Safe asset: Kaffe Fassett

Today I escaped from the urban rat race in the company of hundreds of fans of designer Kaffe Fassett.  We’d gone where the GPS won’t go, somewhere in the vicinity of Brantford Ontario.

Fassett is the Mick Jagger of the quilting world.  I suppose that’s a bit of  an oxymoron, considering how quiet that community is.  In other words, if anyone had thrown their underwear at the stage it would only happen because the owner wanted to show off a clever design.

Kaffe FassettBut our quilt and knit rockstar is an extraordinarily humble man, genuinely interested in reaching out to his audience.  It wasn’t just a book signing, not when the book is Fassett’s autobiography, My Life in Colour.  I had no idea he’d be such a flamboyant speaker, holding us spellbound with tales of his fascinating life & times, his creativity, and several funny stories.

And for what it’s worth, the title of this piece is his mnemonic to explain how to pronounce his name.

Although I’d wondered at one point before I heard the fluidity of his delivery whether there were any ghost writers in the picture (and apparently there was one for one of Fassett’s earlier books), once i saw Fassett take the stage, as charismatic as a talk-show host, there were no doubts in my mind. The artist is also a wonderful writer.

Fassett is already known for his work in several disciplines: painting, knitting, fabric design, quilting, patchwork…. And while I would suggest he add writer to the list of occupations, he’s been doing this for quite some time in several books.  The only thing different this time out is that we’re reading about Fassett’s life rather than his quilt patterns or his designs.

As the author himself puts it, My Life in Colour is a “narcissistic trip down memory lane”.  He said that with a straight face, as the entire place roared with laughter.

In the book and in his talk we hear how Fassett became Fassett.

  • early life as a visual artist, working in an academic context, and then his gradual retreat from that context
  • decision to go to England
  • discovery of the wonderful colours found in the wool in a Scottish yarn store
  • learning how to knit from a woman he accosted on a train

He spoke eloquently to some of his key philosophical preoccupations, procedural preferences representing his beliefs as surely as they are etched in his work.

Fassett feels very strongly that colour is instinctive, and was revolted by the systematic approach to colour in school.  As he put it, “when they brought out the colour wheel I said ‘get thee behind me’”.  Fassett is strongly anti-formulaic, against the use of systems, and preferring instinct to a scientific approach to colour.

This meant that his approach to painting began as very understated, with so little colour early on that Fassett became frustrated.   Or as he put it “beige clothes, beige skin, beige hair…”  And he pulled a face, accompanied by a roar of laughter.

By going into yarns and knitting, where he could happily employ bold colours, it was as though a restraint had been removed from the artist & his work.  Fassett would then take his bold designs to Vogue where they were quickly acclaimed as the most original approach to knitting that had been seen in a generation.

As Fassett acknowledges, his work was “wrong” in terms of following correct procedure.  In this sense he’s a genuine crossover artist, bringing a fresh philosophy to a moribund discipline screaming for something new.
Or as he put it, “’It would look like cat vomit in the wind all higgledy piggledy.”  Fassett showed us the gorgeous front, then the slightly messy back.  Only a total purist would object, as –naturally—Vogue were thrilled and chose to highlight his work.

My Life in Colour tells us a great deal about Kaffe Fassett the man & his process, illuminated with illustrations and glosses worthy of a poem by William Blake.  The book is as consistently beautiful as his work.

My Life in Colour is available in stores such as “Red Red Bobbin”.

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