GUEST 19 | The Art of Improv with Daniela O'Connell


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Daniela O’Connell

on The Art of Improv

This week’s featured artist, is self taught, quilter Daniela O’Connell. Daniela is an architect in Germany who started sewing and quilting, after walking into a quilt shop during her honeymoon in Joshua Tree, California. Having never touched a quilt before she was not just intrigued, she was hooked. After reading her interview you will understand that she has caught the bug of living a creative life and her quilts are proof she is on the right path. Let’s find out more about her use of improvisation in her making. 

   Splinter   Daniela O’Connell

Splinter Daniela O’Connell

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

For me working improvisationally means that I have the freedom of choice. When I follow a pattern I feel restricted and the final result is set. With improv you never know what the final result will look like, there’s a lot of editing and mixing things around involved to achieve a visually pleasing design. It’s exciting and I love that process.

‘The Art of Improv’ means to me that there is an idea to start with but it might develop into something unexpected. Improv can be very challenging at times. But I keep coming back to it as it challenges me as a modern quilter and it keeps pushing out my comfort zone.

Have you always worked improvisationally?

No, well, kind of. As I started quilting I followed patterns but always adapted something. As a self-taught quilter I was always looking for tutorials by quilters who gave me a rough idea of the method they used and encouraged me to try out my own designs.

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally?  If so, how do you begin?  If not, how do you find yourself getting there?

Improv is definitely my choice of work and I do it very intentionally. I usually have an idea in mind and I mostly sketch ideas before I start to work with fabric. I create rules for my work, whether it’s a colour scheme, sizes of e.g. fabric strips, squares or triangles. And then I intentionally break the rules. This can be with a colour outside the colour scheme, changing direction or shape. I just do what feels right. I love making design decisions and see if they work or not. My overall goal is to achieve a cohesive design and create a quilt with visual impact. My education as an architect definitely helps as I apply design principles like the golden cut, the rule of thirds or unequal numbers. Even though in my field of work there is a lot of planning done before something is being built I still enjoy just playing with fabrics and see where that leads me without having everything planned.

   Three   Daniela O’Connell

Three Daniela O’Connell

How often do you work with improvisation?

The quilts I made in the last two years have mostly been made using an improv method. Almost every new idea I have has something to do with improvisation. I don’t enjoy precise piecing that much (half square triangles or flying geese drive me nuts) and I get really upset if my seams don’t match, so I spare myself that hassle and just piece as my heart desires.

Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

A start of a project can be very different. Sometimes I have fabrics that spark an idea because I love the colour combination and can imagine in what shape they will look best. Sometimes it’s a design I have in mind and I sketch rough ideas. When I get stuck I leave the quilt blocks or pieces of fabric on my design wall for a couple of days and keep on looking at the design. I rearrange things and see what works better. Deadlines are certainly a good motivator. I also never have more than three projects I’m working on at the same time. If I have too much going on I get nervous, I like to really focus on one thing and give it my uninterrupted attention.

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

I can get inspired by all sorts of things. I commute to work on public transport and while everyone else is looking into their mobile phones I look around. I see advertising boards, graffiti, people’s tattoos, patterns on people’s back packs or clothes, I see patterns in pavements, walls, stairs, and ceilings or anything really that creates some interesting shapes or has something repetitive. I always have a sketch book with me and if I see something interesting I sketch it. Sometimes a sketch develops into a concrete idea and I then start to play with fabrics.

   Purple Haze   Daniela O’Connell

Purple Haze Daniela O’Connell

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally?  Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

I started to work improvisationally with a simple 12.5” log cabin block. I had three different sized squares and a lot of strips in different widths ranging from 1.5” to 3.5”. And I just sewed them together and stopped as the block was big enough. That way I learned to make decisions and to combine fabrics. I picked printed fabrics but combined them with matching solids. The next step could be using the same block using wonky squares and strips and cut without measuring. Restrictions help to narrow down the overwhelming amount of choice there is, so I would pick an easy block design and start from there.

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

Oh, that got me thinking. If you think of what happened in the past and you ask yourself questions like ‘What if I had started quilting earlier?’ then this beginning of the sentence is daunting. I do ask myself that questions occasionally though, thinking that I have missed out on so much. But it doesn’t make sense that I feel bad about starting quilting relatively late (I was already in my early 40s…) instead I am so happy to have started quilting at all! Because if you think of ‘What if…?’ as opportunities then this is the best beginning of a sentence ever. What if I make a quilt using only solids? What if I cut fabrics without measuring? What if I just do what feels right? There are endless opportunities that are exciting and might lead you to some unexpected and very rewarding outcomes. So, what if you have an open mind and are willing to leave your comfort zone? The best and only way is to find out!

What are reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

Although I am a very visual person, I do like to read about other artist’s design process. I really enjoy interview series like this one. Every artist/ designer has a different design approach and from each and every one of them I try to get something out that I can use for my own work. My ‘visual inspirational obsession’ is definitely QuiltCon with roughly 500 modern quilts on display, but where I gain most from are the lectures at QuiltCon.

Thank you so much Daniela for sharing your work and your words with us. I studied and worked as an architect as well and I understand the value that an architectural education can have on establishing an artistic life, and impacting a person’s aesthetic. To me good architecture is the ultimate art of abstraction and understanding the language that a well designed building uses is quite similar to that of anything else that is well designed. I can see through your quilts that you speak this language, fluently. It even shows in your response to what inspires you. . . everything. . .just look up, watch, listen and see. Keep your mind open to what you see, and experience and get outside your comfort zone. Such good advice! Thank you for sharing it, your work, and your experience working with improvisation.

To find out more about Daniela and see more of her work, visit her website and follow her on Instagram @blockmquilts.


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.


GUEST 18 | The Art of Improv with Michele Landel


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Michele Landel

on The Art of Improv

This week I’m excited to feature the work of fiber artist Michele Landel. Michele is an American living, working and teaching in both Sèvres and Paris, France. She holds degrees in Fine Arts and Art History. Michele creates intensely textured and airy collages using burned, quilted, and embroidered photographs combined with paper and fabric to explore the themes of exposure, absence, and memory. Her embellished mixed media collages have been exhibited in France, Italy, Poland, the UK, and US. She recently won the Surface Design Association’s “Innovation In Technique Award” and her work is featured in The Collage Ideas Book. I am excited to share more about how improvisation impacts Michele’s work.

   Alone on the Beach   Michele Landel

Alone on the Beach Michele Landel

What does working improvisationally mean to you? How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

Improvisation means to create work spontaneously, without a fully formed plan or vision. It is trusting yourself and trusting that something interesting will happen.

Have you always worked improvisationally?

