When I applied for my sabbatical, I proposed to explore visualizing privacy concepts through art. It sounded like a plausible way to tie my research interests to my sabbatical plan, but I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to do that. Well, I have now finished my second sabbatical quilt, and it is actually about privacy. And there is a long story to go with it.

When I was at SXSW last spring, I saw a Japanese startup at the trade show that was handing out 30x lenses you could stick on your smartphone. They wanted people to use the lenses to take close-up photos of their skin problems and upload them to a social network called Beautécam. I was somewhat horrified by the concept, but happily accepted a 30x lens and hurried off to another booth. When I got home I stuck the lens on my Android phone and started taking photos. Once I got the hang of using it (it has a very short focal length) I was amazed at the detailed photos it took. I took a bunch of photos of fabrics and flowers with very nice results.

Using the lens made me think a lot about privacy. Given my research area, I think a lot about privacy anyway, but this creepy skin-care lens seemed well suited for visualizing privacy concepts. I tried to understand why the intended use of this lens had such a high “yuck” factor for me. For one thing, 30x closeup photos of skin are actually not very attractive, even if your skin is flawless, which mine certainly is not. But most of us don’t get really close-up views of very many other peoples’ skin, because that usually requires being in uncomfortably close proximity to those people. We all learn to keep a certain distance away from people out of respect for their personal space. Just how far that distance is seems to vary somewhat by culture.

In order to be in focus, an object must be within about a millimeter of the end of the 30x lens. So using this lens to photograph skin requires pressing the lens against the skin. Taking pictures of flowers with the lens requires shoving the cone-shaped lens into the center of the flower, and in some cases, gently prodding the flower into the center of the lens. So, there is no way to use the lens without invading the personal space of the person or object you are photographing. Of course, flowers don’t care, but I like the metaphor.

The flower images and the privacy metaphor especially intrigued me, and I started thinking about how I might use them in a quilt. I assembled a panel of some of my favorite flower images in Photoshop and uploaded them to Spoonflower, a company that prints digital images on fabric. About a week later Spoonflower delivered a yard of Kona cotton fabric with my images printed on it. The images looked soft and lovely on the fabric, although the colors were not as intense as in the original. After I machine washed the fabric a little more intensity was lost. Clearly the images would need embellishment to regain some of the vibrancy of the originals.

After pondering the images on the fabric for a while I decided to take advantage of the lossy images and use the fabric for a study of visual de-identification. I selected nine of the images and set out to create a 12-inch block featuring each one. I went to my fabric stash and pulled out a large stack of fabrics (mostly batiks) that blended with the colors in the flower images. Each block has these ready-made commercial fabrics spliced together with my custom-printed fabric. On some of the blocks I overlaid polyester organza, a shimmery, translucent fabric. In some blocks, I retained large areas of the flower image, with small strips of fabrics spliced between. In other blocks the flower images are chopped into small pieces and interspersed among the commercial fabrics. I put each block together improvisationally, as a mini-quilt unto itself.

I assembled nine blocks and then sewed the blocks together into a very colorful 3×3 square. I pondered what color to use to bind the quilt, and eventually decided it would look better without binding. So I decided to try the envelope method of binding in which the front and back of the quilt are layered facing each other (with the batting layered on top), sewn around the edges, and turned right-side out through a slit in the backing fabric. The slit gets covered over in the end by the hanging sleeve. The result is a nice clean, modern-looking edge to the quilt, rather than a picture frame.

The next decision, was how to quilt the piece. I decided to use a mix of techniques — free-motion machine quilting, straight-line machine quilting, hand quilting, and embroidery –and use the quilting to both add color intensity and to further de-identify the flower images. Each block has its own quilting pattern that spills out into neighboring blocks. There are fun spirals, circles, petals, and stipples free-motion quilted in bright colors. There are yellow, red, and lavender French knots, liberally sprinkled throughout. And lots of hand and machine quilted lines.

