Monday, October 15, 2012

Conceptual Statement and List of Portraits

From rising to dying, people make decisions.  Some are profound; some are routine; some have significant repercussions; others are cause for celebration.  In each instance, more than one option is available and the choice helps define the person making it.  This series of portraits examines personal decisions without making value judgment.  It focuses on the faces of real individuals and the decisions they made.  The titles and words are meant to reflect the choice, confront and challenge the viewer, and stimulate consideration.

Introduction to the book:

The Decision Portrait Series resulted as a response to a sculptural installation I made during the winter and spring of 2008.  The piece was called Personal Grounds.  It was constructed using four, old doors and hundreds of keys.  I displayed it at the annual spring arts crawl, Artista Vista, in the gallery space just outside my studio door at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios.


My statement was brief:  "Personal Grounds is a location in life. It is the place in which one exists as a result of doors opened, keys turned, and options exercised."

I was very pleased with the work but also a little troubled.  Something was missing.  While watching the public investigate the piece, ideas churned.  I realized that what the sculptural unit lacked was "the people" ... the people who make all these decisions.  The more I thought about it, the more I envisioned figurative artwork.  Despite the fact that I’d never worked using a human image, I couldn’t shake the idea for portraiture.

At first I thought I'd represent famous people who'd made difficult those senators in John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage. I loved that middle school. The more I thought about this, however, the more I hated the idea. It sounded all too a good high school history project, not a work of art. Besides, I wasn't passionate about any of these people. Truth be told, I didn't care enough.

Still, portraits would bring about the missing human element.  I kept thinking, trying to incorporate images of people. I liked the idea of focusing on decisions that changed lives...bittersweet decisions.... options that meant one thing is left as another is gained...forever changed.

Finally, I got it.  I wanted personal decisions…. every day choices…. real people who have made real decisions.  I also figured out how to transfer real photographs onto tea-stained muslin using xylene as a solvent on the ink of an oversized, black-and-white photocopy.  I made a “wish list” of the potential decisions I most wanted to stitch and created a blog to promote the series.  I found a “model’s release” on-line and adapted it for my purpose.  The first piece honored my sister Wanda.  Her portrait is called Twenty-Five Years Sober.

This initial portrait helped me determine several factors in the series, like the sizes.  As a professional custom picture framer, I wanted “standard sizes” for optimum material use and consistency when the series would eventually hang on gallery walls.  There are three sizes of mats:  30” x 24”; 30” x 36”; 30” x 40”.  I also selected the frame, a narrow, inexpensive blonde colored wood to be covered with crackled and distressed white acrylic paint.  This choice meant it would be very, very easy to touch up the frames after inevitable damage caused by shipping and transporting the works to exhibits.  The frame adds a total of one inch to the finished sizes.  The artwork’s size was determined in order to fit comfortably inside the frames’ dimensions:  approximately 24” x 18”; 24” x 30”; 24” x 34”.

The initial portrait also helped me determine the layers used.  I knew that the xylene photo transfer on tea-stained muslin would be thin, lightweight, and, if used alone, would limit the type of stitching I could do.  Also, I wanted some sort of a border around the off-white background.  I happened to have several sheets of Legion’s Silver/Gray Thai Stucco paper.  It looked good.  It was strong, sturdy, and inflexible.  I especially liked the fact that I could tear it by hand and have a ragged edge.  There was a problem though.  The muslin didn’t sit well on the bumpy surface of the “moon crater”-like paper. 

I also happened to have some recycled white acrylic felt on hand.  The felt once served as a protective wrapping for a kayak or canoe on its way from a North Carolina manufacturer to River Runner, the local outdoor shop.  The owner had been giving me this felt for quite some time.  (Only some of the Decision Portraits have recycled felt.  Why? Because generally this recycled felt is black and used in my “In Box” and “Faux-Stained Glass” series.  The white felt is almost “rare” and thus I actually had to purchase white felt frequently during the two years of stitching the portraits.)

The white felt looked great between the muslin and the Thai Stucco paper.  I cut it with very dull scissors for another ragged edge.  The felt made the surface smooth and ready for stitch. Best of all, I knew this presentation would work well with any black-and-white photo.  The presentation suits the concept for the series.  In each work it is possible to see the subject but also to envision a friend or family member or even oneself.  These portraits reflect both an individual and society … ragged edged, shades of gray, and the universal quality found in a newsprint sort of image.