I don’t always work this way now. Sometimes only part of the process is improvised, while the rest is highly planned and controlled. For example, I have been working on a series called “For there she was.” I start by hand dying the fabrics using natural dyes that I brew in my kitchen. Often, I cannot control the colors and don’t know how the different dyes will react to the fabrics. Then I carefully select, digitally manipulate, print, and cut apart the photographs I will use. There is little that is spontaneous during this part of the process. I lay the images and the fabrics out on my table and pair the fabrics with the images. This part is much more spontaneous. Finally the stitching is often improvised based on the tension that naturally happens between the photographs and the fabric.

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally? If so, how do you begin? If not, how do you find yourself getting there?

Improvisation is a natural part of my process. Sometimes to relax or in between series, I make large abstract works that are purely improvised. I start with a blank sheet of paper and layer it with ripped out pages from magazines. I am looking at the colors and focused on finding my pallet. I don’t really care about the content of the pages. When I am satisfied I glue them in place. Over this, I might add another layers for texture (i.e. pages from old books, postcards, paint, gilding, etc.). At this point I might fill-in some of the color with thread and embroidery. Then I will begin burning thinner pages. I often work-in images that I printed for other projects but never used, a bit of a balcony, a face, waves… I have folders full of bits of burned paper to be reused in other projects. Then I will add more thread and sew all these bits in place. The embroidered lines are always improvised based on the way the paper folds or is burned. Here, here, and here are examples of this process.

   I don’t know who I am   Michele Landel

I don’t know who I am Michele Landel

How often do you work with improvisation?

I think it is always a part of my process.

Please share a bit about your process. Do you have methods to getting started? Do you have tricks to getting unstuck? Do you have motivators to finishing up?

I always work in series. This helps me to stay focused and keep moving forward. My work is highly process-driven and there is often a deliberate tension between the improvised and planned.

Even when I am working with photographs, I prefer to print on handmade or watercolor paper where I can’t control how the paper will absorb the ink. It also means I can’t control how the paper will tear when I rip it.

Where do you find inspiration? How do you use it?

I find inspiration from fellow artists and friends. I joined a group called Thrive Art Studios a year ago and the women I have met there are constantly inspiring me. I was feeling block in September and the artist, Heather Kocsis from my group encouraged me to think about flow and the energy of water. She said, “the stream might get really tiny, but it finds its way through.” She told me to find my flow, open up to it, and keep adding momentum to it until things start to move more easily. It was great advice and really worked. I looked at what I had been making and there was a tiny thing “silhouettes” that kept coming back again and again. I took that and kept making it bigger and bigger until the block went away and everything started “flowing” again.

   Me Too I’ve Been Waiting to Feel Less Angry   Michele Landel

Me Too I’ve Been Waiting to Feel Less Angry Michele Landel

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally. Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

Trust yourself.

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

This is one of my favorite games to play! It’s right up with “Would you rather…” and “I spy.”

So, what if, . . . I had more time! Honestly, I’d probably be less efficient and more distracted. What if, . . . I had an enormous studio where I could throw paint! My work would be really different, but you know I am not sure that would be a good thing.

(See videos of burning paper! and more beauty burning here! (video at the bottom))


What are reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

I am in a 2-person book club with my dad who lives in Florida. We just finished “The President is Missing.” Before that we read “Together We Rise.” I live in France and so we only see each one or two times a year. This is our way to stay connected. We’re always texting each other about the books. I still read the New Yorker on the metro and I love to listen to podcast in my studio: Jealous Curator, Pod Save America, On Being, RadioLab, This American Life, Meet the Composure, and How I Built This. When I am not listening to podcasts, I have the French radio station FIP on or KUT Austin.

I don’t read a lot of the business of art books, but two that I have found helpful are Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truit and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

Thank you Michele for sharing your work and your process. I am mesmerized by your process of burning paper, and more importantly the results! I love your advice for someone wanting to start using improv and believe that it essential not just in improv but in the creation of authentic art. It is also something I know alot of us struggle with regularly, so thank you for the reminder of of trusting oneself its importance! Your 2-person book club sounds like a wonderful way to keep in touch, and reminds me what a loving thing reading is to do with someone. Congrats on your recent SDA Innovation award, I am sure it is the first of many!

Please be sure to check out Michele’s work on her website, on Instagram, and in the link content of the interview, and DO NOT MISS the burning fire videos!!!


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.


GUEST 17 | The Art of Improv with Laura Hartrich


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Laura Hartrich

on The Art of Improv

Our guest this week is Laura Hartrich, a textile artist and award winning quilter from Chicago. Laura designs and makes quilted, embroidered, and collaged art, all beautifully. She curates Quilt Stories an IG feed that voices the stories behind the quilts she features. Laura has recently returned to school, working toward an art therapy degree. As part of her art curriculum she has incorporated and highlighted quilts as sculptural objects and explores quiltmaking and the collaborative possibilities of their creation. I am happy to share her work and find out more about her experience with improv.

   Susan’s Wedding Quilt   Laura Hartrich

Susan’s Wedding Quilt Laura Hartrich

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

As a quiltmaker, I work two ways. One way is to sketch out my plan before I begin cutting and piecing, and to execute the sketch in fabric, exactly how I drew it. The other way is to begin piecing without a sketch. When I work this way, I often (but not always) have an idea in mind that I want to work toward. With or without an idea, when I work without a sketch I consider it improv. This means that I am responding to the shapes and colors of the composition as it unfolds. Even if I have an idea of how I want the end result to look, I haven’t worked out how I will get there. So I am making little decisions all along the way. To me, if you are continually answering questions and making decisions as you work, you are working improvisationally.

   Summer   Laura Hartrich

Summer Laura Hartrich

Have you always worked improvisationally?

Almost! I made my first few quilts by following patterns. Then, still early in my quilting journey, I was lucky enough to discover Gwen Marston. From reading Gwen’s books I learned I didn’t need patterns. I could put fabric together like a puzzle that had no wrong answer. In a book she co-authored with Freddie Moran, I read about her concept of “the parts department.” She explained her practice of making blocks or sections, setting them aside, and eventually building a quilt from the various pieces she had accrued. I immediately tried this idea, making a mountain of wonky star blocks and log cabins of different sizes, and eventually puzzling them into three different quilts. That was really my first foray into what I consider improv, and I haven’t stopped yet.

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally?  If so, how do you begin?  If not, how do you find yourself getting there?

I guess I do a little of all that. I might work fully improvisationally, with absolutely no plan, just letting the fabrics and shapes speak to me as I sew. Other times, as I’ve said, I do have a plan but it’s not fully fleshed out. So I’m consciously working toward a plan, but making decisions and accepting surprises along the way. I often begin with an idea or a feeling I want to communicate. Or I might have a color palette that I want to play with. Or I might begin with a traditional block or piece of patchwork that I want to incorporate into a larger piece, and I will improvisationally build around it.

   Sunset Waves   Laura Hartrich

Sunset Waves Laura Hartrich

How often do you work with improvisation?

