Carolyn Murphy started her quilting adventure inspired by Denyse Schmidt and the renowned Gees Bend quilters. What sets Carolyn apart is her self-taught approach and her commitment to maintaining a beginner’s mindset, allowing her to fearlessly experiment and embrace the joy of making. She finds inspiration everywhere, from art galleries to nature, and she documents her creative process in sketchbooks filled with drawings, images, and quotes. Carolyn’s work stands out for her dedication to finishing every piece, even when it feels challenging.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
This is a very interesting question. Children are intuitively creative, they explore the world through their creativity, and like all children that’s how I learned everything. I always knew I loved creating atmospheres, building forts, inside and outside, as a little kid.
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I loved the experiential impact these projects offered; inside a fort made of sheets and blankets, fitted out with a bed and a lamp for reading and all of my favourite things, I could be in a world that was entirely of my design. I loved it.
In a way, building quilts comes out of that experience. Beds take up a lot of surface area in a room, so quilts completely change a space: I guess it was that artful, large-scale transformation that initially spoke to me.
How did you get started designing quilts? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
How did I start designing quilts? Two big influences: Denyse Schmidt (www.dsquilts.com) was the first lightning bolt. Her work exposed me to a new art form that was a revelation. Second lightning bolt: Gees Bend (www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers) . The quilting style born in this remote part of Alabama bloomed into a textile art that rivals the great abstract modernist artists.
Modern quilting merged two important ideas for me: creating an environment, and creating art. I could do two things at the same time: I could make experiential art.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
My signature, my unique method, is that I am self-taught, and over time have learned the huge benefits of maintaining that beginner’s mindset.
For the longest time I didn’t know how to quilt. I just did it. I figured it out. Sometimes (often) the work wasn’t perfect, sometimes (often) it felt impossible, but slowly I learned how to do things. No one taught me how to quilt. When I started, it was early days for the internet – there was no Instagram, no YouTube. To learn, I went to the library, and borrowed two excellent books: “Passionate Patchwork” by Kaffe Fassett (www.kaffefassett.com) and Denyse Schmidt’s first book, “Thirty Colorful Quilt and Patchwork Projects”. There were step-by-step guides in both of those books, complete with images and a list of equipment I would need. Everything I needed to know to get started I learned from Kaffe and Denyse. After that, hard work, curiosity, and lots of experience taught me everything else.
I’ve always tried to preserve that beginner’s mindset, that openness to jumping in and trying. Freedom from constraints, rules, and expectations – and a willingness to fail – is the key to developing as an artist, and the foundation of the joy of making.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
It’s a tacky cliché to say that inspiration is everywhere…but it really is. Especially: art galleries, art books, architecture, traveling, nature, costume design, set design, textile art… Also: the way laundry blows when it’s hanging on the line (www.sallygall.com), the colour of rocks when they’re wet, wood grain, fish scales, Rube Goldberg machines (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qybUFnY7Y8w), murals, peeling paint, old wallpaper, coloured bathroom fixtures from the 50s, all things Wes Anderson (www.criterion.com/shop/collection/169-wes-anderson)
… you get the picture.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
My sketchbooks say it all: they are loaded with drawings, images ripped from magazines and newspapers, quotes, ideas. I use my phone as a resource, too: it is filled with photos (a doorway, a rock wall, a building), paintings, sculptures, installations, colours.
When I see something that hits a nerve, I hold onto it. All these bits and pieces are like seeds that might one day grow. Sometimes they resurface and come out in my work. Sometimes they percolate for years and appear much later. The only trouble is – there is too much. It’s impossible to hold onto it all.
Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
Working in a series gives me a chance to intensely explore a theme. It’s doubly great – first, working in a theme is a deep dive, with time to walk around inside an idea, and experiment with it. Second, it’s a break from coming up with one unique piece after the next. It’s like staying in a cottage for the whole summer and exploring everything that the cottage has to offer, compared to traveling from place to place and having many different experiences. It’s depth and meaning and long slow exploration. It’s a great way to develop.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
The answer to this question is: I do both things. Sometimes ideas form over a long period of time. Sometimes they only reveal themselves as I work. It is so interesting the many ways work develops; ideas appear fully formed one day, and have to be painstakingly teased out other days, with each tentative step a struggle. I never know what it’s going to be. It happens the way it happens.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I finish every single thing I make – every single thing – even when I don’t like it. I try not to judge a piece until it’s complete, because sometimes I change my mind and end up liking it when it’s finally done, even though it felt like a struggle during the many steps of creation. Even if I finish it and think “meh” – I take a break from it for a while, and later when I see it with fresh eyes I might feel differently.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Oh, my studio, my studio, my favourite place! I’ve been there a year and a half and I still can’t believe it’s all mine. It is big and bright and beautiful with huge windows and a very high ceiling. It’s perfect! After years of scrounging out a space in a corner of the bedroom or a corner of the basement I finally have a serious space to work. The work is flowing out of my fingers, and I’m sure half the reason is the amazing space I am working in.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
As soon as I finish a piece, I jump into the next one. I almost always have an idea for what I want to do next, so there isn’t very much time wasted between pieces.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
Every step of building a quilt is both my favourite thing and my worst thing. There are joys and challenges with each phase. It’s different with every piece, there’s nothing predictable about it. It always amazing me how the experience can be different every time.
How is your work different than it was in the beginning? How is it the same?
If I owe Denyse Schmidt and Kaffe Fassett a debt of gratitude for their introduction and inspiration, I also owe one to Irene Roderick (www.ireneroderick.com/) for helping me develop my work.
When I started quilting, I tried very hard to be spontaneous and loose with my work but never felt like I was hitting my stride. After more than 20 years of making quilts, I started to take online improv classes with Irene. Rather than “telling me what to do”, she provides guidelines, suggestions, and encourages me to experiment and explore. She is a wonderful mentor. It worked! Something sparked and I finally feel like I’m developing my own voice. She teaches me how to critique my own work, to take the time to reflect on the development of a piece, to be slightly irreverent about the whole process, to loosen up and have fun with fabric. “It’s just fabric!” she says. And that settles me right down. I’ve relaxed and started to really commit myself to my work. Some work is good, some work isn’t. I’m learning how to fail without getting worked up about it. Both the change in mind-set and the focus have given me freedom to develop.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I never stop working (I work almost every day), and that momentum keeps the creative juices flowing.
Sometimes I’ll find an open call to a show with a theme, and that will get me moving in an interesting direction. Submitting work to a show also provides a deadline, which can be useful. Right now I’m working on pieces for a show in Philadelphia. The deadline is in a week and that’s motivated me to finish four pieces in time to take the photographs and work on my submission package. It’s an external motivation that can be a useful prompt.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I absolutely critique my own work – I don’t know how I could be productive without this essential practice. Each step I take is linked to an ongoing critique that guides the direction of each piece.
This is my first objective: when I stand back and look at my work, I need to be able to feel it. My work is a translation of how I feel about what I see: is the piece conveying the emotion that gave me the inspiration? Then I look at everything else – balance, colour, contrast, interesting “side stories”. I look to see if all parts of the composition are talking to each other, and if those conversations make sense. I look to find the quiet parts of the piece, the pauses that give the eye a rest and help to highlight the focal points. Often, I need to take a break from a piece to be able to see it properly, so I can view it with fresh eyes. Then I’ll know if it works, if it’s finished, if it needs to be turned upside down…!
Where can people see your work?
My work is out there!
Interview posted October 2023