Spotlight: Millie Cumming, Fiber Artist

Waterlily Bay 2, Millie Cumming

Spotlight: Millie Cumming, Fiber Artist

Like many quilters, Millie Cumming dipped her toe into quilting when her son was born and found a fulfilling way to express her creativity. Now a retired physician, Millie finds inspiration all around her, especially when paddling a lake in the same canoe she has treasured since she bought it at age 15.

Millie Cumming portrait

Why textiles? Why quilting? How did you get started?

I have made clothing since I was 12, including my high school prom dress and my wedding dress, mostly thanks to my great-aunt who taught me to sew on a treadle machine. However, my quilting started when I was a first-time mom at 41 and our son was born. I made quilts for his nursery and for his big-boy bed, but I soon progressed to designing my own quilts. 

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How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?

Definitely evolving. I wanted to make quilts that spoke to me, so I was fortunate to have wonderful role models right from my early years as a quilter. An example of stepping out of the box was with my hockey game/dinosaur quilt, a collaboration with my young son. I used his drawings and his ideas of which number each dinosaur player should have written on his jersey.

Humans 5, Dinos 1; Millie Cumming
Humans 5, Dinos 1; Millie Cumming

What inspires you to create? How does your environment influence your creativity?

I have been fortunate to spend time in cottage country ever since I was 5, and to be canoeing since I bought my own canoe when I was turning 15. Nature (and in particular at the cottage and in my canoe) are the most constant inspiration for my quilts.  Unusual fabrics (and particularly those from thrift stores) are also a strong inspiration to creating a quilt.

Muskoka Nocturne, Millie Cumming
Muskoka Nocturne, Millie Cumming

Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?

On my website www.millieandgraeme.ca  you will see three main types of quilts that I make: “memory” quilts, “linens” quilts, and my cottage quilts; all three of these categories provide more inspiration than I can use in my lifetime. The website is a collaboration with my husband’s work – he had a much more formal art training before becoming a well-respected art educator, and our interests have informed each other’s work. And he makes great linocuts with cottage themes for me to use.

My “memory” quilts of course started with quilts for our son, but then carried on for memorial quilts, celebration quilts, and quilts with social commentary.

My “linens” quilts started with a purchase of an embroidered apron that had a note in the pocket saying “Please keep the aprons for yourself, seeing Grandma made them…they are nice keepsakes…1925” and a frail baby cap that also had a note “150 years old My Mother’s great, great, grandmother’s” – I then tried to rescue many of the unloved linens of the country.

Remember Me, Millie Cumming
Remember Me, Millie Cumming

My cottage quilts are a gift to me from nature.

Waterlily Bay 2, Millie Cumming
Waterlily Bay 2, Millie Cumming

How have your education and your career path influenced your work?

I was a family doctor in a church hospital in northern British Columbia, then for nineteen years a palliative care physician in Vancouver working primarily with cancer and AIDS patients and their families. A habit I carried from medicine into quilting was creating an extensive filing system of articles, indexed books, as well as images that might become useful. More importantly, my medical career does inform my work significantly – the importance of story and of remembrance, the importance of beauty and sadness in this world, and particularly, the fragility of life. 

Cottage Quilts and Photography by Millie

How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce? 

I gather possible fabrics and embellishments from my well-stocked studio, I gather various images, poems, thoughts into a binder or journal, and continue to add my thoughts in the night or when I am supposed to be sleeping! On my website, I have an example of the process of making a cottage quilt from inspiration to completion.

Millie's studio

How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?

My wonderful variety of fabrics (new and recycled) are folded and filed all together on shelves or in plastic bins in an organized fashion so that I know where to look for a new project. However, I am always delighted when something pops up that is a total surprise – I love the element of serendipity.

Millie's organized fabrics

What are your favorite storage tips for your fabric and creative supplies?

Fabrics are folded all in a consistent way and classified by colour or theme to make them easily accessible. Similarly, buttons and embellishments are sorted and easily accessible, and vintage sealer jars let me display my treasures. Vintage wooden cutlery boxes are great for storing tools such as scissors and rotary cutters, so they can be transported to where I am working. I have way too much “stuff” but I know where it mostly can be found.

