Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thread to Thread: Nina Paley's 4 Elements

At roughly the beginning of the new year, Nina Paley took up a new medium: quilting. She has now completed Air/Nude, the fourth in a series of quilts honoring the 4 Elements. The other three, of course, are: Earth, Water, and Fire. This post is just a short note about Air/Nude.

It’s 77 inches tall by 23 inches wide and depicts a life-size female nude. The fabric is white cotton muslin and the stitching is in white polyester thread: white on white. The figure is rendered without adornment while the background is densely stitched in a variety of free-motion quilting patterns, some standards, some by Leah Day, and some of Nina’s own. Consider this detail (photo by Nina):

Here’s what Nina says about it:
I had bountiful opportunities to try new stitches and patterns. As long as the negative spaces were densely quilted, it didn’t matter what was in them. I tried various hexagonal-based “snowlflake” patterns, like the one above. In the midst of my experiments, Leah posted this Icicle Lights pattern, which is much easier than hex-based ones. Below it is an homage to DNA molecules, and a “scaly micropebbling” experiment.
DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, stitched into the background of a quilt that has a nude woman in the foreground. No artistic subject is more venerated and honored than the female nude. And for good reason, after all, women are the source of human life. And DNA is the source of all life on earth.

Source to source.

But also: Thread to Thread. DNA is the thread of life, and threads are the fundamental substance of quilting.

More later.


  1. The white nude is gorgeous, to be sure, but to my eye it doesn't at all look like it belongs with the previous three in the 4 Elements series. It's like Nina no longer felt like working in that style, but she still felt the nagging absence of the fourth quilt.

  2. That is breathtaking.

    It also seems a very American medium, traditional and very different.

    The four humours is a fav. historical subject of mine. A particular fav. artistic represention is the four seasons. A series of very strange late 17th century pictures that are held in the medical collection of Duke University. They are like a childrens pop up book or flap book that reveal the anatomical detail of a male and female charting changes through life. But they contain refrences to a vast range of subjects

    Very much reminds me of this. The art historian Martin Kemp said I had to go to Duke and see them in the flesh (wish I had the money!)

    Duke have an online interactive version, not quite the same. But very much worth a look if you have not seen them. Still much that remains to be understood about them. They have a highly unusual history.

  3. Darin, perhaps so, but each quilt in the series is in a different style. The first, earth, is early modernist in vibe (think Matisse, but also Rousseau), the second, water, is East Asian, while the third, Fire, is South Asian.