The Studio Day: Creativity & the Great Balancing Act

Last September, I engaged in a much-needed weekend in my studio. Looking upon my upcoming role as Surface Design Association President, I knew I MUST prioritize making time for balance and creative work, so critical to making the rest of  life function well. In that,  I am just like 99.9% of our SDA members and all my other colleagues I know outside of SDA. All ages, all stages.

Suddenly I had an idea: talk about the importance of a studio day.  A day later, I read that I’m not alone in my thinking. Here’s the piece in the New York Times.

What follows are the closing comments I made at SDA’s Made/Aware: Socially-Engaged Practices Intensive at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. (Read a wonderful summary of this event, written by Tamryn McDermott for SDA’s NewsBlog.) I appeared in my studio garb, my SDA “uniform” —apron, t-shirt and torn jeans, rubber gloves in my pockets. I spoke to this gathering of artists, educators, students, makers, who among them have amassed an impressive list of accomplishments and inquiry, with dedication and enthusiasm.

This is what I said, illustrated here with photos from my past:

We are first and foremost, a community of makers. Many of us working in textile and new media do this as a tactile antidote to our increasingly digital world. In whatever stages of life you find yourself—longtime artist, recent college grad, juggling paid employment, or retired but wanting to rekindle a longtime interest —creative work is never an easy fit into a busy life. The quest for work-life balance challenges all of us and increasingly is part of a national conversation, as recent media articles have pointed out.

Four friends at the Surface Design Conference, Kansas City Art Institute

SDA helps us to promote connections with our fellow makers. Our group of largely textile-centric makers is the most diverse of any national textile organizations available to us. The SDA Journal, Blog, and our members show us a broader way of thinking about what we do, as do SDA’s tools such as exhibitions, grants and fellow aficionados to talk shop with.

How do YOU make time for creativity? No one path fits all. Creative success is rarely about being secluded and monastic, — it’s about living fully within our lives, a frame of mind. Often, it’s about enjoying the ride, the process rather than the final outcome.

My own life confirms this. I joined SDA as a recent college grad and worked in my studio in addition to jobs and new motherhood. I always referred to my studio work as my fourth child. If I didn’t pay attention, it screamed and hollered. There was a time when my creative moment coincided with Mr Rogers Neighborhood on Public Television.

looms are great jungle gyms for toys

Archive photo: Astrid finishing handwoven ikat wall piece

learning fold and dip dye

Later, I saw firsthand how the kind of creative thinking that artists employ brought new ideas to the table in our  Downtown District, where I worked as a long time manager for Iowa Artisans Gallery, a 4000 square foot business with 200 artists, and served on committees for community initiatives. And it wasn’t just me. For a time, the interim head of the local Area Chamber of Commerce was a graphic designer who injected new life into the organization. As a business manager/owner, I hired artists with both retail and creative abilities, or others who simply wanted to be creative, encouraging them to pursue and fulfill their own personal life destinies as artists of all stripes.

Iowa Artisans Gallery staff, 2015

Throughout this time, I always tried to guard my studio day on Fridays.  Make no mistake: work-life balance is an issue for everyone I know.

I invite you to join me in making time for creativity during a weekly Studio Day, whether it’s by learning/contemplation only, or by active doing, —for an hour a day, a day a week, or many days every month, whatever fits. And wouldn’t it be great if SDA, as an organization, took a “studio day.” (Mind you, I’m not saying we should shut down our website  for a day a week, just that our Board, staff and members can commune together in that great notion.) We share the importance of creativity to the structure and balance of our lives.  Let the community of SDA members inspire us to be more than who we are working alone. It is not selfish. It is about good self-management practices that make us more meaningfully productive in all of life.

Lastly if you believe in SDA and its community, here are a few easy things you can do to help strengthen this organization. First, invite a friend to join the SDA community. Our membership numbers are crucial to publishing our robust, quarterly Journal. And there’s more, but that’s for a future discussion. Second, thank our advertising partners and suggest new ones. (I’ll do it here for the ones I have used for years in my own work: shout-outs and thanks to ProChemical & Dye, Testfabrics, Dharma Trading.) They wonder if their ads are unseen, down some big black hole. WE NOTICE!

