Laura Stangel Schmidt is a visual artist and poet. The drawn, painted, stitched, and written lines in her work are equivalent forms of expression—improvisational explorations of her own interior landscape. Her work has evolved from art quilts with bindings and hanging sleeves to working in a more free method adding layers and stitching until a piece tells her it is done.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there?
Stitching has been a creative outlet for me since childhood.
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When I was a toddler, chicken feed sacks were my first fabric fetish. My mother’s stockpile of floral and geometric patterns, as well as her collections of buttons and zippers cut from worn-out clothes, were my favorite things to handle, sort, and fold.
I learned how to embroider in Girl Scouts and how to sew my own clothes in junior high home economics. In high school I took art classes—painting, ceramics, art history—and majored in art history and design in college, and then studied creative writing in graduate school.
My love of writing began as soon as I could read. When I was five I walked to the library and got my first library card (which I still have!) and checked out my first book of poetry. I have been reading and writing poetry ever since.
I have a BFA in Design from the University of Kansas and an MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University. Right now I live and have my art studio on Whidbey Island in Washington.
Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
After many years spent experimenting with different ways to be creative—stitching, painting, silversmithing, enameling, printing making, writing—I settled into what feels like second nature to me: making textile constructions and writing poems. No light bulb moment. Just the never ending process of becoming.
Which came first, the art or writing? How do they influence or compliment each other?
Visual art and poetry are both image oriented, so they dovetail perfectly in my creative process. Both occur in the same physical and emotional place.
My drawn, painted, stitched, and written lines are equivalent forms of expression—improvisational explorations of my own interior landscape.
A new project I’m planning involves combining some of my poems into my textile constructions, either as framed works or possibly as artist books.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
What first drew me to the quilt form as art was the grid and the use of repeated elements, like the quilt block. The structure is similar to that of formal poetry.
Over the years, my focus has shifted toward spontaneity and improvisation, and now I’m treating the surfaces I’m creating as paintings that have stitching as an design element. The resulting work is freer, looser, more conversational let’s say, much like a free verse poem.
The overarching recurring theme of my work has to be my fascination (and struggle!) with dualities: the natural and the manufactured world, serendipity and design, simplicity and complexity, emotion and logic.
Recurring visual elements right now are the Japanese enso, stenciled letters, and and a preponderance of black and white.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
It’s probably the process I’ve developed over the years that signifies my work. I begin simply by making marks on fabrics, papers, Tyvek, and Pellon. I use any combination of monoprinting, drawing, painting, and stitching that feels right at the moment.
I begin with the need to reduce the idea for a composition to some minimal element. My simultaneous love of the decorative drives me to embellish the work with further layers of materials, marks, and stitching to create the effect of a layer of screens to accentuate or obscure what lies beneath.
What motivates you artistically?
One thing that motivates me artistically is responding to another person’s art work, whether visual or written, which contains an indescribable something that creates an emotional or esthetic spark in my brain. Artists who spark me include Hannelorre Baron, Eva Hesse, Lenore Tawney, and Agnes Martin. My favorite poets are Charles Simic, Frank O’Hara and Lydia Davis.
Other times it might be a concept or philosophical problem I’ve been struggling to understand. I let my subconscious solve the problem through the process of handing materials.
And then there are the small “aha!” moments when something like the texture of a pebble on the beach creates the spark.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
I just dive in and start playing. There are always several pieces or series I’m working on at any one time, so I just pick up where I left off each time I come back into my studio. It’s a continuing adventure to see where I’ll be going each day.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
I try to spend some time every day in my studio: whether it’s reading, writing, sketching, or stitching, it really doesn’t matter. It all leads to the same end.
Once I step over the threshold and close the door, I am entering my labyrinth. I have a similar feeling when I am working in my garden, cooking in my kitchen, strolling the beach, following deer trails, or creating my own path through the woods. All are essential. And all are recursive, like dreams, memory, and experience.
Describe your creative space.
