When friend and neighbor Clairan Ferrono joined my quilting group years ago, I remember the rest of us cocking eyebrows at the new gal’s weird choices of color, her oddly shaped pieces, and her inability to quilt in straight lines. But we loved her for other qualities and generously ignored her lack of promise. Today Clairan is a fabric artist of international note. Her works appear in museums and libraries, in art books, and in private collections. Luckily, she’s still my friend and neighbor. Every once in a while I visit her studio and chat.
ME: Clairan, if readers visit your site, they’ll see that windows feature prominently in your quilts. Riff for me on windows.
CLAIRAN: I love windows. I have looked at them somewhat obsessively for many years. I look at them as I’m walking; I look out of other buildings at the windows across the street. I love looking at them while riding on a bus or train for a slightly different perspective. They’re an archetypal feature of city life. I’m fascinated by the patterns they create: open, closed; blinds open, closed, or partially open, sometimes askew! Curtains, some blowing softly. An ever changing quilt. I note the differences between banks of plain windows (lots of modern building have these, like Mies buildings) and older buildings where the windows change size and ornamentation. I love the reflections in the windows of skyscrapers—wavy and distorted—modern art! Windows allow us to see both in and out. We look out onto the landscape/cityscape and we can look in to catch a glimpse of another life. As eyes are the windows of the soul, so too windows can look into and out of the emotional or spiritual landscape. I look at windows and see history, the shadows of other buildings, other lives that went before us.
I hadn’t realized how much windows have meant to me until I took note of my doodling—I draw windows all the time. So I started making window quilts and one led to another . . .
ME: I’m struck by the positive, hopeful note in all that. Have you ever been tempted to go darker, with broken windows or something analogous?
CLAIRAN: Oh, absolutely. I have a series all formed in my head about Katrina called Broken Windows/Shattered Dreams, but I need to perfect my screen-printing to accomplish this series. It’s in the wings. And you know, the Darkness series is—obviously—somewhat darker (but hopeful too I think) and definitely part of the windows.
ME: Oh, yes—talk about the Darkness series.
CLAIRAN: Well, of course your piece,* The Darkness Surrounds Us, is the first in this series from the poem by Robert Creeley I Know A Man: it’s a very funny poem, but dark. I had some dark but cosmic-looking fabric, and I just started playing with it (of course I was also listening to Leonard Cohen, who is also dark and funny). I put a couple of windows along the top and the window/figures just sort of appeared. And I started thinking about what we can do against the darkness, and the thought of standing together, holding hands occurred. The darkness can be very scary, or we can embrace it, joke about it, hold hands, sing.
CLAIRAN: Actually, I went through a very difficult dry spell this past winter. Nothing seemed to work, and I was exhausted and depressed, and I thought, “Maybe I have no more ideas.” I started a new Darkness piece, in more jewel-tone, less earth-tone colors. Colors I like better myself. All hand-dyed fabric. And I just couldn’t get it right. I knew it was close, but I couldn’t see it
In June, I decided at the last minute to take a master class with Judy Hooworth of New South Wales, Australia, at the Quilt Surface Design Symposium in Columbus, Ohio. In a master class you work on your own projects with support from the teacher and the other professionals in the workshop, with discussions of technical and other matters. As soon as I put that piece on the board and really looked at it, I saw where I had gone wrong. It was a matter of maybe fifteen minutes, but I had to be in a place where I was totally committed to and focused on my work and believed it could work. I put together four pieces in the workshop in five days (that’s a record for me!), and I noticed that they began rather dark and muted and got progressively lighter in value and spirit. Pretty much everything I’m feeling, consciously and unconsciously, comes out in my work. And that’s a major reason I love making it so much.
ME: There’s an unfinished quilt on your studio wall that especially delights and intrigues me. It’s the one you’ve taped baseball box scores next to. Could you talk about finding the box scores and how they inspired you?
CLAIRAN: It’s going to be the beginning of a series called Indices—which is the plural of index as well as meaning “indications.” After our long discussion about the commissioned quilt I would make for you, I started thinking about how important language is to both you and me. (I started out in languages and literature, did creative writing, and finally got a graduate degree in comparative literature before teaching English and writing for twenty-five years. The title of a piece is a critical part of my process.) So I began thinking and imagining how I could use language in a piece. And immediately the idea of windows as language came to me. As I was mulling this over, one morning I came into the kitchen where my husband was reading the New York Times, and on the back of the page he was reading was a series of graphs or something I could not understand at all. I thought it might be some sort of musical notation. It was completely intriguing! Like an ancient foreign language, cuneiform, the Rosetta stone, Linear B, Mayan! I had to know what it was—and it was. . . .baseball statistics!!!! Well, as you know I’m a huge White Sox fan, and I LOVE baseball statistics. I had never seen them laid out visually before, and that started me collecting interesting ways of displaying information. That’s the next big piece I’ll work on, and I’m sure I’ll do quite a number of pieces in that series.
ME: In our conversations, you and I have often been struck by how much writers and visual artists have in common—how creating something in fabric or in words involves observing, pondering, experimenting, and many times faltering, on the way to achieving the end product, whether it turns out as originally envisioned, or as something transformed in the making.
CLAIRAN: Which reminds me, another series awaiting is one in which I created a “window” symbol for all the letters in English and some punctuation. I’m going to make memorial pieces with messages in “code.”
ME: I’m betting that some of my readers who thought they knew what “quilting” was have been surprised to see what an art form it has become. These puppies are not going on anyone’s bed or into the washer. Would you be able to recommend some websites for readers who would like to learn more?
CLAIRAN: Art quilters have an endless online presence, but for starters, the Studio Art Quilters Association site features 250 top professional art quilters in its galleries and loads of information about upcoming exhibits. For a less overwhelming introduction, look at the site of the Fiber Artists Coalition, an exhibiting group of Midwest art quilters which I founded in 2007. A good introductory overview is available at “Modern Art Quilting—A Collection by John M. Walsh III,”; and the Visions site always has a topnotch exhibit and an archive of previous exhibits.
ME: Clairan, thanks so much for letting us look through this window on your process.
CLAIRAN: You’re welcome!
*Darkness Surrounds Us is a series that Clairan started when I commissioned a quilt from her a few years ago. When the series is finished, I’ll get to decide which one I want. In the meantime, Clairan has given me a succession of “loaner” quilts to hang in its place.