The Decision Portrait Series was conceived with a very clear concept:

From rising to dying, people make decisions.  Some are profound; some are routine; some have significant repercussions; others are cause for celebration.  In each instance, more than one option is available and the choice helps define the person making it.  This series of portraits examines personal decisions without making value judgment.  It focuses on the faces of real individuals and the decisions they made.  The titles and words are meant to reflect the choice, confront and challenge the viewer, and stimulate consideration.

Months and several portraits later, I found myself at the MacNamara Foundation’s artist residency on Westport Island, Maine.  I was stitching on Blood Donor, Death Wish, and Tattoo Artist.  The studio manager, Duncan Slade, pointed out that these portraits were, in fact, ART QUILTS.  He would know.  Duncan and his wife were pioneers in this new medium and have three collaborations in Robert Shaw’s definitive, first scholarly work in the field, The Art Quilt, Beaux Arts Edition (November 1997).  The Decision Portrait Series became my accidental introduction to the world of art quilting. 

My blog, Art in Stitches, (, documented each piece and helped make contact with other people who became participants in the series.  My blog, Decision Portraits, (, was initially used as a communication tool when writing to potential participants and also contained my “wish list” for future work.  In April 2009 another blog was created in order to share the photo transfer process.  It is called Gift of Life after the group Decision Portrait by the same name.  (   The one hundred and seven pieces were made between May 2008 and August 2010.  During this time, I submitted individual pieces to local and national juried shows and sent out proposals for solo show opportunities. 

Behind in the Mortgage was selected for the national juried “2009 Materials Hard and Soft” exhibition in Denton, Texas where it won an award of distinction and was featured in the printed exhibition catalog. Illegal Immigrant was selected for the “The American Dream: A Juxtaposition” at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, IL (2011). Solidarity was selected for the “14th International Open” group exhibition at Woman Made Gallery (2011).  Muslim was selected for “Fine Crafts” at the Fredericksburg Center for Creative Arts, Fredericksburg, VA (2011).

A selection of the portraits were also shown at Frame of Mind, an alternative arts location in Columbia, South Carolina, for “First Thursday on Main Street” and for the month of January 2010.  Several portraits were shown at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios during various annual arts crawls called “Vista Lights” and “Artista Vista”.  This is the space outside my studio door.  There are twelve other studios in the building.  The resident artists show work together twice a year.


The “big break” for the entire series came when Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs selected the series for their lead visual arts exhibition during the annual MOJA Arts Festival in 2010, September 10 – October 10.  The exhibit included 106 of the 107 portraits, 45 sheer chiffon banners on which “decisions” were “written” in free-motion machine embroidery, The Wall of Keys, and the original sculptural unit of doors.  The original title used for the door sculpture, Personal Grounds, became the exhibit’s title.  The original statement was retained as well.  (The gallery manager censored Knight Riders from the show despite my protests.)


Obviously, the Decision Portraits series requires a very large space.  Yet, it can be curated into smaller selections.  In 2011 two opportunities occurred for the series.  The dates overlapped.  Twenty-eight pieces were shown in Greenville, South Carolina’s Warehouse Theatre from January 27th through February 23th.  This show was called Decision Portraits. (Above)  Thirty-five pieces were shown in Salisbury, North Carolina’s Waterworks Visual Arts Center from February 16th through May 14th.  This show was called Personal Grounds. (Below)

Most recently, my earlier proposal to Quilt’s Inc. for their annual International Festival of Quilts in Houston, TX was accepted for October 31 – November 4, 2012.  Forty pieces were chosen.  The exhibit is called Decision Portraits.  This is the first time that the works will be shown without their frames.  For my husband Steve and me, it was time to claim the storage space these pieces required.

From Houston the exhibition travels to Chandler, Arizona.  Not just the forty pieces … the entire collection is getting an opportunity to be shown at Vision Gallery.  All will be featured without framing from January through March 2013.  This opportunity is really my honor.  I didn’t even submit a proposal; they’ve been INVITED to come! 

There’s going to be one more portrait too!  Right before going to Texas, I delivered a “trunk show” to Threads of Life quilt guild in Lexington, South Carolina.  I brought my Grave Rubbing Art Quilts (, a series of “intentional” art quilts that resulted from my artist residency at the MacNamara Foundation in Maine.  One of the quilt guild members was deeply touched by my affinity to cemeteries, memories, and our human mortality.  She told me about a fatal car accident in which her daughter Aylah was killed.  Aylah wasn’t wearing a seat belt. 

From the very beginning, I’d had this unfortunate decision on my “wish list”.  It isn’t easy asking the parent of a young, deceased child for their participation in this series.  I’ve been turned down more than once.  This time was different.  This time I was talking to a mother who wants to keep her daughter’s memory alive and to positively influence others to BUCKLE UP and to obey STOP signs.  So now, I’ll be sitting with my solo show in Houston stitching on Aylah.  The words will include:  I didn’t buckle up.  July 24, 1991 – December 6, 2006.  There will be a seat belt on the portrait.

