To do what you love is a gift. To be good at it takes practice. And Sarah Ann Smith works hard at art quilting, resulting in a body of work that wins awards while reflecting the essential elements of her life.
How long have you been creating art quilts? How did you get started?
I started sewing when I was about 6….clothes for my trolls and seams on clothing Mother made for me (ironically, she hated sewing). As a kid and teen I learned to sew garments, and then I saw someone making what I later learned was a Grandmother’s Flower Garden block when I was 16.
I “found” quilting in the form of the Keepsake Quilting catalog in my late 20s when working as a US Foreign Service Officer (diplomat) at the US Embassy in Bolivia. I always wanted to do my own thing, though, and quickly branched out from traditional designs and other people’s patterns. Back in the US and out of federal service, around about 2000, I discovered something called art quilts thanks to something called the internet, and began immediately learning as much as I could.
In 2000, we lived on San Juan Island, Washington, and getting places was a production. Joan Colvin lived nearby on the mainland and came out to the next island over for a one-day workshop. I can still remember the incredible sense of freedom and elation as I cut my first freeform leaves—picking up cloth and scissors and simply cutting a shape. I made an art quilt of a blackberry bramble.
How does the worldview you gained from living overseas shape your art?
Living outside the US used to inform a lot of my images and subject matter. Now, overseas life seems like ancient history that barely touches me. However, I think it probably still does have an impact.
Up until moving to Maine in 2004, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. As I child I had lived in North and South America, Asia and Europe by the time I was 5. We moved multiple times once we were back in the US just after my 6th birthday from one school district to another (Mother was determined I would get the best public education I could). All that left me feeling like I was a transient and didn’t belong.
My dad was a Foreign Service Officer, so I vowed I would never follow his career footsteps, no matter how much he wanted me to do so. That determination to NOT move a lot as an adult was thwarted when I met my husband who was in the US Foreign Service. Fate has a wicked sense of humor. With the choice of becoming a US diplomat or being unemployed with a Master’s in International affairs, I chose a paycheck. So, I moved again and again until I was 40.
I’ve now lived in Maine for fifteen years. I realized within two years of arriving in Maine that I had found my soul’s home. Maine is mine and I am Maine’s. That feeling of never belonging has been overtaken by a deep appreciation for where I DO live, where I have found home. I can’t stress how profound that is, to have Found Home.
Every day I take my dog for walkies and notice the small details and changes in the seasons, learn more about my adopted state. I’m elated to be included in the state’s Bicentennial Textile exhibit (later this year) and book, so I guess that means I am now Maine’s too—this is a Good Thing! I guess that the flip side of my life abroad–being settled–does have a profound influence on my work.
What sets art quilts apart from other art forms, and why does that medium call to you?
There is something about the tactile experience of cloth that no other medium can replicate. I often think I should paint and sell paintings, as they would be so much faster. But I love the cloth, the combination of visual textures, creating something with a bit of dimension, adding line on top of color and texture with thread and paint….. I love it when I start the quilting and all of a sudden it starts to come alive.
What do you believe is a key element in creating a successful art quilt?
Good composition, which cannot exist without light.
If you don’t have a good composition, no amount of good technique, color and so on can save a so-so work. While I simply adore color, if you strip it down, what really matters is the use of value—light to dark—in such a way to create a good composition.
Without light, there is no shape, form, or line. Without light, there is no color. If you study masterworks in museums, look for the lights and the darks. Observe how the painter leads your eye around the canvas with light value areas to focus on what the painter wants you to notice.
Artwork can be high-contrast or “blendy.” It can be representational, abstracted, or non-representational. But without a successful composition, it’s just blah.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser? How do you make the leap from the idea in your head to the art you create?
Definitely a planner—I’ve always been so busy that if I don’t work out the ideas, solve some of the problems, inside my head, I’d never have time to complete anything.
Our children arrived later in my life, so while most women were moving their children out of the house in their 40s, I had an infant and a pre-schooler. With all the busy-ness of being a mother, that meant I used every moment to think on things, so I could get to my sewing space in those rare free moments and make good use of them.