So, I’ve come to the end of this little talk, and on behalf of the SDA Board, Staff and all of our volunteers, I wish you a safe and inspired journey home, to the heart of your creative work and life and your very own SDA uniform! Ciao!

Gallery staff having a painting day

Astrid teaching at Penland School of Crafts

Cat learning screenprinting at Home Ec Workshop

Iowa SDA-SAQA-IA Artquilters Meeting

Iowa is a big state with a small population, smaller than the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Our Surface Design Association (SDA) and Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) are small enough that it makes sense to pool our resources and meet together in different locations in central and eastern Iowa. I held an earlier meeting last February at my home, and this time Carol Coohey shared her home and inspiring studio with us. Nineteen women attended from the Des Moines area, Elkader, Grinnell, Guernsey, Oskaloosa, Fairfield, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City/Coralville.

Karin Gundlach explored the issue of what kind of finishing presentation is most appropriate to art quilts and fiber art in general, especially smaller pieces. She posed several questions in an online SAQA forum and received a wealth of technical responses, from mounting on a protruding cloth-covered or painted “frame,” to shadow box framing, to armatures. In general the consensus was that framing or mounting of some kind helps to set these pieces off and relate them to their environment. Some participants shared pieces in which presentation was discussed.

Kris Grover shares her ideas for studio design (above), with Amanda Murphy discussing lighting (below)

Kris Grover, former University of Iowa space planner and mixed media artist then shared her Studio Design Challenge, where she converts a small 10 x 10′ bedroom-type space into a functional studio. She shared drafts of this presentation, done on her laptop with many images included. This was a very interesting presentation that we could have spent more time on; Kris had many ideas for finding simple storage units at janitor supply shops and places like Cabellas. One idea was installing a simple overhead bike rack to hang three dimensional works from while they’re in progress. Then
Amanda Murphy, a lighting consultant for Light Expressions and a mixed media artist working three dimensionally with concrete and felt, shared ideas and answered questions for adequate lighting.

Lastly, we had a tour of Carol Coohey‘s impressive studio space. Not grungy like mine, but airy and clean. She does deconstructed screen printing in the way that Kerr Grabowski does, but adds her own spin and has recently started doing regular screen printing. One look at her extensive wall of fabrics, all hanging from a cork strip rail, and one can’t help but admire her grasp of this process.

Carol Coohey with her wall of deconstructed screen printed fabrics

After the meeting, participants split up, some attending Dianne Day’s show at Arbor Gallery, some going to central Iowa City to visit Home Ec Workshop, Prairie Lights Books and Iowa Artisans Gallery, and some home. An interesting, enlightening time.

Reinvention, Return…

Studio tours in Emeryville

“Reinvention” Conference at San Francisco State University, March 17-19, 2010. Sponsored by the Surface Design Association (SDA) and Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA). This regional conference attracted primarily California artists, but also SDA and SAQA Board members, state representatives and members from adjoining and other states. A blog is a poor substitute for active participation and listening, but it is a start.

Months ago, when I first read through the lineup of conference presenters, I thought, hmm, a very academic approach. But no, this was something more. Unlike most conferences involving textile artists, this one did not have much in the way of hands-on and technique-oriented sessions. I’m sure that this aggravated some attendees. Instead, this was a textiles homecoming, a conference that took a detailed look at the handmade textile scene— now, then and future. It dealt with legacy. With long-running artist careers still fired up and ongoing. With younger, collaborative and socially-conscious work. With the interface between hand made art and museums. With the current explorations by two prominent magazines, Fiber Arts and American Craft.

