As a child, Fiber Artist Kristin Shields dabbled in just about every craft imaginable. She tried them all, but always returned to creating with fabric, needle and thread. When she discovered quilting in her twenties, she was all in! With a foundation in the basics of quilting and a nod to tradition, Kristin currently works abstractly, inspired by nature and the written word.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Becoming an artist was definitely a slow path. I have done creative things my whole life, but it wasn’t until I’d been getting noticed as a quilter that I tentatively called myself an artist. It was around that time that I also started taking art quilting classes and art classes in other disciplines (ie watercolor, acrylic painting, art journaling).
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Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?
I did all sorts of crafts as a kid – from needlework to painting kits to cake decorating. My mother loved crafts and taught all her kids to enjoy making things with our hands. As we grew into our teens all of us kids worked at a craft store at one time or another.
If I had to choose one craft as the most loved it would be needlework. I loved embroidery, cross stitch, needlepoint and rug hooking. If there was a kit for it I was happy to try it! Funnily enough my mom didn’t quilt and none of us tried quilting when I was a kid. I was the first to take a quilting class in my 20s and then my mom and sister followed suit.
What inspires you to create?
The natural world and all animals, books and other forms of written expression, color and pattern and daily life inspire me. I have way too many ideas to follow up on most of the time, so the hardest thing is to focus.
Why textiles? Why quilting?
I had always loved quilts as cozy artworks and was very much inspired by Amish life and quilts. I still remember going to Amish country as a child and admiring their beautiful quilts. It was a natural extension of already loving to do handwork and it was a skill I really wanted to master.
Tell us about your first quilt. What inspired you to make it? What did it look like? Techniques? Do you still have this quilt?
I took my first quilting class soon after a serious health issue and I needed something to take my mind off of it. It was an extensive 12 week long beginner class where we did everything by hand from cutting to stitching. I didn’t even know about rotary cutters for several years. We did a different block every week and they ranged from piecing to applique, but we cut everything from templates with scissors and hand stitched. I also learned to hand quilt from the same teacher. That first quilt is a sampler with nine very basic pieced blocks, and all hand quilted. Unfortunately, the color scheme makes me cringe (mauve and teal), but I still have it. I have considered overdyeing it. Maybe someday!
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
There are definitely recurring themes. When I discovered Gwen Marston’s book, Liberated Quiltmaking, I went all in on those techniques and I still love to piece that way. My work ranges quite a bit from modern abstract where I play with color, to lots of bird imagery, to book themed quilts.
I love piecing an abstract quilt because I just get lost in scraps. Taking solid scraps and putting them together seam by seam is the most free I ever feel with textiles. I love the surprising results because I never know what will happen. I do a lot of bird themed quilts because I studied biology and then did a master’s in avian sciences. Birds are my other passion and I can’t help but feature them in many different quilts.
The book quilts came about in 2010 when I joined a quilting book club called The Undercover Quilters. We read a book a month as in most regular book clubs, but then we choose one book a year to each make a quilt from. We display these quilts at a couple of quilt shows every year and it’s been utterly delightful to get to know my fellow quilters and to talk books and quilts every month. I have also been trying to feature a bird in most of these book quilts over the years. Now I look for birds in all the books I read!
Which artists influence your work? What draws you to their art?
I have always been fascinated with folk art – Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses, Charles Wysocki, Maud Lewis, and untold other anonymous folk artists. Bright colors and whimsical composition appeal to me.
I have also always loved children’s picture book illustrations and I keep a selection of picture books mainly for the illustrations – Patricia Polacco, Tasha Tudor, Ezra Jack Keats, Alice and Martin Provensen, Garth Williams, Brian Wildsmith, John Burningham, Lee White, and Maira Kalman. These artists make children’s books so expressive and are important because for many children they may be the only artwork they are exposed to.
Sketchbook artists have also been influential to my work – Danny Gregory, Roz Stendahl, Hannah Hinchman, Cathy Johnson, and Liz Steel. Carla Sonheim’s whimsical artwork has been a huge influence and I’ve taken many online classes with her.
