Vibrant color is a hallmark of the fiber art that improv quilter Nicolas Ball creates. Open to anything, Nicholas juxtaposes colors that seem to vibrate when placed next to each other. They bring his quilts to life with an energy that begs for a closer look. Enthusiastic about this way of working, Nicholas never tires of exploring new ways to tell stories with fabric.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I have always been crafty. My grandmother encouraged my creativity and taught me how to hand sew, cross stitch, and knit. I went to art school to pursue photography and knew then that I wanted to create.
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What inspires you to create?
I take a lot of my inspiration from the world around me. I have a great affinity for animals, flowers, and plant life and am constantly inspired by the lines, shapes, and patterns found within nature. Many of my quilts reflect this. My work does not set out to create a photorealistic interpretation of this inspiration, but rather something that suggests the same sense of wonder.
Why textiles? Why quilting? How did you get started?
I wasn’t supposed to be a quilter. Photography was my creative pursuit of choice. During my time at art school, the photography department was situated next to the textile department. I would always marvel at the work on display whenever I walked past. I guess a small part of that planted itself at the back of my mind, patiently waiting for fruition. The quilts I would see decorating the set of American films and TV series were also a key factor in my decision to make my first quilt.
What drives your color choices?
Colour is very important to me and my work. The key driving force behind my choices is my love of bold, daring colours. I will never tire of using hot pink, deep teal, as well as acid green. I have to be happy with my colour choices, even if those choices aren’t necessarily what we are taught as “correct” by the colour wheel.
Why improv? Why does this quilting method appeal to you over others for your own quiltmaking?
I love the spontaneity, the random changes of pace, the idea that the project is never fully realised, even at the very end of construction. The option to adapt and make ad-hoc decisions is very freeing. I love the liberating feeling I get when working in an improvisational way.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your book, Inspiring Improv?
That there are no rules – instead of the idea of a set way of doing things that is very much drilled into new quilters by many beginner guides to the craft. My aim with writing Inspiring Improv was to firstly arm quilters with the techniques to work in an improvised way before encouraging them to be tenacious and explore their own creativity by making quilts that break all of these rules.
What does it mean to work improvisationally? Is the process totally random, or do you have some guidelines that you follow as you work? How do you make it all fit together?
During my talks on improvised quilting, I exclaim to the audience that by the end of the talk, I hope to show that improv doesn’t have to be completely random. It can be, and there are many improvisers who do this very well. My style of improv however has a vague semblance of structure, though it’s important to mention that this foundation is not one set in stone. So it can shift and change as the quilt progresses. I like to have an idea, a rough way I want the quilt to look. I then see where the piecing takes me and if the quilt is happy to look like what I see in my head!
What is your favorite storage tip for fabric?
I find organising by colour to be the most conducive to creating. Keep smaller scraps arranged in this way too, separating solids from prints when space allows, works well for me and my practice.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Buy the best tools and notions you can afford. I am an Aurifil designer and I cannot praise their products highly enough. When I began quilting, I had the idea that thread was thread, and that anything would do. I was so wrong! Aurifil thread is strong, virtually lint-free, and comes in an impressive array of colours as well as weights. So you’re sure to find something for your particular project. I also always recommend a small 1” x 12” ruler, which is perfect for trimming small improv units like triangles.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
For some of my more complex ideas, like my recent Koi Carp quilts, I will roughly sketch an initial idea so that I can get an idea of what piecing techniques will work best. For my triangle quilts, these are very much created on my design wall.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I have a very eclectic playlist on my phone that makes the sewing hours fly by. It contains everything from classical to heavy metal.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think if you’re armed with the right basic skills, then creativity is definitely something that can grow and blossom.
Are there quilters you would love to spend a day with? What would you ask them?
The early Gee’s Bend quilters. To be in their company and watch them work would be so inspiring.
What advice would you offer to quilters who are beginning their journey?
To take risks.
More from Nicholas: My new book is called Use & Ornament and is coming soon. The book is my love letter to improv quilting. Part history book, part technique book, Use & Ornament is an exploration of the improv quilt through historical and contemporary examples. Quilts have long been more than objects of utility. Their uses are varied and many past examples now merit elevation to works of art. The patchwork quilt can give voice to political protest; can memorialise a loved one; it can be a cathartic outlet and still hold its own against works realised in more recognised fine art media. They are historical documents and family keepsakes and have long existed within a duality of use and ornament. Through eight quilt projects, I hope to give you the techniques to enable you and your quilts to continue this rich story of improvisation.
Follow Nicholas on Instagram @quiltsfromtheattic.
Interview posted May 2022
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