From her paradise in Hawaii, Phyllis Cullen gathers color and inspiration from the rainforest to the ocean. The resulting art quilts are vibrant and tell stories both simple and complex.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
My path as an artist? Well, I’ve always loved making art, drawing, making things, having something in my hands. But art was always going to be be a side interest, a hobby, and a great stress reliever. Later, it became kind of a curiosity – to be a physician who also made art worthy of museum shows and gallery sales.
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But it was something I always needed to do, even with a busy 60 hour a week medical practice with long periods of volunteer service in third world countries – and four kids! I felt that the kids benefitted from being exposed to conditions of severe deprivation and great need, as well as seeing that not all kids had access to what they had. By the same token, they also knew that I didn’t believe in plastic toys and luxury items, but they could have all the art materials they wanted!
Those long months in third world environments inspired my art as well. Once I retired from full time practice, I had lots more time for art, but I had always managed to squeeze it in somehow. But it did give me the leisure time to share it, teaching everything I know to students around the world. I love many art forms.
Why textiles? Why art quilts? How did you get started with fiber art?
I love to draw, play with beads, with clay, but especially with fabric. And I love the vibrant colors, the tactile nature, the fact that (art) quilts can combine all the attributes of painting and add the complexity of prints, of fabric manipulation, as well as the dimension of the stitched quilting line.
I never actually made traditional quilts because fabric was an art medium that kind of showed up through explorations in mixed media. I did have to learn how to use a sewing machine though, just like I learned the tools for other crafts.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
I am inspired by people, by nature, by animals. I’m not much into abstract art, maybe that’s the physician/ scientist side of me not really understanding that, but I like to know and recognize what I’m making, because then I understand the narrative.
Now, living in Hawaii in a rainforest beside an ocean, I like to think I am inspired by the brilliant colors all around me, but I think bright colors have always appealed, and I usually try to add beauty to the world. That, or right some injustice. So two themes, I guess.
I really don’t have trouble getting ideas. I have lived a rich life, and have thousands of photos and sketches documenting who I’ve met and where I’ve been. However, I do find it easier to execute my ideas by having a studio where all my fabric is in view!
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I have it all arranged on a wall with shallow shelves (DVD shelves) that allow me to see all of it at once. I like exploring a theme, like stained glass type designs (my own, of course), and portraits. I’ve worked out my own methods to facilitate and succeed with both, and they are what I’m known for.
I also have many pieces inspired by Hawaii, with my lava landscapes and bright flowers.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I listen to all kinds of music, as well as audiobooks. if it weren’t for audiobooks I’d never get a chance to read books because I like my hands to be busy while I “read”.
Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I work on many projects at a time. When I have new ideas I just have to pull out fabrics and try them out.
Choosing fabrics and creating designs is by far my favorite part of it all, when my heart just beats a little faster. The ideas usually hit at about 10 at night, and then I just have to see them through. Total night owl.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
I do have an idea in my head as to what the piece will look like, and I usually draw or paint a design that will eventually become the final piece. Although only I can tell that the original sketch and the final piece really are the same idea. Pulling out lots of fabrics gets me going, and the piece just kind of develops.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
The most challenging part is probably the execution. I still can’t sew a straight seam, and find it hard to be concerned about such things as what the back of an art piece looks like. If it was a painting, who’d look at the back? The story is all on the front! If I wanted people to look at the back, I’d work in three dimensions.
Does your work have stories to tell?
Yes, there is often a story. Not always a profound one, sometimes it’s just, “Look how beautiful this flower is!” but my portraits of people and animals need to have a story, emotional content, for me to be happy with them.
I tell my students that everyone is creative. Just stop thinking that art has to have rules, and let the medium flow. Move the fabrics around till they look like something, like finding pictures in clouds. Think about what’s around you, what story do you have to tell. We all have stories to tell. Then I teach them easy ways to create the story, easy stained glass methods, which always glow, easy ways to create portraits, to look at values instead of colors.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
My favorite artist would be Chagall, who combined cubism and fauvism and surrealism but always told a story, and said that his work told the “dream of all humanity.”
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I love to teach, to show students easy ways to express their joy in fabric with techniques I have worked out so they aren’t bogged down in tedious rules and processes. And to be fearless. Because, if a stitch doesn’t work the quilt doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t get an infection, its wounds don’t re-open, it doesn’t die, and its not going to sue you!
I’ve taught from Israel to Australia, from Alaska to Chile, in Hawaii and the mainland, and for guilds and retreats, for AQS and IQA. But my favorite is when students come and study with me at my studio in Hawaii and I can give them all my attention. They can use all my supplies, and they get a Hawaii vacation as well.
Please see my website to look at my work at www.phylliscullenartstudio.com
Interview published April 2020
Browse through more inspiring art quilts on Create Whimsy.