Unraveling the Enigma of Chuck Close

by Sandra Bruce

All my students signed up thus far for the Zephyr workshop have sent me their photos to grid and I’m sure they are happily selecting fabrics to use. I do have a couple of spaces left, anyone who is a procrastinator and contemplating coming to Zephyr in September! We 4 welcome latecomers.

I wrote a blog post months ago about Chuck Close: his influence upon my Matrix technique and the 2 quilts I made of his image taken from a photograph by the photographer Gianfranco Gorgoni. The story of these quilts, “Chuck Close One” and “Chuck Close Two” (both 60″ by 70″) is a fragmented and ultimately puzzling one which I have not written much about, in part to protect the information I received about Chuck and his health. Suffice it to say, “Chuck Close One” is in the hands of Chuck Close himself, and “Chuck Close Two” I recently sent to Houston for the show in November. I entered it in the “Hands All Around” exhibit, which will travel internationally for a year and be seen by many people. The tops of these 2 quilts were made at the same time and look very much alike. I am thankful to Gorgoni for being the go-between to help me get the quilt to Chuck. I am glad he has it. Here they are side by side.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 7.48.46 PMDuring the first week of July I took a road trip with my son Matteo. His bike went in the back seat of my car. His emphasis was riding skate parks on his BMX, and I enjoyed being with him and occasionally hitting a fabric store or two, and visiting friends along the way. I knew there was an exhibit in Everett, WA of Chuck’s work and I wanted to be sure to catch it. Chuck grew up in Everett, and attended the junior college there before going onto University of Washington and eventually Yale. My friend Kathy, Matteo and I drove up to Everett to see the show at the Schack Art Center. The emphasis on the show was about his collaborations with other artists, and there were examples of the many techniques Chuck has used. I will say here that I apologize for the quality of these photos, taken with my aging cell phone. But you get the idea. I like this first picture, badly taken as it is, as you can see my reflection taking the photo and also Matteo’s silhouette on the other side of the room. It’s a piece of a lithograph, one process that Close has done repeatedly.


Here’s another lithograph, an older one as you can see by how young Chuck looks. Each square has little hatch lines drawn in diagonally to create the “values”.IMG_0889

This one I had not seen before. It’s a portrait of his daughter done in many values of paper pulp “blobs”, that were made from a form that he had someone make for him. The form looked like a giant cookie cutter, and took the artist over 2 months to make. Here is the portrait and the form for the pulp.IMG_0903IMG_0905

So, check this out….his image of “Lucas”, which was a painting, made into a silk rug that was on the floor of the gallery. The sign next to it begged the question, “Is this fine art, and should it be on the floor or on the wall?”IMG_0890

There were a few pieces like this. The squares are filled with color, and the corners are left so you can see the paper beneath.IMG_0892IMG_0900

I wish I had taken more care to read the information on this one so I could share it with you. I had seen this before in another gallery. He painted his face, which you see at the base…..viewing it in the silver cylinder allows you to view it as he intended. I seem to recall from Art history classes years ago that there were artists during the Renaissance doing this technique. Amazing, isn’t it?IMG_0898

And yet another way of applying the paint in a grid. These round shapes were created by applying a felt circle to a stick and applying the paint with the felt. You can really see the texture and it’s easy to imagine him plopping those little circles on.IMG_0896

Phillip Glass, the musician, has been Chuck’s most repeated subject. Chuck really likes his features. It was interesting to see the same image both in tapestry form, and as a painting that Chuck created using his thumbprint to fill each square with a value of grey. Wonderful!IMG_0907IMG_0909




One more tapestry, reproduced from one of his self-portrait photographs.IMG_0899

Wednesday, while stuck in a horrible traffic situation on my way to Meet the Teachers in Pleasant Hill (Heidi, Christine and I were presenters and we made it, finally), I was checking emails on my phone and noticed that several friends had sent me a link to an article about Chuck Close written by Will S Hylton in the NYTimes. Having literally hours to wait going nowhere, to pass the time I read the article out loud to Heidi and Christine. This article (link below), is a beautifully written and tender while at the same time probing piece about Chuck and his work in the latter part of his life. In reading it things came to light about where Chuck has been, literally and figuratively, during the last year or so while I was working on the quilts and trying to get the one to him. I hope you will read the article, which, while quite long, is so worth the time.


