With an artist inside waiting for release, Lesley Riley’s imagination collects and combines words and images. Then she sets them free. From fiber to collage to painting to cyanotype to digital art, Lesley embraces how each medium best conveys her vision.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Always there and always evolving. The very idea of being a creative person implies evolution, doesn’t it? One idea begets another, one medium leads to the next and one inspiration ignites another 101 what-ifs.
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At least that’s how it has worked in my world since I was the curious little girl with a little curl right in the middle of her forehead who began walking at seven months. The magic and wonder of childhood has never left me.
What inspires you? Do you do series work?
My earliest inspiration was words, quotes to be specific. I would get lost in a novel and fascinated by non-fiction, but my Dad’s Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations really resonated with me. Ever seeking answers, I devoured the timeless and time-spanning bite-sized words of wisdom gathered within its covers. For me it was like a roadmap and the golden key to how life worked.
I later combined those words with photos, especially photos of women. Coming of age in the 60s and 70s, yet marrying young and following the traditional roles and expectation of the 50s, I felt like a horse stuck in the starting gate. I became fascinated by women’s stories and searched for role-models who lived and understood the life I was experiencing and the creative life I dreamed of.
Figuring out to how to become an artist, to actually create, not just dream of creating art while raising a family became my focus. I went back to finish my BA, majoring in Women’s Studies for two reasons. 1) to finish the degree I started in 1970; and 2) to find out if I was any good at writing. I wanted to create words, sentences and stories that inspired others as much as I had been (and continue to be) inspired by the words of others.
My first foray into making was quilts. In addition to words and images, I am inspired by fabric. At the same time I was completing my degree, I began to use the limited fragments of time available to me to make small fabric collages embellished with photos and quotes I called Fragments. Each Fragment came with a brief musing, my first attempt at sharing wisdom. I had figured nobody would want to read my words by themselves, so I seduced them into it with the art. Eventually Fragments became so popular that I didn’t have time to add the words and my writing aspirations took a backseat to the art.
The Fragments were my first series, my first art actually, beginning in 1999 when I was 47. It wasn’t until 2018 that I began working in a series again. My current work is based on cyanotype (sun) prints that I photograph and digitally layer to create Modern Botanicals. As a result of this series I am designing a fabric line for Northcott. I could never have imagined all the creative wonder and magic that has happened over the last twenty year span.
When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?
It depends on the medium I am working in. I am most comfortable working with fabric. It’s home, it’s easy for me. I always have a vision in my head of how I want the finished piece to look. Most of the time it comes pretty close, but fabrics, colors or details may change as it comes together.
With painting, it’s a whole different story. I have to trust the process. I am not as experienced with wielding a brush and paint, so I don’t even try to have a vision, only a rough idea. When I work digitally, it’s easy to make changes, materials are never wasted and I can do it anywhere. The process creates surprise, serendipity and what-ifs along with a lot of trial and error until I hit the sweet spot. I have found that all these ways of working and creating inspire and inform my work and teach me things I would never learn if I stuck with one medium.
What inspired you to bring TAP Transfer Artist Paper to market? How does it enhance your art?
When I started making Fragments, getting my photos onto fabric was a difficult process. In 1999 there were no home copiers or scanners and definitely no color printers priced for home use. I had to make frequent trips to a local copy shop and often ended up with less than stellar results. Fortunately, by 2001 Epson introduced an affordable color printer with pigment inks. Then I began printing directly onto fabric that was prepared to retain the printer inks. This was a great method, but the printed images were never as bright as I wanted, and the color faded over time. And then serendipity stepped in.
One day the phone rang. A paper manufacturer had developed an iron-on transfer paper and they wanted to know if I would help them promote it to quilters. My first instinct was eww, no! All I could think of were the plastic transfers on the custom T-shirts one bought on summer vacations at the beach.
But, just as printing technology had developed, so had transfer paper technology. I have pretty high standards and TAP meets all of them. Not only did it solve the color and fading problem, but it opened a whole new arena of possibilities for my mixed media art and getting images onto a variety of surfaces. You can learn more about transferring with TAP on fabric and on other surfaces on my YouTube channel.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
Ha, ha, ha. Organization? But I can tell you one wonderful thing about how disorganization contributes to my work process. Seeing fabrics, papers, colors and textures juxtaposed at random leads me to combine things I never would have tried or thought of on my own.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
All of the above, but 90% of the time it is silence. It definitely depends on the work, the stage of that work and my energy level.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I have a lifelong habit of wanting to collect every inspiring image I see. I tear up magazines and print out screenshots of words and images I find online. Most mornings my drowsy waking-up activity is to create a collage spread of these snippets in a composition book. It’s not just about saving images; it is also an exercise in figuring out why I was attracted to it in the first place.
