Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Allure of the Isles of Shoals

Why am I writing about the Isles of Shoals?  Because, after hearing for years about these lowlying fogbound rocks, seven miles out to sea off the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire--a time during which, in my imagination, they acquired the allure of mystery, beauty, and tragedy--now I finally get to go to one of them, Star Island, to teach art for a week.

Have you ever heard of them? If you've spent any time on the coast of Maine or New Hampshire, as I have, you'll know them as the place from which the National Weather Service broadcasts its forecasts.  That's how I first heard of them.  Listening to those forecasts coming in on my weather radio from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Isle of Shoals station, , I pictured a chilly place with a bell buoy tolling in the background.

Then I started learning, haphazardly and without specific intention, about the reality of the Isles of Shoals.

First I read The Weight of Water, a haunting novel by Anita Shreve, focusing on a murder that took place among the Isles of Shoals, on Smuttynose Island, in 1873.  That enigmatic story told me that the Isles, barren as they are, are lived in and on, and have been.

Later I learned that they were even a popular resort in the 19th century, with the Oceanic Hotel operating on Star Island, the Mid-Ocean House on Smuttynose, and Appledore House on Appledore.  Appledore House, presided over by Celia Thaxter,  daughter of a light keeper, attracted luminaries including Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Morris Hunt, and Childe Hassam.

As I gardener, I learned that Hassam, one of my favorite American Impressionists, had painted Thaxter's stunning garden on Appledore.

In fact, Hassam's paintings, and Thaxter's writing, have been published together in a slipcase volume called An Island Garden, which I was lucky enough to receive as a gift from my friend Laurel.

Thaxter's gardens have been restored as part of the University of New Hampshire's Shoals Marine Laboratory, and people who plan ahead and make reservations can still visit them. 

I also heard about Appledore from my friend Andy, who visits that island at least once a year.  Andy is an HR professional who is also a birder, and the Isles of Shoals are the focus of her bird-banding trips.

Then, when I started going to a Unitarian church, the Unitarian Society of Hartford,, I learned about Star Island.  I heard people talking about the island as a beloved destination for family visits.  The Oceanic Hotel is still standing there,

and in the spring and summer seasons, it's the site of themed conferences and personal retreats administered by the Star Island Corporation, which is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ  In administering these programs, the Star Island Corporation seeks to create an environment that "frees all who come to renew spiritually, explore matters of consequence, and gain knowledge about the world as it might ideally be."

Still, I'd never been there, to Star or any of the other Isles of Shoals, when the story of a life-changing experience on Star Island made a profound impression on me.  The story came from one of my co-congregants at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, Karl Peters, a Professor Emeritus of Religion at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida, speaking from the pulpit.   Peters describes this transformative experience in his book, Spiritual Transformation:  Science, Religion, and Human Becoming, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006, but that day he told the story at a Sunday service.

Peters said that he had been on Star Island attending a session of the Institute of Religion in and Age of Science, when he experienced what he calls a "thin place"--"a Celtic Christian metaphor for coming in contact with the sacred, which is present all around and in and through us, but which often is hidden from us."

Thin places can also be places of worship, Peters said. One of his most memorable worship experiences took place in a small stone chapel located on the highest point of Star island.  "Each night on Star Island," Peters writes, " the conference day closes with a simple candlelight service. Conferees carry candle lanterns from the porch of the hotel up the path to the chapel. Once inside they hang the lanterns on sconces, bathing the chapel in its only source of light. It’s a beautiful setting.

"One time in the early 1970s the Star Island chapel became for me a thin place. The conference had been a wonderful week of exciting ideas and meaningful conversations. I felt good as I walked up the path to the chapel in silence, carrying my lantern. Ahead of me I noticed that some were looking north at the sky. When I turned, I saw the most magnificent display of northern lights I had ever seen. In the chapel I sat in the back corner. As was customary in those days at our religion and science conference, the Friday night candlelight was a Jewish Shabbat service, conducted by Rabbi Jerome Molino and his wife Rhoda Molino from Danbury, CT. The service was all in Hebrew. I did not understand a word. But as I sat in this candle-lit stone chapel, listing to the sacred sounds of the service, something came over me. I can’t describe it. The whole week, the aurora borealis, the chapel all came together in an absolutely thrilling way. I sat there in silence, tingling, emotionally moved to tears at the beauty of what I felt. Today, I would say that I was experiencing a thin place."

Peters' words never left me.  They, and the lonely words from the National Weather Service, The Weight of Water, Celia Thaxter's garden, and my friend Andy's birding, all gave the Isles of Shoals a sharp allure in my imagination.

And now  I get to go there.  I've been invited, by the Star Island Corporation, to teach at Star Arts Week this year from June 17 to 24.  I'll be teaching The Felted Landscape, and I'm thrilled to be seeing the grand old Oceanic Hotel and the stone chapel.  I'm told there will even be a trip to Appledore Island to see Thaxter's garden some time during the week.

I'm excited.  And I'm going to read The Weight of Water again.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Floating Lessons

Sometimes the only way I learn things is the hard way.  That's been my experience as my art quilts transition into a gallery environment, where presentation standards are different, and new to me.  My latest adventure is with the floating frame.  You might say I needed floating lessons.

