Monday, July 26, 2021

Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, a portrait by Susan Lenz

(Above:  Beverly "Guitar" Watkins.  Framed: 32" x 31".  Image transfer and paint on a section of a vintage blue-and-white needlepoint rug with black beer caps and beads, tacks, and a name plate.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

Sometimes I just can't help myself when attending Bill Mishoe's auction.  I will leave a six-dollar/minimum "mercy bid" for items I don't need and for which I have no use and no brilliant ideas.  Such was the situation with a very large, extremely heavy, well worn blue-and-white needlepoint rug.

(Above:  The blue-and-white needlepoint rug on top of my dry mount press.)

Some one stitched it ... BEAUTIFULLY.   I don't know who. I don't know why the family consigned it to the auction house.  It was as if this rug came from Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer's Island of Misfit Toys ... neglected, unloved, cast away, holding stories of an anonymous family and a once perfect living room, almost begging for "someone" to take it home and give it a "second life".  How could I help myself?  Of course I left a six-dollar bid.  The rug was then mine.

(Above:  Ernie the Cat and the rug.)

Even Ernie the Cat seemed to know that the rug was in a "better place" ... though he had no helpful ideas for how I might incorporate it into my studio practice.  The rug sat around for more than two months before I finally cut it into the twelve, nearly square sections that made up its design.  I took the twelve pieces to my two-week art residency at the Rensing Center where I used an entire gallon of GAC 400 Fabric Stiffener on the twelve pieces.  Sure ... I was mentally chastising myself for the expenditure.  I'd just poured over $80 of an acrylic medium over a six-dollar mercy bid and still had no idea how I was going to use any of it. I had to trust my "bleeding heart".  Something would come along to make sense out of all this!  

(Above:  Photo of Beverly Watkins by Bill Blizard.)

Well ... something did happen! When it did, I knew in an instant exactly what to do and how to do it!  My friend Dolly Patton, the new executive director of the Arts Center of Kershaw County, contacted me for a solo show!  It seems that the visual arts exhibition space needed a show to coordinate with the annual and upcoming Carolina Downhome Blues Festival in Camden, South Carolina.  Dolly asked if I would bring one of my first installations, Blues Chapel, to the Arts Center.   Of course I would!  

(Above:  Two steps in the Photoshop manipulation of the image.)

There was a caveat: The show needed to pay homage to one of the festival's most important, previous performers ... Beverly "Guitar" Watkins.  Thankfully, Dolly had already secured permission and a high resolution image from photographer Bill Blizard.  I went to work immediately ... eliminating the background ... sizing the image for the needlepoint rug, applying the "cutout" filter, and flipping the result so that it would appear correctly when transferred to the needlepoint surface.

(Above:  The black-and-white photocopy lathered with matte medium and positioned onto the needlepoint rug ... which was also coated with additional matte medium.)

Even though the Photoshop work took less than an hour, the preparation of the rug took a week.  Every day, I brushed on a new layer of acrylic medium.  Some days, I managed two coats.  In all, at least nine layers of matte medium went onto the stiffened section of rug.  The layers of matte medium built up the surface into a nice, flat, evenly spread plane ... perfect for an acrylic-to-acrylic photocopy transfer.  Both the over-sized print and the rug were finally covered with matte medium and pressed together.  When totally dry, I also flattened it in my dry mount press.  This made sure that there were no bubbles between the layers.  The ink was fused into the acrylic.

(Above:  Starting to rub off the excess paper.)

Then the fun began!  All the excess paper was rubbed off.  While this might sound ideal, the results rarely are perfect.  Some of the ink does come away with the paper.  Some of the gray tones didn't show up well against the needlepoint.  Yet, it was enough of a transfer to allow me to over-paint the entire figure in black and shades of gray.  Then, I added the gold metallic halo.  This halo was also part of the Arts Center's request because all twenty-four of my Blues singers in Blues Chapel do have gold halos.  To me, the halo is a symbol for the disadvantages faced by female blues singers:  racism, sexism, and a once disreputable music industry.  Yet ... they kept singing and sharing and making a better future for the next generation.

(Above:  Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, in progress.)

After applying the halo, I beaded the rim and added accents, black beer caps on which I placed silver star sequins and another bead.  Finally, the piece was ready for its unique presentation.  I painted a wide stretcher bar black and filled it with acid-free foam-centered board.  The artwork was glued in place ...

... and literally tacked to the wooden stretcher bar.  

 (Above:  Detail of Beverly "Guitar" Watkins.)

