My life as a quiltmaker (for chronological order, read oldest post to newest)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

28. Houses

One morning in July 1996 we decided to move. Four months later all our belongings had been transferred into a newly-built house modeled after the only one we had actually stepped into during our search for a new home. The process was just as unexpected and unanticipated as it sounds. Soon after moving, I put up a flannel-covered design wall in my new studio and began this quilt about the houses that were important to our family.

I now had a wonderful place in which to work, and yet my mind was all over the map and my focus was diffused. Off-balance, I had lost my bearings; though full of ideas and the desire to tell the story of our family homes, I had no mental image of the piece. So I simply started making bits and pieces that related to the theme. Beginning in confusion is sometimes the only way I can jump-start the creative process. While it makes sense to have a plan and then go on to carry out the plan, it is actually more often true that my mind only begins to cooperate in the creative process AFTER I start working. In other words, first I begin. Then I'm gradually inspired by what I have begun.

In this case, I returned to techniques I had already been playing around with. A bit of improvisational piecing came first as I generated some tree branch imagery, using the chartreuse and burgundy that I was seeing in the blackberry and bramble bushes of late winter (New England isn't all gray in winter, but you have to know where to look). Free-motion bobbin embroidery was right for creating evergreen branches (with painted/stitched pine cones) to go along with the bare winter trees, because our new home is surrounded by pines. And the quilt couldn't reflect our New England roots without a stone wall or two, so I made several. Initially, I appliqued the stones but then ran out of patience. A computerized drawing program made it possible to print out a pattern of my stone wall on paper, and using transfer paint, I ironed the design onto fabric. Then I happened upon a fabric that had stones already pre-printed and added that to the mix. Finally, I photocopied my house photos onto transfer paper and ironed them onto fabric. Now I had lots of pieces for my quilt, but bringing all the disparate elements together turned out to be very difficult, reminding me again that designing doesn't really get easier over time. Although after all these years of experience I generally avoid making the worst choices, the really inspired good choices are always elusive, involving hours of staring at my design wall, having moved a couple of pieces of fabric into or out of place, no closer to resolution. Moving the pieces of this very small quilt every which way finally brought home the realization that while the number of pleasing combinations of fabrics and placement might be infinite, I only had to choose one of them and sew the darn thing together.

Thoughts about house and home (and packing and unpacking) burned up a lot of energy for many, many months--more than I ever could have anticipated, as I learned how to organize and live in our new spaces. Given the distractions of moving and its aftermath, the disparate elements that made up the current version of my quilting career were as difficult to meld together as the parts of this quilt. I was still selling my curriculum through mail-order, thinking about writing an article here and there but not getting around to it, giving an occasional "show and tell" talk to various women's groups, and teaching a beginning quilt class. I didn't have much in the way of commission work. I hadn't made a quilt I was really, really happy with since I had moved, and I knew that I couldn't summon my muse back by command. The quilts would come, but I would have to be patient.

All the while, I seriously considered my need to increase my contribution to our income, muse or no. My new space was the answer. Little by little, more and more students visited my studio, and returned week after week for classes. The numbers grew, and I added fabric and supplies to the studio, as a convenience for them and an additional source of income for me. The students became more and more accomplished, and I found myself problem-solving and trouble-shooting in different ways. I had begun something new. And I would be inspired; I'd find out where I was headed next.