Robin O’Neil began quilting with traditional techniques and now works organically to create each quilt. She works big and in a series, creating as she goes on her design wall. Her work and life are full of joy, fun and discovery.
How long have you been quilting and designing? How did you get started?
I have been a special education teacher for 35 years. I always “made stuff” on the side. I made original jewelry/ painted pictures and furniture/ made small dolls etc.
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I started quilting in 1973 – very traditional things with templates I made out of cardboard. About 15 years ago I started trying to make quilts from my own designs and experimenting. I have always hand quilted my pieces but I only make king sized quilts, so there isn’t enough time now. I have an acquaintance with a longarm machine. We aren’t friends yet but I am learning!
Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I have always liked working in a series. An idea has so many possibilities. One example is not enough. I like to think “what if I …?” And keep going until the series is finished. When I think I am just starting to repeat patterns, I STOP and move to another idea.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I think my work is original. I am inspired by a million things. Old paintings, nature, feelings, rusty tools, shapes, people. I am not afraid of color. Sometimes I try to make “quiet” pieces but that doesn’t last long! More is more. One red might be good but 50 reds are better in my book!
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
I rarely plan my work out before starting and I don’t ever pull a palette. I might start with a shape or 5, or a colored piece I randomly cut but the rest of the way is responsive. I look at the wall and make something that talks back. Put stuff on the design wall and stop when the wall is full. Usually that’s 96” square.
How do you manage your creative time? Are you a finisher?
I have 4 young nieces who fill my life with total joy. I spend designated days with them each week and TALK/teach no more than once a month. There is never enough time when I am working in my studio! I work ALL the time when I can and I am a FINISHEr!
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I built a studio a few years ago. 10’x20’ because that counts as a “shed” and doesn’t need a permit. I had never had a separate space for working so this seemed gigantic and Devine!!! Now I know. I wish I had twice as much space. Oh well… my sister says “push your satisfied button”.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I usually have 3-4 project ideas on my head. When I get to the boring “sew it together” stage or am doing binding or facing I can’t wait to get on to the next series. I usually reward myself with time to cut and play after finishing an hour or 2 of tedium. When I am 3/4 finished with a quilt I am obsessed with completion. I can’t stop and don’t welcome interruptions! But starting a new work is never anything but a pleasure!
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
One time I was taking an expensive 5 day workshop with 3 teachers. I really love this experience away from phones, bills, cooking, emergency costumes. Freedom to work without demand and the company of other artists.
One of the teachers required a carefully folded full palette of colors arranged on the table from light to dark. She came over and took off about 1/2 (tossed them under the table) and replaced them with her choice then walked away.
Being the “student”- an obedient learner who had paid a lot of $ ! I tried to work with this new arrangement. After several hours of intense frustration another teacher came to me and said if you are at war with your quilts they will not comfort you”!!!
Epilogue-:I sliced up the work I had done into tiny lengths/started over with colors I liked and sewed the angry bits into many seams within the quilt. Only I know where they are and they make me laugh now.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
Truly creative people see obstacles as times for question. We might be afraid of failing or coming up “ dry” or getting rejected by “important” people but we forge on.
I was driving to pick up the tiny girls one time (a drive I have made 1000 times) and I saw the word NOtICE 7 times on the bridges and abandoned buildings that I passed. Not kidding- 7 times! They had probably been there for years but only that one day did I see the word! So that’s important- we NoTICE.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
I think I have always been a creative person. I thought it was presumptuous to call myself an artist. The person I love most said “if you say you are an artist-you are”. So I am going with that.
Where can people see your work?
I post my work on Instagram- tiny pics and not very clear. I enter shows like Quilt Con and I am always looking for ways to get my work seen. I am terrible at marketing. I wish I had someone to do it for me! I show my work when I teach or TALK but that part of my life needs work!
How is your work different than it was in the beginning? How is it the same?
My work had changed over the past 60 years. I used to be timid and shy and afraid of the “art police”. Now I swear a lot and HAVE to make the things that move me. I am old now, well my body is getting old by anyone’s standard. But my spirit feels like it’s just born and all of life is a surprise! And I believe in Fun!!!
Interview posted October 2023
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