Sunday, November 20, 2016

15 Quilt Lessons from Leonard Cohen

What a season. A harrowing election, followed by the passing of legendary songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen, at age 82.

But now it's almost Thanksgiving, and this year I give thanks for Cohen's poetic and melodic genius. To honor his great spirit, and heal our own, we should make something inspired by him.

To honor him fully, don't make it perfect. 

Below are some of the inspirational art lessons I've learned from him Cohen, along with a playlist of my favorite versions of his songs. 

Disclaimer: I am illustrating some of these points with my own quilts, not because I think they are even 1/1,116th as brilliant as any Cohen song, but because I’m too lazy to seek out illustrations and permissions from quilt artists of true genius. (See also #13.) Please forgive me as I cycle between the sublime and the ridiculous.

Also, at the end of this article, there's the story of my brief-but-deep encounter with Cohen. 

1. First, Install a Crack
The best-known Cohen lyric, from the song Anthem, is this:

     "Forget your perfect offering.
     There is a crack in everything,
     That's how the light gets in."

It's as profound a lesson for quilters as for broken souls, and it took me years to figure out: Put a light in it. 

Without it, nothing is happening. The quilt will be morose (like some Cohen songs would be if he didn't leaven them with humor, irony, saxophones, and backup singers, which brings us to):

2. Create Contrast
Cohen knew his vocal limitations; his growl descended ever-lower with age. Cohen poked fun at it in Tower of Song:

     "I was born like this, I had no choice,
     I was born with the gift of a golden voice
     And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
     They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song."

So he often sang alongside women with pure, high voices. Listen to the synergy in this version of Tower of Song

Rays of light create contrast. So do opposite colors. And hot against cool. Pure hues against black, the Amish effect. Play until your combinations make each other sing. This can take a lot of time (See #12)
(Note also the tiny moon. We'll get to that in #5)

3. Collaborate
Cohen collaborated with many artists. My favorite is a performance of Who By Fire, his adaptation of Judaism's most somber Yom Kippur prayer. Cohen sings bass, legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins embellishes the mid- and high ranges, and gospel-tinged singers bring it all home. Revel in it, here

Quilt art lesson: Do you have a fatal weakness? Can't draw your way out of a paper bag? Collaborate with someone who can. 

4. Put a Bird On It
Cohen had his own vocabulary of symbols, often Biblical. Birds are frequent visitors. Take This Waltz has "a tree where doves go to die." Bird on a Wire ponders freedom. In Chelsea Hotel #2, he sings sweetly to Janis Joplin, whose "heart was a legend," and compares her to a fallen robin. (Check out this version.)

Anthem, the crack of light song, offers this solace:

     "The birds they sang
     at the break of day
     Start again
     I heard them say
     Don't dwell on what has passed away
     Or what is yet to be.
     Ah the wars,
     They will be fought again,
     The holy dove,
     She will be caught again.
     Bought and sold and bought again,
     The dove is never free.
     Ring the bells that still can ring…."
Improving art by adding birds is also recommended by Portlandia. I think the lesson here is not to be afraid to repeat images and ideas that resonate.

5. Add Moons
From Hallelujah: "Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you." 

From Closing Time
     "And the moon is swimming naked
     And the summer night is fragrant
     With a mighty expectation of relief." 
And many more. I am hopelessly hooked on the official Closing Time video, here. A trampoline may have been involved. Warning: Closing Time may be Cohen's stickiest tune. Once it gets in your head, it cannot be removed. Batik fabrics with striations make excellent and exotic moons. 
6. Break Violins
Like birds and moons, compromised violins stud Cohen's songs. In First We Take Manhattan, he sneers:

   "Thank you for those items that you sent me
    The monkey and the plywood violin [evil chuckle]
    I practiced every night and now I'm ready
    First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin."

(I love the beach-walking needs-a-shave look in the official video.)

From Dance Me To The End of Love :
     "Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin."  (Great one here)

 In Take this Waltz
     "I'll yield to the flood of your beauty, my cheap violin and my cross." 

I have yet to make a quilt with violins on it, but here's a doll I made years ago, with a stuffed violin. Fabric violins seem very Cohenesque, now that I think about it.

