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 silk screen printer in his time. He is a member of 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, 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 delicious 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 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 makes,  and the photographer of this Acer Campestre.

What can this tree teach me?

I am not a botanist or a horticulturist, just a keen and irregular gardener with a passion for plants and trees.  I  am reflective by nature and often draw on my experiences outside formal education, as well as scholarship,  to reflect on and enrich my educational philosophy.

This post is about something that happened in my garden this summer. I won’t be answering the question in the title but I’m hoping that writing this post will take me a step along the way.

Photo of Handkerchief tree showing large white bracts that look like handkerchiefs
Davidia Involucrata, Handkerchief/ Dove/ Ghost Tree taken at the Kenwood Estate in Hampstead Heath. by Garry Knight CC BY 2.0

In May/June of 2002 or 2003, I visited Newby Hall Gardens where there is a glade of Handkerchief trees. The day of my visit some of the white handkerchiefs were fluttering to the ground and I was smitten. I longed to have one in my garden and was delighted when I found a sapling small enough to fit in the car at a Nursery. I brought it home, planted it carefully and waited for it to ‘flower’*.

I waited.  10 years later, it flowered.

Photo of Handkerchief tree in my garden in 2014 showing a few large white bracts that look like handkerchiefs
Handkerchief Tree in May 2014 by Frances Bell CC BY-NC-SA

I thought that it was mature enough to flower and would do so each May but no – it seemed to have been a one off.

This summer we have had the worst drought in nearly forty years. Many shrubs and plants have suffered, some of them dying.  In the last week of July, I noticed that the leaves of the Handkerchief Tree started to shrivel over a few days. I consulted a local nurseryman who told me that this was the tree’s response to the stress of the drought. Trees lose moisture through transpiration at the leaves.  He said the leaves would fall and a second growth of smaller leaves may come in September. The good news was that we were unlikely to lose the tree.

The same day, the drought broke with storms and most of the leaves came off the Handkerchief tree. And the nurseryman was right, we have noticed new leaves growing in the last week or two.

September small leaves and white bracts on Handkerchief tree post-drought 2018
September leaves and flowers by Frances Bell CC BY NC-SA

And to my astonishment there were flowers!

I think this tree has  story to tell me about self-care, protection, recovery, re-growth and blossoming.  I’m listening and watching.

* They are bracts rather than true flowers with petals.