In my quilting practice, I would say I work with improvisation about 50% of the time. I like to always have two quilts in progress… one that is planned and one that is improv. Making a quilt that is completely planned beforehand can feel like a slog. Improv feels much more playful. I like the balance of working on these two different types of projects at the same time.

One thing that’s terrific about using improv in my practice is that it has taught me to roll with the punches even when my intention is to make more precise work. If I’m trying to recreate a sketch, and things don’t go to plan, I know I don’t have to chuck the whole thing out the window. I can call on my improv mindset and work with whatever I momentarily perceived as a mistake. Improv is a great talisman against panic, and a delightful agent of play.

   For Kathy   Laura Hartrich

For Kathy Laura Hartrich

Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think my process is too interesting. Basically I always have 10 more ideas in my sketchbook than I have time to make. I always feel like I’m running to catch up with my ideas. At this point in my life I don’t have to look for motivation to get started. I just have to find the time to get into my studio and work. What will often happen, for me, is that I’ll think about my current project(s) obsessively… while I shower, while I drive, while I’m on the train, while I’m in class. I do so much work in my head that when I finally get into my studio I’m pretty much ready to WERK, as in pedal to the metal, get shit done. Finishing a quilt is one of my favorite feelings in the world, so it’s usually easy for me to push through to the end. I just have to find the time.

   Winter   Laura Hartrich

Winter Laura Hartrich

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

I’m super inspired by quilts old and new. I love the endless variety of quilts and the reasons people make quilts can be totally inspiring. That’s why I started an instagram account called @quiltstories. I don’t post as regularly as I would like, but it’s an awesome collection of quilts and their stories in the words of their makers. Please follow and submit your own quilt stories!

I’m inspired by color. From time to time I’ll try to tone it down, either because I’m making for someone I think would appreciate something more subtle, or just to try my hand at a different look. But it’s never long before I’m playing with bold, bright colors again, the more the better.

I think I’m a bit of a magpie of inspiration, like many artists. Museum visits, Pinterest and Instagram, bits of paper ephemera that I’ve been moving from house to house for a decade… I’m a collector of styles, shapes, color palettes, and ideas. Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon was a life-changing read for me. When you ask how I use inspiration, that book is pretty much the answer.

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally.  Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

I think my advice to another quilter would be to take a workshop if you can. It helps immensely to see someone else do it in front of you. If that’s not possible, a great book is the next best thing. I admire so many improv quilters, but there are three teachers/authors who impacted my journey the most, and they are Gwen Marston (I have a handful of her books, love them all), Victoria Findlay Wolfe (I took her 15 minutes of Play workshop), and Sherri Lynn Wood (her workshops and book are both wonderful and inspiring). I would also say that improv doesn’t have to mean complete freedom, because it can feel overwhelming if there are absolutely no limits. It’s okay to put some constraints around the work, to help guide you. Sherri Lynn Wood is particularly good at explaining this, and her book provides several examples of constraints to help you get started.  

   Quilt for the Taylors   Laura Hartrich

Quilt for the Taylors Laura Hartrich

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

What if you knew you couldn’t mess up?

 What are you reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

Oh my gosh. I watch so much tv, it’s embarrassing. All that content sort of blends into a blur that I only half-pay attention to while I sew… but there are a couple stand-out shows I have loved in the past couple of years. Offspring is an Australian dramedy that I found on Netflix (content warning for miscarriage and traumatic births). I’m not sure exactly why I love it so much but it’s about a very tight knit family and all their various misadventures. It’s not perfect but it makes me laugh and cry. It’s got a lot of heart. The other show I think is brilliant is Detectorists. It’s so slow and subtle and peaceful. But again, a lot of heart. I love it so much.

I listen to a lot of podcasts but the ones I play first each week are Throwing Shade, Judge John Hodgman, and My Brother, My Brother, and Me. It’s so fascinating how podcasters you listen to each week for years start to feel like such a part of your life. I’ll recommend another podcast called A Piece of Work, which is a fun look at modern art, hosted by Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson. I learned so much. I wish she would put out more episodes. I also recently listened to and enjoyed the book Big Magic by Liz Gilbert. She presents a way to look at creativity that is somehow both mystical and practical. I found it to be liberating. I should listen to it on a regular basis, whenever my insecurities start to creep up and threaten to strangle my creative confidence.

Thank you Laura! I too am so grateful to have discovered the work of Gwen Marston and the improv movement early in my quilting practice. I love your take of using improv to balance out and aid in dealing with ‘mistakes’ or what I like to call the ‘happy accidents’, of precision piecing. Your description of your process is in fact quite interesting and leads me to believe that you are an artist through and through. I have just started listening to podcasts, at an embarrassing rate I might add, and am looking forward to adding A Piece of Work to my subscriptions list and thank you in advance for this recommendation. ‘Big Magic’ changed my life, that and #100DayProject resurrected my artistic life. I am glad your artistic life is alive and well and that you are pursuing it and exploring improvisation along the way!

To learn more about Laura, visit her website, and her out on Instagram @laurahartrich and @quiltstories.


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.


GUEST 16 | The Art of Improv with Michelle Wilkie


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Michelle Wilkie

on The Art of Improv

This week I am pleased to introduce and share the work of Michelle Wilkie. Michelle is a self taught textile artist, and modern quilt designer living in North Carolina with her husband and son. Michelle’s education in the STEM field has helped shaped her aesthetic of precise minimalism and her bright bold and playful improv style. Her quilts are award winning and have been exhibited nationwide. I was excited to learn that she has authored a book about the process of quilt design and look forward to its release next year.

   Rails   Michelle Wilkie

Rails Michelle Wilkie

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

Improvisation allows me to catch my breath, destress and relax.  I love the freedom and the less planned nature of improv, where I am not worried about the details like measurements, accuracy, color combinations, or how I am going to write a pattern.

Have you always worked improvisationally?

I tend to be more of a planner and type A perfectionist, so no improvisation was not my first go to. I think I started with paper-piecing and other more planned (quilting) styles. When I did try improvisation though, I loved it. It soon became one of my favorite techniques.

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally?  If so, how do you begin?  If not, how do you find yourself getting there?
This really depends on what I am actually creating. Many of my quilts are original designs. When I have an idea in my head, and I know to accomplish that idea I will need to use improvisation, it is much more intentional. There are times though, I will sit down with my scraps and just start sewing to see where it will go. I usually feel the need to do the latter, when I am seeking a balance in my life.

   Sunday Best   Michelle Wilkie

Sunday Best Michelle Wilkie

How often do you work with improvisation?
I am split between improvisational quilts and minimal geometric quilts. I think I use both techniques pretty evenly. I love the results of both but for very different reasons.

Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

I use improvisation to get unstuck and destress from work and other deadlines etc. To help get started, I might impose limits such as technique for piecing (machine stitched or hand pieced), limited color palette, limit shapes or limit time spent making per week.

