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.