Diane Roubal, Up for the Challenge artist, is an uber-experienced seamstress and quilt maker with hundreds of projects in her portfolio. To spice up her quilting life, she enters challenges and juried shows. Meeting the guidelines of a challenge generates new creative opportunities. Come along on Diane’s journey from Home Economics sewing to award-winning quilter!
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
When I was young I didn’t think I was artistic because if my art project didn’t look like the teacher’s it was wrong. I was, however, exposed to sewing most of my life. There are four girls in my family and my mom would make us all matching dresses for Easter and pajamas for Christmas. I took the mandatory Home Economics classes, which were not exciting but did give me the basics in garment construction techniques.
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During vacation seasons in high school and college I worked in several Seattle garment shops where I learned how to sew quickly and without using pins. After four years of college and getting a diploma in one hand, but no job offers in the other, I returned to working in the garment industry as a seamstress. I then enrolled at Seattle Central Community College in their two-year Pattern and Design Program. After graduation I worked for a local ski-wear company for the next ten years in the Pattern and Design Department.
When we added two sons to our family I found working full time was just too much. As a new, nervous mother, it was difficult to cut the cord, to get out of the house. But I needed some “me” time. So, a friend and neighbor and I enrolled in a quilt class – but as experienced sewers we started with a miniature quilt class because how hard could such a small quilt be. But knowing how to sew did not make us experienced quilters. From the first exposure to quilting I loved the whole process and proceeded to take many, many more quilt classes; worked in many quilt shops; taught quilting and sewing machine new owner classes and did custom quilting for clients.
What got you interested in entering juried shows?
So now I’ve been quilting for over 30 years and still haven’t finished my first quilt. Don’t even know where it is, but have completed hundreds more.
Several years ago, a friend asked me why I didn’t enter quilt contests. In fact, she challenged me to submit a piece to a quilt challenge. It took me a while, but after seeing the Wicked Cherrywood Challenge at Quilt Festival in Houston, I finally decided to enter their Lion King Challenge the next year.
I also took a closer look at the Hoffman Challenge that same year. Then the Cherrywood Challenge accepted my Lion of the Pentageti. The Hoffman Challenge accepted my Butterfly Nova and awarded it second place for pieced quilts. Hooked!
It took a challenge from a friend to get me started, but now I’m having fun finding a couple of shows or challenges a year to submit pieces to. For me, I find doing just a couple a year works best so that I don’t get overwhelmed. Last year I considered about four venues, but as deadlines came I just wasn’t ready for some.
At first, I stressed about not submitting pieces on time, but that took all the fun out of the whole process. So, keeping the number down and not getting down when I’m not going to make a deadline has helped me keep the whole experience fun. In fact, my quilt ……and the Other is Gold was started for one challenge, but ended up getting submitted for a different quilt show. It worked for my entry for the Fall Paducah Show this year.
What would you say to artists who are thinking about having their work juried but haven’t yet taken the plunge? Lessons learned?
Be flexible about your work, but also be determined. As the deadline for my very first quilt entry came up, in fact the day before the deadline, I checked the submission page to find that the stated submission date had changed since I printed out and put the guidelines in my notebook. At first, I was deflated. But then the thought came to me that I had worked too hard and too long to just let it go. I called one of the organizers and explained the situation. After some discussion she let me send my entry submission to her personally.
The judging ended the next day and I won the second prize for Pieced Quilts. Lessons learned – keep at it, don’t leave submitting your entry application to the last minute and keep checking back for updates on guidelines and deadline dates.
Tell us about your most challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
The more difficult challenge for me is a contest with very specific guidelines. The Cherrywood Challenge is a competition with very specific rules on theme, size, colors and fabrics used. First is the size – finished size is 20 inches per side. It amazes me what other artists can do within this small size. But this is also a learning opportunity for me. Meeting the guidelines, working out logistics and the puzzle of putting it all together.
This year’s Cherrywood theme was Vincent van Gogh. I knew my submission, Vincent’s Garden, was maybe not going to fit all the rules of the challenge. The only other fabric that you can use that isn’t a Cherrywood fabric is white. I transferred tiny photos of different van Gogh paintings onto white fabric to the centers of my flowers, which stretched the rules. The edges of my flowers went over the edge of the piece. At first, I thought I would cut the points of the flowers off to meet the size requirement. When it came to doing it though I just couldn’t cut off the points, fold them under and stitch the fold down.
My husband suggested, before I submitted the piece, that maybe I should change some things that could be a problem. This time I felt I had to go with my visions even if it didn’t get accepted. My piece was not accepted. Cherrywood did state that many of the quilts, while very nice pieces, had pushed the boundaries of the rules. I told myself that this was why Cherrywood declined my piece. Flexibility and determination. Cherrywood ended up displaying a second group of quilts of the “out of boundary” quilts and they selected mine for this group. I also then released the flower points, making my piece more pleasing to me and going a bit outside the 20-inch margin.
