Creatives Talk

Iris van Herpen designs

Somewhere between the shock of a pandemic shutting the entire world down and its ripple effects, and this month’s realization that this quarantine stuff — if everyone plays nice — will probably go on for another year, I found an article where two creative forces, the designer Iris van Herpen and the choreographer Damien Jalet had a conversation.

It was May 2020, and after holding our breath since mid-March, we slowly began to exhale, wondering how we were going to get through this, would we ever get through this, and how to pick up the pieces of lives, covid-style. And then this article came into view (one in a series from The Big Ideas in the New York Times).

As you can see from van Herpen’s designs, she is not your average fashion designer. So this excerpt surprised me (Damien Jalet, asking the question):

Stanley Kubrick said that some of the artistic failures of the 20th century came from an obsession with total originality, and that innovation didn’t happen through abandoning the classical art form of your own discipline. . . Does the question “Is what I’m doing original?” ever come up in your creative process?

cotton quilt blocks from 1890, from here

At one point in our quilting world, we quilters spent a lot of time and spilled a lot of ink (figuratively speaking) over this issue. We were rabid with the question of who came up with this idea first? Who was the first one on the planet to draw a particular block, make a particular quilt, yada yada yada.

Scrappy Stars, from here

Ms. van Herpen replies:

Nothing comes out of nothing, so the craftsmanship that we master we can attribute to a long evolution of craftsmanship and innovation combined throughout so many centuries. And we are looking at that constantly. So in that sense, I don’t believe at all in originality. But at the same time we are combining it with technologies of today and newer techniques… Without the knowledge of the traditional craftsmanship, we would not be able to integrate these new techniques at all. So they really need each other.

Nothing comes out of nothing. This implies that we quilters, without the history of what has come before us, would not be able to create our designs and our quilts. In her words, “we really need each other.”

Log Cabin quilt, 1870

Back to Kubrick’s idea. I remember in my earlier days striving mightily to create something totally my own, something that had no origin from anything that we were familiar with. Anywhere. My early attempts were, as he says, “failures” as they “came from an obsession with total originality.”

D.C. Dots & Dithers, from here

Slowly I began to remember that when I was in college, in photography class, one of my professors noted that we don’t have to be original, that most of the best ideas are really only 10% new — anything more and they would be too far out of the mainstream to be accepted or enjoyed. An article on The Next Web reiterates this:

There is no such thing as a new idea. One of the most beautiful things about humanity is our ability to build on each other’s ideas, making small tweaks and giant leaps into new innovations. That doesn’t mean your ideas aren’t potentially interesting and even important — just don’t ever call them “original.”

The idea, that I don’t have to be original or new or startling or gee-whiz-bang, and that I can just make a solid quilt with good color choices and a somewhat fresh take, is a relief.

Criss-Cross Color

from Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Quilt patterns: a four-patch block known as a Lattice block

from here

This month’s Gridster Bee Block, chosen by Bette has its origins in a Churn Dash variation, known as Puss in the Corner, from Nancy Page in the 1920s:

I admit, sometimes I doodle around and then hit Barbara Brackman’s book to see what our early quilters did, and often what I think is something I’ve discovered, is actually on the pages of the Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns. There’s a whimsical sort of — well, of course — that goes on, but also another link from me to those women long ago. I honor this connection to our “classical art form of [our] own discipline.”

Happy Stitching!

Maintain vs. Innovate

I’ve been reading a series of articles by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, two academics who have noted that we tend to focus on innovation and ignore maintaining.  Maintain?  Innovate?  When I insert this into the quilting world, some thoughtful parallels arise.

LIghtbulb moment

some images cheerfully swiped from the internet; find them using a Google image search.

First, some background.  In an article on Aeon, Russell and Vinsel observed that our love affair with the new and the untried has obscured our reliance on, and the need for, the “old things,” those items like the electric fan that have been unchanged for a century or more.  And by letting the new obscure our vision of the old, it has also blocked our view of the humans who do “the work that goes into keeping the entire world going….from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation.”  And to no one’s surprise, it’s “women — disproportionately — [who do the work] to keep life on track.”  Russell and Vinsel argue that it is time to bring the work of maintainers into clearer focus.

