Thoughts on Play


I never think of play as a “dirty word” but I do get the feeling from conversations around me, that it’s a word artists question, in order to figure out how play fits into a serious (or not so serious) art practice.

First off, why would anyone downplay play? Maybe it’s all the emphasis on being adult, taking responsibility for your actions and your life. Being intentional as opposed to being spontaneous?

Or maybe it’s related to having had numerous classes, read bookshelves full of books, and researching techniques endlessly online. Isn’t it time to get serious now? isn’t it time to get down to business?

Or maybe it’s because we human beings, are part of a grand creative movement; sparked by an evolutionary thought capable of achieving incredible traction over three generations: Each of us is creative; gifted with an inalienable right to pursue not only life, liberty and happiness, but also the pleasure of making. But what’s that mean, really?

Any movement has its beginning, its zenith and its decline. You can’t track it when you are in the middle of it, because you don’t have the advantage of distance. So we can’t know exactly where we are, or where we are going, but we can certainly look back and see where we were.

Where we were as a group of textile artists, artists, fiber artists, enthusiasts – pick whatever fits – is all over the place. If you look back ten years and track your path, maybe you can recognize exactly when it was that you developed an interest in surface design, or quilting, or weaving, or painting. I can recall exactly the moment of walking into a Michael James’ class in Boston, Massachusetts in 1977 and thinking “Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?” I was a horrible piecer. I had no patience. My background was in psychology and religion. But I LOVED it. For me, that was the moment.

Point to be made – few of us came to a passion fro creating from organized backgrounds in art school or City and Guilds, or because we apprenticed with a Master pattern maker or a Master painter. The only Masters I knew in the field of quilting before Michael James were little old ladies who met at the church every Thursday for lunch and a quilting bee. Now those girls knew what they were about. NO fussy conversation about art, craft, color or design. Get that quilt on the frame and let’s get busy. Any by the way, has anyone met Betty’s new boyfriend? Wink, wink. Hurrumph.

The surface design movement as we know it was barely invented then. Forward thinking people like Susan Moyer, Yvonne Porcella and Nancy Crow were jumping in with both feet, but it isn’t like they knew each other. It isn’t like a support network existed. They were flying solo. Just like you were before you knew your local guild existed, or discovered there were on-line lists for discussion…

It’s a fabulous, however brief in the overall scheme of things, history. And here is where it leads: a bunch of us were never prepared for this passion. We’ve come along, picking up information wherever we could. Taking an odd class here and there. Reading. Playing around.

So what I tell my students is true for you too. What got you here is enthusiasm. It’s the fuel that allows you to overcome any number of hurdles to get to a class – the time, the family, the expense, the logistics, the plane trip. The hotel, the bad meals, the not sleeping in your own bed. The life partners – children, spouse and others – who have no clue what you are so excited about. Which fuels a sense of loneliness once you actually have time in the studio.

But it’s the enthusiasm that could also stand to be channeled. That’s perhaps, where we are now. Classes under our belts. Internet sources for every supply we can imagine. Internet groups where we can not only learn something, but also make some friends who share our passion. Good enough friends that maybe we agree to meet them at a workshop. Good enough friends that we think it will be ok to room with them, sight unseen.

Part of embracing your artist is not only perfecting technique, or developing a unique, individual style. It’s paying attention to work habits. To preferences. To what throws off your balance. To what fires up your creative spirit. It feels great to witness your own development, and to know that you can repeat your creative successes – or even better – build on them.

This where the journals, record keeping, and writing become valuable. History is established. And records to which you can refer. It’s not about what the outside world thinks of you. It’s about your own system of honoring how you work so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you walk through the studio door.

BUT I have a very hard time believing any artist would be satisfied finding a style and then never deviating from it. Human beings thrive on variety. Enter the value of PLAY. Whether it’s socially correct or not, we all know artists whose style never changed after the first genre painting he or she did sold quickly. I am not talking about them.

The rest of us – anyone who wishes to generate authentic work – have to discover the balance between the mature understanding of our process and the play time we need in order to keep the work fresh. It takes both discipline and play to weather a long and productive career as an artist. 

What are your strategies?