Two respected sources affiliated with two Connecticut art galleries have suggested that I present my work differently by using something called a floating frame.  I'd never heard of a floating frame, but the folks at Jerry's Artarama showed me a couple of kinds.  I think I found what the ladies had in mind.  So I took one of my seascapes, which had been mounted on stretcher bars covered with burlap which had been handpainted blue (to give it a weatherbeaten nautical effect), took it off the burlap, and mounted it in a floating frame.  Here are before and after shots:

Eastham Low Tide, mounted on handpainted burlap fastened to stretcher bars.

The woman at the gallery where I presented this piece had a visceral aversion to the burlap and said that it wouldn't be acceptable in her gallery.  Who knew?  Well, I do, now.

So I took the burlap off the stretcher bars, took the piece off the burlap, and took the binding off the piece. Once I had it down to  its unbound self, I straightened the edges and sewed borders of black canvas on the horizontal and then the vertical sides.  The canvas border was then fastened around a purchased canvas and the whole encased in a floater frame.  Thus:

What do you think of this?  I think it's lost some of its quiltiness--it's touchable texture--but gained in painterliness.

The next one, Low Tide First Encounter Beach II,  was juried into a show at a Connecticut gallery in the summer of 2016, but when the gallery manager saw it, she sent me back to the drawing board, pointing out that the natural-color canvas on which the piece was mounted was dirty, and that the binding around parts of the quilt was crooked.

I took it off the canvas, took the binding off it, straightened the edges, added borders of black canvas around the edges, and mounted it in a floater frame.

What do you think?  Has the presentation improved?  You would have had to see it in person, I suppose, to appreciate the difference, but I understand what the gallery manager was saying, and I think it's an improvement.  

But I'd be happy to hear from my quilting friends out there about this procedure as applied to your own work.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Speed Bumps on the Road to Gallery Readiness

I'm passionate enough about my fiber art to seek recognition and a wider audience for it.  That's why I enter my work into juried shows.

In the past few months, I've had my work accepted into shows at two Connecticut galleries, which was thrilling for me.

But both galleries sent me back to the drawing board on my presentation.  Now mind you, I'm not quarreling with their judgment or conclusions.  I'm just telling you what they said.  Because I'm learning how fiber art, viewed in some quarters as an "applied" art, makes the transition to settings usually associated with "fine" art. 

In one case, a juried show at a gallery, I had to take the pieces off the stretcher bars and remount them in a way that appeared cleaner and more finished.  In another case, a gallery show in which I was an invited artist, I was asked to swap out an entire piece and replace it with one that was mounted better.  This time, the rejected piece, Eastham Low Tide, a whole cloth quilt showing a tidal landscape, had a surround of hand painted burlap.  Because the painting on the burlap was uneven, and because the burlap itself had a close association with craft, I was asked to replace this piece with something else.

I have to tell you that Eastham Low Tide has already been accepted into two juried shows, both of them sponsored by local nonprofit art leagues.  I imagine that proprietary art galleries, even art galleries that are co-ops, need to be more exacting about the art they accept because profit is more of a priority for them.  Am I right?

Eastham Low Tide (2015)

I gave the gallery several choices with which to replace Eastham Low Tide, and they chose Foggy Coast because its mounting was superior:  background was a muted neutral color and was not blotchy.

Foggy Coast (2014)
 They also approved of the mounting on the piece below, which is called Penwood Overlook, Fall.  The mounting of this piece has a finished appearance, and the corduroy, despite its utilitarian origin as a home decorator fabric, actually enhances the piece.

For future reference, this gallery is recommending floating frames, and I'm looking into that.  With a floating frame, the idea, if I understand it correctly, is that I would mount a piece on a canvas or on stretcher bars that are exactly its same size.  No surround, just the piece itself, mounted on bars.  (I guess I would have to apply a modest, invisible facing to achieve this goal).

 Then THAT piece would be inserted into another frame that gives it a floating appearance.  Here are a couple of examples.

I think that's the idea.  So, I'm looking into what it's going to take to mount my images in this way. I'm going to start with three--if I can, because these pieces are not standard sizes--and see what happens.

If this is what it takes to make the transition to a fine-art setting, I'm going to give it a try.  But I have to admit that this type of presentation would be prohibitive for my larger quilts, which are free-hanging and not mounted on stretcher bars.  This one, for example, is 40 x 40:

What would it take to put this in a floating frame?  Why should I?  Are the art gallery standards inappropriate for art quilts and fiber arts in general?  And the larger question:  am I willing to make this change in order to allow my work to make the transition to proprietary venues where it will be accepted as "fine" art? 

Have you other fiber artists ever thought about this?  What do you think?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Today in Art: Kenny's Zebra

 The other day, I added the finishing touches to Kenny's zebra.  Kenny is a client of Hartford's Chrysalis Center, and he's been attending my felting classes on Monday mornings at 11 for over a year now.  He seems to specialize in felted images of animals.  So far, in addition to an image of his pit bull, Tank, he's created a panda

And a cheetah

And now, this zebra.  He did all the felting himself, right down to and including the black and white yarn for the mane.