The collages have turned out to be wonderful exercises. I am constantly seeing and learning new things, not only about myself, but about color, composition, line, shape, balance and more. It’s strange, but somehow these visual morning pages make me feel safe. I have both stored the inspiration and created new inspiration. We all have a fear of losing or forgetting a creative idea, right?
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I just know, intuitively, if it’s working. But I had to go to school and study composition and design to learn the principles and elements of art to make sure my intuition was informed. Knowing the basics, plus having another artist I respect say that I had an “intuitive sense of composition,” when I was a student in her class, validated my own knowingness and bolstered my confidence to create and even teach composition.
My best process, when I have doubts about the work, is to walk away for a few days, a month, sometimes even a year before I decide if it’s OK or not. Time always creates a fresh perspective.
What is the biggest challenge to being successful in a creative field?
It’s such a cliché and so overused, but the answer is TIME. A successful artist has to wear many hats. The more successful you are, the more hard work it takes to stay that way. Most people only see the fun, glamorous side. Successful artists are so creative they can make it all look so easy!
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
I have been trying to answer that question for decades because I struggled with it for so long. I was a late bloomer and had a lot of challenges: space, time, a full-time job and six children. You should read my journals lamenting all the obstacles I faced.
I could squeeze in a class now and then, banking the knowledge in my creativity account to cash in later when I had time. I went to bed every night saying, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll have time.” The breakthrough came when, in a class called Unlocking Creativity, we had the assignment to turn a negative into a positive. My negative was definitely NO TIME! How could I turn that into a positive and have something to show for it? The answer was blocks of time, actual blocks with every 5, 10 or 20 minutes I snatched for creativity. I was waiting for big, open expanses of free time yet allowing vacant minutes to pass me by. My video 23 Ways to Fit More Art Into Your Day explains it all. And here’s another funny one I did about the challenges artists face – Wake Up Call for Artists.
The best thing I’ve learned is to JUST START! Agree to give it five minutes. You cannot overcome a challenge just by thinking about it. It is something you have to figure out while DOING.
Is there such a thing as “collecting” too many techniques? At what point does the quest for learning get in the way of actually creating?
People take classes online and in person. They watch copious videos and search on Pinterest and in magazines and books, all to learn techniques. All of that is time consuming and just feeds the FOMO (fear of missing out) and the constant desire for more, more, more. I read an article that said watching others create produces the same endorphins that our own creating does. It’s so true. I love to watch others create. The thing is, it always leaves you wanting more. If you’re the one creating, then you have an unending supply of those endorphins. And yes, you can get hooked on creating.
The other side of collecting techniques is that you never really dive down into something and get better at it. Trying a lot of things helps us hone in on our own voice. We have to learn what we like and don’t like. But at some point you have to choose one and see where it takes you. Along the way you develop not only your skills, but your own personal style and are well on the way to becoming the artist you want to be.
With so many workshops and retreat opportunities available, how can one decide if an experience will be a good fit?
To me the most important thing is to consider your energy level and whether you’re an introvert or extrovert. Introverts get drained by large groups, randomity and socializing with other people while extroverts get energized by it all. (Oh how I wish I were an extrovert sometimes!) This means the larger or longer the event, the more it will take out of you. It’s actually a lot of work to take 2, 3 or 5 days of classes. Most people don’t notice it because of those endorphins flowing throughout, but it can be overwhelming. If you find it hard to socialize, or feel totally drained at the end of the day, that takes away from the experience. A smaller retreat/workshop offers you a calmer, more intimate and relaxed experience, often with more time for meaningful connection.
As for skill level or special needs, contact the instructor before you decide on a workshop. A good teacher will answer any of your questions, address your concerns and be honest with you about the pace of the class and how much individual attention she can give to students.
Tell us about your Red Thread Retreats. They might be just the fuel an artist needs!
My Red Thread Retreats began as a dream looking for a home. Having taught for several years at all of the large art retreats, my introvert soul longed for a smaller, more personal event, where people had the opportunity to create, eat, relax and socalize all under one roof. I searched for just the right location, and after a few years, it finally found me. After a discussion with a dear friend about labyrinths, I went online to find one near me that I could walk. The Blue Mountain Retreat ( home to the Red Thread) came up in my search. It didn’t have a labyrinth, but it had everything I dreamed of and more. I went to scope it out on my 59th birthday and instantly knew this was the place.
Since that first autumn retreat in 2012, The Red Thread Retreat has expanded to two, sometimes three times a year and as far away as Santa Fe, the Netherlands and Ireland (2021). The first one was so perfect that I wondered if it would ever be that good again. Each year I held my breath, hoping the magic would happen again. Now, after 14 retreats, I rest easy knowing that the magic will appear, growing as each woman arrives with her own bit to share. I am proud to say that the Red Thread is more than just an art getaway. I’ve watched friendships, confidence, talent, personality and love grow among those that attend.