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

Inspiration is truly everywhere, but I use different sources/drive for minimalism and improvisation. For my improvisational pieces, they originate mostly from feelings that I am tapping into. For instance, “Home” was influenced when feeling homesick for New Zealand. Sunday Best was a 10 week exercise exploring my feelings around my mother’s terminal illness.

   Piece Title   Michelle Wilkie

Piece Title Michelle Wilkie

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally.  Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

Two things, think of it as an experiment and two, work out what your limits are and start there. Improvisation means removing some stringent ideas on how to quilt, like needing a ruler to cut fabric for the straight line, use of precision, controlling the colors and placement you use. Choose one or two things to change to start if you are nervous. For instance, don’t use a ruler to cut fabrics and stitch together the rough edges.  You can still use a ruler to square up your blocks.

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

What if I had more time in my day? What could I accomplish? With Instagram sometimes, it’s great to be part of a community, other times it reminds me of how much I want to do. I would love to be quilting all day, every day; alas it is really a weekend experience. So, I have learned to savor the experience when I can.

What are reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

I have started getting more interested in artists in other mediums. My favorite discovery is Carmen Herrera. I am inspired by the documentary of her, The 100 years show, on Netflix. She is a great minimalist artist who was discovered in her late 80’s. She is now 103 and painting every day. Just shows you what can happen if you never give up and do what you love.

   Improvisation Quilt   Michelle Wilkie

Improvisation Quilt Michelle Wilkie

Thank you Michelle, for sharing your work, and your thoughts on and process of improvisation and quiltmaking with us. I look forward to being inspired to experiment and explore by your upcoming book release. And I am with you on wishing there were more hours in the day to make, create and quilt. Also, I share your love of artist Carmen Herrera, whose artwork, life, and dedication has inspired and motivated me many times. WWCD? (what would Carmen do?), she would keep working that’s for sure!

The learn more about Michelle, visit her website and check her out on Instagram @ml_wilkie.


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.


GUEST 15 | The Art of Improv with Jessica Molnar


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Jessica Molnar

on The Art of Improv

   Choker   Jessica Molnar

Choker Jessica Molnar

Our guest this week is Jessica Molnar. Jessica is a mixed media artist, textile designer from Bellingham, Washington. Her love of and experience with bookbinding, restoration and printing led to the foundation of Odd Duck Press where she sells her one of a kind, works, art prints, homewares and gifts. On her blog, also at Odd Duck Press, she shares about her experiences as an artist, a mother, and interviews fellow artists highlighting their work, process, and practices. I am happy to share with her beliefs that we are all artistic creatures whose individual lives impact the world through our art of living. And am happy she is spreading the word, and even more happy to spread her words.

   Work in Progress   Jessica Molnar

Work in Progress Jessica Molnar

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

For me, working improvisationally means being adaptable, resourceful, curious, and willing to experiment. I think the “Art of Improv” is a great metaphor for life; forging ahead with free will and adapting to the unexpected. The surprises can be the best part! I find this to be true for many of my projects. This is definitely the case with my painting Happy Accident. It’s a large mixed media piece on canvas and while I was working on it a corner of the canvas caught on fire. This made the colors bleed through. It was such a cool, striking effect that I turned the canvas around and started working on the back. The idea of the “Art of Improv” also makes me think of the concept “beginner’s mind” from Zen Buddhism which refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

   Circus Book   Jessica Molnar

Circus Book Jessica Molnar

Have you always worked improvisationally?

Yes, I’d say that working improvisationally has always been pretty much a way of life for me. I tend to work this way in the studio, but also in larger contexts, too. One example is when my husband and I decided to move from California to Washington. After we got married, we decided to leave the Bay Area since housing prices are astronomical and the job market is cut-throat. At the time, we were living in our Airstream trailer in an industrial yard. We set our sights on Washington for its natural beauty and lower population density. We didn’t have any savings, but we did have an America’s Cup 12 Meter yacht that my husband bought at a lien sale. After a couple years on the market and no luck selling, we decided to scrap it. We both quit our jobs and spent the next year making scouting trips and living off of the scrap metal from that 65 ft. aluminum sailboat. My husband documented the whole thing here. In March of ’09 we hitched up our trailer and made a break for it. By the time we were ready to go, we only had $1,000 left and no jobs lined up. The adventure that ensued was indeed epic and hair-raising at times. It took us a while to get our bearings, but we managed to land safely and are now settled into our cozy home in the county. That was some serious improv! And that’s just one example ; )

   A Little Thing   Jessica Molnar

A Little Thing Jessica Molnar

How often do you work with improvisation?

Every day, in one way or another!

Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

I like to have a few different kinds of projects going on at once. Right now, I have a few small projects like dioramas and collages, some textile design projects and one ginormous mixed-media piece. I like having different size projects as well as projects that incorporate totally different mediums. That way there’s always something to work on if I get stuck. For me, getting stuck is often an issue of cash flow, so it really helps to have some projects that are purely digital. If I’m feeling blasé about all of my projects, that’s a big red flag that I’m running on fumes and I need to recharge. That’s when I like to go outside, curl up with a novel or prepare some sort of laborious meal like homemade pasta. When it comes to finishing up projects, I find that the biggest motivator for me is seeing the piece come together. My aforementioned ginormous mixed-media piece, spent years in limbo and I’m really excited to see it coming together now. I submitted it to a local gallery to be considered for exhibition in 2019. That feels very motivating!

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

A lot of my inspiration comes from my lived experience. During my tumultuous 20’s, art-making was my way of processing emotions. I still find a lot of my inspiration from my life stories, but these days, art-making feels less like DIY psychotherapy and more like a celebration. I’m also inspired by process. I really enjoy it when the process is drawn out, laborious and repetitive :D I’ve worked in textile restoration, letterpress printing and bookbinding + restoration; all very tedious, persnickety crafts. And so fun! Another big inspiration for me is the materials that I work with. I love working with found and salvaged materials. I have lots of little collections of things like: individual words cut out from books, wishbones, bird’s nests, hoards of paper and fabric scraps, insects, and vintage magazines. Some of my favorite projects are those that I made as gifts. A while back, I was living in New Orleans and my brother was living in NY. He was going through a rough patch and we were missing each other. I made a little piece of mail art for him out of some random bits and pieces I had lying around. It was a small diorama, (approx. 4”x6”x1”) that I sent out in the mail as is, no packaging. I just addressed the back of it, stuck some stamps on it and popped it in the mail. It arrived intact, he still has it and it’s still one of my favorite pieces.