Chuck, such an enigma, is fascinated by faces, which he paints and calls “heads”. I am fascinated by them too. And I am fascinated by Chuck Close.

A Chuck Montage

by Sandra Bruce

My Chuck Close project is coming along, slow but sure. Today I am posting a photo montage of my progress….simply, a visual notebook from my studio. IMG_9301 IMG_9302 IMG_9303 IMG_9308 IMG_9309 IMG_9310 IMG_9311 IMG_9312 IMG_9320 IMG_9323Happy July, everyone! This is the part of the year that goes too fast, isn’t it? Next week, a group post from Artistic Alchemy.

Material Matrix, Redux

Sandra Bruce here today, to tell you a bit more about my Material Matrix technique. I’ve touched on it before, and I discussed Chuck Close in my last blog, but I thought today I’d give a little more detail about my process for those of you who might be curious. It might pique your interest enough that you would want to try it! Consider taking my workshop at Zephyr Cove in September. You will be able to work with a photo you want to turn into a very unique quilt.

Recently I wrote an article about my process and work that is going to be featured in the April/May issue of Quilting Arts Magazine, coming out late in March (yippee!!) Writing the article made me stop and really think about how I do what I do. Here’s a little mini trip through my process, with pictures to illustrate.

I’m going to use my Self-Portrait quilt as an example since I have the most photos of it to show you. Inspired by Chuck Close, this is the photo I had taken to work from. Working in Adobe Illustrator, I applied a grid that was 40 squares wide by 40 squares tall, making it a whopping 1,600 squares total. I was not daunted.


I pretty much jumped in. I had thought a lot about it, wondering how to interpret the squares with fabric, and finally decided to be wonky and as loose as possible. This requires discipline, and thinking, as the natural inclination is to match up and be pretty about it. Below is the first photo I took of my progress, the top of the hair, and at this stage I wasn’t at all sure I was doing the right thing. One square on the photo equals one 2-inch square of fabric.


Fortunately I had the top of the hair and background in the top third of the image to decide if what I was doing was working like I wanted it to. It helped to use a reducing glass and stand back a lot to view it from as far away as I could get.


I realized I was going to have to do some curved piecing. For those of you who have not tried it, I can tell you truthfully it is a wonderful thing to know how to do and is very liberating in technique…..and not hard!!!


The eyes were the hardest part, which is also typically true in a painting or illustration. I just had to keep at it and refer to the photo, a lot.


I sewed 4 by 4 blocks, then sewed the blocks together into rows, then added the rows to the existing rows already sewn together. I fell in love with Best Press, which helped keep my rows and blocks square and crisp.


There were…………….mistakes. I did some ripping out, but not a lot. I use a small stitch length, about a “2” on my Bernina, so the seam ripper has to be my friend! I press open my seams. That you have to press to one side is just an old wives tale, as far as I’m concerned. Pressing open makes the quilt nice and flat and easier to quilt.


Here it is on my long arm, where I had the most fun, writing (stitching) words into the background and doing swirls and all kinds of thread changes.

I have to say, the main thing I love about this technique is the element of surprise, not being absolutely sure what you’re going to get when you play with the wonkiness and placement. But when you stand back, and you’re happy with the results….what a great feeling!

Here’s the finished quilt, 80″ by 80″.
Full Size Self Portrait

I’ve been enjoying teaching this technique, and have had students make beautiful quilts with it! Here are 3 samples:


Here’s a sneek peek at my present project, a 70″ octopus in water, I’m naming “Octavius”. His eye follows me around my studio and we are quite attached.


Before I sign off, I want to wish you all a very Happy Valentines Day! Here’s my “Love and kisses” quilt, my valentine to you. X O X O X O


I Have to Talk About Chuck Close

Happy New Year to all! Sandra Bruce here, with my first post of 2014. I’m excited about the year coming up and hope it proves to be a creative and enriching year for us all. This will be Artistic Alchemy’s first full year and we have a lot to share with you, our readers!