California is the state with the most Surface Design Association members. Northern California alone has 363 members, more than some of the multi-state regions. Southern California, 160 members. Contemporary fiber art got its foothold in the Bay Area, with the now-defunct, once-thriving Fiberworks that trained so many. It still has a depth of talent and long-term career commitment unparalleled elsewhere. And we got a taste of some of this.

Day 1: The contemporary scene
Keynote speaker Marci McDade, Editor of Fiberarts Magazine pointed out a number of innovative fiber artists in her talk Reinvention: Transforming the Face of Fiber. McDade mentioned the trend in museums to invite artists into their collections, from which they might make works based on that experience, where both the museum piece and the contemporary interpretation would be hung side by side. Other notes: the Design Center at Philadelphia University had a 150’ long chain link fence patterned after the traditional lace housed in their collection. Lace motifs were also used to stencil found metal in some of the Center’s garden settings. McDade also mentioned other innovative fiber projects, including Slash: Paper under the Knife at the Museum of Arts + Design in NYC; Anne Wilson’s Wind/Rewind/Weave community weaving project at the Knoxville Museum of Art. In this, Anne invited 60 weavers to do an “exquisite corpse” type of weaving, one day for each weaver. Each segment was divided by black thread. McDade also mentioned Craftweek 2.0’s New Household Tactics, a conceptual show where a paper towel dispenser was filled with handmade papers, etc. (McDade admitted to not really understanding fashion. —since many of our artists do wearables, this seemed an unfortunate slip in what was otherwise a great lineup of information.)

Jane Przybysz, Executive Director of the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, discussed What Makes Fiber Art? plus the challenges of running a nonprofit museum focused on textile arts, with the “emotional logic” versus the “financial logic” of an organizational mission statement. She said, “those who identify with media rather than the art or idea are not artists.” Not all agree with this. She mentioned the provocative book, String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art & Craft in American Art by Elissa Auther. Przybysz noted three communities where fiber art has currency: #1 the fiber art community; #2 Post-Conceptualist artists (Rauschenberg, Eva Hess), who used fiber as “non-art” to contest the hierarchy of art and craft; and #3 the feminist art community.

Stefan Catalani of the Bellevue Arts Museum showcased interesting examples of crossover art/textile artists. The Bellevue has no collections of its own, just organizes rotating exhibitions. Truly notable are works by Dinh Q. Le, and Ed Pien’s papercuttings, as well as Mandy Greer.

Jill D’Alessandro discussed exhibitions of historic and ethnic textiles at the de Young Museum. All of these presenters appeared on a panel exploring the issue of what kind of work gets promoted in their institutions.

Primarily, the emphasis with all of these presenters was on exceptional work, regardless of art or craft moniker. The challenges of funding when identifying only as a craft institution where brought up. Some attendees were focused on the “Q” word- whether or not to push the term “quilt”. This of course, also brought up conversations about gender-based work. We ended our day with joint openings of exhibits in the SFS textile studios, galleries and other locations.

Day 2: Artists
We started with a panel of emerging artists moderated by Vic de la Rosa, of San Francisco State University. Lacy Jane Roberts (“messy craft” rather than mastery, plastic knitting machines and academic discussions of contemporary craft and gender) and Bren Ahearn (embroidery) discussed their own work plus other issues such as the challenges of living as gay or queer (not identifying as either female or male) artists. Mung Lar Lam had a solid powerpoint of work called “ironings,” ironed, pleated installed works in which she appears in the installation and irons the pieces. Vic de la Rosa commented that as far as the “craft police” are concerned, it’s good to know the rules in order to break them.

The second presentation, Can Art Make a Difference? moderated and curated by Linda Gass focused on four exceptional artists working with environmental issues (Linda McDonald uses humor and fine draftsmanship to focus on forestation issues), Lea Redmond (very interesting conceptual work), Judith Selby Lange (who makes wearables using discarded plastic bags found on a particular beach), and Gass (silk art quilts highlighting mapping and land use concerns).

