Some Thoughts on the Art

I have had a couple of years now to observe how people react to these patterns, at craft fairs where they are not especially expecting to encounter fine art.

At first some people barely glanced before dismissing them as "computer-generated", or "That's fractals". I can understand the reaction, because I've seen very little mathematically or algorithmically generated art that I find pleasing after the novelty wears off. Now that I display the original picture next to the pattern, more people stop for a closer look.

"That's like a kaleidoscope!" or "That's a . . . whatchamacallit," while twisting their hands in front of their face. And that's an astute identification, because it does have the qualities of deriving shape and color from real objects, then reflecting and repeating in a geometric way. Usually I respond by telling them that I loved looking through kaleidoscopes when I was a kid, but when you find a great pattern that you want to show someone, it always changes as you hand it over. Now I can catch the great ones to show.

After that, people do different things. Some look back and forth between the pattern and the source, trying to identify where everything came from. For them, "Oh, Wow" comes when they track down an intriguing shape or color and discover that it had been unnoticed in the source. I love that. It brings to life a bit of the picture that their brain had filtered out in its attempt to find the "important" part.

Some people (I think of them as Dreamers) immediately see things -- faces, animals, people -- and also immediately have little stories associated with them to explain how they're feeling, why they're dressed that way, where they come from, and what they're about to do. The content of these dreams can be shaped by what the Dreamer is accustomed to picking out of the environment. Naturalists see a lot of insects, birds, reptiles; usually an exact species. Fantasy readers see emperors, warriors, queens, viziers, dragons, and they often see several emergent beings as part of the same story, or they run through several stories, developing alternate plots. It's amazing what goes on in people's heads, and this is quite infectious. One great Dreamer can get several viewers going. Oddly enough, almost everyone can eventually see exactly what a Dreamer is pointing out.

Other people, perhaps those more used to considering art, or meditating, or using hallucinagens, adopt a sort of receptive, attentive gaze, and let the patterns present themselves. Some of the patterns are strongly active this way. One organization will spring into focus, then a different one, then another. In creating the patterns, I try to arrange a great many connections between the parts -- some vine that twists and branches, a bit of shadow that makes a background connection. I don't know how the pattern is going to look, or how someone is going to see it, but I can know in advance that there will be multiple potential visual organizations, and the rest is up to the viewer.

And then there are the quilters, who appreciate the work on a technical level, and are excited by the way things fit together, and how they might use similar patterns. I am grateful to them, because it reminds me that I am part of at least one living tradition of geometric art.

12-sided green geometric pattern 
Some people associate all or part of the work with religious traditions. Certainly many of the underlying patterns have been used in art linked to religion, particularly Islam, and through its influence, the cathedrals of Europe. Some patterns unmistakeably bring to mind stained glass windows or domed ceilings.

And often, after looking at patterns for a while, people will tell me that they like some of the photographs better than the patterns, and sometimes they even buy a photo without the pattern. This is really interesting, because there are so many great images available today, by better photographers than me. I have several thoughts on this.

First, when creating the pattern, I study the photo very carefully, finding beautiful bits and figuring out how I can highlight them. A lovely little curve that doesn't stand out in itself can be mirrored and repeated twelve times in a circle to become splendidly exotic. Then when you look back at the original you really see the beauty that was there all the time, and what's next to it, and what's next to that. So I think the picture can become more beautiful because of the pattern.

Second, it's true, there really is a lot more in the original than is reflected in the pattern, which only has selected triangles artfully arranged and repeated. The trick is being able to see it. For most of us, the part of our mind that identifies things is like a clever and easily bored teenager. "OK, I got it, it's 3 leaves and a twig, why are we still looking at this thing?" It's hard to keep attending to what's there with that voice going on. (Someone once told me that's why he smoked cigarettes -- to "be doing something" while "doing nothing".)

And finally, there is something different about the pictures I take, because I don't compose them primarily for themselves, but for the patterns I can make with them. It's often not clear what the picture is "of" -- it just has the shapes, textures, colors, shadows, and connections that I want to try using for patterns. There is an interesting constraint here. If there are two lively areas of a picture, with a dull bit in between, I can't use it. The pattern would reflect and repeat the dull bit, too, and a dull bit X 12 is really dull. Many pictures taken in built places show this -- a nice thing here, but next to it flat wall or carpet or some plastic thing. We seem to learn to filter this out, but something still relishes natural complexity. Having made more than 3000 of these patterns, I've learned to see this complexity more often and have practiced the simple habits that make it easier to capture.

If you enjoy using repeating patterns yourself, feel free to use designs from my free tiling patterns page. To see many patterns of this kind visit my Imagekind gallery. For up-to-date writings and explorations of individual patterns, see the Patterns of Reflection blog.