Using painted elements from previous work, sewing collage artist Andrea Lewicki unites the bits into a cohesive whole with stitch. The visual balance in her work fulfills a balance that was missing from her previous life in chemical engineering. As Andrea explores new ways to be creative with collage and stitch, she sketches out more of her own story as an artist.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Because I grew up insulated from traditional art, I am very much a late-blooming artist. Sometimes I wonder if things might have been different if art had been a required part of my high school curriculum. I loaded up on math and science because that’s what all the other academically competitive students did. I followed that into a 10-year career in chemical engineering which, although well-compensated, always felt like something vital was missing.
As the early seeds of my creative journey were blooming, it took a long time for me to recognize them. It felt like discovering a parallel reality that had been there the whole time but I could not believe was actually an option. Even now, I feel like I am living on the flip side.
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When I turned 40, I asked myself “If not now, when?” That was in 2014. In 2016, a friend let me hold my first art show in her studio/event space. Ever since, I’ve been studying, making piles of art, and showing my work as much as I can. I’ve finally got to a place where I’m no longer insecure about being largely self-taught and feel like I have genuinely have something to express as an exhibiting artist.
How did you find your creative niche?
By looking for a wide open plain instead of a niche.
A while back there was an episode of Longform podcast where the host asked a poetry editor, I think for The New Yorker, what they look for in submissions. The answer was “a constant rate of surprise.” When I heard that it was like a tuning fork because that’s what I want to experience as an artist. I move away from what feels predictable or formulaic. I’ve found that once I complete a body of work, I cannot go back to it and pick it up again. Sometimes it’s like running down a rocky hill in that the best way to stay on my feet is to keep moving.
Why collage with stitch? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
Collage and stitching came about from hours in my studio playing around without any specific goals. I had been painting for five years and becoming more and more interested in mixed media. After nearly all of my display opportunities in 2020 were cancelled, I wondered what kind of art I would make if no one ever saw my work again. I wondered what kind of rules I would abandon. The painting world is full of tacit rules that I have since filed under invented nonsense.
I started cutting up my old paintings on canvas and paper as a sort of catharsis, and after letting the pieces sit around for a while, I got the idea to rearrange the pieces and sew them together. I had been sewing masks for a couple of weeks and had achieved a new level of sewing competency so I wanted to sew everything! It turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had making art and I haven’t stopped sewing since. I didn’t really know how to categorize what I was making but collage seemed to be a fit.
I love the physicality of sewing. Using a machine, I stand when I sew because it’s a whole body movement to get the lines I want. I love seeing the lines there as evidence that I put it together. I can easily spend an entire day absorbed in the flow of stitching.
My sewing machine is 15 years old. I initially bought it because I was interested in quilting, but it turned out I was more interested in collecting fabrics and arranging them in different combinations. With sewn collage, I get to do the same thing but I don’t have to worry about seams or precision piecing.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Improviser. I used to elaborately plan projects and when the fantasy didn’t jive with reality, it was discouraging. I thought the answer was to plan more and that just led to overthinking. Thinking is actually slower than feeling. I understand what to do next on a piece before I know it cognitively. It’s a matter of working by feel. Improvising means trusting my instincts, and the more I do that, the more intimate my art feels to me.
Although I love the craft of sewing, I get bored when following a pattern. I’d much rather just start putting things together to see where it leads.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
Occasionally I’ll create a small collage to explore an idea and I’ll tape that into a spiral-bound book for future reference, but for the most part, I find sketchbooks and visual journals tedious rather than generative.
Writing, however, is an important part of my process. Using Evernote, I capture ideas, poetry fragments, and pretty much everything related to my creative life. I’ve maintained an “idea garden” for almost ten years now. I also write about finding inspiration and insights gleaned from doing the work. This has been indispensable for really honing my point-of-view as an artist over the last few years, for finding the creative fingerprint that differentiates my art from anyone else’s.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I do! I have a 15×15-foot detached studio that overlooks a rural lake in Western WA. The lake-facing side is almost all windows and a good amount of my creative time is spent watching LakeTV. Most of my studio furniture is either folding tables or storage shelves/carts on wheels so I can rearrange as needed. When I started doing collage, I needed more table space than wall space so I’ve optimized for that. This year I did a deep purge to make room for a couch. It’s a great place to nap and contemplate.
Early this year I carved out a space in the house for a home office because I found that in addition to dedicated space for creating, I also needed dedicated space for managing the business side of being an artist. Having it separate from the studio keeps me focused because I would always rather be puttering around on the sewing machine than on my laptop.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I spend the early stages of a new series in silence. Once I start sewing or if I’m doing finishing work to prepare for a show, I’ll listen to podcasts or audiobooks. My favorite podcast is Deep Color. Each episode is a solid conversation with an established artist or arts professional. The guests are all farther along in their work than I am and it’s useful to hear them talk in hindsight about their more developmental years.
Is your work more content-driven or process-driven? Does an idea inspire a work of art, or do the materials launch an idea?
It varies. Usually an idea becomes married to materials and it goes from there. I came to art through design so I am comfortable composing without a reference, just seeing where I can take whatever is in front of me. I have a table full of collage materials that I shop from when I’m exploring an idea. I’ll pull in a bunch of materials to start and then gradually take most of them away as I clarify a direction.
Often when I get to the 90% completion point on a project I either dramatically change it or have a fresh go at the concept. It’s sort of like getting the crappy first draft out of the way so the stronger approach can surface.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I believe everyone is creative and when people say they aren’t, it’s a matter of not having yet met their medium. Most people assume you have to be able to draw to be creative, and that assumption means being able to convincingly render something realistically. Creativity lies in the decisions that diverge from being completely faithful to reality and discovering which details connect important dots in a composition, and that applies to more than visual art. But you don’t know that unless you try, and you never know how experience in one medium will inform your experience in another, so there’s nothing lost by trying.
While I don’t think creativity is a skill that has to be learned, persistence is something that can be learned. It’s a muscle you can build. Persistence is more valuable to creativity than raw talent. If you want to practice persistence, take up crocheting or knitting!
How do you get unstuck creatively?
Have a good night’s sleep, go for a walk, and if that isn’t fixing it, I know I’ve made something too precious or I’m too attached to a particular outcome. The only thing left is to break it. Writers talk about killing their darlings. If it’s not working it’s already broken so why not just really break it? That’s why it’s called a breakthrough!
The engineer-trained part of my brain is interested in convergence and pulling things together into a neatly solved puzzle. That’s not how art works, so breaking a piece introduces divergence that makes it interesting. When I’m stuck, what I actually need to do is strike a balance between these two ways of working.
Where can people see your work?
Now that the summer art festival season has ended, my website or Instagram is the best place to see my art. I offer studio visits and in-home art previews as well. Later this year I will be participating in Urban Craft Uprising’s Winter Show at Seattle Center Exhibition Hall and the Shoreline Holiday Market at Shoreline City Hall. I also have collages in Park Lane Gallery’s Winter Show of Small Works that starts in November.
I have work in the upcoming issue of Juniper Magazine, and to see my work year-round at a budget-friendly price, watch for my 2022 calendar which will be available for pre-order any day now.
Interview posted September 2021
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