My latest mixed media fabric portrait

maMy mom celebrated her 80th birthday last week (that’s her to the left with champagne all over her dress. Not bad for 80, huh?). I wanted to make her a fabric portrait like the one I made for my dad when he turned 80 (you can take a look at it back in my September 26th post).

So I selected one of my favourite photos of her to use as my templeileen@niagara2ate—a black & white that was taken in Niagara Falls when she was in her 20s.

Little did I know at the time how ambitious a choice that photo was, since it was a full-body shot instead of an uncomplicated head shot like my dad’s.

To my detriment, I can get over-enthusiastic when I have an idea for a project and tend to leap feet first into it without any advance planning. Therefore, stumbling blocks that I hadn’t planned for often crop up as the project evolves. I’m nuts; yes I know. It’s truly amazing that things end up working out in the end as often as they do.

Since that’s how I roll, I also find myself living by the motto “You win some; you lose some.” It’s what I say whenever I start a project with good intentions only to end up relegating it to the “maybe someday, I’ll rip this apart and start over again” pile.

That’s exactly how I began to feel with this project after I was elbow deep into it. More than once I was on the brink of just tossing the whole thing in the trash and heading out to the mall instead to buy my mother a gift that wasn’t spattered with my blood, sweat and tears.

IMG_3637I started the project on a Saturday morning, using Photoshop to pixelate the shot, then printed out an approximate 15” x 15” copy. I used a pen to outline all the various shadow layers on the hair, face/neck, arms and legs and shoes, then traced each layer onto tissue paper to create my patterns.IMG_3636

Next, I selected different tones of grey fabric for the skin and a plain plus a patterned black for the hair. For the top, I chose a crepey white cotton fabric and a white and grey patterned fabric to add a touch of shadowing. The shoes were created with three different shades of cream fabric. I wanted the skirt to be the only three-dimensional part of the portrait so I chose a silky black and white fabric that I could arrange to look poufy, just like in the picture. For the background, I used a large square of plain white cotton fabric.

After cutting out all the fabric pieces, it was time to put the puzzle together. Some of the face pieces were so tiny, I had to use tweezers to pick them up and manipulate them into place. Starting with the legs, I arranged the layers together, then temporarily affixed them with a combination of temporary fabric spray glue and hand-basting. Once I finished the legs and shoes, I moved on to the arms. I left the face/head for last, which was a good call because I would have thrown in the towel if I’d started there. Once those pieces were finally in place (guided by outbursts of cursing), I began laying out the basted parts on my white fabric background. Pinning down the blouse and skirt was the best part, the easiest part. I actually gathered the waistline of the skirt with basting so it would fit the picture realistically.

Once everything was pinned into place on the background, I wanted to cry because as far as I was concerned, my mom’s face looked like that of a mummy you’d dig up from the tombs in Egypt. I was, again, this close to trashing it. But I plugged on and I’m glad I did because—just as a cupcake needs icing—it’s the finishing details that really bring the picture into focus.

First I hand-stitched everything into place, pulling out the basting as I went along. Then I used light grey thread and the finest zigzag stitch on my sewing machine (I also have a quilting foot on my machine to handle any bulky areas) to outline most of the pieces. After all the sewing was complete, it finally resembled the original photo. Whew. Last but not least, I sewed into place a button replica of her earring.

As I stood back to appraise my work, it was obvious that I still had more to do, since my fabric mom looked like she was just floating in a big white space, her arm jutting out into nowhere. I’d been hoping to avoid having to add in all the background details but the picture looked incomplete without them. Damn.

I was done with cutting out any more tiny fabric pieces. No way. Not a chance. So how to get some background detail in there?

Sketching pencils and paint to the rescue! It wasn’t a piece that would ever see the inside of a washing machine, so there would be no problem using regular art materials on the fabric.IMG_3590

I used a pencil to draw the outline of the stone wall and the iron railings behind her. Then I used a combination of pencils, charcoal pencil, and acrylic paint to add shadows and texture. Before long, her hand was actually holding a railing instead of dead space.

As my best friend Sue (a quilt-a-holic who produces the most stunning work) often says, “Don’t things just always seem to fall into place when we really need them to? It’s as if an invisible hand reaches out to help us when we’re stuck.” And that’s exactly what happened after I finished my fabric picture and began to wonder what I was going to use to frame it.