Entering a piece for a quilt challenge or show is a bit like entering a lottery or raffle. A lot more work but that ever present hoping that I might “win.” At least that’s the way it feels to me. I already have three events for next year in my sights. Maybe.
Working with fabric, it turns out, is my art medium. First in clothing and then in quilting. I love the feel, the texture and the designs of fabrics. At times I jokingly say I wish the fabric manufacturers would make some ugly fabric to reduce the temptation to buy everything I see. I’m a Contemporary Quilt kind of gal. I find doing the same block repeatedly not to my taste.
What is your signature style? (What stands out about your work that identifies you as the artist before the viewer sees the label?)
I am just starting to come to find “my style, my voice” for my quilt designs. Three of the quilts I have entered recently used the pentagon shape as the main design element. I find geometric shapes are fun to work with. Circles, pentagons, hexagons and other shapes are becoming my staple in many of my quilt designs.
What materials do you favor and use most often? Why do you use them?
I love jewel-tone fabrics and fabrics with unusual designs – they attract my interest. But my most favorite type of fabric in design, colors and manufacturing is Asian fabrics. There is something very special about these fabrics. I used to go to the booth at Sew Expo that sold pieces of kimonos and other Japanese clothing pieces and would come away with bags and bags of these fabrics. I have made several quilts and garments exclusively from these fabrics. One of my most treasured pieces, that I use sparingly, is a piece of Chinese Coolie fabric that a friend of a friend picked up in Asia shortly after World War II. One of my other hobbies is Cross-stitching and I have made many of Joan Elliott’s Geisha Girl designs.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? What does it look like?
I am lucky in that I now have most of our basement to store my fabric and equipment and design my quilts. I have worked with both Husqvarna Viking and Bernina dealerships and swore several times to my husband that this would be the last sewing machine I would ever purchase. My husband, Jon, has always been supportive and encouraging of my work and collections of fabric, zippers, tools, equipment, patterns, books…..well you get the idea. There is though, probably, sewing stuff in every room of the house.
When you are in your creative space, do you listen to music, watch TV or do you prefer a quiet spot? If it is music, what types do you listen to? If watching TV or movies, what kinds of shows?
I like having the television on while I work. It is background noise but that’s how I work best. In the evenings my husband and I watch TV but I am always working on hand work – that way I’m not really watching TV am I? Golf is a nice thing to have on while I sew. I don’t golf and I’d never golf, but golf tournaments always take place in a beautiful spot, the atmosphere is quiet and calm, and if anything exciting happens they reshow it many, many times.
How many UFOs do you think you have?
Okay so this brings me to UFOs (Unfinished Objects). I am great about starting new projects. A new design or fabric catches my eye and I just must do something with it and then something new comes along, and I’m off to new project. So, let’s just say I probably have more UFOs than I want to admit to. Besides quilting and cross-stitch, I like felt-embroidery, beading, garment making and would like to push a bit into acrylic and watercolor painting. Just not enough time!
Are there indispensable tools in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I love trying out new tools and probably have every rotary cutting ruler ever invented. Rotary cutters and rulers make cutting fabric so precise and easy. Some of my favorite rulers are the Bloc-Loc rulers. If you haven’t tried these I would highly recommend that you do. These rulers have grooves on the underside that fit over the seams of blocks so that the ruler doesn’t wobble as you trim them down to size. I am also experimenting with the Brother fabric cutting machine. I am for anything that makes it easier and quicker to get projects ready. But having said that I also enjoy hand appliqué, but not hand quilting.
I said earlier that I did not ever finish my first quilt. That’s because my friend and I, after taking a real beginners quilt class, sat down in her living room one July summer afternoon and worked on hand quilting our samplers. I found myself with sweat running down my face and a cramp in my hand. I looked up at my friend and said, “I hate this!” Not many quilters were using their machines to quilt, but I quickly learned to do it. I have only hand quilted two quilts for very special people.
Do you lecture or teach workshops?
For many years I taught quilting classes. I loved beginning quilt classes – and getting other people hooked on this art form as much as I am. I also liked teaching classes for quilts that looked complicated, but breaking them down in step-by-step instructions that students could easily follow. At this point of my life I have stopped teaching and am concentrating more on my work – my voice and art work. While teaching I also did commission work on quilts, everything from making the whole quilt to quilt repair. Now I find it difficult to go to my studio and work on others’ quilts when I have so many of my own to finish and want to get to all the design ideas that I have.
What do you like to create when you’re not working on pieces to enter in shows?
I enjoy finding a picture of a quilt or other design and working out how to make it without a pattern. Right now, I am working on a quilt that I am translating from a needlepoint piece by the artist Mindy. My challenge: fitting it all together.
Best piece of advice?
Advice, advice? Don’t give up. Follow your muse. Keep trying out new try techniques, tools and color combinations. Something I heard many times, both working in quilt shops and as a teacher, was how hard color choices are. The more you work with color the easier it gets or feels. And, as my long-time mentor, Lorraine Torrence always advises: “Make visual decisions visually.” Lay it all out, don’t try to do it in your head.
Interview published October 2017
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