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  • Writer's pictureCarol Wiebe

“Designer” Fabric Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated

I have painted my own cloth for years, now. It revolutionized the way I made quilts. I took classes, read books, experimented, watched DVDs and videos. Jane Dunnewold was a huge influence, as I’ve said before. She coined the phrase “complex cloth.” Complex cloth, or art cloth, is created using as many layers as its creator deems necessary, combining colors, images, and a wide range of techniques. Read Dunnewold’s essay called What is art cloth, or get her book Complex Cloth. She actually has quite a number of excellent teaching DVDs and books, as well as fabric and an ezine called HeART Cloth Quarterly at her online store. In her usual lucid and articulate way, she describes how the artist uses a “. . . series of surface design patterning processes, all of which can be combined in endless permutations, to create a cloth surface with richness and visual depth.”

One of the things I appreciate about Jane is that she keeps things fairly straightforward. I go a few steps past that. Perhaps I’ve been teaching kindergarten students for too long, but I like to keep things really simple. I want my art to look good, but I don’t want to go through involved procedures and use toxic substances that require gas masks, and professional ventilation systems. I just want to have fun and express what my artistic nature itches to manifest.

I have discovered that you can get wonderful results from painting with acrylic paint directly on fabric. You don’t really require a special fabric medium–regular liquid medium works just fine, and imparts a little shine (otherwise, it can look dull). I use gessos, molding paste and mediums, because they put lots of texture on my pieces. I collage with tissue paper, rice paper, paper towels. Dimensional paints are a real favorite of mine. I make quick ‘n easy stamps using styrofoam, or fun foam. After a session with shaping small objects out of air dry clay, I include those in some of my pieces as well. Of course, it must be said that I am not going to wear, sleep under, or wash these pieces. That would change everything. But for those of you who, like me, just want art for your wall, the “hand” of the fabric is quite irrelevant. The only consideration you need to pay attention to is what your sewing machine can sew through, and that can be surprisingly thick, especially with a strong titanium needle.

Simple materials and methods do not equal unsophisticated, or puerile art. And I am in no way denigrating the mastery of intricate processes that require great dedication and skill to acquire. Practice is a necessary component of art making, as it is in learning an instrument, or honing athletic skills.

Materials and techniques are obviously necessary in the creation of art, but their complexity does not have a direct correlation with the quality of the statement the art piece can make. Picasso drew on napkins in restaurants, an archivist’s nightmare, probably, but with the mediums we have available to us today, even a napkin can be made impervious to wear.

What is my point in all of this? Just HAVE FUN! Let yourself experience the transformative practice of art making, where spirit, mind and body collaborate to incarnate your feelings, thoughts, wishes, dreams. Don’t worry if you are using the right materials, or you know sophisticated enough processes, or your art is good enough. The process is exhilarating, and if you get a nice piece of art at the end, consider it a bonus!

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