Beautiful by Design – An Artist Talk

by Lisa Call on October 31, 2012

in Being an Artist

Abstract Contemporary Textile Painting / Art Quilt - Structures #143 ©2012 Lisa Call, Textile Artist, Denver, Colorado
Structures #143 ©2012 Lisa Call 37 x 46 inches

This essay is a summary of my artist talk in New York City titled “Why Beauty” at the Art Quilt Gallery on September 11, 2012.

“Beauty is something we experience and feel on a soul level. It’s more than being pretty or aesthetically attractive – it’s an intangible attribute that stirs something deep inside of us” – Karen Walrond.


During a talk at the Denver Art Museum, El Anatsui, a wonderful African artist, was asked “Is your art beautiful by design” and he said “no”.

My answer is a resounding Yes. I am relentlessly pursuing beauty with my artwork.

I started down this path in a era when painting had been declared dead. The art world was firmly planted in postmodernism, cynically claiming everything had already been done.

My pursuit of beauty placed me firmly out of step with the postmodern art world where concrete experience trumps abstract principles.

There is no essence in postmodernism and hence the concept of beauty isn’t relevant. Beauty is an archaic throw back modernism.

I struggle with this. I was pulled internally to pursue beauty yet the world was saying Where is your Content? Ideas mattered, not the physical manifestation of those ideas.

And so I hunted for content because that is what artists did.

My Structures series started as an exploration of physical walls and fences. You can see the inspiration of bricks and a simple wrought iron fence.

Yet the more I made the work and reflected upon my intention, the more I understood the artwork was much more personal and much more about imagined barriers and walls in our head. Our fear of not being enough, of not being loveable if someone were to see who we really were. Those are the walls my Structures series explores.

Trusting Beauty

With the reassurance that I had content – I had the all important ideas – I went right back to pursuing beauty.

At the retrospective of Ocean Park paintings at the Corcoran a few days before this talk, I read this quote by Richard Diebenkorn:

“Now, the idea is to get everything right – it’s not just color or form or space or line – it’s everything all at once.”

It immediately resonated with me. That is is – that is what I am trying to do!

I am looking for that illusive perfect “rightness” in my artwork. That intangible quality that makes the viewer say “wow”.

I have my ideas to fall back on but the reality is – beauty is what matters to me.


Yet 11 years ago today, on September 11, 2001, postmodernism was declared dead.

Turns out that most of the world still cared about God, truth and the law. Turns out that the “hostility to grand narratives” was a pursuit of the western metropolitan elite, a minority.

The age of irony was declared dead.

We are now in the age of the internet, of technology. Materiality is back in!

But alas, there is no relief for those pursuing beauty. We are supposed to be pursuing technology. Abstraction remains old fashioned.

At a well respected juried quilt art exhibit last year a juror bemoaned the lack of computer do-dads on the artwork. And indeed innovation does matter in art.

But yawn. Seriously.

I’ve been in the computer science field since 1982 and sent my first email in 1984. In graduate school in the late 80s we had a coke machine hooked up to the internet. Today we would call that art, but back then we just wanted to know if the soda was cold enough after reloading the machine.

Technology bores me. While others might find it fun to put flashing lights on their textiles I fall asleep – been there, done that. It hardly feels like innovation. I didn’t find it interesting on a circuit board in 1985, so I sure don’t want to wire up my art and call it new in 2012.

So again I’m out of step with the art world trends.

I Pick Beauty

And to that I say… so what. I ignore this noise because art is an internal journey. I’m happy to be a throw back to modernism.

Although there are rumblings of the return of abstraction (look at what the galleries in Chelsea are showing, there are a lot of color field exhibits these days).

So maybe someday I will be cutting edge again. Or maybe not.

Either way it doesn’t matter because over time I’ve gotten over the need to defend my choice to pursue beauty. Instead I’ve learned to trust myself, trust my process and trust my voice.

I personally believe people are growing tired of artwork they don’t understand, of all the ideas. We are all sick to death of facebook and technology.

