Creating is vital to the person who is Jane Dunnewold. When not experimenting with surface design techniques and materials and making textile art, she teaches others to find their creative voices and make art.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path?
I was always a creative person and felt most at home in the woods “making things” or writing poetry (at 10) and illustrating my own little books. Like many people, I didn’t take it seriously and took a path toward a “real” career that never turned out. Instead I was drawn to waiting tables so I’d have more free time, and then eventually a restaurant where we could be creative with the interior and the menu.
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When that collapsed due to the downturn in the economy, I decided I’d always lived my life to fulfill my parents’ expectations, or my husband’s, and now I would decide for me. I talked my way into a department chairmanship at a small local arts school and my job became planning classes and organizing curriculum. In the meantime we were encouraged to build our careers as artists who ran art departments.
Textiles was my field of interest because I grew up with women who crocheted, sewed and quilted. Sewing wasn’t so interesting to me. I was too impatient to match corners on patchwork, or sew 1/4” seams. Surface design–painting and printing and dyeing–held greater appeal. So that became my area of expertise. I realized I needed and wanted to master these techniques and be an expert, rather than dabbling. How else would I make a living? The job encouraged me to seek this mastery and I had plenty of chances because I had to teach all of it. I loved it and that was the beginning of my being able to call myself an artist.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn? How can people expand their creativity?
Creativity is like air. We each need it and we each have it. It’s also like talent. Some people have more of it than others. But each of us is capable of being creative and the more time we spend on it and the more we BELIEVE IT’S TRUE the better we get. It’s the paradox of being playful and then being disciplined. If we can set fear and judgment off to one side and play ANYWAY, we meet with success and then that success feeds on itself and we become creatively confident. When you are creatively confident, you are willing to ask why, and then see what happens without seeing it as a failure if it doesn’t work out. Failure ceases to exist when we choose to see an unexpected outcome as a lesson or information gathering opportunity instead of having failed.
When we are able to separate ourselves from the objects we make, we don’t judge who we are based on whether a project succeeded or fell short. We see a place where we can try again or learn to do differently or better. Then we are willing to invest time into trial, error and learning and we stick with whatever we’re doing instead of giving up too early. That means we are becoming disciplined and that’s fantastic because it means we keep going. And that keeping going cycles back to playfulness.
Is there a driving force that inspires you to create? What sparks a series for you?
I create because I have to. It’s cheaper than therapy and more effective. It gives me a chance to observe myself; that’s helped me to understand myself better. Series come from noticing something interesting and then thinking about how to express my observations or feelings about it.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
In the beginning I experimented a lot because I needed to know more about materials and processes, so I tried everything and I was never afraid to try something someone else said wouldn’t work. I’m older now and have a wealth of process and material information in my head. I am lucky to be a quick study and I have great recall, both of which have benefitted me.
When I want to start new work, an idea or content I want to give visual form inspires me. I run through what I know how to do, then I decide on the best tools and materials for the “job”. Then I focus on putting that combination together successfully. If it isn’t working, I stop and re-evaluate before I continue. Sometimes I stop on a piece for a long time, until I get the answer that tells me how to proceed. That answer might come from a discussion with someone else, from reading, from a YouTube video or from my own experimentation.
Do you focus on one piece from start to finish or work actively on more than one project at a time?
I usually start a piece knowing what the series will be like in terms of materials, process and content. Then I see where it takes me. If there is a lot of dyeing or drying time involved, I work on more than one thing at a time so I always have something to do while waiting for the process to complete itself.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I’m organized and know where things are so I don’t have to waste time looking for things. That drives me crazy. I have the tools and set up I need to do what I want to do. I’ve worked hard to get it set (and to pay for it). But it’s essential since this is my lifework and income. Even when that isn’t true, I think it’s worth it to be organized. Too many students spin their wheels looking for stuff when their working time is already limited.
Do you have daily creative rituals in your studio?
