Michael J Ross hand dyes his own fabrics to create his contemporary quilts. He works in a series, exploring a theme while continually challenging himself to do a little something different in the next piece, using bold colors in unexpected ways as a means of expression.
Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I tend to work in series because I feel that it allows me to explore a theme or method of working on a deeper level. But I don’t start out planning to create a series. I typically begin exploring an idea or a new way of creating a piece and then continue with it then after I’ve created 2 or 3 pieces, I get a sense of where I’m going and what I’m choosing to explore in the pieces. At that point, looking at them collectively, I can see a commonality or theme.
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My Mutations series is my largest series with 17 pieces; each piece was created using portions of 1 or more configurations in different ways combined with various combinations of color and value to create a unique composition.
My XVP series began as a means of getting unstuck in the middle of working on my Mutations series. For a couple of months before starting the new series, I had been making individual pieces that weren’t going anywhere and weren’t very interesting. So I challenged myself to go back to the basics and started by making a Black and White composition using various widths of strips and then adding triangles and other strip panels to create unique combinations of shapes.
Before I knew it, I had 2 compositions finished, so I kept going with the work, each time challenging myself to do something different whether it was using a limited palette or beginning the piece using several cut shapes as the starting point. The series is currently at 6 pieces.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I enjoy using color in bold and unexpected ways as a means of expression. I don’t tend to choose a palette, but I let it evolve as the piece grows. I came to this work from a background in Menswear design and early on, I had to throw away the ‘rules’ I had acquired about what colors ‘go’ with other colors.
Over the years I’ve developed a palette with around 350 colors and they are created by using various combinations of pure dyes, so I feel that there is enough crossover that they all tend to work with each other. If the color is in my inventory, it’s possible it will be used. As I’m working on a piece, if I find myself questioning if I should put a color next to another, I usually keep it there just to see if I can make it work.
What have you done to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
I taught myself to sew while in high school but my sewing skills became advanced while completing my Menswear Design degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. I became aware of Contemporary Quilts after graduating and with my love of color I was intrigued and wanted to explore that medium further. I took some dyeing classes so that I could learn how to create the colors I wanted and couldn’t find commercially and also spent five years working with Nancy Crow in her advanced composition classes.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
When I’m busy working through an idea, or when I have a deadline, I am laser focused on the work. It’s great for productivity, but I’ve learned over the past few years that it’s not good for me holistically. I am learning to take breaks and also to break up my work throughout the day with other real life activities.
After several years of constant work, I became aware that there were other effects that I wanted to incorporate into my work, but wasn’t able to feasibly create those effects by piecing solid colored fabrics. So, I’m currently taking the time to assess what is important and interesting to me with my art practice by exploring surface design methods and also abstract painting. I am grateful that I currently have the time to do this exploration and see where it leads.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
Yes, I finish the pieces that I set out to make.
I have several UFOs that were design exercises created in class and it’s unlikely that I’ll finish them let alone quilt them. However, as part of my studio process, I begin a piece with a plan and take the perspective that it’s an exploration. Once I begin, I continue with that exploration, following the rules and challenges I gave myself at the start. I’ve learned that even when I’m at the halfway point, what I’m seeing isn’t close to what the final result will be once it’s done. So, I don’t question those rules or the plan. I finish the piece to see where the exploration led me. Once that is done, I then start the wheels turning about what to do for the next piece and what I do and don’t want to do with that one.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have a dedicated dye space in my basement, which is also where I do my surface design and painting. Next to that is my longarm space. My cutting and sewing room is in an upstairs bedroom and it has dormers on most sides so the corners of the room are angled up. I have several 2ft x 4ft adjustable height tables that are configured differently depending on what phase I’m working on.
My design wall consists of 2 insulated foam panels, each 4ft x 8ft. In the early stages, I keep them on one side of the room, stacked in front of each other so I have maximum table space for ironing, cutting and laying out stacks of fabric. Once I get further along though and need my full design wall, I have to spread the tables to different parts of the room so I can step back from the full design wall.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I am always critiquing my work, but I am not self-critical.
