tyrone Geter is one of the most talented visual artists I've ever met. His current solo show at the Columbia Museum of Art is remarkable. His command of charcoal results in masterpieces that capture more than a face but a soul. The task of selecting award winners from this year's student submissions was difficult. The works reflect more than ability but comprehension of classroom lessons. Students must be willing to work outside a comfort zone due to grading requirements. Supplies and materials are subject to the tight budgets. (I remember college too ... and the variety of ways one can make Ramen noodles palatable.) I took this opportunity very seriously. I know that feelings will likely be hurt and students will feel their work was viewed unjustly. That made the decision process difficult.
Months and months ago I was contacted by the Embroiderers' Guild of America with the opportunity to jury membership in their elusive Fiber Forum group. The other juror is Joan Schulze. Her name alone let me know just how serious this opportunity was. Joan is really, really talented ... the sort of name I'd expect to be reviewing my images (and I think I've applied to exhibits juried by Joan Schulze!) Yet, it is my own memories that truly gave weight to the decisions and scoring I was asked to do. I took this task very seriously. After all, feelings might get hurt and some might think their stitching was unjustly evaluated. That is one of the reasons I've written this blog post. The other is to share my critique of some of my earlier works ... honestly and with the knowledge that improvement comes for those who persevere with threaded needles.
First of all, I'd like to share my association with the Embroiderers' Guild and Fiber Forum. Back when Steve was finishing his PhD at The Ohio State University, we would go to the Ohio State Fair and walk aimlessly through the arts and crafts entries. I'd casually say, "I could do that" and "I could do this" ... pointing to hand-stitched items on display. Steve's answer was always the same, "Put your money where your mouth is."
One year I found an entry booklet. It listed categories ... like "blackwork" (which I incorrectly assumed was anything with black thread) and "Assisi" (which stumped me because ... well ... I'd been to Assisi and seen no needlepoint whatsoever). There were all sorts of categories. I didn't actually know what most of them were. (Today's Ohio State Fair on-line system indicates that things have changed since the late 1970s ... but still, I wouldn't have recognize "hardanger" or "Bargello" ... and there certainly wasn't a category for creative use of Brillo pads! For real ... look that one up yourself!)
Anyway, I thought I'd prove to Steve that I actually could do these things (despite no prior exposure to needlework other than two hideous disasters when a Brownie Girl Scout at about the age of eight.) To this day I have no idea why I thought I could stitch. But, off I went to the public library. Repeatedly, I checked out Reader's Digest Complete Book of Needlework, a rather new publication at the time. I made one of everything I could ... intending to enter the next Ohio State Fair. I entered. I won a blue ribbon on my pillowcase but that wasn't the highlight. The highlight was walking through that building looking at the other entries. What looked "easy" before looked "fabulous" through new eyes. I was in awe. Then something miraculous happened.
I saw an advertisement in the newspaper. A local embroiderer had a solo exhibition in the art gallery at the Martin Janis Community Senior Senior Center. I decided to go. The work was overwhelming. It took my breathe away. In my mind, I had a conversation with my inner self. "Susan, you either have to get serious or quit. You can never look at what you've stitched with the same eyes ... not now ... not after seeing this."
The receptionist at the Martin Janis Center noticed my deep interest. She asked if I wanted the artist's contact information. I said, "Oh no! I could never speak to someone with this much talent". The receptionist gave me a telephone number anyway ... and, for some reason, I kept it.
At the time, my grandmother lived in nearby Dublin, Ohio. She was a member of a senior citizen group that met at the Martin Janis Community Senior Center. I called her and asked if she'd seen this fabulous needlework. She had. Not only that, but the talented artist spoke to her group. Worse yet, my grandmother had told this artist all about her granddaughter's embroidery. I was mortified, but what did I have to lose? I dialed the telephone number.
The voice on the other end of the line was encouraging. She invited me to her house and asked me to bring my stitching. I went. It was amazing. She liked what she saw ... thought I had potential. She showed me her stash of threads, her design ideas, the Ott light she used ... everything. Then she said, "How would you like to accompany me to the monthly Embroiderers' Guild of America meeting"?
I arrived in the parking lot of the Dublin, Ohio church an hour early. I watched ladies arrive carrying totes embellished with embroidery. Finally, my new friend pulled up. We went inside. All the other ladies were strangely gushing over her. I picked up snippets of the many excited conversations.
This talented artist hadn't come to a meeting in well over a year ... since her husband died. I hadn't even asked about her family. I felt silly and small. Then, she announced that she wasn't staying for the meeting. OMG! Instead, she said she'd come only come to introduce the chapter to "the future" ... and she turned to me, gave my name, and left. At twenty-four years of age, I didn't know what to think until the meeting came to order. Every head in the room went down. Each person was stitching through the minutes from the last meeting and the treasurer's report. I was "at home" instantly. I recognized that this was exactly how I had been watching television during the past year. The meeting included a time for "show-n-tell". Ladies shared works-in-progress after workshops at the recent national seminar in Atlanta, Georgia. They talked about the workshop instructors as if true goddesses of embroidery. I was entranced. As the meeting concluded, I was asked if I had any questions. I did. "How do I join?"
