29 June 2006

Biography of a Paper Lantern

Almost a year ago, I was living in my parent's house while shopping for a new home of my own in Maryland. Our family of five was living off of the bare minimum at Grandma and Grandpa's house.

My extendo-family does an annual reunion at The Outer Banks, NC, and as we packed up the car for the trip, I felt a tug for something creative to occupy my hands and brain. It's a 6 hour drive and I was just itching for something to be busy with. All of my own art supplies being packed away, I raided my mother's well-stocked art room for something- ANYTHING- creative to do with my time.

Mom handed me a couple of swatches of muslin that she'd printed on using Lazertran paper. Assuring me that the pieces were scraps and I could do whatever I wanted with them, she opened up her fabric drawers (sorted by color family, no less) and let me loose. I grabbed pieces of this and pieces of that. Interesting patterns or colors that appealed to my eyes. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with all the scraps I chose, so it freed me to choose anything. Knowing I had to keep it contained in the minivan though, I limited myself to only the things I could carry in my hand. A fistful of fabric, a sewing needle and black thread, and a pair of embroidery scissors later, I was climbing into our beach-bound caravan. Still no vision for a masterpiece.

I played with my goodies for over an hour. Folding, scrunching, wadding, stretching, and juxtaposing different colors and patterns. Nothing was coming to me. No lightbulbs lit up. Well, one of the kids asked me for a drink. Someone else got upset because they dropped their book in the crevasse between the van seat and the door. But no artistic epiphanies.

* A friend and I joke each other that art is it's own creature. "I am ART, I don't need you," it seems to say. An artist can't force her art to do anything. It decides what it's going to become. It is the thing that, in the end, calls the shots. As the artist, you just have to start with a concept and then hang on for the ride. (We came up with this "art motto" at 2AM in the midst of a flurrious artistic weekend get together. We were sleep deprived, loopy from ink vapors, and intrigued that our creative visions seemed to be taking a different route from what we'd set out to do. This concept is not gospel- just the rantings of two art-high women in the wee hours of the night.*

So... I was riding to the beach, waiting for these scraps of fabric to tell me what they wanted to become. I finally just began stitching pieces in layers. One scrap of muslin over another piece of polka-dotted cotton. Sandwiching that on top of a larger piece of turquoise. I liked the way the colors and textures harmonized. Without any direction other than visual pleasure, I made 2 or 3 of these "fabric sandwiches."

Mom also let me grab an old chenille glove she had lying around. Upside down, it looked like a guy walking and carrying something in his arms. I stitched his arms together to form a cradle for an object that was TBD. I had no idea what.

The guy is holding a green plaid heart- does it represent the things I hold dearest?

The fabric hasn't told me yet.

The fabric sandwiches, now stuffed with their own scraps to make them puff out a bit, reminded me of Chinese paper lanterns. Aha! The fabric was beginning to tell me what it wanted to do. As I stitched a few more newly identified "paper lanterns," I contemplated. (When I focus on a creative project my synapses seem to fire better. I think of and about things that I normally don't have time to stop and consider.) And here's what I came up with:
I love art. I love literature. I love music and culture. I love to travel. I'm a wife. I'm a mother. I'm not rich in money, talent or time. I'm not highly educated. I know a little bit about a lot, but a lot about very little. I'm in serious need of expanding my horizons. There are so many things I want to do. Both specific projects I have on hold and just a general lingering urge to go, see, do, experience. All these desires in my spirit... they hang like paper lanterns. (You can read my sentiments on this in my very first post, Grasping at a Straw of Creativity.)

"They Hang Like Paper Lanterns"

I had never put imagery to my creative dreams and wanderlust. I just sorta let them be what they were and adopted the menatality that "this is not the season." Which has some truth to it. BUT, I'm feeling so much more at ease now that I have an image in my head rather than just a pithy saying.

Now, I envision each idea and dream that is unfulfilled as a lovely paper lantern above my head. They aren't bearing down on me and hovering accusingly (as in, my third child's baby book that I feel guilty about never finishing and barely even STARTING), but now they provide a soft glow on the activity in my life. The more paper lanterns that hang up there in my "someday" sky, the more romantic and atmospheric their light in my life becomes. The future is full of possibilites, all strung together to softly illuminate the dance in the garden called "Present."

Over time, my main goal with the Paper Lanterns fabric collage became: keep it simple, use supplies I already have, and give it away when I am done. Oh, and GET IT DONE! I didn't want the collage itself to become another "paper lantern." Too ironic. So it became my in-the-car-and-I-need-something-to-do project. I took it on the plane to my church's Women's retreat, I took it on our 8 hour drive to Gatlinburg for T'giving, I sat and watched movies with my husband while I stitched away at it.

The fabric told me it wanted beads on it. So I added beads. It wanted the lantern poles to be on grassy hills. So I used a few strips of VERY old green fabric my mom used for a dress in 1974. Then the art asked for some metallic touches, so I wound some stylized curls of thin copper wire and stitched them on. The art said it wanted something 3-dimensional for the lantern poles. I tried sticks from my yard but they broke. I tried a few other things, but nothing worked well. The fabric and I settled on black denim, cut in spiraling strips then rolled and sewn onto the collage. It provided a little bit of texture but was still flexible enough to move with the rest of the collage. Hopefully the fabric was alright with my compromise.

Beads, black denim and 1970's green flowery hills.

Hey, the ART asked for it, it wasn't my idea!

Finally, after 7 months of labor and rebirth, here's what the ART decided it wanted to become.
There are several areas of the collage that I'm not super-pleased with, but it was my fault for not translating the art's instructions very well. I made choices based on what I thought the fabric was saying to me, but turns out I misunderstood a few of it's ideas. (No, I'm not going to tell you what they are!)
They Hang Like Paper Lanterns allowed me to do some deep reflection. I didn't spend a cent to make it! I whiled away the hours on several long road trips. It was not as simple (ie. straightforward) as I would have liked, but that's ok, I learned a lot. A lot about fabric, beads and wire. And sticks from my garden (they don't bend very well), not to mention myself. And I sent it to my crazy 2AM art-friend as a birthday gift.
One paper lantern down, 5 million to go!


Blogger Sprittibee said...

Very nice. I've never sewed anything other than a silly bag in home-ec (which I only took in 7th grade). I'd love to learn how to sew, and stitch, and embroider, etc. At least you have something to show for all your hard work. :)

3:56 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

Actually, I don't know how to sew either. The beauty of the ART quilt was that every stitch I made was just fine like it was because I was making ART. ;) I don't know any fancy stitches. Didn't need to for this one.

Sewing lessons? Well, there's another paper lantern, huh?

7:22 PM  
Blogger rhon said...

I was so thrilled to receive. Your freedom at creating art has always amazed me and my tight, planned approach.

I currently have this hanging in my office. I look at it and think of my dear friend and the possibilities outside the 9-to-5.

6:05 AM  
Blogger Abby said...

Erin, I love everything about this. I love that you're willing to use something that could be frustrating to encourage and inspire you. I love that you had clear goals that you stuck to and that you learned from. I love that you're always looking to learn something about yourself and I love that I get to learn something about myself through it.

And I love that you're using mom's old ugly fabric. You done it proud, kiddo.

8:55 PM  
Blogger gramarty said...

"UGLY" you say!? Well, I wasn't the one wearing the clothes made out of it!"

11:05 AM  

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