Kathleen Dolan, one of the “rethreaders” (our name for returning attendees), says it best, “Once a year Lesley Riley wraps me in a warm magical hug. She doesn’t do it alone, all that attend her Red Thread Retreat become a part of it. Over the course of a few days my creative life is refreshed, renewed and transformed.” Find out more about the Red Thread Retreats on my website.
Tell us more about Transfer Artist Paper (TAP).
The Ultimate Guide to Transfer Artist Paper (TAP) was released April, 2021. Why another book on TAP you might ask? After a way-too-long period of manufacturing issues, a new formulation of TAP was relaunched in November, 2019 – just before Covid hit. The new book was written, not only to draw attention to and explain the differences between the old and new TAP, but to showcase and share some new uses, ideas, techniques and inspiration.
There is an expanded section on making large transfers beyond the limits of the letter size TAP paper and a surprisingly simple way to transfer onto dark surfaces and still have your color/drawing/image appear as if it is on a white substrate. There’s a leather cuff project, a beautiful mica project and my favorite, a quilt of birds that illustrates the e.e. cummings quote, “Your head is a living forest full of songbirds”. I’m quite proud of the projects the contributing artists created, too. Lynn Krawczyk’s Needle and Pin Minder is a gem (pattern included!)
What are a few of your favorite TAP tips?
The most important TAP tip would be that, unlike the old TAP, you can no longer iron directly over the new TAP transfers. A roll of parchment paper will take care of that. Place parchment paper over the transfer and iron away.
Two more tips worth sharing regarding TAP transfers onto wood and metal are:
- TAP transfers and looks best on wood with a tight grain
- Clean metal with isopropyl alcohol before applying the TAP transfer.
- Thick metals take longer to heat up than craft metal and once it reaches the critical temperature, the TAP will transfer quickly, so do not over-iron.
And my latest discovery – in addition to my Oliso Craft iron, I discovered the Cricut Heat Press. It works beautifully with TAP. I use both the mini and the 9×9”, depending on the size of the transfer.
How does working with TAP improve the quality of artwork compared with other iron-on transfers?
TAP Transfer Artist Paper has always been considered the state of the art transfer paper because it works on a variety of surfaces yielding a permanent, professional looking transfer. On absorbent substrates, particularly fabric, it fuses into the surface rather than sitting on the top. For non-absorbent surfaces like mica and metal, it produces a durable, permanent transfer that will not peel away.
What are you working on now, and what’s next for you?
It has been an exciting two years since my last Spotlight on Create Whimsy in November 2019. Fortunately, the pandemic proved to be an extremely creative time for me. Time opened up and inspiration filled my days. I’ve been captivated by tintypes and daguerreotypes for decades and stumbled upon a Civil War collection of them on the Library of Congress website. On a long walk down my driveway one afternoon to fetch the mail, I began to see connections between the present hardships we were experiencing due to Covid with the hardships suffered during the Civil War – separation of families, food and materials shortages, uncertainty and sadly, loss of lives.
At the same time, I was extremely drawn to my fabric collection, feeling a need for the tactile comfort it provided. I woke every (lonely) day with a need to sooth my soul and began to create small fabric collages, similar to my early Fragments. After I had about 100 of them, I decided to name them Fabric Poems and even sold them through my website.
With my hands deep in my fabric stash every day and my spirits rising as a result, I was also compelled to create a series of art quilts using photos of, and focusing on, the people of the Civil War. My interest is in the supporting cast so to speak – the unsung heroes, the caregivers, the storytellers, those behind the scenes whose actions 150+ years ago paralleled what was (is still) going on during our 2020 pandemic. I wanted to tell their stories. These quilts will be shown at the Virginia Quilt Museum beginning July 19, 2021, and hopefully elsewhere one day.
And, in typical Lesley Riley form, I wanted to share my joy in what I was creating and was compelled to write another book – Photo Memory Quilts is set for a Spring 2023 release by C&T Publishing. The focus is on a variety of unique ways to create an art quilt using photographs. It won’t be your typical memory quilt book, but a fresh, modern look at using photos to preserve memories, history, place, time or stories. The focus will be on storytelling using art principles & design and modern technology to create a whole new class of narrative quilts. I’m excited about it and am pretty sure that you will be, too.
Oh, and I am now a BERNINA Ambassador and am exploring the possibilities and potential of the BERNINA 790 sewing and embroidery machine to make the visions in my head become a reality on the cloth. Follow me on Instagram to see how all of this unfolds @lrileyart.
Interview published November, 2019, updated October 2021.
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