Wonder: Establishing and Maintaining a Creative Practice

I have blogged about this before, in part, but yesterday I gave a talk and I know some of my friends who live in the ether wanted access to it as well.  I departed somewhat from the script and talked about specific mistakes, but basically, this is what I talked about.



Because I was talking to a group of quilters, I started with my first quilt. I will note I have not attempted piecework this complicated since.

Take what works for you and leave the rest behind.

Start with the basics: get enough sleep, eat well, exercise. Take your medications.

Commit to your creative practice — REGULAR PRACTICE. Good writers go and write for X many minutes/hours or whatever it is a day. If you want to be creative, you have to do it. Not all of us have the luxury of doing it every day, but for me, even if I’m not in my studio, I still spend part of the day thinking over ideas.
Three main components:

Structure (physical, chronological,)

Inspiration — many sources

Challenges — how to challenge yourself and what to do when big challenges (ie, mistakes) occur

Physical: have a dedicated space — it doesn’t have to be a whole room. Some people manage to work out of a tiny corner. I find having a whole room dedicated to my practice enormously helpful. I can maintain an organized stash of materials that are at the ready when inspiration strikes. Or when I need to just force myself to sew two pieces of fabric together.


Having the machine set up and ready to all the time made a huge difference in my willingness to get down to business.

Time: Commit to your practice.  1 day a week every day for an hour.  Whatever works for you. Know what time(s) of day work for you and don’t sacrifice them.


SAY NO this opens up time/energy for things that really drive you


Have a solid routine where you don’t have to think creatively about every decision. It’s ok to eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I think Feynman made that decision about lunches. It’s ok to have a closet full of clothes that look the same. Look at Steve Jobs. Did you ever see him in anything other than a black turtleneck?


If you have a hard time getting started, just say to yourself, I’m just going to go do something for 10 minutes today. You don’t need to block off 2 hours or 6 to get work done!



Be your authentic self:

I know that I learn by talking. Some of my best inspirations have come from conversations I’ve had with people. If I’m looking for a creative spark, I know certain topics will get the juices flowing: science, marine topics, outer space, and textiles. Because I talk so much, people will sometimes bring me ideas. It’s great!

Listen to NPR or podcasts. Go to lectures and classes.

I’m a member of two local quilt guilds and I go to the meetings no matter who is speaking because I never know if someone will inspire me. I’ve had people say things that hit right to the core even though their style and possibly even their technique are of no interest to me! Same with classes. You never know how a technique might be used in your work if you don’t try it first. Just because the teacher uses dots to make cats doesn’t mean you can’t use dots to make ice cream cones (or something along those lines :))

Sometimes I will try to use a different thread or fabric or yarn to see what I can do with it. I also make challenges to myself and invite my friends to join me.  

Someone told me a while ago to try doing things “the other way.” So, try being the driver or passenger. Try eating left handed. Or drawing (if you draw — I don’t:)). I’m a contra dancer, so I’ve started switching roles during a dance, something I had not been able to do before a year or so ago. I think it did something to my brain because I can now do it easily!

Being creative is all about expressing the subjects that excite me. Find subjects, shapes, colors that excite you and pursue those exciting bits.

Try different colors from your favorite safe colors.

If you find something that excites you, follow that thread. Indulge in it. Revel in it, even.

Step outside your comfort zone. Sign up for classes you are unsure about. It’s ok to try something and decide it’s not for you. You tried it! Good job!

Make up challenges with friends. Respond to calls for entry. Stretch yourself. Share your work. Submit it places. Apply to things you love even if you think it’s not going to happen. Take commissions!

How do you challenge yourself? (rhetorical question)
Stretching/challenging/dealing with blocks and mistakes


I’ve been living with anxiety for a long time.  Don’t let fear do the driving (Liz Gilbert). Tell it to come along in the back seat and stay quiet.

FAKE IT. Show up and tell yourself that’s what counts, because it’s true.

Take breaks. Allow yourself “palate cleansers” as Cyndi Sauder calls them. Someone else talked about strip therapy, where she couldn’t do anything except sew strips together. I’ve made a number of quilts that way and it has worked wonders for me. I have the confidence that I can sew two pieces of fabric together. It really works!

Allow yourself to make ugly imperfect messed up work

Wonder is the antidote to a block. Ask “what if” and see where that leads (Liz Gilbert)


Things to tell yourself: better done than perfect. It’s ok to make something ugly/bad/terrible today. What’s the worst thing that can happen?

This is not a competition. The more we support each other, the better we all are for it.

Some of my most creative solutions have come from perceived mistakes.

Have cheerleaders and trust them.

Cultivate relationships with people of different ages. My kids have wisdom that people older than me do not and vice versa.

Do not take yourself too seriously. Loosen up, let go, and have fun sometimes.

Here are the images from the slideshow, which I didn’t project because I forgot to bring a cable. Some people looked at it afterwards.