7. Combine Sacred and Erotic 
That’s the Cohen zone, and nowhere does he juxtapose them more powerfully than in Hallelujah, especially the verse that I advised my DD not to sing at her high school talent show:

   "Remember when I moved in you
   The holy dove was moving too
   And every breath we drew was Hallelujah."

Oh dang, I forgot to make an erotic yearning quilt! Here's the closest thing. It involves a romance between two identical penguins [a form of bird!], complete with striated moon:
There are so many gorgeous covers of Hallelujah - some prefer K.D. Lang's, some Rufus Wainwright's (featured in Shrek), some Jeff Buckley's, but my favorite is the one with the four Norwegian pop stars. When Kurt Nilsen chimes in at 2:06, it leaps into goosebump immortality. Find it here.

8. Send an Un-Love Letter 
Just off the top of my head, at least three Cohen classics - Famous Blue RaincoatFirst We Take Manhattan, and Chelsea Hotel #2 - are complex messages to a cuckolder, a terroristic co-conspirator, and Janis Joplin, respectively.

Which got me thinking. When I make a quilt for someone, the message is usually, "I love you, here's something pretty!" 

But what about the art of ambivalence? From Famous Blue Raincoat:

"And what can I tell you
     My brother, my killer
     What can I possibly say.
     I guess that I miss you
     I guess I forgive you
     I'm glad that you stood in my way." 

After making a quilt for a person who troubles you, you don't have to actually send the quilt to them, or even tell them about it. 

9. Shop Like Suzanne
Suzanne is based on Cohen's recollections of a very interesting person.

     "Now Suzanne takes your hand
     And she leads you to the river
     She is wearing rags and feathers
     From Salvation Army counters
     And the sun pours down like honey
     On our lady of the harbour
     And she shows you where to look 
     Among the garbage and the flowers."

First thought: Rags and feathers. Garbage and flowers. That would be an amazing quilt.

Second thought: Suzanne, a dancer in real life, clearly had the soul of a fiber artist, finding upcycled treasures through thrift shopping, and dumpster diving. (Below is a vintage hexagon block  I found in a flea market, with an appliquéd diver from new Terrie Mangat fabric.)
Cohen, incidentally, was much admired as a snappy dresser, always in a tailored suit and a fedora. Fine garment appreciation ran in his family - his father owned a clothing store. I doubt the he did much thrift shopping for clothes.

10. Contemplate Rags
And speaking of textiles, I think my favorite Cohen song is If It Be Your Will, one of his many cries of wanton abandon to the Divine:

     "And draw us near
     And bind us tight
     All your children here
     In their rags of light.
     In our rags of light
     Or dressed to kill
     And end this night
     If it be your will." 

I have seen many quilts that are truly rags of light. The Gees Bend quilts come to mind, luminous tributes made from worn clothing. Other quilts are indeed dressed to kill - those are the breathtaking major show prizewinners.

My favorite rendition of If It Be Your Will is Anohni's agonizingly gorgeous performance, here. If you watch only one video from this blog post, make it this one. Anohni, formerly Antony Hegarty, is astonishing. Also, her woven garment is unravelling in a fascinating way.

11. Remember Hallelujah
The following words from Hallelujah should be written on post-it notes and stuck to our sewing machines, ready for that moment we look at our finished quilts and see only the flaws:  

     "And even though it all went wrong
     I'll stand before the Lord of Song
     With nothing in my heart but Hallelujah." 

(Substitute the word "Lord of Quilts" for "Lord of Song.")

12. It Might Take Years
Cohen was not a fast writer. Hallelujah took at least five years. He composed more than 80 verses for it (like this blog post. I promise it ends soon). In Wikipedia, I read that at one writing session, "he was reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the floor." 

(I have a quilt that took me at least five years to finish.)
(No Cohen song, don't recall any head-banging, but it may be the best thing I ever make.)

13. Love Our Neighborhood
Another verse from Tower of Song:

     "I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
      Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
      But I hear him coughing all night long
     Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song."

