Spotlight: Carson Converse, Artist and Designer
Beginning with arranging shapes on a felt board in preschool, Carson Converse developed a love of quilts that became her artistic passion. Add an element of risk-taking and the result is original fiber art that honors the past while bending traditional rules until they transform into her own.
Tell us a little about your background as an artist. Why textiles? Why quilts?
I fell in love with quilts at an early age. My first memory of creative play is arranging geometric fabric shapes on a felt covered board in my preschool/kindergarten classroom. That led to my mother teaching me how to use colored pencils to sketch a design on grid paper. I maintained an interest in textiles and sewing through high school, although I only made one small doll quilt. I studied fine arts (sculpture) in college, then went on to earn a Master in Interior Design, but always seemed to find my way back to quilting. There is something about the social history, tradition and process of quilting that feels important and relevant today. Working in this medium is my way of acknowledging and paying tribute to the work of women that have influenced me and whose work has historically been undervalued.
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What are your earliest memories involving your own creative expression?
When I was young, I was obsessed with the idea of making everything I wanted or needed myself, from the food I ate to the structure I lived in. I had this idea that if you wanted something the best way to get it was to make it (I was a kid, without an allowance, but surrounded by tools, supplies and supportive parents, so there was a truth to this idea). It wasn’t just about replicating something; it was about the pride of creating something that was uniquely mine. Making has always been a means to an end, but one that is necessary for my design process. Quilts fit perfectly into this interest; the need for bedding was what led me to make my first quilt.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new mediums/kinds of work/ways of working?
I can answer this in so many ways….
When I first started quilting, I did not link the process to my art practice. The quilts were traditional and made for everyday use. My aesthetic was also all over the place as I tried different techniques. Eventually, I started thinking of quilts as a means of expressing myself. I use the process of creating to better understand my values and aesthetic. Over time my work has started to become more unified as I gain a better understanding of the various influences and styles that are part of who I am as a person.
My process has always involved experimentation. I’m always looking for new ways to visually represent core concepts, such as “atmosphere”. My interests have remained the same over the years, but my tools and craftsmanship have increased, which allows better execution of the same concept. Experimentation also leads to new work, although I’m constantly evaluating the results to make sure I stay true to the larger goals/aesthetics of my work.
For the most part the change has been a gradual evolution, but there was a distinct change in my work several years ago. I was spending a lot of time developing simple quilts. The result was that people would be inspired by my quilts, but instead of purchasing them, they would make it themselves or have their “grandmother make it for them”. My response was to push my work in a direction that was difficult to reproduce by creating compositions that were much more unique, used surface design, and required more skill. The process ultimately pushed me to be a better artist.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
That’s a hard one to answer. I suspect most “naturally” creative people learned it early on. People tend to talk about creative talent as a “gift”, something you have or don’t have, but I think that the majority of “talent” is in fact the result of hard work and practice. I think anyone can become more creative. Being an artist is not unlike any other professional career. It takes time to learn the trade. At the same time, interest and passion are key for success; if you are interested in something, you ultimately will spend more time “practicing”. If an adult doesn’t already think creatively, or have an interest in creating, it will be much harder for them to get better at it.
Your Deconstructed series requires cutting up finished quilts. How did you feel about making the first cut?
Risk is a necessary part of the creative process. I have a policy to keep working on projects I don’t like until something clicks (or there’s nothing left to work on). The first samples for the series were from quilts that weren’t working, so it was exciting to see them become something I loved.
Tell us about your Color Studies. What prompted that series and what are you learning from it?
The Color Studies initially grew out of the Deconstructed Series. For the latter, I needed to use dense stitching so the layers didn’t fall apart as I cut them up. I loved how the dense stitching resembled a “veil” of transparent color. That led to experiments with different thread colors. The process has been important in encouraging me to take risks with thread color on larger pieces.
You work in both large and small formats. What are the rewards and challenges of each?
I prefer the aesthetic of large scale works because they reference the functional nature of quilts. There is also a power to standing in front of art that is bigger than you. However, so much time is invested in a large scale work that it can be hard to keep momentum going and there is a tendency to want to play it safe. Working small allows me to experiment with immediate results. Working through many ideas in a short period of time lets me test concepts and figure out which ideas are worth using in larger pieces.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I think in series. Even if I don’t get past the first piece, I always begin a project with a series in mind. There are so many small decisions you make in the course of making a quilt. If you work in a series you can explore multiple directions and learn how your choices affect the finished work. Also, starting cold is much harder for me than continuing along a creative idea. So much of my inspiration comes from the process itself, along with the things I’m contemplating while working.
Do you focus on one piece from start to finish or work actively on more than one project at a time?
I work on way too many projects at once! I’m trying to get better about finishing pieces in a timely manner but do like working on multiple pieces at the same time because they tend to inform each other.
When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?
With a few exceptions it evolves. I often go into the studio with only a vague idea of what I want to make, i.e., something blue. Other times I have a thumbnail sketch and concept but the majority of the design happens on the wall. The exception is the grids, which require calculation ahead of time.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Hands down, my design wall. I can’t imagine working without one. Since I tend to design as I go, seeing a piece in progress is critical. I also just purchased a longarm, which is expanding the type of work I can do, although I’m struggling with the fact that I can’t see the entire piece while working on it. It will require changes to my process.
What is the biggest challenge to being successful in a creative field?
Letting people know you exist. Like many artists, I’m an introvert and find the marketing side exhausting. In general, I also find it difficult to switch between the necessary business tasks and time in the studio—they require such different skills and headspace.
Do you sell your work? Where can people find it?
Work is available online through my website. Not all available pieces are listed. Interested parties can reach out via the contact page for a full list of available quilts.
Interview posted August, 2019.
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