Quilt artist and long-arm quilter Cyndi McChesney designs a few steps ahead of herself, planning her next quilts while her current project is still on the design wall. That keeps her creativity at a constant flow, and Cyndi rarely encounters the question, “What do I do next?” She dives right into the next quilt! She teaches quilting in much the same way. Nothing gives her more joy that seeing a student’s creative spark ignite and take them places they never realized they could go.
How did you find yourself on a creative path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I began my creative path at a very young age. My family had moved to a new community. Then a teacher came into my fourth grade classroom asking if anyone else would like to join the band. My hand shot up. I didn’t know what a band was, but it sounded interesting. I started playing flute in that band and still play today.
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My creative path is always evolving, but for the last 40 years or so, my path has revolved around two things – music and quilting. My expression through quilting is evolving. I am finally letting go of expectations for myself and just looking for ways to express fun.
What inspires you to create?
My inspiration comes from a need to connect to my inner self, my center of peace.
I am most creative when I can get quiet, breathe and allow the creativity to simply come through me. That probably sounds a little hokey, but for the past decade or so, I’ve been pretty wrapped up in caring for my aging parents. Those quiet, peaceful moments are crucial to maintaining a sense of self.
I need to find inner joy and since I’m not doing a bang up joy of creating it in my physical world, I do it through my creative one. It’s cyclical though, because when I create joy from a simple little pre-printed panel, I find joy on the outside, and that’s a win!
How did quilt making become your medium of choice?
I’ve always loved the visual impact of quilts, even from an early age. No one in my family quilted or could teach me how. So I figured out how to make a Yo-Yo doll quilt when I was pretty young.
Upon graduation from college I stumbled upon a quilt shop in a little town in Ohio. From then on it’s been a passion.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Fun with Panels?
Yes you can! That’s what I want quilters to glean from this book. It’s a how-to, not a here’s a project, now you go make the same thing kind of book.
We all have creativity in our souls, but fear and self-doubt tend to cover that up for many of us. I hope to show that with a little road map anyone can create something really unique and allow that personality to shine through.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I think my work in some ways reflects a little of my personality. I’m a closet comedian, so I like to make people smile or laugh or tap in to my somewhat wacky sense of humor.
Being an introvert who has had to work really hard to be an extrovert, my sense of humor comes through in my quilts. Where one person might see something that just needs a few borders, I inject some of myself into a panel. I bring it to life so that it touches part of me. Hopefully it speaks to viewers at the same time.
Sometimes when inspiration strikes I laugh right out loud and wonder if someone seeing my quilt will get the inside joke.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Honest answer – both. But I lean toward more of improvisation, which is funny because I never could improvise as a musician.
I start out with a pretty loose plan and let the project evolve as it goes along. There are steps and stages when working with panels, though, that do require extensive planning.
Do you have a mentor?
I don’t think I would say I have a mentor, but I do have a great friend who encouraged me to really explore this topic and spread my wings. She believed in me before I believed in myself. I probably have 2 or 3 of those actually.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
In my current home, I have two creative spaces. One is a flex room which holds my design wall, fabric and my sewing machine. That’s where I do the majority of my creating.
The other is the third bay of the garage where I have my long-arm quilting machine set up. And that’s where the quilting side of the creativity takes place. In my next home, I’m going to have one big sunny open space with lots of windows – that’s the dream!
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
I think it is essential to have a design wall where you can see what is taking shape, and I love being able to see all of my fabric on open shelves so that I can grab another piece if the work calls for it.
If the fabric were out of sight, that freedom to allow my eye to wander might be hindered a bit.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My design wall is number 1. I like to look at a project as it progresses, move things around, take things away, add stuff.
And really good rulers-especially rulers that make the process easier. I have so many rulers of all kinds that make the construction of everything from half square triangles to diamond blocks easy and accurate. I don’t like to fight with the construction of anything, so rulers are key. If I’m fighting the construction, it hinders the flow of the creativity.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I definitely sketch – usually on scrap paper, but anything will do.
I like to start out by sticking a panel on the wall. Maybe I will cut apart the segments and then I start sketching or jotting down ideas. From there sometimes I move to graph paper.
I always have a calculator so I can be sure everything is going to fit together while I design. Being able to keep a running list of ideas allows a piece to evolve. And like brainstorming, jotting ideas down definitely fosters more creativity.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Well, I’d love to give an answer that makes me sound deeper than I am, but to be honest I just like reruns of Hallmark mysteries on TV, or silence, and that’s because if I am listening to audiobooks or podcasts, etc., I find my attention is drawn away from the creative process. I focus on that instead of the project in front of me. With reruns, I already know what’s going to happen and it’s really just background noise. Believe it or not, the same thing happens when I listen to music. I get focused on the music instead of the visual of the project in front of me.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
My mind is always two or three projects ahead of my hands.
I have panels in my collection that I am actively designing before they ever get off the shelf and onto the design wall. I have become a little more disciplined over the past 4-5 years. So I try to finish a current project before I actually start the next one, but reality is I have a cupboard full of WIPs.
Sometimes, to give my mind a rest, I’ll pull one of those out and sew on it for a few days. Sometimes my design wall looks a little chaotic because there is more than one project on it. I start new projects fairly often because I like to keep my mind active. An active mind is a healthy mind!
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I do two kinds of quilt making – playing with panels, and really serious, detailed and geometric piecing.
First, and foremost I have to love the panel(s). My latest project is a Row by Row using two dog themed panels. I purchased the panels after a student in one of my workshops created a cute quilt with them. I just liked the panels and knew that at some point I’d do something with them because her quilt was so cute. Once I got them cut apart and narrowed down which style of panel quilt I wanted to focus on, the rest came quickly and I’m just having fun now.
I had to decide if a montage or scrappy or row by row quilt was the focus or if I was going to do something else with those panel segments. But once that decision is made, I go through the steps just as I describe them in my book!
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 really had to think about this question because there are so many incredibly creative people out there, both past and present. I definitely would want that person to be someone who created just for the sheer joy of it, not someone who was tortured by his/her creativity.
In the quilting world, I think I’d love to interview Yvonne Porcella because she was doing wildly creative patchwork long before the modern quilting movement. Her work and her life exuded joy. What intrigues me is that she had a zest for life, a verve that came through her work. Her vibrant colors and the joy and fun I feel when I view it just make me wish I could capture even a few drops of that energy to add to my own life.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I believe that on some level everyone is creative and that creativity is covered by lots of factors. The key is not IF we are creative, but HOW to bring that creativity to the surface. And how we gain enough confidence to believe we are creative. Then how we let go of the fear of showing our creativity to the world.
In Fun with Panels I walk quilters through a variety of steps to get their creative juices flowing. I know students have surprised themselves in my workshops. For me, seeing that light come on is so incredibly rewarding and exciting.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Yes! and I love to lecture and teach! That’s where the energy comes from!
Sharing what I enjoy and seeing others open the door to their own creative soul is amazing. I can be reached through email at [email protected] or by phone (719)289-4928. Students and organizers can learn more about me and my workshops and trunk shows both on my website, www.cedarridgequilting.com and on YouTube by searching my name. Sign up for my newsletter where I share tips every month.
Interview with Cyndi McChesney posted August 2022