I am very, very pleased about this piece.  It fulfilled the unknown reason for buying the needlepoint rug in the first place.  It is honoring a Blues icon.  It will be in a show this coming October!  I still have no idea what will become of the other eleven pieces of the rug.  Perhaps nothing ... but at least "second life" did happen in a beautiful Bluesy way!


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Mandala LXXIII and LXXV

(Above:  Mandala LXXIII. Framed: 14 3/4" x 14 3/4. Found objects hand-stitched to a block of an antique quilt.  Found objects include: A clock face, keys, green casino chips, beer bottle caps, plastic dairy pull tabs, clock gears, buttons, and eight discs for a cookie press.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

When I posted Mandala LXXIV, I realized that I missed one in the series.  I had finished, framed, and entered Mandala LXXIII in my inventory book, but I hadn't photographed it or featured it on this blog.  Of course, recent weather didn't cooperate with my photography plans.  I take pictures in the afternoon, when the sun isn't hitting the garage door.  Every time I thought to take pictures, it was raining.  I had to wait ... until today ... when I also had Mandala LXXV ready for its photo shoot.


(Above:  Mandala LXXIII, detail.)

I'm really pleased with the casino chips.  I've got lots more of them.  Each one was pre-drilled with five holes, four near the edges and one in the center.  This worked perfectly with the beer caps too.  I'm using a 1/6" drill bit.  I have a small stash of them because it is really easy to accidentally break the bit.


(Above:  Mandala LXXV. Framed: 14 3/4" x 14 3/4".  Found objects hand-stitched to a block of an antique quilt.  Found objects include: Part of a rotary dial's receiver; two bracelets; four shower curtain hangers; sewing machine bobbins; red, plastic lids; two gold-toned hinges; Starbucks coffee stirrers; assorted belt buckles; buttons; metal devices from a random, dismantled machine; and laminated, late 19th century, cancelled two-cent stamps.)

For Mandala LXXV, I used my tiny drill bit but only on the four corners of the laminated, late 19th century, cancelled two-cent stamps.  My grip strength is very, very strong with a threaded chenille needle and my fingers have thick calluses, but I still have trouble getting through heavy-duty lamination.  Thus, I drill the holes I need.

(Above:  Mandala LXXV, detail.)

I happen to have a nice collection of these early, cancelled stamps.  They came from Bill Mishoe's auction along with all sorts of other stuff.  Most were still attached to the corner of an early envelop. As a kid, I collected stamps.  I knew exactly how to soak the stamps off the paper and dry them on a pane of glass.  For a couple days, our guest bathroom was occupied with stamps ... and also Green Back stamps!  A friend donated a nice collection of those ... many pasted into the redemption booklets.  I soaked them all off.  I intended to visit FedEx Office to laminate them but I knew it would be rather expensive.  Google to the rescue!  I learned that my Seal Dry Mount press would do the job and that Office Depot sold packages of 125 laminating pouches for less than I once spent on the Tampa Nugget cigar bands I'd been using.  (I was running out of laminated Tampa Nugget cigar bands too, but I have literally thousands that could be laminated.  They were donated by another friend!)

(Above:  Laminated ephemera.)

I am now quite an expert at laminating vintage ephemera.  Of course, I still need to cut all these things out, but I'll do that soon!

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Bastille Day, my personal day of creative independence

(Above:  The back of the cargo van filled with things headed to Bill Mishoe's auction.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

Yesterday was Bastille Day, a independence celebration for all of France but also for me!  Twenty years ago on Bastille Day, I finally admitted my hidden desire to "be and artist when I grow up".  I was forty-two years old at the time and running Mouse House, my custom picture framing business (est. 1987).  There were fourteen on payroll (including my husband and me); eight were full-time enjoying covered health insurance, a week paid vacation, and a retirement plan.  Business was still growing at about 11% a year.  I worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, fifty weeks a year.  Basically,  I was working myself to death.  On that fateful July day, I made a life-changing decision to forcibly down-size the business, get a studio, and transform myself into a professional studio artist despite the fact that I had no prior background in fine arts or crafts.  It was a scary gamble, and there were plenty of times when I thought I'd made the worst decision of my life.  Twenty years later, I am an artist living a creative existence I couldn't fully imagine at the start of this adventure.  Every year, I celebrate Bastille Day and look both backwards and forwards.

(Above:  Celebrating Bastille Day at the Blue Marlin!) 

