Susan J Lapham taps into her experiences as a child to create improv quilts full of color, texture, geometric shapes and arabesque curves. She works intuitively to design the quilt and then engineers how to piece it together. Susan is extremely productive, finishing 56 quilts last year! You’ll find her studio neat and tidy. When her scrap box gets full, she makes a quilt!
Tell us more about your journey to become a quilt designer. Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
I learned how to sew just before my 11th birthday. My grandmother showed me how to use her sewing machine, warned me not to get my finger caught under the needle, and then left me to my own devices. She hated sewing and was glad to hand over her machine. I ended up making all my own clothes as well as clothes for my grandmother, mother, and all the little neighbor girls.
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I taught myself other crafts – macrame, crochet, cross stitch, rug hooking, woodworking, pottery. Everything except knitting. When I was in high school, I made a bed quilt for each of my four brothers. I never turned back. Quilting has been my passion for nearly 50 years.
How does your childhood influence your work?
My childhood was rather unusual compared to a typical American kid. I grew up in the Middle East and North Africa where my parents did Peace Corps work before the Peace Corps existed.
My four brothers and I grew up on four continents in six countries, spoke 3 languages – moved 11 times in 12 years. Our playgrounds included the Temple of Hercules, the Cave of Patriarchs, Hannibal’s Hill and the Roman ruins of Rabat. We were encouraged to explore the neighborhood, scout the souks, investigate, question, learn, create.
Of course, those colors and textures, the geometric shapes and arabesque curves, find their way into my work. But so do the memories – the experiences, the places, the feelings, the love.
You have several colorful series of quilts. How does that affect your approach? How do you choose your next quilt to make?
I love working in a series! Working in a series allows me to dig deeper into a particular subject matter and to find ways to express what I’m passionate about. Some of my series are planned with a specific number of pieces in mind. Others are open ended. With either approach, I set goals for myself.
For example, my “Playland” series started in early 2020 and was about building a body of work and developing a studio practice, as well as the national historic amusement park where I spent my fun time during my teens. My overall goal was to make ten 80”x80” quilts in a year that could be entered into major exhibits. I didn’t have any expectations about how the series would evolve after I completed the first ten, but I’m working on Playland #15 now and think the series might continue for a long while. From bumper cars (Playland #2) to roller coasters (Playland #4) to the beach (Playland #6), these pieces are a treasure trove of wonderful memories.
My “Oh Brother!” series includes an overall piece (I Heart My Brothers), a quilt for each brother (David, Fred, Tom and Tim), and a quilt about my role in the family as the only girl (The Only Girl). Six quilts total. My goal was to make each 40” x 40” and to make one per week for six weeks. I ‘think’ this series is done although I’m tempted to make four more pieces, one for each of my ‘adopted’ brothers – friends of my brothers who have been with us through thick and thin.
Another series I’m working on is my Road Trip series, started in 2022. This is a fun, fun, fun series. Each piece is about a road trip I’ve taken, either as a child or as an adult. They include trips to the beach (Saltwater Taffy), to get ice cream (Raspberry Sherbet), to quilting retreats (Me and Nancy Down at the Teaching Barn) and to work (I Speak Spreadsheet). They are all gallery wrapped on canvas and are made with strip pieced scraps. There are 12 pieces in this series so far with no plans to end the series.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I work intuitively bouncing from right brain to left brain as I create then engineer the piece. I find great delight in working large with thousands of small bits of fabric. I call it the Improv Paradox. I work intuitively, creating on the fly, responding to what is on the wall or what the quilt is telling me. But, I often create a set of rules to guide my work. I find that the more constraints I give myself, the more creative I am. A paradox, indeed!
What inspires you?
Childhood, my brothers, family. Our shared memories, the stories we tell, sitting around the fire pit in our Lapland compound each evening, being with each other, laughing, loving.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’m both in equal amounts. I make goals, track my progress against them, evaluate at the end of each year and repeat. I’m a researcher, I love experiments, hypotheses, theories. But I also love to play. I work intuitively, I piece improvisationally, I make things up as I go, I get distracted with new ideas or color combinations or shapes. I like to have six projects going at once so I can bounce around and never be bored. My studio is clean, free of clutter, bare bones, minimalist. But my brain is overflowing with images, impressions, thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
Yes, I am a finisher. I finished 56 quilts in 2022, 14 so far this year. I use the same practices I learned in my research job that I use in my studio.
- Find a balance between making a mess and making art.
- Don’t fear the fabric. You’re the boss of it.
- Make decisions. Don’t procrastinate.
- A place for everything and everything in its place.
- The right tool for the right job.
- Don’t put off for tomorrow what can be done today.
- Touch everything only once – i.e., pick up the seam ripper, use it, put it back in the notions jar.
