GUEST 7 | The Art of Improv with Sheri Schumacher


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Sheri Schumacher

on The Art of Improv

Our guest this week is Sheri Schumacher, a designer and award winning textile artist, and Associate Design Professor Emerita at Auburn University. Her recent work explores the narratives of our cultural landscapes, inspired by regional craft heritage, hand stitching traditions, and the relationships of making, materiality, tools and handmade production. Her creative history was influenced by the multi-cultural experiences of her childhood. Born in Munich, Germany her creativity was influenced early on by well crafted Scandinavian furniture of her childhood home, by the Marimekko fabrics of her mother’s wardrobe, and by the architecture of the European cities she lived in. I’ve long admired her work and am happy to be able to get her ideas on improvisation and the way it has shaped her craft.

   Kagbeni   Sheri Schumacher

Kagbeni Sheri Schumacher

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

What working improvisationally means to me is having creative freedom with limited resources, being spontaneous without a plan, making intentional choices in the moment, uninhibited experimentation and passionate immersion in the making process. I’m reminded of an experience years ago, at the Banff Centre in Canada, when a group of jazz musicians visited the visual arts studio and spontaneously began making music using objects in the space as their instruments.  Working improvisationally they made a beautiful composition together that was unplanned, without conventional instruments, each musician acting with intention in the moment, using techniques gained from years of experience and practice.  It was a remarkable experience that perhaps identifies some key elements necessary for defining the ‘Art of Improv’.

Have you always worked improvisationally?

I learned how to piece fabric about 6 years ago in Gee’s Bend, Alabama and have been working improvisationally with textiles since.  The Gee’s Bend quilts have qualities of improvisation, innovative use of repurposed clothing and fabric remnants, remarkable compositions and use of color, and expressive hand quilting.  The quilts have not only inspired mid 20th century art in America but also have been a source of inspiration around the world.  The Gee’s Bend quilters continue to be an inspiration in my life and work.  Combining what I have learned from them over the years with my professional experience in the discipline of design has allowed me to slowly but surely find my voice in a creative practice with textiles.

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

Yes, I work improvisationally, consciously and intentionally.  I begin with an idea and not a rigid plan of how to implement the idea when working with textiles, allowing the process of making to inform decisions along the way and elements of surprise to make their way into the work.  Prioritizing thinking with the process of making heightens the level of experimentation and engagement with the work.  As a professional and educator in the discipline of design I have experience with the principles of design and elements of art such as balance, proportion, form, unity, hierarchy, color and space.  I use my design experience to reflect, question and critique the work at different stages.

   Homage to Malivich   Sheri Schumacher

Homage to Malivich Sheri Schumacher

How often do you work with improvisation?

I work with improvisation almost every day.

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?

Curiosity is often my starting point, the desire to experience and learn more about a place in the natural or built environment.  Examples include places such as Nepal, traversing extreme terrain while learning about migration patterns or Bologna, Italy, where the rhythm of light and shadows is an integral part of the experience of walking on the portico lined streets.  Closer to home includes observing how a 70 year old masonry wall covered with different colors and textures of moss changes with the seasons. Using repurposed linens, clothing and textiles on hand, I select materials ranging in texture, weight and color, that best convey the character and experience of the particular place.  Photographs are used as a reference in combination with memory of the experience.  This process helps me limit the material resources and encourages moving beyond my taste when selecting textiles. If the work seems forced or the direction is at a stand still, I consider changing the scale or orientation of the work, working on a wall surface is helpful.  Sometimes I cut the pieced fabric into smaller pieces and combine it in a new way which makes it less precious and allows more experimentation.  The first cut is the hardest but this process is always liberating, a breath of fresh air from being stifled. Deadlines are good motivators to finish work. I tend to move quickly to the next idea without fully completing the work in progress. Also work on multiple projects at one time which allows me to combine long term slow, hand sewing projects that take months to complete with short term small works and experiments with new techniques that provide immediate gratification.

   Margins   Sheri Schumacher

Margins Sheri Schumacher

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?

One suggestion to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally is to slightly vary what you are familiar with, whether it be a pattern or process.  An example is to vary the size or color combination of the fabric or cut the fabric as needed versus cutting the fabric before beginning the piece.   Mary Ann Pettway, a remarkable quilter and manager of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective, taught me how to use improvisation when piecing fabric with a variation of the house top quilting technique.  She encouraged me to begin with a square piece of fabric, select another fabric strip to sew on two opposite sides, and then sew another fabric strip to the other two sides. Cut or tear strips of fabric 1-2 inches in width, if the strip is too short add another piece of fabric to make it longer, cut the fabric after (not before) you sew it to a side to prevent waste and use light and dark contrasting fabrics to promote interest and dimension.  When working with Mary Ann I recall using a Scandinavian designed print fabric and a solid color repurposed linen tablecloth to make the quilt top.  Half way through making the quilt top I noticed that the work was somewhat mundane with little interest even though all the strip widths varied.  Mary Ann suggested using some fabric scraps with small multicolored flowers that I would otherwise not have selected as part of my palette.  When included, the work immediately came alive, the varied scale of the fabric print, color and weight resonated with interest, perhaps akin to an improvisational jazz music performance.     

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

What if I only use repurposed linens, garments and fabric in my work and collaborate with sustainable companies like @RedLandCotton to repurpose their textile remnants. 

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

Presently I’m reading The Textile Reader edited by Jessica Hemmings, Indigo by Catherine E. McKinley, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford and You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katharine Harmon.  One of my favorite books is The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, I learn something new with each reading.  Uppercase Magazine and improvisedlife.com are excellent sources of inspiration. Many designers and artists have inspired my textile work, a few that immediately come to mind include Natalie Chanin @alabamachanin, Anni Albers and Hella Jongerius.

Thank you Sheri! I am envious of your opportunity to work so closely with the quilter’s of Gee’s Bend, sounds like a wonderful experience. I agree that their inspirational impact is vast and far reaching. I admire your commitment to using repurposed cloth and I totally fell in love with your cast iron Kagbeni Vessel series and was inspired seeing a bit of that process on Instagram. To learn more about Sheri and her beautifully crafted works, check out here website and check in on her process 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.