Eighteen Things I Know - A Possible Guide for 2016

  1. If you are lucky enough to buy a piece of new furniture, pay for the fabric protector or Scotch Guard. When you’re cleaning up cat vomit or red wine, you’ll pat yourself on the back for your smart thinking.
  2. If you’ve got a stain on linens or clothing, try this old-fashioned removal technique. Use a rubber band to stretch the stained area over a big bowl. Boil a teakettle of water. Pour the water over the stain from about a foot above the stain. Usually works like a charm on most stains. Thank you, Elinor Dunnewold, for that one.
  3. Don’t drink sodas. If you do now, wean yourself off. The sugar and chemicals are terrible for your body and the cost - over time - could pay for a pretty nice vacation. Same thing goes for all those seductive power drinks. When’s the last time you just got a good night’s sleep?
  4. Say please and thank you. And mean it. Graciousness goes a long way in this world. Saying please and thank you - whether you mean it or not - eventually sensitizes you to see how much difference it makes in the reactions of those around you, to you. Unless you aren’t paying attention. But that’s another problem.
  5. Don’t carry a balance on credit cards. Ok. Maybe sometimes there’s an emergency. But most of time time it’s us trying to feel better about ourselves, or being addicted to stuff without acknowledging it. Pay off the balance and live more simply. You might sleep better at night. (see #5 above.)
  6. Get the best Internet connection you can afford. Scrimping might be ok if it’s a pair of shoes you might only wear once (although probably not…) BUT connecting to the world around you is more fun and effective when it’s fast and reliable. (like a good romantic partner, but I digress…)
  7. Lie as little as possible. You’ll sleep better at night.
  8. Don’t allow yourself to be guilted into volunteering if you don’t want to. Yes, volunteers do majestic things for all sorts of organizations. But the position can also be a time suck when you’ve got way better things to do with your time. And this old adage is true: They won’t miss you. Someone else will come along to fill that role you thought only you could do. Isn’t it great that you’re not that important?
  9. Be skeptical. Charlatans and spin-makers are all around you. Be skeptical of products, guarantees, hype, and everything in social media. However, don’t be skeptical if someone tells you they love you - especially if you know for a fact they’re sincere.
  10. Learn to make Hollandaise in the microwave and impress your friends. Here’s the recipe, adapted from the Silver Palette cookbook.
  11. Don’t buy plastic. Who talked us into it anyway? No plastic laundry basket I’ve ever owned lasted more than a year. This is contributing to waste on the planet, people!!! Sub woven natural elements, wood, or fabric bins. OR glass if we’re talking about storage in the kitchen. Do your part to use naturally recyclable products. Please.
  12. Don’t carry grudges and if you do (We all do) work on getting past them. Another time/energy suck that is better released into the atmosphere - so you have space for forgiving, loving and new great ideas.
  13. Lie as little as possible, but especially to yourself. Do you think your inner whatever doesn’t KNOW how many little lies you’re telling just to be nice to people or avoid confrontation? At least get real with yourself.
  14. Use your refrigerator as a white board. Saves space, makes perfect sense. Cleans up.
  15. Never choose the advanced buy option for gas at a car rental agency. You know you can fill up the tank right before you return the car. Don’t fall for this scam unless they promise to donate all those unused gas dollars to charity in your name.
  16. Don’t do ANYTHING just because you can. Money and opportunity make many things possible - from pornography to eating a quart of ice cream right before bed. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Think about it. Make wise choices. Choose integrity.
  17. Before you go to a party or an event where you are typically nervous, think of three questions to ask other people, who BTW LOVE to be asked what they think. Be daring. No matter what the questions (or answers) are, they will probably be way better than small talk. Take the risk.
  18. If homeless people on the corner put you off because you don’t want to give them money, get a 12-pack of water bottles and pass those out instead. Hydration is good. Try not to judge and practice being generous.

Lots of love to everyone. Let me know how it’s going for you.

Why Am I Here?

A few weeks ago I exchanged emails with another artist. Our conversation began when she wrote:

“Many years ago I was in an interior design program (loved it but didn't complete the program). I was the oldest student by far. One of the instructors, speaking on individuality and the business and future of the interior design profession said, "...and there is room for every one of you."  

That statement has always haunted me. First, how did she know I doubted just that thing. Second, how can that be true? The more I thought about it, I thought it must apply to artists, too.

I have just finished a quilt which took over my life for about a month. While working, I listened to sewing-related podcasts and came upon some really excellent content. But, the more I listened, the more I learned about what wonderful resources, unique artists, processes, possibilities, and on and on and on...I stopped listening because there was just so much I wasn't doing! It was easy to feel inadequate.

Back to the question.  How can there be room for all of us?  Is there room for all of us?  Why? Does the planet really need another person making quilts?”

Deborah’s questions tapped a universal issue. Sort of a sewer’s version of the age old existential query: “Why am I here?”

It’s easy to feel inadequate and then let that feeling allow you to give up. Quit going to the studio. What’s the use?

To tell you the truth, I suffer from feelings of inadequacy all the time. Despite the many successes I’ve had, I still worry about what will be next, will I be outrun by younger, smarter, more Internet savvy artists and/or teachers? Just last week someone in a class handed me a new book on creativity and raved about it. Of course I’ve written a book on creative process that’s being released next May. I didn’t want to hear about the other book. I was too fearful that it would undermine my confidence about my own contribution to the field.

I laughed at the question of whether the planet needs another quilt! For awhile I resolved to only use to get my artist fix. I could design online and never actually order anything. It seemed like the perfect resolution to wanting to “make” without adding more “stuff” to the already overloaded planet. But that didn’t last very long. I missed the hands-on part of mucking around with dyes and paints. Plus I know a lot about dyes and paints and why shouldn’t I enjoy what took me so long to master? :)

Anyway, I don’t know that there’s a satisfactory answer. We could do a hierarchy of what people spend their extra income on - is sewing/quilting “better” than a gas guzzling sports car or an expensive boat or a gun collection? OR designer clothes and shoes? OR $200. haircuts? That’s all subjective and in my world falls under the category of “refrain from judging” because it never does any good.

I DO know that what does good - the process. Human beings benefit from being engaged in creative efforts no matter what they are. It turns on endorphins in our brains and makes us feel good. It keeps our minds sharp when we analyze and learn new skills. What we make isn’t as important as the making itself. And that’s why there’s room for everyone. 

Just as there are many paths to the same spiritual source, there are many paths to engaging in a creative life. And we need every single teacher, and every single book, that encourages us to seek it, because different approaches resonate with different people.

Now that doesn’t mean everyone will achieve the same level of success - whether in making art or in writing books - and that’s definitely disappointing. Which is why I think it’s so important to do the kind of deep thinking my new book encourages. People are happier, and more satisfied when they are in touch with WHY they work and WHAT they want to achieve. It’s all about alignment - which is what I call it when what you love to do and what you’re good at doing are the same thing. When that’s the focus, the process can slow down - you’re willing to spend more time on whatever it is you do because it’s about the quality not the quantity. And then there’s less stuff on the planet and the “stuff” that’s been made is higher quality. It’s a win-win!