Textile artists that have been particularly influential are Jean Wells, Rosalie Dace, Gwen Marston, Tonye Phillips, Sue Spargo, Janet Bolton, the Gee’s Bend Quilters, and Joe Cunningham, all of whom I’ve had the pleasure of studying with in person. I also admire Mandy Patullo, Cathy Cullis, Diana Weymar, Chawne Kimber, Sarah Swett, Jude Hill and Salley Mavor
I have a number of Instagram artists I follow and admire greatly – Sally Welchman, Julia Eves, Kathy Deggendorfer, Diane Culhane, Phoebe Wahl, Ann Wood, and Cheryl Chapman who also happens to be my very talented sister. With Instagram I can fill my feed with a lot of art and nature which is always inspirational.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I am an improviser most of the time. My book quilts usually require some planning depending on the parameters agreed upon, but they can also evolve within those parameters sometimes.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
For the past 10 years I have had a dedicated space in one of our bedrooms. I have a sewing table, ironing station, cutting table and a computer desk. I also have two rolling carts, one for sewing supplies and one for paints. My closet is large and has a lot of storage so that’s where I keep fabric, scraps, notions, old projects, other art supplies and some finished art. I have a design wall that’s about 4’ x 6′. My walls show off small artworks from some of my favorite artists and some of my own quilts. I also have an overflowing bookshelf and a big picture window.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My sewing machine is central to my work, as is a dedicated hand sewing tool box. I also love having a design wall to put up works in progress. It’s a better way to see a quilt in progress than putting it on the floor, but also it’s a good way to keep pieces in your mind even when you don’t have the time to work on them. My design process actually involves lots and lots of thinking, even before I’ve sewn a single stitch, but also once the piece has been started. I get many glances at my design wall throughout the day and that keeps the designs in the forefront of my mind.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I do use sketchbooks and journals, but they are entities unto themselves. I work in them just for the pleasure of creating books with my notes and artwork in them. Occasionally I’ll go back to something as inspiration for something I’m sewing. I also keep various notebooks to jot down quilt ideas, but these usually have a few pages dedicated to a project and once the project makes it to the working stage I don’t really refer back to the notebook again.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I usually listen to NPR or audiobooks. I’m an NPR junkie, so I’ll listen to almost anything there, but when I have a book that I need to finish I am all into audiobooks. I love to read fiction especially, and a great narrator can make all the difference. Recently I listened to Project Hail Mary by Andrew Weir (fantastic!), Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (one of my all time favorite listens), and Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.
I really love when an author reads their own book. Vesper Flight, written and read by Helen Macdonald is my current listen. Also loved Born a Crime, written and read by Trevor Noah, and The Ravenmaster, written and read by Christopher Steel.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
My current project is for my Undercover Quilters Book Club. It starts with the group choosing a book for the year. The current book is Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. My process includes reading the book several times. I usually read a paper copy and also listen to the audiobook. Then I start putting sticky notes in the paper copy to highlight scenes that I especially like. Our quilts are not necessarily illustrations of the book, they merely have to be inspired by it, but some members do quilts that are very personal. Mine usually are somewhat illustrative of the book. This year, we added a new challenge to our quilts – they must all have a river running through them so that we can display them as a sequence of quilts with the river running through.
My quilt will illustrate a particular part of the book when one character takes his boat to the house of another character. For this one I drew a full size sketch of the basic parts of the design. The river must be placed in a specific part of the quilt, so I started with that. Once I determined my composition, I pieced together four pieces of fabric for the background sections: foreground, river, land on the other side of the river, and sky. Then I used raw edge fusible applique to create all the elements on the background. When I finished creating the scene, I then layered up the top with batting and backing and quilted to sew down each piece and create texture for the whole piece. I am now finishing it up with a facing to be ready for display in a few weeks.
Do you focus on one piece exclusively from start to finish or work actively on more than one project at a time?
Oh no, I’m a serial starter so I always have many things going on at once. I like to jump around quite a bit.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people. Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Yes, I do think creativity comes naturally to children, but for some it’s drilled out of them through the process of schooling. I think everyone can come back to it later in life if given the time and space to do it. Busy lives don’t always lead to creativity, but I’ve always agreed that boredom will lead to creative thinking as long as it’s not taken up by outside entertainment.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability? How do you get unstuck creatively?
When I feel stuck, it usually means I need to get out and experience nature. So I take a walk to clear my head. When the feeling persists, I also like to travel, visit a museum, or check out a place I’ve never been. It was hard to do that during the height of the pandemic, so I took some online art classes. Trying something new to you can make a big difference too. If you’re a painter, try ceramics. If you’re a quilter, get some paints and try that. Crossover art is very stimulating and can teach you skills to bring back to your more comfortable creative space.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is at www.kristinshieldsart.com. I have a blog and quilt gallery. In addition to documenting the quilts that I work on, I do posts about quilt shows that I’ve attended. I hope that my blog inspires other quilters to try something new.
I have two shops on Etsy where I sell my work: KristinShieldsArt is for paintings, and one of a kind stitched work (quilts and embroidery). My other shop is KMSHandmade where I sell functional stitched items like bags, pincushions, scarves, etc. I have a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/KristinShieldsQuiltmaker) where I cross post from Instagram. My Instagram page is my favorite place to post these days. I show my daily life and what I’m working on.
What’s next for you?
We have a big move coming up! This fall we are moving back to New England (from Oregon) where both my husband and I grew up. I am organizing my studio, getting rid of some things and getting ready to pack the rest. We’ve moved a lot over the years, but lived on the west coast for 32 years. It’s a big job. We look forward to living near my husband’s family and seeing parts of New England we’ve never been to as well as old favorite places. A studio move is always a good time to streamline projects and supplies. I hope to start some fresh new work once I am all set up.
Interview posted August 2021
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