Self taught textile artist Blair Treuer listens to her heart as she creates her portraits intuitively. Inspired by her family, she uses bits of fabric to communicate the images that haunt her until they are made. Her work has been recognized with two solo exhibits of her portraits.
Why fiber art? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art? What is your artist origin story?
I am a storyteller from rural Minnesota, who made an unusual entrance into this craft. My children’s participation in a traditional Native American ceremony required me to make blankets as a part of their spiritual offering These blankets were my first venture into fiber art. The process was very spiritual for me. It was the only way I could contribute as a non-native woman. I poured everything I had into those offerings. Being a creative person, I didn’t make traditional block quilts.
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My blankets pictorialIy depicted the Native American names gifted to my children when they were each born. After a decade of creating blankets for private spiritual ceremonies, I transitioned to creating portraits for gallery display in 2018.
Do you feel that you chose your “passion,” or did it choose you?
It definitely chose me. I’ve always been a creative person. However, I never would have found my way to fabric if it hadn’t been placed in my path through the need to create symbolic blankets for my children’s ceremony. Like dreams that you continue to think about, images haunt me until I make them. It isn’t until they’re created that I ask myself what does this mean to me? I often feel these portraits aren’t mine. I’m just the vessel from which they came. I feel called to create.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I’m self taught in every sense of the word. I really just sat in a room with a sewing machine and material and began experimenting. I didn’t pay attention to other fiber artists or the work until very recently. I wasn’t comparing my work to or being inspired by other artists in my field. I had no concept of rules. I’m grateful that my journey with fabric unfolded in this way. I think that’s what makes my work stand out with regard to portraiture with fabric. I don’t have a quilting background. My approach is much more like a painter than a sewer. I believe I’ve created a technique that is recognizably mine.
I mount my pieces to wire to give them a slightly sculptural nature. I came to that process on my own, inspired by the direction my artwork wanted to take. My portrait of my youngest daughter titled “Luella” wanted to explode with joy. I couldn’t box it into a square or rectangle, it didn’t feel right. So I had to figure out a way to let it “explode”. The wire allowed me the freedom to let each portrait stop not at an edge but be whatever shape I felt it needed to be.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I work on my art full-time now. I still wake up excited every morning about continuing my creations. Sometimes I work on multiple portraits at once. If I’m feeling stuck on one and unsure what it needs to feel right, I’ll move on to a new portrait and come back when I’m ready to explore the direction the first portrait needs.
I often work in a series or in a way that tells a story. I like to get each portrait to a certain point, then I feel the concept is complete. Later I come back to explore ways to incorporate more fine details. I’m conscious of the fact that I could get lost in one portrait for months if I work on it from start to finish with the desire to create a masterpiece. I’m also aware that I don’t want to spend too many years on one project or one show/exhibition. I get anxious to move on to the next series or story that I want to tell. It’s a delicate balance. Working this way means I feel like I’m always in a pressure cooker with my work.
My latest exhibition titled “BECOMING: The Transition from Childhood to Womanhood” is a series of 27 portraits. I worked on that project every day for three years. I was sewing right up to my deadline for my show at the Textile Center in Minneapolis. Each body of work I’ve created has unfolded in that way. Racing towards a deadline. The beauty of this process is that I still feel excited to see what I’m capable of when I dedicate the time needed to create a masterpiece. I feel that I’ve not yet achieved my true potential and that really excites me!
When is your most productive creative time?
That really ebbs and flows for me. I prefer to start the face of the portrait once everyone in my house has gone to sleep. It’s the most challenging part of my work because I really want the muse for each portrait to recognize themselves in the piece. Approaching it at that time of day gives me both the relaxation and the focus I need to enjoy this critical part of my process. After the face is created, then my children can be in my studio doing cartwheels and talking with me as I work. The rest of the portrait is created very intuitively and in such a state of flow that it’s a fairly relaxed and fun part of the creative process for me.
You are a busy mom of nine. How do you balance your personal life, work and creative endeavors?
I think that balance is always a delicate thing. It’s something that I’ve had to continually reflect. I work from home in the presence of my children. I was a stay at home mom for a decade. I think I had a lot of pent-up creative inspiration and ambition that is raging right now. In recognition of that, I’ve had to consider placing boundaries around my work time to both protect that time and to confine it so that it doesn’t take over my life and negatively impact those who do life with me. All of the work I’ve created so far celebrates my family, my children and husband. They feel deeply connected to my artwork and to my profession as an artist.
Describe your creative space.
My work space has changed for me over the years. My first series of portraits was created in my kitchen! I’m still amazed that my work made it through all of that without getting food on it because I live with children. Initially I had trouble claiming space in my home to devote to creating. When my first body of work was hanging in a gallery and I saw how people responded to my work, I realized that this gift I had was going to play a larger role in my life.
Even then, when I initially took over our small loft area, I dedicated about half of that space as an art space for my children. It was difficult but necessary for me to eventually come to see myself as a professional and claim space in my house that was solely dedicated to my new career. Slowly the “kid zone” got smaller and as they got older it disappeared. I still welcome our children into my studio to sew something or create when I’m not using my machine or when I have the space to allow them to work alongside me.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process? How do you store (and find) all of the small pieces of fabric you use to ‘paint’ your art?
