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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.