Innately inquisitive from a childhood rich with multi-cultural experiences, textile artist Sheri Schumacher transforms used cloth into fiber art that carries the work of the original makers through Sheri’s hands to become contemporary works of art. Cultivating a sense of place is key to Sheri’s work, and she adds her own stitch language to honor the hands and voices embedded in the cloth.
Have you always been an artist? Was the transition from previous pursuits an abrupt shift or a natural progression?
My education, professional practice and teaching in the discipline of design and interior architecture has provided a natural progression to my textile design practice.
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I continue to explore the physical environment, spaces where life occurs, to inform the creative content of my work. My interest in enclosure systems, relationships between interior and exterior conditions, space defining elements such as boundaries, edge and territory remains constant.
I’m also influenced by the character of places, how a place changes with different conditions of light and time and their material culture, how things are made and assembled.
What or who were your early creative influences? Do the places you have lived and visited guide your work?
Learning how to sew fabric and quilt by hand in 2012 with the remarkable Gee’s Bend quilters of Alabama inspired me to explore sewing daily. Then I transitioned from teaching to working with textiles full time in 2017. The Gee’s Bend quilts have qualities of improvisation, innovative use of repurposed clothing, remarkable compositions and use of color, as well as expressive hand quilting.
The quilts have inspired mid 20th-century art in America and have been a source of inspiration around the world. The Gee’s Bend quilters continue to be an inspiration in my life and work. Combining what I have learned from them over the years with my design experience has allowed me to slowly but surely find my voice with textiles.
My creative path was informed by the multi-cultural experiences of my childhood and places I have traveled. Design education began at an early age. I had exposure to art, architecture, and diverse cultures when living in Europe and the Washington DC area. Adapting to new cultures and environs as a child required acute perception, resilience, as well as placemaking skills. Those skills continue to influence my work.
Cultural studies in design was the focus of my academic research and teaching. That provided opportunities to travel and study cultural life in Nepal, Cuba, Ecuador and, closer to home, New Mexico and rural Alabama. I’m inspired by people whose lives are so closely tied to the land. They nurture the place where they live and contribute beauty to their environment and others with limited resources.
How do textiles express what you want to say with your art? How did hand stitch become such an important part of your work?
I resonate with the optical and tactile qualities of textiles, the range of surface, color, texture and weave construction.
Fabric is pliable, lightweight, portable, can be folded and layered, so it is multifaceted to work with. Textiles respond to necessity and use, clothing and shelter provide a second skin and protection from the elements.
There are so many connections between textile making and building enclosure systems; interwoven grasses and branches serve as a model for screens, while tapestries and more solid walls divide space. Both require structural principles to construct a whole from separate parts, similar to piecing and stitching cloth together. Resourcing cloth from repurposed garments and linens, offcuts from textile companies and discarded remnants contributes to a sustainable improvisational practice. The traces of the fabric’s history and use over time add meaning to the work.
The ‘hand’ of a fabric refers to the feel of the fabric when it’s touched. An appropriate term that compliments the visceral experience of hand sewing, it’s getting to know the cloth through the senses with every stitch. The intimacy with the material, the hand and weight of the cloth, resistance versus working with the cloth as well as meditative repetition are all a part of the making process. Hand stitching is integral with my work as a means to emphasize the structure of units, land contours and boundaries. The pattern, scale and rhythm of the stitches can also convey the sensory experience of a place, such as the sound of wind and galloping horses experienced during a sand storm in a gorge near Kagbeni, Nepal.
Which textile traditions have most influenced your work? Do they share a common, if you’ll pardon the expression, thread?
Japanese Sashiko and Boro, Indian Kantha and Korean Bojagi are textile traditions that have influenced my hand sewing. These traditions reinforce fabric, usually small pieces of cloth or worn clothing, with repetitive running stitches or layered seams. They share expressive linear and tactile qualities using thread.
How do you get from the spark of an idea to a finished work of art?
Curiosity is often my starting point. It’s the desire to experience and learn more about a place in the natural or built environment. Examples include places such as Nepal, traversing extreme terrain while learning about migration patterns or Bologna, Italy, where the rhythm of light and shadows is an integral part of the experience of walking on the portico lined streets. Closer to home I observe a 70-year-old moss-covered masonry wall change colors and textures while the seasons change.
I select cloth with a range of texture, weight and color from my collection of repurposed garments, linens and remnants that best conveys the character and experience of a particular place. I sometimes use photographs as a reference in combination with my memory of the experience. This process limits the material resources to what is on hand and encourages moving beyond my taste when selecting textiles.
