Spotlight: Luana Rubin, Designer, Artist, and Creative Entrepreneur
How do you spot Luana Rubin? She’s the one with a gazillion balls in the air! Painter, photographer, art quilter, color forecaster, philanthropist, world traveler and fabric industry entrepreneur, Luana’s creative drive touches every part of the quilting universe.
How did you come to pursue a creative life and career?
I come from a family of artists and musicians, which has expanded to include engineers and architects. I was encouraged to dream big, and nobody ever told me I shouldn’t pursue an education in the arts. First I was a music performance major, then a fashion design major. I considered myself an artist since childhood, and education was highly valued. I had some teachers along the way who identified me as special, and who gave me creative and emotional support in my teen years. My family blew up when I was in high school, and there was no money for college, but these mentors helped me get scholarships. I got a degree in Fashion Design from FIDM in Los Angeles in 1981.
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Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?
My grandmothers were very creative. They introduced me to watercolors, ceramic painting, crewel embroidery and fashion sewing as a little girl when we visited the grandparents. Fascinated, I wanted to try and learn about it all.
In grade school I was the kid who always drew, so I got in trouble. As a painfully shy child at the time, teachers yelling at me was mortifying sometimes. I drew animals first, then people. At the age of 11, an oil painting set was a thrilling Christmas gift. I grew up in a small town but from the age of 10 my goal was to travel the world so I could visit all the great art museums of the world.
Art and color have always attracted me – creating something from nothing using light and dark and color. Early on, a mentor steered me from an art/illustration career to design, which was a smart idea so I could make a living. In my first job at a silk dress company, I designed textiles. I worked as a designer in Los Angeles, then moved to Hong Kong and worked in 10 countries around Asia and several European countries, then moved to New York and worked on 7th Avenue as an import design specialist. I spent several months each year overseas, and started to collect textiles.
What sparked your interest in quilting?
I always loved fabric and sewing. I left the garment industry because I had enough of the cut-throat back-stabbing aspect of the business. So I had a bookstore and designed jewelry for a few years in the East Village, traveled to Brazil to buy gemstones and started collecting more textiles.
In 1990 I moved back to Colorado. One day in 1992 I was in the supermarket when the magazine rack caught my eye….it was a bunch of quilting magazines. This was totally new to me! I picked up a copy of Quilters Newsletter and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I knew immediately this was what I had been looking for. Of course, I already knew how to sew and draft patterns, but I set about learning the terminology for the techniques in quilting.
Right away I bumped up against “rules” as I took classes. In the first class I took, everyone else finished one or two blocks and I finished the whole quilt top in a day. I took a Hawaiian Quilting class and the teacher kicked me out because I wanted to use batiks and hand-dyes instead of the solids she insisted were traditional. I began to see that I should be designing quilts, not copying what others had done.
What drives color trends? In your work with the Color Marketing Group, have you noticed any connection with world events? Do trends in the US differ from those in other parts of the world?
Yes there are many factors that drive color trends, from economic and social events, to pop culture, but also what is bubbling up from the fine arts world, from couture fashion, and now of course the pandemic and protests for racial justice will surely have their own effect. The Color Marketing Group holds trend forecasting events around the world, and forecasts different color palettes for North America, Europe, Asia (including Australia) and Latin America. This year I am participating in both the North American and the Asian forecasting events.
What trends do you see in quilting today?
There is of course a huge sea change going on in the country, and in the world, which will have a powerful effect on our industry and all of the creative arts. There is no escaping this now. For some quilt shops that had to remain closed during the pandemic, this may be a crushing blow. For online quilt businesses, their business may flourish.
Teachers have to consider online education because there is really no other option at the moment. This is a make-or-break time for the online creative education sector. Some think that it is only the younger tech-savvy quilters who will be able to adapt, but there is another intangible element that will be a strong factor…and that is on-screen charisma. Some people have it; some don’t. Teachers who have been wildly popular in person may also be popular online because of this charisma, if they can learn how to focus it into a camera.
Modern quilting is an undeniable influence in our world for many years now. It has even crept in to influence those who call themselves ‘art quilters’. Fussy overwrought details and layers have given way to a cleaner design aesthetic, which is a reflection of how so many of us are seeking simpler lifestyles and living spaces.
Another trend has been the cross-pollination between the biggest international quilt festivals, including the Tokyo Quilt Festival, the Houston Quilt Festival and the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham UK. (The latter being the largest quilt festival in Europe.)
How these events will change due to the jarring stop of the pandemic is unknown, but we know that in the interim, a lot of lectures are available these days online via Zoom. Online webinars and seminars have their limitations, but when you’ve been sheltering-at-home and have not seen your quilting tribe for months, it is a lifeline.
With eQuilter.com, you were an early adopter of the web as a sales tool. Quilters are very tactile people. How did you overcome the “I need to feel the fabric” hesitation on the part of some customers?
