Fiber artist Barbara Schneider sees details that most of us overlook in the natural world, then translates what she sees into cloth so that we can see it, too. Her conservation work tunes her in to subtle nuances and differences that make each specimen she examines unique.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I think I was born an artist and always loved art as a child. When I discovered I could get a scholarship to the Institute of Design to study Visual Design, that set me on the path to being a designer. Then I worked in the publishing industry for many years in assorted roles. Along the way I got an MA in Art, I learned to sew as a kid at the Singer Sewing store and did clothing and home items for years. When I retired from full time corporate work I started to learn quilting techniques and then things went from there.
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Why textiles? Why surface design and art cloth?
I like the challenge of working with the different tactile surfaces. Through workshops and experimentation I discovered the variety of exciting things you can change, add, subtract, layer, print, paint, stitch, fold, dye, etc. I think it is more interesting and different than painting. Gradually I am doing more monoprinting and intaglio printmaking again (harking back to college days) and blending that with my surface design work.
What inspires you to create?
Primarily I am inspired by nature. In my artist statement, I refer to the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi as being an overarching umbrella for all of my work. I like finding beauty in the things that are overlooked or ephemeral and then finding ways to make them more visible and interesting to the viewer.
How does your formal art education help your work develop? Does it ever get in the way?
I think it created a firm foundation of good design principles and understanding of color, line and format. I do not find that it gets in the way, because it is always there in the background providing structure.
When doing series work, what is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it? Do you work in more than one series at a time?
With series work, I learn from one piece what I can then apply to the next. I love the way my mind opens up to possibilities as I work through a series. I have several series: Reflections, Leaves, Line Dance, Tree Ring Patterns, Still Lifes in Indigo, Beautiful Faces and Observations. Some are clearly natured inspired.
Still Lifes in Indigo, Observations and Beautiful Faces are all much smaller in size, framed, more intimate and include more hand work. They allow me to explore ideas in a different way than the large artwork.
The nature based series allow me to explore things I learn from working in another area that I love – conservation. I do a lot of volunteer work with the Conservation District, everything from working on a developing site, planting trees, tracking growth of plants as well as harvesting seed. When I am out walking in nature I stay aware of what is happening around me. Seeing those special, ephemeral things that I happen upon is what I bring back to the studio and then try to develop into new art.
Tell us about a time when you truly stretched yourself as an artist.
Creating more dimensional work has been a huge challenge. Developing structures for support and strength has taken quite some time, but I like the results. One of the latest dimensional pieces will be in the upcoming Visions Interpretations exhibit starting this October.
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 think I do both. I sketch, but do not keep a sketchbook per se. My life is a lot of paper scraps as I think of ideas. But then I need to actually go to work with the materials and try out lots of things before it really starts to come together. So I save lots of bits and pieces of ideas that I see in various places. Sometimes going through those stacks of scraps makes something click about an idea in some new way.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
My studio space is in an old industrial factory building, a large space that I share with another surface design artist. We have a long open wall and two long tables. There are zones for different kinds of things happening, so printmaking is at one end, cutting and ironing at the other and space to spread things out as needed. I have a large black covered wall that I use as photo background or design wall. I hang things up on the walls, and then the floor gets pressed into service as well.
It is extremely helpful to be able to work on multiple things because of the amount of space I have, so I don’t have to put things away to move on to something else. I believe moving back and forth between projects and tasks improves all of the work because it gives me time to think in between.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Music, just simple background music. I don’t listen to books or radio because I find it distracting.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I have taught in the past, but am not inclined to do so anymore. I have limited time, so I want to spend it on the work I want to do.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is the bane of my existence because I am always behind on updating. I hope that people will explore the work on it, and I hope that collectors will want buy something from it. I hope that galleries will see the work and want to represent me. Lots of hopes. But I have also reached the point in my life where it is more important for me to do the work I want to do because I want to do it rather than to make work that is seen as more saleable. The creative journey is what matters to me.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think everyone is creative in some way, but it may not be what they or anyone else thinks of as a creative mode. For example, my one daughter was a creative cook and gave great pleasure to others with that gift.
What advice would you give to emerging artists? Is finding a community of helpful artists important?
Just keep working. I think it takes far longer than one thinks to develop a distinctive voice than you think it should. I remember Carol Bryer Fallert (who was a member of PAQA at the same time I was in Chicago) telling someone who had just started doing art quilts that when she had done about a hundred she would start to have her own voice. And I think that was right on the money.
Taking workshops is helpful for learning new techniques, but then you have to examine how, or even if, that technique moves your own work forward in some way and you do not just make things that jump from style to style. And, yes, finding a group for critique or sharing is great. Seeing your work through others’ eyes, getting feedback, being willing to talk about your work all helps you define your work and grow.
Interview posted June 2021
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