Becoming part of a family of artists: a journey

This particular journey started in November 2016. I stood at the Colourlicious stall at the Harrogate Knitting and Stitching Show and picked up a sheesham block of a tree (made by an artist in India).  I had previously bought another tree block, of a stylised Christmas tree, from which I had made padded tree decorations.

Sheesham blocks like the ones I bought are hand-carved in Jaipur in India by artists who inspire other makers and artists across the world to print, embroider, quilt and make all manner of arts and crafts.

But the particular block that I chose depicted the skeleton of a tree, roots and all, drew me to it: I wasn’t sure why. I took it home, and ideas for how I might use it began to form in my mind.  It is a thing of beauty in itself and fits comfortably in the hand for when you are printing.

Hand-carved Sheesham tree block
Sheesham tree block from Colourlicious  by Frances Bell

And then I mislaid the block for nearly a year, but kept thinking about what I wanted to do with it. When I eventually found the block, I had a pretty good idea of the design. I imagined a quilt with rectangular blocks, each with a tree print at the centre with green and brown log cabin style strips around it. I knew that I wanted the positioning of the tree within the block to be irregular. In my mind’s eye, I wanted the trees to dance around visually. By this time, I was learning more about quilting so I wanted to have wide sashing and borders – lots of negative space to feature the quilting. While the block was still lost, I started to collect the fabrics for the quilt: green and brown cottons for the log cabin strips and a lovely soft calico for the background.

In Spring 2018, having found the block, I cut out rectangles in calico and printed the blocks using black acrylic paint mixed with fabric fixative so that the print could be set with a hot iron. Quilts need to be washed occasionally!

Evolution of a quilt Click to view the Evolution of a Quilt

Through the summer, I began to assemble the blocks. One of my favourite parts of patchwork and quilting is collecting fabrics and combining them in projects. My artist friend and neighbour Stephanie assures me that I have a very good sense of colour. She has been encouraging me to think of myself as an artist, not just a crafter and designer. In this project, I collected my greens and browns, cutting them into 1.5 inch strips that I put together in giant bulldog clips. When making a block, I’d choose my greens and browns, and position the tree print. Each block is different, with the fabric combinations chosen spontaneously rather than by design. A few weeks into the making, I began to think about who would be the recipient of the quilt. And then I had a moment of enlightenment! My brother Paul, who has lived in Iceland since the 1960s has been growing trees for many years, and has been a silk screen printer in his time. He is in a club in Reykjavik whose members grow trees from seed in a poly tunnel. He has experimented with different varieties for the Iceland context, now growing trees in their thousands at their farm in Southern Iceland.

Trees at the Farm
Trees at the Farm by Frances Bell

He has explained to me over many years how important it is to innoculate the roots of the saplings with mycchorizal fungi to establish the beneficial relationship that helps the trees to grow strong.

It eventually dawned on me that, subconsciously, I must have had Paul in mind when I first picked up that tree block with its skeletal branches and roots. This realisation spurred me on and through the summer I completed the 25 different blocks. A very social moment at my quilting class is the day you bring the complete set of blocks, and your friends and colleagues help you to position them. My friend Sheila said that she couldn’t picture the “trees bouncing up and down” till she saw them on the table. Once the sashing and borders were on, it was time to make the “quilt sandwich” with wadding and backing, and start quilting.

I have always loved textile crafts, and made my first quilt thirty-four years ago for the daughter I was about to have. It is only since I retired that I have had the time to invest in learning more of this craft. Of all that I have learned, it is free motion quilting that has been most challenging and most satisfying. FMQ is a bit like drawing on fabric with your sewing machine. Imagine a pencil fixed in a clamp with you moving the paper around to make the drawing. The designs are like doodles and though you can follow a line (as I did to make the writing on the quilt label), it is much better to practice a design and create it spontaneously.  My best assets for learning were watching Angela Walters videos, practicing on sample quilt sandwiches then smaller projects, and most importantly – abandoning a sense of perfectionism.

Free motion quilting seems to me to be embodied and relies heavily on muscle memory, I think. You can watch others doing it, get tips and buy technology – quilting rulers, marking pens, slidy mats, gloves, thread, needles, etc – to help you. But really you just need to do it, badly to start with, and keep practicing until you get better. Learn to love your mistakes, and you’ll make fewer of them as your joy increases. Angela Walters models all of this in her videos which is why they are so popular.

I have written before about learning about learning from crafting, and the social and networking aspects of crafting. Crafting works for me in metaphorical and reflective approaches but others can choose different domains: music, gardening, cooking, even motor-cycle repair. I have always been interested experiential learning, particularly focusing on the doing, whether the doing is writing, making technology and/or making with technology, or whatever the doing is within the subject context. When learners can be safe to make and learn from mistakes and still have a sense of achievement that can be a sweet spot for them. Fostering, or at least not preventing, this safety is the work of educators. There is a lot of tosh talked about resilience in education today, and I tried to identify the good writing as antidotes to the tosh about the various links between wellbeing and resilience in this post.

In this particular quilt journey, there were many challenges to overcome. I bought a new sewing machine that had features to help with quilting but was in itself a complicated technology to learn. Some of the mistakes I made were in setting up and threading the machine; to buy the thread on the wrong-sized spools; and in how I held and supported the quilt as I was sewing. There was so much to learn about the technique and the various technologies. I learned from two different Brother engineers and a thread salesman, and via Youtube and other Internet sites. Experiencing problems with thread snapping brought so much more work to tie off the threads. Over time, I gained more knowledge and improved my technique, all within the supportive network of friends and family, inspired and encouraged by the idea I had two years before. The idea and design did not come fully formed, but rather developed over time. I knew that I wanted to quilt in the negative spaces of the quilt but came up with the idea of quilting a tree across the trees of the quilt, using bark and leaf FMQ techniques, and frameworks of branches and roots to suggest the structure of the tree. I had never done anything like this before, and I am very happy with what I have achieved. Arts and crafts are not the output of the lone genius but occur within networks of creativity across people, technologies, ideas, artefacts and other things related to experience and emotions.