EPP Stitching

When I first heard this interview on the radio, I let it sink to the background while I worked in my sewing room that morning. But something in me wondered if this idea also applies to quilters.  To see it, come at the idea from a different direction:  Say you have nineteen bins of fabric at home, a list of at least twelve quilts to be made from the above-mentioned bins, yet when you are on Instagram and you see the latest quilt that EVERYONE is doing, you click through to get their suggested fat quarter bundle because that is the most awesome thing ever.  Sound familiar?

To borrow Russell and Vinsel’s terminology, I would suggest this is a classic case of quilter Maintenance vs. Innovation.  We don’t want to do the hard work of re-imagining why we stashed that fabric, purchased that pattern in the first place, preferring instead the WOW feeling (and let’s face it: the easiness) of contemplating sewing up something fresh and interesting.

Fabric Stash

I believe in innovation.
I do like the feeling of a few fresh cuts into the fabric with a new pattern by my side.  And full disclosure: I’m not a “sew-from-my-stash” only sort of quilter, believing instead that occasionally everyone’s stash needs a punch up of energy with a few fat quarters of current fabrics with their current color palettes.

Plitvice Quilt_unquilted

I believe in maintenance.
Having recently I’ve slogged through a few really old UFOs I found out that there is happiness and satisfaction in working through those projects, yet often it didn’t come until that last stitch on the last inch of binding.

Tesla Roadster

Some fall into the trap that Elon Musk did recently, when he outlined a tunnel transportation system in Los Angeles demonstrating that he believed “that the best path forward is to scrap existing reality and start over from scratch.”  Yet, as Russell and Vinsel note, “a clean slate is rarely a realistic option.  We need to figure out better ways of preserving, improving and caring for what we have.”  Although tempting, we can’t torch our fabric stash in order to begin fresh and new and wonderful and exciting.

But the mental tussle between finishing up those UFOs vs. buying new fabric perhaps goes deeper, as Russell and Vinsel describe in their article, “Let’s Get Excited about Maintenance,” when they say that often we “fetishize innovation as a kind of art, [which] demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.”

Innovation=Art?  Upkeep=Drudgery?

  • If I’m buying new, I’m making art?
  • Sewing up my old half-finished projects is drudgery?

The answer might be yes to both questions, but it’s more like often or sometimes, but not always.

EPP 4 cutting pieces

We need innovation.  I can’t imagine making a quilt today without my rotary cutter, mat or ruler.  But we also need maintenance to help us keep our lives in balance and on track.  Make that new quilt, buy that new fabric, but don’t think of it as better than pulling out the quilt you started last year.  Likewise, finishing up a painfully old UFO that would have been better donated to the scrap bag isn’t necessarily more noble, either.

Innovate? Maintain?

We need both.

Making, Not Knowing

I was intrigued by the phrase Making, Not Knowing, when I read about the artist Ann Hamilton recently on the website BrainPickings, and learned of her essay with that title, adapted from her 2005 commencement address at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She writes:

One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going. In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know….You have to be open to all possibilities and to all routes — circuitous or otherwise.

Book Stash.jpg

But, she cautions, “Not knowing isn’t ignorance.”  It is a manifestation of a “willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result” much like pulling a stack of fabrics from our stash to make our next quilt is the epitomy of “knowing in suspension.”  Who knows how these colors will work? Sometimes we try to circumvent this process of Not Knowing, by following a pattern, using the fabrics that the designer specifies, ordering wads of fabrics we may not ever use in future quilts.  I am not opposed to this, as you know. But then this becomes more about checking off the boxes, and that idea of Making, Not Knowing is cut short, because I do know what it will be.

Sometimes I think we are hampered, as Maria Popova of BrainPickings notes, by social media: “In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity.”  Our eyes can glaze over from countless IG posts, or blogs (not this one, of course) and we forget what our real task is: a life of making.