Our customers know that we carry quality fabrics, and they tend to be intermediate level quilters (or higher) who understand that there is a benchmark weight and weave for a “Quilters Cotton”. Usually more familiar with the high quality brands, they come to us because we have a huge variety to choose from. They are essentially buying art and color from us. To be successful you have to be serving a niche customer and offer something that no competitors have. By focusing on a core demographic of creative contemporary quilters who are not afraid of color and big bold bright fabrics, we have become known for a certain type of fabrics that sets us apart from other shops. We also now have our own exclusive line of digital-printed fabrics that are very distinctive.
Was philanthropy a part of your business plan from the beginning?
Unconsciously, yes. We lost a full term baby daughter in 1995 during labor, and I determined to create some good from that terrible loss. I thought a lot about the 30,000 children who were dying needlessly every day at the time. (On average, 15,000 children under-5 die each day compared with 34,000 in 1990.)
I met Kathy Price the same year I met my husband and partner Paul. While we were starting our business, she was starting her nonprofit “Mission of Love”. I would say that 9/11 kickstarted our efforts. We collected and distributed 3500 quilts to victims and survivors of the 9/11 attack. We raised a lot of money to help families affected by 9/11. During that time we started donating 2% of sales to charity, and started with a short list of organizations.
Now we have 7 non-profit organizations listed on the checkout page, so the customer can choose which one will receive their 2% donation. We send out checks once a month. We have raised $1.7 million in 20 years, which still just blows my mind. However I believe it is a big reason why we have so many loyal customers. They know that together we can achieve great things and help others so desperately in need. I have become an environmental activist over the years, and am asked to speak at EPA federal hearings, to come lobby senators in Washington, DC, and also invited to speak at the World Wilderness Congress in Jaipur, India this year. Unfortunately, Covid made this event impossible.
5 years ago my quilt “Rocky Mountain Poison” told the story of the poisoning of the Animas River, in the “Water is Life” exhibit at the United Nations in Geneva.
Recently I have curated the “For the Love of Gaia” exhibit at the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, on the topic of climate change and global pollution. Other government venues invited this exhibit, but the current administration blocked it. I have hope that we can share our message more widely in the future.
How do you stay organized with so many balls in the air?
I get a lot done late at night when my family is asleep. My friends tease me that I never sleep, but that is not true. I have chunks of time every day when I am alone and uninterrupted and I can get a lot done during that focused time. Also I use Google Calendar to organize my To Do list – it is pretty scary looking! But I knock a few things off the list every day and update the calendar every night. I make a note of Things To Do as they occur to me, because if I don’t write them down they will get lost. So I have a giant To Do list but everything is there, and I keep chipping away at it!
What are your favorite media when you can capture some time to create your own work?
I am a painter and photographer and of course a textile artist. I make complex fused appliqué collages that I build up from a drawing which I then transfer to a muslin base, over a light box. Lately I’ve made some quilts for the Washington, DC, exhibit (curated by Donna DeSoto) with Inktense Pencils, and they look like paintings. As a Bernina Ambassador, I have several machines for my freemotion stitching on these art quilts. I am always trying new things and taking classes when I can. In the last year I’ve taken a calligraphy class, a couple advanced Photoshop/photography seminars, and I brought my daughter Sophie to a retreat with Barbara Beasley teaching about her animal portraits. We have had many brilliant artists come and teach in our eQuilter classroom, which is always a great inspiration.
One of my great loves is traveling to do wildlife photography. I have traveled to Churchill, Canada, to photograph the polar bears 4 times. I used one of these photos for my Polar Bear quilt in the Endangered Species exhibit. When I traveled to Tanzania in Africa on a tent safari, I photographed the Great Migration. That was the trip of a lifetime. These trips inspire my activism for Endangered Species. On the way back from the January 2020 Tokyo Quilt Festival, I stopped in Maui to photograph the whales with their babies. It is a great passion of mine.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think if we are given permission to be creative, to be artists, as children….we simply carry that natural gift into our adulthood. Nobody ever told me I could not be an artist. So I grew up to be a designer, artist, and creative entrepreneur. For all of us who have managed to claim our identity as an artist, I think we have an obligation to reach back to those who are climbing the ladder behind us, and give them permission to step up. I have seen miracles occur when people are given permission to be creative and artistic. I do believe that even people who have become disconnected with their natural inner-artist can still be led to step up and rediscover the joy of creation. Of course, they have to have the desire to do this, and if they do, almost anything is possible.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Hmm, I don’t think it is an either/or question. I think a successful artist has some of both. I tend to plan and lay a groundwork to start, and about halfway through when it is not all going as planned, I have to dive off a cliff and see what happens. Usually my unplanned explorations end up being better than I planned, but there is always a midpoint when I am terrified that I blew it and made a mess. Generally the most creative breakthroughs come because we made a “mistake” and had to come up with a solution.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I have been compulsively drawing since I was a kid. I got in trouble in school because of this. After college, I still took regular art classes and explored not just drawing but also watercolor, pastels and oil painting. I did a very in-depth curriculum of classical oil portraiture. I learned a lot about color mixing, and how to see color when plein air painting. And I attended a weekly figure painting group with a live model for 16 years.
