With multiple projects in development at any given time, Quilt Designer Scott Murkin is always busy, whether at his sewing machine, judging at quilt shows or engaged in his day job as a hospice and palliative care physician. In his small town, people know Scott as both quilter and doctor. He considers that to be a huge positive for him day-to-day. Since almost everyone has memories of a quilt, it’s easy for Scott to find common ground for communication. And when he needs time to de-stress, his studio provides a creative respite.
What are your first memories of quilting?
My maternal grandmother was a quiltmaker before the advent of rotary cutters. When her arthritis would prevent her from cutting out her patterns, I would often be drafted to help. I loved the puzzle of figuring out how to get the most pieces out of the fabric without wasting any. She died in 1994 while I was in residency. With that responsibility along with a young child and a pregnant wife I was unable to make it back home. I channeled those unspent emotions into learning how to make quilts for my own kids.
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When did quilting “click” for you as a creative outlet? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
I sewed completely by hand for about four years before buying a sewing machine. With the pace of hand sewing your brain has lots of time to play with “what ifs”. I realized I needed to learn a lot to get even a fraction of the ideas in my head out into the world.
I do believe that people are naturally drawn to different materials. Fabric just feels right to me in a way that isn’t easy to articulate—it just is. I do love the utility of quilts, even if it is only a potential utility in the case of wall quilts.
We have such complex relationships with fabric throughout our lives. But they are mostly positive, so it can be interesting to figure out how to use those associations to convey fairly complex ideas, especially when they are not as comforting as the ideas we typically associate with fabric.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’m much more of a planner. But I’m comfortable with letting serendipity stick its nose into the work. I will let it go a different way if that’s where it takes me.
Years ago I made a large series of free-form curved pieces, and many of them took off in directions I never would have predicted. Sometimes I go back and see if I can find the original idea again, and sometimes I’ve already moved on.
A common working method for me is to make a bunch of units based on some restrictions of color, shape, etc., that I’ve given myself. Then I play with them on the design wall and see what emerges. This often means going back to make more units to fill in any gaps. But it’s a very pleasant way to work without knowing how things are going to turn out. But other projects are planned out completely before the sewing begins, especially when designing patterns for magazines or other publications.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think that it is a mixture, but that creativity can definitely be fostered and honed.
The primary skill of creativity is curiosity. Opening one’s eyes to the possibilities around them allows you to see inspiration in literally every aspect of your life. Like a muscle, the more you exercise your creativity, the stronger it gets. So many people have been told (or told themselves) that they weren’t creative until it becomes their truth. That’s hard to unlearn. Some people have better visualizations skills, but I believe everyone can tap into creativity if the desire is there.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Mostly I recombine existing design elements in unfamiliar ways. I am always looking for emotional and visual connections between design elements. I often share my process photos as I work. It is very common for me to get comments from folks who see all the steps as I go along. At the end, they admit that they were very skeptical that all these (seemingly) disparate elements could actually ever come together until they see the final product.
While not unique to me, the quilting is just as important to me as the rest of the design elements. I am constantly thinking about what quilting motifs will bring the work out to its best advantage. Often, I am thinking about the quilting even before I’ve started sewing the quilt top. The quilting is never an afterthought for me, even when it is simple and structural. I’ve had a very few quilts quilted by someone else, but that is usually not feasible as I constantly update the quilting plan as I see how it is interacting with the top design.
What is your favorite part of the quiltmaking process? Why?
Designing is definitely my favorite part, as I figure out how to make it all work together. I sometimes joke that I only make the quilts to see if the design actually works as well as I think it will while it’s still in my head. But I also get very grumpy if I go too long without sewing time. I typically work on multiple projects at a time. Then I can focus on whichever step in the process is resonating most with me at the moment. And while we hear a lot of people say to focus on the process rather than the product, I’m going to go on record as saying that I really, really like finishing things. For me it clears out head space to allow newer projects to move toward fruition.
