Ben Millett has been a creator his entire life, who now chooses contemporary quilts as one of his media. Ben plans out the entire quilt digitally before he dives into his collection of colorful fabrics. For Ben, quilts don’t belong just on beds and walls, he also creates amazing pieced garments.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Arts and crafts have been a part of my life from the beginning, with the expression of creativity being widely encouraged in my family. The media have changed through the years (the more recent being photography, knitting, and quilting) as my interests shifted and life happened. The through-line, though, has been a need to explore ideas and explore the various ways I might express them.
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Why contemporary quilts? How does this medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
The use of solid fabrics among contemporary quilters appealed to my minimalist sensibilities, where the solid colors are already reduced to an essential element. By nature of how patchwork is, design elements are reduced to their smallest parts.
The challenge of determining the best, smallest shapes that can then be assembled together to form the larger design tickles my brain. It’s like a puzzle of my own making.
The quilting itself adds one more layer (both conceptually and challenge-wise) to the final design, with choices like just how much to embellish the piecing design with quilting lines. I like being able to build up with those reduced elements to create the final design.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
Practice, practice, practice. Which in the quilting world means: make a quilt, make a quilt, make a quilt. I may set a goal with a particular quilt: to refine my 1/4″ seam allowance consistency, to use a different curve-piecing technique, to allow points to not match after two attempts.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
If I’m not creating a quilt for a specific purpose (a baby gift, a certain fundraiser theme), I may pull from a theme or topic that has been on top of mind to see how I could communicate an idea from that. Generally, though, I’ll start with a small set of fabric colors and start playing with different patchwork shapes, mixing them up and rearranging, to create a design that is compelling enough that I want to create it in fabric.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I am definitely a planner. I like to work out designs digitally.
By the time I’m done with the designing, I have the quilt top in what will become the final version. Then I can get all the materials figured out ahead of time. I’ve learned to allow myself opportunities on some projects for improvisation, and I do feel more comfortable with that than in the past. My default approach, though, is to plan out all the details.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
About a year ago I moved my making from a room in our house to its new home within a local art studio building with 180 workspaces.
The studio is a right isosceles triangle, with one of the non-hypotenuse walls being entirely windows. My sewing machine, cutting table, and pressing station are in the 90 degree corner and a longarm machine is set up along the hypotenuse. I have the non-window-walls covered with quilts and a credenza with stickers and tiny quilts for visitors during open studio events.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I’m not a big tool collector. If all I had in my studio, aside from my sewing machine, was a rotary cutter, a mat, a 2 1/2″ x 12 1/2″ ruler and a 6 1/2″ x 12 1/2″ ruler, I think I’d be set. They were what I used for a number of years initially and served me well for almost everything I made.
A fabric swatch set for my favorite brand of quilting cotton solids and a few extra rulers (Add-a-Quarter and some curve templates) would be in my Tier 2 set. Being able to see fabric colors in the physical swatches helps me plan out my designs ahead of time and the additional rulers facilitate some of the other techniques I’ve used recently.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Usually I listen to music, set to shuffle through the variety of music in my library. If I’m working on something at the sewing machine that is highly repetitive, I may put on a movie or TV show that I am familiar with so that I don’t get too distracted from what’s under the needle.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I typically try to focus on one project at a time. If a particular project gets held up at a certain step, such as a finished top that needs a quilting design figured out, I may start working on a different project while I let my brain noodle on what the other project needs.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
Leading up to QuiltCon 2023, I knew I wanted to make a quilted sweatshirt similar to other quilted garments I’d made for previous QuiltCons.
For this particular piece, I opted to take an improv approach and set out rectangles of each of Robert Kaufmann’s Kona Cotton’s 365 colors as a gradient. When I recognized the quantity of fabric I had set out, I further subset the colors into two groups to create two different sweatshirts.
With each of the two groups, I started thinking about the quilting while I assembled the patchwork, as the red, purple, green group reminded me of spring and new plants starting to come up out of the ground and the orange, yellow, blue group reminded me of a day at the beach.
The new plants and the beach concepts were reinforced with a dark-to-light gradient of the fabric pieces and parallel lines of wavy quilting (vertically-aligned for the spring colors and horizontal for the beach).
Which part of the quilt design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
My favorite part of the quilt process is refining a design and the piecing. Quilting design is the most challenging, primarily because I’ve focused my attention on the design of the quilt top. Now that I have a computerized longarm, I’m shifting my quilt design process to include quilting ahead of getting anywhere near fabric. I now want to have the quilting design set early on.
How has your work changed over time?
My quilting journey has coincided with my own life journey of accepting my gay identity. I’ve allowed myself to express ideas in my quilts that I wouldn’t have been comfortable with previously. More quilts do align to an LGBTQ-adjacent topic. While that is certainly connected to embracing my identity, I’ve felt more of a need to use my quilts as a reminder to others that there’s still not full equality for LGBTQ individuals.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
At the end of every project, I prepare a blog post that is a reflection on the various choices made in the creation of the work. I think about what I thought worked well, what failed to do what I intended for it, what techniques I should pay more attention to the next time.
What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have as compared to people who are not creative?
I think that everyone is creative in their own way, though not everyone recognizes what creativity looks like in their own life. They may find a way to optimize dishwasher loading under different conditions, switch up how a lawn is mowed, take great enjoyment in meal prep.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My site has been in existence, in various formats and at various addresses, since the late 90s. Especially for the blog, it’s a time capsule of what’s captured my attention, including recipes, reflections on music and movies, a weekly series of my favorite photo from Flickr, and more recently recent quilting finishes.
Aligned with my current quilting practice, I provide resources to different piecing techniques and project tutorials. I also have a shop page with PDF quilt patterns, stickers, and tiny quilts. I hope that when people close the browser tab of my site, they take with them the idea I share on the home page, that it’s their time to make what they want to see. https://benmillett.us/
Interview posted May 2023
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