   Mailed Art to Brother   Jessica Molnar

Mailed Art to Brother Jessica Molnar

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally?  Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

I feel that there’s a tremendous tension that comes into play as a professional artist between managing the business side of things and nurturing the creative side. It can be really, really hard to reconcile! I get huge rush out of making progress toward my goals and checking things off my to-do list. That kind of stuff is easily mapped out and understood logically, whereas the creative side of things springs forth from…who knows where! The Mystery! When I’m truly in my creative flow, I feel more like a conduit rather than the agent, which is an incredible state to be in, but getting there…that’s the challenge. I’ve gone through agonizingly long creative droughts, which have been heartbreaking and demoralizing. I’m just now reconnecting with this intuitive-creative side of myself. I’m learning to create the necessary internal spaciousness that allows me to tap into that flow. If I’m feeling anxious, stressed out, exhausted, etc. I tend to get caught up in being busy. I can never access creative flow from that sort of state. I can do business-lady stuff, but I can’t make art. Recently I started doing breathwork, which is a very strange sort of guided meditation. My friend Amy Kuretsky offers this on Patreon. I highly recommend it! On days when I do breathwork in the morning, I find that I’m able to get into that creative flow and operate from a place of inspired action.

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

What if I let go of the result?

What are you reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

I just finished reading Where the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky. The author is such a fascinating person and a multi-talented artist. He directed one of my all-time favorite movies, Santa Sangre. On a whim, I googled him to see what else he’s done and discovered this book which is an epic, mythologized account of his family going back a few generations. It’s surreal, grotesque, heartbreaking, achingly beautiful and transcendent all at the same time. In the prologue he writes, “Our family tree is the trap that limits our thoughts, emotions, desires, and material life, but it is also the treasure that captures the greater part of our values. Aside from being a novel, this book may, if it is successful, serve as an example that all readers can follow and, if they practice forgiveness, they too can transform family memory into heroic legend.” I love that! Examining and transforming my stories, family stories in particular, is something that I’ve been working with a lot, especially since becoming a mother.

Thank you Jessica for sharing your work and your life of art with us. I love the idea of thinking of unexpected results not as mistakes, as many do/would, but as happy accidents. I think this is at the core of harnessing the power of improv to aid in artmaking and more importantly living a happier life!!! I relate to your description of being in the flow and feeling like a conduit to a mysterious force. It is exciting have figured it out for myself and am always excited to learn and share how others experience it. I believe your ‘What If’ response might be the key! And I can not wait to track down Where the Bird Sings Best, which was interestingly already on my list, but your description just bumped it up to the top.

To learn more about Jessica, visit her website, Odd Duck Press, her blog, and Instagram.


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.


GUEST 14 | The Art of Improv with Zak Foster


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Zak Foster

on The Art of Improv

Let’s welcome Zak Foster to The Art of Improv! Zak is a textile artist living in New York City, who learned to quilt from his partner’s grandma, and as she promised, he has been having a blast with it ever since, and it shows! Zak’s work has been published and exhibited in many magazines, blogs and galleries around the country and across the world. His aesthetic is influenced by the work of the Gee’s Bend quilters, bauhaus textiles, the weavings of Anni Albers and Gunta Stolzl, the paintings of Jacob Lawrence and the cities of Brooklyn and New York. His commitment to using found and repurposed fabrics is inspiring and commendable, as are his politically charged pieces that have drawn added attention to social issues deserving of protest. Let’s learn more about Zak and how improv finds it way into his work and process.

   Young Miss Augusta 1963   Zak Foster

Young Miss Augusta 1963 Zak Foster

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

Working improvisationally for me means starting without a plan. Usually I start with the fabric, letting the colors or patterns dictate what happens next. I make several blocks and observe what I see happening in front of me. Sometimes I like some detail that happens in a piece-- some spark of a greater idea-- and I try to replicate that idea in other blocks. Sometimes I just let the pieces be as they are and let the quilt come together as it wants to.

The art part of improv comes in those moments where something unintentional becomes the crux of the piece. There have been times when I trying to force a design to gel, and I make a funny little sew and it opens up new possibilities that I couldn’t have come up with on my own. That’s the art for me.

Have you always worked improvisationally?

Pretty much since the beginning, yes.  I wish I had a picture of my first quilt. It was a pinwheel pattern made out of half-square triangles, but the fabric was all remnants left over from a fabric warehouse (R.I.P. Gem Fabrics NYC!) and the pinwheels didn’t quite line up, so I guess we can call that improv? My second quilt got a little looser, and by my third quilt, I was off and running. I’ve only made one non-improv quilt in my career, and it was a traditional patterned quilt for a dear friend. Turned out beautiful, but getting those point all lined up almost drove me crazy!

   Bedford Armory   Zak Foster

Bedford Armory Zak Foster

Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

I try not to stress the process. Stress blocks any creative impulse I might have. If things aren’t working out, I have a couple tricks I try.

1) I try stepping back twenty feet or so from the quilt to see if I can figure out what’s not working. An alternative to this is taking a picture of it and looking at the mini digital version on your phone. Either approach helps play down details (that you may be fond of or are driving you crazy!) and help you focus on the overall composition.

2) Another trick I find helpful is to at the quilt upside-down. I either rotate the quilt or stand on my head, depending on what’s easier. Viewing a composition upside-down has a way of pointing out what’s off. But if I still can’t put my finger on it, I just pack up the whole thing and put it in the closet for a while. Sometimes I come back to it with renewed inspiration. Sometimes I cut it up for another project a year later.

When I’m feeling stalled on a project and need to just get it done, I try to devote a large chunk of time to make some serious progress, if it feels tedious. I find if I can just plow through the tedium, there’s inspiration on the other side. Sometimes working incrementally feels like doggie-paddling, all this work and you’re not really getting anywhere. But it’s nothing a good Saturday afternoon can’t fix (or a sick-day from work!)

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

Living in a place like New York City, inspiration is everywhere. This is a place where steel-and-glass skyscraper coexists in the same habitat as 18th-century brick-and-mortar taverns. I find the juxtaposition of the two creates a lot of room for response. If precise perpendiculars and organic approximations are both aesthetics in a designer’s toolkit, it opens up a lot of possibilities. I look at some of my quilts, the Brooklyn Armory quilt is a great example, and see two faces of this city side-by-side. .

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally.  Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

The way I started, and the way I always suggest to folks who’d like to give improv a shot, is to start with fabrics you like but don’t love. I found, especially when I was just beginning, that when I was working with fabrics that I liked too much, it was almost a hindrance to the creative process. I was so concerned with not making a wrong cut, that I would err on conservative side and overthink each cut. I think improv is all about the moment, what catches your eye as you’re cutting and sewing, and working with that. Also, I remember being liberated by the idea that with improv there is no wasted fabric. You can’t make a wrong cut. If something’s too short, you add a little piece, and voila, you have a great new detail that adds complexity to your work. If a piece is too long, you lop it off, and use the excess in your next bit. I love that improv embraces all of our efforts.