I feel there is desperate search for simplicity and a return to a slower pace. Handmade is back in vogue.

And from that context: from my granola eating, yoga stretching, organic home gardening ways…

I will continue to relentlessly pursue beauty.


Elena Stokes October 31, 2012 at 10:21 am

Bravo. Boy, do I agree with everything you’ve said here about beauty. And technology? I won’t sew on modern machine made with plastic and computerized stuff that can break, wear out or get fried. I sew on a very low tech machine – the Singer 201, the work horse. Iron. Can sew through wood. Can never break. Does just the basic forward and back. I don’t need anything else.

I think I’ll go have some yogurt now.

Elena Stokes

Lisa Call November 6, 2012 at 11:35 am

Hi Elena,

Beauty rocks!

I hope you enjoyed your yogurt (ha :)


Diana October 31, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Lisa, what a well worded and thoughful answer to the snobs of the art world. I have hand sewn for decades, clothing included, and have always found in that a perfect foil to the technology and hardness in life. There is something threapeutic in the handling of threads and fabrics to make something beautiful. DOing, rather than thinking, so often brings forth something beautiful, that I have always wondered at the sweeping assertions of the critics, many of whom have never made anything art wise in their lives. I was trained as a fine artist, and for the last decade use the quilt medium as my primary form of expression. It took many years for me to allow myself to do so, instead of the approved oil paints. I applaud your honesty, your stubbornness, and your willingness to share. If you ever come to the Hudson Valley, I invite you to visit and expand this conversation.

Lisa Call November 6, 2012 at 11:56 am


I’m not sure I’d say I was writing to the snobs of the art world. I do think that the avant-garde in art is a necessary thing – innovation is important (as I noted briefly above). Forward movement is important. It keeps things fresh, makes us think, etc.

My point was that *I* am not that person – I will not be adding the whiz bang cool gizmos to my textiles. But I have no problem with other people doing it and those people getting some attention for it.

Although I do think that sometimes those in the art world lag behind what is really happening in technology – flashing lights controlled by a circuit board are far from new or cutting edge and integrating them into an oil painting or textile artwork needs to have thought. I think the lights need to be there for a reason. “Cause I could” is rather boring to me.

Interaction is an interesting direction in art that sometimes has wonderful results. I enjoyed an installation at MOMA earlier this year walking on different textures and having the sounds projected. It was pretty cool. I’ve yet to see technology integrated into textiles that I was much interested in but admittedly I haven’t been looking for such things.


Lena Ohlén October 31, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Really nice to read this. I agree with you.

But, what do you mean with this? 2001?
“Yet 11 years ago today, on September 11, 20012, postmodernism was declared dead. “

Lisa Call October 31, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Thanks Lena.

And oops – that was a typo – it should have been 2001 – I’ve fixed it.


Candy from Candied Fabrics October 31, 2012 at 4:30 pm

All I have to say is: AMEN! :-)

Lisa Call November 6, 2012 at 11:56 am

Have a sip of wine with that :):) ha

Doris Teixeira November 1, 2012 at 5:34 am

Really. I believe in Beauty and is what matters.
I like when sewing machines make what I want and
don’t use then how they are programed for.
All that tecnology was made only for up and down the needle.
Then,I sew by hand with an electric needle ,trying do the better.
Beauty is what matters.By hand or by machine.
Your quilts always make me say WOW!!!!!

Lisa Call November 6, 2012 at 11:57 am

Doris –
“Your quilts always make me say WOW!!!!!”

Thank you! Big smiles here for that comment!


Stella Belikiewicz November 1, 2012 at 6:40 am

I love that McFadden was apparently “dismayed that none of the quilts submitted to the show incorporated fiber optics, digital technology, or video,” which seems hilarious to me because, while I actually rely heavily on technology to create my work, I have less than zero interest in incorporating any of those things into my quilts, because all of those elements will, down the road, firmly drag a work back into the past by needing technological elements that will swiftly become out of date, thus making museum staff want to tear their hair out as they search for that fiber optic cable that needs replacing but isn’t manufactured anymore…

On the flip side, I suspect we’ll always be able to rely on good old cotton!

