Spotlight: Susan Brubaker Knapp, Fiber Artist, Author and Teacher
Susan Brubaker Knapp is one busy artist! She is known to fiber artists as the host of television’s “Quilting Arts TV”, as well as an award-winning art quilter, instructor, pattern designer, traditional quilter, tutorial developer and more. How did she learn to balance all that? Toddlers! Read on!
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I wanted to be an artist since I was little. I wanted to go to art school and formally study art, but was somewhat discouraged by my parents, who felt I couldn’t earn a good living as an artist. So I ended up getting a BA in English, and then an MA in journalism. I started out in corporate communications, but working in employee newsletters and company magazines, I got interested in graphic design, too, and taught myself enough about it that I was able to get enough freelance work to put myself through graduate school.
One of my favorite professors helped me get a job at The Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader as a page designer when I finished graduate school. But I don’t think I really thought of myself as an artist until I started making art quilts, which was around 2005. I took a class from Bonnie McCaffery where she taught us how to paint a realistic face on fabric. I came home with that face, and decided to make her into a mermaid. “Teach Me to Hear Mermaids Singing” was the result. I truly had no idea that I was capable of making a piece like it. I felt like I was on fire, and I would wake up in the middle of the night and work on it. It was really a turning point.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people must develop?
I believe that each human being possesses immense quantities of creativity. Some have it driven out of them when they are children by negative teachers, parents, and other adults. Some deny its existence within them, and turn away from it. And some embrace it fully, build on it, let it blossom inside them, and become artists.
Creativity is also a habit, and something that you can work on and learn to do better. It grows, if you nurture it.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
I’ve always known I was creative. I think many artists have always felt somewhat “different,” and I certainly did. As a child, I knew that I thought about things differently than most of my peers. Math word problems always perplexed me, and asked the teachers many “what if” questions. Those problems confounded me, because they were created by math teachers thinking logically, and in a very left-brained way. I was NOT.
Looking over all that you do – teaching, lecturing, hosting a television series, writing books, producing instructional DVDs, creating free tutorials, all while creating original art and balancing family responsibilities – do you wake up every day with 36 hours to work with? How do I get some of that? How do you balance your personal life, work and creative endeavors?
Well, I don’t do all of that at the same time! I’ve done that over the past 20 years or so! When my children were toddlers, I got into the habit of getting things done a few minutes at a time. Kids down for a nap? I got 20 minutes at the sewing machine. Trapped on an airplane for a few hours? The perfect time to sketch, hand stitch and brainstorm. An hour waiting for a child at an orthodontist appointment? Time to applique. If you learn to take advantage of the free time you have, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.
When and how did quilting morph from a hobby to a business for you?
In 1998, when my eldest child was two, I really wanted to be at home with her, and I left my full-time job at The Charlotte Observer (where I was working as a graphic designer) to work freelance. I really wanted to be with her, and I felt like I was missing so much of her life. I was fortunate to have an emotionally and financially supportive husband who had good health insurance for all of us.
At that time I was quilting for fun, but I started making original designs and the quilters in my guilds started saying that I should make patterns of them. I figured that I had all the skills to do that (I’d worked as a writer, editor, and graphic designer, and I was a decent amateur photographer), so I figured it would be a great way to make some extra money. My first big break came when the catalog Keepsake Quilting featured one of my block-of-the-month designs, “Heart’s Desire.”
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
Botanical subjects and nature interest me a lot, and flowers, trees, insects and fish often show up in my work. I love macro photography, and often focus on the tiny, miraculous details of nature that one only sees by looking very closely.
What is it about representational work that appeals to you?
I guess it is because it allows me to capture a moment, or a memory. It helps me guide the viewer to see what I see, to appreciate what I appreciate.
You seem to really be able to focus on your subject. Does your experience as a graphic designer and newspaper page designer (where space is precious real estate) help you keep unnecessary fluff and stuff out of your work?
That is an interesting observation. Being a graphic designer definitely has influenced my style or “voice.” And I find myself drawn to work by other fiber artists who were/are graphic designers – people like Terry Grant, Jamie Fingal, and Judy Coates Perez. Part of the reason that most of my work looks clean and focused is that I often work from macro photos (taken very close up).
Some art quilters have never made traditional quilts. You embrace them. How does that influence your work?
