Barbara Oliver Hartman began designing her original quilt designs when she realized she couldn’t follow the directions in a pattern. She creates intricate art quilts with very small bits and pieces of fabric. Her mantra is ‘Just do the work’. If it doesn’t work out, you’ve learned something. And, if it does work out you’ve got a great piece to be proud of!
How did you get started designing quilts? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
It sort of evolved. I picked up a pattern and soon figured out that I could not follow directions. Then I discovered graph paper and figured I could do squares and rectangles and that was the beginning.
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When I first began dabbling 4+ decades ago, I had no idea there were quilters making art. I saw some pictures of antique Amish quilts and they interested me. Then I happened on to a small group of women doing that and my world expanded. My work has grown year by year and here we are.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
The thing that has developed over the years has been using small bits and pieces that make up much of my newest work. I happened onto the beginnings of this “technique” over 20 years ago when I made my first quilt using these small scraps. I have developed and refined my methods over the years. Initially I was doing representational work, mostly landscapes mainly depicting trees and foliage. Lately I have been doing more non-representational work and that is my favorite……for the time being.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
Everything inspires me in good ways, and some not so good ways. I like observers to see one of my abstract pieces and make up their own mind and some pieces do have meaning. I made a piece a while back that was inspired by the Parkland school shooting in Florida. The incident was very upsetting. After seeing some pictures of the aftermath, the piece Help: Blood and Chaos was inspired. I have also made some pieces with environmental and global warming themes. Most of my pieces are not so serious but sometimes they are. I enjoy making the quilts, especially in the organic and abstract style.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
Usually just start playing. I will maybe begin with a color palette or a basic idea, sometimes a thumbnail sketch and just start sewing. In the back of my mind I am always telling myself, just do the work, just do the work.
I consider most of my work experimental and that comes with some risks. I think what serves me well is not being afraid to fail. I am constantly learning and my failures can be learning experiences. Just do the work!!
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I usually finish but am heavily influenced by deadlines. I think many of us are like that.
I usually have multiple quilts in progress. They will be in different stages of completion. In the early part of the day I will do more designing and working out problems and then later in the day I will sew the projects that have had the problems worked out. I call this my donkey work…. Just sewing which can be tedious and time consuming.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Yes, I have a wonderful space to work, but it has evolved and changed locations in my house over the years.
When I was just starting out and getting serious about making quilts, I set my machine up on my dining room table. While the size of my house has not changed, the size of the family living here has. At the beginning, all the rooms were filled with kids and I made do with the available space. Then as the kids left the nest, I started taking over the upstairs rooms, one at a time and my needs and stash grew. That worked well for many years.
About 4 years ago I made a major change to move downstairs to a larger space and use part of the “public” area of the house. My husband died a few years before and he had this space, a home office with room for a large wine collection. One consideration was that my adult children worried about my navigating the stairs and knowing it was just a matter of time before a move downstairs would be necessary. But the final decision was made when I got my new Q-20 machine.
I love the open space with more windows. The people that come to my house are friends and family and everyone knows what I do and it has worked out beautifully!. All visitors seem to enjoy poking around in this space. I never looked back.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
As I complete a project, I start new ones. No timeline and yes, I work on more than one at a time but will concentrate on one if there is a deadline looming.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I have several things that inspire me and most of it comes out of my head. I look at a lot of art online, probably spend too much time looking, and there is so much to see. I am truly amazed at how many talented artists there are.
I also have good friends and a mini-network who do great things. I look at art on Instagram and do a lot of my continuing education there. I save lots of images and will spend time reviewing their work and analyzing what works and what does not. It can eat into my time but is very enjoyable and beneficial. I never copy and in many cases I am learning what not to do.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
It is fun to start something new and I love working out the design. Sometimes it takes a while for me to see exactly how it will be completed and I do like surprises. The hours of sewing small pieces into place can get very boring and so I have to switch to other projects.
My very least favorite part is finishing, squaring, putting on the binding/facings, and sleeves, tags, etc. By the time I get to that stage, I am ready to move on.
Tell us more about how you organize your scraps.
The past few years I have been reusing scraps from previous projects as material for many of my quilts. I am showing some pictures of the sorting process and some of the quilts I have made using these materials. It began as a total accident or experiment over 20 years ago and was somewhat successful. Over the years, I have refined the technique and branched out into representational and nonrepresentational pieces. The landscapes were my first few successes, but I really like doing the abstract work the best. For the landscapes, the style has become more impressionistic and with the abstract, I get a lot of pleasure in creating different compositions.