We then heard from “The Voices of Experience,” four artists with 152 combined years of studio practice between them and who are still actively engaged with their work. This fact-paced, poignant presentation inspired many of us and included work by Michael Rohde (weaver), Carol Westfall (mixed media) and Consuelo Underwood (weaver and political-conceptual artist, #11 of 12 children born into a migrant family) with Joan Schulze moderating. Any of these could have filled an hour-long segment, not just their 20 minutes allotted time.

For the closing remarks, we listened to Janet Koplos’ survey 60+ years of American Craft magazine and how it reflected the thinking and trends of the day. Koplos is a former Acting Editor of the magazine. She showed an image of work by a younger artist named Kathryn Pannepacker, whose murals in Philadelphia echo traditional textiles from around the world. Kathryn was sitting right next to us. And that’s how it went throughout the conference- you never knew who might have something original to contribute.

Karen Livingstone’s dye studio

Day 3: Studio Tours, for those who’d made arrangements
This was the day where everything came together for me. Our group started at Ana Lisa Hedstrom’s shibori studio, with work by Yoshiko Wada and Jeanne Caciedo also on display. These three titans of the fiber arts community were generous with their time and knowledge. We were seduced by Ana Lisa’s clothing. Yoshiko Wada explained that shibori (Japanese resist dyeing using pleating, clamping and tying, are only 150 years old. She has worked to promote the field and preserve knowledge by current Japanese shirbori masters. Then Richard Elliott, head of textiles at CCA, showed pieces incorporating digital printing. Susan Taber Avila is creating wonderful, large-scale layered work using dyeing and machine embroidery. Her studio mate Candace Kling comes from a historic costuming background and had manipulated trims and historic examples throughout her studio. We visited Karen Livingstone’s studio in a former corner grocery, where she does custom dyeing and once did Marian Clayden’s dyeing. And an inspiring tour of the home and gardens of Paul and Robin Cowley, landscape architect and art quilter.

Cameras out: the beautiful landscaping of Paul and Robin Cowley.

That night, some of us went to a fiber artist potluck way up high in the hills of Berkeley. Stunning sunset overlooking the entire Bay area. As I looked around at attendees, I was struck yet again by the sheer concentration of talent in this part of California, and the generosity and dedication of our host.

In addition, the SDA Board met before the conference, spending time on the topic of reinvention. Established in 1976, SDA is doing what any organization of similar age does- reviewing goals, strategy, mission and communications. Things are cooking up well, and we are positioning ourselves for the present and future cyber age.

What else? Trails around the hotel followed the bay, had shorebirds, and smelled of salt water. I visited with my high school friend and fellow yearbook co-editor, whom I hadn’t seen since I was 21. On my last day, I checked my bags earlier and headed to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The building alone is worth the visit, —I especially enjoyed the abstract expressionist galleries. I was surprising to see how large the Diebenkorn paintings are- I had assumed they were half the size. The collection of San Francisco-based artists was excellent quality, with fresh ideas and excellent quality of execution. I also stopped by the exhibit of textiles from Mali at the Museum of International Craft & Folk Art. I was familiar with much of what was presented but found the videos of a contemporary wedding fascinating. And then, on this stunningly beautiful day that even the locals were relishing, I headed back on my friend BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to the airport and flew home over snow-capped mountains and pink-tipped clouds.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Our hotel in South San Francisco, taken from the extensive trails around the bay. My morning walks included the smell of salt water during low tide, with shore birds and blooming succulents, a far cry from the snow banks I’d left behind the week before. When I see this picture, I reminded of the California hills
Wallace Stegner describes in one of my favorite books, Angle of Repose.

A Profile in Quilting Arts Magazine

Quilting Arts Magazine’s February-March issue has arrived, and I am honored to be the featured artist in a really nice 6-page spread with glorious photos. Also included is a piece on what to do with leftover dye (make pillows!) which was based on a blog post I did earlier. Thanks to everyone who’s made this possible. OK, Astrid, before complacency sets in, time to get back to work… I’m enjoying the journey, though.

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!