Filling the Well

Filling the Well

A modern quilt
Sylvia Schaefer and “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Artichokes”

I have just returned from the AQS Chattanooga Quilt Show, only 3 hours away and an overnight stay. I went with a friend, Sylvia Schaefer, who had a quilt in competition. We spent hours (and hours!) at the show. Visited the Tennessee Aquarium. Listened to the pretty wonderful local band entertaining on the square. Ate dinner at a very cute little restaurant beside the city park. Strolled across the Tennessee River on the restored pedestrian bridge. Had some truly inventive ice cream. Watched other people with their dogs, their partners, their babies. Took the electric trolley around town. All in all, a good time.

This year has seen a bit of a turnaround in my thinking about taking these little trips. I’ve been telling myself I have too much to do, I can’t afford it … when in actuality, I can’t afford NOT to go. There is so much inspiration in seeing actual art, not flat art in photos or online. My subsequent work takes off in new and sometimes unexpected directions. My energy levels are replenished. Friendships are made, or strengthened. It’s great to see what products are available. And it never, ever fails that I meet someone who inspires me in an unexpected way.

This year it was Sandi Suggs, the featured quilt artist at the show. I was just walking through, taking a deeper, final look at her quilt chronology, literally minutes before the closing of the show. All by myself, not even really conscious of what, if anything, I was thinking. And then, there she was. She introduced herself and we had a rather deep and surprisingly intimate conversation. Perhaps it was her charming way of being so unassuming. Perhaps I was caught so offguard that my usual defences were not in place.

Finding My Voice: Quilts by Sandi Suggs
Finding My Voice: Quilts by Sandi Suggs

Quilt shows can be tricky places. It’s so easy to get caught up in criticism, what quilters call acting as the “quilt police”. So hanging all of your quilts, from the first to the most recent, probably feels a little like standing in your underwear on stage. (I’ve never been brave enough to do this.) Everyone started somewhere, and I remember reading an article in a quilt magazine where very famous quilt artists shared photos of their first quilts, with the object being to match the quilt to the artist. Some, it was easy. Most, not so much. But the other side of that is that if the only quilts hanging in a show took someone 2 years to make from start to finish, with no indication of beginnings or experiments or trials, many MANY people would be so intimidated they’d never consider trying one. And so, I find that more and more I am drawn to the experiments, the ideas, sometimes the execution of which is less than perfect or spectacular. They give me a bit of an inside view, a window into their thinking and method. They give me the itch to try some things myself! And Sandi’s journey was interesting, and winding, covering many different styles, patterns, and fabrics, and it was so nice to see the progress, both in her choice of styles that seemed to suit her better, and the progression of the skill set necessary to get to the next levels. I suspect many of us are on this path ourselves.

So thank you, Ms. Suggs, for sharing. For smilingly opening up a window into your process, your work, and your heart. I hope your courage is contagious!




Improvisational quilt top
Improvisational Piecing

It’s that time of year again – summer “vacation”.  Somehow I have come to equate that with the urge to go on a retreat, sort of like summer camp was years and years ago, but a bit more focused.  Well, a LOT more focused, actually.

It took a long time for me to actually go on a retreat.  I had lots of excuses not to – expense, time, worrying my family couldn’t get along without me (wishing it, more likely), not knowing anyone else, fear of flying.  Just about any excuse would do.

Then I went on my first one.  Ten whole days of nothing to do but practice new skills, meet new and inspirational people, and see up close and personal the most amazing work I’d ever seen.  Ever.  I went home with my brain on fire.  And did some of MY best work, with a ribbon to prove it!

One of the challenges I’ve found with classes is the supply list.  Seems no matter what I take, or how much of it, I never have exactly the “right” piece of fabric, or color thread, or “inspirational photo”.  I’ve had to learn to improvise and make decisions within the parameters of what is on hand, which is actually a very good skill for me to practice.  I think it is this ability to improvise that makes vintage quilts so very very interesting, and it inspires my process and exercises my creative muscles.  (Once, a participant showed up for a 4-day master class pulling a trailer, into which she had packed her entire sewing studio.  She probably paid for her trip selling fabric from the back of her car!)

Last year I went with a talented and patient friend to MISA, in Wisconsin.  It was a great change of scenery with a great program.  This year I’d like to stay a little closer to home, close enough to take my own stuff.  My own sewing machine for starters.  I’d like to spend less time actually getting there.  And I’m feeling quite lucky as there are so many really good choices close to me – John C. Campbell, Penland, Arrowmont – just for starters.  This year has its own special challenges, all personal, and I’m not feeling quite so “free” to take off for a couple of weeks.

I’m also finding that the studies that interest me are rather unexpected, and I’m not sure if that’s a distraction or a new path.  But I am finding that I do want to dig a little deeper into my own process and expand my ability to get my “voice” out.  That excites me, but also scares me just a little.

What do you do to excite (scare) yourself a little?  Have you been on a retreat?  Which was your favorite, and would you try to recreate that with friends or mentors?

And does it only have to be summer camp?