Looking at the finished piece, I see a lot going on. There are nine separate compositions that are loosely tied together (not as well as I had hoped, actually, but perhaps that’s part of the point). There are flower images rendered difficult-to-identify by the unusual close vantage point from which they were taken. These images are further obfuscated by slicing and reassembly, overlays, and stitching. The edges of images are mixed with their neighbors so it isn’t always clear what pieces belong with which images. But if you saw the original flowers, you could probably eventually re-identify most of the images. (Perhaps I will do another quilt on “re-identification.”) It is a lot like personal data de-identification, in which data is removed and digital noise is introduced, but in the end the de-identified data might be re-identified given sufficient contextual information.

Improvisational quilting

Finished! While waiting for the storm to pass this afternoon I put the last few stitches into my first sabbatical quilt, and called it done. “Improv Quilt #2” is (obviously) the second in my series of quilts that take more of an improvisational approach than I’m used to.

I have experimented with a lot of quilting techniques, but most of the quilts I have made were fairly well planned out before I ever started cutting any fabric. Indeed, many of my quilts have been drawn out in great detail in PowerPoint (because it is fast and easy to change color schemes), or sketched in pencil and all the pieces enlarged and traced onto fabric. I like having the ability to experiment with color and design before I “commit,” but it does make the sewing process less interesting because most of the design decisions have already been made. Piecing becomes just a mechanical process, and I start fixating on all the flaws: the corners that don’t quite meet, the squares that aren’t quite square, all the ways the finished quilt deviates from the plan. I’m not quite patient enough to take the time necessary to get everything perfectly lined up, although sometimes I rip out the flawed seams and try again.

So two years ago I decided to try being more improvisational in my quilting. In “2hip 2b square” I made freezer paper templates from an enlarged pencil sketch. But I selected the fabric as I went and pieced it without a guide before trimming it to match the templates. It was a transition piece for me: I was able to hold onto my templates, but still save many design decisions to be made while piecing.

Last year I decided to take improvising a step further when I started the improv quilt series with “Improv Quilt #1.” For this quilt, the only planning I did in advance was selecting the 10 “sunset-colored” fabrics. I made up the rules that all shapes had to be convex quadrilaterals and two shapes from the same fabric could not touch each other. So, basically all the shapes had to be four-sided boxes, but the sides did not have to be parallel. I cut and sewed, and cut up what I sewed, and sewed more things to it. And eventually the pieces got to about the right size so I trimmed them a bit so I could sew them together and the whole thing would fit into a square.

I enjoyed the improv technique and decided to try it again in a different color scheme. This quilt was designed around the blue batik fabric with the red dots. I selected 7 other fabrics from my stash that would collectively complement the red dot fabric. As it turns out, I selected all batiks except for some blue silk, which adds a bit of actual texture (the batiks all have a lot of visual texture). And I used the same rules as before and started sewing and cutting, but this time on the old Pfaff sewing machine I borrowed for the STUDIO. This project also served as a warm-up to get used to sewing on the Pfaff. Part way through I decided I needed more contrast so I added just one little strip of the yellow and green striped fabric.

Once the quilt top was pieced I started machine quilting lots of parallel lines on the Pfaff. While it is inferior to my Bernina in many ways, the Pfaff’s dual feed foot is actually a really nice feature, and perhaps better than the walking feet used on most other sewing machines to sew multiple thick layers without the layers shifting or bunching up. But as much fun as I was having sewing straight lines, the red dot fabric was posing a dilemma. I didn’t really want to sew lines through those dots.

Improv Quilt #2 detail with French knotsI went to a lecture by fiber artist Susan Brandeis, and was intrigued by her non-traditional techniques. She had brought several small pieces that were quilted with embroidery stitches. So the next day I watched a Youtube video on how to make French knots and then made a few rows of French knots in red perl cotton in the center of the red dots. My original plan was to make some French knots here and there, but I really liked to effect and making knots was somehow kind of addicting. So I started making more knots, and more, and more. And eventually every red dot in that quilt had a knot in its center. It creates a beautiful texture, and everyone who sees it seems to want to touch it. I used more red perl cotton to add texture to the red shapes with running stitches, placed strategically to match the grid design in the fabric. And I used purple perl cotton to add a stippled pattern to some of the blue shapes. I took the quilt home and did some free motion quilting on my Bernina before finishing off the last few shapes with more parallel lines. There a couple of shapes left unquilted to provide some contrast. This quilt has lots of texture, both visual and physical.

