Spotlight: Shannon Conley, Art Quilter
By day, she is a cell biologist, but she was a crafty kid with an encouraging mom. So the art happened. Part art quilt, part sculpture, Shannon Conley’s fiber art displays the free-thinking to visualize her idea while designing an engineering strategy that gives form to her vision.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving? Why textiles? Why art quilts? How did you get started?
I’ve been crafty ever since I was a little kid. My mom was the most creative mom I knew; she was a studio potter by profession but always did lots of crafts and other artistic things with us, including sewing.
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Fiber art was a logical outgrowth of my crafty skills, and the transition from craft to art was more about mindset than materials. I love fabric and thread; I love print, pattern, and repetition; and most of all I love texture. These things come together in textiles in a really fantastic way.
My mom is also an art quilter. It’s been wonderful over the last decade for us to independently evolve as fiber artists, and to see how different our work turns out even though we often share similar inspiration. She’s such a resource to me still, and we constantly bounce ideas off each other and encourage each other.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’m definitely a planner.
A lot of my pieces involve precise geometry, precision cutting, or precise interlocking of appliqué pieces, so I tend to make very accurate plans from the beginning. However, I typically work with hand painted fabrics, and I’m very free with colors. I tend to just glob paint and color all over the place, with only the vaguest idea of a color scheme in mind. I love the lucky outcomes I often get when colors blend and merge together on a piece of wet fabric.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
There are a lot of recurring themes in my work, and I have several different loosely-related series that I am currently working on. Much of my recent work has focused on interpreting the diversity and interconnectedness of various ecosystems using fabric and stitching. I am a cell biologist by profession, and my enjoyment of nature and the outdoors has a strong “nerdy scientist” component that often finds its way into my quilts.
I like working on things in a series; it’s nice to have a jumping off point for the next piece. I also like having the ability to learn something from one piece and then apply that right away in the subsequent piece. I’m never afraid to go “off-topic” though, and I think giving myself the freedom to work on things that aren’t in the series prevents me from feeling stifled.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
This depends largely on the piece. For my sculptural pieces, I typically start with a color scheme and a form or shape in my mind. I am inspired by the dry mountains of southern New Mexico where I grew up; so even though I hardly ever make anything identifiable as a landscape, my quilts are rooted in a strong sense of place.
I’m drawn to the colors and feel of the high western desert. In these mountains, the skies are a clear strong blue, but the defining color of the landscape is “dry”. The riotous colors of nature are all overlaid with a thin layer of dirt; hot ochre, brown, and beige blend with the bright red and purple of summer wildflowers or the shadowy dark green and grey of the depths of the forest.
After identifying a general form and color scheme, I start to think about how I’ll construct the piece. The construction of three-dimensional art quilts has been an active area of experimentation for me, and with lots of trial and error I’ve identified several different technical methods that enable me to make more sculptural work. The flexibility of fabric, even quilted fabric, makes sculpting quite challenging, and I’ve enjoyed coming up with ways to keep my fabric where I want it.
How has your approach to fiber art changed over time?
I’ve been a serious art quilter for not quite ten years, so I hope I have a lot of artistic evolution left to come.
When I first started making art quilts, my lack of knowledge and skills led to a fairly free approach. I was new to quilting so I just made the things I wanted. However, fairly quickly, I started worrying about what it meant to be a serious artist, about how to find my artistic voice, about whether my quilts were good enough, or me enough, about whether I was original enough, etc.
While the self-reflection was and is valuable, all the stress was less useful. In the last couple of years, I’ve tried to let go of this a little, to feel free to try and fail at things. I learn more about myself and my vision by making things than by worrying about whether what I make will be good enough to meet some external standard.
I strive to be fearless, to get out into the world what’s in my brain even if I’m not sure how to do it or whether it will work. This has led to lots of experimentation and lots of failures; but it has also led to lots of learning and a lot of fun.
Do you focus on one piece exclusively from start to finish? Or do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I usually work on one piece from start to finish and avoid having piles of unfinished things. There have been occasions that pieces sit unfinished on my design wall for too long while I work to meet other deadlines. But I feel them staring down at me reproachfully and I don’t like it.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I don’t use a sketchbook or journal. I have a master book of lists I jot down ideas in, and folders on my computer for projects I might want to try. These can include pages of notes, inspiration images, and eventually patterns I draft if I decide to proceed with the idea.
I also keep a blog that serves as both an artistic and personal record. It’s a great resource for me to keep track of what I’ve been working on. The blog is public, and can be found at http://imworkingonaproject.blogspot.com/ if you’re interested to see more about my process.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Over the years I’ve been privileged to inherit boxes of random fabric, paint, yarn, and other art supplies from friends and family who have either passed away or are destashing. My studio is full of things, and I love the challenge of working with what I have on hand; it almost always leads to something interesting. I do buy fusible web and water-erasable markers. Those are the two things I never seem to inherit from anyone yet can’t work without.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
My favorite things to listen to are the deep dive history podcasts. When my brain gets too full of facts, I’ll switch over to fiction via audiobook; I’m not too picky, whatever the library has available in the app.
When I’m designing or doing something else that requires mental concentration, I’ll often switch over to music; my Alexa has been cycling through a great set of 70s folk music recently.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or is creativity a skill that people can learn? How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
I think there are benefits of creativity that are accessible to anyone. There are two concrete things that help me when I struggle with not feeling creative.
The first is to let go of the idea of making something “good”. That pressure to be right or meet some pre-defined criteria is so discouraging. Just make something! If it’s terrible you can throw it away, or cut it up and turn it into something else. The process of making it will still have been beneficial.
The second thing that can help is to sign up for a class, preferably outside your primary medium if you’re already an artist. There are tons of online options, but I also love taking beginners classes in different media at my local community college and art center. I find having the framework of a class in which to try something completely new and different can help jumpstart my brain when I get in a rut, entirely independent of whatever particular skills I learn in the class.
Interview with Shannon Conley posted May 2020
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