Friday, August 26, 2011

Birthday Presents

My birthday rolled around not too long ago, so I went to the National Arts & Crafts Fair to pick out my present. Dozens of stands offered their tantalizing wares that included hand woven rugs, hand painted scarves, furniture with inlaid mosaics, and ceramics, to name just a few. The presence of extraordinary artists and artisans demonstrated that the Tunisian craft scene prospers. As I wandered around, I kept mental notes on possible choices. It was difficult. Of course, I could have bought several things, but the challenge was to buy just one perfect gift so as not to add more “stuff” to the multiplying“stuff” at home. An olive wood vessel with a painted turquoise border caught my eye: the pronounced designs in olive wood always mesmerize me. A copper bowl with a cutout design had a modern flavor—very appealing. An elegant ceramic table lamp was a contender as well.
But finally, just as I struggled to make a decision, I spied it and I instantly knew. My birthday present patiently awaited me in the last stand of the fair. It was love at first sight…sigh…ceramic pots that could be used for plants.
These two pots are made in Nabeul, the ceramic capital of Tunisia. They have an “old” look to them, yet the final glaze contains something like glitter and they sparkle in the sunlight. Because I don’t do this type of work myself (I'm resisting taking up ceramics) and because of the quality of the product, I was willing to pay the asking price. 
Ok, ok, I bargained just a bit on principle—it’s expected. The merchant asked for…(drumroll)…$30 per pot and accepted $27 after bargaining. The first pot I picked out had a chip in the rim and when I pointed that out, the merchant said that was part of the “old” look. Hmmff. There’s a difference between a distressed or shabby chic look and getting bumped around in a truck. So I picked two others. 
The cactus was in bloom the day I photographed. What appears to be wadded up paper in front is actually a piece of cement that got imprinted from a cement sack. My first mosaic pot and a twisty piece of grapevine wood seem happy in the mix.
Hmmm, maybe I should’ve bought the whole lot of pots, but, now I have something to look forward to next year. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Battle of the Batt: Learning to Quilt in Tunisia

One cannot really speak of any sort of organized quilting activity in Tunisia, although sewing classes may include elementary patchwork techniques and some foreigners pursue the craft.  I was pretty much on my own when I wanted to have some quilts for my beds. As I knew how to sew, several books and a subscription to Quilter Newsletter Magazine got me through the learning stage, and what a bumpy ride it was, aggravated by the difficulty of finding batting. 
First of all, I bought a little Singer sewing machine, which is still with me. Works like a gem, talks to me, and performs acrobatics, and more importantly, I know how to repair it.  I’ve considered buying a new bigger and fancier machine, but this baby has become a part of me—it fits like an old pair of jeans. And, like I said, I don’t have to haul it back and forth to Tunis for maintenance and repairs. So, here is the beginning:
My first quilt was a sort of strippie quilt made from scraps of fabric from other sewing projects. Nothing to write home about (or post), but first efforts are monumental because we can measure the distance traveled, we love them like a first child, and because they concretely represent a challenge met. Lacking any kind of batting material, I used an old blanket and tied it. Then I proceeded on to a green log cabin quilt with whatever fabrics I could get ahold of (with little concern for quality), using a quilt-as-you-go technique. That poor quilt has faded to a yellowish green—downright ugly. A thick flannel-type fabric served as the batt making it heavy: It has been retired. I finally found sacks of polyester stuffing for pillows in Tunis so the next quilt was made of two-inch stuffed squares sewn together by hand—took forever to make and it still falls apart and needs constant repairing.
Things improved when I moved to the farm and claimed a bedroom for a studio. The local flea market had mountains of used clothing piled on the ground, overflow from certain charity industries in the States. 
You really didn't think all the cast-off clothing from consumer societies was sold in Western thrift stores, did you? Nope, it ends up in Africa and it's a money-making business, as in big bucks. 
Now there are tables and tarps overhead so the hunting is less back-breaking and therefore even more enjoyable. 
One can find shoes, purses, sheets, tablecloths, plus every article of clothing imaginable. For a few dollars I can buy a dozen used cotton shirts, skirts, and/or dresses. I then wash everything, cut it all apart, toss the seams and collars, save the buttons and labels, iron the fabric and fold it into rectangles that fit on the shelves in my studio. Most Saturdays I can be seen filling up my basket with clothes rather than food, especially at certain times of the month when new shipments arrive. Flea market vendors have savvy; they sell according to season so you won’t find sweaters on sale in the summer, for example. On the other hand, summer is a good time for cotton items. It’s like treasure hunting; sometimes one can find surprising and unexpected things. 
This week's hunting wasn't bad. The turquoise is a silk blouse...for 25 cents.
Thanks to the flea market, then, I accumulated a wide range of colors to work with and recycled fabrics with a bit of patina. Madam T. E. was my teacher—Trial and Error, which was sometimes an extreme form of learning. I tested out patterns, techniques, and sewing methods, and even made my own wool batts when I had a few sheep. That worked rather well, but I had to lay out the batt in bits and pieces which was time-consuming.  I also stuffed my suitcases with cotton batts when returning from vacations in the States. Now, I am thankful to find polyester batting in Tunis.
I made my share of bed quilts, pillows, bibs and what-not, and started designing my own appliqués. My skills were honed when I found a pharmacy that sold my crib quilts (with my original designs) to encourage the sale of baby products.  Gruelling production work that had deadlines. My workspace evolved with me.

