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Archive for April, 2008

In my ongoing efforts to expand my skills, I’ve been taking a machine quilting class from Ramona Conconi in Melide (Lugano), Switzerland. And I also did a Saturday workshop in serigraphy (silkscreen printing) with her. This quilt is a result of both lessons.

The print is from a photo of my stepdaughter which I took on our trip to Paris last spring. The quilt will be a gift for her 20th birthday this week. I hope she won’t mind my beginner’s mis-stitching.

As many of you know, I live in Italy and my husband and stepchildren are Italian. Stepmom is often a challenging role wherever it’s played but, in Italy, it offers an additional, unexpected challenge: there’s no name for the relationship! Nor for stepchild, stepson, stepdaughter, stepsister/brother, etc. Of course, they have fairy tales in Italy, but the words used there have retained their negative connotation. No one would use them in the real world unless they intended to insult. Divorce has only been legitimized recently in Italy, and the church makes great effort to keep it marginalized, even if more than half the marriages in Milan end in divorce — or some approximation of it. The social denial of its existence results in a lack of vocabulary to talk about the new relationships that follow from it.

If I want to talk about my stepdaughter in Italian, I have to say the equivalent of ‘my husband’s daughter’, as if I myself have no relationship with her. My stepson is ‘my husband’s son’. And for them, I’m their ‘father’s wife’, even if we’ve been family for more than seven years. This has an emotional impact that is not pleasant. It denies the unique relationship that exists between us. It alienates us from one another in the public eye. (Not when we talk to each other, since we don’t use labels in direct speech, but still…) It’s even stranger when I hear my parents referred to as their nonni (grandparents), my siblings as their zii (aunt and uncle), my nephews and nieces as their cugini (cousins). Of course, all of these labels make sense because I’m their —– … moglie di papĂ  (dad’s wife). Rather disconcerting…

Anyway, here’s a detail of the quilting for my stepfiglia (my invented anglo-italian word for stepdaughter that no one understands but who cares?):

I’m such a novice with the sewing machine, but I love the possibilities it offers. The speed and potential for spontaneity are appealing to me now. I finished this quilt in three days. Can’t do that with a thangka… and I wouldn’t want to.

But that reminds me of an encounter I had several years ago in Dharamsala:

I met a Tibetan man from Amdo who makes the glued form of applique thangka, with facial features and contour lines drawn on afterwards. Some of these works are very finely produced while others are remarkably shoddy. I never saw this man’s work but I remember his challenge to me.

“I can make a Buddha in three days!” he quipped. “How long does it take you?”

I quietly smiled and said, “A bit longer.”

I’m proud of the work I do on my six-month Buddhas and I think the differences are clear to the viewer. But I have to admit a part of me has always wished that I too could see a completed result in three days! And now I have. Not a Buddha, perhaps, but a portrait of a lovely sentient being who probably has some buddha nature too. 🙂

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More Beauty in Milan

Here are some more images of happened-upon beauty in Milan:

You will have noticed by now that there are no shots of the Duomo or the Galleria or other famous sites in my collection. That’s because the point of this exercise is not to visit beauty but to see beauty here, wherever I am. So I walk around my neighborhood or, in the case of this last group, carry the camera while I go out grocery shopping and to pick up a mailing tube and some sticky labels. The photos may not be perfectly clear, since I took them while holding the camera with one hand, balancing the tube and my groceries in the other, trying to keep my purse from sliding off my shoulder.

I’ve learned a couple of tricks to uncovering beauty in this less-than-beautiful city:

  1. Look up – though the ground floors tend to be rather nondescript, barred, and covered in graffiti, there are lovely balconies on the third and fourth floors.
  2. Look narrow (i.e., at the details) – the general urban fabric of Milan is not so well woven, but a few fine threads sparkle.

An interesting note: Even walking around with a camera, I guess I don’t look like a tourist. Three people asked me for directions while I was out. And I actually knew how to point them to the right place!

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I spent the last ten days writing an article about the history and cultural context of the thangkas I make. I’ve posted it on my new Squidoo page and hope that you’ll visit and read it. A warning: it’s quite long and you’re in no way obligated to finish it! But I’d love to hear your feedback and comments.

So little research has been done on the textile forms of thangkas — embroidered, woven, and appliquĂ©. People often write me asking for resources for their studies, and I give them the same few articles by Newark Museum Curator, Valrae Reynolds and one by historian of Tibetan art, Michael Henss. There are a lot of books about Tibetan painting, but the appliquĂ© tradition usually only gets a paragraph, if that, and a couple of images.

It’s confusing to try to figure out exactly how the form evolved in the interplay of Tibetan painting and religious authority with Chinese (and Mongolian and Tangut) politico-economic power and silk textile production. I’ve done my best to summarize the history, the cultural context, the social structures, and the techniques of Tibetan fabric thangkas — drawing on the limited writings I’ve found as well as my own experience “in the field.” I hope it’s useful. I hope more research will be done. I hope you’ll correct my mistakes. And I look forward to learning more and sharing it with you.

I also have a rather trivial technical question for any of you web gurus out there… or anyone else who has an opinion:

AppliquĂ© in English comes from the French and is spelled with an accent mark over the final “e”. But when English-speaking people type a search term in Google (or wherever else they may type it), I’m guessing they normally do it without the accent marks. There are no accented letters on US keyboards, and the special-character keyboard shortcuts may or may not work in your browser. Actually, as far as I can tell, Google doesn’t make a distinction as to whether I enter “applique” like most Americans would or “appliquĂ©” like most French people or sticklers for spelling would. Since I like to spell things correctly, I use the accent mark in most of my writing. But since I want to be sure anyone who searches for Tibetan applique will find me, I throw in some instances without the accent mark. Does it matter?

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Click on the picture below to play the trailer of the documentary Isadora Leidenfrost and I have been working on.

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