GUEST 21 | The Art of Improv with Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia


Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia bw.jpg

Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia

on The Art of Improv

Our guest this week is Dr. Scarlet Sparkhul Delia. Scarlet is a woman, a wife, a mom, a maker, a doctor and an artist. Her love of art and creativity just might surpass my own. She is a maker of quilts and garments. Her love of art, creativity and making is obvious in her work, and with all of her creative endeavours,. She has been very supportive in cheering me on and I am so excited to be able to return the favor, by sharing her work and wisdom of improv with you, I know you will find it inspiring.

Union   Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia

Union Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia

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

Working improvisationally is more of a lifestyle that spills over into my creative endeavors.  I can make a grand plan, organize, get my ducks in a row so to speak.  But often things don’t go as planned, and at the intersection of “This is not what I planned’ and “Oh well, jump in!”, that’s when improvisation is usually my go-to choice.   Improvisation in art can involve working with a design but not a specific color scheme.  It could mean working with a color scheme, yet without a specific design.  It can also mean working with what I have on hand (scraps, fabric remnants, unusual materials, repurposed textiles), letting the materials drive the design concept.  Improvisation is also a form of play for me.  Like a child digging in the sand at the beach, the imagination roams.  Working without a predetermined plan makes space for the mind to wander, the artist to emerge, almost as a return to childhood in some ways.  In essence the practice of improvisation becomes an art in itself, the “Art of Improv.”

Have you always worked improvisationally?

I have always worked improvisationally in some facet of life.  Paper collage as a child was an ongoing pleasure, classroom doodles in a notebook, costume-making for dress-up.  In college I studied contemporary dance and Contact Improvisation was a formal dance class.  Improvisational quilting became a particular pleasure after I learned to quilt in a very traditional manner.  I learned to quilt by first taking a class, learning precision cutting and piecing, then practicing the traditional blocks.  I would often start a quilt and get bored with the repetition of the same blocks and motifs coming together.  I quickly broke away from that tendency.  But like many things in life, knowing the basics is critical (can’t quilt if you don’t know how to sew first!).  Having that foundation, those traditional techniques, allowed me to jump ship and find my way to improvisational quilting with confidence. 

Pleasure   Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia

Pleasure Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia

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

Let’s say I have an idea about a quilt, the theme, the colors or a loose design.  Whatever it is, it floats around in my head for a bit, maybe a few weeks or months.  A subtle pressure and anticipation builds over this period.  I gather materials that I have on hand, are given or can be sourced from second hand sources (thrift stores, creative re-use centers).  Sometimes the materials or the colors will drive the design, so I may decide early on to improvise as I go, remaining conscious of the materials, their limits and how to showcase them best.  Then, one day (usually late at night) I will just get to work furiously.  Cut, combine color, cut again, arrange the strips, run the machine, combine, toss a color out, run a line of stitches, cut again...  It’s all quite a conscious and intentional effort. 

How often do you work with improvisation?

I work with improvisation about 90% of the time.  It just steers the ship that way.  I won’t try and control these tendencies, or change direction. That’s what my insides tell me, what drives the design, what pleases me, and eventually what gives back to anyone who observes the work.  Occasionally I’ll turn back to the traditional quilting blocks and do small projects to revisit my past or participate in group projects.  This is becoming more of a chore than a pleasure, so for the moment I’m stuck on majority-improv work.

Journey Medalli   Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia

Journey Medalli Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia

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?

Having the materials I want for a project is the biggest motivation to get started.  For example, I received a large box of men’s dress shirts from a friend who was helping her husband downsize his wardrobe.  As soon as they were in my house I immediately had to cut and piece, make something out of them, even if it didn’t end up being a quilt.  That something may end up a nothing.  But it might also end up a big something.  Using repurposed materials continues to be a large part of my process.  I struggle with the impact of textile waste, and am ever-aiming to utilize what I have or what can be reused. 

I am rarely stuck.  If anything I dive deep and have a hard time coming up for air or stopping.  Time is my worst enemy.  Career, family, physical fitness, artistic endeavors; each is just as important as the next, and all require time.  Finishing up can be a struggle, but the best technique I’ve found for this is having an almighty deadline!  Whether it’s to enter a quilt in a show, having it finished up for a special occasion, or just a timely post on social media.  Personal deadlines are an important motivator for me to finish up and show my work.   Goal + deadline = MAGIC (said who?).

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

Inspiration is everywhere frankly.  In nature, fashion, the work of peers/mentors, even my kids inspire design with their focus on love, excitement and bold colors.  We homeschool our children, and let me tell you, improvising has saved my soul over and over again.  Improvising inspires me to just relax, let the little things go, and enjoy the time and intimacy we are sharing as a family.  The day of the week can be an inspiration, usually on a Monday when the week’s duties come tearing at me, in the car or on my bike ride to work.  It’s in these totally inconvenient moments that ideas start flooding in.  I wonder what the psychology is behind the that!  I am also inspired by fewer choices when it comes to design.  We live in a world of choice overload.  Give me a few colors and textures and I’m good.  It’s when the choices are too abundant that my inspiration and focus dulls. 

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?

For just one day forget the rules, forget the rulers too!  There are so many rules with precision cutting, piecing and quilting, if you focus on them.  They are written about in books and tutorials online, and the quilt police is always happy to chime in.   Just let them all go for the moment.  You’re the boss.  Don’t be afraid.  Start somewhere, anywhere, and try to start with what you have.  It doesn’t take much once you get going, and man is it difficult to stop.

Special Occasion   Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia

Special Occasion Scarlet Sparkuhl Delia

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

What if I never had to work again?  I am not sure this would be a good thing.  As much as I sometimes think it would (because who doesn’t want to make art all day?), my work engages me with the world in an intimate and powerful way.  As a physician I spend much of my time educating patients and shepherding them through illness and health.  This relationship with humanity deepens my creative drive, and further inspires me to cherish the time and energy we are given to engage in artistic endeavors. 

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

My husband and I are on sort of a self-improvement kick.  We enjoy reading the same books together lately, and I am very proud that we can share this deep, personal connection to improve our relationships with our children, with each other, and the world at large.  The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is one of the better reads of late.  I think once you are inspired by a healthy philosophy, it trickles down to every part of your life, including your art.  This book does just that.

Jen, you have recommended some stellar motivational reads as well: Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner and You are a Badass by Jen Sincero.  Perhaps my all-time favorite book for artists to revel in their talents and honor their gifts is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.  This book never lets me down, and I always come away feeling empowered and ready to get to work.

Thank you Scarlet for sharing with us all your love of art, making and improv, it is so inspiring! I am not surprised to learn that The Artist’s Way has inspired you!!! I agree that improv is a form of play, art is too really, but we get caught up in taking it too seriously sometimes, no? So I love your advice too, to forget the rules. It is important to know them, but sometimes more so to know when to break them. I am so happy to know that you’ve enjoyed some of the books I’ve recommended on IG and @for.the.love.of.your.art, just knowing one person has been creatively inspired really means alot to me. I will for sure look at ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’! Please keep sending out the creative love and encouragement, I can tell you that it is so appreciated.

If you want to feel the love and learn more about Scarlet and her work, check out her website. Find her on IG @scarletkumquat.


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.