No. I used to and it’s all well and good when people do, but I’ve found it’s easier just to get to work.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
Rarely. If I am working on a series I write down ideas so I don’t lose them. We can’t keep everything in our heads and writing it down tethers it to the Earth plane. But I’m personally not big on art journals and I don’t sketch. I’d rather put that energy and time into the pieces themselves.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
Nothing if I need to think. Music or radio (NPR) if I’m doing busywork like adhering 1000 pieces of gold leaf to a cloth surface. That takes awhile. Recently I’ve been buying vintage Crewel embroideries. I plan to use them to make additional work for my Inspired by the Masters series. It is going to be shown at the National Quilt Museum in the fall of 2019. Each embroidery gets fusible on the back and then I trim away all of the background fabric. I’m working on one now and have spent seven hours trimming away background because the stitching is very elaborate. I don’t usually do tedious work without music or something else to think about!
When you travel, do you make art on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
My computer. I save writing projects for airports and planes whenever I can.
What are the greatest challenges you have faced as an artist?
Freelancing is not for the faint hearted. When you aren’t working you aren’t being paid. It requires a great deal of stamina. I wear numerous hats and while it never gets boring, it’s also not the most stable existence. But then, what is? Much of stability is really an illusion. I guess that comforts me.
The fine art vs. craft debate: what advice do you have for artists who bump up against that barrier?
Work on what you love and get smart about terminology. If calling something an embroidery or quilt will pigeonhole it (when entering shows for example), then call it something else that’s more mainstream and accepted, like mixed media. Don’t willingly relegate yourself to the textile ghetto if referring to your work another way would ease its acceptance or the public’s ability to understand it. And may I be clear–I don’t mean that we shouldn’t be proud of what we do and the connection to our female ancestry and traditions. You can feel quite proud and still be savvy when you write or talk about your work. All those barriers are blurring, but not fast enough to suit me. Making stuff is satisfying and feeds the soul. Who cares what it’s called?
Do teaching in-person workshops and online classes require different mindsets? How do you keep the two worlds balanced?
I love to teach. It never gets out of balance for me because I try to stay in present time. That means whatever I’m doing, I focus on that and behave based on what’s needed or appropriate in that setting. However I do manage my energy and have learned not to take on too much in any one month. Otherwise it’s easy to feel fractured and exhausted.
What is the most important takeaway you want people to gain from your website, books and workshops?
Everyone has a right to their creative integrity. When you respect yourself and don’t belittle what you create, and refuse to allow others to belittle the birthright of creative energy, life is happier. It’s joy-filled. We all need more joy. The people I work with bring me joy. I offer my website, books, workshops and Youtube videos to inspire others to seek the joy and the sense of accomplishment that comes from engaging with creativity.
How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule a lecture or workshop?
Through my website or by writing to me directly: [email protected]
What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
Botanical (eco-printing) and combining it with surface design techniques I’ve always used intrigues me. So I’m teaching workshops on this topic several places this summer. And I’m thinking actively about turning my botanical printing workshop into an online course. I’m working on the new pieces for the Inspired by the Masters series. As 2019 San Antonio Artist of the Year I had a one person exhibition in September. And finally, I am looking for an agent. I want to write another book based on my creative strength training course and archetypes.
Life is never boring! Thanks for asking.
When we last connected, you were beginning to explore botanical printing and how to integrate it into your stable of surface design techniques. What direction has that journey taken?
I never thought I wanted to make botanical prints! It seemed it was already “being done” so successfully I couldn’t see a slot that interested me. But I kept hearing comments that somehow natural dyes and botanical printing were “superior” to synthetic dyes and paints. That flat out rubbed me the wrong way. I love a good challenge and got very interested in how what I have done for 25 years with fiber reactive dyes, paints, leafing and the rest might intersect with botanical printing to the benefit of both fields! That’s how The Best of Both Worlds: Enhanced Botanical Printing was born. The more I bundled and experimented (I preferred steaming to boiling), the more varied and interesting the results became. They were beautiful and COLORFUL – which had huge appeal for me because I wasn’t all that wild about the predominant brown that most traditional prints seemed to be.
I usually keep my ideas to myself for a year or two, and then I begin to teach when I feel confident that I have something worth sharing. Teaching The Best of Both Worlds was a blast because people were so thrilled with their results. I used lots of student examples to illustrate my first book (same name as the class) and it’s beautiful. I love to showcase what other people have done.