Now that my youngest is nearly out of college, I have more time. I still seem to be so busy that there isn’t enough time to play—I really need to schedule a year off for just PLAY and exploration, but wonderful opportunities pop and up and I just can’t say no to them. That said, I am trying to be more strategic and give myself the larger blocks of time I need to just mess around and see what I can do to stretch myself.
How does your environment influence your creativity?
Everything I do is about my world, whether portraits of my family or pets, or the beauty I see every day in Maine.
I even have a lecture called Inspiration in the Ordinary—all you need to do is make the effort to notice the world around you. It’s right there waiting for you!
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
I was organized once, about 3-4 decades ago LOL! That said, now that the boys are grown up, I am better about being organized in general. But not so much with the multiplicity of design ideas and processes.
I have found techniques that work well for me though, so I use those as my foundation. I’d like to explore more with thickened dyes and paint, creating more of my own cloth. But knowing what is “me” and what is just another random technique helps—I simply leave the latter aside. Then I tend to have only one artwork in process at a time. If I get pulled away onto another project, the chances are good I’ll get bored and abandon something. So I don’t do that—if the piece is worth finishing, I do. Then I move on to the next. And if I decide I’m bored with an idea before I even start, I move on to something that isn’t over-worked in my mind and let it go.
How does your studio set-up contribute to your work process?
Well, it sure is nice to have a space where I can just shut the door! I don’t have to tidy up and then set up all over again, and it reduces cat hair and cat mayhem. That helps.
When we were looking for this house, my husband wasn’t exactly amused when I kept saying we were looking for a nice studio with a house attached, but really, I was.
I ended up with a large, hideous dark space in the basement. First thing we took down one wall, added LOTS of light, painted, and fixed it up into a nice space. I still wish my studio were above ground, but clearing the plantings from in front of those tiny windows helps—I can see small bits of sky!
I also set up a space in our utility room—the place with the oil tank, water heater, furnace, water pump, etc. While crowded and gritty, it has a drain in the floor. I dye cloth in there, but decided I was sick of hauling buckets of water down from the kitchen. What I installed isn’t a “sink” (by legal definition) because it was too expensive to connect to an expensive lift pump to get the outflow to the septic system. But I had them splice some water lines to my “basin” and have pipe that drains into the floor drain. Having that space for sloppy wet stuff really helps, too. I only do dye sessions a few times a year, but OMG what a wonder to have that space!
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Mistyfuse—it is a heat-activated fusible web that is applied to one side of the cloth. With it, I can collage with cloth. It allows me to work with cloth as a painter would with a brush and paint.
Titanium non-stick iron—no more hot iron cleaner and fumes, I can literally wipe any random fusible off. I’ve found the Panasonics work best for me. This one has auto shut-off and reheats quickly, so I don’t have to worry that I left it on.
Janome Sewing machine and Bernina Q20 sitdown quilting machine—having machines that give me room to maneuver the bulk of the quilt (my work is medium to larger sized) and provides good stitch tension and balance means I can concentrate on the artistry, not technical issues. FYI, I’m a Janome Artisan (brand ambassador).
Karen Kay Buckley micro-serrated scissors—The tiny serrations on these scissors grip the fabric as they cut, giving me incredible control as I cut shapes. I’ve got most of her scissors, but use the purple-handled ones the most.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I try….I used to have a sketchbook and a to-do/notes book. But I never had the right one in the right place. So I now splurge and use a good-paper sketchbook for everything in one place. Mostly it has notes and lists–notes from meetings for committees I’m on (mostly SAQA, Studio Art Quilt Associates), to do lists, dates of shows to enter, chores around the house. Sometimes I put in nice stamps, or glue or washi-tape in things I’ve torn out from a magazine. If I’ve got a sweater I want to knit but with pattern modifications, I’ll sketch it out. Other times I just doodle, but not as much as I wish I could!
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I WISH I could listen to audiobooks or watch movies, but I get so immersed in what I’m thinking when I’m working that I lose track of where I tuned out from paying attention to the story and that makes me crazy frustrated, having to go back and figure out where I abandoned listening. So, I usually have the TV on as white noise—I’m fond of home design and renovation shows. You can sorta listen, look up maybe two or three times in half an hour, and get the whole makeover. Podcasts are for late afternoon dog walkies, but I find my mind wanders off into inspiration then, too. The dog is most accommodating when I stop moving and take pictures of those tiny details in nature that stop me in my tracks.
Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I REALLY resist the idea of saying I work in a series—just typing and thinking about it makes me squirm. Perhaps I do in fact have “series” in my work, but it feels like putting on a straightjacket to think of them that way. I mean, I make what I want to make.
I’ve heard some say that “true” artists MUST work in a series. That you need to suss out details and explore this or that. Balderdash. Sorry. Nope. Talk about working something into tedium. Talk about putting blinders and ropes on your imagination…way too restrictive. Shudder!
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
Every piece has its challenges. In Every. Single. Piece. There is a moment (or several) where I think: this is positively awful. But I’ve learned that those moments happen with regularity, and you simply have to plug away.
Keep working. Add more layers. Quilt. Add complexity. Remove clutter. Edit. Walk away. Go outside. Have a cup of tea. Take the rest of the day off and look at it later with fresh eyes.
Maybe it isn’t as bad, but maybe while zoning out in the shower or on dog walkies an idea will worm its way into your consciousness, or your mind will make some ridiculously random connection that sparks an idea.
Then you get back to work. Just don’t take too long away. Get back to work! And not every single piece has to be your life’s masterwork. Just do the work.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Yes, I do think creativity comes naturally. But I think most people don’t believe it, and that’s the problem. They also don’t recognize that there are different types of creativity–one can pick and choose WHERE to be creative, and you need to put some effort into developing that creativity.
I believe very strongly creativity can be nurtured and grown—no one is born a neurosurgeon or Pulitzer Prize winning novelist or Nobel winning scientist. You need to put in the effort to get from where you are to where you want to be—there is no magic wand or magic bullet. There is just DO. And (the dreaded P-word) Practice.
When I teach, I tell students it’s as if you decide to buy a bunny as a pet. Well, where do you get a bunny? You have to find out, then you finally get to buy that cute thing (and a cage, and food, etc). Then you decide to get another bunny. Easier: same place. Before you know it, you have 9 bunnies, then 27, then 73, then 479, then more bunnies/ideas than you ever imagined possible.
Getting ideas is the same way. It may be work to come up with an idea. It may not even be a good idea. But you did it. Then the more you do it, the easier it is (did I mention Practice?). Beethoven didn’t start by playing or writing sonatas. Toddlers don’t run marathons (though they might try). You develop your skills, including generating ideas, one at a time.
Are you creative in more than one area? What else do you like to create?
Absolutely. One of the administrators at my old high school called me an Idea Generator, and she is right. Most of the ideas are so-so, some are downright awful, but others are better and worth developing. Brainstorming with others is fun—my idea may not be great, but it may prompt someone else to come up with something grand!
I LOVE the act of creating—it’s a puzzle to work out and figure out how to make it happen. My favorite things are photography, knitting, drawing and playing with paint, working on our house. I wish I were more creative in cooking—I keep hoping visits to a friend in her 80s who lives a couple of states away and is a brilliant improvisational cook will rub off on me. I’m still hoping!
Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
Yes, I do enter both juried and judged shows….but my work is my work. I create pieces that resonate with me.
On some occasions I will make a piece for a themed exhibit, but only if it is a piece I want to make anyway. Although I dislike the concept of being stuck in a series, I will say that I am working on a number of pieces that celebrate the home I have found in Maine. I simply make the work that is shouting loudest inside of my head. Whatever makes the most clamor is what gets made next. Then I look for a place to enter it, whether it is a quilt show or juried art exhibit.
And a side note…while I was working on the answers for Create Whimsy, a bucket list item got checked off: I not only had two quilts juried into a show, but BOTH are coming home with ribbons (and cash!).
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Absolutely I teach and lecture—have students, will travel! Folks can reach me through my website, blog, Facebook and Instagram. Check my workshops and lectures and folks can email me using the Contact me page.
Interview posted February 2020
Browse through more Art Quilt stories and projects on Create Whimsy.