Nanette Zeller is a mixed media textile artist, inspired by nature. Selecting the right color of fabrics and embellishing with thread painting she creates realistic images.
How did you get started on the path to becoming a textile artist? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
Both my grandmothers were fabulous textile artists and crocheters. My dad’s mom sewed fabulous clothes and my mom’s mom made pieced quilts. My mother also liked to sew, clothes, curtains and other home décor, and made beautiful hand embroidery. She inspired and encouraged my creativity.
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When I was 10 years old, my mom considered me old enough to learn how to sew by machine. I remember the summer she taught me how to crochet a chain stitch. I would crochet a long chain, rip it out and start chaining again. I found it so much fun. And, on winter days when school was closed, she allowed me to set up a craft to work on for that day.
After she died (I was 14), I continued crocheting, sewing, and doing embroidery. My high school and junior college electives were art classes, where I was introduced to even more variety of art appreciation.
In my 20’s I learned to knit and in my late 30’s I was introduced to piecing quilts. With all this said, there never was “one” moment, but many diverse moments and people who lit the way to where I am today.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
Besides my love of creativity, I also love nature. Family vacations, outings and camping trips almost always included time out in the woods or exploring nature. In college, I decided to major in natural sciences and earned a Masters Degree in Wildlife Biology.
In my 40’s I learned about art quilting and noticed that my quilt themes tend to lean toward nature-inspired imagery. I’ve decided to embrace this style and incorporate, birds, trees, flowers and other nature elements in my designs.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I consider myself a “mixed-media” textile artist. My experience in art is very diverse, I frequently find ways to incorporate non-traditional media techniques into my designs. I might use acrylic paints, paper, or colored pencils in my designs.
I also love to enhance my designs with free-motion embroidery, also known as thread-painting. These techniques create unique textures, colors and designs that are not possible with fabric alone.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
I use a plan-as-I-go technique. I start with an idea or mental image of what I want to create. I spend time thinking about techniques and materials I can use to create the imagery I see in my head. It might start with the background or an appliquéd element. Initially thinking about what fabric I could use to create that element of the design. Once I have the fabric selected I think of the process or fabric I’ll use for the next step.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
My creative time is based on my schedule and inspiration. Since I am a working artist/instructor, my time is based on the priority for the day. If I need to create online content or teach, I may spend most of my day doing computer work.
If I’m really inspired, I can push the cognitive work aside and focus on creative work. Squeezing in an hour or more at the end of a busy day can help me satiate that creative drive that is always with me.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I’d like to say I’m a “finisher,” but I’m not.
Between sewing projects and knitting/crochet projects there are probably a couple dozen UFOs (note: I’m probably underestimating).
Some things I’m excited about doing and get started with great enthusiasm, but as I work on them, they sometimes become challenges. Either I get bored with the process; things aren’t working out like I envisioned and I have to come up with another plan; or I found a new project that supersedes everything else. Any of these can put a stop to my working on them. I usually try to finish them.
When I decide to clean the dark corners of my space, I’ll review the projects as I find them. If I decide there’s no way I’m getting back to it, I’ll redistribute the supplies and let the project go.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
We purchased our house because there were enough room that my husband and I could both have our own creative/work rooms.
My “studio/office” is on the 2nd floor and measures 11’ x 15.5’ . I liked my room immediately because of the 2 windows that face north into my backyard. There’s lots of light and if I need a break, I can look out the window and daydream.
In the past few years, I also acquired the guest bedroom which was hardly ever used. I set up this room as my video/zoom, library and ironing room.
The bonus to being on the 2nd floor is the rest of our living space is downstairs. I can easily walk away from my work at the end of the day. Projects can get messy sometimes, so it’s nice have it out of sight when we’re enjoying non-work time. And, if company comes over, we don’t have to worry about tidying up our rooms.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I sometimes sketch my ideas, but I have not made a regular habit with the process.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I definitely work on more than one project at a time. Unless I have a strict deadline, I like to switch back and forth between projects. Sometimes my projects need breathing space. In other words, I have to think/process how to proceed with the next step.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
In my artwork, I start a project with an idea. Sometimes that idea is a vision of sorts.
For example, I might have an idea for a new bird quilt. I can mentally see it. Sometimes I sketch the idea, other times not. I don’t have a complete plan when I start, just the idea. I know what I want to do, but I don’t always know exactly what it will look like.