These last 8 quilts are Trajectory: Escape Velocity and I have blogged about them before. Just click on the tag and you can find individual entries.



2016 was a pretty terrible year for me. I experienced heightened anxiety that randomly started in April and it was August before I realized it wasn’t “just going to go away.” I spent another two months adjusting to meds before I realized how impaired I’d been. I cannot tell you what a relief it is not to have to worry that my body is going to dissolve when I go out though.  The meds do not “take the edge off”: they provide a sort of prosthetic skin.

So, when I got a commission in November, I was a bit cautious, wanting to understand what the person wanted, especially as it was for a usable quilt and I’ve not made anything other than strip quilts for a couple years.

The person wanted a strip quilt, as I’d done before and color preferences were for green, blue, and purples. So, off I went.  When I make strip quilts, I try not to think too much ahead. I just work with the colors I have in hand and make sure they work next to the colors around them.

This is good therapy for me. It’s useful for me to not overthink when I’m creating and let’s my subconscious do the driving.  I noticed as I got about half way, that it was no longer straight on both sides, so I added a sliver of orange/red, inspired somewhat by Leonard Cohen’s death and his lyric about the cracks being where the light shines in. That is why I call this quilt Kintsugi.  It’s about being made of pieces and mending the broken or wonky parts when we need to. It’s about letting all the parts of ourselves exist in harmony together, even if they seem disparate. We contain multitudes and we are star stuff.kintsugi

Decay, Disintegration, Distortion

Charity Janisse recently posted a picture of rusted metal on Twitter, which got me thinking about decay. I realized that I tend to focus on themes of vitality in my work and working on the flip side could be interesting.


Flame taken by Charity Janisse and posted in this online article.


Then Lorie McCown came and gave a talk about her work to my quilt guild. She uses a lot of textiles in her work with frayed edges. Boy did she get me thinking about disintegration (as well as making your mark). You can find some great detail shots of her work on her Instagram account here.

And I’ve been talking to people who do computerized generative art. I think it was Anders Hoff who got me thinking about distortion when he posted these.


So, when I found myself with a week with one kid who was going to be gone from 9-4:30 every day, I jumped on the chance to work on a series of 5 panels which I dubbed “Obsessive Stitching 1-5”.  My initial idea was to work with all over patterns, as I had done in the Trajectory: Escape Velocity initial and final panels, but after two days of that, I got bored.

Here is day 1 and day 2.


I had hoped that the above finished panel would be more buckled (as it was promising to do below and like the panel from day 1), but it smoothed itself out in one dimension, while warping the shape!

Day 3. Here’s what happens when I do the same thing over and over. I have to change it up. This one needs more quilting, but I wasn’t able to finish it in one day.


Day 4 I decided to go back to the all over pattern and not worry about distorting the fabric. I was focused more on accentuating the pattern that the dye had created and adding texture. I used two metallic threads (black and red) in one needle (one eye, not two). Here is the result. It’s very subtle. I am quite pleased with how this turned out and think I might add some beads before I call it completely done.

By Day 5, I was exhausted, had run out of food, and had other things to attend to, so I only had a couple hours in the studio. I decided if I worked small(er), I might be able to get something substantial done. Initially I was going to make coccolithophores in space, but that seemed too daunting by Friday afternoon, so I switched to jellies instead. This picture is a bit of a cheat because I only made three jellies the first day. Also, the tweet is misleading. There are 12 jellies on that panel.

All in all, I have to say it was an interesting week. I rarely get concentrated time like that to work, and certainly never 5 days in a row. Working only with hand dyed panels felt very different to me. It is certainly a way to more easily incorporate organic patterns into my work. I also don’t usually focus on the stitching. That has typically been a way to just hold the thing together and add color. Using stitching as way to get to texture was very satisfying, especially as I think of my work more and more as 3d.

I look forward to playing more with stitching and themes of decay, disintegration, and distortion.


Making mistakes work for you

Many of us have this notion that mistakes are things we learn from so we can do something better, but what if you make a mistake and you can’t fix it? As an artist, this is an opportunity to make your work more exciting.

Usually we have this idea that when we make a mistake, we learn from it so we don’t do that thing again. For instance, how many times did you sew two pieces of fabric together in the wrong orientation? Didn’t take too long to figure that out, right? Or how many times did you cut improperly? These sorts of mistakes are good because they make us more careful in our work.

But, then there are the “mistakes of planning,” I’ll call them. They aren’t caused by the same inattention the above errors are. When these mistakes happen, your stomach drops because you feel there is no return from this sort of mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I still get that feeling, but it doesn’t last as long because some of these sorts of mistakes have lead to the end product being much more interesting.

This quilt, with the spiral in the middle, I’d initially intended to have bugs and music on it. When I went to the store, the best I could do was this lobster print. It was black and the lobsters were big, but they were important and I couldn’t release them. Instead, I worked them into the design and put them into the flying geese, which was when I discovered another mistake: one of the lobster parts was flying backwards. Baby quilts are a great place to experiment with design because the baby won’t care.


