Nicole McHale has always loved the process of building. She discovered she could break the rules of traditional quilting and make art quilts taking a bit from here and an idea from there. Inspired by her travels and photographs, she creates both representational and improv contemporary textile art.
How long have you been quilting and designing? How did you get started?
From my base in the Pacific Northwest, I create abstract art that is based on my observation of the world, often through my photographs. I love to explore color, shapes and solve the geometry of combining the pieces into a cohesive whole.
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My love for sewing and fabric began in an 8th grade (1976) sewing class. I learned tailoring in high school. My dad occasionally recruited me to make camping supplies like a sleeping bag (HARD!) or bags to protect his sailboards.
Discovering quilting in my early 30’s reignited my sewing passion and opened a world of exploration and creativity that allows me to escape life’s daily grind and expectations. I quilt for the joy and meditative challenge of creating art. An accountant by education, I studied art principles with Lorraine Torrence, Larkin Van Horn and a myriad of other instructors on design and technique.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
Defining myself as a creative person has been a long process and I’m constantly updating the definition. For many years, I was more or less agnostic on defining myself as creative. I definitely didn’t think I was artistic. I was following patterns. With my dad’s help I learned how to build plastic ships and balsa wood planes from kits and I learned how to sew in junior high home economics class. Following patterns and instructions didn’t seem especially creative to me. However, I loved the process of building.
Once I learned to sew I spent my babysitting and birthday money on fabric and patterns. In 1984, after college and a 4 year sewing hiatus, I entered a fabric store and it seemed in a time warp, unchanged from 4 years earlier. Also, I didn’t know anyone to help me pattern fit. Discovering a suit at Nordstrom’s half-yearly sale was less money than the wool fabric alone, I was out of the sewing business. I didn’t know quilting was a thing until the early 1990s. Pattern fitter need not apply.
Being a rule follower IRL, I felt safe being a rebel with fabric. I immediately chose parts of quilt patterns or added on using other patterns or photos to draw my own pattern. My early inspiration was frequently from quilting magazines. Math came in handy to modify ideas to fit the quilt. These activities were challenging and entertaining to me. I loved the challenge of figuring out how to get my ideas on a quilt. This didn’t feel creative. It felt like highly enjoyable work. I could make up the rules and the layout. I was only limited by my imagination and knowledge of how to pull off my idea. Classes that existed were traditional and technical “how to” classes. I took many of them.
What inspires you?
What inspires me can be a prompt from an art group or more frequently photos I’ve taken. I’ve made 3 quilts from photos taken at the Portland Japanese Garden (Oregon). Years later, looking over my completed quilts I realize I have a recurring theme of walkways. Garden paths, abstracts of labyrinths. Even my Grandma’s Tumbling Blocks quilt of folded hexagons is completed with the traditional garden path.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
I plan my quilts when I am working from an image. I have to transfer the image/design to the pattern then blow it up and adjust where necessary. Then I create a master and freezer paper pattern. My most recent quilt, Cylinder and Vectors, began in a circles class by Patricia Belyea. The finished cylinder reminded me of a computer modeling program with the faint vector lines in the background the computer uses to make shapes. I then designed a series of triangles in decreasing sizes and attached it to the cylinder. It still didn’t look integrated enough and I then went to Dall-E and asked the image AI program to draw me a labyrinth. Dall-E had no idea what a labyrinth was and drew a unique non-sensical maze. I enlarged it, modified it some and used that.
I wing the quilts when I choose improvisation and have a theme, style or color way. I’ll pick some theme fabrics and fussy cut some of the prints. I then choose related colors and start making parts. Using this technique on the third quilt I discovered that assembling the top in a diagonal avoids a seam line down the middle screaming “look at me, I’m such a great line.” Ugh. With a bit of planning a few moves ahead one can avoid set in seams or maybe have one or two set in seams in assembling the top.
Most of my quilts have straight edges but several years ago I gave that up as an absolute personal requirement. Why exactly do wall quilts have to have straight edges? I’ve made a half dozen with unique edges and have not been disappointed.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
I am better at managing my workout times than my creative time. I’m not sure why I’m such a procrastinator about going upstairs to work. I have such a good time once I’m there. It does require a lot of decisions to be made to create. I’m not typically afraid of making decisions. Maybe the procrastination has to do with the final outcome. Will the time, effort and materials be worthy of hanging on a wall?
My motivation to create usually is so I have new quilts to enter into exhibitions or shows. I usually make 2-3 quilts a year. They rarely exceed 40” wide or high.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I have become a regular finisher in recent years. During the pandemic I culled my UFO’s down to a couple. I do have a half dozen un-started projects. Some of them have been around a number of years.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so what does it look like?
I took the smallest bedroom when we moved into our house in 2001. I have since taken parts of the other 2 bedrooms of our emancipated children. The room has a large sewing/cutting table that folds down. One wall has flannel covering over an 8’x8’ foam wall insulation board. The closet has shelves for books, threads and 7 under bed bins of fabric.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
My journals record lecture notes and techniques with some samples. I regularly refer to various notes when I am considering a method or strategy. I recently started a journal of ideas for a bald eagle quilt I want to gift to my Marine veteran son. I have notes on 5 different quilt techniques. I need to experiment on how the feathers will look and hang in the various styles. I’m hoping to record the results in the journal as that is not an ongoing practice of mine. I’d like to finish at least one eagle quilt by mid-2025 to submit to shows for the 250th anniversary of the USA in 2026.
