Spotlight: Jane Sassaman, Quilt Artist and Fabric Designer
Jane Sassaman has a distinctive artistic voice that speaks clearly in her art quilts, the fabric she designs and her workshops. Her whimsical, graphic and colorful designs require a vivid imagination and precise engineering to construct.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I guess there was never any choice. I knew I wanted to be an artist early on. It just took me a while to find the medium that I wanted to concentrate on.
Would you mind sharing your at-the-time future mother-in-law’s household management advice to you? Did you take it?
Sure! Upon learning that I was going to be sharing an apartment with two of her sons, she took me aside and said, “Now listen, dear, I knew that I was marrying a chauvinist, but I didn’t intend on raising 5 of them. You have proven your talent, so don’t start doing all the chores or they will just expect it. They don’t even realize how they are thinking. Just protect yourself!”
Luckily, I was paying attention that day. So I kept pursuing my interests and tried not to get too involved (or upset over) domestic duties.
Why textiles and art quilts? Why appliqué?
I concentrated on textile art and jewelry making in college. Obviously, craftsmanship is an important element for me. After graduating I was still actively looking for the perfect medium to pursue. Then in 1980 Nancy Crow,s quilt, March Study, was on the cover of American Craft magazine and the answer became obvious immediately. Here was a medium that had everything I was looking for… craftsmanship, scale, color, fabric, accessible tools and autonomy. So I have been quilting ever since.
How does your environment influence your creativity?
Most of my subject matter comes from nature, especially from plants. Plants have the same life cycle as humans do, so I believe you can couch a lot of universal ideas using plants as a vehicle. I usually portray plants that I am very familiar with, like Midwestern flowers. I happen to live in the country now, but even in the city I was very aware of the plants, the weather and the atmosphere around me.
What is it about botanical subject matter that speaks to you?
Design. The weird and wonderful, the surprising and sublime combinations of shapes and colors, the patterns. The life force.
If you had the chance to live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose?
I have an affinity for the Arts and Crafts Movement. It pulls its inspiration from nature. In fact, many of the designers of that time were trained as botanists. It was during the time of the Industrial Revolution; artists were afraid that traditional craftsmanship would disappear due to mass production. Consequently, the image of a craftsperson became revered and romanticized and many traditional crafts were revived. Artists designed everything from flatware to furniture.
Of course, London was a pretty gritty place then and women’s rights were limited, but I’d love to hang out with May Morris, William’s daughter, and some of the many other craftswomen of that time.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser? Do you focus on one piece from start to finish or work actively on more than one project at a time?
I am tunnel visioned. So I focus on one piece at a time. I have an inkling of an idea and design the basic shape or “building block”. Then I make the shapes in fabric and begin to feel out their interaction. Then I plug away until the piece comes together.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
I work in a collage technique and contrasting shapes are my elements. Once I discover a shape it becomes part of my visual ammunition and I can call upon it whenever it’s needed. Like the spiral, it is a shape I use over and over because it represents, growth, movement and energy.
I do a lot of sketching, nothing really glamorous, but lots of plants and patterns. Usually something starts to brew from my surroundings or research, like a flower with intriguing characteristics. I pull shapes from the inspiration and see how they play with each other.
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
Things can get a bit complicated during a fabric designing session for FreeSpirit. There is one collection in stores, as you are designing another line, when the strike offs for the collection you finished a few months back show up in the mail. But, here again, I tend to concentrate on one project at a time, so that helps.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? How does it contribute to your work process? How does it compare with the studio where you created your first art quilts?
I have a pretty nice studio to work in now. Not architecturally glamorous – it’s a converted garage, but it is my haven. In the old days I worked on the only table in the house, but it didn’t stop me. Determination goes a long way!
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Plenty of tables, including a 4’ X 8’ cutting table, are a great luxury. My trusty BERNINA, of course.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I listen to books and old radio shows when I am doing physical work. A ripping yarn and a good project is my idea of heaven.
You can stay pretty busy creating your own art quilts and designing for Free Spirit Fabrics. Why do you lecture and teach workshops on top of that? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Quite simply, teaching is a steady source of income and it takes me out of my comfort zone, in a good way. Most of us have contracts for teaching at least two years in the future, which allows you a predictable income and schedule. While people buy quilts, you never know when it will happen, so it’s nice to know you are covered in any case.
I am a major home body, so teaching forces me to go out and socialize. I always love it when I get there and am thankful to experience new people and places. Meeting old friends and making new ones is the best part of my job. It’s just getting out the door that’s hard. Anyone can contact me through my website, janesassaman.com
When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I am a machine stitcher, so no sewing on the road. But I always travel with a sketchbook, my favorite mechanical pencil and watercolors. I also bring my latest issue of World of Interiors and any new fiber magazine. I also do chores that I don’t want to do at home, like writing patterns, etc.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
I love a good engineering dilemma! And that challenge comes along quite often. After I compose a piece, I have to take it apart to put it back together. This is because I construct from the bottom up. I always make a life size tracing which is the blueprint for placement and the sequence of assembly.
Tell us about being a working artist while raising children. How did you find a balance and make it work for you and your family?
I‘m not sure that I ever found that magical balance. I did lots of freelance design work when the kids were little. It could be pretty stressful, but my husband took the kids to the beach and park when I had work to do and a good friend who did childcare when I had an assignment.
But I always included the kids in my work, too. They would work on the same assignment and I turned their drawings in with mine. I think it is a blessing for children to see what their parents “do”.
Which current artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
These days I follow lots of British printmakers and designers through Instagram… Angie Lewin, Clive Hicks Jenkins, Mark Herald.
I love David Hockney, Joseph Stella, Robert Zakanitch and Josef Frank. And Grant Wood, Rockwell Kent, Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe and oh so many more.
Where can people find a Jane Sassaman original to purchase?
Browse through more art quilt inspiration on Create Whimsy.