This year, Steve and I decided to celebrate Bastille Day with dinner at a local restaurant, The Blue Marlin.  We talked some about 2001 but we talked more about the coming twenty years ... or at least the next couple of months!  Why concentrate on the future?  Well ... change is happening again and we've been preparing for it.  I have three very, very large projects for a hotel that is currently under construction.  The work needs to be stored until it can be installed.  Looking around Mouse House, it only made sense to sort through a back room in which I store things bought at Bill Mishoe's auction for various art ideas.  I had to face the fact that I'm passed the phase during which I rusted vintage garments and other fabric.  I don't really need to keep boxes of rusted saw blades and chains.  I don't need several cast iron pots with lids.  I also don't need five tree stumps once used as "natural pedestals" for an early "sacred circle" installation or several tubs of wooden finials and knob for 3D found object sculptures.  The collection of antique and vintage papers was way out of control too.  For several days, I sorted, fondly remembered the inspiration, and hauled things to the cargo van.  It was bittersweet to unload it all at Bill Mishoe's auction ... but I did it!  I did it with excited anticipation for the next twenty years.

(Above:  One of the many mountains of scrap metal at Mid-Carolina Steel and Recycling.)

No one ever said that being a flea market and/or antique dealer was an easy life.  I sweat buckets loading and unloading my cargo van but not as much as I sweat while recycling the scrap metal! Emotionally, I told myself that I had to clear a space so that new work could happen.  There's an adage that filled my mind:  Every ending is a new beginning.  Although I can always return to any of my old ways of working, I've created space for whatever is going to happen next ... even beyond the hotel projects!

(Above:  An early architectural piece made for my very first solo show which was at Spartanburg Day School, January - February 2004.)

During the late afternoon, I couldn't help but notice an older piece pinned to foam-centered board.  It seemed to be calling to me, asking to be transformed, saying it was ready for "a new life".  I unpinned it and saw that the reverse side was now more pleasing to me than the front had ever been!

(Above:  The reverse side of the old architectural piece.)

Back in 2003 when I stitched this thing, I used peach colored moire instead of batting.  It looked good with the black chiffon over it.  For the reverse, I had a piece of faux dupioni white silk.  Apparently, I used bobbins filled randomly with tan, pale green, brown, and black thread.  Quickly, I cut the piece into three 20" x 14" sections, machine stitched my name in the lower right corners, cut mats, and put them in clear, cellophane bags with $50 price tags on the reverse. There's enough scrap for a dozen greeting cards.  It felt productive and fun to find a new outlook on the back of an old piece!

(Above:  Three Architectural Sketches.)

Finally, I'd like to share a little more about Bastille Day.  CLICK HERE for a published essay called My Mentor.  I wrote it eleven years ago about Stephen Chesley, a self supporting impressionistic landscape painter who is still my mentor.  Yet, the essay is really about my artistic beginning, about my first Bastille Day and the early days of "being an artist when I grow up".  When conducting a HOT workshop, I always say that my introduction will come as the last part of the experience ... because, of course ... I'm not fond of lofty introductions and generally prefer to do most things backwards.  Yet, it is also because the final statement is exactly how I want to leave each workshop!  So ... here's to Bastille Day and the continuing adventures of being the artist I've become! 

Monday, July 12, 2021

Mandala LXXIV

(Above:  Mandala LXXIV.  Framed as a diamond: 53 1/4" x 53 1/4", as a square: 37 5/8" x 37 5/8".  Found objects hand-stitched to a four-block section of a vintage quilt.  Found objects include:  A silver trivet; doll faces; The Fall Guy action figures from the 1980s; insulin syringes and their gray, plastic caps; laminated Tampa Nugget cigar bands, plastic combs; film reels; colorful, plastic gear-shaped toys; two different types of shower curtains and four yellow ducks removed from a third set; sewing machine bobbins; yellow hair curlers; brass drapery rings; Nespresso coffee capsules; blue water bottle lids; brown plastic Polynesia drink swizzlers; brass screw eyes; US flag and Arizona flag beer bottle caps; and lots of buttons.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

Mandala LXXIV is the largest piece to date.  With any luck, there will be three more this size.  The vintage quilt had exactly eight blocks in both direction and was cut evenly into four squares.  Working larger required me to really concentrate on using a few larger items ... like the film reels.  If everything had been informally smaller, the whole might look somewhat busy.  Balance is needed for color and arrangement but also for size!

(Above:  Detail of Mandala LXXIV.)

The larger size also meant that more than more curve was possible without losing the composition.  Yet, I started to run out of the laminated Tampa Nugget cigar bands that created some of these curves.  So, this weekend I learned all about laminating using my Seal dry mount press.  The earlier cigar bands were laminated at FedEx Office ... to the turn of about five dollars per letter sized pouch.  I happen to have literally thousands more.  I can officially claim to now be a laminating expert!  A package of 125 laminating pouches at Office Depot set me back just $33.  I spent Sunday laminating all sort of other things.  So, don't be surprised when vintage Green Back stamps and late 19th century postal stamps start showing up on future mandalas!  Laminating is fun!

