Niraja Lorenz has always loved creating. She began piecing bits of fabric together in 1994. A workshop with Nancy Crow in 2007 exposed her to new ways of working. She is inspired by color, nature, and her father’s work in Chaos Theory.
How did you find yourself on the artist’s path?
Well, it wasn’t straight forward. As a child, I believed that being an artist was really hard and that if you didn’t have the gift, you shouldn’t even attempt it. Because I couldn’t draw realistically, I thought I would never be an artist.
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I loved to create things. I crocheted, made stained glass, did photography, created collage, and more. In high school I began weaving, and this was my passion for many years. When I first went to college, I brought my floor loom with me, much to my roommate’s horror. Later, I traveled around the US with a table loom and a trunk full of yarn in my VW van. Most of what I made was functional, although I did create some three-dimensional work as well. Throughout this period, I loved working with color, whether it was yarn, beads, paper, or other media. I considered myself a craftsperson.
It wasn’t until my 40’s that I began to think that I could be an artist. This was very scary for me. It felt pretentious to claim such a title. After many years of designing and sewing pieced quilts, I was very fortunate to get into a workshop with Nancy Crow, about whom I knew nothing. When I went to her class I was exposed to many things that were totally new to me, including working with solid colors as opposed to prints, not using a ruler, but cutting freehand, and using a lot of black and white. Working with Nancy Crow changed my work in many ways and my life as well. I began spending 4 weeks a year in her workshops and I soon understood that I was taking advanced art classes.
Perhaps it wasn’t until 2019 when I received a fellowship from the Ford Family Foundation of Roseburg, Oregon that I was forced to acknowledge myself as an artist. This fellowship, which is given to Oregon artists every year, pushed me to try and get my work out further than the fiber art network. I began submitting to more all-media shows and getting accepted. I don’t know that I would have made that step without having received the fellowship which not only helped support me financially, but emotionally took me to another level.
Now I consider myself an artist and quilting is my medium. I don’t call myself a quilt artist, or a fiber artist, but simply an artist.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs? What motivates you artistically?
My work is inspired by many things, which fall into two general categories: color and nature. I link these passions back to my parents. My father was a meteorologist and was involved with Chaos Theory. In addition to the weather, he taught me to love the outdoors: hiking, skiing, and exploring hard to reach places. My mother was an artist. We loved to visit museums together. She always encouraged my creative ventures.
I often begin a new piece by picking a palette that is appealing to me at the moment. For example, the piece I’m working on right now started out black and red. That does not mean only two colors. I selected probably 20 different shades of red and a dozen different shades of black. Even with that variety, it didn’t take long for other colors to creep in. I actually like to include bits of every hue in my work.
Nature is my other great inspiration. I am influenced by my surroundings, the seasons as well as the geography. The shapes and textures I find in rocks, vegetation, clouds, water, and more, all find ways to be represented by piecing fabric.
Also, photos from the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes have inspired some of my quilts. “Edge of Chaos” which is 7ft. high x 10 ft. wide, is a piece that I worked on for a year. It is composed of my interpretations of galaxies, nebulas, star clusters, and other celestial objects.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you have a regular schedule, or only work when inspired?
I’ve been quilting now for over 30 years and I can remember when I made a commitment to moving forward. I started getting up earlier in the morning so I could work in my studio before going to my job as a research scientist. And at that point, my studio expanded out of the second bedroom, and I took over the living room.
For many years, I would get up before dawn and work for several hours before going to my office. Happily I have since retired from my job and we’ve moved to a bigger house where I have a dedicated studio. I still get up early and head to my studio where I generally stay until noon. I try to limit appointments to the afternoon. I also use afternoons for photographing my work, submitting to shows and exhibitions, shipping and handwork (sleeves, bindings, and labels which I always save till last!).
What is your signature that makes your work standout as yours?
First, my quilts are pieced from solid-colored cotton. This is not unique, but within the world of pieced quilts, I think there are a couple things that make my work mine: my use of color and the detailed textures I create.
I use a lot of strip-piecing both to blend colors and to create contrast. And then I search for new ways to combine my new fabrics into dynamic compositions. This photo of the backside of “Strata” was very exciting to me. It has inspired me to work with the “wrong” side of the sewn fabrics.
“Land of Many Suns” was created for SAQA Oregon Emergence: Fiber Art from Concept to Stitch. Twenty-one Oregon artists who work in fiber documented their processes of creation in this book. I chose to create a piece that would showcase the many varied piecing techniques I use to create textures and forms.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in?
Generally I just jump in, choose a palette and begin playing.
Sometimes I know I want to include a particular form. More often, my pieces unfold improvisationally. I’ll make numerous units and then begin to arrange them.
I don’t think about the construction phase until the composition is nearly complete. Here are several in-process photos of “Strange Attractor # 26 – Uprising”. I start by pinning units to my design wall.
So if I’m making a hexagon, which I use a lot of, I will pin up each of the layers of the form, and only when I get something that I like do I begin to sew it together.
Next I will work on the background, auditioning different colors and values. After I have figured out what colors I want, I then make fabric that fits those pallets.
Once it is mostly laid out I figure out how I am going to sew it all together. It’s like a puzzle. I enjoy that phase a lot. Most of my work I quilt myself on my home machine with a walking-foot. I like to use a variety of threads and styles.
You have exhibited your work in many shows and received numerous awards. Can you say something about that process?
Submitting my work to juried exhibitions can be challenging. Not only does it take time and money, but there is always the possibility of rejection.
My relationship with rejection has changed over the years. Rejection used to be pretty devastating, and feelings of “not good enough” and “why waste my time?” would arise. I now know that these feelings of self-doubt are universal. Yes, I still feel disappointment when my work gets rejected, but it usually lasts for five or 10 minutes and I’m back working on my next piece.
And I’ll say the same about acceptances. I feel really great for a short period of time, but I don’t dwell on that either.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
One thing that is important to me is continuing to attend a two-week workshop with Nancy Crow every year. It’s not only a time for me to spend with her, but also with a group of 20 other artists who come year after year.
Being with a group who have studied the same material and interpret it in their own way is fascinating. Some who come might make a whole composition out of four pieces of fabric whereas my compositions tend to have thousands of pieces of fabric. I love seeing the numerous ways these artists create.
A mentor and a community of kindred spirits have helped me to move forward as an artist and to continue challenging myself.
I also enjoy posting on Facebook. It’s fun to see what other people are creating and what gets into exhibitions. This has become one of my main connections with other artists who are working in this area. I do not generally attend openings and shows due to the expense and the time commitment involved, so social media provides some of that connection.
Interview posted November 2023
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