Unfortunately, my time in Columbus, Ohio was coming to an end. I was a member for less than six-months. Steve and I moved to Columbia, South Carolina. I immediately sought out and joined the local EGA chapter, but it wasn't the same. Few of the members were active. Fewer were stitching anything new or perusing "master craftsman" levels. None were teaching or going to workshops. For two years, the only thing that seemed to happen was a rewrite of the by-laws. So, I set my eyes on "the national seminar". My first was in 1987 (the every week I learned I was pregnant with my elder son). I took whitework on a painted canvas from a wonderful woman who wore enameled Chinese fingernail guards as "pointers" (whose name I forgot) and crewel embroidery from Judy Jeroy. I finished both pieces and still treasure them.
Over the coming few years, I attended other national seminars. This became the only week of the year during which I had time to stitch. Why? Well, my life had gone off in another direction. I'd started a family and a custom picture framing business. There was no time to stitch ... no time to even browse through the workshops offered during the seminar. Around 1996, the national seminar was held in New Orleans. I waited past the deadline but decided to call the registrar. Two workshops looked promising. I wondered if there was space ... in either Jean Beaney's or Jan Littlejohn's class.
"You are kidding, aren't you?" said the registrar. "Those went to lottery! Everyone want to take them. Everyone wants to know what these talented English fiber artists are doing." (Truth be told: I'd never heard of either of them and didn't know anything at all about these new explorations in fiber. I just liked the idea that there was no set pattern. Boy did I have a lot to learn!) I asked which four-day workshops still had a space. One was called "Autobiography in Stitches". It was being taught by Charlotte Miller. The word "autobiography" made me assume that I might know enough to take it. Had the registrar told me it was a "design class", I would have passed. In my pea-brain, I didn't know how to "design" anything.
Hotels assume a certain percentage of cancellations when booking a convention. The Embroiderers' Guild of America tried to tell the hotel in New Orleans that everyone came ... EVERYONE. Only an immediate family death would result in a cancellation. This hotel, however, didn't believe it. They thought they had enough rooms for everyone and enough space for all the workshops. But, the room for Charlotte Miller's class didn't have air-conditioning. There were complaints. The hotel had no other choice. The workshop was moved into the otherwise un-rented penthouse, the Huey Long suite. It was so spacious that almost everyone had a private table. I couldn't see what anyone else was doing. So when Charlotte Miller said, "Arrange your elements!" I did. Wisely, Charlotte Miller never used the big, bad "D" word ... design. She was the perfect teacher for me. Because I wasn't impacted by the work of anyone else, I was able to lay out three pieces before the end of the second day. It was easy. The work came naturally. Of course, the rest of the convention was coming by our classroom to see the luxurious accommodations in which we were working. One person asked, "How long have you been designing your own work?" Immediately I blurted out, "I've never designed anything in my life!"
By the time the words were hanging in the air, I recognized how surreal they were. I was sitting in front of three original works ... my first three original pieces of art. I finished each and still treasure them. The woman said, "You need to come to the Fiber Forum meeting." I went to the meeting but didn't dare join much less consider jurying into it. I was overwhelmed.
While the Huey Long penthouse featured prominently in conversations at the convention, it didn't hold a candle to the fact that Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn where in the hotel teaching. Charlotte Miller suggested that our workshop pay a visit to see the wonderful things on display. I was at least ten yards away from a round, eight-top banquet table overflowing with the most delicious fabrics I'd ever seen when my mind gave an ultimatum. "Susan, that's what you want to do with the rest of your life". I didn't even know what I was looking at but my heart knew what it wanted. This was it. I made a promise to myself. I've kept it. I've never since stitched another pattern, copied anyone's design, or made work that wasn't a "Susan Lenz" original.
It took me another two years to get into a workshop with Jean Littlejohn. That happened in Florida. I submitted for Fiber Forum after that. It was a giant step. It was the first time I'd ever submitted for anything ... plus ... Lee Malerich was one of the jurors.
I knew of Lee Malerich. She's from here in South Carolina. I'd seen her embroideries in the state triennial. I'd been to two of her solo shows ... but didn't have the guts to introduce myself. I was aware that she earned three different fellowships in fine art crafts from the South Carolina Arts Commission. (After her third award, a rule was imposed limiting the number of fellowships to two per lifetime.) Lee Malerich was my "Goddess of Embroidery". Before submitting my images to Fiber Forum, I attended a charity event for Planned Parenthood. The gallery representing Lee had donated one of her embroideries. Lee came. She had been wearing high heels but the night was long. She had a glass of wine in one hand and her shoes in the other. Something in her casual posture allowed me to say "Hi!" We had a great conversation. I told her how much I admired her work. Truthfully, I was in awe ... a groupie living a surreal moment of pure joy. A week later, I received a postcard from Lee ... thanking me for "making her night".