One workshop I taught at the Madeline Island School of the Arts was a three day drive from Texas! But with all my stuff, driving made more sense than shipping everything. On the drive back I mulled over the workshop and the process and I wondered what I could do to speed things up. It occurred to me (right before I hit Kansas City!) that maybe I could adapt a heat press for printing. I got so excited I started Googling as soon as I got to my hotel room. I read everything I could find and looked at YouTube videos. No one posting online had used a press this way before. I HAD to know if it would work so I found a press to rent by the week. When I started the last leg of my trip in the morning, the press was already on its way.
What I didn’t know until I got home (because I’m terrible at reading small print when I am excited) is that I had to pay return shipping if I didn’t keep the press, and it was over $150.00 to ship it back. The darn thing was heavy! All of which just furthered my resolve to make this work.
And it did. That was summer of 2019 and in 2020 I had plenty of time to continue learning and perfecting. I’m currently working on a second book called Collaborate with Mother Nature: Using a Heat Press for Botanical Printing. It’s already available for pre-order on my website, and I am also offering a monthlong online course, which has been going fantastically well.
So who knew? I have eaten my words more than once in my lifetime and I am always okay with it. That’s what learning is usually about! I love combining techniques and working in tandem with the natural world. It’s been a real charge-up for me at a surprising time in my life!
What advice would you give to people who feel stuck, but are unsure of trying something new?
The clock is ticking. If we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that the totally unexpected could happen and does. Waiting for just the right time to get started, or making excuses about how inadequate ability is – any excuse, really – is a form of self-sabotage. I don’t know a way to say it gently. I understand that people have fears, or feel stuck, or doubt their abilities, but your one precious life is slipping by.
The people we admire, who succeed at what they do, don’t succeed because they are smarter or better than we are. They succeed because they show up. You can be afraid, but that’s internal. It’s what’s external that counts. Someone said it succinctly. Feel the fear and do it anyway. AND my best piece of trick advice (literally tricking your mind because it thinks too much) is to decide to do something, perhaps the thing you don’t think you can do, for five minutes ONLY, and then stop. Once you get going, a lot of the time you realize you are enjoying yourself and are getting excited, and then it’s easier to keep going. You’ve tricked yourself into it.
And for those who are comfortable with change, how can they maintain focus and keep from becoming too scattered?
Use a strategy I got from every day life. Think of all the things you enjoy doing and make a list. Lots of creative people are scattered because they flit from one interest or activity to another without finishing or accomplishing something first. So use an appointment system. You can only schedule so many appointments in one day or week. Set others further ahead on the calendar. If you focus and are busy with one activity but develop an interest in something else, make an appointment with it. Put it on the calendar and then you won’t fret about not having time to do it right now.
For example, right now I may be finishing up a quilt, but glass blowing intrigues me. Rather than drop the quilt to jump into acquiring or investigating a new skill, I can make an appointment for October 1 and plan to think about glassblowing then. Another way to think about this is putting an activity in “time out.” Some people think of “time out” as punishment, but it’s also a way to let a situation cool down a little, in order to be more objective about it. Putting a few things in “time out” until you are ready to think about them gives you some mental space.
The most sobering approach I take with myself is hard for some people to think about, but there’s no better way to get clear about how you are spending your time. I frequently ask myself, “If I died at the end of the week, would I be glad I spent my last week this way?” That shakes things up for me. And takes us full circle back to my statement above: The clock is ticking. If we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that the totally unexpected could happen and does.
How do you know when the subject and time are right for a new book?
I don’t know! I have a huge Gambler archetype in my personality and I also have a Rebel. So if something interests me and I can figure out enough about it to make it interesting to other people, then there is probably a good class, and also possibly a book, in it. I love to teach and I love to write. So I assume that if I teach well enough and get excited enough, that will rub off on people around me. It’s definitely an organic way to work, and I used to think I was crazy. But it’s a style that has fit my personality and doesn’t require a huge following to be sustainable. I keep showing up, and when I do, I hope others will be inspired to show up with me! It’s a win-win.
And I must add, I have always made it my goal to give away as much I can free of charge, and to make anything I sell better that what my audience anticipated getting. There’s honor in that for me, because I am honoring the intelligence and interests of people who are important to me.
Interview posted April, 2019, updated August 2021
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