Another mistake turned into a feature was when I made my older daughter’s bed quilt. I got to the borders and discovered I didn’t have enough of the fabric to go all the way around. Ok, fine, I thought, I’ll just do one edge pink and the other salmon. Which worked if I didn’t have any fabric in the corners. Back to the drawing board. That’s when I realized there was a secondary pattern in the main pieced part of the quilt that was a sawtooth star. Great, problem solved! I would just put sawtooth stars in the corners! It’s now my favorite part of the quilt.


Fast forward a few years and my work is diverging from traditional quilting. The mistakes I’m making now are real opportunities to stretch as an artist.

My normal mode of operation is very “think out loud.” I try not to fasten anything down permanently unless I’m sure, but sometimes things happen that I didn’t prepare for and then I have to adjust.

The last panel for Trajectory: Escape Velocity, in my head, was going to be quilted in the same manner as the first panel. So, off I went and quilted the panel — without looking at the first panel. This time, I quilted it much more densely than I had done with the first panel. Oops, it buckled like mad. I figured, I’ll cut a hole in the middle and then it will be flat and then I can figure out how to cover up the hole. I remembered someone talking about doing something like this. And the panel was unique; it was made from a piece of hand dyed fabric. I couldn’t just scrap it and start over.




Well, I cut the hole and it was still wavy. And that was after I enlarged it at least twice. I put it down and went to bed. The next day, I came back. I couldn’t bring myself to cut into it more. Then I found myself thinking, it’s fabric. Why does it need to be flat? What if I make this work for me? I decided to go with it and it has become a dimensional panel with a hole in the middle. These are special features of this panel. It suits the message I’m trying to get across and it actually is much more interesting than if the panel had been flat with no holes.


So, sometimes mistakes are an opportunity to practice flexible thinking.

Warping the Fabric of Time and Space, panel 8 of Trajectory: Escape Velocity

Studio Session-017

Here we are, the end. The last panel of Trajectory: Escape Velocity. Starting from the beginning of time, we have skipped and hopped, stroboscopically, from the Big Bang through early life and some key points of evolution (at least from the human perspective) to the future. Or one possible future.

In this panel, rockets are leaving earth, heading for the depths of outer space. This panel differs from the others in that it was hand dyed.  As soon as it was done, I knew it would be the last panel. I never expected it would look like this. I will have a post about that issue in the future.

This picture was also taken by Ron Freudenheim.

Here’s a picture I took yesterday which shows how much warping there is. I sewed 16 gauge wire to the each edge to get that effect, among other things. Again, more on that later.


Trajectory: Escape Velocity Part VI: Grandpas in the trees

Grandpas in the Tree

Grandpas in the Tree

Panel 6 brings to primates. I attempted to arrange them in some semblance of evolutionary order, although it gets tricky as a lot of them are more parallel in development, rather than linear.

In this panel, you’ll note that the animals get more numerous at the top and also a bit more rambunctious, looking almost as though they might leap off and into your hand (or perhaps onto you heard) to go exploring.

The title of this panel comes from a line in a song by Dillon Bustin. I’m not sure of the actual title of the song, but it is a song about evolution and he refers to his “grandpa in the tree” in the last stanza. I’ve always been charmed by that and was pleased to be inspired by it here.

This picture was actually taken my by someone who knows what he’s doing, so Ron Freudenheim gets the credit here.

Scorched Earth: Part VII of Trajectory: Escape Velocity


Here I’ve created a slice of a cityscape (most likely in the United States). It is so full of people, they can’t all fit in the buildings any more. They are pushing out the tops, like little pieces of popcorn bursting forth.

The panel is called “Scorched Earth” because it hints at global warming.  It’s done on red background, which is mostly obscured by the buildings, but you can see a few glimpsed between a couple of them.

(I know part VI got skipped. I’m working on it and hope to have it done in the next day or so.)

The Oceans are Teeming: Part IV of Trajectory: Escape Velocity


I know some time has elapsed since I posted about the last panel, but fear not, I have been working away! I finished panel IV this week. I’m calling it “The Oceans are Teeming.”

This is a story told in stroboscopic post hole moments.  I hope the leaps I’m making aren’t too grand.  In this panel, there are some small fish at the bottom, but as your gaze travels upwards, the number and complexity of organisms increases.  Note that the fish don’t fit tidily. They are pushing out of the boundaries of the space they are allotted.

Most of the fish on this panel were cut out (during my daughter’s swim lessons, which I found rather apropos), but I did create a trio of jellyfish, one lone octopus, and a little squad of cuttlefish.  A treat for someone who stays to linger a moment or two extra.

Next up: dinosaurs and an abstract allusion to evolution. Hopefully that will be done much more quickly.