When her children were young, fiber artist Melanie Tuazon started quilting as a way to explore creativity while making practical, useful things. The making of utilitarian objects has grown into a means of self-expression that connects Melanie with the rich history of women and textiles while she makes art with improvisational intention.
What inspires you to create?
As a new quilter, I was inspired by color, shape and things I saw. But now I say that I sew fabric together with thread and my feelings. I create to connect to myself. The act of sewing gives me space and permission to be inside my own head (which hasn’t always been present). The choices inherent in the creative process make me connect to the things that I believe and know about myself. It lets me challenge myself and process feelings in a way that results in a tangible object of comfort. I’ve made quilts about love, sadness, frustration, fear and admiration.
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What did you do BQ (Before Quilting)?
I had a short career as a writer for marketing trade magazines. Writing about creative people in the advertising industry in New York was incredibly illuminating and influenced my desire to be creative. It also taught me about the machinations of media and how art and commerce intersect. In a way, I was getting a post-graduate education in how creative people work and live, though I still didn’t see myself as one of them. I left magazines to pursue copy editing and freelancing, which was my first baby step across that self-imposed divide. When I had my first child, he needed two surgeries in the first two months of his life. So I quit everything to become a (traumatized) stay at home mother. That eventually led me to quilting.
When and how did you become interested in quilting? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
I found quilting when I was a mother of toddlers, ten years ago. I was filled with a lot of foolish guilt about how desperately I desired a creative outlet separate from my kids; quilting was a kind of compromise. By making quilts I could be creative and still make something practical for them. I learned a lot from the supportive staff at my local quilt shop and blogs, which were in their prime at the time.
Interestingly, quilting as a medium and a community not only helped me find an identity outside of motherhood, but it gave me a more feminist perspective on the world. I’ve found that quilting is not only a medium that suits my story of domestic life. It also helped me connect to a history of women who didn’t have the same choices. It exists in the tension and relationships between all of my different facets.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
On a superficial level, I tend to use very limited colors, almost always solids, and I love to mix neutrals. I’m not sure how noticeable it is to an outside observer or non-quilter, but I also try to add layers of meaning to the visual language of a quilt with technique. To give a few examples, when I made “Holding Things Together (Show the Work)”, it was important to make as many stitches and knots visible as possible. The quilt was about exposing work that is usually invisible. In “Unruly”, the message is resisting the control of bodies and minds. So, I used layered improv curves, which are beautifully insubordinate.
Is there an overarching theme that connects all of your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
In everything I make I’m exploring identity. Who am I, what do I like, what do I believe, how do I see the world? What do I want to put out into the world? That’s always changing and intersecting and evolving.
How do you balance the planned and the unplanned in your quilt designs? Does one tend to be the boss over the other? Or do they collaborate?
The degree of planned and unplanned elements in a quilting piece depends on a number of factors. That is why I find it endlessly fascinating. I can decide that I’m going to use a limited selection of materials or my whole stash. Or decide that I’m going to set the size of a block early on or puzzle them together later in the process. But more importantly, it’s a way to customize a process that feels supported but also has room for exploration as well as unexpected moments of beauty.
The balance is a check-in with whatever I need in that particular phase of life, which is truly my favorite thing about the quilting process in general. It can give me, and anyone really, something that might be missing from the non-quilting parts of their world.
If I crave order or want to go on autopilot for awhile, I plan more in advance. Likewise, if I feel like being spontaneous, I allow it and delight in whatever happens in the moment. It can be as comfortable and safe or as unruly and wild as I want it to be; it can even change throughout the making of a single quilt. The whole frame of planned and unplanned improv is meant to be a mental approach that is empowering rather than intimidating. It is different for each quilter and may not feel balanced as it means equilibrium or stability. The balance is less between planned and unplanned and more between the quilter and the quilt.
I love thinking about whether planned or unplanned is the boss, though ultimately it’s the quilter who’s in charge. I think that they take turns rather than collaborate, and the artist decides whose turn it is. Planned sets the rules, and unplanned figures out how to bend or break them.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
The only way to get better is with repetition, so I create opportunities for practice. For my first throw-size quilt, I learned to free motion quilt from a video on YouTube, then quilted the whole thing in a few hours. I didn’t know that was unusual until I joined a guild. Since then I have taken workshops with some legendary quilters, but for me, development happens alone, at my own pace. When I taught quilting workshops, I found that there is a definite learning mindset. If you’re not ready or open to something new, it’s probably not going to stick as well. So, I try to recognize when I am ready to struggle or be imperfect, which is usually when I’m working on something that compels me.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think creativity is a mindset that everyone has in them in different forms and potential expressions. You just have to learn how yours operates. In my mind, it’s more like a muscle that needs conditioning. When my creativity is at its strongest, it is giving me the permission to play, the vulnerability to express, the perspective to edit. There is so much in the world that can silence creativity, so it’s also about rebelling against the calls that say we have to be productive or pragmatic or commercial all the time.
What advice would you give to emerging artists?
Practice noticing the feeling you get when you make a decision that feels right. I call it “the click”. I get it when seams come together at a pleasing angle, when I put colors together and they make my eyes happy and when I know a project is done. It’s an amazing feeling that I didn’t always know how to access. But if you can notice when you feel it, it helps you make more work that you love – more things that feel like they belong to a deeper part of you.
What do you learn about who you are through your creative work?
I used to be great on my feet and under pressure, but I’ve learned I need time and space to develop and own my ideas. (This includes disowning outdated or harmful ones). I contain multitudes, and I strive to keep evolving, so creativity has given me the gift of self-education. I’ve learned that I love rules and also love testing and rebelling against them. I’ve learned that I’m allowed to be imperfect. But most importantly I learn how to be myself instead of who others want me to be or who I wish I was. Quilting has also connected me to so many people who share the craft but are different in untold numbers of ways, and that deepens my empathy and honor for humanity.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
Oh wow, it is very hard to choose just one. I’m going to have to list at least a few.
- Chakaia Booker is a sculptor whose work moved me when I went to Storm King Art Center in 2017. She wasn’t on Instagram, but I followed an empty account with her name on it, and she just recently started posting! She works mostly with recycled tires to stunning effect.
- Megan Nicole Dong is a creator and animator of a wonderfully weird show I watched with my kids called “Centaurworld”. She obviously loves color and stories and musical theater in addition to voicing my favorite character, the kleptomaniac Glendale.
- The late Queen Regent Lili’uokalani of Hawaii, who was a quilter, composer and writer. She was trying to make a new constitution that would help economically disenfranchised Hawaiians when she was overthrown, and during her imprisonment she stitched her story into silk fabric from her gowns.
- George Saunders never fails to inspire me when he talks about the creative process. Whenever he talks about the mechanics of writing, I find it applicable to quilting too. His attention to and articulation of technique is also very accessible.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website, melintheattic.com, is a place where I show work in a larger format than on social media and say a few words about what I’ve been up to. Since 2020 I’ve been sewing a lot more by hand (which means slower process, fewer projects). I also took a hiatus from teaching, and there’s been an overwhelming global pandemic, so it is updated a lot less frequently than it used to be. But I hope that people enjoy my work and engage with the ideas that it gives them.
Interview posted February 2022
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