One of the great pleasures of making is finishing. Completing. This doesn’t negate the joys of doing or creating but there is something very satisfying about putting in the last stitch or sewing on the last bead. This piece was started about this time last year in a big burst of enthusiasm I decided a wanted to make a madonna as part of the Candlemas celebrations I hold some years. Again, being married to the medieval historian brings an awareness of these more or less forgotten high days and holidays, and I like tradition and markers throughout the year because I think we have lost a lot by not marking rites of passage or special times. And Candlemas is traditionally celebrated with candles and cakes, which is a great thing to do during the dark days of February. It is a commemoration of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Purification of the Virgin Mary (hence the madonna) on 2 February. It is also sometimes associated with cleaning and throwing away the remaining debris after Christmas, so finishing a piece also seems appropriate. All of this meant that on Sunday afternoon I thought I would find this piece and attempt to finish it off.
When I started it, I was inspired by an article I saw in Quilting Arts Magazine about painting quilts. I have, of course, lost the article since starting the quilt, but the author was clearly a very talented woman and she produced lovely smokey renditions of playing cards (I think). So, I set out. Now, most people trying out a new technique might start small, with a sample even. But not me. I wrestled with a large piece of calico on my very cluttered work table and set to. This is a quilt. Three layers with wadding and everything. Then I drew the madonna onto the calico with a permanent fine line marker pen following a beautiful Renaissance madonna I found on the front of a book catalogue sent to the resident historian.
How beautiful. So, I have my outline and my quilt sandwich. The author of the article I am quite sure told me to machine quilt it. I ignored this, because stupidly I had put a lot of detail in, which would end up spiky rather than curved if I did it by machine. And so I started. The quilting took a while, but this was restful: following a well-delineated outline is a treat for most handquilters, and it could be done while chatting to other quilters. The fun came with the painting. The woman who told me to machine quilt had her reasons. Hand quilters pull the thread slightly to get those characteristic little puffs to highlight the effect of light and shade, and those little puffs meant that every time I painted up to them I got a wavy line as the paint hit the hills and valleys. Nightmare. It took forever. By this point it was clear that any Candlemas party would have been and gone and so I abandoned it.
About a year later I summoned my courage to start again. I was using acrylic paint which was lovely but not suited to the job. Pushing paint into all those points was just irritating and when I came back to it I got much looser and by the end was slapping on the white of the linen with abandon.
Eventually, after I stamped a design on the orange robe with gold paint, the painting was finished. Although the end result and the source material bore no resemblance, I thought it would pass for folk art and I had come too far to give up at this point (like waiting for a bus – when do you decide to give up and walk having already invested twenty minutes in the wait?). The final part was to sand the quilt lightly and then paint over it with watered down acrylic paint. I set to rather energetically with a sanding block which, as we shall see, had unfortunate consequences. Then I made up my wash and put in some gloss medium to emulate layers of varnish (again unforeseen consequences). I slapped it on the quilt. I scrubbed and wiped and dabbed with a paper towel. I used the leftover glaze to do so modelling with shadows around the eyes, and cheeks and fingers. I left it to dry.
Well, most madonnas are known as the madonna of the lilies, roses, rocks, greenfinch, apple, or charity, like this one. Mine could only be described as the Madonna of the Dirty Face or the Madonna of the Morning After the Night Before. She looks how I feel. And the addition of the gloss medium means that I have a rich brown stain all over my fingers which will not shift with scrubbing.
I may come to love her. My husband will be terribly polite about her. But I did want to share her because I think it is important that we admit that not everything we make is just gorgeous from the outset, and she is a perfect corrective to vanity.