As Lea McComas travels the world and immerses herself in rich and vibrant cultures, her art reflects the human experience. With fabric and thread, she captures moments that highlight the world we all share.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I think I’ve always been on this path, but didn’t always recognize it as an artist’s path, so my progress has been circuitous. I liken my journey to driving in the dark: you can only see what is illuminated immediately in front of you, but if you move into that space, the next part of the journey comes to light. It is possible to travel a great distance before the light comes up and the path becomes increasingly more clear.
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I’ve always been a creative, but, in the beginning, thought of myself as “crafty”. Growing up in the Midwest US in the 60’s and 70’s I learned embroidery, sewing, knitting, quilting. I also learned that those were fine hobbies that any girl could learn, but not fine art. The focus was on dutifully following a pattern with precision.
In the 80’s I finished college and returned to my hometown to teach. I also began to explore and look for ways to “go deeper” in my hobbies. For example, I did more than learn to knit; I helped shear the sheep, then spun and dyed my own yarn to make sweaters that I designed.
My journey became more about delving deeply into technique and process and less about the final product. In one year, I made sweaters for my entire family. While that sounds product oriented, each of the sweaters was an opportunity to work with various fibers, experiment with plant dyes, and work out stitch combinations. I learned to write a pattern that I could share with others.
In the 90’s, I became a teacher with the Department of Defense and traveled abroad to teach the children of military families overseas. I was assigned to Incirlik, Turkey, first, and later to Okinawa, Japan. Both were areas with very warm climates, so I gave up knitting sweaters and turned my energies toward exploring the land and cultures. Both of these locations had significant textile traditions.
When I returned from overseas in 2001 and settled in Colorado, I discovered an art quilt guild, and also found my way to a year-long course at a local quilt store with a focus on color and composition. In that class, we were assigned a color scheme each month and tasked with creating something original to bring back the next month.
I assigned myself the additional task of exploring a new technique. This is when the journey really got interesting. It was a great time of experimentation. I also made a point of sharing my work each month at the guild meeting. That was a fairly safe place to be vulnerable. It was through my association with both of these groups that I began to call myself an artist. It felt strange at first, but I quickly got comfortable.
One evening at guild, a more mature artist who had designated herself my mentor, pulled me aside and told me to stop messing around and find my artistic voice: choose one thing and go with it. I was indignant! If I spoke 3 languages, no one would ever say, “Choose one and speak only that”. Plus, I really felt like I was on my journey, in a period of discovery, and limiting myself at that moment was premature.
That encounter reminded me of the book, If you Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. The takeaway is that each of us has a truth that comes from within; while we may learn from others, simply accepting someone else’s direction as your own may lead you astray.
Why textiles? How did you get started?
Why not textiles? They mark every significant event in our lives: a blanket for the newborn, team uniforms, wedding dress. Plus, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing with fabric or yarn. My mother taught me to use her sewing machine when I was 6 years old. Before that, I was always playing around with the scraps from her sewing projects. I enjoy the tactile nature of working with fiber and find it very soothing. During times of stress, I’ve been known to go the fabric store just to pet the fabric. When I spin wool or I’m thread painting, I find that there is a rhythm to my movements that is very meditative.
My first original design was for the First Great American Quilt Festival in 1986 where I was the winner from the state of Missouri. My prize included a ticket to New York City for the opening of the exhibit. I was 25 at the time, just getting started as a school teacher, and still thinking of quilting as nothing more than a hobby. So, when I met one of the other winners and she spoke so enthusiastically about helping each other in our quilting careers, I thought she was being a little over dramatic and ambitious. Of course, in hindsight, Marianne Fons was on to something.
Much of your work is portraits or depictions of people in everyday circumstances. What is it about the human experience that inspires you to recreate it in fabric and thread?
People fascinate me. I love to watch those who cross my path and imagine their stories. Right now, we live in a world that seems so polarized, and I believe that if we would only stop to look at each other and find our commonality and respect our uniqueness, we will discover that there really is more that connects us than divides us.
My art is an extension of that fascination with the human experience…. It’s about capturing stories. Each piece introduces the viewer to a new character or set of characters by opening a window to their narrative. I find inspiration from images of daily life, both past and present. At first, my portrait work was based on vintage family photos.
Then, I found inspiration in the photos I took overseas.
Now, I’m turning my eye to my own community and finding that there are many fascinating stories to tell close to home.
How did living overseas influence your art?
When I moved to Turkey, everything was different: language, dress, religion, cuisine, transportation, holidays, housing. It was a feast for the senses, and I was determined to take advantage of every opportunity to explore and understand my new home and to learn all I could about its rich textile traditions. In my first year, I took Turkish language classes. This opened a lot of doors for me as I traveled. I could communicate with the people I met, and it was also a sign of respect that I had made the effort to learn their language.
Early in that year, a group of teachers took me to a remote village where girls gathered at a kilim cooperative. Kilims are flat woven rugs. Here, the girls lived together and learned to weave. They would work there until their families arranged a marriage for them. I visited several times and arranged an invitation to spend a summer with them. In addition to learning their weaving techniques, I experienced life in a community where many of the amenities that I took for granted, just didn’t exist.
Looking back, experiences like that shaped my approach to art through portraiture with the focus on capturing the personality and the moment. My art is another sign of respect for the people I met, and, in the case of my historical pieces, a means of honoring my own history.
Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I do work in series, eventually. Inspiration comes from many directions, and I often find that a new direction draws me in before I make more than one or two pieces in a specific series. So, I tend to circulate among several series.
What is happening simultaneously is that my skills and vision are always developing. When I come back to a series for the next piece, I’m ready to tackle something more ambitious or difficult. A good example is in my series Photographs & Memories, works from historical photos. An early piece in this series was Zeke.
The work here is done with fabric, and the stitching is minimal. Later came Panning for Gold where thread work plays an important role in defining the figure while the background is more abstracted.
Finally, consider the complex composition and intense thread work in Bike Boys. I pondered this piece for more than 2 years before I felt that I had the skill set to do it justice.
How do you make the leap from the idea in your head to the art you create?
My ideas aren’t just born in my mind, they develop and mature there, as well. When I begin to actually create the work, I can usually visualize it as a completed piece in my head.
I’m fortunate that my husband, Jim, is a classically trained artist. We often sit in the evening with a glass of wine and discuss our current projects, brainstorm, and problem-solve. Then, I go to sleep and let my subconscious do the work. It is not uncommon to wake at 3 AM with new insight. When I start working with fabric and thread in the studio, it is to create the work that exists in my mind.
I’ve tried creative exercises where I create on the fly, working intuitively, and I almost always find myself at a dead end. I have a special place in my storage room where I put these works, and I think of them as raw materials for some future project. Once retired from teaching public school and in my forever studio space, these pieces will emerge and hang on the walls. It is then that I will find new inspiration and a path forward.
What do you do differently that makes your work stand out as yours?
In my pictorial work, I set a high bar for myself in terms of the level of realism I seek to achieve, then significantly limit the resources that I allow myself to use. It would be easier to print an image to fabric and incorporate paints to add shading and detail, but there is no thrill in that for me. I would miss the tactile experience of creating the image in fabric first and the challenge of fine tuning with thread.
As an artist, I work in two worlds: fine art and quilting. There are many in the fine arts community that create portraits or pictorial works with a high level of realism, but generally, they work with very traditional media, while I do it with fabric and thread. Within the quilt community, there are many who create portrait works, but the intensity of my thread work sets me apart.
If you had the chance to live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose?
It would be the Florentine High Renaissance, 1450-1550. This was the time of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. If you want to understand composition, proportion, line, color, perspective, the human body, gesture, (I could go on) study the works of these men and their contemporaries.
Currently, I’m working on a large, multi-figure composition for an exhibit in 2020. It will celebrate the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in America. I’m not free to give details, but I can say that this will be the largest work that I’ve ever done. It will consume my every free moment for the next 9 months. Now, I’m at the early stage of working out the composition. I’ve spent hours studying renaissance works to help me understand how to create the structure that will house my figures, and then place the figures to communicate the overall theme and subplots.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Yes, and Yes!! I think the desire to create is in all of us; that anyone who can carve out a piece of their day for a creative pursuit will be happier for it. But then, there are so many factors that influence how we live that out. What resources and opportunities are available? What messages do we get from those around us? Is individuality valued? Is experimentation celebrated? How much time and energy is required to just get through the day? And what is left over for creative activities?
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what is your work process?
Right now, my studio space is a spare bedroom with my husbands’ studio space next door in a family room area, but we have some exciting changes in the works. We purchased a few acres with a small barn on it next to our home in the mountains, and are having that converted into studio space. It will be a five-year process before it is fully complete. Although a road exists, we’re also building a path through the forest between the house and studio. It’s magical. Eventually, we hope to host open studio events and workshops. It’s an exciting vision for the future and planning it all out is another opportunity for creativity.
For now, there are still big things happening in my small studio space. Because I still work full time as a public school teacher, I schedule my creative time in the early mornings. I get up at 5 AM to work in the studio until 6:30 before heading off to school. It’s a time of day where my mind is fresh, the house is quiet, and I’m most productive. Also, starting the day with creativity has to make the rest of the day go better, right?
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I offer several lectures and workshops related to my fused fabric and thread painting techniques, color and composition, and portrait and landscape works. I also offer several online courses through the Quilting Company. Descriptions of all of these, links to online classes, and dates for upcoming events are on my website: LeaMcComas.com. Anyone wanting more information can also email me: [email protected]
Tell us about the Border Wall Quilt Project. What inspired you to start it? What are the goals? Who can participate?
The Border Wall Quilt Project is a collaborative art project that explores all aspects of US immigration policy and border control; it seeks to promote civil discourse.
Fiber artists contribute up to 3 small quilted pieces, 8” x 16” expressing their views and concerns on these issues. All perspectives are welcome. The mini quilts become “bricks” placed back-to-back to build 6’ x 10’ panels that can be viewed from both sides. Suspended bricks create gaps that allow viewers on each side to see and hear each other. Each panel incorporates 60 bricks. Presently, almost 200 artists from across the US, Mexico, Canada, and Europe have contributed over 300 bricks. We’ve completed five 10-foot wide panels and are currently building the sixth.
The BWQP has traveled to a variety of festivals, museums, and churches across the country, and has been exhibited in Washington, DC, and Mexico City. I’ll be taking it to Europe this spring to exhibit in France and The Netherlands.
We are accepting new bricks through 2020, and are always on the lookout for new venues where we can share the project. Visit our webpage at BorderWallQuiltProject.com to see our galleries, find information on where we’ve been and where we’re going, or to donate to the project.
Interview published December 2019.
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