Fabric Stash.jpg

“A life of making isn’t a series of shows, or projects, or productions, or things; it is an everyday practice.  It is a practice of questions more than of answers, of waiting to find what you need more often than knowing what you need to do….Our culture has beheld with suspicion unproductive time, things not utilitarian, and daydreaming in general, but we live in a time when it is especially challenging to articulate the importance of experiences that don’t produce anything obvious, aren’t easily quantifiable, resist measurement, aren’t easily named, are categorically in-between.” (Hamilton)

Finally, Hamilton notes:

“Every act of making matters. How we make matters. I like to remember, and remark with regularity, that the word “making” occupies seventeen pages in the Oxford English Dictionary, so there are multiple possibilities for a lifetime of making: make a cup, a conversation, a building, an institution, make memory, make peace, make a poem, a song, a drawing, a play; make a metaphor that changes, enlarges, or inverts the way we understand or see something. Make something to change your mind — acts that amplify.”

Fabric Stack_food.jpg

While this sounds like an improv challenge, I don’t work that way.  After many years of quilting, I know what makes me happiest, and my style is my sandbox, the edge of my picture frame.  But in cleaning out my sewing room yesterday, I found little bags of cut pieces of fabric — obviously even though I had an idea, it was the process of Making, Not Knowing which yielded discarded shapes, fabrics, designs, steps on the way to my art.

Basket Blocks.jpg

So, get into your sewing room, your studio, or drag cartons out from under the bed, whatever, and pull out fabrics.  Sketch out a new pattern, go for a walk, go for a walk through a museum, capture what you see and let the making flow from your mind and your hands, even though you don’t yet know what it will be.

Plitvice_1.jpg

Be open to all possibilities.

One Life • Many Lives

ESE twoyrold

This has to do with quilting, but it doesn’t start out that way.  It starts out this way, with a two-year old girl posed on her family’s front lawn.

Then all of a sudden, I was a young mother, then a mother of three-soon-to-be-four children, then a grandmother.  When I was that young mother, I took a class on how to make a quilt.  I was a Clothing and Textile major in college, so I knew how to sew, but I thought there was something extra you had to know to make a quilt.  And with one young child at home, I had absolutely no extra time (or so I thought then) but figured I could squeeze it in somewhere.  Between then and when the fourth child was born, I made about eight quilts: each child had a baby quilt, I had a quilt for the bed, and I’d even made a baby quilt for my sister and one I sold in a consignment shop.

Mothering was that life.  That was what I chose and on balance, the kids seem to have turned out all right. But somewhere in that life as mother, I also chose a life as a Mary Kay Lady and a seamstress– I was always sewing, making all the outfits the children and I wore.  And somewhere after I finished my undergraduate education (I was on the 28-year plan), the number of quilts I made took off like a rocket, blogging happened, rotary cutting happened; things just changed.  Again.

I’ve been thinking about this because of two experiences:

ESE at Trunk Show

The first was the presenting of my quilts at a trunk show at my local guild.  I reviewed all my quilts, and each represented some life I lived at the time of the making of that quilt, from the simplest beginning quilt (a small whole cloth quilt with the knots on top) to the recent finish of The Circles Quilt, with all the blocks I designed.  It was a satisfying evening and I was happy to share some of my life’s work.

The second was when I flew home last week after visiting my mother for her birthday, and I stitched improv appliqué blocks while on the plane.  The young man next to me was reading DeLillo’s White Noise, a book I had read in grad school.  The title fit the book perfectly, and that was about the only comment I could make when he and I visited.  I realized he saw this grandma-person stitching away and that was the only life of mine he could see.  But, I wanted to say, I’ve had so many other lives!

So if all my lives were strung together as pearls on a necklace, what might I see?  Would I see only the failures, the quilts I gave away, the moment I lost it and yelled at a child?  Would I see the classes I had to drop, the cosmetic saleslady I could never be?  Or would I focus more on the pearls burnished from the striving and from the use: a creative life, a life with laughter, traveling and family. A life with happiness, because in addition to all that, I get to walk into my sewing room every day, thread a needle and get to making.

tiny nine patches

Getting a Perspective on a New Year • 2017

 

My friend Leslie sent me this knitting gnome (so I had to share it with you), and although the holidays are past and gone, I think many of us have been as busy as this little guy, creating and sending them out our quilts and things with a heart full of love.

