Spotlight: Cathy Wiggins, Leather Artist
When quilting on fabric wasn’t quite enough to achieve her artistic vision, Cathy Wiggins decided to try leather instead. That experiment launched her deep exploration of leather as a quilting medium. She shares her enthusiasm for quilted leather through her new book, Quilted Leather, by teaching and, of course, creating art on leather with needle and thread.
Why quilting? Why leather? How did you get started?
About four years ago, I was working on a design for my next competition quilt. It was going to be “book cover” with the title, “Oscar, A Dragon’s Tale”. I was painting Oscar on muslin, and I wanted the top to look like an old leather bound book. I was discussing the idea with my two best girlfriends and was wondering how I was going to make cotton look like leather. One of them suggested I just use real leather. It had never occurred to me to quilt leather, and so the rest is history.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your book, Quilted Leather?
That anything is possible. If you have an idea, no matter how wild others might think it is, go for it. Give it a try. You never know where that new path will take you.
Who or what are your main influences and inspirations? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I have three distinct themes to my work: hippie, dragon and horses. One day I might be working on a quilted pot leaf with peace signs, the next a dragon themed quilted art saddle, and then next week a series of wild horse pieces. I like working in series. I find it allows me to truly explore all the possibilities of a single idea.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person? Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?
I think we are all creative in our own way. I believe how creative we are as adults is in direct correlation with how much creative freedom we had as children.
Were we allowed to explore? Were we told we were not good at something, so we stopped trying? Many creative spirits are shut down at an early age, and it takes a lot of hard work to start it up again as an adult.
I was lucky. My parents supported my creative spirit. My dad was a jack of all trades. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He built himself a forge to do iron work. He built me a playhouse with working windows and running water from leftovers from a construction site. And he built some of the most beautiful custom furniture. I saw him try an idea and fail, only to start over time and time again, until he got the results he was looking for.
He taught me that if I can see it in my mind, then I can create it for others to see in the real world if I believe in myself and I am willing to put in the work. At the time I thought he was only referring to physical things, such as a sculpture or a piece of furniture. I now see it is a way of life. Through watching him, I learned that all the trying and failing is the best part of the journey because that is where I learn and discover new ideas and new ways of doing things.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What would you ask?
This is an easy one. I would love to create some kind of art with my dad. He passed away many years ago, before I dedicated my life to my art. I would love to experience his creative process as an adult. I feel you can learn so much in watching others create, no matter what it is they are creating.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does your studio look like?
I like to say my husband got a two-car garage and a new pickup truck, and I got a new studio on top. It’s a great space with a nice bathroom and a kitchen area. I never have to leave! For me, it’s important to fill my creative space with things I love. I have what I call my creative posse, and I find new members in my travels. They make me smile and remind me of all I have accomplished.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
It all depends on what I’m working on. If I’m concentrating and working on a new design, it has to be music, and my go-to is 80’s rock. While doing hours of quilting at my longarm machine, then it has to be something to help pass the time like an audiobook, or lately I’ve really gotten into true crime podcasts. If I’m working on something that requires concentration, I will put on some show or movie I have seen a hundred times like Deadpool or Fried Green Tomatoes, or I will binge-watch the earlier seasons of a show if the next season is about to be released, like Game of Thrones or Shameless.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
One of my favorite things is my design wall. When I designed my studio, I wanted a large design wall, but did not want to use valuable wall space, so I put in a closet, four doors wide. I covered the doors with a smooth cork, so I can both pin things to it and use it to project designs for tracing. I also covered every large work surface with custom fitted cutting mats. This way I can cut anything, anywhere.
What are the most important things to look for when sourcing supplies to quilt with leather? Any special storage or care requirements?
The leather must be appropriate for quilting. I took me almost two years to figure out the properties that make the best leather for what I do. It has to be strong, but thin, and the color needs to be the same all the way through the layers. So many leathers are colored with a surface treatment. This will not work for quilting, because the underlying layers will show through the needle holes. I now carry that leather on my website to make the process easier for others. It is best to roll leather on tubes to keep creases from forming due to fold lines. I roll all my leathers on 48” by 2” tubes. I also roll all leathers I ship and use in kits.
What is the one thing you wish someone had told you about quilting leather before you started?
I can’t think of a thing. I knew it was going to be a lot of work figuring it all out, and for me, the ‘figuring out’ part is the best part of the whole creative process.
Tell us about your most challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
My most challenging piece has to be the first quilted saddle I made for Bentley, the leather horse statue that lives in my studio. When Bentley came into my life, he had an old, beat up saddle that didn’t fit, so I decided to make him a new one. I had no idea how to make a saddle, but I fell back on the life lesson my dad taught me, “If I can see it in my mind, then I can make it real”. I got an inexpensive children’s saddle, took it completely apart, and built a new one from the ground up. In doing so, I created a technique I call “thread tooling”. It’s where you use quilting and dyes to create the illusion of traditional tooled leather.
When embarking upon a project, do you pre-plan your entire endeavor or do you simply follow where your inspiration takes you?
I always have a vision of the finished project when I begin. In most cases, I have no idea how I’m going to get there, so I just start with what I know. My vision is not set in stone. During the creative process, it might change, and I’ll move into a different direction with it. For example, I knew that I wanted to make a quilted leather saddle for Bentley, but didn’t have a clear vision of what the finished piece would look like. I have complete trust in the creative process and follow where it leads.
How do you think you differ from other creative people in your genre?
I see so many artists stuck doing what they have always done, afraid to change and grow. It is difficult to leave your known comfort zone in the industry and try something new. The ego can put up a good fight. When I made the shift from my whimsical, pictorial quilts to leather, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My children’s puzzle quilts were popular, and people looked forward to seeing what I was doing next. It’s hard to let go and follow your heart, but it’s the only way artists can survive.
When you have time to quilt or sew for yourself, what kinds of projects do you make?
Maybe I’m fortunate because I feel that everything I do is for myself. Even when developing project kits for my company, Gypsy Wood Leathers, I am creating and growing my business. If it’s a commissioned art piece, it has to be something I enjoy creating or I will not take the job. I’m not going to sell out my passion for money.
Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
I like to say I grew up competing in quilt shows. Starting in 2006, competing taught me to create my art with quality workmanship. I was quite successful with my ‘Just for Fun’ puzzle quilt series, and I’ve won many ribbons with those quilts over the years.
Today I am a better artist because of my experience in competing. My focus has changed. I used to create to compete, so workmanship perfection was a goal. Today my goal is to inspire others with my art, so I’ve loosened up on workmanship perfection just a bit. When I am creating a piece that I might enter, I will focus on the workmanship a bit more, and I won’t enter a piece that is not up to my standards.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I do teach and lecture, but I limit myself to traveling only once a month. With the growing interest in creating with leather, the demand is outgrowing what I can do, which is why I created a teacher certification program for Gypsy Wood Leathers. These teachers are located across the US, in Canada and the UK. My schedule, and a list of the certified instructors can be found on our website: www.GypsyWoodLeathers.com.
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you feel compelled to achieve in the future?
I want to build my company. When I started my company last year, I had no idea how to build a company. I have a vision of where I want to go, and I take one step at a time. I turned 58 in January, and I realized that I could sit back and do nothing thinking that I’m too old to start a business, or I could spend the rest of my life going after my dream of building a business that inspires others to create. That choice was easy.
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