I was the program for the Piedmont Quilters Guild in Greensboro last night. They were so very welcoming and complimentary of my work. This is the text of the talk I gave. With the able assistance of a number of the guild members, I also showed several of my quilts.
“Every good painter paints what he is.” –Jackson Pollock
Art is personal. Quilts are personal. They are inspired by something we see, or someone we know, created from our fabric choices, and formed using our technique. They very often contain minute traces of our blood! “My whole life is in that quilt,” Margaret Ickis’ great grandmother said, “It scares me sometimes when I look at it…when I remember what that quilt knows about me.”
I started quilting back in the early 1970’s while working in the professional theater. Because I could sew, I was able to pick up extra money making costumes and I had a brisk business selling patchwork Western shirts to my fellow actors. One of these fellows I’d made a shirt for asked me if I would make a quilt for him. Not knowing any better, I agreed. Long story short, the most important lessons I learned were never use anything but 100% cotton when piecing with an old Singer and, for heaven sakes, don’t try to quilt it on that same machine with a high-loft polyester batt!
That first quilt got me interested, but I had to work really hard to learn more. These were pre-Bicentennial days and there was very little information out there. I married and we moved to Crawfordsville, Indiana in 1978 where I learned some great lessons from experienced quilters at the local fabric store, my church, and the Wabash College Women’s Sewing Group. Along with these quilting friends, I became a founding member of the Montgomery County guild, Sugar Creek Quilters and later the Indiana State Quilt Guild.
From the beginning I wasn’t content to make reproductions of old quilts or slavishly follow directions in magazines and books. I flexed my creative muscles in small ways and longed for something more. Then in the mid-1980’s, two events intersected to create what Julia Cameron calls synchronicity. Judy Chicago’s art installation, The Dinner Party, went on display in Chicago and I came across Betty Edwards’ book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The table runners created for The Dinner Party proved to me that quilts could be art. While old quilts were being displayed at major museums, they hadn’t been intended as wall pieces.
Judy Chicago showed us that women’s craft techniques could indeed be used to create art. Before reading Edwards’ book, I was one of those people who said, “I can’t draw.” Working through her book convinced me otherwise and I began taking drawing and design classes at Purdue University—all the time holding quilts in the back of my mind.
Then in 1988, our son, Dan, had a terrible accident. While he was still in the hospital, I started the drawings for the piece that would become my first art quilt, “Danny’s Left Arm.” It was an attempt literally to sew my little boy back together. I was compelled to complete it by Judy Chicago’s words, “The spirit of art is always affirming, even when it deals with painful realities, for the act of making an image transforms that pain into something beautiful.”
Very soon after that, I saw Nancy Crow’s quilts for the first time. In 1991, I took my first class with her at Arrowmont School of the Arts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I’ve studied with her three times including her first improvisational piecing class. She and her work have had a profound influence on me.
Thanks in large part to Nancy’s thoughtful criticism, I discovered early that producing art for me was a conflict between images that represented strong emotions but were just too literal and just making designs that had no emotional content. Another area of conflict in my work in general was that I had two distinct types of work—utility or craft items and art quilts. One of my goals with my last one-woman show at the Crawfordsville District Public Library was to try and marry these two distinct types of work into one.
I have always been an avid reader and as a teacher-librarian, it’s not surprising that books have helped me in my journey as an artist. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Michael Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci have been very important to me. Cameron’s book helped me discover my creative process. For example, I learned that I have a very productive period followed by fallow time. Cameron teaches the reader ways to refuel creatively and techniques for working through problems and artistic blocks. Gelb’s book helped me to see that one can be creative in every area of one’s life—cooking, homemaking, personal relationships, and so on.
Finding your voice and images as an artist takes time. The robes of his Holiness, the Dalai Lama inspired this quilt. My son’s photographs of Tibetan prayer flags encouraged me to make my own set.
To feed my creativity I try to spend time with time with myself and by myself. (Julia Cameron calls this an artist date.) I love going to museums and galleries. I look at art books. I try to take a walk every day and look at nature. It is fascinating to watch the plants and trees changing with the seasons. These are great ways to refuel creatively and to train your eye. I try to be reflective and examine and analyze the things that attracted me. I constantly investigate my creative process.
Having a studio space is absolutely necessary to me. I need to be able to focus on my work. The computer is in another room. My work table doesn’t double as a dining space. While I only have about a quarter of the space I had in Indiana, the move forced me to go through everything in my studio and weed out the dross.
I try to be open—to let everything speak to me. Inspiration can come from anywhere. I’ve kept a commonplace book for nearly 40 years in which I write down things I’ve read that I want to remember. Once in a while I will leaf through it and find a quote that really jumps out to me. Andrea Dworkin’s quote inspired me to make “For Peanuts and Schroeder.” “I have no patience with the untorn, anyone who hasn't weathered rough weather, fallen apart, been ripped to pieces, put herself back together, big stitches, jagged cuts, nothing nice. Then something shines out.”
Thank you for inviting me to talk to you and show my work. In summary, I’ll leave you with another quote from Jackson Pollack:
“Art is coming face to face with yourself.”
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