on The Art of Improv
Our guest this week is artist, Tricia Royal. Tricia is a textile artist, print maker and surface designer living and working in the San Francisco Bay area. She is a graduate of the University of North Florida and Parsons the New School for Design, where she studied Art History and Fashion Design. Her work has been exhibited nationally and she was the Textiles Artist in residence at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago 2016-2017. Her work explores the themes of past and present, chaos and control, trash to treasure, and the value of textiles in our throw it away society. She believes, as I do, that ‘Quilts = Art’ and explores the medium with highly saturated and often repurposed fabrics, to create stunning patterns and compositions, in unique and unexpected ways.
What does working improvisationally mean to you? How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?
I see improv as mostly a state of mind, a looseness and liberality and tolerance of experimentation and failure. It’s about reacting in the moment, and not planning every inch of a piece to the extreme. It’s about surprise, discovery, novelty, relationships, reactions, conversations.
For me, it is about deciding on some parameters (like, color, shape, a specific collection of fabrics, a technique or techniques or some combination of those aspects, and so one), and then experimenting within those parameters. And being willing to go down divergent paths if something exciting happens during the experience and experiments.
Have you always worked improvisationally?
I’d say yes. I’ve always had some fascination with the idea of improvisation, though I didn’t always associate the term with the concept.
I learned to crochet in the early 2000s, probably around 2004, and somewhere along the way I discovered the idea of scrumble crochet, a loose technique where you just add stitches and new sections and shapes in a really loose, reactive, organic way. In retrospect, that technique has a lot of parallels with improv quilting. No wonder I really liked it/vibed with it. When I discovered the Saori weaving technique a few years ago…same thing.
As I stated above, the concept of improv can be applied to any art form, as a philosophical framework, and that’s exactly how I apply it.
Improv is, at this point, more innate, more intuitive, ingrained, woven into my whole practice, and I’m not always conscious that I’m implementing it, it just happens. It reveals myself in my print work, my weaving, my knitting, crocheting, painting, whatever. I like lots of color and texture and play and things to look a little “crazy”...but the crazy is always tempered by some sort of structure.
My first few quilts were scrap quilts, like log cabins and a foundation pieced strip quilt. While these quilts were precision pieced, the choice of what color to place next in any given block was a decision made in the moment and not pre-planned. I still tend to work this way, it’s sort of my comfort zone.
I tend to make simple blocks and experimentally goof around with color more often than not, making pairings that make sense in the moment. I’m always looking for unusual, sometimes clashing pairings that make my heart beat faster. It’s very visceral, even haptic in an internal way for me.
Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally? If so how do you begin? If not, how do you find yourself getting there?
It depends on the project, what I have in mind as my end goal. Sometimes a project requires more planning and is more precise in nature. Some pieces end up being more precise, planned, and others are more wild and organic. Usually my work has elements of both in one piece. There’s always a balance, a foundation, choices made at the outset that underpin and set the stage for play.
Please share a bit about your process. Do you have methods of getting started? Do you have tricks for getting unstuck? Do you have motivators for finishing up?
I try to just dive in as much as possible, and not get in my own way with too much. If I’m feeling it, I keep going, if not, I stop and try again later that day, or another day. I work on a lot of projects at once...up to 10-15 pieces. If something is stumping me, I switch to another project or idea. In a macro way, even my whole process is improvisational in nature, as move around from project to project? It may take me awhile to finish pieces with this kind of workload, sometimes even years, but I do eventually circle back and finish what I started. My brain is, to reference that meme that’s gone around of late, like a browser with 1000 tabs open! My way of working may not work for everyone, but it works for me. Linearity is not my strongest suit.
Where do you find inspiration? How do you use it?
Sounds trite but the old adage is true: Inspiration is everywhere, it’s about keeping your eyes open, being a sponge. I’m very visual, so I’m always taking pictures of things that catch my eye. Instagram and Pinterest are great sources of inspiration; I utilize the latter quite a bit in image collection and information gathering and organization.
I also actively collect a lot of art and craft books, with an emphasis on vintage and out of print books from the 60s, 70s, 80s; I have been collecting these for upwards of 20 years. The colors and ideas from that era are endlessly inspirational to me. Bold colors, irreverent, envelope pushing design.
Urban spaces and their layers and colors inspire me. Contemporary art, feminist art, post modern art. The concept of remix culture and hip hop and graffiti/street art.
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?
Get out of your own way. Loosen up and enjoy the ride. Be open...to experience, to being challenged, to the unusual. Let go of preconceived notions and societal bias. Go with the flow. This is easier said than done, but I promise that it can be done by being conscious and by keeping at it until your brain just sort of snaps into it without effort.
The best way to get comfortable with this way of working is exposure. Keep making yourself work this way, even if it feels weird at first. Eventually it will become engrained.
How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if,...?’
What if...you just do it? Do it! I am always so eager to see what happens “if”...what happens when I just dive in and do it. I’m hungry for the results. What will happen? LET’S FIND OUT.
What are you reading, listening to, watching or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?
I listen to podcasts constantly while I work in my studios, and I like listening to podcasts that have a scientific, political and/or historical bent in particular. Not as many art or craft podcasts, funnily enough. A recent favorite is Behind the Bastards, which looks at the history and horrible behavior of dictators, and other big time bastards throughout distant and recent history. It’s well researched and funny, but also really prescient, critical and informative. Recently they’ve covered Stalin, Alex Jones, Erik Prince (of Blackwater), Paul Manafort, and Charles Koch. I catch up on the cultural/political news of the day listening to The Daily or Pod Save America. When I want to laugh/get my true crime fix, I turn to My Favorite Murder or Last Podcast on the Left. I have other favorites, but those come to mind first.
PBS’ American Masters recently released a biographical documentary about painter Elizabeth Murray that was beautifully done.
When I want to feel inspired visually and philosophically, I like to watch back episodes of the PBS series Craft in America. The artists and media featured in the series are diverse, but I resonate with so much of what they say, about their work, why they make it, the context of art in craft in our society, in the world at large, and why craft is important and vital.
As for specific books or magazines: I used to be a magazine junkie, but these days I’ve whittled it down to a handful: Quiltfolk, Frankie (an Australian fashion/lifestyle mag with an artful, handwrought aesthetic), and Uppercase. Thoughtful, art-filled, cultural kinds of magazines, all of them.
Of the books that have come out the last several years, Roderick Kirakofe’s Unconventional and Unexpected is one I continuously come back to, again and again. Irreverent quilts made in the last half of the 20th century; it gives those quilts a reverence and relevance and context in the history of our recent aesthetic and material culture.
When it comes to books technique and improvisational quilts, Sherri Lynn Wood’s Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters, Maria Shell’s new book, and Gwen Marston’s 1990s era books are must-haves, nothing else really comes close (sorry!). The emphasis they placed on technique and inspiration is what we need more of in the realm of craft books. I’d love to see less of an emphasis on mechanical, rote copying and replication in books and other media, if we are to move the craft forward.
Thank you Tricia! I love this idea that your process of working is in and of itself improv, that by working on so many projects at one time you are literally picking and choosing not just what works for a piece, but what piece to work? I have a tendancy to work on several projects at once as well, as I like to have something in all phases of the process. Something to piece, something to quilt, something to hand stitch. I often feel the need to finish before I start something new, but why? Perhaps I will intentionally get more things going and see how that goes. I love starting new things so I thank you for this and can’t wait to try it!
I also always recommend and often rewatch Craft in America, I so wish they would keep making them! Thank you for all of your recommendations, I am excited to track many of them down! Thank you too for sharing your work and how it is impacted by improv.
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.