Lessons from a Greek Vase

Last night, after a day of spring cleaning, I sat down with some hand quilting in front of the TV, and chose the PBS series Empires, the episode on the Greeks.

Now, I have an art degree, and I’ve been to Athens, so I thought I knew a lot about Greek art.  I love the way the Greeks filled the curved surfaces of their pottery with beautiful decorations, the way they could suggest detailed reality with just a few colors.


This could be where some of the world’s most interesting art was made – Kerameikos, the potters’ district in Athens.

Greek sculptureThis area is so peaceful now, you would never know you are in a crowded city.

I always pictured the potters thoughtfully pondering the meaning of art and life while they planned out their designs, contemplating what statement they wanted to project into the future, taking the time to work intricately, perhaps having some students or patrons watching them from a respectful distance.

Women drawing water at a fountain, on a hydria from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Look at the detail of their fabrics!  This is from circa 510 – 500 BC.


Woman spinning, circa 490 BC, now at the British Museum.

woman spinning source

So for the two vessels above, my mental image was of their creators thinking long and hard about, “How shall we represent the state of today’s womanhood to the far-off generations of the future?”  It turns out I was probably wrong about that.

In the show, the historian said that in their time, the vases were no big deal.  They were usually worth less than the contents of the vessel!  It seems that the artists weren’t thinking of creating timeless works of art, but just trying to outdo each other!  They left competitive messages on the pots – there is one amphora signed, “Euthymides painted me, as never Euphronius could.”

Paul Johnson in Art: A New History says, “Greece was an entrepreneurial society and vase art was particularly vigorous and varied because pottery  was entirely in the private sector in most cities …business came before art, quantity before quality (as a rule), and that competition was fierce.”  So now I imagine these artisans as fairly rowdy guys, coming up with a stream of new designs to appeal to customers, constantly working to get the job done.

I thought of the vase makers today when I went back to working on the Disappearing Nine-Patch that I started in June of last year, and then abandoned when I had terrible problems with stitch consistency.  After months of practicing with different threads, needles, and feet, I finally felt ready to give it another try.  The quilting went well today, but a new issue came up – I realized the quilt would look better with borders to tie everything together.

quilt blocks with some stitching

Meandering stitches – far from perfect, but much more consistent than what I was getting last summer.

This is a masculine quilt, which already limits my choices for borders.  I have some smoky blue fabric that would look fine with the blocks on the front, but the backing is black with a tiny red pattern.  I really prefer borders that tie front and back together, and I don’t think that smoky blue will do it.  But I don’t have anything else in my stash that works.  Usually I have a rule against going out to buy anything while in the middle of a project, but this time I did think about going to the quilt shop (20 miles away) or ordering online and then waiting.

That’s when I thought about those Greek potters and vase painters, and their “varied and vigorous” results.  They probably didn’t drag out each step, or wait until the perfect moment – they just got on with it.  Continuous work gave them total familiarity with their materials and well-honed skills to create phenomenal art.

So to meet my own simple goal – to make non-boring quilts that feel good – I don’t need to worry over each little decision – just make a reasonable decision and keep going.  And then apply whatever I learn from one project, to the next!