The Accidental Artist – tales of my first gallery show

Princess Lei Chair - Corner Detail

The Accidental Artist – this blog is a bit long, so grab a bevvie and a snack…

Last October I was running around a hot, smelly black top of a middle school in Northern California. I was wearing a giant cowbell costume that made me look like a demented Dalmatian in a can.  It was 95 degrees, and I was sweating under the blazing sun, as I ran around in front of 1200 middle schoolers, ringing a small cowbell and mooing.  I took such pleasure in the kids cheering for me, their quirky Home Ec teacher.  What a dork.

This October found me jetting along lush Virginia back roads in a luxury car, watching the splendid colors of an east coast fall glide by, cool air on my face, wearing my big girl clothes, on my way to my first gallery exhibition.

Just how did this happen?

Chairs: A Conversation was an art exhibit of my father Robert Ballard’s paintings and my art quilts that was held in the gallery of his shop, R.H. Ballard Art, Rug and Home, in Little Washington, Virginia.

The conversation between us is chairs.  It is a visual conversation: Dad’s distinctive paintings rich with texture and color, balanced and serene.  My quilts of chair images: exuberant, bright and cheerful.

But the conversation is so much bigger and encompassing.  It involves everyone in our family, as everyone had a part in making the exhibit come to life.

Blue Thistle chair

This part of the journey started last summer when I wanted to make my dad a quilt for his birthday.  I had only given him one quilt and that was 15 years ago.  He had been doing a series of paintings of chairs and I thought that a chair would be a great image for a quilt.  I designed and quilted a blue armchair using some of Jane Sassaman’s thistle fabric, and the quilt was fabulous.  But, I didn’t want to give it away.  I made a second chair using Jane’s pink version of the thistle fabric and again – nope – didn’t want to give it away, either.  So this went on.  For about 10 quilts!

Pink Thistle Chair

In the mean time I was teaching public school and had proposed a quilting book to C & T Publishing.  Happily, it had been accepted and I was on my way to being a published author with my book Maverick Quilts: Using Large-Scale fabrics and Panels with Panache (Coming July 2011).   When C & T saw the chair quilts, a Pattern Pack, Dream Chair Quilts 7 Patterns for Whimsical Wallhangings, was soon in the works. So between January and June last year I wrote a book, designed a pattern pack, taught 165 teenagers each day and made 30 quilts.  What a crazy time – I am STILL cleaning up the messy house!

Dream Chair Quilts

At this point, my dad and his wife Joanie contacted me with the possibility of a gallery show of Dad’s and my work. Of course, I was delighted and flattered that they thought my work was at a level to be considered for the gallery – Dad sells Matisse and Chagall for Pete’s sake!

I hadn’t been to Virginia since their wedding 15 years ago and I had never seen their shop or their house.  It seemed like a perfect opportunity for a family reunion.  My son and husband agreed to come, and my brother and his wife were also able to join us.

All I had to do was make a bunch of really cool art quilts, good enough to sell, in just three months.  Long story short – the quilts got made, Dad’s paintings got made and neither of us ever wanted to see another chair as long as we live!  Just kidding.  (Sort of.)

Princess Lei Chair

Arriving in the verdant, humming countryside with an 81-pound box of quilts in the trunk was the beginning of the most wonderful adventure.  We stayed at Dad and Joanie’s beautiful house, my brother and his family joined us and everyone had a great time.

Watching my father, my brother, my son and my husband hang the show together was very poignant for me.  While we are rarely together, the family bonds feel deep and give me a sense of the past and the future and make me hopeful.

My lovely sister-in-law and my amazing niece and nephew were there too, and we got to play, play, play!

When the morning of the opening finally came, I got some alone time in the gallery.  My quilts covered two walls of the room and Dad’s paintings the other two.  I stood and marveled at everything that had happened to get me to this point.  I remembered Dad’s small sun-lit painting room at our house in New Zealand where I watched him paint.  I thought back to special lunch dates with Dad at the Japanese restaurant next to his San Francisco gallery when I was a teenager.  I pictured the hours we spent on the couch reading books of old masters and talking art together.  I didn’t know then that I would be an artist.  I thought I would be a detective – or a model.

Eucalyptus Rossini Chair

Standing there in the silence of the gallery I went back to one of my very first memories.  I am five years old and my brother and I are hiding behind a wall in Dad’s gallery.  It was his first gallery – he opened it for the California College of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley.  It was 1969 and the art was “groovy.”   Around the corner from us was a piece of art that perhaps only a child can appreciate: a chair covered with peanut butter.  Yes!  COVERED WITH PEANUT BUTTER!  We couldn’t believe it!

When the gallery was quiet we would dart out and take big swipes of the crusty, hard stuff and eat it!  Then we would run for safety, shooshing each other and giggling.   The chair was an enameled bright yellow under the peanut butter, and we left plenty of the yellow showing.  I know my dad had to touch up the chair every time we visited.

That day in the gallery I recounted the story to Dad we laughed.  He looked down, chuckled, and shook his head as if to recount all the antics I did over the years.

Father & Daughter

Joanie surprised me with the most amazing cookies and a cake that she had ordered for the show.  They were shaped like an armchair and each one had different patterns “quilted” into the frosting.  We were able to give them away at the show and everyone got a part of the conversation.

The opening itself was successful.  It seemed a million miles away from the school black top.  Many people came, and everyone liked the work.  I realized that my dreams of being a detective/model were probably not going to come true, but that I was, after all, and artist.

I guess underneath it all I still felt like that little girl sneaking peanut butter off of the chair.  I had to shoosh my own happy giggling and TRY to act like a grown up.

Light Givers – the most magical fabric!

The mystery quilt is coming along very well.  I love how the quilt looks and how well the whole pattern is coming together.  I can’t wait for you guys to make one.  Please hold for the release – Coming Soon!

I wrote a funny introduction to the mystery which dates back to the 1500s and a blacksmith called Guillermo (el Toro) Reyes.  What fun it was to make up!

The greatest challenge of writing a mystery quilt is describing the fabrics needed to create the quilt.  Without seeing a sample, the detective sewers are required to get fabric based on my written clues alone.  Now that is scary for anyone – even a maverick quilter!

Because I want everyone to base the quilt on a large-print fabric that they love, I have to categorize the fabric based on the value and pattern, rather than color.  If the quilt was simply a blue & white quilt that would be easy, but. of course, my quilt is more esoteric.

One of the fabrics that does an important job in the quilt in what I call a light giver.  I don’t know where I learned this term, but I rely on these magical fabrics to create space, shine and glow in a quilt.

Are you thinking:  What?!

Hold on and I’ll explain.  A light giver is a fabric that has light, medium and dark in a single fabric.  Of  course, any light value fabric can create light in a quilt when paired with dark fabrics, but the light givers seem to glow from the inside out.

In the mystery quilt, I am trying to create a sense of lightness in a place where four blocks join.  Using the light givers, I can use different fabrics and have them really brighten the corners and create a secondary image.

I encourage you to use quirky and unusual fabrics.  I think it really makes for fun visual play and adds whimsy to your work.