Submitting for Fiber Forum felt scary. I was allowing a complete stranger and my personal "goddess of embroidery" to evaluate my work ... blindly. Back then, slides were sent. Back then, each juror gave two scores (likely one for composition and one for craftsmanship ... but I'm not really sure). Back then, the results came in the mail and included the actual paper on which the scoring and comments were hand-written by the jurors. I grabbed my postcard from Lee Malerich and compared the script. It was obvious. The other juror gave me a 4 and a 5. Lee Malerich gave me two 5s. I cried for joy.
Becoming a juried member of Fiber Forum remains one of the happiest moment of my creative existence. I know how important it was. It was one of my earliest accomplishments and proudest moments. It allowed me to grab a bit of self confidence and to shake away some of the doubts I still struggle to overcome. Thus, being this year's juror has added weight.
In the years since jurying into Fiber Forum, I allowed my membership in the Embroiderers' Guild of America to lapse. I can't afford memberships into a lot of fine organizations. I gave up most of my custom picture framing business (which Steve joined only three years after earning his PhD) and no longer have enough money just "to belong". (There's a reason why the most popular adjective describing "an artist" is "starving! Being a professional artist is not generally a lucrative career .... at least not yet!) Still, I remember Fiber Forum fondly. It was important to me. It helped set me off on a wonderful path.
I've shared this story because I want each person whose work I evaluated to know that I took the job seriously. I read every statement and every line listing techniques, materials, and size. I enlarged every image. I tried my best to be honest. The comments were written in the spirit of making suggestions for improvement. Below are some additional thoughts and my juror's statement.
General thoughts and personal opinions:
1. Images should be as large as possible/allowed. Some were quite small. They did not allow a meaningful, closer inspection.
2. Images should crop out backgrounds that are not part of the artwork ... such as the room in which the work was on view. Significant alterations made using a photo editing program should be confined to the areas outside the perimeter of the work. Many juried shows will disqualify a piece if it appears different from the submitted image. Thankfully, I was not asked to do this.
3. Grammar is important in a statement.
4. Statements should be written without assuming a juror is aware of popular fiber ideas. Not every juror knows what an "inchie" is. I do ... but that's not important! LOL! Brand names of products should be avoided.
5. Reproductions of any artwork, illustration, or photographic image taken by someone other than the artist is not an original ... no matter how accurately or well done.
6. Smaller works of art can often look like samples, experiments, or studies for larger works. I encourage embroiderers to work bigger. Excellence in miniature work created in other media is often determined by the very fine detail that generally defies the limitations of size. A postcard sized embroidery should seek the same standards. Many of the submitted works would have benefited by enlargement or by varying the stitches to a seemingly impossible small size ... embracing the reason for the small size. I'm probably not writing this as effectively as I'd like. I hope this makes sense.
7. Posing a question in a statement does not make the artwork thought-provoking.
8. When jurying work for artistic merit, it is not necessary to list every type of thread or material.
9. More attention should be paid to the artist statement than to the list of materials and techniques.
10. Wearable artwork should include an image on a model or other three-dimensional prop.
Finally, I used a variation of the juror's statement below for the student exhibit at Benedict College. The last few sentences, however, are the same. The final sentence is the most important one.
Knowing the stellar expertise and talent within the ranks of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America and especially in the limited membership of Fiber Forum, I was expecting the high caliber of work that I encountered as a juror and knew my scoring decisions would be difficult. The overall visual impact of the selection was strong. Most works possessed an obvious understanding of composition, color theory and mastery of materials. It was a pleasure to see such fine craftsmanship. Those selected for inclusion in Fiber Forum should be justifiable proud of the accomplishment. Yet, every artist submitting for this opportunity should bear in mind the wise words of photographer Ralph Gibson who said, “The only thing for an artist to remember is that he or she is the only one fully entitled to judge the work. The artist who makes the work is the one who will spend the most time looking and ultimately understanding the content of the work.” It was my honor to serve as a juror.
(Above: Four Square. At least a decade old, approximately 6" x 6" unframed. This is just another attempt to "make something" without the slightest investment on my part. Sure, it possesses marks made by a soldering iron ... something I do very regularly ... but without any real reason for doing it except to change the surface texture. I look at this piece now and see a reliance on a quilt block ... which is odd since I was never a traditional quilter. I simply borrowed a time honored composition as a way to experiment with an idea I'd read about on the Internet.)