Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Answering Elena's question -- suggestion #2

Elena also told us, “I have many ideas percolating. After another one-week workshop in May, I'll have many more. If I don't follow through with these and don't make many quilts, will I be able to find my voice?”

My answer: No.  If you don’t follow through and don’t make many quilts, you will not be able to find your voice. But I think that you may be heading into a danger zone by going to this workshop.

I am as much of a workshop junkie as you are ever likely to meet. After all, I’m the person who has spent 14 weeks in Nancy Crow workshops in the last six years, not to mention a bunch of workshops led by other people. But I have learned the hard way that if you’re not careful, a workshop can hinder your progress as an artist rather than enhance it.

That’s because we are so easily seduced by new techniques, new approaches, new materials. I took a short workshop in papermaking last week and had a lot of fun; it would be so easy to go out and buy $100 worth of new toys and spend a month making lovely paper and probably make some nifty things out of it that could even resemble art. But I tamped down that surge of enthusiasm in a couple of days and reminded myself that I need to be working on my quilt-in-progress instead of playing.

You can also get seduced and distracted by quiltmaking workshops. It’s so easy to fall in love with the teacher’s work, or the quilts that other people brought for show and tell, or the work you do that week that is a long way from the work you were doing at home. It’s so easy to come home and say “gee, maybe I should fuse my next piece instead of piecing it” or “it would be fun to work in commercial prints for a change” or “I should really learn to dye-paint my fabric instead of buying it.” And then you’re off on a tangent that abandons all the progress you had been making on your own voice.

There are so many exciting techniques and materials out there that it’s hard to focus on a limited area. And the huge variety of workshops, magazines and books available to quilters only makes it harder. But without focus you are never going to develop your own voice. You may make a whole lot of nice quilts, but you won't have the cohesive body of work that is the mark of the serious artist.

That may be perfectly OK with you. But if you want to develop your voice, here’s my suggestion for dealing with workshops. It's what I do for myself.

Before you go to the workshop, set an objective. You might even write it down for added weight. When you get there, announce your objective to the others if appropriate, or if not, at least announce it to yourself each morning.

The objective should be related to your current body of work.

At one end of the spectrum of relevance, I once went to a two-week Nancy Crow workshop with a very specific objective: “I want to develop a new way of piecing that will help me convey my concept of disintegration and chaos.” That kept me focused during the workshop and kept me from going off on tangents. At the other end of the spectrum was my workshop last week: “I always wanted to learn how to make paper and this will check that item off my list; I don’t really expect to do much with it later." That kept me grounded, allowing me to play for a couple of hours but not to come home and embark upon a papermaking extravaganza.

In the middle of the relevance spectrum come objectives like “I think I might enjoy spending a week with this teacher and meeting some new people and seeing their work, even though I don’t expect it will affect my own work very much” or “I don’t care about the fusing or the dyeing or the surface design that I know she will talk about a lot; I just want to learn all I can about machine quilting.”

On the way home from the workshop, review what you have learned and try to articulate how it fits in with your current body of work. Again, there’s a spectrum of possible responses, ranging from “nothing here for me” to “I’m going to abandon my current body of work and do this new thing with a vengeance for the next year at least.” More probably (and more helpfully) you’ll have a response somewhere in the middle, like “I learned that I need to be more careful in choosing colors and values, that I tend to avoid certain colors but I should challenge myself to use a wider palette and be more adventurous in combining colors.”

If you take back a specific and limited insight, or resolution, or new idea, and apply it to your pre-existing body of work, you’ll probably have much better results than if you come home with your head swimming over a dozen possible new concepts that you intend to try out in sequence.

That's my two cents worth for the day.


  1. I like the idea of articulating WHY you're doing a workshop. I've booked several this year and know in my head why I chose them but writing those reasons down will help to focus , not least in deciding what stuff to take with me. I always take too much and then waste a lot of time dithering.

  2. Sage article. There is so much wonderful information out "there" but too many cooks spoil the broth and too many riches of materials, techniques and ideas can make it very difficult to focus.

  3. Such good advice. I came to textile art late in life. I was a workshop junkie. I finally realized that I needed to stay in my own studio and do the work. I stopped subscribing to "quilting" magazines. I only take workshops about creating art cloth, now. In fact, I think I am done with those.

  4. I was a workshop junkie. In the first year of quilting I must have averaged one workshop a month. Now I am more selective – only if it may add value to my work.

    It never occurred to me to determine an objective for a workshop other than the nebulous desire to learn something new. Nor has it occurred to me to determine afterwards how the workshop fits in with my work. Great suggestions worth much more than two cents!

    Kathy, I really appreciate your responses and posted a thank you on my blog.

  5. Wonderful insights. I am looking forward to reading more of your words of wisdom. You've given me a lot to think about. Thanks, Carol Schepps

  6. I totally agree with what you have said - I think in stitched textiles today we are seduced by techniques, fads and new products as well as 'must have' tools, that we think are going to improve our own work. We need to remember the skills we already have and ask ourselves which ones are relevant to the theme we are developing. I agree that it is fun to explore something new occasionally, but with a plan and purpose.

  7. I, too, agree that there are too many things out there to seduce us as quilters. Fabric choices, patterns, techniques, workshops, classes. All can get your head spinning, and can lead to indecision on where to start. I don't even buy quilt magazines anymore, and am very selective on which books I buy. As far as fabric, I'm only buying solids now that coordinate with all the prints I have in my stash so I can get some of it used up. I've met people in classes who never finish anything, they want perfection and can't deal with anything less. I'd rather have something done, and learn from it, than have a pile of things that are started & discarded!

  8. Couldn't agree more... I wrote a book about finding creative focus, and go on at length about how going on workshops and collecting books and magazines etc can leave you MUCH worse of than you started... Great post.

  9. I very much enjoyed your comments, I have long been aware that shiny new toys, especially books and magazines, are a distraction much of the time and are best relegated to the times when you are unwell, travelling or too busy for stitching and they can sustain you until such times as you can go back to your studio.

  10. I find that art/quilting books and magazines are especially nice when you're lying in bed at night but haven't turned off the light yet. (That's why I still like hard copies of exhibit catalogs rather than CDs.) When you're already in bed it's hard to get drawn into the mindset of "I need to make one just like this!"