Millie's treasures in her studio

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

Definitely fabrics (especially recycled, but also hand-created fabrics such as rusting, printing, painting. Note, I am not someone who likes to get messy).  My design wall is totally indispensable and I value my antique store counter that serves as a cutting table and storage unit. 

Millie Cumming journals

Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?

I have created and continue to create a number of sketchbooks and journals. Sometimes I have explored a theme or a technique. Sometimes I made an entire journal in preparation for creating a specific quilt. (This process sometimes has taken several years – I am not a fast worker!!!)

Label of Merry Sunshine, Millie Cumming
Label of Merry Sunshine, Millie Cumming

You make unique quilt labels – what drives your decision to label a quilt in a particular way?

I have always felt that the back art and the label are part of the whole package. So the more personal the label and the more it relates to the quilt, the better. For my “linens” quilts, I use vintage linens for the label. For my cottage quilts and my “memory” quilts, I often use photo transfers.

Label of Dragonfly Dance quilt
Label of Dragonfly Dance quilt, Millie Cumming

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?

Music, particularly nature-inspired music that may have classical origins but have been enhanced with loons, frogs, or crashing waves. (Music often comes into the titles of my quilts as well.) I can’t do without my TV news either, particularly this year!

October Morning, Millie Cumming
October Morning, Millie Cumming

Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about? Tell us about a time when you truly stretched yourself as an artist.

Sometimes a work comes out of a call for entry for a show that speaks to me. It has not worked out well when I made a quilt specifically to the theme without it resonating with me. Most often some interesting or unusual fabric is the starting point for a new work.

After the tragedy, death and destruction of 9/11, I wanted to make some small quilt to acknowledge that societal shift. But I had no idea what form this quilt would take. That was the first time I experimented with bleach discharge, and I recognized the destruction and loss of colour in the fabrics. And it was important to use also Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. On the label I wrote For me (and for many others) the Adagio speaks to the very spiritual core of my being – excruciating in both its beauty and it’s profound sadness. It was only as I worked on this quilt that I discovered that the Adagio is in fact Barber’s Opus 11 – hence the title.

(Note: I wanted the actual music to appear in the quilt. But to avoid copyright infringement, I purchased the music, cut it up, and affixed the actual music to the quilt with netting and quilting.)

In revisiting my Opus 11 quilt and my cancer quilt the big C, they resonate with this year’s pandemic.

Grand Artefacts, Millie Cumming
Grand Artefacts, Millie Cumming

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn? 

Some people can express the creative part of their being more easily. But there are tools and skills that can help release our inhibitions. For me, best not to focus on creativity, but focus on doing the work in the hope that the creativity emerges from it.

Bittersweet, Millie Cumming
Bittersweet, Millie Cumming

How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?

I think that taking very small steps gives confidence, allowing you to continue to step further out of your box. The more varied and interesting “raw materials” that you have on hand (fabrics, embellishments, threads), the more you can experience serendipity to help you stretch your wings.

Canoescapes 1

How do you get unstuck creatively?

Unfortunately, I use avoidance and delaying tactics. I put the project away and turn to something else until I find new insights or new energy. My excuse is a wonderful article that I read from the quilter and author Thomas Knauer. He described that a quilt has not yet found its moment.

Quilters’ Newsletter magazine (March 2015 pages 46 – 47), quilter and author Thomas Knauer, “….It is in the willingness to put a quilt aside until we are ready to take up its challenge again that we open up a space to follow a new path. A deferred finish is not a defeat, but the act of embracing what quilting is all about: the making of things that express our time, our life, and our experience. Just because a quilt has not found its moment is simply a part of accepting that not everything can or should happen right now…….”  

Millie Cumming Quote

If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?

Freeman Patterson is a very accomplished Canadian nature photographer who has published a number of books and won numerous awards. There is a spiritual component to his photography and his writings which resonate with me; it has informed my own work. I heard him speak once; his discussion of the importance of each of us on our planet having a special spiritual place has always stayed with me; it’s true particularly in my canoe and when I am working on my cottage quilts.

Interview posted November 2020


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