How has your quiltmaking changed since you became a certified quilt judge for major shows?
I recently estimated that I have judged about 25,000 quilts in the past 20 years. So I have a pretty good idea about what’s already been done, what ideas have been overworked and what areas are ripe for exploration. It can be fun to add a personal twist to a timeless design idea, but I’m more interested in the overlooked areas.
Since judging QuiltCon in 2016, my work has definitely moved in a more modern direction overall. But I’m still very comfortable working in a traditional idiom, and sometimes that’s what my soul needs, too. I have learned to adjust my tolerance standards depending on the needs of the project. Knowing what the judges look at, it can be easy to be too harsh on your own work. But I’ve done pretty good at deciding for myself which workmanship standards are meaningful to me for each project.
What advice would you give a quilter applying to a show for the first time?
Read the rules and directions carefully. Follow them all. Complete the paperwork fully and accurately. I’m fully convinced that at least half of what I’ve accomplished in life (in quilting and otherwise) is just from following directions and getting things in on time. Once you’ve decided to enter, it’s really difficult to not create expectations of how that is going to go. It’s best to not have any preconceived ideas and just see what happens and decide if there’s anything in that experience that you can learn from. That’s easier said than done—the ego is a powerful force.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
My primary studio is an unfinished basement. While heating and cooling can be an issue in the extremes of the seasons, I have the luxury of lots of space, a large design wall and two large sewing tables pushed back-to-back to create an expansive surface. I try to lose track of how lucky I am to be able to leave parts and pieces of projects out and know that they will be there waiting for me when I have time to get back to them again. By not having to put everything away after every sewing session, I can make the most of small bits of time when they are available.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
While I am willing to make a mess in the moment, I really need to have my space fairly tidy and organized most of the time. Time is my most limiting resource currently, and I hate to waste it looking for things. I am privileged to have duplicates of most of my tools so that I don’t have to move them from area to area or hunt them down when I need them. When I need something specific, such as a grayish medium blue fabric, I just have a few areas to search. I do not have to go through my entire fabric collection.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Sturdy sewing machines, rotary cutters, scissors, sharp pins, a large pressing surface and a comfortable chair are the critical things that allow me to work without destroying my body. You can create with anything, but it is a luxury to have quality tools that serve you without requiring constance maintenance. It’s very hard for me to be creative and fight my sewing machine or other tools at the same time. I had an extensive fabric collection before I learned more about threads and how they affect the work, and my thread collection has gradually expanded as my creative range has increased.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I don’t keep a sketchbook or journal, but I have a large folder of clippings of ideas to use when I’m stuck or need visual stimulation. I have an idea board, but I’m terrible about updating it, so it becomes mostly just background and I sort of quit seeing it. There are hundreds of little scraps of paper with little notes on them about shapes or colors or other ideas that I might or might not use some day. I will never come close to using up all those ideas and more come into my visual field constantly.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I have an extensive music library across many genres and most often listen to it on shuffle, although Saturday mornings are often for show tunes. Once in a while I have to turn it all off to hear the creative voice in my head, but that is uncommon. Reading is a pleasure, but I really only listen to audiobooks while driving, never while sewing. I love movies and nearly always have one on while hand stitching in the evenings. I have not yet developed any interest in podcasts.
Do you find a connection between quilting and your work as a hospice and palliative care physician?
Quilting directly led to my job in hospice when the local hospice purchased several pieces of my work to decorate their newly built inpatient hospice facility. During that interaction I learned that they were looking for a new medical director. The timing was perfect for me to make a change and after some extensive research I applied for the job and made the transition.
Working in a small community, my quiltmaking is fairly common knowledge and it can often be an ice breaker that helps people feel comfortable and see me as more than just their doctor very quickly. It’s very humanizing, and this has helped to build rapport more times than I could even count. It reflects back to the huge numbers of positive associations that we communally share about quilts and fabric in general. It’s approachable in ways that other media can’t always achieve as readily.
Interview posted November 2022
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