When I am preparing the fabrics for the pieces made from recycle/scraps. I begin my sorting by dumping out a tub of scraps and then begin to sort by color. “At that point, they are then reduced to small, confetti size pieces. On the wall you can see one of the abstract compositions.
How has your work changed over time?
It has changed dramatically….hopefully it has matured. As I said before, I was inspired early on by large, antique Amish quilts. I have always liked non traditional art and simple designs. Some of my early work was fashioned after those quilts and I was using graph paper to figure out designs. That stage did not last long.
One big change for me was going to all machine work. For the first 20+ years, I hand quilted everything. I would sit and hand quilt for hours every day and it took a toll on my hands not to mention my neck and posture. I miss those days. It was my favorite part.
Does your work have stories to tell?
I like for them to say something and am very happy for viewers to interpret on their own. Sometimes it is obvious and sometimes not.
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
Some pieces seem to never end; at some point I just have to stop, but I always ask myself if there is one more push that can improve what is already done? In many cases I add more components until I am happy. Once completed I rarely go back and make corrections, I just keep those lessons in mind for the next quilt.
How have other people supported or inspired you?
It does take a village I have been helped along the way by several people and the quilt community at large.
I have two brothers-in-law who have been great influences on me both by their dedication and work ethic. One was a painter and the other is a former potter. The painter taught me to follow my own lead and make art for myself. The potter did arts and crafts shows for 30 years and made a living for his family. He and his family were organized and hard working.
My family has supported me from the beginning. My husband was my biggest cheerleader and loved what I do. I have had 100% validation and love. Also, I have an amazing group of friends who push me to new heights. I am an incredibly lucky person.
What piece of work makes you most proud? Why?
I cannot think of one particular piece but several have made me very happy to have made them. I guess I just do not think of them in competition. Several have helped me mark important milestones. Some I like more than others. I do have some favorites from different stages but no clear favorite.
Tell us more about creating and creativity. How do the two relate, or not?
I think most of us have/use a degree of creativity every day. Creativity is problem solving and some do it to a higher level than others. It touches us in all parts of our lives. When you create you are doing the work and that is the goal.
Along the way we use our problem solving abilities to make decisions and the more you work the better you get. There is no magic wand that makes a good quiltmaker, painter, or artist. It is doing the work and solving the problems. Someone may be born with an aptitude that may give them an advantage but without the work it is wasted.
Sometimes, you kind of have an idea of what you are looking to make, you dig in, and go to work. You may be disappointed that it does not mirror what you saw in your mind but just remember, nobody knows your original intent but you. They cannot read your mind and if you see it coming together, just go for the new idea/result. At least you did the work.
Are there any other creative channels you use to express your creativity?
I am extremely ADD and I have not allowed myself to get into other creative outlets. I have friends who knit and do other forms of art but I do not. I have to make myself hyper focus on the task at hand. I would love to write but do not have the discipline. I am happy with this decision. It is just about my only hard and fast rule as far as my work life goes.
Sometimes if I am stuck or need to be refreshed, I will give myself problems or assignments. I will look for different upcoming shows that have themes not in my current wheelhouse to get out of my comfort zone. It is quite invigorating at times and sometimes it is a bust. But it opens me up to new ideas. Always be open to new ideas and do not be afraid to fail. It is all about learning and growing.
How do you think one can expand one’s creative mind and abilities?
I may sound like I am preaching but my mantra is Just do the work!!! Be aware and it is good to be around other creative people and people who lift you up.
Set boundaries with your time. I hear others say that they do not have time for their creative endeavors. They start naming all they do, and many times it is others, family, grandkids, other hobbies, etc. that take their time. I am far more selfish than that. I love to have big blocks of time to get projects done but if I get distracted, I loose my focus.
My one brother-in-law called it having the mental space to get work done. I do not neglect my family and friends, I just set the boundaries and set times for them and for myself to get the work done.
Where can people see your work?
Unfortunately, my web site is a little out of date…. I got way behind with covid, but I do post on Facebook and Instagram. I try to enter some shows every year like Paducah, Dallas Quilt show, and Houston Festival. I have also been lucky enough to be in some of the SAQA exhibitions that travel for years at a time. Also some years make it into Quilt National and many of the art shows around the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Interview posted November 2023
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