Usually I select one fabric for a double-fold French binding. But I couldn’t decide which fabric to use for the binding. I wanted more yellow/green, but thought outlining the whole quilt in it would be too much. So I opted for a binding pieced from leftover scraps of the fabrics in the quilt. I had a slight mishap when one of the seams ended up exactly in one of the corners, rendering it impossible to achieve a smooth mitered corner. I had to undo a couple of inches on either side of the corner and surgically splice in another piece of fabric after the rest of the binding was already attached (yes, this must be why I usually don’t piece bindings). Once the binding was attached I added hanging sleeves to the back, and then done! Another successful improv quilt.

As I was working on this quilt, I also realized how well it goes with the tiles I recently picked out for my kitchen renovation… perhaps I will hang it in the kitchen.


Soft launch

I’m a few weeks in to the “soft launch” of my sabbatical. Officially the sabbatical starts with the fall semester at the end of August. But things slow down in the summer so I’m trying to spend two days per week sabbaticing, at least for the weeks when I am in town.

My sabbatical is a “staybattical.” With 3 school-aged kids and a husband who wasn’t keen on the idea of relocating for a year, a sabbatical in some exotic foreign place was out of the question. But just because I am not going anywhere, doesn’t mean I can’t do something different, interesting, exciting, mentally liberating, intellectually restorative, relaxing, and totally awesome. I am spending my sabbatical as a fellow at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry in the Carnegie Mellon School of Art.

The first question everyone has been asking me when they hear this is, “What will you do there?” And the answer is, of course, “Art.” I have some ideas and a little bit of a plan — I had to write something on my sabbatical request form — but actually I don’t have too much of a plan. And that’s sort of the point. I want to do some quilting, I want to play with some e-textiles, I want to do a project related to privacy (that was the part I promised on my sabbatical request form), and beyond that, we’ll see…. I am just really excited to have the opportunity to spend a year being an artist and trying new things with no particular plan (while still getting paid).

A bird’s eye view of the STUDIO. On the right you can see my workspace with sewing machine.

According to the STUDIO website, “The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University is a laboratory for atypical, anti-disciplinary, and inter-institutional research at the intersections of arts, science, technology and culture.” So that seems to allow for pretty much anything.

Art has always been an interest of mine. When I was an undergraduate engineering student I minored in fine arts. I remember fondly the hours spent in the art school, and how different the environment was from the engineering school. I loved my art classes, both for the art, and for the perspective it gave me on engineering. I’m hoping that 20 years later, the experience will be just as enriching.

The STUDIO is a huge two-story high rectangular room with a recycled rubber floor and lots of tables and large Macintosh monitors. There is a construction project going on right now to make the entrance handicapped accessible so its also kind of a mess. I’ve been given 4 tables with which to carve out my workspace. I put two of the tables up on bed risers to make a tall table for ironing and cutting. I have an ironing blanket, a cutting mat, and a design board made from old conference posters covered in black fleece (the STUDIO is definitely a reuse/recycle sort of place). I have an old Pfaff sewing machine borrowed from the Drama School’s costume shop. I also have a cabinet to store my supplies and a wonderful window seat.

So, after a few weeks of spending 1-2 days per week in the studio, I have succeeded in setting up my space, locating and borrowing a sewing machine, touring the costume shop (when I picked up the sewing machine), and piecing a 2 ft x 2 ft wall quilt. I have also acquired an Arduino and several programming books. Since I am, after all, a computer science professor, I think the other folks in the STUDIO are expecting that I will write lots of code. However, for the time being, I seem to be the only one in the studio who is not writing code. There will be plenty of time for writing code. But for now I need to make something I can touch. The need to make tangible things was actually what got me started quilting in graduate school almost 20 years ago, and it is, perhaps, that need that has inspired me to keep at it.