I think he did a remarkable job, given the number and complexity of the color changes.

He did ask me to add a background, though, which I did.  I also neatened up the stripes a little bit, getting stray bits of black off the white part, and vice versa.  I also added a binding.  Here's what I did:

I'm proud of my work at the Chrysalis Center and gratified that so many of the people with whom I work, like Kenny, love needle felting.

I can't show you Kenny's face, but here are his hands:

Which reminds me, I'll be teaching a one-day workshop, The Felted Landscape, at West Hartford Art League in West Hartford on Sunday, February 2, starting at 10 a.m.:

...and also teaching needle felting for a week as part of Arts Week at Star Island:

Do I know how to have fun or WHAT???

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Today in Art: Six Ways of Looking at the Pattaconk Brook, Revealed

A few days ago I reported that I was working on a piece called Six Ways of Looking at the Pattaconk Brook.  This piece will appear at a show at a gallery, Maple and Main, in the town of Chester, Connecticut.  The show, Imaging Chester,, focuses on impressions of the town.  The Pattaconk Brook, which wends its scenic way all across it from west to east, finally emptying into the Connecticut River, is one of its prominent features.

I've been working on this for last couple of weeks, but finally it's done, so now I can show you my work.

Six Ways of Looking at Pattaconk Brook--the name is a reference to the poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Connecticut poet Wallace Stevens--is a quilted and threadpainted fabric collage showing six ways of looking at the brook:  two scenic photos, two satellite photos, and two contour maps.

Above is a full view of the piece.  The central feature is a contour map showing the brook criscrossing Route 148, or vice versa, and emptying into the Connecticut River (via the Pattaconk Yacht Club, as I found).

In the upper right and lower left corner are the two scenic views  of the brook, and the rest are satellite images and contour maps. All are done through a process called photo transfer:  that is, the printing of photographic images on cloth.

Below, here's one of the two scenic landscapes of the brook, this one as it passes through the center of town. After the photo image is printed on cotton, it's threadpainted, quilted, and bound, like a mini-quilt.  This one is superimposed on one of the satellite images, itself also lightly quilted.

Come to the opening reception for this show!  You'll love Chester.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Today in Art: Six Ways of Looking at the Pattaconk Brook

An art gallery in Chester, Connecticut, a scenic little town if there ever was one, ( is going to be showing a piece of my art soon.  The gallery is Maple and Main, the show is Imaging Chester ( and my piece is called...wait for it...

Six Ways of Looking at the Pattaconk Brook.  The title is a bit of sideways homage to the poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," by Connecticut poet Wallace Stevens.

I chose to focus on the Pattaconk Brook because it's a watercourse flowing throughout Chester, and because I I liked its name.  According to the town website,, Pattaconk is an American Indian term referring to a round or wigwam-shaped hill, possibly as the town of Chester appeared when viewed from the Connecticut river.

 A few days ago, Joe and I drove down there--Chester is south and east of where we live in West Hartford--to look for scenic Pattaconk shots.

But first, a fun fact:  Having studied Latin for five years, I can tell you that any place in England with Chester in its name derived that name from the Latin word castrum, meaning a camp or settlement...that is, a Roman outpost in the British Isles.  The word castrum developed into the word chester and then was transplanted from England to the new world.  So here we have Chester, Connecticut, which is in no way a former Roman settlement.  Instead, it was an English settlement in the territory of the Wangunks, a river tribe of native Americans.

Joe and I knew that mid-December wasn't going to yield anything like this idyllic view of the Pattaconk Brook shot by Connecticut photographer Kyle Nolin

 . . . but we hoped to find the place on the ground that corresponds to the location of these satellite photos, courtesy of Google Maps:

 Instead, the Pattaconk we saw at ground level was more like this:

Kind of bleak, don't you think?

From the map, it looks as if the Essex Steam Train, a vintage railroad tourist attraction, actually provides the closest ingress to some of those paludal areas.  Take a look at this map and you'll see the railroad route ambling right along the river, close by to where the Pattaconk forms those marshy areas before traversing through the Pattaconk Yacht Club emptying into the Connecticut:

And thanks to Sister Mary Immaculata, M.Z.S.H., my high school Latin teacher, for explaining that the Latin noun palus, (paludis) meaning a swampy area, has a cognate in the English adjective paludal, meaning "of or relating to swampy areas." I've never heard that word uttered outside her class, except by myself.  

Despite the paludal areas, Joe was able to get a couple of good shots of the brook, like this one somewhere along Dock Road in Chester.  Can you believe that this, and the photo above, are as close as we could get to the beguilingly sinuous watercourse in the satellite photos?

Maybe if we had a walking guide to the town, and some good wading boots, we could get closer to the site of the satellite view.

But how about this one, another shot by Joe, where the brook goes through the middle of the town:

Later, after we returned home, I found a contour map of the town:

and another satellite view:

In all, I came up with six different ways of looking at the Pattaconk Brook.  Thanks to the ability to print photos on fabric,'m about to turn them into an art quilt.

I'll show you when  it's ready.

Betcha can't wait!