One of the quickest and enjoyable ways I improv is to put away the rotary cutter and use only scissors. Then making long sweeping cuts going wherever the scissors and fabric decide they feel like going, I cut long strips and start piecing them together. The effect is soft and fluid, almost painterly. I’ve made three that way and they’re so much fun. (See Scissor quilts).

  Scissor quilts  Zak Foster

Scissor quilts Zak Foster

  Scissor quilt  Zak Foster

Scissor quilt Zak Foster

I read your The Creativity Project interview with Kim Soper (Leland Ave Studios) and found your desciption of your Oracle Quilts and their process very interesting and relative to improv, can you share with us here about these quilts and their process?

As a quilter who’s also a linguist, I love it when words can be traced back to the hypothetical grandmother of English, Spanish, Bengali, and so many other languages: (unimaginatively dubbed) the Proto-Indo-European language. Art is one of those words with long roots in history. We can see the root ar in several modern languages and they all have one idea in common, the idea of things fitting together.  In English, the spelling didn’t always get passed down, but the idea sure did: we see it words like arm, articulate, adorn, coordinate, ornate, and order. And for me, that is such a beautifully pure definition of what art is, especially improv art: making things fit together.

When I first realized a few years ago that working with fabric was the principle way I made sense of the world, I finally became confident to call myself an artist. By this definition, I am one who makes things fit together. And in doing so, I better understand my world around me, and it’s my hope, that I am able to help others see the world from a different angle as well.

I’ve made three quilts in the last few years that I call oracle quilts. They are based on some unsettling question or some nagging doubt that I can’t easily resolve. I frame my question carefully, often I’ll write it on a piece of paper and pin it to my design wall, and I take it to the quilt. I try my best to let intuition take over and not think too much about the aesthetics. Throughout the creation of the piece, answers often emerge.

The first time that happened was when I was growing concerned for the refugees entering Europe in 2015.

The idea came to me though that maybe I should consult the wisdom of fabric. I went to my stash and started pulling out various shades of white fabrics and began sewing without any definite plan, but a clearly defined question: “How are we to live in a world like this?” I sewed and sewed, piecing together long columns of white squares─ one family on the move after another. I connected one column to a second column, and made the necessary adjustments so they’d fit. Then I added a third column, adjusting, tweaking until they laid just right. I carried on like that until I had finished the quilt. I stood back and looked at it from across the room. I could see clearly how the position of one square affected the position of another, and there was my answer: “We have to make room for each other.”

  Oracle Quilt  Zak Foster

Oracle Quilt Zak Foster

So I’ve been trying to make room for others ever since. On a personal level, that means allowing others to be exactly who they are and not trying to contort them to my ideals. On a broader political level, I support anyone who is working to make a home for others by providing charity and social support networks like healthcare, and doesn’t meddle unnecessarily in the affairs of others. I cannot support anyone who seeks to exclude others for personal gain.

That first oracle quilt is a fine quilt, maybe not the most visually interesting one that I’ve ever made, but it set me on a new course. With this quilt, I began using fabric in a more introspective way, and let the process of sewing bring forth meaning for me. I call this particular the Shekinah quilt, a reference to the illuminating presence of God for the Hebrews when they were wandering in the wilderness. Looking at the quilt give me understanding, a sense of peace, and a mission.

I’ve made two other oracle quilts since then that given me a sense of direction in uncertain moments. The second one I made in the last few months as I worked through some feelings of stuckness that I’m having. I’ve been working the same job ever since I graduated college sixteen years ago, and I think a lot about what other options are out there. After months of not making a single quilt, I decided once again to go ask the fabrics. I started pulling a few meaningful pieces: an old silk skirt a good friend had given me, some material from my partner’s great-aunt Patsy, and some super bright orange fabric that I’d never found a use for. I began making a simple square-in-a-square quilt, the square in the middle being the bright orange fabric. When I put them up on the design wall together, I had a totally surreal and dreamlike moment: what I saw before me was a grid floating in space like a fence or a filter, and behind that, a radiant day-glo world. Each orange block revealed a window, and all I had to do to make it to this brighter place was to crawl through one. It was incredibly affirming (and a little trippy).

  Oracle Quilt  Zak Foster

Oracle Quilt Zak Foster

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

What if I could cover a building with quilt? The entire thing, from top to bottom. I imagine a quilt-top made of beautifully translucent fabrics draped over the entire facade, and then being able to walk from room to room, looking out windows that once looked out onto the city now turned into prisms of stained-glass fabric windows.

What are reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?  

Hands down, the best collections of essays about quilting that I’ve read is Gee’s Bend: the Architecture of the Quilt by Tinwood Books. My favorite essays were the reflections written by many of the quilters themselves: Loretta P. Bennett, Mary Lee Bendolph, and Louisiana P. Bendolph. The large-format pictures are gorgeous. Going West! Quilts and Community is another favorite I flip through often. More so than any other book I’ve read, this collections focuses on how people create communities and connect to one another through quilts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

On a different but related note, Overdressed: the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline was a  game-changer for me. It paints a stark picture of how we are over-producing fabric and the devastating effects of the textile industry on our one and only planet. I read the book over a year ago, and I don’t think I’ve bought a new item of clothing since. (Except for maybe underwear.)

I also love the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. He wrote most of his major work in the first decade of the 1900s, but sometimes when I read some of his poems, it feels kindred. Like this excerpt from his Ninth Duino Elegy, where he’s asked the question about what outlives us-- our loves, our sufferings, our heaviness, our art of looking-- what he calls the unsayable. It is this lifetime, he insists, that we ought to dedicate ourselves to the sayable, the objects of daily life:

For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,

he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead

some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue

gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –

at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand,

oh, to say them more intensely than the Things themselves

ever dreamed of existing.

I wonder where quilt would fit into Rilke’s list. Between window and column, I hope. Quilts take the pieces of fabric, often pieces that we have loved in the form of garments and linens, and elevates them into something that gives us even more warmth and even more comfort. I love the idea of fabric sitting around in my studio, dreaming itself into a quilt.

As I sew, I often prefer to work in silence, but when I do want music, more often than not, it’s WDVX, East Tennessee’s own listener-support radio. Sometimes when living in New York feels a little too far from home, it warms my heart to hear voices like the ones I grew up hearing on the radio. And I love the story-telling that forms the heart of country and bluegrass music. I can sit and sew, all the while listening to one story after another, and be carted five hundred miles away without leaving my living room.

