GUEST 14 | The Art of Improv with Zak Foster


foster at sewing machine bw.jpg

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.