Once the end of the quilt was definitely within my grasp, my friend and I booked flights to Iceland to bring the quilt to my brother Paul, and his family. I always thought of Paul as the artist within my family but this quilt journey has helped me develop my own identity as an artist, however nascent. Within 30 minutes of completing the quilt, I was thinking of how I could execute it differently the next time.  We arrived in Reykjavik (after a relaxing day at the Blue Lagoon), and we and the quilt were warmly welcomed by the whole family. We had a lovely weekend including lovely meals at home and in Messinn Granda that serves a delicious fish buffet at the harbour in Reykjavik.

There was an interesting coda to this journey of creativity and learning when the next morning Paul and I were discussing what tree the skeleton on the block might depict, as we had no leaves to match. My first guess was the Elm but Paul’s was Acer Campestre, the Field Maple.  I doubted this, based on the silhouette of the immature Field Maple that grows in my own garden.  But after some research, I am inclined to agree with him.

Acer campestre 006

Acer Campestre By Willow – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, Link

This will feed into the design of the next version of the tree quilt. And so it goes on. I have become part of a family of artists that includes the creator of the sheesham block, my friend and neighbour, Angela Walters, my own brother, fabric designers and makers, and the photographer of this Acer Campestre.

#ALTC Preconference Walking Tour details and contact

Whitworth Gallery by the picture drome CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Are you in Manchester for ALTC 2018, and free on the afternoon of Monday 10 September? Then please consider joining me for a walking tour, taking in the Whitworth Art Gallery, and back to the Conference Venue in time to register. You will be free to go around the Gallery on your own or with others. Details of other activities, registration and Monday evening meetup are here . Currently, the weather forecast is 18 deg C, Light cloud and a gentle breeze, but you never know with Manchester.

Here is what I said my  ALTC Blog Post of 2 weeks ago.

If you are in Manchester on Monday 10 September, then you are welcome to join a walking tour with me at 3pm – …..  we will walk down Oxford Road with a brief detour past the Pankhurst Centre, former family home of Emmeline Pankhurst where the first suffragette meetings were held (open Thursdays 1000-1600). The Whitworth Art Gallery (our destination) is a beautiful recently refurbished art gallery situated in Whitworth Park. The art collection includes textile and mixed media art as well as paintings and sculptures, as you can see from the current exhibitions. We’ll leave time for refreshments in the magical cafe in the trees before walking back to the conference venue for registration.

Please contact me to let me know if you will be attending, and ask any questions either via Twitter @francesbell or by completing the form below. I will share my mobile phone number if you contact me, and it would be good if you reciprocated.

I will be waiting at the entrance to Cafe Muse, right opposite the Conference venue, University Place from 1450 on Monday 10 Septemeber, hoping to set off at 1500.

Looking forward to seeing you on the day.


Reaching Other Audiences #OER17 Keynote


Diana Arce @visualosmosis, Director of Artists Without a Cause @ArtistsWAC, gave the second keynote at OER17.  She is an artist and activist who works with other artists to critique and make change with positivity. She told the story of the Charging Bull, and the Fearless Girl, supported as an advertisement by Hedge Fund – rather than by, say, Planned Parenthood.


Diana told us that this demonstrated 2 things she has learned: that location is everything; and the need to participate by engagement and activism rather than photo-opportunity.

Diana gave an example of an art installation concerning Enron that she worked on right in the centre of the Financial centre. Some financial workers engaged with her, even bring their shredded documents!


Her next example was the project that refurbished 25 row houses in Houston Texas – most used by artists, and few as homes for battered women.

Another of Diana’s own projects was White Guilt Cleanup – cleaning up privilege, one white person at a time. White people could buy a White Guilt Offset Credit that would benefit their or others’ victims.

Diana worked with Indie magazine in Berlin to help them change practices through the project, and their joint work was successful in making change.

Diana has done different political Karaoke projects at Democratic National Congress, and a bar in Jerusalem.

Her takeaways were:

  • make sure you have local cooperation to work in their spaces
  • or bring them to your project
  • use Art projects as a Trojan Horse to make change where it matters


Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh only employs people and serves food from countries in conflict with USA. Waiters are trained in handling conflict/communication. The goal is to counter media narratives about conflict locations.


Politaoke, another of Diana’s brainchildren is where people respeak real political speeches It’s a kind of non-partisan political karaoke, with interpretive dance and rants.


There is no work without the audience: they bring the speeches, and other performances. The work is in resisting descent into propaganda, and attracting an audience where change can be made.

Diana plans to release outcomes of Politaoke in an open environment for broader benefit.

Diana applauded the work of the Center for Artistic Activism in helping change happen.

Sheila MacNeill asked about how we could harness Art in Education. Diana told of her experience mainly in after school activities, Higher Education being her least favourite area.

Bryan Lamb asked about people who may be using related techniques but for less than desirable purposes. Diana explained how Art can become a disruptor.

Muireann asked about the possibilities of OE researchers to spread their message, and Lucy  described a political art installation in the House of Westminster that gave  disenfranchised young people a voice in the right place to be heard.

This was a keynote that felt and looked to me like an art event – it was great fun to be there.

[I promised to live blog the keynotes for OER17 as I had for OER16 but my method depended on pictures from my phone being pulled through to flickr. The wifi at the venue wasn’t up to this so the post is a combination of live and edited.]