Welcome to Improv Mondays, a weekly series exploring improvisation in quilt making. I began as a self-taught quilt maker after years of sewing clothes. I learned the techniques and internalized the proper rules of sewing sturdy and professional looking garments, so it was easy for me to sew a straight line, and carry sound techniques into my quilt making.
When I began quilting about 20 years ago, I attended guild meetings so that I could learn from more experienced quilt makers. I consumed books on folk quilts, Amish quilts, and art quilting. In 1991 I saw my first African-American improvisational quilt exhibition, Who'd A Thought It. I was blown away as many of you were by the Gee's Bend exhibition. Previous to seeing these magnificent living quilts, I had a yearning to improvise my own patterns, but my attempts were stiff and awkward. The precision sewing rules that had served me so well, held me back.
In 1992 I attended one of Nancy Crow's first improv quilting workshops at Arrowmont School of Crafts. On the first day of the workshop she told us was that we didn't need a ruler, or a pattern to cut and sew two pieces of fabric together.
This was my light bulb moment! After that my work changed forever. I had the freedom not only to measure without a ruler but to question every single internalized rule of sewing and quilt making.
I began experimenting with all kinds of materials, incorporating layers of organza, netting and dyed batting into my quilts. I began quilting with pearl cotton. I questioned the ways I used my tools. I even questioned the way quilts were assembled and created a new way of putting my quilts together, (published in Threads, 1996, The Quilt Reinvented).
I incorporated found objects into my work, barbed wire, mirrors, old quilt tops made by other people, afghans, doilies, blankets... I created three-dimensional patchwork (above, 20th Century Comfort Room, ceiling view, 1998). I began questioning the lonely and consumptive aspects of studio craft and moved away from an object based art practice towards a social-service based practice and began Passage Quilting™ in 2001. All of this led to a career as an artist and an MFA in sculpture from Bard College in 2005.
Consistently along this path, I ran, and continue to run into moments of self-consciousness in my work. Whenever I become skilled in a certain way of doing things, the predictable seeps in. Discovery disappears as polished technique takes over. The result is a certain kind of stasis, boredom and dullness in the work, even though it is perfectly executed.
My current challenge is to accept mastery while cultivating a beginner's mind. It's HARD working as a beginner with so much experience under my belt.
Two weeks ago we discussed the role of beginner's mind in improv quilting, interestingly the Wikipedia definition of beginner's mind continues...
Shoshin also means “correct truth” and is used to denote a genuine signature on art works or to refer to any thing or person that is genuine.
Listening for your intuition and taking authentic, or natural actions is something many of you commented on in earlier posts, as being essential to improv.
When I was a beginner my natural authentic voice flowed through my mistakes. With mastery there are fewer mistakes. As skills and processes are mastered, awareness and presence become necessary for cultivating beginner's mind.
This is my theory. I'm curious to know what you think!
I hope that by examining my history with THE RULES, the path of shoshin, will be easier to follow as I improvise in life and work. As others have wisely commented, THE RULES only have power because they are the rules that we settle on, or impose from the inside.
Last week's conversation on THE RULES was eye-opening. Several people posted rule memoirs and manifestos that are worth checking out: quiltdivajulie, True Stitches, Quilts Improvisados. If you have blogged on your history with THE RULES, please share your link or your observations in the comments below.
Starting next Monday I will be blogging, while teaching improv quilting from Penland School of Crafts. Either I will be too busy, and IT challenged to publish any more than once a week, or hopefully there will be two weeks of posts documenting the improv process as it unfolds at Penland!