For example, I might decide to make a thread-painted appliqué of a bird in a tree. I first create the appliqué, then I decide which fabric would look best for the background or what other elements need to go with the bird (e.g., a tree, flowers, a landscape, another bird, etc). I don’t have a fabric store nearby, so I’m dependent on what I have on hand.
I start auditioning fabrics. From there, I decide how I’ll work the next elements. Each step along the way, I let the artwork tell me how to move forward and sometimes that takes time. I think about the idea for awhile and the inspiration comes to me.
During these mental down times, I might start or catch up on another project. What amazes me about my projects is that even though I don’t have a set plan when I start…the finished project usually turns out exactly how I envisioned it.
Which part of the quilt design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
My favorite part is doing the machine stitch work, especially dense thread-painting. It is a meditative process and I find it amazing how realistic some of my designs turn out.
I don’t enjoy pulling fabric for my projects. Unless you dye your own fabric (which I don’t), you’re dependent on the colors the fabric designers give you. Many times I have searched for fabrics of a certain color, for example green. I can pull 10 different greens, put it with the other design elements and find none work. They might be too blue (teal) or too yellow (lime); too light or too dark.
Tell us about a time when you truly stretched yourself as an artist.
The time that really stands out to me is when I collaborated with an author for an art exhibit called “Narrative Threads.” For the exhibit, each textile artist created new artwork based on something new the author wrote. I was new to the group that developed the exhibit’s concept and I participated not knowing the style of the author. After agreeing to work together, we discussed her vision of Diana, the divine feminine goddess, and the hunter’s moon.
My vision of the artquilt was a goddess shooting an arrow at the moon. I had never created a human form in textiles. Being new to art quilting AND new to this group, I had a huge amount of imposter syndrome going on. And, the perfectionist in me was heavy with attitude and self-doubt. I completed the artwork and was overly critical of what I created. After the exhibit, I packed the quilt away. The quilt helped me to decide that nature-inspired themes are really my thing. A year, or so, ago, I pulled the quilt out. Hard to believe that almost 20-years have passed. I looked at the quilt and wondered why I was so critical. The years that had passed had taught me to “embrace the imperfections.”
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I do critique my work, but my method is not very formal.
When I create new work, I don’t have a specific plan. It is more of a vision or idea. Throughout the process I’m constantly auditioning my use of color, design elements and techniques. I evaluate each step using basic design principles. Are the color values working well together? Am I accurately representing depth of field (things in the background are smaller and lighter than things in the foreground)? Is the placement of my focal points following the “rule of thirds”?
I use a design wall to audition my work as I progress through the process. Things can look much different when you look at them close versus when you stand 6-10 feet away.
Sometimes when I think the work is complete (and sometimes after it is completed), I notice that something is off. If I can, I try to correct the issue. Sometimes I have to accept what it is and use it as a learning experience for “next time.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
“Don’t ever point out what’s wrong with your artwork!”
How has your work changed over time?
My art is constantly evolving, because I’m constantly learning new things. I started my textile journey with basic piecing of fabrics. Then learned how to free-motion quilt. From there, I learned thread-painting and started playing with surface design techniques. By continuing to create new work and experiment with new ideas, my style has become more refined over time.
Early in my journey, when someone would look at my work and compliment me, I always pointed out my perceived “mistakes.” I was overly critical. After receiving some good advice, I realized that most people don’t see the issue and I just pointed it out to them – NOW that’s ALL they see! My current approach is to listen to their kind words and simply reply “thank you.”
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is NanetteSewZ.com. On my site I have a gallery of my artwork. There is a page with information about taking my online classes and also information about workshop and lectures I have available for small groups.
On my site I also have a weekly blog, where I post to every week. I focus my blog on what’s going on in my life as an artist. In my blog, I ponder ideas and I pose questions about how I or other people view artists. I share about coping with daily challenges, for example finding time or inspiration. I view things with a “what’s the lesson here” attitude. I share my thoughts with my readers to help encourage them and make them feel like they’re not alone on their creative journey.
My website also has a pop-up form to sign up to receive my blog and monthly newsletter via email. In my newsletter, I share information about my classes, new artwork, and exhibits. I also share nuggets of information about cool things I’ve found online that might be useful or inspiring to my readers.
Interview posted August 2023
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