My studio is what was once the spare bedroom wing of my house. One room, Studio A, is where I have my writing desk, bookshelves, cutting table, scissors collection, materials storage, and design walls. The other room, Studio B, is here I do messy work, like mono printing and painting. My sewing machine and large ironing table are also tucked away in Studio B. The bathroom is my cleanup room for palettes, print plates, and brushes.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I use both sketchbooks and writing journals.
In the sketchbooks, I sketch ideas for compositions and all manner of notes about processes and experiments I want to try. I also use my sketchbook as a common place to copy passages from books and articles I’m reading that strike me.
In my writing journal, I record images and lines for poems that may eventually appear in Diagonal Lines, a collaborative writing project I have been working on with poet Robert Kostuck since 2020.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I work mostly in silence, especially if I’m reading or writing. I sometimes listen to music or podcasts, but only if the work I’m doing does not require deep concentration. Currently, I’m listening to Rick Rubin’s Tetragrammaton in which he does long form interviews with creative people in vastly different fields.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I always have several series I’m working on at the same time.
Some of the work on my design wall has been there for over a year waiting for me to decide if it is finished or not. I like to take my time. No map. No destination.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I’ll tell you about my new Apparitions series, which is a series of small (6” x 6”) matted and framed textile constructions.
Inspiration: My visual delight in a stack of rice paper sheets that I had painted with India and walnut ink and blue acrylic paint.
Process: Choose the sheets that speak to one another.
Cut the sheets into squares and rectangles.
Arrange and stitch the squares and rectangles into 6” x 6” compositions.
Add surface stitching to create a new design element.
Use white paint and ink to create a ghost-like figure on each square.
When I was working on this series, I was not consciously stitching and painting “apparitions.” I was simply improvising compositions. Only after the series was well underway did I see and title them as Apparitions.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
I can’t say that I have a favorite part. All are part of the whole, and I enjoy being immersed in process and the discoveries I make working through the process.
When I have a deadline coming up, I’ll choose one of my series that is close to completion and that will be my impetus to wrap up the current pieces in that series. I may continue in that series later if it has proved to be a fruitful one for me.
Tell us about a time when you truly stretched yourself as an artist.
The most fun challenge I set myself was to create art quilts out of brown paper bags. That resulted in my Field Studies series, which was based on the log cabin quilt block. And the time I stretched myself most was when I gave up using commercial fabrics altogether and began experimenting with making collage-like constructions with paper, paint, ink, and stitching.
How does your environment influence your creativity?
Inspiration and note taking can occur anywhere, but when I’m actively creating I need to feel as loose and unfettered as possible, so that means working alone in a place that feels like a sanctuary to me. And that means my home studio.
How is your work different than it was in the beginning? How is it the same?
In the beginning, I was making art quilts with bindings and hanging sleeves. I quickly grew tired of stitching on binding and sleeves, so I started making what I call textile constructions using some of the same surface design and stitching techniques as my art quilts, but now I mostly mat and frame my work.
Lately, I’ve been stitching painted sections of rice paper into scrolls and hanging those on bamboo poles. I’m experimenting with the austerity of no surface stitching whatsoever, so the only stitching is in connecting the individual sheets of paper.
Do you prefer the kind of project that is challenging and requires attention, or the kind where you get in your meditative zone and enjoy the process?
When I’m busy working in my studio, the tactile experience of handling fabrics, papers, threads, and found materials is meditative—not in the passive, sitting-with-your-eyes-closed way, but more in the dynamic, walking-the-labyrinth mode.
It’s the repetitive, coordinated movement of hand and eye, body and mind, that, if all goes well, lands me in the “flow” state, where everything comes together and, paradoxically, everything disappears at the same.
My textile constructions often incorporate many lines of machine stitching. My gestures, some planned, some spontaneous, are recorded in those laid-down lines, and a careful reading of the lines, I hope, will elicit a unique and personal response in each viewer.
I create abstract compositions in order to allow both freedom of expression and freedom of interpretation.
Where can people see your work?
My textile constructions and a link to my writing blogs can be found on my website: laurastangelschmidt.com
My work is currently in group shows at these galleries:
Interview posted September 2023
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