Taking the art quilt to new dimensions – 3 dimensions, textile artist Claire Passmore pushes herself to explore experimental materials and processes to achieve her vision. Claire works spontaneously, but her work follows unspoken plans as she builds from her own dyed fabrics, surface design and incorporation of “non-fabric” fabrics to give her pieces lasting structural integrity. Her openness to using unconventional materials in a medium with traditional roots frees Claire to experiment with creative “what-ifs”.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Since my early memories at Primary school I have kept myself busy making things with my hands. I have always been keen to try new crafts; for Christmas and birthdays I loved to receive gifts that meant I could learn a new skill. I loved knitting, pottery, batik, glass blowing, weaving, embroidery, marquetry and many others. Then when I retired from my teaching career and moved to a new country, I discovered patchwork and quilting. A kind neighbour took me to a quilt shop and from that moment on I became a quilt maker. Since then I have become more experimental and now consider myself an experimental art quilt artist.
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When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
A bit of both! As I do not possess the ability to visualise things in my “minds eye”, I never have a mental picture of how a finished piece may look. So responding to the materials in my hands and physically building with fabric is how I create.
For my 2D art quilts I usually start by recording my thoughts in a journal or sketchbook. It is a place where I compile my drawings, collages, research, sampling and other collected ephemera, all jumbled in together. This forms the basis for the artwork, and is as close as I get to a “plan”. Working from this material I then begin dyeing fabrics. I add surface design and gather whichever materials seem appropriate for the piece. Then I set up a design wall upon which I can build the quilt. From that point onwards the quilt evolves on the wall.
For my 3D work I am more of a spontaneous improviser. I start with the spark of an idea – it may be a colour combination, a word prompt (such as sunrise), an emotion (such as grief) and then try out lots of different ways to manipulate fabric to express that idea. “What if I try this…” best describes my practice.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I don’t do anything differently from most other artists, but I do use fabrics that are not really considered mainstream. For the past few years I have focused on working with stiff materials such as cotton organdy, non-woven interfacing and plant based bio-plastic. I like the sculptural properties of these materials and having real fun learning how pleats, folds and scored lines can transform the flat plane of fabrics into something which I think is much more interesting.
I have started making short videos of my 3D pieces. We now view so much on a screen and video rather than static images; video seems a much better way to view my work. You can find links to watch the videos on my website. Watch the video for Out of the Funk.
What are similarities and differences in creating art quilts in 2 and 3 dimensions? How do you decide which form will express your purpose more effectively?
Similarities: I use the regular shapes that are used in traditional 2 dimensional patchwork – shapes like hexagons and triangles. Except I like to add folds to encourage these shapes to morph into 3 dimensional forms. Then I join them together with needle and thread. For both kinds of work I dye my own fabric, add surface design techniques and embroidery.
Differences: For my 2D work I often have a narrative which I wish to convey to the viewer. To help me get deep inside this narrative I do a lot of research which I pull together in journals or sketchbooks. Then I use these to develop the final composition of a quilt. I sometimes add hand stitch or needle turn appliqué to the quilt top, but mostly I use a sewing machine to piece fabrics, add raw edge appliqué and quilt the final art quilt. The work is usually 3 layers, with wadding between the top and backing fabric.
For the 3D work, most if not all of the stitching and embroidery is done by hand. I use no wadding but have 2 or many more layers of fabric to work with. I rely on carefully placed folds, pleats or gathers and the stiffness of the fabric to support the 3D structure. The pieces evolve from many hours of exploration and experimentation. I create hundreds of samples which ultimately lead me to ideas for creating each piece.
Is your work more content-driven or process-driven? Does an idea inspire a work of art, or do the materials launch an idea?
The 2D work is definitely heavily biased towards being content driven as my aim with these pieces is to tell the stories of others; the narrative is the reason for the piece. I use surface design, symbols, colours, shapes and images to convey meaning and emotion to the viewer.
The 3D work has far less focus on narratives and emerges from my exploratory approach to manipulating stiff materials. I love discovering new possibilities and outcomes when bending, twisting, folding and pleating fabric. Creating in this way can mean I do not have a successful piece to show after a day’s work, but that does bother me as I have had a fabulous time building something up and then taking it all apart. It is a little like being a child again, building a tower of blocks and then smashing it down at the end of the day; I find it deeply satisfying.
Do you enter juried shows exhibits? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
My first formal submission to a juried exhibit was for a SAQA Global exhibition in 2015 called My Corner of the World. I was so fortunate as my quilt was not only selected but was also purchased at the opening venue. It gave me the confidence to carry on and now I enter my work in a lot of juried calls for entry.
