A New Year’s Story: Embracing Creativity

Reading Lisa Call’s blog entry on completion and finally finishing her studio space reminds me of my own studio metaphor. Studios are not about spending a lot of money- they are about creating even just a tabletop as a designated thinking zone. My workspace has always had a major influence on the scope and size of my work. But first, some background.

My husband John was diagnosed with advanced, aggressive prostate cancer in 2005. We knew from that first doctors’ visit that the outcome would not be good, and in September 2008, he passed away. (Don’t let anyone ever convince you that prostate cancer is not serious; the aggressive forms are debilitating and lethal.)

A few months later, in January 2009, I found myself having posture problems when doing my computer marketing work for Iowa Artisans Gallery, and I decided that John’s desk/table would be the solution to my needs. His desk area was in our bedroom. This was not as simple as switching out a chair or adding a cushion. Adopting his desk was essentially about tackling his most intimate corner, the place where he went to write, to dream, to wrestle with his demons and to organize his day. It was filled with small mementos of the children, of his previous life in California, and of many projects unfulfilled. Not to mention, dust and clutter.

Was this really necessary, now? I asked myself, feeling the intense emotional difficulty of this task. There was no doubt that I needed to be more comfortable doing my paid work, and funds for new purchases were limited. It would need doing soon anyway. So, I plunged ahead. I placed a hand-scrawled note by my telephone with the words “removing impediments,” the first of several. We’d always left messages there, —I’d see it multiple times a day.

I went through everything, throwing anything too difficult into the old leather briefcase that had 40 years of correspondence, and stashed it upstairs for another day. I took photos of the small vignettes- little found scrap metal sculptures, pictures of the kids tacked on the Navajo rugs of his childhood. I adopted his great little work table, which we had found and cleaned up at a local farm auction many years ago. I took down the window shade and had a surprise- this room has much more light than I thought! I cleaned out and moved my filing cabinets to a new space. I gave away the other library table that was too tall; my good friend would use it for photographing her sculptural work. And lastly, I took pictures to show the coziness of this new space. I was done.

Or was I? Suddenly, I realized that one of the benefits of forced change is embracing new options. This room was once my weaving studio, with pin-board “design walls” I made nearly 30 years earlier. We changed that when the family expanded to three kids. I’d worked all over my house and have a wet workspace in the basement for dyeing and painting. Why not re-adopt it as a studio? Why not move my bedroom upstairs? I couldn’t let go of this idea. I knew it would jumpstart my creativity.

Out came the cleaning tools, the storage boxes, the garbage bags once again. But first I had to clear out a space in the three small bedrooms upstairs. Over the past few years, three kids had deposited their stuff there while traveling the world, and John’s university office boxes were there as well. I gave myself a deadline of ASAP and went to work weeding through, saving, donating and discarding. It was January cold winter work. Removing impediments. Finally, I grabbed a couple of friends to help me dismantle my bed and move it upstairs, after first moving the other upstairs beds to new locations.

Or so I thought. In our 1918 home with a narrow stairway that does not meet code, the queen mattress would not fit. Parked the old one on the pool table until disposal (which John had always wanted to play pool and purchased when he learned of his cancer). Bought a new flexible mattress and had it delivered during a snowstorm. Moved the futon into the studio.

Suddenly, open air. Wood floor, new curtains, small area rug. This new studio setup jump-started my creativity at a particularly difficult time. It is wonderful, light-filled, room where I can contemplate pieces in progress, see colors, stash my teaching books. Change my clothes and house my family when needed. Allow the subconscious to process works in progress. Most importantly, it gave credence to a creative side that needs expression even in difficult times. It is simple, but empowering. “Removing Impediments” worked. I’m not going to post a picture of this studio of mine. Remember, it’s all about the physical location that encompasses the more-important psychological space.

And now the task at hand: giving myself permission to choose creative work over the obsession with paid work. Yes, I do that too, but I try not to let it rule my life as it once did. John left this world with several regrets. He did not get to write his novel. I am learning from this. Happy New Year!

Time for a Handkerchief…handmade, of course!

Being a regular dog-walker and outdoor person, there are many occasions when a good old fashioned handkerchief would be just the ticket. Launder once a week or sooner if you like. Took the quest to heart and searched for some women’s handkerchiefs and found that they are simply unavailable in local stores. So, I decided to make some, — a great way to share a little eco-conscious gesture with friends, family, and those who want to make the purchase at Iowa Artisans Gallery or on its website.

The challenge: a handkerchief that is attractive enough but can withstand regular washing with ordinary clothes. The solution: use 100% cotton (batiste) handkerchiefs, available in lots of a dozen at Dharma Trading. Look at some of my 36 silk screens and use several to print using Pro-Chemical’s pro-fab textile paint, heat set and wash. Avoid using dyes which complicate the laundering-in-all-temperatures and with-all-clothes mission. Labels printed on New Leaf’s 100% recycled paper using banana fiber waste (available at Office Depot). Note: all images are based on my own drawings. Here are the results.

