Spotlight: Katie Fowler, Art Quilter

Mandelbrot to Madness art quilt

Spotlight: Katie Fowler, Art Quilter

When Katie Fowler found quilting as an art form, she ditched the patterns right away – improvisation better suited her style and her path to happy. But if structure is your bliss, she says, embrace it! In addition to creating her own fiber art, Katie coaches others to find the creative confidence to be open to whatever they love to do.

Katie Fowler profile picture

How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?

I have always been a maker. I have also always been intimidated by having to “do it right.” I remember sitting in Brownies learning to embroider and wishing I didn’t have to follow the lines and the colors. And I didn’t care much about how the back looked. Despite all that, I believe I did earn my sewing patch. 

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I started out at the University of Denver as a fine art major. By that time, I had become pretty proficient at realistic drawing of objects. The graduate student reviewing my portfolio told me I was a good copier, but the world had Xerox machines for that. I was devastated and changed my major!! I loved my career as an elementary school teacher, and I had the best bulletin boards, but I spent the next several years searching for a medium of expression that would steal my heart. 

Then I found quilting! I quickly learned that, just like in Brownies, I wasn’t very good at following patterns. My lightbulb moment was a class with Susan Shie about painting on fabric. That opened up doors for me I didn’t even know existed. 

Ziggy Played Guitar art quilt
Ziggy Played Guitar

What inspires you to create?

Just about everything inspires me. In fact, sometimes I have so many ideas they paralyze me, and I can’t make anything.

I love to catch interesting color palettes in nature, I love to make something about a favorite rock star or song, and I love to make something about a favorite story. I look for inspiration, but don’t rely on it. Sometimes I just have to dig in and do. 

Kashmir art quilt
Thred Zeppelin art quilt
Thred Zeppelin

How does your formal art education help your work develop? Does it ever get in the way?

My undergraduate art career was so short but had profound influence on me. My confidence as an artist was completely undermined. I take full responsibility for that, as now I don’t let others’ opinions affect me so strongly.

I have worked with a creativity coach, become a certified creativity coach myself, and spent years wrestling with creative confidence, or lack thereof. Now I am in a comfortable place with my creative process and enjoy the time I get to spend making. I did go back to school in 2009 to get an endorsement to teach art k-12. The classroom hasn’t really called me back except to facilitate other quilters in their creative process.

The Color of Infinity art quilt
The Color of Infinity, 60×60

What do you do differently? Do you have a signature that makes your work stand out as yours?

What people seem to know about me is my use of bright colors and that I cut stuff up. If I am not happy with a painting, or even a finished quilt, I will cut it up and put it back together. Knowing this is an option takes all the pressure off.  

Mandelbrot to Madness art quilt
Mandelbrot to Madness, made from cutting up The Color of Infinity on The Quilt Show

When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?

I am a total improvisor… What’s a plan?

I have found that if I have a plan or an idea in my head and force myself to stick with it, the piece never has the heart or the magic I am looking for. I use a sketchbook but more for a place to keep inspiration and words. So I don’t do a lot of drawing in the sketchbook. I work mostly in abstract now. When I want to be fancy, I say abstract expressionism as I use my paintings as an expression of who I am, what I love, and the world around me. 

How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce? 

Great question. I literally leap. I just jump in. About the only preplanning I do is to decide how big I might want the piece to be so that I can tear the appropriate size of PFD cotton!

What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books and tools, especially your new titles, Foolproof Color Wheel Set: 10 Discs for Dynamic Color Selection and Foolproof Color Workbook: Learn, Practice Master; A Hands-On Journey Through the Color Wheel?

I want readers to understand that color theory and the color wheel are tools, not rules. Tools simply give us options.

It’s nice knowledge to have but should never be restrictive to the creative process. Inevitably, if I try to stick to a specific color combination in a painting, it lasts about as long as it takes to get the first of those colors on the fabric. I use those color combinations as a starting point.

All of the samples I colored for the workbook contain yellow-green as it’s one of my favorite colors. I am slowly working through the other color combinations. First, because it’s really fun to color in a book I wrote. Second, because actually using the color combinations is the best way I know to learn how to use the color wheel and identify the combinations that make your heart sing.

How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?

My studio is my happy place. I call it the Rabbit Hole as I love Alice in Wonderland and I hope I find wonder in my studio every time I enter. My husband can’t believe how much stuff I have crammed into the space.

I like to have everything at my fingertips. I have a lovely view and little babbling brook outside my window that I listen to, weather permitting. Sometimes even when the weather doesn’t permit. I have a space heater that allows me to open the window on cold days.

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

I have a lot of horizontal surfaces, never enough, but a lot. Of course, I love my paints neatly organized by color on the shelves on the wall, until I start to paint, then all bets of organization are off. My Bernina (named Queen Elizabeth because it’s a 440 QE) and sewing table which folds out to huge if I need it are favorites. And my books. I use my books all the time, sometimes to remember how to do things “the right way” and sometimes just to look at the pictures because they make me happy.