I can’t possibly blog in the Artistic Alchemy site without talking at some point about Chuck Close, who has been very influencial to me as an artist, and a human being. I talk about him in my lecture as an art quilter, and hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t cross my mind in some capacity. Let me give you a snapshot of his life and work, and if you’re not familiar with him you will be driven to go look him up and discover more about him yourself. There are many interviews and articles on the web you can easily find.

Chuck Close was born in 1940 in Washington state to parents who encouraged his artistic leanings. Chuck was severely dyslexic as a child and struggled as a student in school, except for art. A teacher once told him he’d never amount to anything. He was not socially popular and couldn’t play sports due to a condition he had. When he was 11, his father passed away, followed closely by his mother developing cancer and Chuck himself was struck by a kidney infection that forced him to spend a year in bed. So much at a tender age! His love of art deepened as a teenager after seeing an exhibit of Jackson Pollack’s paintings, and that was when he determined to become an artist himself. Fast forward to the 60’s, when Close got a degree in Art from Yale and established himself with his signature style: very large, photo-realistic paintings of people, including himself. This acrylic painted self portrait, from 1968, is 83″ by 107″:

late20th32 copy

Amazing, isn’t it? Notice how absolutely, perfectly detailed it is.  It is so…..real. Imagine it at its size. By the 1970’s Chuck Close had established himself as a leading American contemporary artist and was enjoying success and notoriety, rightly so.


Fast forward again, to 1988, when Close was at a ceremony where he was on his way to the podium to present an award. He fell mid-stride, suffering a spinal collapse of an artery, which left him paralyzed from the neck down. One can only imagine where this left him in his mind, unable to do anything, let alone paint. Months of rehab brought him limited movement in his arms, but he was to always remain in a wheelchair. In a documentary about him, his wife, Leslie, tells of his depression in rehab, and how she pressed the doctors to help: an art studio of sorts was set up in the basement of the rehab hospital, where they literally strapped a paintbrush onto his wrist with tape, and Chuck Close began to paint. His new technique was born. This is my favorite of his self-portraits:


Close grids the photos he takes, commonly in a diagonal format, and paints each square of the photo a solid color, then makes amorphous circular shapes, one inside the other. Inches away it is hard to imagine what exactly you’re seeing, but stepping back to view it your eyes see it as he intends you to see it. What truly amazes me is how he knows what colors and shapes to paint each time! He’s making an average hue. Here’s a close-up view…..squint!Chuck+Close+Chuck_Close_Up_Close

Incredibly, Chuck Close also suffers acutely from “Prosopagnosia”, or face blindness. He once failed to recognize the face of a woman he had lived with for a year. But, if Close paints a face, therefore converting the image into a two-dimensional one, then he can commit it to memory, and have a photographic memory for it. “Everything about my work is driven by my disabilities”, he once told an audience of neuroscientists. Chuck Close is the ultimate illustration of “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I do not mean to make light of his handicaps, just to say that he epitomizes how to make the best of what life deals you. Chuck Close is an exceptional human being. There are many quotes attributed to him, but my favorite, and the simplest is, “Art saved my life”. He took what could easily have been the end of his career and life as he knew it and turned it into a new career, more successful than the last. He continues to work, making each day mean something. He sees his glass half full. In fact, I’d say he sees his glass running over!

The first time I saw a Chuck Close painting in person I instantly thought: QUILT. Although it was not in the front of my mind at the time, I think a seed was planted that finally came to fruition in my quilt “Self Portrait”. The act of using fabric to represent a photographic image in a gridded, square format is very exciting to me. Unlike making a quilt that is “photographic”, where the image is represented literally, using my Material Matrix technique allows for fusing color, line and form in a way that invites serendipity and happy surprises.closeup of eye SBquilt

I’m looking forward to teaching my workshop this year, in particular with my Artistic Alchemy sisters in Zephyr Cove, Lake Tahoe, in September, 2014. Those participants taking my workshop will be able to experience some magic, hopefully, creating quilts from their own photographs. I invite you to join us!

Meanwhile, again I wish you a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Chuck Close.Film_ChuckClose