Storage and organization was very tricky for me for a long time. I purchase fabric or accept donations of other people’s scraps, however I usually don’t purchase more than an 1/8 of a yard. It is important to me to have a large diverse color palette. But storing a large stash of such small pieces of fabric was difficult. It was hard for me to find what I was looking for or even remember what I had. I have since designed a system that works wonderfully for me. I wrap my 1/8 of a yard around a wooden dowel and secure it with a rubber band and then place those dowels in baskets hung along the wall. My studio walls are filled with bouquets of fabric organized by color. Not only is it easy for me to see and find what I have, but the presence of those bouquets are so inspiring and beautiful to me.
Now my biggest challenge is storing all of my artwork while a collection is in production or between showings. Because my works are attached to wire to give them shape, they take up a lot more space and need more storage consideration than a flat quilt. Right now all of my work is up in galleries. As it comes back to me in-between shows, it takes up so much space in my studio that it makes it difficult to create new work. I’m definitely going to need to put more time, energy, and resources into a storage solution.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
My initial self portrait was the most challenging portrait I’ve ever made. That was in part due to the fact that it was the first portrait I attempted to create.
I think when you’re doing a piece about yourself, you can become overly critical. That was definitely my experience. I ripped it up about nine times and started over. I kept trying to use my intellect to create. I kept asking myself questions like what if the figure was over here or over there, etc. trying to design it intellectually. When I let go and simply tried to connect to the initial image that came into my head and simply followed that guide, the portrait unfolded easily and naturally for me. When it was finished, I looked at it and thought, “Wow! Not only can I do this but I should do this”. What I learned from that was to simply trust my instincts and my intuitive process and let the work be what it wants to be.
Do you visualize your finished work before you start it?
I have a very generalized idea of what I want the figure in the piece to be doing. I don’t sketch and I have no idea what colors I will use or how it will take shape once I get started.
Sometimes I’m even really surprised by the color palette that ends up in the piece. That also means that when I shop for material, I never know what I’m looking for. I might be on a mission to obtain a wider palette of blues or a wider palette of pastels. I typically gather whatever fabric is speaking to me without any idea of how or when I will use it.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I don’t intellectualize my work. What I mean by that is I don’t think about what I want to “say” and then ask myself how I should convey that. I don’t necessarily apply symbolism, instead I recognize the symbolism once the work is made. The image comes to me like a dream. When I work it’s like reading tea leaves, telling me something about my inner self. When inspiration comes, I have the desire to chase it to know what the image and the process is meant to teach me.
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
I almost always think that my portraits could use additional work. I generally lack the time to give them the fine detail that I desire. I’ve had to find peace with letting them go when it’s time for them to be seen.
There is one portrait in my most recent series that I never got to the “this is it” point before the deadline to show it. I’m really tempted to consider playing with it once it comes back to me to reach the “there it is” moment. By the time it’s back in my hands, I might feel that it is already what it should have been in the first place. I guess I’ll know when I’m reconnected with it. I love being the boss of my work. It allows me to do that if I choose.
How has your work changed over time?
I have definitely sharpened my skills and developed new confidence in my practice over time. One of the challenges I faced in working on the same body of work for three years is that I grew within that time. I was concerned with issues of continuity. I knew that the collection was going to include a massive number of portraits, 27 in total. Knowing that It was going to be a very ambitious and time consuming undertaking, I didn’t allow myself as much experimentation as I otherwise would have.
I’ve only created two solo exhibitions so far. Both not only had deadlines but both had portraits that couldn’t be left out of the show. My first series was a portrait of each of my nine children, my husband, and myself. If one of those portraits wasn’t finished by the time of the show, I wouldn’t have wanted to do the show. Each piece was necessary to the story.
I felt that way about my new series BECOMING: the Transition from childhood to womanhood. Each “Childhood” portrait has a sister piece a “Womanhood” portrait and there are a few other pieces that are essential to the narrative. If there was a particular piece in that series that I wanted to rework or felt wasn’t ready, then its sister portrait couldn’t have been included in the show either. I felt I couldn’t keep one in the show without the other.
For my next series, I’d like to steer clear of that kind of pressure. Even though I’m a storyteller, I’d like to find a way to tell my story in a way that doesn’t require each portrait in the series to be essential to the story. I might change my mind by the time I get started or find that I just work this way in a stricter storytelling sense. I’m excited to see how that unfolds with my new work.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
Always! I loved to draw at a very young age. My mother says that my kindergarten teacher told her that as soon as I would start to draw, other kids would surround my desk to watch me.
What (or who) has been your biggest inspiration in keeping your creative energy going?
My family has been my biggest source of inspiration. Not just the love I feel for them but being a non-native in a Native American family. My third eye was opened and my portraits depict what I now see. Being a mother has me wanting to explore healthier ways of engaging with nature and with each other as a society.
What do you learn about who you are through your creative endeavors?
I’ve learned that when I speak my truth through my artwork, people respond to what I have to say. When I show up as my authentic self in this space, people seem to be willing to accept me as I am. Some have called me a healer. I think that they just see my heart. When we show up with our hearts open, it feels very healing.
Do you sell your work? If so, where can people find it?
I do sell my original textile portraits. I encourage people to go to my website and see the galleries who represent my work and their shows. They can then contact that gallery and start a conversation. I am also always happy to have a conversation with anyone interested in making a purchase via the contact info on my website. I spend at least 200 hours on each portrait, which means that my work may seem expensive. I also sell photographic prints on my website as a way to for people to enjoy my creations at a price and size (my portraits are actually quite large) that fits their lifestyle.
Check out Blair’s work and more information on her website.
Interview posted March 2023
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