My stand-up desk is indispensable, especially when I’m writing. I also have a white board with sticky notes on it to keep me on track and to keep track of ideas so that they don’t have to take space in my head. Having everything I think I might need isn’t very practical except when I’m riding a creative wave and don’t have to stop to make a run to the store. 

Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?

I journal almost every day. Sometimes about my work but mostly about those random thoughts that bounce around in my head. I have journaled for as long as I can remember. Julia Cameron calls them “artist pages” in her book, The Artist’s Way. I do think clearing the head of random thoughts at the beginning of the day opens up all sorts of space. I use a sketchbook to practice new skills. I’m trying to master pen and ink right now.

Keef art quilt
Keef, Keith Richards painted on shellaced fabric and hand quilted

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?

Quiet when I’m writing, I used to be able to do word work listening to music, but I can’t do that anymore. When I’m painting or making, I always have music going. Usually rather loud classic rock. Now that he’s working from home, my husband tells me he can always hear when I’m on a creative streak because the music gets louder and louder, and I sing along!

Shine On You Crazy Diamond art quilt
Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Syd Barrett, the original from man of Pink Floyd

How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?

I have gone from thinking everything had to be “just so” to adopting “embrace the blob” as my creative philosophy. It’s a lot more fun for me to embrace the blob. For others, it’s more fun to have things just so. You need to find your own bliss. I also focus now on the process rather than the product. As I mentioned earlier, focus on the product takes all the heart out of it for me.

I am always trying new things but for now I am sticking with painting on fabric. It really does make me happy.

At this time, when I need a mobile project, I am making hexies for English Paper Piecing. Those who know me can’t believe it. I am amassing quite a collection of colors to use in a color wheel quilt someday, maybe. Handwork is a welcome change of pace that I really love. I no longer get after myself for the sidetracks I take as I think they are a valuable part of my creative process. 

Try Whistling This art quilt
Try Whistling This

Tell us about a time when you truly stretched yourself as an artist.

I got a call to make a 4’ x 6’ fiber art piece to hang in the window of a gallery. The hitch was that I only had 6 weeks to finish it. Of course, I said, “Yes!” About halfway through the painting (48” x 72”) I knocked over a bottle of sulphur green paint. Very fluid paint plus very absorbent fabric equals a very big green mess. I said a few unprintable words. I did not have time to start over.

Then I realized that I had two choices. First, I could call the woman and tell her I wouldn’t be able to get the piece finished in time. Or, I could figure out how to make the painting work with a jar of sulphur green spilled over the entire thing. I chose to make it work. It wasn’t my best painting, but after it hung in the window of the gallery, I cut it up and made lots of little paintings. I love those little paintings.

Fangorn Forest art quilt
Fangorn Forest, Try Whistling This cut into smaller quilts

Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?

My blog and website are in transition right now. I had a website built that I wasn’t able to edit easily. It’s on my “to do” list and I can’t wait for it to be on my “ta da” list. It’s probably my least favorite part of running this little business. I have a newsletter, too. I’m hoping to make people happy. Happy with themselves, happy with their unique creativity, and happy with their unique skill set. For me acceptance is a huge part of finding happiness in the creative process. I will never be happy as long as I try to make something someone else made.

Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?

I love to teach and speak. My lecture gives people permission to play creatively, and my workshops remind them how. I can be reached easiest through my email: [email protected]. Like everyone else in the industry, I am trying to transition to online classes and lectures. That said, I really do miss the in-person interaction.

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn? 

Another good question. Yes, to both. I believe because we are human, we are creative. We put words together in new ways to form sentences, for example. So many people say to me, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body. I can’t draw a stick figure” (or a straight line, etc.) Creativity is so very much more than drawing. That said, I believe creativity is like a muscle and needs to be exercised to get stronger and more comfortable. The more we create, good, bad, or ugly, the more creative we are. 

Katie Fowler An Artist's Journey through Wonderland

What are some of the most frequently encountered obstacles to creativity?

I wrote an entire book about this, An Artist’s Journey through Wonderland. In a nutshell, I think negative self-talk, perfectionism, comparison, resistance, procrastination, overwhelm, and creative chaos are the main culprits. Like I mentioned earlier about color theory and the color wheel, tools give us options. There are simple and effective tools to use to get through the obstacles to creativity. I have a one-day class dealing with this exact issue called “Down the Rabbit Hole: A Creativity Playshop.” For me, it’s all about embracing that childlike joy in creating. 

Katie Fowler Quote

What advice would you give to emerging artists?

Do what you love, focus on the process rather than the product, and do what makes you happy. Don’t let others tell you what your heart wants. And never ever create to please someone else. It won’t come from your heart. 

Interview posted December 2020

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