As a contemporary quilter, Alexis Deise works in series to focus and dig deeper into ideas that are important to her, all while honoring the women who built an enduring traditional art form.
What were your early creative influences? Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?
When I was very small, my mother started architecture school, and I had a desk in the corner of her studio where I made things out of scraps of Styrofoam, pinecones, acorns, cardboard, fabric, markers and glue.
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My grandmother was an accomplished home dressmaker who made elaborate wardrobes for her four daughters — and then, my dolls — on her 1910 Willcox & Gibbs chainstitch machine. I learned to sew from her, with help from my mother, then got my first sewing machine–an inexpensive Singer–in fourth grade.
As a child, I mostly sewed clothes for myself and my dolls. Then in high school, I started designing and sewing costumes for theater productions. Because the theater department was small and no one else was really interested in it, I did a lot of shows. By the time I was a senior, I did three or four shows a year.
I took pattern drafting and clothing construction at a local fashion design school, and in college I majored in theater design and art history. After college, balancing work, social life and too-small apartments led me to put sewing on a back burner. When my friends started having babies in the early 00s, it occurred to me that I might make them a quilt. After all, I knew how to sew, and I still had my 1984 Singer.
How do you balance your personal life, work and creative endeavors? How do you make time for creating? Do you try to create daily?
I work full time, commute, and have two school-aged children, so my free time is very limited. I am definitely not able to carve out time every day to sew. But I can often grab a few hours on the weekends when the kids are doing something with their dad, or an hour or so after they are in bed at night. So it takes me a long time to complete a project!
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process? What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I share my tiny sewing space with our home office, so my cutting table is the family desk where my tween son does his homework and plays video games. It’s imperative that I keep it neat and limit the “stuff” I store there.
It’s impossible for me to focus in a messy workspace. So I keep it very organized, always cleaning up before and after working. I use a tabletop-sized ironing board and keep minimal notions and tools — a few rulers, scissors and rotary cutters, two or three colors of thread, painter’s tape, and a seam ripper. Also, I have only two small drawers to store fabric, so I purchase only what I need for specific projects. I find keeping things minimal and organized helps me to focus, which is important when you have limited time!
What is the spark in traditional quilt patterns that inspires you to riff on them?
I’m really interested in using traditional quilt patterns and techniques (such as hand quilting, tying, and hand appliqué). This creates a link between my work and quilting as a traditional art form, practiced largely by women.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser? How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
I love the process of improvising. I often use it to design the backs of my quilts, using leftover blocks and scraps. But my quilt tops are planned. I sketch by hand on graph paper, which I keep at home, in my purse and at the office in case I want to jot down something quickly.
Do you focus on one piece from start to finish or work on multiple projects simultaneously?
It varies. I prefer to have a few works in progress at different stages. Then I can choose between different tasks when I have some time to work. So I often have a quilt in the hand-quilting stage in progress while also working on a piecing project.
Sometimes I will throw a hand-appliqué project in the works as well. This gives me something to work on when I can’t get to my machine or need something portable for a trip or commute.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I nearly always work in series. In 2018, I wrote a piece in “Curated Quilts” about working in series. In it I explained how important series work is to me. “Each completed work becomes a jumping-off point for the next piece: what worked? What didn’t?”
Working in series both provides a narrower focus that can help overcome creative blocks and an opportunity for a deeper exploration of the work.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
The most difficult quilts I have made recently are two quilts about gun violence that I hand-appliquéd. I had never done any appliqué when I started, let alone started from scratch from an original design for which I had to develop my own templates and techniques, so that was a very steep learning curve.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a few new pieces in my “kintsugi” series, which is inspired by the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with visible seams of precious metal, making the break more prominent instead of disguising it. I have been working on this series intermittently since 2014, introducing new concepts and ideas to the format.
Interview with Alexis Deise posted March 2020
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