Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reveille, or The Quilt from Hell

(The hour -- an ungodly 5:49 am, long before the coffee maker is set to begin producing its life-sustaining elixir.  The day -- the Tuesday before Christmas, and the to-do list of pre-holiday preparations seems, oddly enough, to grow longer instead of shorter.  The location -- a suburban kitchen, with a white tile floor that turns treacherous when wet, a fridge that keeps threatening to turn into an archaeological goldmine of prehistoric comestibles, and a kitchen table, piled high with heaven only knows what, but with just enough room for one laptop computer, and two arms, poised and uneasy with their approaching task...)

I think it was the quilts that woke me up.  Not actual quilts, of course -- that, we could at least explain away -- or at least remedy, either by banning said coverlets to the basement, or simply burning them.  These sleep-shattering quilts are almost completely imaginary, or perhaps more correctly, are very much still in utero.

Up in our attic -- Tremble All, at the Mere Mention of this Place -- stowed in the cubbyholes a previous owner thoughtfully built along the south-facing wall, are perhaps hundreds of square yards of fabric, roughly arranged in some demented idea of color relationship, but mostly just piled together to make stacks that are more or less neat-ish.  Many of these 'yards of fabric' are actually little vendors' samples, which were always available, for a quarter apiece (ten for $2!) at a legendary mecca for sewing enthusiasts -- Fabrics and Findings, on Goodman St., in Rochester NY.  I had an art studio nearby, and before getting down to some actual work, I would stop by F'n'F, for what I now realize was the textile equivalent of a nose full of colorful, all-silk, jacquard-weave, brocaded crack.

But how could I not?  They were all so cute.  They were like flat, soft, pliable kittens, abandoned in an animal shelter -- only these little adoptees would never need to be fed, or develop distemper, or complain that their litter box hadn't been cleaned since the last Presidential election.  (or was it the one before?)  And such a bargain!  I could never leave without spending at least $8 (do the math), plus maybe a few yards of some remnant I'd bumped  into on the way to the cash register (oh, I'm sorry -- did I disturb you, you little three-yard swath of sheer tan synthetic silk blend?  Let me make it up to you by taking you to my house) -- and all, understand, with the very best, the finest, the most sterling of intentions.

I was going to make a quilt.  Granted, by the time I'd begun to taper off on my regularly-scheduled fabric fixes (which didn't happen until long after we'd moved from Rochester, and I'd shifted my allegiance from the redoubtable Fabrics and Findings to a much closer equivalent, The Rag Shop)  (Said establishment, sadly -- yet, for me, fortunately -- now no longer in business) (Or I probably wouldn't really know what color the kitchen tile is), I'd accumulated enough material to make a quilt that, I estimate, would probably keep much of New Jersey's Essex County nice and toasty for the coming winter.  But just at first, I was going to start small, and work my way up.  The way you do.

And there was even a call, from a Rochester shelter, for quilts for those in need!  Nothing fancy, just something simple.  I knew I could do that.

Indeed, I did actually begin the quilt-making process.  I selected some drab, inoffensive colors (if no one is enticed actually to look at the quilt, they won't notice the bad workmanship, right?), and bought a large remnant of something soft, to use as backing.  I selected a pattern that was relatively simple, but not so simple that I'd be bored, and at a scale that seemed manageable.  (Have you ever seen one of those 19th century silk quilts, made out of scraps of mens' neckties, and bits of fancy gowns?  I think they're called postage stamp quilts, because the squares are so small.  About a million little squares in each bed-sized piece of work.  Ah, life before 'Dancing with Almost Anyone More Famous Than You'.. .)

So, mirabile, I began to work.  There certainly was a lot of measuring and cutting, I discovered.  And measuring again, and recutting.  And fitting, and pinning, and comparing...  Re-freakin'-pinning.  Don't even mention the ironing.  When do we get to the actual sewing part around here? 