If I were to map the Tower of Quilts, the upper floors would include people (in no particular order) like Carol Taylor, Paula Nadelstern, Judy Neimeyer, Caryl Bryer Fallert-Gentry, Katie Pasquini Masopust, Susan Carlson, Nancy Crow, Theresa May, Susan Shie, Gwen Marston, the Gees Bend quilters, Yvonne Porcella, Judy Coates Perez, Frances Alford, Leah Day, Ricky Tims, Kaffe Fasset, Jenny Bowker - and so many more who are not famous but who make utterly brilliant art, including many of you reading this. I could go on with this list for a long time.

And I'm thrilled to be in basement parking level 4D. It’s a very supportive and inclusive apartment building. Come to think of it, the quilt world is less of a tower than a vast and friendly community of single- to double-story condominiums, all packed with fabrics and people making unique things, eager to teach and learn from each other. 

14. Ignore All Advice
From Closing Time:

     "And I lift my glass to the awful truth
     Which you can't reveal to the ears of youth
     Except to say it isn't worth a dime." 

For More Inspiration...
I wrote all this as if Leonard Cohen were not also a gifted visual artist. But he was, as you'll see at Drawings, paintings, computer art, and more - so much inspiration!

15. Epilogue: Put An Egg On It?
I actually sort-of met Leonard Cohen once. In the early 1980s, I was invited by a Canadian friend to attend his brother’s girlfriend’s huge Passover seder in Los Angeles. 

There must have been 50 people there. Wanting to be helpful, I volunteered to distribute the hard-boiled eggs. I handed one directly to Leonard Cohen. 

He was dressed in a natty black suit  and black shirt, and sitting alongside a gorgeous young woman who was probably Rebecca De Mornay. 

As I handed him the egg, one of us said "It is an egg," and the other one of us said, "Yes it is." I can't remember which line was mine, and which was his. But, dayenu, that was enough.
This is an egg-studded matzoh cover, but was not used at the Passover seder where I sort-of met Cohen.
Have you made a quilt inspired by Leonard Cohen? Thoughts on his music? I'd love to see your Cohen-inspired quilts and add links to them. 

PS I was delighted to be able to share this project on Nina-Marie Sayre's weekly creativity compendium, Off the Wall Fridays. Check it out! 


  1. I love you! This is my favorite post yet. Thank you for reminding me of some of his poetry. The quote with how the light gets in is one of my favorites. And Hallelujah - such a moving song. I'm surprised he didn't write a moving song entitled " egg encounter" the tale of matzo meets an egg. Lol! RIP Mr. Cohen

    1. Thank you, QFA, I love you too! When matzoh meets egg, it makes matzohbrei - now THAT would be a profound quilt!

  2. Thank you, Cathy. That's all. Thank you.

  3. Such a marvelous post! Love it, and, thank you...let the light in...maybe the birds bring it.

    1. Thanks, Jeri! After writing this, I want to put a bird on everything.

  4. Cathy, this is wonderful. I will keep it and squeeze every bit of wonder out of your inspirations from Leonard Cohen's gifts. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Sherry. The one downside of all those linked videos is that the songs will get inextricably stuck in your head. Some of them are downright addictive (like Closing Time, and If It Be Your Will, and...and....and....)

  5. What a wonderful inspiring post. Mary Ann

  6. Thank you Cathy for so diving deep and honoring Leonard Cohen with your art and words and posting. Last week i spent time at Hallelujah on utube determining k d lang singing bare foot at winter olympics was wonderful.On my posted blog i added sunset photos i have taken over the years as sometimes words cannot capture that which am trying to say.Thank you!

    1. Sonja, the tribute on your blog is beautiful, and I think your sunsets are as appropriate a tribute to Leonard Cohen as any words can be. (For those who want to see Sonja's post, it's at I had not seen that KD Lang Olympics version - wow. She's barefoot because she knocks the socks off it. It's here: Thank you so much!

  7. OK, then Cathy...this post is brilliant..I am linking to it on my blog to share...great job!!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, OQ!!! Thanks for the link!!!

  8. Thank you for this wonderful, wonderful post

  9. An incredible commentary on a very talented man.

    1. Thank you, Fran, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It's hard to do justice to a man who was so brilliant with words. Like Dylan, he deserves a Nobel, imho.