And so, welcome to my studio. The desk/bookshelves are homemade, a perfect birthday gift.
A place for everything and everything in its place--button collection by color, thread (the French "Thiriez" thread on the right, my favorite), scissors, cutters, rulers. 
Ahhh, my fabric stash. I love being able to see it like a rainbow wrapped around the wall.

Two sawhorses hold my quilts so there are no folds. On top, the quiet side of a bed quilt that has wild pink, green and blue blocks on the reverse side. My studio rarely appears this orderly.

By 1991, I had developed enough technique in painting, drawing, macramé, sewing, embroidery, patchwork, appliqué, you name it. I moved on to art quilts when conflict in Iraq sent shock waves through the Middle East and the Maghreb (North Africa): I found my voice, I had something to say...

And here I am today: 
My latest work in progress. Given the current events in the region, my thoughts turn to order and disorder, discipline and chaos.
The blues and greens, leftover from another project, are machine top-stitched with a nylon thread (raw edges showing), while the warm colors are hand appliquéd using a needle-turn method. 
Some of the strips in the maze measure about an eighth of an inch. I carried this piece around with me for about ten years, stitching on it occasionally.  

The distance we can travel...

Friday, August 5, 2011

10,000-Piece Puzzles

As a little girl, I would watch family members bend over a card table in my grandparents’ living room to mull over the placement of tiny puzzle pieces, too many to count. Occasionally, someone would exclaim “Found it!” I was mesmerized as the bits slowly moved into place and a picture formed. To this day, I love those intricate and very ephemeral puzzles, but I rarely indulge myself because I’ve got something better to do…creating mosaic plant containers and flower pots.
         To do a mosaic is like putting together the pieces of a 10,000-piece puzzle, and consumes just as much time. However, the obvious advantage is that you own a useful, finished product, and with each pot I learn something new. At first, I used rather large pieces, which helped to cover the pot more quickly.
Getting adventuresome, I went to bigger pots. 
I did a black and white series that sits in the garden. The white color is a slate floor tile. Rather difficult to work with because it is difficult to cut, but very pretty with a matte finish.
I would have liked to have lion sculptures in front of the gate. 
Not far from the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Museum of the Ancient Orient, Istanbul, Turkey
Florence, Italy

but, I settled on a couple of large pots.
The pieces (or tesserae) remain rather big.
Then I thought about the possible designs that smaller pieces would enable me to do. So I had to figure out a way to get the tiles cut more evenly, smaller, and flatter on the back for a smoother surface...I would be embarrassed to admit all the different methods I tried. I finally discovered tile "nippers" and realized that an electric sander took care of the raised grid on the reverse side of tiles very well.  

To add a bit of drama, Before & After photos.  The Before, a clay pot the size and shape of a bucket:
And the After:

The green variegated tiles were leftover from our original kitchen and the white tiles were leftover from my bathroom renovation. It contains a grapevine that will eventually curl around a wrought iron railing, and a couple of succulents to have something green when the grapevine loses its leaves.

Better than a 10,000-piece puzzle!