Many thanks to Zak for sharing his one of a kind quilts and his processes of improvisation. Thank you for sharing the poem of Rainer Maria Rilke too. I have been reading some poetry lately myself and even attempting to write some a little, which is totally new for me. I love the poems that draw attention to the beauty of the ordinary, the everyday, that beauty is everywhere. I hold this belief and think poetry brings attention to it in a very powerful way. I also can not get the image of a quilt draped building out of my head, what a wonderful ‘what if. . .’ to ponder. In the present climate of the world and its politics, I love your idea of making room for each other and asking your art to guide you in its creation, this is how I believe improv can help artists find real authenticity, like a fingerprint, this is how we can leave our own unique mark. I believe the uniqueness of each of us is a powerful strength of our humanity that is sadly being overlooked and scrandered with fear, we need to celebrate and make room for these uniquenesses, because that is where the real art/beauty lies. I thank you for sharing this idea, and making room for me to ponder it, and thank you Zak, and all of your inspiring ideas about improv and quilted art. To learn more about Zak visit his website, and check out his Instagram feed for inspiration everyday.


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.


GUEST 20 | The Art of Improv with Melissa Marginet


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Melissa Marginet

on The Art of Improv

Our guest this week Melissa Marginet, is a Canadian designer, author and teacher whose art quilts demonstrate the many quilted designs that are highlighted in her book ‘Walking Foot Quilting Designs’. As a teacher she enjoys sharing her knowledge and inspiring her students, but finds that they always inspire her in unexpected ways. She works improvisationally and encourages her students to work this way too, as there is no right or wrong way, we each have our own way. I love this! Let’s find out more about Melissa and her process of improvisation, shall we?

 Melissa Marginet

Melissa Marginet

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’? 

Working improvisationally means keeping an open mind as you work. It means allowing yourself to veer off the path, and sometimes allowing yourself to return to that original path. The Art of Improv is pure unbridled creativity. 

Have you always worked improvisationally?

When I began quilting I would buy quilt magazines and I would look at the patterns. I would sometimes follow one but I would always change something. It could be as simple as adding more borders or eliminating the ones they suggested. Or it could be a complete revamp of the pattern using only the concept. Sometimes you couldn’t even tell where my original design came from. As I’ve progressed in my quilting, I rarely buy magazines or books and I start with my own ideas but I still change things as I go.
 

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally?  If so, how do you begin?  If not, how do you find yourself getting there? 

It is just in me to work this way. I was brought up to make do with what you had. I’ve lived in remote locations where supplies were not readily available. I now have a large stash but much of it is hand me down fabrics, and thrift store finds (vintage fabric, shirts, ties, etc.)  When I visit quilt stores, I tend to buy from the remnant bin. I never know how much to buy off the bolt but when it’s a remnant, there is no choice. My stash is organized in categories rather than by colour and is in open shelves. Sometimes I have an idea in mind and sometimes I stand in front of those shelves until inspiration hits me. 

 Melissa Marginet

Melissa Marginet

How often do you work with improvisation?

Improv is defined as: created without preparation, using what is available, or creating spontaneously. I often work improvisationally according to these definitions. I don’t, however, often freely slice into fabrics and put the wonky pieces together that we think of when we are talking about improv quilting. That is the improv that is hard for me. (What if I cut off too much, or what if it’s not enough? If I waste the fabric I may run out and not be able to finish my piece.) This type of improv is easier for me if I start with scraps. The scraps will tell me where I am going. There is a parallel between improv quilting with scraps and buying remnants at the store or thrift store fabrics. With both I am working with limits I cannot control.

Please share a bit about your process. Do you have methods to getting started?   Do you have tricks to getting unstuck? Do you have motivators to finishing up?

My process usually begins with the fabrics I chose from standing in front of my stash. I consider the amount of each of the fabrics and design within the quantity limitations. I have many designs on my computer and on paper and sometimes one of those designs will fit with a selection of fabrics that I have so I begin to work with that idea. Sometimes my design is based on a 5” grid but the amount of fabric I have will only allow me to work with a 4” grid. Sometimes I move up in size in order to use up more of the fabric.  Sometimes I start to clean my studio and run across something that sparks me and off I go again. Unfortunately, my studio rarely ends up clean.   I’ve always been a finisher. I get such satisfaction out of that last stitch in the binding that I have no problem plugging away till it’s done. Labelling my work is another issue. I struggle with that final step and sometimes just sign and date my quilt with a marker.
                                                                                                                      

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

There is inspiration everywhere. Patterns, textures, architecture, nature, etc. I carry a little sketch pad with me all the time to jot down ideas when they come to me. One little idea can send me down the rabbit hole and there is no turning back.

 Melissa Marginet

Melissa Marginet

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally? Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way? 

Trust your ideas, allow yourself to work with them, and don’t worry about what others think. My advice to others is to take part in some of the many challenges found online or in your quilt/art groups. Start with something small. You don’t have to actually enter it, just do it. Make yourself stay within the parameters given and you will grow technically and creatively. Then begin to challenge yourself to tackle some of your own ideas.

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’ 

What if I had more time? I have enough ideas and inspiration to last me several lifetimes. I need the time to execute them.

What are you reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share? I don’t do much of any of these but what I do find most inspiring is my grandchildren. They have such open minds and creating art and quilts with them stimulates my creativity.

Thank you Melissa for sharing your work and your process with us all. I appreciate your advice that improv is all about trusting your own ideas, and I agree that children with their honest and open creativity is a great source of inspiration. You can find out more about Melissa on her website, by following her on Instagram, and checking out her Facebook pages: Melissa Marginet-Quilter & Walking Foot Quilting Designs.


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.


GUEST 13 | The Art of Improv with Cindy Grisdela


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Cindy Grisdela

on The Art of Improv

Cindy Grisdela is our guest this week. She is an award winning textile artist from Reston Virginia, whose abstract art quilts are exhibited and sold all over the country. Cindy draws inspiration from nature and her exploration of color is where she starts, and then it is texture that she explores. She is a teacher and an author, she lectures and runs creative workshops to encourages creativity with cloth. Her book ‘Artful Improv’ is a beautiful book that has inspired me and so many others to jump outside the box. Here she shares a little bit about her improv process.

   Aquarius   Cindy Grisdela

Aquarius Cindy Grisdela

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

Working improvisationally means working without a pattern and not knowing what the final piece is going to look like when I start. I enjoy how each decision about color, line, and shape influences the next as I’m creating. Being open to the process is the most important thing about improv to me. There are many times when "happy accidents" of line or shape occur that I couldn't have planned if I was working more deliberately. 

Have you always worked improvisationally?

No—I started out over 30 years ago as a traditional quilter following patterns. But I usually wanted to tweak the patterns to make them more my own. 

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally?  If so, how do you begin?  If not, how do you find yourself getting there?

Yes—it’s a very deliberate choice. I begin with an idea—a new color combination or a set of shapes and lines. Generally I also have an idea of what size I want the piece to be and I block that size out on my design wall. Then I fill it with color and shape. It's not a quick process--often I have to leave the piece up on the wall to "marinate" while I work on something else. Coming back to it with fresh eyes, I'm often able to see what needs to happen next. 