My philosophy is that if I don’t submit my work, it will never have the chance of being selected and I learned long ago that not getting work selected is not a good reason to stop trying. I have my fair share of rejection letters as well as successes. But I seek out calls which have a good match to my existing work or that have themes which inspire to me to create something just for that call.
I don’t only look at the call theme though, as I also look carefully to see who the jurors are. I try to find out as much as I can about their work and interests. If there is a good fit with my style of work and ideas then I go for it!
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I move home a lot and when possible I love to have my own studio space. I work best when I am surrounded by light and space where I can spread out and think.
Having a dedicated studio space where I have the luxury of being able to put my hand quickly on any tool or material I want to use fills me with creative energy. My working style is to create directly and spontaneously on design walls, so when possible I create large floor to ceiling spaces where I can work on several pieces at a time. I also like to have a large table for wet processes with lots of space underneath for buckets, supplies and messy things. However, sometimes all this is just not possible, so I have a small, travelling suitcase with a bare minimum of tools and hand sewing equipment which allows me to just get on with things whilst looking forward to setting up the next studio.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
As an absolute minimum I need a design wall of some sort (an old blanket or sheet will do at a push), a cutting mat, long ruler, rotary cutter and a steam iron, as much of my work requires precision cutting and folding. Of course, sharp needlework scissors and hand sewing needles are a must!
The materials I could not do without are are cotton organdy and stiff non-woven fabric, fibre reactive dyes and a selection of beautiful threads. I also find my mobile phone indispensable for things like taking notes and photos, access to my diary, etc. Lastly, I would be lost without my camera and lights, as I take all the photographs of my work for calls for entry and my website.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
After 15 years in a noisy classroom I enjoy peace and quiet as I work.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
I would love to have spent time talking with Joseph Albers. His encouragement of his students to learn to think and explore for themselves is something that I feel strongly about. Rather than teach prescribed methods, he espoused that students should learn to pay careful attention to what they could see, feel and do with different materials.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Good question! I strongly believe that everyone is creative in some field or other, and we should not associate creativity with only artistic endeavours. For example, my husband is amazingly creative with numbers. He can see patterns in numbers that allow him to work out calculations that simply boggle my brain. I try hard to understand and he explains how he works things out or how he sees patterns in the numbers, but I my brain just doesn’t work that way and I give up too easily.
Could I learn? I guess so, if I put in enough effort, but at the end of the day I prefer to use my mental energy on something I find much more pleasurable – so I don’t think I would ever be able to reach the same level as him. As you might expect, he feels the same way about art!
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
Figure out what is manageable for you in terms of time and space and don’t measure yourself to anyone else. Think about what you love to make, follow your heart, and make that. Don’t worry if something doesn’t turn out the way you planned – others have no idea what that plan was and see your work with fresh eyes, rather think about what you have learned and turn that into something new.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
I explore and experiment with all kinds of materials. Holding them in my hands I find out what hidden potential they have. I pay a lot of attention to my environment – the light, smells and sounds as well as the things I see, and I make notes and take photos to remind me. I go to galleries and museums and look at all kinds of art and think about what attracts me to certain pieces. Back in my studio I spend a lot of time just exploring and experimenting, with no fixed outcome in mind, and then the magic happens.
I also belong to Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) and several other art quilt groups. I have learned so much from these wonderful communities. Having other artists to inspire me and and also critique my work has helped me move my work forward.
What do you believe is a key element in creating a successful art quilt?
For me to call an art quilt “successful” I believe it should at least evoke some kind of emotional response from the viewer; it could be “wow!” or “yuck!”, love, hate, shock, anger, admiration etc. If someone walks past it and thinks “meh”, or worse still, doesn’t even notice it, then to me it is not a terribly successful piece of work. The sliding scale of success is based on the strength of the response.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website address is www.clairepassmore.com. I taught myself how to create it 6 years ago and I work hard at keeping it up to date. I also have a blog where I share a lot of what I discover and the processes I use.
My site is also a digital record of my most of my artwork – my own personal gallery of art quilts. As time has gone by I have learned how to make short videos of some of my 3D art quilts and have added those to the site. It is also where I keep my exhibiting record and where curators, collectors and art quilt admirers can browse through my work. I hope people will enjoy looking at the art quilts, be interested in the stories I try to tell, and that this contributes towards the art quilt becoming more respected and accepted as a fine art medium.
Learn more about Clare and her work:
blog archives (back to 2014) www.clairepassmore.weebly.com/blog
Facebook page: @ClairePassmoreTextileArt
Deep Dive video link https://biteable.com/watch/3101407/58febc5afe153f37c81e74c9c55aa75e
Interview posted November 2021
Browse through more art quilt inspiration and projects on Create Whimsy.