Well, I'm sure the first distraction was perfectly legitimate -- perhaps one of the blizzards John and I enjoyed while we were living in Monroe County.  The next impediment might have been a little less compelling -- must have a gallon of milk, must make a trip to the pharmacy, to pick up extra insulin for our beloved, diabetic cat Princely.  Later delays were caused by, say, the persistence of gravity, or because the sun had come up, or the mere fact that I was still breathing.  I'm ashamed to say that no one less fortunate than I has yet to benefit from a little lap robe made by me.  Somewhere, buried amidst other more promising color combinations and neatly-folded fabric treasures, are those fifteen or so squares of drab green and I think it was some kind of dull violet, that had been destined, I had hoped, for some shivering soul in Upstate New York.  Sadly enough, even if this insufficient collection of squares were ever actually attached to each other -- never mind tied to their backing, wherever that is -- not only would they completely fail to give the slightest warmth to Essex County, but I doubt they would even make much of an impact on this kitchen table.

But you know, I really do have good intentions.  (To such an extent that, should any of you be so unfortunate as to find yourselves spending an afterlife in The Bad Place, you'll probably see a sign, on your way down there, "The Next Five Hundred Miles of The Road To Hell Paved by the Good Intentions of Walter Zimmerman.  No Littering.  You'll Just Make Things Worse for Yourself}  There is a genuine, child-like delight, for me, in finding treasures like those swatches of otherwise useless fabric -- and so reasonably priced! -- and in then supplying myself with the wherewithal to realize an idea.  My problem, it seems, is one I've already mentioned, but which I'm afraid will be revisited many times -- that of the treacherous snake in a clown's hat: hope.

I really hope to turn these pieces of cloth into something useful and even more lovely, in combination, than they already are all alone.  Having seen many quilting exhibits -- one in Philadelphia, of work by a group of women from Alabama, nearly blew my socks off, it was so radically exciting -- I have truly felt that investing time and energy in essentially painting with cloth is a worthy activity for someone who aspires to an identity as a 'real' artist.  I have a friend whose life has been transformed through his involvement in the quilting world (yes, there is one); he gives lessons; can be seen, radiant and proud in front of a splendid sunburst of his own work; and has reorganized his apartment to accommodate a professional-grade quilting machine.  It can be done.

But, apparently, not by me.  As I sit here, wrapped in synthetic-cloth blankets and desperate for the coffee machine to start perking, I see that I'm more in love with the idea of making, the potential of creating, than with the actual labor of transforming one thing into something else.  I have done much the same thing with art materials, it shames me to say -- I have lately grasped that fact, by looking squarely at my stash of paper, my matched sets of oil paint, boxes of crayons and pencil, cups full of brushes.   I have mistaken 'having art materials' with 'being an artist'.  I've only understood, recently (!) that the real sign of a working maker of art is the emptied paint tube, the stained and stroke-worn brush, the stacks and stacks of pieces of fine French paper -- with something actually on each and every one of them.

But let's not just stop here.  Let's dig a little more.  Beneath my love of the potential instead of the realized, my truly joyous accumulation of materials holding so much promise in their state of pristine newness, I detect the contours of two other, very different impulses.  One, I believe, is the desire to rescue myself, symbolically and long after the fact, from that dark institution in which, with those other child castoffs, I was warehoused for 18 months.  In the scrap of heavy, richly patterned brocade,  I see a glimmer. both of who I was, and of who I would still like to be.  I simultaneously recognize and adopt a bit of myself, and then try to affix that beautiful thing to the shamed, insufficient person I experience as myself, from the inside, looking out.

Finally, inevitably, there is death.  As I think I've already said, in one long blather or another, I understand now that all this stuff with which I've succeeded in surrounding myself is actually a materialization of panic.  All this stuff could be seen as the physical, tangible, three-dimensional equivalent of the flailings of a drowning man.  Every desperate splash solidifying into a bit of detritus that only makes things worse.

Or no.  More aptly, let me here identify this variegated accumulation -- the fabric and plastic, the hand-blown glass and copper fittings, the bruised bits of plastic and lengths of TV cable picked up from the side of the road -- as my clumsy attempt at creating a vast, flexing, improbable life raft for myself, some flimsy thing to keep me afloat on a sea of blackest oblivion that, impersonally but implacably, desires my drowning.  And will have it.          

© 2011    Walter Zimmerman

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