When I was ready to post this piece, I ran across the acceptance speech that Roumanian novelist Herta Muller recently gave at the ceremony honoring her Nobel Prize for Literature. Entitled, Every word knows something of a vicious circle, Herta begins this lecture, “DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate to our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief…” It’s a touching and compelling piece detailing life in iron-curtain era Romania. Born in 1953, Muller and I are the same age – her young years are very different from mine.

By the way, my handkerchiefs are not ecologically perfect- they are hem-stitched in China and the cotton is not organic. I am on an organic cotton quest for my own art quilts- this is still carried on in conjunction with people like Harmony Susalla, but there are trade-offs in getting all of us to adopt new habits, and moderation in price and availability are a major incentives.

PS- the crow design came about from watching crows eat the discarded, old popcorn in the snow, —from my kids’ Sesame Street-time snacks. The kids are gone. The silk screen lives on.


HEN: Needle Magazine & more

I could just be inspired to try my hand at contemporary embroidery (read: hand stitching) after finding this interesting website. HEN is the Hand Embroidery Network, founded in the UK by Sarah Whittle. The network is an example of the way digital media affect a total concept; HEN started online and is only now flirting with print media. The HEN network includes online exhibits, online store, online book shop, online teaching resources. Members number around 750. Check out the HEN Blog. HEN has just published its first online magazine, Needle, and the HEN facebook discussion today asked about what price subscribers would be inclined to pay for a print version. The initial magazine is available as a PDF download.

Sarah writes on her website, “the idea for the Hand Embroidery Network came about one day, not long after having my second child Pippa Louise. I was feeling isolated and alone and thought how great it would be to connect with other people who did embroidery like me. I decided to start a local embroidery group but after posting leaflets here and there the idea fell flat as there didn’t seem to be any embroiderers living near by. I re-joined the Embroiderers’ Guild but there was no local branch I could easily get to with a 3 month old baby. So I had an idea why not create an online community and use the Internet skills that had paid my way through university. So I set up the HEN never dreaming that ten months later there would be over a 1,000 members.”

She continues, ” With the help of my husband Andrew, a talented graphic and website designer I have been able to turn the HEN into a Hub for hand embroidery. The HEN is a place where everyone whose passion is to stitch whether traditional or contemporary can come together and share this addiction. With this in mind and to cut a long story short, Andrew turned to me and said ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could create a magazine, a free magazine for everyone’ and I said wow lets do it and the idea for NEEDLE was born! I truly hope that you enjoy reading this magazine as lots of blood, sweat and tears and a very understanding six year old boy called Oscar have gone into it and that you take it in the spirit it is offered, as a way for us all to share something in a world where disease, war and the credit crunch casts such a dark shadow on all our lives.”

Well, we’ll see if I actually do any embroidery (I’m more likely to tackle drawing) but I’ve certainly bookmarked this website.

Quilt World Tidbits…

item 1:
Last summer during Iowa City’s Iowa Arts Festival, the Old Capitol Quilt Guild held its biennial, two-day exhibit of quilts at the United Methodist Church. A non-traditional quilt show, the quilts were draped over the pews rather than displayed on walls. Well attended and showing a variety of approaches, techniques and skill levels, it made for a worthwhile visit. My own work is a little different from this intensively pieced approach, but I still appreciate the phenomenon that quilting has become.

item 2:
On a rainy day last fall, I was invited to speak at the Friendship Quilters Guild in Waverly, Iowa. Aside from mortifying myself by locking my key in the car for the first time in my life (it all ended well enough), I have fun at Guild meetings. Program Chair Cathy Busch has a great sense of humor and an adept manner of instruction. She spoke about the upcoming “Super Sew” to make quilts for the Cedar Valey Hospice. I didn’t get all the details straight, but basically the “Sew” involves teams of players with rules not unlike football, their pre-game packet of fabric sewn as “Yardage.” Different skill levels of quilt designs reflected different scoring levels. Teams with Team captain had been selected earlier and would be in competition with other Guild teams. A few “free agents” had also been identified. I appreciated the sense of purpose in this communal activity, which for those not familiar with Guild meetings, is pretty typical. Cathy has published articles about her various “game” strategies in Fons & Porter Love of Quilting. The “Super Sew for Charity” article appeared in Sept/Oct 2004. “Quilt Guild Bingo” was in the Sept/Oct 2006 edition and “3-6-9-12 Sew” was in the March/April 2003 edition.

item 3:
Look for an article on my artquilt work and doodle pillows in the February edition of Quilting Arts!