When you travel, do you create on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
Until the pandemic I typically had a hand project for TV watching, planes and car trips. I’ve had my eye out for another worthy hand project for months now. I believe I found a Sylvia Pippen sashiko project that will be perfect. The travel kit will be small scissors, needle, needle threader, sashiko thread and several blocks. Very portable.
How often do you start a new project? Do you actively work on more than one project at a time?
The travel project is not time sensitive and peacefully coexists with my active studio projects. I start a new project after a fallow period of finishing a previous quilt. Also a workshop or retreat project is the beginning of a quilt that I do frequently finish. Which project has priority is judged by my enthusiasm level. I don’t usually switch back and forth these days like I did when I was newer and unsure. Now I work through the problem. I’d only switch projects if the problem was confounding and it takes a while to resolve.
Can you tell us which part of the inspiration process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
Ruminating on what’s the next project is interesting because possibilities!
If I settled on a photograph then there’s quite a bit of work sussing out the design, size and construction dilemmas resulting from various design decisions. This is a bit tedious but there’s the excitement of the planning and the nervous energy of color choices and what will it actually end up being.
If I choose an improv quilt there’s excitement in the inspiration theme and the making of parts in various scales, techniques and designs without knowing what it’s going to look like in the end. The mystery of the final result until one is more than half way done I find quite energizing. When doubt steps in I kick it to the curb. That’s one advantage to aging. Confidence and a certain amount of not caring what others think.
Quilting the quilt is my most difficult part of the process. I’m a fan of the Hawaiian echo quilting. I took an online class on heirloom feather quilting from Bethanne Nemesh during the pandemic. The skill of control is very high with feathers. I figured if I can learn that with a reasonable accuracy I can free motion quilt just about anything. Alas practice, practice, practice is the ticket and I lack the desire to be regular about it.
Tell us about a time when you truly stretched yourself as an artist?
Yukata Go to Japan was one of my biggest challenges and biggest successes. This was an improvisational top I wanted to make using Japanese fabrics. Finding fabrics in my stash that fit with the Yukatas was a challenge. I struggle with color and choosing takes me a bit. Making the parts was not so difficult. In retrospect, I had one yard of my star fabric and when and how to cut it was holding me back. Ultimately I took the star to the copy machine and built up two blocks to look as much like the star as I could manage. Only then did it seem like I had enough of the star to balance the top. In the assembly process, several times I ditched the whole layout and began again. Once I decided to eliminate one of the Yukata prints in green and stuck with blue, white and red orange with a smattering of green for punch I was off.
The other decision I made as my diagonal construction started down the third side was do I make the sides straight? I was already on the train of why do sides have to be straight. As the sides built up I decided the sides will be irregular and then the next decision was make gravity do as much work as possible to keep it flat.
This was a top that I had developed all the needed skills in the previous two decades. I didn’t abandon it when frustration was high because the puzzle was gripping and by then I knew there was a way even if I didn’t know the solution. As usual simplifying the fabric and color choices won the day. I like bling. It’s hard to give up sometimes.
How is your work different than it was in the beginning and how is it the same?
I’d say my early quilts were well sewn but lacked a level of sophistication and understanding of design principles. I discovered Lorraine Torrence’s design classes several years into quilting. That opened my mind using whatever you know to make something unique. The classes were not technique driven so one had to work through that solo while achieving the design objectives. By then fusing was available and allowed for free form design without worrying about how to piece it together. My ah-ha moment I learned in her classes and have had to relearn periodically is that slapping an idea on a one or two piece background does not usually make for an interesting quilt top. A background with one level of detail and a focal point of another level of detail is way more interesting to my eye. Imagining the quilting on the in-progress top is not my strong suit. I have a lot of respect for the artists who design with the quilting all or mostly preplanned before the top is constructed.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
My process is in real time in figuring out the design and color choices. Since I am not a trained artist this is a tedious process and at some point in the process I usually check in with a friend to see if they think I am missing something. Once finished I have a gut feeling about how it came out. Sometimes that changes with time as I notice things that do or don’t enhance the project.
Do you keep track of your work? Shows that you’ve entered? Tell us what works for you.
Word files documenting the quilts and statistics necessary for entering shows along with a dedicated photo album are my tracking of choice. I do track which quilts have been in shows and won ribbons.
Searching Word files is deeply unsatisfying. Spreadsheet pivot tables for cross-referencing and spreadsheets are not friendly for chunks of text and I never learned how to use them. The Apple App Store recently appears to have applicable apps for tracking projects, their history, and timetables for
shows. I have not gone any further in determining which ones would be most useful to me.
Where can people see your work?
My Instagram account @mchalenicole has some of my quilts and landscape photography. Grandmas Tumbling Flower Garden will be at the Tacoma WA, Washington State Historical Museum March 16-June 23, 2024 in the Journeys exhibit by Contemporary QuiltArt and Pacific Northwest African American
Interview posted February 2024
Browse through more inspiring art quilts on Create Whimsy.