Well–I did it again.
I’m just back from my fourth trip to Nancy Crow’s Timber Frame Barn in Ohio. I spent two weeks there studying Advanced Composition with 20 other students. The first week was Overall Figure/Ground Composition and the second week was Spare Composition.
I wasn’t sure if I was going back because I’ve been on the wait list for this class for nearly two years. Nancy didn’t teach at the Barn last year because of COVID, and this year there were lots of new protocols in place to keep everyone safe. Everyone had to show proof of vaccination and masks were encouraged. I’ve never been to the Barn before in the fall–my other classes have all been in the spring. It was beautiful. You can read about my other adventures at the Barn here and here and here.
The other times I’ve been at the Barn I’ve been studying some form of Improvisation as Nancy defines it–but these classes were different and much harder. As I’ve said before, studying at the Barn is like taking a graduate level course in design in two weeks. It’s intense, exhausting, and inspirational. The Barn is open from 7 AM – 9 PM and although Nancy isn’t there all that time, most students feel it’s important to take advantage of the time you have to sew in order to get everything done. I usually arrived by 7:30 in the morning and left by 8 PM.
The first assignment was to create a 4 foot square composition of disparate elements that worked well together and called up a childlike exuberance. The key word was “disparate” and it was incredibly hard because you couldn’t fall back on repetition to help hold things together. The first Monday was a tough day. I redid my black and white composition 9 times! Thank goodness for my iPhone to take pictures and keep a record.
Once we had the composition approved, we were to sew it together in black and white, then redo it another 6 times in various color assignments. That’s a lot of sewing in 3 and a half days.
One thing I forced myself to do was to try and create interesting shapes without worrying too much about how I was going to sew them together. The figure on the lower left had a large circle shape that I wasn’t sure how to deal with as a technical matter and I spent a sleepless night thinking about it. My friends came to the rescue on Tuesday morning and showed me how to do an inset circle, which I had never learned to do. That was a game changer! One of the best things about going to the Barn is the friends you make there and their willingness to help each other, because we’re all in the same boat.
The whole top had to be pieced before the circle could be inset–it was a little bit of a nailbiter to cut away the excess center so the circle could be sewn. And there were lots of pins required, but it worked like a charm.
Just to make things a bit more challenging, we were supposed to cut each iteration of the design freehand, without making a pattern or using templates.
Of the 7 tops assigned, I was able to finish 6–mostly because we were allowed to come in on the second Sunday to work for 6 hours before dinner.
Saturday is a free day, but I had to spend it trying to get a new tire for my car because I had picked up a nail on my way over from Virginia and the tire couldn’t be repaired.
As is usual for me at the Barn, the first week was tough. I had hopes that the second week would be better.
Monday morning we were assigned to create 9 compositions reflecting more spareness using two colors. These were about 18″ x 20″ and I started out with two shapes and a curvy line.
Each new composition was supposed to make certain changes to the design, then we sewed them together into a 9-Patch configuration.
So far so good. Monday evening we were assigned to come back with another set of ideas. I went back to the hotel and made about 20 drawings of compositions I was interested in and I thought I was in good shape. Nancy had other ideas.
In the morning I chose one of the compositions and cut the shapes out of black fabric to get started. But Nancy challenged me that the idea was too simple and pushed me to find something that was completely different from what I was used to doing. Sigh–that’s why I’m here, right?
I took some pictures of the ideas I had to save for later and started over.
Somehow I came up with something new that I was actually happy with! It’s interesting to me how that works. Obviously I have a choice about how I react to the criticism. You can take it personally and allow it to upset you, or you can move on and try for something new. If I wanted to do the same thing I’ve always done, I could just stay home–so that’s the tack I take there.
It turned out that the composition I decided to use had more information in it in terms of shapes and lines than was optimal for this assignment, so the last two iterations I simplified things a bit.
I learned a tremendous amount about color, line and shape in these exercises. And of course there were those inset circles–after doing 6 of them I feel fairly confident in the technique should I need it again. And I was pleased that I pushed myself.
I don’t know exactly how this work will play into my own artistic practice, because it’s so different than anything I normally do, but we’ll see how it all evolves over time. I think it’s worth doing something that pushes me outside my comfort zone–it makes me a better artist and a better teacher, and that’s my goal.
What do you do to push yourself?