Here is a composite of What I Did Over the Holidays:

christmas-2017-composite

I made bread from a bunch of gifted persimmons, hugged a sleepy elf (and his brothers) in my kitchen, enjoyed watching my oldest son Chad and my youngest son Peter make home-made pasta for our Christmas Eve dinner, pieced a quilt with Sarah Jane fabrics (always lovely), shopped for a new car (but I didn’t like any of them better than the one I have, so I came home without one), and cleaned up my sewing room (always an event).en-provence_purple-four-patch

I jumped into the En Provence Mystery Quilt, hosted by Bonnie Hunter of Quiltville and had fun trying to find the color periwinkle in my stash and in shops, as I decided to slant it that way, instead of the straight purple.en-provence-quilt_bonnie-hunter

Here’s a picture of HER finished quilt–mine is still three clues behind and mostly in pieces.  If you ever needed a good blog post to encourage you to save your scraps, *here* it is, courtesy of Bonnie.halloween-1904_front

But I do have one finish I can share.  I finished up the binding (my quilter did the quilting) on my Halloween quilt.  I’ll be updating the final post of the Quilt-A-Long on this pattern to include these two photos (front is above and back is below), but I wanted to say…halloween-1904_back

…Happy Halloween to you all!

But wait.  Isn’t it January?  Full of snow and storm and putting away the holiday boxes?  Watch this:

If you can’t see the video, it’s the Selective Attention Test; you can watch it on my blog.

This is how I feel when I’m working on something not in the season it’s intended for.  I’m am distracted/entranced by the cues all around me. In July, I see red, white, blue, stars, stripes, but not green pointy growing things called Christmas trees.  In April, it is flowers flowers flowers and complete absorption into planting my summer garden.  It is nearly impossible for me to focus on turkeys and fall decor.  Or snow.  As a result of this focus, I rarely see the proverbial gorilla among the basketball players.

perspective-six-and-nine

Perspective, exhibit A

Yet so many of us work “out of season” in planning, buying and creating that I thought I’d look into it.  The 99U article (where the video is found) noted that “We see the world, and our work, through countless lenses of assumption and habit—fixed ways of thinking, seeing and acting, of which we’re usually unconscious.”  The author, columnist Oliver Burkeman (a personal favorite of mine), observes that “This urge toward making things unconscious is a blessing if you want to do the same thing, over and over, ever more efficiently. But it becomes a problem when we’re called upon to do things differently—when you hit a roadblock in creative work, or in life, and the old approaches no longer seem to work.”  He suggests using physical or temporal distance to get perspective, to get past that creative block.

When you use physical distance, you institute physical distance from your creative problem, such as when you take a break from piecing or quilting to look at Instagram, or take time to research, perhaps see something in a quilt book.  Or you might take a trip and get your best flash of insight while flying over the country.  Research has been done that shows that for many people implementing creative ideas begins with recognizing creative ideas.  While this sounds circular, it’s fairly common: how many times have you read a magazine and decide to add two new quilts to your List of Quilts To Make? You recognize the creative in others, and choose to implement it for yourself.

To proximate temporal distance, Burkeman suggests that we can “externalize our thoughts by writing them down in a journal. The point isn’t necessarily that you’ll have an instant breakthrough, but that by relating to your thinking in this ‘third-person’ way, you’ll loosen the grip of the old assumptions, seeing your thoughts afresh, and creating potential for new insights.”  Sounds like an argument to begin a creative journal to me.

forced-perspective-changed-angle-photography-3

Perspective, Exhibit B

The title of his article is “You Don’t Need New Ideas, You Need A New Perspective,” and I thought it fitting to start out the new year with this creative idea of perspective.  Now that all our holiday boxes are up in the rafters, the tinsel and glitter and ornaments and the fall boxes with autumn colors are all put away, the minimalist environment we live in come January can provide a clean slate — and a new perspective — for our creative work.

sign-off-ads-disclaimer

Three Mini Quilts and a Few Thoughts on Deliberate Practice

 

RoadFriendsHouse

The Road to a Friend’s House is Never Long, Quilt #159

I started this July 2015, and you know what happened to me shortly after that, so it was nice to get it fixed up and quilted, because I’d had a purpose in mind: a gift for a friend.

