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!


Blogger Mandi said...

That is exquisite! Congratulations on the win, you certainly deserved it.

1:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, an absolutely magnificent piece. The photos and description of the desert are wonderful and really add to the understanding and appreciation of the background. I am consistently blown away by your work.

Leni Levenson Wiener

1:14 am  
Blogger Sandy said...

Thanks so much for posting this Jenny. The quilt must be absolutely stunning in person. Very timely, too, I have just pointed people to your website and blog in a blog post yesterday!

Nice to meet you again Tues. Looking forward to the lecture at FOQ.
Hope you are getting a bit of a break in your travels.
Sandy in the UK

1:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenny, it was wonderful to read about the place and the people, and your adventurous spirit. The quilt successfully captures your friend, and the desert. Just wonderful!
Jeanne Marklin

1:46 am  
Blogger Sue said...

This quilt is stunning! Seeing as it looks so good in the photo, I can only imagine what it must be like in person. Thank you for sharing this.

2:17 am  
Blogger Caron said...

Jenny, I can't begin to tell you how stunning this quilt is! Absolutely gorgeous. I love that you shared the photographs from one of your trips, the photo of your guide, and the stories behind the photos. It makes the quilt so much more a completed work of art, telling a story. Thanks for sharing!

2:32 am  
Blogger June said...


I was especially fascinated by your post because I have a sort of similar project in mind for the Nevada desert -- which is far less dramatic and doesn't include a human figure or the stone forms -- but still has the changes of light and temperature (both heat and color). Your area is far more beautiful than the Nevada area, but equally daunting to make into art.

I'm thinking of something like a 1 to 5 ratio, horizontal, perhaps 5 feet by 25 feet. Your piecing of the sky has given me some things to try out with paint. I also want to see if I can manage some textile work, also, after I do the painting.

Congratulations on the prize. You well deserve it. And thank you for publishing such a lovely essay on the process. Isn't the web wonderful -- that you could show the images alongside your words?

Thanks again and congrats again

3:32 am  
Blogger Feather on a Wire said...

Jenny this is wonderful!!
It's a shame we won't see it here at the FOQ, perhaps you could bring it/enter it next year.
The white desert looks stunning beyond anything else you've shown.(and you've shown loads of wonderful things)

3:51 am  
Blogger Quiltdivajulie said...

I'm certain you have no idea who I am, but I follow your blog and savor your descriptions of lands I will likely never see. This post, sharing your process, your thinking (over thinking?), the evolution of your edits , your refining and focusing in on what really matters ~ utterly marvelous in every way. I SO admire your work, and this peek into how you achieve your results is fascinating.

Thank you SO much!

3:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely, absolutely stunning. You are so talented, Jenny.

4:15 am  
Blogger quiltmom said...

What a fantastic quilt ! I always enjoy reading about your process and the stories that go with them.
Your pieces reflect your respect and love of the different cultures you have had the opportunity to visit.
Thanks for sharing your quilts and process.
Congratulations on your win- it certainly was deserving of its accolades.
Warmest regards from a Western Canadian quilter,

5:03 am  
Blogger Mary Ann Littlejohn said...

You've done it again. Jenny, they just get better and better. Your passion for the Middle East is contagious.

Congratulations on the win also.

6:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another wonderful quilt Jenny - they only seem to get better and better. I enjoyed reading about the place and your process. A well deserved win for you! I hope that it will be exhibited here too - perhaps at AQC next year?

8:09 am  
Blogger Linda Robertus said...

On the photo the quilt looks absolutely stunning, as the others in this series. Thanks for sharing a part of the creative process with us. I will send the link to this blog to an Egyptian friend I just found again on Facebook, who is now a doctor in Houston and misses his country very much. Best wishes, Linda Robertus

8:11 am  
Blogger Sally Westcott said...

Thank you Jenny for the journey! You word pictures are almost as good as your amazing quilts. I saw 2 of your quilts in Hobart at the quilt fair and they are even more amazing "in the flesh".

Lovely to see a photo of you too!

Sally in Hobart

8:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another inspiring masterpiece, Jenny, made all the more enjoyable by the accompanying story. I just loved the final photo of you 'standing with Magdy' in front of the quilt. Thank you for sharing your amazing gift with us.

Jean in Terrigal

8:47 am  
Anonymous heather said...


9:47 am  
Anonymous Sue Dennis said...

A wonderful addition to your series Jenny. Congratulations.
cheers, Sue

10:05 am  
Blogger Esther said...

Another beautiful Quilt.
Colours and movement,shadows all there for us to admire.Thanks Jenny

10:09 am  
Blogger Banaghaisge said...

Dear Jenny, Thank you for the wonderful lyric journey to the beginning of this quilt. Your word imagery extends to the quilt. Lovely, lovely. Well done that girl!!

10:49 am  
Blogger Wendy said...

The journey through the words is as wonderful as the quilt. It looks even more amazing 'in person'.
I'd love to see an exhibition - the series of your men, their work and surrounds.


8:43 pm  
Blogger Kucki68 said...

This is wonderful! I once had an Pushtun friend and Magdy reminds me of that time.

I have also recently come across your work in a German patchwork magazine and felt like I was meeting a good aquanintance unexpectedly. Congratulations!

9:13 pm  
Blogger Michelle said...

Jenny, I always love hearing (and reading) the stories of your quilts. Thank you so much for sharing this one! Your quilt deserved it's award - it was just breathtaking.

Hope you are enjoying Birmingham!

11:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone else has said what I think so I only have one comment to make. WOW!
Rosemary K(UK)

12:52 am  
Blogger Fran C said...

Jenni each time you make a quilt you outdo the previous quilt. You are an amazing quilt artist this Sandstorm is so beautiful.

10:06 am  
Blogger One Little Thread said...

Thanks Jenny for sharing. The creative process is such an important part of the journey and conveys so well that it's not just a case of reproducing a couple of photos in fabric. It is very inspiring and such beautiful work. Well done. Alison KC

3:44 pm  
Blogger Marls said...

Jenny that is fantastic. I love this series of quilts. You are so talented.
Those photos of the white sands are almost too amazing to believe. Egypt truly is an amazing place.
Congrats on your win. Hope Birmingham is going well.

6:36 pm  
Anonymous Tineke said...

Hello Jenny, your quilt is absolutely stunning! I lived in Egypt for three years (same period as you did) and feel connected with you through the quilts you made of daily life in Egypt. You can get the expat out of Egypt, but never can get Egypt out of the Expat. Do you know this saying? For me is it is and for you it is the same I think... Greetings from Holland.

11:58 pm  
Blogger Pamela Price Klebaum said...

I am in awe of both you and the images.

5:51 am  
Blogger Liz Needle said...

Jenny the quilt is just mind blowing. You have come so far in such a relatively short time.

I am inawe of your amazing talent.

I love the photos of the desert. What an amazingly beautiful place. I have just come back from the Flinders Ranges and would love to do a quilt showing the beauty of that wild land, but I think it will have to wait until I catch up with you. LOL!!

10:27 pm  
Blogger Judy said...


Absolutely stunning quilt! Thanks for the trip cyber into the White Desert that too is so beautiful.

5:59 pm  
Anonymous Michele said...

How generous of you to share your entire process so freely. The quilt leaves me speechless (as do all your other creations). Thank you for letting me in on the journey.
-In awe....

3:20 am  
Blogger Donna said...

Such wonderful photos and descriptions, and then, finally, the absolutely magnificent quilt you made. It is truly exquisite!

12:55 am  
Anonymous sion said...

oh Jenny, that is just marvellous. Congratulations on a well-deserved win.

10:56 pm  
Blogger Martha-Del Sol Quilts said...

Congratulations! After reading this entry I felt as if I had gone on a journey. I visited Egypt last yr and fell in love with the place and its friendly people. Your beautiful renditions take me back to that place. I hope to meet you someday in person.

8:38 am  
Blogger Pat said...

There aren't words to describe how incredibly beautiful this quilt is....and I so appreciate that you talked us through your thought process. You are a truly gifted artist. I cannot imagine anyone not being blown away by a quilt such as this!

8:06 am  
Blogger Terry said...

Wow! That is an amazing quilt!!I'm just in awe at how it makes me feel like I'm actually standing in the desert. Well done! :0)

8:58 pm  
Blogger Kaye said...

Jenny, Pat C sent me. Oh my Goodness, I have never seen anything so BEAUTIFUL! You are a very gifted and talented artist. Thank You so much for sharing your incredible journey with us, the story is so well done and then THE QUILT! I am curious, how long did it take to do?

10:09 pm  
Blogger SewCalGal said...

Loved reading your article "Postcards from Cairo". And your quilt is absolutely beautiful.



2:31 am  
Blogger Rachel said...

That is absolutely amazing! I am in awe of your talent.

Pat C. sent me over and I'm so glad I had the opportunity to see this. I cannot imagine the work you put into making this quilt. Congratulations on your win!

5:17 am  
Blogger neolasdaughter said...

Oh, my. How absolutely wonderful.

12:39 pm  
Blogger julieQ said...

Wow, your quilt is gorgeous, so evocative of the man and the country.

12:01 am  
Anonymous Ruth P. said...

I've never seen anything like it. Neither the story to bring me to the quilt, nor a quilt like it. Just amazing! And I've been sewing my entire life, and I will never achieve this. It's all right, I do recognize an artist when I see one - really, really cool.

4:46 am  
Blogger OzRose said...

one word "FABULOUS!!!"

7:25 pm  
Blogger ctgardengirl said...

Absolutely awesome quilt! What amazing work. And I loved the photos of your inspiration - I had no idea they existed. Wow. Thanks so much for sharing. Very inspiring!

12:53 pm  
Blogger Angie said...

Chukran ketir for sharing this with us!!! It is beautiful!
I've never been so far in the white desert (soon insh'alla), but I am very often in the Sinaï with bedouin people.

10:23 pm  
Blogger Lorri said...

Dear Jenny ...You give us heights for us all to aspire to,,,

I saw the one you traded last year for the bernina and thought I could never expect more exquisite sight...but this one draws you in simply you just walk into the quilt past Magmy...and see the beauty of the photos you provided in the fabrics and the "QUILT"

You truly paint in fabric a dream only starting for me...

Thank you for sharing such amazing photos and the result which is literally of another realm.

10:04 am  
Blogger Jackie said...


7:13 am  
Anonymous Amani said...


This is so beautiful. I hadn't been really following your blog since I came back to Egypt.
The quilt is as impressive as the photos and the stories behind them.
I still envy you so much. I have never been there yet :-(
One day.
I am still dreaming and hoping.

12:58 am  
Blogger Mandy said...

Such a beautiful quilt. Thankyou so much for sharing photos of the White Desert and describing it all so vividly.

7:21 am  
Anonymous vishav bhraman said...

Nice article..

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10:40 pm  

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