While I’m working I maintain the flow and focus on making progress, but also stop periodically to assess where things are going. If I’m working on a unit-based piece, I usually work on 4 – 6 units at one time. After each round, I look at those pieces and the photos of previously made pieces to get a sense of where I’m heading. If I’m working on an improvisational based piece, I like to spend more time looking at the piece as it’s being made and I aim to let each finished section lead me into the next.
Examples of questions I ask myself: Is there a flow that can lead the eye in that direction? Is there a color or shape that can be carried to the next area? With the unit based pieces, the phase when I’m making the majority of the units flows quickly with minimal critique time. But once I’m about halfway done with the units and also while making the Improv pieces, I tend to take breaks and step away from the piece more frequently. When I return, I notice what catches my eye first. It’s either something good or something that appears out of place. I’ll adjust as needed and decide which area to complete next.
However, one thing to note about this process. When I make mistakes and discover the results of decisions that weren’t thought through, I’m not self critical, calling my decisions into question or berating my process, etc. As an artist, creative or maker, it takes a lot to bring our work forward. Sometimes it’s easier than others. But what I don’t want to do is to start questioning my ability or comparing myself to others, wondering if someone else encounters these kinds of issues. I’m sure they do. It’s part of the process of creating. So I acknowledge that there’s a bump in the road and move on. It takes enough effort to bring a piece to completion so I’m not going to get in my own way and make the process even harder.
Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?
Yes, I believe that creativity is part of human nature and some of us have learned to tap into demonstrating it more easily than others, but it’s the aspect of our being that allows us a means to express who we are. We tend to think of creativity as something that is related to making something viewed as art or craft, but it manifests in many other ways: inventions, cooking, entrepreneurship, leading, performing arts, etc.
For any creative task there will be steps, rules and processes that need to be learned; it’s establishing a foundation upon which we can then leap. I feel the other aspect of learning as it relates to creativity is for us to learn how to give ourselves permission to express ourselves creatively. This is the highly personal and vulnerable side of creativity. For myself, I always had creative ideas, but was so afraid of making a mistake or doing something wrong that it often kept me from even trying.
Over 30 years ago, I was working on several interior decoration and upholstery projects that involved sewing. I was having a conversation with a quilter friend and talking about quilting. It was suggested that I explore quilting, but with the added caveat that, “but you have to make sure all of those points match perfectly.” It intimidated me enough to never try quilting.
Until years later, I completed a final portfolio garment at FIT that had over 50 different pattern pieces and I was able to perfectly match every corner. I recall at that point, a switch was flipped and I told myself that maybe now I could make a quilt. It took a few years after that before I started my first quilt, but I do feel that it was the beginning of exploring my current work. And of course, the irony is that my current work is all improvisational based and I could care less if my points and corners match.
So, don’t hold back. Take the leap. If your platform isn’t high enough, take some classes and build a higher platform. But don’t wait to jump for the right time. Jump now and keep jumping again and again!
Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
My decision to enter a juried show depends largely on whether I have a piece that fits the requirements and dates for the show. I don’t work by theme, I create the work that I want to create in my series to see where that leads me. So, I tend to focus on juried shows that have no theme or where the theme is so broad that my work would fit with the exhibition.
It’s great to have work accepted into a show and the rejections never feel good, but over the years I’ve learned that every show is completely different. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve had work accepted into the same show. Each time there is a new slate of jurors and submissions. The jurors are faced with the task of not only selecting the strongest work but also assembling the strongest show. There are times that once I see the pieces that got into the show, I can recognize that my work wouldn’t have fit with the chosen work. But whether I have that chance or not, I will never know the full reasons why my artwork was passed over. There are no answers for me, so I don’t put my attention on the past. I keep my eye on the future and other shows and I also aim to make the strongest and freshest artwork I can with each new piece.
Interview posted May 2023
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