Large flexible pin up wall surfaces provide a canvas so vital for arranging the selected cloth; I sew small sections together that resonate with the overall idea. The choreography of adding, editing, rearranging, rotating, critiquing the work at various distances from the wall is an instrumental part of the process. I then layer the pieced cloth onto a backing cloth, sometimes with batting in between, to baste in preparation for hand sewing the layers together.
“Improv” is a much-used term in fiber arts today. What does working improvisationally mean to you?
Working improvisationally allows me to have creative freedom, but with limited resources. I can be spontaneous without a plan, make intentional choices in the moment, experiment without inhibition and be completely immersed in the making process. I use improvisation to develop my creativity and also guide my everyday life.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
My work is at the intersection of architecture, landscape, art and handcraft. I’m inspired by experiencing and learning from cultural as well as natural landscapes. Cultures that use ingenuity when making things, from objects of use to dwellings, are of particular interest because of their use of local, sustainable and readily available resources in the making process. The terrain and topological conditions experienced in natural landscapes provide an opportunity to physically map the land while also recording the experience of place using all the senses.
20th-century modern art and design guides my work because the principles focus on the connection with everyday life. They prioritize process over the ultimate form, innovation and experimentation, abstraction, use of irregular and asymmetric patterns and minimalism.
Exploring where design and craft find common ground, where they coincide, converge, intersect, merge, and unite continues to inform my making process. Craft encourages a heightened understanding of material consciousness and complex intentionality. I’m interested in design and craft work with virtues such as irregularity, distinctiveness, and character; I value these because of their specificity and variation. Working in this manner exemplifies qualities of engagement and fostering experimentation while also discovering connections between culture and nature.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I begin with an idea and not a rigid plan of how to implement the idea when working with textiles. That allows the process of making to inform decisions along the way; then elements of surprise make their way into the work. At different stages of the process I use my design experience to question, critique and reflect on my work. I draw from design principles and elements of art such as balance, proportion, form, unity, hierarchy, color and space.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
My studio space has large scale windows providing abundant natural light and views of the landscape. A large work table (6’x7.5’) is large enough for laying out materials and tools. Low open shelving stores cloth, and flexible pin up wall surfaces help me see the work take shape..
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Indispensable studio tools and materials include cloth, scissors, sewing machine, iron, needles, thimbles and thread. Working with cloth from repurposed garments and linens with a history of use provides a context to respond to, such as a previous mend or fade marks from folding. Cutting with designated cloth scissors results in a precise edge. Piecing fabric with a sewing machine encourages a rhythmic pace while ironing seams helps the fabric lay flat. Sharp needles and thimbles protect my hands from blisters when hand stitching. Of course, thread is essential for sewing, joining, layering and reinforcing the fabric.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
The phase of my current project determines the background sound in my studio. Silence during the project beginnings allows full engagement in the assemblage process and listening with all the senses to the cloth. I’m reminded of Anni Albers who said, “Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done: the dictation of the materials.”
Sometimes, while hand sewing, I listen to classical, folk, acoustic genres of music and podcast interviews. I enjoy Fresh Air and On Being.
Do you focus on one piece exclusively from start to finish? Or do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
Working actively on multiple projects at one time allows me to combine large scale hand sewing projects that take months to complete with short term small experimental works that explore new techniques to inform future projects.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think creativity is a skill that people can learn. It requires analyzing one’s skill set to see where you’re strong as well as where you need improvement, developing good work habits and intentional practice to strengthen ones craft. Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, describes creativity as a product of preparation and effort, requiring willingness to make creativity a habit and an integral part of your life. She cites examples of noteworthy artists who switch from one skill set to another as a way to maintain inexperience, that fearless mode of working where everything is possible, resulting in enlarging ones art.
How do you get unstuck creatively?
If my work seems forced or the direction is at a standstill, I change the scale or orientation of the work, experiment with new tools and materials such as paper collage or cut the work into smaller pieces to assemble in a new way. That makes it less precious and allows for more experimentation.
What advice would you give to emerging artists?
My advice to emerging artists is the same advice I give myself. Learn from taking risks and failing, be authentic and work every day.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is a place for people to see images of current textile work and exhibitions, read about the work and my experience, link to articles and social media to learn about the process, and contact me with questions about available works or commissions.
Interview posted April 2022
Browse through more improvisational quilts on Create Whimsy.