Monday, August 17, 2009

Sand Storm over the White Desert

I would hate everyone to think that a lack of posts means inertia. What it means is that life is just too busy for writing of any sort.

I have been making a big quilt. I thought I would take you a little through my making process to show you how badly I veer off course in case it helps others who do the same.

One of my absolute favourite places in Egypt was the Western Desert - and especially the White Desert. It was relatively easy to get to - five hours drive from Cairo to the oasis of Bahariya, then we piled into the car of our guide who drove us another hour and a half to the desert. It was also pretty easy to organise for visitors. A phone call or email to Peter Wirth, the owner of the International Hot Springs Hotel, and a car would be sent to Cairo to collect anyone and bring them down. This meant I did not actually have to own a car to get there.

I probably went about thirty times over our four years. We would drive though the Black Desert to get there - passing huge black basalt lumps nestled into ochre sand. It was an extraordinary sense of distance and peace to swirl through sand, crawl over gibbers, and bump over rock, and all in an open four wheel drive with a large Bedouin at the wheel.




Our favourite guide was Magdy Badrmany. He became a good friend. His English was good so anyone could be sent with him, he was a quiet and careful driver, he could cook a feast over a gas jet or a small tended fire, and he would take you on a tour of the night sky - unbelievable littered with constellations and strewn with stars. Many nights I chose to sleep out of the tent so I could watch falling stars arcing overhead and fading into the edges of the sky.

Once in the desert you enter a soft white world.


There is a silvery light at dawn that touches and paints the edges of the amazing calcium carbonate formations with hints of mauve and pink, and long long shadows that reach across the sand like stretching fingers. It was the bottom of an old sea, and here and there are fossil evidence, fragile curled shells emerging from the chalk.


As it was rich in iron and crystallised iron pyrite, like smoothly polished jet, emerges also, in long fingers, or curled around fossils, or as desert flowers, perfect crystals in matte black that nestle with short spikes into your hands. In our first year I picked up many. At the end of our posting I brought back most, full of shame as I had seen areas denuded of treasures, many of which were abandoned by their collectors at service stations in Bahariya.

By lunch time the light is stark and hard, the pure white dazzles and the shadows of the stones are inky and blue and pool tightly below each formation. Our guides would tuck in tight in the meagre shade, while their particular tourists, like mad dogs and Englishmen, would roam for photos.


A sand storm meant that I would wrap my camera tightly and not use it so I do not have those photos. At first it is an equal lifting of gold sand and white fine dust. As soon as the wind has moved on the sand settles, but in the white desert the dust stays in the air for days, so fine and light that it is like a thin fog.

In this light the sun is softened and you start to see the soft cramy bieges that tint the chalk, warming the formations. The sand can seem peach, the hint of coral even spreading into greyer areas where the iron stones gather.


Night tints the horizon with soft pinks, until it blazes into a vast and unsettling sunset, and leaves even the whitest shapes as dark and forbidding silhouettes.


For the White Desert Quilt I planned to make I had thought of making a series of quilts. I wanted a sense of its vastness, the huge wrap-around horizon, ridged and beautiful with far distant forms, like bent old men talking. I thought of starting the first with dawn light, then through the day with the changes of light until the final pieces was the deep blues of the lit-by-starlight desert. It would have been a total of about eight metres - at least. I also wanted it to feel vast and overpowering, and to include Magdy as his presence is intrinsic, large, quiet but with a real streak of fun and a boyish humour. That whole idea had to go as I would never be able to show it anywhere.

I started to pull images together that would feed the idea I wanted to work with. I collated images of particular well known formations, mushrooms, the chicken and the egg, the rabbit. I pulled up images of Magdy. Working with someone you know well is complex as it has to be perfect - to feel like that person - or in my mind the quilt cannot work.

IMG_3557.JPG DSCN0812.jpg



IMG_4300.JPG DSCN0047.jpg

I considered some of the animal life of the area - fennec foxes and camels - but decided it felt kitsch.



I had been mulling over it for sometime. I wanted to combine piecing and pictures, but the area and the tribes have no real patterning that is part of their history. I decided to use the kaleidoscope block as a swirling sky of sandstorm and the other side to be blue - so I could play with neutrals and the tinting of cream and colour in the same quilt.

Then - someone pointed out that the entries for Canberra Quilters - my local guild - were due that Friday. Talk about panic!

I drew what I had planned. Sort of. I sketched an idea of the colours that would be in it, and the patterning of the sky on a sheet of kaleidoscope blocks. It was too short in height and too wide in length, but I sent in an entry that looked a bit like this.



I was embarrassed, but added a note that I would have no problem with being rejected. I also had three months to make the work and it felt a long way away at the time. They did not reject me, but I kept in touch to assure organisers that things were moving on the quilt.

I spent a month on a swirling sky - that was too busy, too strongly coloured, too tightly controlled - too everything really.


I wasted that month as I junked the whole thing. More simplicity was called for. I was out at our small airport and saw a poster enticing people into a career in the army. On the helmet was a swirl of dust kicked up by a helicopter - and it was exactly the sort of movement I remembered from 'my' sandstorm.


I opted for squares on point.


Now I was truly under pressure.

I elongated the view I had originally drawn of his body, combining several images in one composite to have the wind flipping his felted and braided vest. I worked on the background, and even that had to be radically simplified. The view was pulled in tighter and closer and I had lost some of the sense of awe-inspiring distance I had wanted, so had to push it a bit further away.


I made Magdy's body and then his face, though it felt odd to be pushing a hot iron over his face as it started to feel like him.




The top

I stitched everything down, and put a lot more information into his face with stitching.

I started quilting with two weeks to go. I had intended to be clever, and include imagery of many things in the area in the quilting. In the end I calmed it down, adding only a few fossils in the border at the bottom. It is a simple place, and I risked losing the sense of peace - and the sense of place - that I felt in the quilt if I added too much that was distracting.

I entered it as 'not for judging' but the committee pointed out that I could be judged for my category without being judged for best of show - and that sounded good. I won last year and am content with that. You never think you will win - or I do not - by the time the work is finished I am sick of it and it seems dull and boring.

Magdy Sand Storm 3.JPG

Magdy sand storm 4.JPG

I won my category. The final pictures are withheld as I want to enter the piece in others shows - possibly overseas. Some consider a personal blog a publication of sorts - so I am sorry - but wait a few more months.

This will give a better idea of its size.

Magdy Quilt Show 2.JPG

It fits absolutely in my current series of Egyptians that I admire for their calm acceptance of the life they are given, and their absolute competence in their chosen work. I did not name this one after Magdy as I am finding that people do not remember the men's names and cannot name the quilts - so it is Sandstorm over the White Desert. His name is written in a strip at the bottom.

And small bit of private glee - it has been accepted into Houston!
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