One thing I emphasize to my students is the fact that just because we are working improvisationally, that doesn't let us off the hook to create good art. I use a simple set of design principles to help me evaluate my compositions--things like balance, focus, repetition, variety, and unity in the design.

   Partly Sunny   Cindy Grisdela

Partly Sunny Cindy Grisdela

How often do you work with improvisation?

Always 

Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

I work improvisationally in two ways. One way is to start with a color idea and create a number of units or blocks--maybe improv log cabin blocks or improv curves. Then I arrange and rearrange them on my design wall until I have a composition that sings--paying attention to the creative tension between the lines and shapes as I go. Another way is to use my rotary cutter as a drawing tool and cut freehand shapes directly into the fabrics. In this method, no sewing is done until the entire composition is up on the wall. The shapes are roughed in and then recut to fit as each section is sewn. Many times the composition changes again during the sewing process. 

If I'm stuck, I take a break and work on something else. It sometimes helps to take a photo of the piece on my smartphone and look at it on the screen, both in color and in black and white. I'll often see a problem on the screen that wasn't obvious looking at the piece on the wall. Looking at it in black and white helps to see the values more clearly--if there's a section that reads too dark or too light it will show on the screen. 

I don't usually have trouble finishing. I want to know what the piece is going to look like! Plus I'm almost always motivated to finish a piece by some sort of deadline--a show to enter or the need for a new class sample. But if I do have trouble with a piece, I go to the studio and set a timer for a set period of time--maybe only 20 or 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, I've often found a new groove and I'm able to move forward. 

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

Although my work is very abstract, I find inspiration everywhere I go. I'm always looking for interesting color combinations, shapes, and textures--sometimes in nature, sometimes in buildings and architecture, sometimes in other types of art. I take a lot of pictures of things that interest me and use them as inspiration later. 

   Balloon Fiesta   Cindy Grisdela

Balloon Fiesta Cindy Grisdela

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally.  Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

First, become comfortable with the idea that the process is just as important as the finished project. Dump out a basket of scraps, or cut scraps from yardage. Start out just sewing two pieces of fabric together, maybe because you like the colors or the shapes. Keep adding another scrap until you have a block. Then put that aside and do it again. Don't overthink it, just keep adding scraps that are a different color or a different value of the same color. Let go of any rules and let the piece evolve. Once you have a handful of blocks, put them up on your design wall and arrange and rearrange them until you like the result. Add some negative space, or maybe some energetic stripes. If you listen to your inner voice, you'll know when it's right. 

Remember that there are no mistakes in improv, just design opportunities. If something doesn't turn out the way you thought it would, put it in your leftover basket and let it sit for a while. There have been a number of times that blocks or units that didn't work out in one project were just the right thing to start something new. 

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

"What if" is my favorite sentence in improv design! What if I turn the piece upside down? What if I add some lime green? What if I try something completely new and unexpected? That's where the magic happens. 

What are reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

One of my favorite books about being an artist is Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way--I reread it every so often because I believe that you get something new every time given your experiences in the interim. I also have enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic about living creatively. And the new issue of Curated Quilts magazine is all about Improv and has some great articles and images. 

I love to read lots of different things--science fiction, history, art, mysteries. I'm in the middle of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times and I'm learning a lot. 

Thank you to Cindy for sharing with us her work and her expertise on improvisational quilting. I love her book, it has helped me realize that following your creative gut is not always easy but well worth the while. I too love Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ and probably should reread it. I can also recommend ‘Vein of Gold’ by Cameron that is an extension of ‘The Artist’s Way’ and one of my favorites, both are hugely inspirational and motivational and the type of book I am loving to read right now. I too have my eyes wide open to the world and all its beauty. To learn more about Cindy visit her website and be sure to check out her beautiful book ‘Artful Improv’, and Instagram for day to day inspiration of line, shape, and color.


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.


GUEST 12 | The Art of Improv with Gary Hirsch


Gary Hirschbw.jpg

Gary Hirsch

on The Art of Improv

Our guest this week is artist and illustrator Gary Hirsch. Gary is co founder of On Your Feet, a creative group that uses theatrical improvisation to help businesses relate, create, and collaborate. Gary is also responsible for BotJoy an art sharing project that is best described here. He has also created interactive murals in various cities across the country, in which the walls have a series of hand-painted Bot figures, each with a simple question embedded into its design. Viewers interact with the art by using photography and hashtags #botjoy and #botpdx to answer the Bot questions, creating an on-line, city-wide gallery of reflections, ideas, and beliefs. Gary is on a mission to bring joy to world through his art and I applaud and high five him for that!

   The BOTS   Gary Hirsch

The BOTS Gary Hirsch

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

My entire professional life as an artist and consultant is built on the belief that joy and great work come from behaving like an improviser.

Noticing More

Letting Go

Using Everything

I think of improv as: the art of dealing with what "Is" vs what was "suppose" to be.

Have you always worked improvisationally?

Yes, see my TED talk about making improvised art from my nightmares with my father when I was a child.  

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally?  If so, how do you begin?  If not, how do you find yourself getting there?

I have a plan and then when I start my work I let the moment not the plan guide me.  I start with a mark, or an image, but what is the wall surfacing telling me? What comes into my mind as the mark is going down on the surface? I listen to these and respond.

   BotJoy mural   Gary Hirsch

BotJoy mural Gary Hirsch

How often do you work with improvisation?

Everyday, either as a performer, consultant, but mostly as a human, since every conversation is improvised, and I have a lot of those! 

Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

I listen to my environment, I notice what is going on around me, I let the first mark on the surface inform the next. here are some articles about my process:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/every-wall-offer-gary-hirsch

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/making-art-without-script-gary-hirsch

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

I want to make art that is playful and helpful. I am inspired by these ideas alive in the world. 

 

   BotJoy mural   Gary Hirsch

BotJoy mural Gary Hirsch

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally.  Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

Have a plan and then be comfortable letting it all go in the moment.

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

 What if everyone had a giant invisible robot that followed them around all day and gave them outrageous compliments!

What are reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

I’m reading Through Two Doors at Once by Anil Ananthaswamy, Changing Your Mind by Michael Pollen and love the JJ Redick podcast about the NBA

Thank you Gary! I love that you pointed out that all of our conversations are basically improvised. This is one of the things that I loved about the book Improv Wisdom that inspired this blog. It points out all the ways in which we use improv in our everyday lives, and as much as I love thinking about it from an creative perspective, it really is in everything we do. Your TED talk is so inspiring and your Bots, they bring me so much joy! Thank you for sharing with us all here, and thank you for sharing your art and joy with the world. I’ve loved following #botjoy and #botstories.

To learn more about Gary and his bots check out his website, On Your Feet, Instagram @ghirschbotjoy, and do yourself a favor and check out his very inspiring TED talk about creativity, collaboration, noticing, asking, sharing, letting go and making a connection.


If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.