AND, of course, I have UFOs or WIPs. Right now, I probably have a half a dozen. Here’s my rule that keeps the pile from getting any higher. If the WIP or UFO is not touched for a year, I must donate, recycle, repurpose, burn, or toss. Burn you ask? Indeed! Sometimes we just make something that makes us feel bad. And I don’t want anything that makes me feel bad in my studio or my house. If I can’t figure out how to repurpose, it goes in the fire. The fabric serves as fantastic fire starter.
You have an amazing creative space. Can you give us a peek?
My studio is a large addition attached to the back of our house. It’s about 30 feet square with a cathedral ceiling. I have design walls on two sides and two 8-foot work tables in the middle of the room, plus a small table for my sewing machine.
My husband’s long arm is down stairs in his work area. He runs a long arm business in addition to quilting all my quilts for me. Lucky me!! Here are some pics of the studio!
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I challenge myself to work with the smallest scraps and the fewest tools. I have a straight stitch sewing machine and piece all my work. All I need is the machine (plus oil, cleaning brush, and a small vacuum), thread, a seam ripper, a rotary cutter and mat, snips and a Hera marking tool. I rarely use pins, except at the design wall. I’m one of those people who can’t work with clutter. I’m not obsessively neat, I just don’t want piles and piles of stuff around me. It’s more to organize, more to clean….more work that I don’t need!!
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
No, I don’t use a sketchbook to document ideas or designs. I do use a sketchbook for my studio log. Each evening I document what I did in the studio that day. The main purpose of the log is to document progress. Because quilting is SO slow, it often feels like I’m getting nothing done. The log gives me a daily dose of reality and forces me not to be so hard on myself.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
Well, since I just told you about my log, I can give you an actual answer based on fact. In 2022, I started 64 quilts (finished 56) so that’s just over one new quilt per week. I do actively work on more than one project but rarely do I work on the same step at the same time. I typically have a quilt on the design wall, a quilt in the engineering phase, a quilt on the long arm, and quilts that are in the hand stitching stages of finishing.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I was working on my Playland series which is mostly about spending time with my older brother and our friends at the amusement park when we were in high school, and all of these memories of my other brothers kept popping up.
I kept asking myself questions…why are they so important to me, why are we all so close, why do we live next door to each other as adults, what makes it work when so many other extended families are falling apart? I think and remember and feel and as I’m doing so, colors and shapes emerged on the design wall that became “I Heart My Brothers” which led to the Oh Brother! series. It’s all abstract art but there’s a story in my heart driving the design decisions.
How do you balance your personal life, work and creative endeavors?
I’m not sure I do! I am in the studio a lot!! If I’m not making, I’m spending time with family and friends. My husband and I travel in our RV which we’ve remodeled to be a studio on the road. The only thing we can’t take along is the long arm.
Are there any other creative channels you use to express your creativity?
I love making almost anything. I love gardening. Most of all I love the feeling of accomplishment when you have something tangible in your hands that you’ve made, whether that’s art or a quilt for the bed or curtains or slipcovers or rugs or a jar of jam.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I believe creativity is an expression of your soul, your deepest passions. When you dig deep to find what’s in your soul, your creativity explodes. Everyone is creative. I love Twyla Tharp’s quote about creativity: Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits.
What (or who) has been your biggest inspiration in keeping your creative energy going?
My father. Very simply, he believed in me and gave me the confidence to believe in myself. When you have someone in your life who believes you can do anything, everything is possible. You’re brave enough to aim higher – to take leaps. You dream big and imagine a future that is limitless. My dad illuminated my best qualities, he talked about them with me, helped me fine tune them. He focused on the positive, expected me to do more, be more. He died when I was only 30 but his voice whispers in my ear every day…believe in yourself, make it happen.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Nancy Crow. In so many ways she reminds me of my dad. She believes in me. She pushes me. She raises the bar every time I study with her. She’s a teacher, mentor and friend. She helps me make it happen.
If we were to visit your studio today, what would we find you working on?
Scrap management! I use a simplified version of Bonnie Hunter’s scrap management system. When one of my scrap bins gets full, I make a bed quilt. I’m working on a tiny half square triangle bed quilt at the moment.
I’m also working on a new piece in my Playland series. This one is called Sand and is all of the quiet neutral colors you find when you look closely at the grains of sand on the beach.
And of course, I’m always working on backings, facings or bindings, and labels! I’m sewing binding on a gray scrap bed quilt, I’m hand quilting a baby quilt for my cousin, and I’m piecing a backing for a quilt that will go downstairs to the in-house long armer for quilting, and then hopefully off to an exhibit or two.
Where can people learn more about you and your work?
The best place to find me @susanjlapham. You can also find me at www.susanjlapham.net.
Interview posted May 2023