The Purpose of Aimless Puttering

This post was inspired by one written by Jane Davies, a collage and mixed media artist I admire. She wrote about an exchange with a reader concerning some simple collages made as practice.

“Q:  My main question was if you had a purpose in mind when you created these simplified works, if you save them, and how you view the  time spent creating them.  Are you working towards a goal or just doing them for relaxation?

A:  When I need a break from whatever larger work I’m doing, OR when I’ve been out of the studio for a while and am rusty, the best way to get ideas moving is to keep my hands and eyes DOING something in the studio. Not thinking, but doing. And that takes on many forms. This little exercise I just made up and did a LOT of them. The main point is to do SOMETHING with hands and eyes to generate ideas, see where it goes, keep in practice, jog something loose, get back to some basic ideas, etc. It is not for relaxation, though it might be relaxing.”

Susan Lenz addresses similar points in her article for a regional SAQA newsletter. She makes several helpful specific points about productivity. In response to comments about her seemingly prodigious work output she says, “Productivity is often the result of a habit that took years to adopt. Get yourself a time card. Track your hours. This isn’t about the quality of the work or the amount of money you have in it or might get out of it. It is about the time you spend trying. It is about the hours you actually work.”

[Sidebar: I should note that Lenz is fully supported by her husband who deals with many of the day to day practicalities so she doesn’t have to. Same deal with Susan Carlson. I’m alluding to the kind of support from spouses that women have traditionally supplied male artists. Yet women artists may feel guilty that their art is taking time away from their families and all the duties associated with day to day living. Now that I’m retired and am no longer responsible for a child I’ve given up any pretense of feeling guilty about dereliction of such duties. My husband does these things better than I do and I value his willingness to shop and cook. I still do the dusting as he has asthma.]

But to return to my original points, I think it’s just fine to create without a goal. In fact, it’s fun. Often what I make while messing around ends up in finished work. “All Decked Out” and “Sur La Table” were made with surface design experiments done for the heck of it.

“All Decked Out”
“Sur La Table”

If I depended on sales of art to support myself I might have a less cavalier attitude toward purposeful work, but the two artists I quote above support themselves through their work yet still feel the need to mess around.

Another way I mess around is to revise old, finished work. If I’m not happy with a piece and would never display it, why shouldn’t I try to make it better. Even if I make it worse, I’ll have learned something in the process. “All Fly Away” is an improv piece that I have been fussing with for a few years. I just couldn’t get it to work. Finally I looked at it as a black and white image and saw why – not enough value contrast and too light in the wrong places. So I darkened the flying triangles with a marker and toned down bright/light areas with paint. It still needs more value contrast, but I’m happy I could diagnose the problem.

“All Fly Away” original
“All Fly Away” revised
“All Fly Away” revised, in black and white

Here’s some recent puttering I’ve done for no reason except I came across scraps while de-cluttering, and took a play break.

“Canyon Out West” was an experiment with fusing raw edge scraps to a background, then FMQing the result. I wouldn’t use the ribbon like this again.
Purple block made from surface design experiments (monoprinting, stenciling, embroidery). I may do more design on it or use it in a pillow.

The overall point of my puttering is to keep doing; to practice, practice, practice. Often I have no end goal in mind. You can talk theory all you want, but trying and failing teach you a lot more. Maybe we should have a show of our interesting failures.

I’m linking to Off The Wall Friday.


Filed under Art quilts, Commentary, Fabric Printing

10 responses to “The Purpose of Aimless Puttering

  1. Gwyned

    Another prolific quilter who has been known to take puttering breaks is Katie Pasquini Masopust. She wrote a great article about her “rest” quilts, perhaps 20 to 25 years ago. There is a reason children start life playing. Your puttering is clearly paying off.

    Love your feminist attitude about women supporting male artists for years, so it is perfectly acceptable for female artists to receive support from their partners. I’m fortunate to be in a such a marriage. I’ve supported my husband’s career and he mine. We show up for and help each other. Celebrate our 45th anniversary next weekend.

    • I’m glad your marriage is conducive to creation support. And happy 45th! I worry that too many quilters think their art comes after every last dish is washed and all the clean clothes are folded.

  2. Barbara

    I love what you did with “All Fly Away.” The subtle changes made a dramatic difference. And what a clever way to diagnose the problem. I recently took an online class from a famous quilter I admire. It took me 3 attempts to get the class assignment right before I post it to the class. I now have three wall hangings but more importantly, I learned a new way of working, and learned I don’t particularly like working that way (but it is one more tool and may prove useful at sometime).

    • I’m so glad the changes are apparent. Your online class intrigues me. What was the new way of working? Even if you decide it’s not for you, it’s always good to stretch the brain another way.

  3. I love the canyon piece!
    On “All Fly Away,” the picture you have labeled “revised” is showing as brighter than “original” on my screen.
    I know I have often read that we should strive for good contrast in our pieces, but as with your purple block, that may end up as a pillow, I have wondered about the need for contrast — many of our quilting projects are going to have a “supporting role” in the rooms they end up in. To me, maybe they shouldn’t really call attention to themselves as individual pieces. I would say art quilts that are going to hang on the wall should have enough contrast to me interesting, but maybe bed quilts, runners, etc. could be more muted. I will be interested to read your thoughts on the topic!

    • Glad you like the canyon piece. So does my husband. I think what I was trying to convey in the discussion of Fly Away was my need to concentrate the bright areas more, rather than have them scattered. It’s why I dulled some of the distracting (to me) bright areas. Also, I intensified the blue of the triangles.

      As to whether contrast is needed in pieces meant as decorative supports, I confess I hadn’t thought about it before. I have thought about whether the style (country, formal, modern, etc.), size, and color suited the setting. I guess I’m egotistical enough to assume that you wouldn’t want a quilted piece to have just a supporting role. But then my house features neutral walls and floors, and my upholstered furniture is also very neutral. I use throw rugs, pillows, lap quilts, and wall quilts to add zing. For me this approach makes it easy to redecorate without buying big ticket items like new sofas. I have made whole cloth pillows with decorative hand stitching, but again the colors were high contrast to the surroundings. I tend to decorate my bedrooms around the bed quilts I’ve made rather than the reverse, though I tried to be mindful of color harmony. Upon reflection, for supporting role pieces I try to be appropriate to the setting, though the contrast I go for is often between the quilted object and its environment rather than within the quilted object. Try as I might, I cannot seem to make any low volume work that can gracefully enhance rather than overtake its setting.

      • That is a good strategy for decorating — neutral background; interesting accents. My husband likes everything so neutral I accuse him of wanting our house to look like the hotel lobbies where he spends most of his time. 🙂 Maybe in a reaction to the way she was raised, my daughter’s house is over the top boho. So it is something I think about and I wanted to hear your thoughts. 🙂

      • I have a husband who seems to think off white is too dark a color for walls, plus for many years we moved every 3 years. Wall colors were chosen according to what would help sell our houses. The habit became ingrained.

  4. I find that sometimes just sitting and sewing random scraps (which we all have) together is a way of getting the ball rolling. I sew scraps until I stop, and put the “blocks” in a bin. I have used them later in different projects. Puttering works.

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