Monday, June 2, 2014

Race Music by Iris Quilts

Photo taken by Kerry Hawkins at Dedham Open Studios on a visit to Iris's studio at Mother Brook Arts and Community Center

My sister lives in Saratoga Springs NY, and the last time we were there for the races I shot a bajillion photos:  The horses, the jockeys, the crowd, the entertainment, the hats (a quilt one day…).  Of all of them this photo spoke the loudest to me and so I set off to interpret it in fabric.
with_hats.jpgSince this was from a photo and would have (lots & lots of) tiny pieces, I chose the tulle overlay technique (you can read about it in Beethoven 7th in Negative Space).  As always, I began by, enlarging and posterizing the photo – but I also turned it to black & white.  The shading on this piece was very important and I have a hard time deciding similar values across colors (is this shade of green and this shade of red the same value in my shade scale?).  By making my photo b&w I didn’t have to struggle – it’s clear to me whether one gray is lighter or darker than another.  I set the posterization for 5 shades of gray which meant that each color (red, skin tone, etc) would have 5 shades from light to dark.
Monday_May_12.jpgI started off by tracing the entire photo onto a plastic sheet which became my “master” and help with relative placement of figures.   I then traced individual sections of the photo (an arm, a face, a hat) marking the edges of the posterization process; this tracing would help with the relative placement of each shade of the image.  Finally, I traced that same individual section, marked each section as having a shade from 1-5 & black, and used that tracing as a cutting guide.  Once I finished an element (the arm, face or hat), I used the element’s complete tracing to make sure all was in place and then placed the element under the master tracing to make sure it was correct relative to its neighbor.  In other words, the arm needed to be coming out of the sleeve at the right spot!
The biggest challenge for me in this piece was balancing my desire to make the piece look like a photo with the reality of fabric as a medium - how detailed (read:  tiny pieces) I should go.  The fabric choices were not always correct; I had to make some of the faces and one of the arms twice, and the background color was changed a few times.  The flowers and greenery are actually comprised of several fabrics, with some leaves and all flowers fussy-cut to make sure I didn’t have an unnatural line between the windows and the ground.  This was actually not in the original photo, but I thought it was more attractive than the scattered coffee cups and disembodied heads and legs that were caught in the frame.

back_of_quilt.jpgOnce the top was completed, I had to decide what color to use in sewing around each element.  I chose black in order to emphasize the posterizing - but that led to another challenge.  In the photo, the gentleman on the left’s eyes are just circles with a dot in the middle; you know they’re eyes, but there’s absolutely no detail (eyelid, eyeball, iris, pupil). I felt it would look off (freaky, actually) if I outlined those circles in black thread.  After much deliberation and experimentation, I colored them with a marker which made them softer (not freaky!) and stayed true to the mere suggestion of eyes.
The final stage of this project was placing the strings on the bass and banjo.  Sigh.  I didn’t want to put them under the tulle which meant by the time I was sewing them on, there were layers and layers of fabric underneath.  I had to use pliers (!) to push and pull the needle for the banjo strings.  The two bass strings are made of embroidery floss which I couched by hand (with pliers).  To stay true to the photo I colored the bottom part of the strings with yellow and red markers. 
Race_Music.jpgThe quilt measures 19.25 x 30.25 framed, and took 65 hours of hands-on (as my husband points out, not including the thinking, planning, re-thinking, re-planning, or shopping for) work to complete.  

By Iris Sonnenschein

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