Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Becoming an artist

Chrismac56 left a comment on my recent post about “what is an art quilt?”

She said, “my quilt buddies were shocked when I signed up for a two-year Art Foundation course and have virtually stopped quilting. I wanted to create more artistically but did not know where to start. I am getting a thorough understanding of creating art - moving right out of my comfort zone learning to draw and paint and loving nearly every moment of it. Hopefully at the end of the two years I will return to quilting with a new vision that will move me in new directions.”

To her, I say congratulations, good luck, go for it! How wonderful to be able to explore something you are intrigued by at length and in depth. But her comment made me think how different her road to art learning is from my own.

I came from a family that was absolutely crazy about art; my father worked in the visual realm all his life (typography, graphic arts) and did calligraphy and a little watercolor. We went to museums, we bought art by the truckload, we talked about art and type at the dinner table. Dad was the arbiter of art, and he defined art as accurate representation, aka drawing. So when it turned out that I could not draw, he officially classified me as “not an artist.” This occurred about the time I hit kindergarten.

That was fine with me; I had lots of other things to do. As far as art was concerned, it was an important part of my life, but since I was “not an artist” I had to be a patron of the arts. I spent a lot of time looking at and acquiring other people’s art, but my education and career went in other directions.

Meanwhile I learned to sew, on a strictly utilitarian footing; made all my own clothes, did drapes and pillows and reupholstery for decades; and early on, fell in love with quilts and figured out how to make them. In time, when I had made baby quilts for everybody I knew, and we didn’t yet have grandchildren who needed baby quilts, my quilts came off the bed and went on the wall and even into some small shows. But I still thought of them as home dec; in my head the A word referred to paintings and prints, not to quilts.

One day at the advanced age of about 50, I was sitting at my sewing machine working on a quilt, when the voice inside my head clearly announced, “This could be art!” With barely a pause, the voice then said, “I could be an artist!” and with barely another pause, the voice said, “I WILL be an artist!”

Of course I didn’t have a clue at the time about what being an artist meant. And unlike my blog reader quoted above, I did not decide to take art classes. I had a fulltime job that took 60 hours a week and lots of travel. I figured if I wanted to be an artist I’d better get on with it, and to save time I’d better just use the tools and skills I had already mastered, i.e. quilting.

Since then I’ve learned a lot about art and being an artist, through three different means.

First, I have taken a lot of workshops from quilt and fiber artists. Some of them focused narrowly on technical skills, but the best ones were broader, teaching about art, design, composition and color. Nancy Crow was my most important teacher and mentor and she has described her master composition classes as the moral equivalent of graduate art courses. Without her keen eye and firm guidance, it would have taken me much longer to get where I am today, if I could have gotten there at all.

Second, I have embarked on a self-guided attempt to make up for the art history classes I never took. I have always been a denizen of museums, and by age 12 could pick out a Pollock from a Miro without looking at the labels, but I started reading books about artists and art movements and have learned a lot. I have read “Art in America” for several years to learn about the contemporary art scene.

Third, I have learned from my own work how to be serious about making art. I believe in critically evaluating my own work and using that knowledge to determine what to make next. I believe in working in series, to fully explore an idea before moving on to another one; rather than flitting about and making a whole lot of unrelated pieces. And I believe in setting objectives for myself, so I don’t so easily get lured into activities that don’t support my serious work.

Maybe I’ll go to art school some day. I’m sure I would love it, and I’m sure I would learn a lot. But for now, I’m on my own – well, just me and my dozens of wonderful, supportive artist friends, some of them in person, some of them via the internet, who are helping me become a better artist.


  1. I am there with you!! Sounds like my journey.

  2. Hurrah for your own self-determinating moment when said you WILL be an artist despite what our father told you.

    I didn't grow up with art. I discovered it as an adult via design and have been smitten since.

  3. I'm 54
    Is it something that comes with the menopause, along with hot flushes and HRT?? Lol


  4. I too have taken college level art courses to increase my design skills for quilting and am better for it. For learning principles of design, school is great but for how to translate them into fabric, there is nothing better than a group of quilting friends!

  5. Wow, just found your blog (via Elena) and am eating up everything you're saying! Have come to art quilting from traditional sewing/quilting, and started with Nancy Crow two years ago, which opened my eyes. Now it's all about learning composition, and appreciating good composition in the work of others. Thanks for all your insight, and your Quilt Date!
    -Connie in AL