Lisa Call November 10, 2012 at 11:39 am


As I was reading what you wrote I immediately thought of Dan Flavin and his light art. Now that they don’t make the bulbs he used his art has a limited lifespan. Maybe not a bad thing but some of his collectors don’t turn the lights on and enjoy it since they can’t replace it. Which makes me wonder if the art is already dead given that it can’t be enjoyed as intended.

It’s definitely an interesting thing to think about given how quickly technology seems to be obsolete. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


Ruth Dent November 1, 2012 at 3:21 pm

I was listening to the radio when a scientist was talking about his work. He had made a major discovery by accident, in an area that he’d been studying – just watching what was happening, then investigating and then finding … He was asked if he planned what he was going to research next and he replied that he thought that scientists should ‘follow their noses and investigate what interested them’. That struck a chord with me, as I think it will with you, Lisa. And your quilts are fantastic. I love abstraction and modernism!

Lisa Call November 10, 2012 at 11:41 am


I like that idea – ‘follow their noses and investigate what interested them’. Definitely. It is great some people want to push boundaries and move us forward and it’s also fabulous that some people have no interest in those activities. And who’s to say who does the better, more ground breaking work – those that set out to do it or those and discover it by accident.

Thank you for the compliments on my work :)


Gregory November 1, 2012 at 10:58 pm

I am sooo behind you on this one — What a super read!

Lisa Call November 10, 2012 at 11:39 am

Thanks Gregory!

Tina Mammoser November 2, 2012 at 5:13 am

These techno-art-snobs are all missing the point of technology. Technology isn’t an end in and of itself – even in the technology sector! It is a tool. It simply reflects our changed ability to make connections, disseminate information, detect patterns and correlations, to create and break boundaries… and all of this IS being used by artists of all kinds. Whether we include references to it in our work or not, we can’t create without it. It’s too ingrained in our culture and physiology for us to separate the way our lives involve technology and the way we creat – even if we deliberately counter technology in our creations. That’s still a reaction that has to involve technology for there to be an opposition. (our bodies – including small motor functions, visual abilities, and cognitive processing have changed in the last 50 years to adapt to the new ways we perceive and interact with tools and information)

And surely someone can look at your work and beyond the natural references and materials still see that you are subconsciously involved with organising and arranging the visual information in a tight and highly structured way? To some people couldn’t your structures resemble resistors or paths on charts? Perhaps aerial views of man-made and geological structures? (hands up from me on that one) It seems to me that’s why your art is so contemporary – your abstraction lends itself to interpretation that can be either end of the organic/synthetic spectrum.

Lisa Call November 10, 2012 at 11:47 am


Although I’m a bit late in responding to emails, I completely agree. Those of us that have been in the tech field for a long time often say “that is just technology for the sake of technology” – and now it has moved into the artworld and its just silliness. Sure some people use technology in interesting ways – but there is so much more to it.

And indeed – many people look at my work and say they can tell I’m an engineer (which I don’t really consider myself – I think computer science is more art than engineering – but that is a different conversation). I look at my art and see circuit boards quite often – and the idea of connection comes partly from those rather geeky thoughts – connecting the chips on the board with wires, etc. I tend not to focus on this aspect but you have inspired me to think about this more seriously.

Thank you for your comments!


Sheilana Massey May 4, 2013 at 12:59 pm

While reading Kathleen Loomis’ blog, I followed her link to your blog, to this discussion. For several years the group of Fiber Artists at our anual gathering have discussed this issue–many ideas and consideratons come forth. How refreshing to read your impressions as well as those of the commentors.
Although there will probably never be an answer, even to the question ‘What is art?’ it’s helpful to to explore possibilities together.
Is it okay to share the link to this blog with this group? I’m certain they’ll appreciate the content.
Thanks, Sheilana Massey

Lisa Call May 6, 2013 at 6:41 am


Thanks for stopping by.

I agree – we will never have a consensus on “what is art” but the conversations can be information and fun.

You are most welcome to share this link with your group.


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