GUEST 10 | The Art of Improv with Nancy Purvis

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Nancy Purvis

on The Art of Improv

I am happy to welcome this week’s guest, artist and quilter, Nancy Purvis. Nancy is a self taught artist living in North Carolina. She is a published author, her book Quilting from Every Angle was released in 2015. Her aesthetic is clean, minimal, and of course improv. She has recently begun experimenting with different mediums including paint and printmaking, and I must say the results are awesome.

Fuck the Quilt Police   Nancy Purvis

Fuck the Quilt Police Nancy Purvis

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

Improv means two things for me. One, it can be a fly by the seat of one's pants style of working without knowing how the end result will turn out. The second one is like when you follow a recipe and during the cooking you realize you do not have a certain ingredient. You have to improvise. What can you replace to still make the dish taste good but yield similar results or even make it better than the original recipe? I think both ways provide opportunity for play and can yield great results.

I think there is an art to improv because design doesn't come naturally for some people. You have to make sure the quilt is balanced and cohesive and the overall aesthetic is pleasing to the eye. Anyone can create improv style quilts, and that's the beauty of art. Anyone can do it. It just may be more challenging for some because they would prefer to have set rules and steps in order to achieve a final design. Or they want to know ahead of time what the final product will look like. Improv can be tricky at times, and you can encounter mistakes. I have my fair share of failed attempts at improv, and I am positive there will be more in the future. I think that is the art of improv. 

Have you always worked improvisationally?

No. I also love geometrics, clean lines, minimal designs, and precision.

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 my mood. Sometimes, I just want to sit and sew bits of fabric together with absolutely no plan in mind. I want to sew, rip, and cut and repeat the process all over again. Sometimes, I sit down knowing I want that random improv look, but I am more conscientious about my decision making and what pieces will go where. I pay close attention to the details that are happening within the quilt when I start sewing pieces together and placing them on the design wall. Sometimes, it is trial and error and lots of iterations of one design. A lot of adding, subtracting, and seam ripping. And sometimes, I get lucky and there is none of that. 

1981   Nancy Purvis

1981 Nancy Purvis

How often do you work with improvisation?

It definitely feels more often than not these days that I work improvisationally, but I have quite a few designs that are more structured waiting to be made. After writing my book, Quilting from Every Angle, in 2015, I felt like that child who was raised in a very strict home that once they turned 18 became a wild child. After making so many patterns in a small period of time, I was seeking freedom from rules. I just wanted to play, and that is when I really dove into improvisational piecing. I have gotten my wild itch out now, and I am ready to start incorporating more of my other designs that require math and following steps into my portfolio.

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 with improv usually starts with a theme––half square triangles, lines, log cabins, for example. From there, I choose my fabrics that I wish to work with. This will sometimes change mid-process. Sometimes, my process begins when I am working on a project, and I see something in that thing I am working on that sparks within me a new idea.  My favorite trick to improv is picture taking. Throughout the design process, I will take photos of layouts to refer back to before sewing my final pieces together. One trick to getting unstuck is to walk away. Seeing things with a clear mind and fresh eyes can help you get out of a rut. It's also nice when you can turn to friends that give you their perspectives. They can see things you cannot. But I am very selective about who I turn to for advice when I need it. I have to admire their work and aesthetic as an artist, as well as know they will give honest feedback.

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

I find inspiration all around me in my day to day living, and I'm usually taking a lot of pictures to refer back to some day. One design can also lead to a new design and so on. I feel like I can go down a rabbit hole with just one design or inspirational piece. 

Inspiration usually comes to me in two ways. One way is through literal translation. I can be inspired by the thing I see whether that is a building's details or structures, a flat lay on Instagram, home furnishings, or by another artist. I can replicate said inspiration or use it as starting point for a new idea. If you plan to recreate a design without much deviation to the original design, it's always good to contact the designer, artist, or company first so you do not infringe on copyright.

Another way I find inspiration is through practice drawing. Creating a daily or weekly ritual of practice drawing allows my brain to stay charged. More times than not, the marks I make on a page do not go anywhere, but I can always refer back to these for inspiration. Practice drawing really forces you to expand your thoughts because there are only so many squares or hsts you're willing to draw. It strengthens my design muscle, and through a drawing ritual, I can gather inspiration.

I use the inspiration I gather as a reference point when I feel stuck or unmotivated to do anything creatively. I like how one person's ideas can generate new ideas for someone else because we all see and interpret things differently, which can be very refreshing.


Improv Quilt   Nancy Purvis

Improv Quilt Nancy Purvis

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?

Just do it.

Mistakes happen, so embrace them. 

Start small.

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

I stopped creating? Would anyone notice or care?

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

I just finished up two audiobooks. Daring Greatly and Braving the Wilderness both by Brené Brown. I need a lot of help right now in different areas of my life. I suffer from depression coupled with still trying to figure out this life of mine and who I am as a mother, wife, artist, friend, and just in general, a human being. I need all the self-help books I can get! :)  As far as podcasts go, I'm always listening to Awesome with Alison. She's hilarious and inspiring. 

Nancy, thank you so much for sharing your improv story with us all! I know I am not the only one who would notice if you stopped making and creating. I too am a self help junkie and proud of it, Daring Greatly is on my list (I just loved The Gifts of Imperfection). I also love your Fuck the Quilt Police, the title alone is worth several high fives. As a quilter myself I struggle with the perfectionism of the craft, and as an artist embracing improv I say YES! Fuck em’ all!!! Thank you for showing us what following your creative heart can look like! Be sure to check out more of Nancy’s work please visit her website and check out her process and new work on 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.