I’m no longer looking for new portraits to stitch even though there are plenty of decisions still left on my “wish list”.  Artistically, I’ve moved on.  Yet, there is one other, like Aylah, which would make me change my mind.  It’s been on the list from the beginning.  In fact, it is the catalyst for the entire series and even the sculptural unit of doors made back in 2008.

I would stitch High School Drop Out.  Of course, I envision my younger son Alex as the “model”.

Steve and I were having serious problems with Alex long before this work began.  Many tearful, sleepless nights found me wishing for some magic answer, some hidden key to happiness, some elusive door to family peace, good grades, and obeyed household rules.  Problem escalated and on February 12th, 2008, Alex left home in a fit of rage.

To this day, Alex is an uninsured, unemployed high school drop out living “somewhere” in Columbia, South Carolina.  Steve and I never approved of Alex’s decision but it was not our decision to make.  Steve and I have not contributed one cent to Alex’s lifestyle.  That was our decision to make … and live with.  Tough love is TOUGH.  This isn’t necessarily the “right” thing to do but it certainly isn’t the “wrong” thing to do.  It is simply the decision we made in a difficult circumstance.  Others facing similar family problems might make totally different choices.  Such decisions are always bittersweet.  The Decision Portraits helped me come to terms with these realities. 

The Decision Portraits

1.             Adoption
2.             Advocate
3.             Argentine Tango Dancer
4.             At Risk Adoption
5.             Atheist
6.             Bald is Beautiful
7.             Behind in the Mortgage
8.             Blood Donor
9.             Boomerang Child
10.          Britta, Twins at 42
11.          Broken Nest
12.          Buddhist
13.          Cheater
14.          Childless
15.          Christian
16.          Cold Turkey
17.          College Student
18.          Creationist
19.          Dealing With Alzheimer’s
20.          Death Wish
21.          Drag Queen
22.          DUI I
23.          DUI II
24.          DUI III
25.          Educating at Home
26.          Expatriate
27.          Exporter
28.          Family Role Models
29.          Fighting Illiteracy
30.          First Love
31.          For Science
32.          Foreigner
33.          Friend to Those in Prison
34.          From Preaching to Teaching
35.          Gift of Life
36.          Graffiti Artist
37.          Gun Owner
38.          Happily Ever After Again
39.          Happy Family
40.          He Wanted to Die at Home
41.          Hitch Hiker
42.          Homeless
43.          Husband I
44.          Husband II
45.          I Buckled Up!
46.          Illegal Immigrant
47.          Immigrants
48.          Importer
49.          Inventor
50.          Kidney Donor
51.          Knight Riders
52.          Lasik Eye Surgery
53.          Late Night Driver
54.          Leukemia Decision
55.          Living With HIV
56.          Mackenzie at 15
57.          Making a Difference
58.          Midwife
59.          Missing Holly
60.          Mother’s Milk
61.          Muslim
62.          No Meat
63.          Nudist
64.          On Fighting Cancer I
65.          On Fighting Cancer II
68.          Overcoming Childhood Sexual Abuse
69.          Overcoming Domestic Abuse
70.          Overcoming Ovarian Cancer
71.          Parent of an ADHD Child
72.          Patriot
73.          Personal Appearances I
74.          Personal Appearances II
75.          Pet Owner
76.          Poet
77.          Priest
78.          Prisoner I
79.          Prisoner II
80.          Pro Choice
81.          Prostitute
82.          Psychic/Medium
83.          Public Servant
84.          Pulling the Plug
85.          Rabbi
86.          Recycler
88.          Runaway
89.          Self Portrait
90.          Sign Language Interpreter
91.          Sister Support
92.          Smoker
93.          Solidarity
94.          Someone Else’s Miracle
95.          Soul Mates
96.          Standing Up For Peace
97.          State of the Economy
98.          Tattoo Artist
99.          Teenage Parent
100.       Termsof Marriage
101.       Twenty-fiveYears Sober
102.       Unplugged
103.       VintageClothing Vendor
104.       Volunteer
105.       Voter
106.       Warrior 
107.   Youngest Child 

1 comment:

Julie said...

107 Portraits, that is a huge body of work and a tribute to your perception and industry. I hope that some day Alex makes his decision to talk with you again and enables you to make the missing quilt. Thank you for speaking about your own decision, so many decisions have such far reaching consequences, as I know to my cost too.