(Above:  Items from a table lot purchased at Bill Mishoe's auction.)

One of my earlier mandalas has the toy NASA space shuttles on it and a small mandala has four of the red motorcycles, but I got more cool toys in a box from Bill Mishoe's auction ... including the Fall Guy action figures from the 1980s and the doll faces!  One day, I'll figure out how to use the little tractors!

(Above:  Detail of Mandala LXXIV.)

While writing this blog post, I realized that I forgot to post Mandala LXXIII.  I didn't even take photos of it!  Perhaps tomorrow!


Thursday, July 08, 2021

Lunette XXXVI

(Above:  Lunette XXXVI. Framed: 28" x 22"; unframed: 16" x 22". Layers of fused polyester stretch on recycled synthetic felt with self-guided, free-motion machine embroidery and melting techniques.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

Whether in my booth at an art show or as a comment left on social media, I'm frequently asked, "How long does it take you to make one of these pieces".  I don't know.  I've never really known and can't even figure out how to calculate the time spent.  There really isn't a good answer.

(Above: Lunette XXXVI, detail.)

One of the problems for adding up hours is the fact that there's plenty of prep work for this series.  I buy polyester stretch velvet from local fabric stores and two different on-line shops in NYC's fashion district.  Every time I get new yardage, I iron Wonder Under to the reverse side.  Sometimes this takes a whole day (at least when a box comes from Spandex World!  I generally order at least ten different yards!)  Another problem is the fact that I'll prepare several "bases" of synthetic felt at one time.  The felt is recycled packaging material that once protected a kayak or canoe being shipped to my friend's outdoor store.  If I'm going to cut up one "boat", I'll cut it up into lots of bases ... some for Lunette Window and others for large or small "Stained Glass" pieces or for three sizes in my "In Box" series.  Basically, I'll cut up the entire "boat". Some times this takes two hours or more.  How can I add the prep time to the individual piece?

(Above:  Lunette XXXVI, detail.)

Finally, there's another problem.  I am rarely ever working on just one piece.  After all, these polyester stretch velvet shapes are all hand-cut.  If I cut up a blue square that is too small of one piece, it is likely perfect on another piece.  So ... I have more than one going at a time.  This makes it impossible to know how much time is spent on any one piece.  I don't know how long this Lunette took to make ... because it was in progress along with the once finished last week. I do know, however, that I'm really pleased with how both of them turned out!

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

In Box CCCLXXXIX, inspired by Barcelona

(Above:  In Box CCCLXXXIX, detail. Framed: 24" x 20"; unframed 16" x 12". $375 plus tax and shipping.  Layers of polyester stretch velvet on recycled, black industrial felt with hand stitching and melting techniques.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

Several weekends ago, Steve and I visited Tallulah Falls in Georgia, spent the night in Sylva, NC, and delivered artwork to the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville.  While riding in the van, I hand stitched an In Box piece very similar to this one.  Generally, I only create one of these colorful artworks while on a road trip.  Well ... we went to Smithville, Tennessee to collect my solo show Last Words.  The exhibit at the Appalachian Center for Craft had come to an end.  Going there and back was an opportunity hand stitched another one!  

(Above:  In Box CCCLXXXIX.)

Although this one might look similar to other hand-stitched In Box Series pieces, this one felt different.  The reason was simple!  The last one was sold to a wonderful woman who saw in it an aerial view of Barcelona!  Now ... it isn't unusual for one to see an aerial view; it is an important part of my original concept! I've always and intentionally meant for my In Box Series to be aerial views of an imaginary Friedensreich Hundertwasser city.  The colorful palette, the lack of a perfectly straight line, and the individual motifs in each "box" have always been my way of interpreting Hundertwasser's palette, his dislike for straight lines, and his emphasis on individualism. Next November when I'm in my booth at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, I will tell interested people all about Hundertwasser.  Dozens upon dozens of times I will explain that my In Box Series is meant to be an aerial view.  Yet, until the fine lady showed me an aerial photo of Barcelona, I never knew just how much this fabulous Catalan city looks like my artwork! 


(Above:  Aerial view of Barcelona.) 

On our recent trip, Steve and I reminisced about our trip to Barcelona, about architect Antoni Gaudi, and the frequent references between Gaudi and Hundertwasser with regards to their use of mosaics and their contributions to their country's architectural style and aesthetics.  When we went to Barcelona, I had hoped to find inspiration in Gaudi's buildings.  I was overwhelmed, awed, and spiritually moved but I didn't think I found any new inspiration.  Perhaps ... that's because it was already in my work!  Perhaps I just didn't know it!