Yes, I call myself a “multiple personality disorder quilter,” because I love it all! I started out making traditional quilts (I made my first quilt with my mom when I was 10), and I still make them. Right now, I’m working on a machine-pieced contemporary quilt, as well as a large Baltimore album quilt (intricate needle turn appliqué). I’m also hand quilting a queen-size red-and-white quilt.
In my art quilts, I sometimes use traditional techniques, such as trapunto, needleturn applique and hand stitching. I find that different projects fill different needs for me. In times of great stress or angst, I often turn to needleturn applique or machine piecing, because I find them comforting… maybe because they are simple and repetitive, and don’t require serious decision making.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? What does it look like?
Yes. It used to be our guest room; it’s about 14’x14’, and it is crammed with supplies, a work table, cutting table, pressing area, two sewing machine tables. I have one wall covered with flannel for a design wall. But I desperately want more space, especially space for wet work like painting. I think having this space would increase my productivity and keep me more organized.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
- I just joined the BERNINA Ambassador program, and got a new machine, the BERNINA 770 QE. It has a huge bobbin, so I can thread sketch or piece forever. And it has a much bigger space between the needle and the machine, so I can quilt larger pieces much more easily. It’s been a game changer.
- A good stabilizer/interfacing for all my thread sketching. I use primarily Pellon 910 or heavy weight Shaping Aid.
- ProChemical & Dye’s transparent textile paint.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
I love antiques, and old furniture in general. They have a soul, a spirit, that you don’t find in new stuff from Ikea. I have four old dressers/wardrobes along one wall in my studio. They are great storage, and they are old friends in my studio.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I’m a classical music addict, and I listen to my local station, WDAV at Davidson College, NC, a lot. My husband got me a wonderful Bose speaker for Christmas this year, and I’ve also been enjoying lots of music on Spotify. I find I can’t machine quilt or threadsketch to any music with words; it has to be instrumental music.
When you begin to create, do you have a finished product in mind? Or does the work evolve? How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
I usually plan my work out in detail before I start. I have an idea in my mind’s eye of what it will look like finished, and I seldom wander from that.
Do you work actively on more than one project at a time? Or does each piece demand all of your attention?
I often work on 10 or more pieces at the same time, but I’m deadline-driven, so that determines which piece I work on. There are 50 projects or more that I really want to finish – plus many more that I don’t, and won’t, and I don’t have any regrets about not finishing! I believe you learn what you can from a piece, then move on, whether it is finished or not.
If you could travel back in time, what creative person would you like to spend a day with?
I wouldn’t have to go back in time. I’d like to spend time with Toni Morrison, my favorite author. She was the subject of my undergraduate thesis, and I think she has one of the most original “voices” in literature. I am always stunned when I read or reread her novels.
As a visual artist, I think it is important to examine creativity in all its forms – so I love exploring novels and poetry, music, theater, dance, musicals, and other visual art forms.
As you interact with so many fiber artists, what trends do you see in fiber art today?
Handwork is big. I think that many quilters and fiber artists who have worked mostly by machine are discovering it as an intuitive, calming force. In troubled times, it is a great way to lower your blood pressure.
The digital revolution influences art quilters in many ways. They are designing on computers and tablets and apps. They create pixelated quilts, or use digitally printed fabric that they designed themselves.
Many fiber artists (check out Chawne Kimber and the Pixeladies), are becoming increasingly enamored with type and words in their art.
Fiber artists are using their work to comment on social issues, such as feminism, racism, gun violence, and politics. This can be jarring for traditional quilters, who sometimes don’t consider quilts to be art.
Younger people are entering the world of quilting and fiber art through the Modern Quilt Guilds, events like QuiltCon, and programs like Sara Trail’s Social Justice Sewing Academy, which helps young people express themselves through textile art.
What is the most important takeaway you want students to gain from your workshops?
I want them to try new things, new materials, and experiment. I want them to fail, and to succeed. And I want them to have fun. I want to help them determine what they like about their work, and what they don’t like, and want to change. I want students to leave my workshops feeling like they’ve asked every question and sucked every bit of knowledge about fiber art out of my brain.
You teach workshops all over. How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
All my information about my classes and lectures, as well as my contact information and contract, is detailed on my website, www.bluemoonriver.com
I’m also on social media:
Check out all of our Spotlight interviews on Create Whimsy!