Now my drawing is more about taking notes for textile designs. So after decades of drawing in sketchbooks, painting, taking photographs, I would say my ideas develop in my mind with a set of photos on file to back them up. I did so many years of very serious realistic drawing of flowers, landscapes, portraits and figures. It is such an important foundational practice and … PRACTICE is the key word. It is like practicing a musical instrument. You have to keep at it ….use it or lose it.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
Every project begins and ends with organizing. When I start a new big project I take out everything I plan to use, lay out fabrics and colors, and it grows and grows into a giant fabulous mess. When finished, I put everything in a very organized system of boxes and containers, and then I start the whole process again for the next project. Every project seems to be bigger and/or more complicated. Often I sign up for group projects with a deadline, or I would never make the time to get it done. I have too many other things going on in my life.
I never make a quilt just for the heck of it. It is always for a planned exhibit, and if it is a prestigious invitational exhibit, I take it very seriously. Right now I am working on a big project for a prestigious venue, but the exhibit opening has been delayed several times due to Covid. My studio was taken over by eQuilter for awhile because we had to space out our cutting tables and it meant we had to move several cutting stations into a 2nd room – my studio, which is also our classroom. So I had a delay too.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I have a huge stash of fabrics. It is all end pieces from the eQuilter cutting department, very carefully organized by color. I really love using batiks and hand-dyes because of the saturated color and the high quality tightly woven greige goods.
My thread collection is quite extensive now too. Every project means I add several colors to the thread palette. After I make the appliqué collage, I do extensive thread painting on top. I sew on Bernina machines. My main machines now are a B 790 and a Q 20.
As a developing fashion designer, I noticed my favorite teachers all sewed on Bernina machines. When I lived in Hong Kong my roommate was Oscar de la Renta’s head patternmaker, and she had a Bernina. As a young designer I didn’t think I could afford a Bernina, so I went through every other brand. When I finally got my first Bernina, I was just blown away by the things the machine would do that none of my other machines could do. So I became a Bernina ambassador. I think I have 10 Bernina machines now, collected over 20 years.
I still have a big pair of Gingher Dressmaker Shears that I’ve had since I worked in the garment industry. They are the original super sharp quality. They just don’t make them like that anymore.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Oh lots of music for sure! I have visited Cuba 3 times, so Cuban Salsa is one of my favorite genres. I like Spanish flamenco, and have a collection of world music from African to French. When I travel I try to go see local musicians and buy their CDs. Some of my favorite music I found like this. I have a CD of Cape Breton fiddle music that I got on a trip to Montreal that is one of my favorites.
Last year I spoke at the quilt festival in Nantes, France, and stopped in Paris to see the poor burnt-out Notre Dame on the way back home. On that trip I heard the Four Seasons performed in the Saint Chapelle which is next to Notre Dame. I bought the CD from those musicians, and whenever I play the CD I am transported to the ornate and very amazing space. Music frees my mind and takes me deeper into the moment.
When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
Before Covid I traveled once a month. About every other month was an overseas trip. Actually those travel days are my day off. Because I am creating in my studio and at work all the time, my travel days are for reading and sleeping. I don’t feel as creative in cramped public places. However I do use that time for brainstorming in a notebook.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
I have no desire to work in a series. Every new piece is an opportunity to learn. I am always challenging myself to learn or develop a new technique in the next project. There is always a part of the project when I have to jump without a net, and I have a few days of anxiety because I am not totally sure if it is going to work out. Then I work through it and wonder why I was being so silly. But I would never want to be so over-confident that I thought I knew everything. The biggest creative discoveries come from a combination of practice, and jumping without a net. You build a foundation through practice, then you challenge yourself. Rinse and repeat.
If you could time travel to a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose? Why?
Ever since I was a kid I’ve had a fascination with Michelangelo and Da Vinci. If there is such a thing as past lives, I think I lived in Renaissance Italy and had a life as an artist. Truly, I was obsessed as a kid, and it came out of nowhere. I love the colors, the textiles, the decorative arts, and the portrait paintings of that time and place. I read “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (biography about Michelangelo) so many times as a kid that the cover fell off and the book disintegrated. My first trip to Italy was not until the age of 42, and it felt like going home. Now I have been there several times, have some special friendships there, and I know I will return.
So far I have traveled to 49 countries. My 50th country was slated for 2020, but that was not meant to be. I have found that everywhere I go there are quilters or at least artisans and textile-lovers with whom I can commune. I consider myself an international quilting ambassador, and wherever I go, there are members of our tribe.
Interview with Luana Rubin published September 2020
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