I recalled a large picture frame that my daughter had left behind when she moved out of the house years before; she’d left it leaning against the wall behind her closet door. It was a beautiful, solid frame, but I’d never had any use for it—until now. I dragged it out of her closet and didn’t it just happen to be the exact size and colour (black) of frame I needed. Honestly, my fabric portrait fit the frame as if they’d been made for each other!

In the end, all that work was worth every moment. My mom absolutely loves it.

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What to do with all those seashells you’ve collected?

Last February while we were vacationing in beautiful Naples, Florida, I spent a great deal of time combing the beach for seashells. Like I needed any more! I have a storage drawer in my craft room that’s bursting at the seams with hundreds of shells gathered during every beach trip we’ve ever taken (along with vials of beach sand from each place).

I’m afraid that collecting shells is a raging addiction. Every time I stroll a tropical beach, I am mesmerized by these beautiful mini sculptures scattered in the sand for as far as the eye can see. To me they are perfect little pieces of art, crafted by the sea and offered up from her depths to be admired and enjoyed. I absolutely cannot pass by without scooping them up.

So—what to do with all of these pretty shells once I’ve arrived back home and sorted them into yet another storage drawer in my ready-to-explode craft closet?

shells in vase4 shells in vase1

In the beginning, the simplest solution was to fill large glass vases and place them around the house on coffee tables, countertops, on my desk, even in the powder room. A great decision because each time I pass by them, I’m transported back to places where the sand is creamy, the water is turquoise, and the skies are filled with warm sunshine; my shells are pure joy in a glance.

shells in vase3 shells in vase2

Of course it wasn’t long before I ran out of places to display shell-filled vases. So once again—what to do with my ever-growing collection?

I decided to use the natural shapes of the shells that I’d collected during my first year in Naples to create a King Neptune-type design that I called The Old Man of The Sea.

shells_man of the sea2

To begin, I pencil-sketched a rough outline on plain white canvas, brushed some skin-tone watercolor paint into the face area, then laid out the different shapes where I thought they would fit most naturally. Next I glue-gunned each shell into place (burning the hell out of my fingers in the process!). I also spread glue on any bare canvas around the shells making up his beard and sprinkled the area with beach sand, which helped fill in and add a bit of sparkle to his beard.

After leaving it to set overnight, I glued the finished canvas onto the glass of a plain white picture frame. I found that setting it on top of the glass instead of enclosing it under the glass gave the whole piece added dimension, and I also liked how the strip of glass framed the canvas.

shells_man of the sea1

I ended up giving the finished piece to our friends who own the vacation house where we stay in Naples. It’s the perfect home for The Old Man of The Sea; after all, it’s where he came from.

The following year I used more shells to create another design: Mermaid of The Sea. Again, I started with a plain white canvas but this time, I painted the canvas with blue and green watercolour, then sprinkled salt over the wet paint to create an underwater effect. Next, I did a rough sketch of the mermaid’s position, then spray-glued the bottom third of the canvas and sprinkled beach sand over it and around the sketched mermaid’s tail to create a realistic sea floor.

shells_mermaid shells

Then I painted the mermaid’s face and arms and glue-gunned the shells I’d chosen into a pattern that formed her body/tail. I also made a little coral reesf in the right and left corners, incorporating a few fish-shaped buttons. To the right of the mermaid, I used tiny glass beads to create a transparent sea creature—I can’t tell you what type of fish it is…let’s just say it’s another one of those undersea mysteries!

shells_mermaid transparent fishshells_mermaid coral

A piece of coral I had was shaped a bit like a fish, so I placed it in the top left corner, glued on some shell fins and a glass bead eye, and you’ll notice that there are a couple of button fish swimming behind it.

shells_fish coral

Last but not least, I used gold yarn to make her hair. The flower adorning her hair is another tiny piece of coral.

shells_mermaid hair

I have yet to frame this piece, which I think would look nice in a little girl’s room. I may use the same type of frame I used for The Old Man of The Sea. It’s just one more thing I have to get around to doing.

We plan to visit Naples again in 2015. I’ve already asked my husband to duct-tape me to my lounge chair if I attempt to do any beachcombing. I suppose I should just call a spade a spade and start cleaning out a new spot in my cupboard now.

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