RoadFriendsHouse_back

Leisa likes it!  Pattern coming soon.  I used the new Northcott labels I bought at QuiltCon.  I just cut them apart, backed them with freezer paper, and ran them through my printer; see the complete how to under the tab “Tutorials,” above.

Thread Doodles_front

Thread Doodles, Quilt #160

And then there’s this one, a mini quilt made as a class sample for the Free Motion Quilting Class I’m teaching in late summer at Quilter’s Cocoon.  I had to think of a way for the students to practice their stitches, yet display what they’d learned in a pleasing way.  As soon as they master one of these stitches, I’ll have them stitch it onto their own class sample.  They may want to finish it all up that day, or may want to add to it as they get better.  Thread Doodles_back

I’m big on naming my quilts.  Another Northcott label.  After they are printed, I cut a square of lightweight interfacing and fuse it to the back the “light” section of the label so I won’t see the fabric underneath.

Electra Magnetic_front

Electra Magnetic, Quilt #161

I seem to be finishing up quite a few things lately, a nice change from the months November to February, where I felt swamped all the time, unable to seemingly get to anything.  Do you have times like that–like you see everything around you and just can’t get to it at all?  Where you are climbing, climbing Mt. NeverFinish and wish you could find the summit?  That’s why these minis feel like a success story to me.  Electra Magnetic_back

So, with all my rainbow-type quilts this past year, I’ve about run out of names.  Combine that with the funny comment I got on one of my quilts that they thought it looked like Hal the computer from the Space Odyssey 2001.  This quilt might also suffer from that comparison, so I thought I’d go with it.  The electromagnetic spectrum is all the colors, from those that we can see to those that we can’t; they call it “wavelengths, both visible and invisible.”  Okey, dokey.  So I feminized that idea and came up with Electra Magnetic, mother of Hal.

I’m still working on these patterns, and should have them out shortly.  Well, maybe not this week;  I’ll let you know.

But let not’s stop there today.  I have Brain Pickings in my Bloglovin’ Feed, and occasionally they hit a streak of book reviews on topics that interest me, and recently they did a review of Ursula LeGuin’s latest revision of her masterpiece on creative writing, Steering the Craft.  Brain Pickings references her written piece “How do you make something good?” and notes that:

LeGuin Quote1

Isn’t that also what quilters deal with?  We can make a decent quilt from stuff from the garage sale or someone’s basement (with that embedded fusty smell), but why not go for better ingredients?  We are surrounded by loads of high quality quilt fabric.  Perhaps instead of focusing on accruing endless supplies of this good fabric, why not focus on being good?  That means getting in those oft-cited 10,000 hours of practice, but as Joshua Foer noted, sometimes just making and making doesn’t bring us to the place of making something good.  Foer Quote 1

According to Joshua Foer, this is called hitting what is called the “OK plateau.”  That’s when we are just going through the rote mechanics of quilting, making quilts of only rectangles, or traditional fixed patterns in a loop that’s known as thinking from “bottom-up,” where we are good-enough, automated, rote practices to get our work done.  Yes, even those modern improv quilts with their fluid patterns can get stale.  Daniel Goleman notes how we can get stuck here:

Goleman Quote1

Foer also emphasizes this point: our deliberate practicing must be hard for us in order to engage that higher focus of creativity.  I, like many of you, can cut and stitch until I’m so bored I can’t slice one more piece of fabric or sew one more HST.  I’m falling right in line with studies that indicate that about four hours of concentrated deliberate practice is about the most amount of time we can do anything well.  At that point, we have to take a break and do other things.  Perhaps that’s why we are sometimes distracted by a new quilt, or a new design, or a new piece of fabric, as we try to restore our ability to refocus.  Perhaps we just need a break, in order to deliberately practice well.   But what I learned from these authors is that when I do come back to my quilting, I must “counteract the brain’s urge to automatize” and actively concentrate on what I’m doing.

So take a break, read that magazine, scroll through your IG feed, and then get back to it with a determination to make it good, make it better, and to fully engage.