Fiber artist Susan Lumsden has downsized her studio space, but her creative output remains prolific, proving that it is the artist, not their surroundings, shaping the depth and breadth of their work. Creative since childhood, Susan’s art quilts reflect the natural world around her in complex layers that make the most of various techniques. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts certainly applies here. Susan dyes, prints, stitches and embellishes until her work declares itself complete.
How did you start making art? How do art quilts best express what you want to communicate through your art?
Somehow I’ve always known I am an artist. The only actual art lessons I had were in elementary school as an after school weekly class in pastels, then oils. I don’t remember anything I learned from them except the comfort of art materials surrounding me–and lusting after that huge box of pastels. My time in school was occupied with academics and the swim team. So again, no chance to jump into artistry. However, from the age of 5 I began learning to sew–in the lap of a babysitter!
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I married and had children very young. I was 16. Fortunately, I had well developed sewing skills. I was fortunate to take sewing classes during the summer of 8th and 9th grades. My project was a Nina Ricci Vogue Designer pattern. So sewing was a thread that followed me, allowing me to have new clothes that I otherwise could not afford. My children were boys so I didn’t get much opportunity to “dress” them. It wasn’t until I saw the cover of a sewing how-to book called Jacket Jazz Encore that I had my “duh!” moment and realized that I could apply all my sewing skills to creating art. Those skills were already at a professional level. All I had to do was learn art principles to apply them. That made my runway pretty short.
I’ve always been the type to question authority and rules, so art quilting seemed a natural fit. I could pretty much break every rule and still have something one might consider worthy. Also, art quilters seem to get the giddy thrill of rule breaking.
These days I am really into surface design~ dyeing, printing, embellishing. When my experiments hit critical mass they “become” an art quilt. Art quilts in general allow for my celebration of color and the textures to be an important element. I find it much more satisfying than working on paper. There is more permanence.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
I am usually acutely aware of my environment (with the exception of my mess at home, which I can blissfully overlook). I like connecting to the local flora and fauna. Where I live in Florida there are lots of each. Many are in a threatened state or in need of protection. As an artist, I feel no desire to simply replicate nature as is. It’s already perfect. I find that I can reach others by juxtapositioning points of realism within a somewhat abstract environment.
In many ways I am a lazy artist. I want my efforts to have a chance for more than one use. With that as a goal, I’ve learned to do simple linocuts. I can use them to print on paper or fabric. My recent work incorporates appliqués of realistic birds and plants against a backdrop of abstract landscape. By printing on silk organza I can make it look like it is printed directly on my canvas (or quilt top).
What motivates you artistically?
I call it following the curiosity trail. As a theme I like to raise awareness of our environment and how precious and precarious it is. To pull that off I often will stretch myself to learn a new skill or expand a known one.
I seldom like to play in my comfort zone. There is something magical about stepping off the “known” path and seeing where it goes.
As I have reached out artistically since 1995, I have developed a huge toolbox of skills that I can pull into play when I need them. The challenge becomes one of editing rather than adding another direction. Honing my skills that are in place, rather than jumping off in a new direction keeps me going. How can I layer to create more depth of meaning?
When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?
When I first started making art quilts I pretty much drew it all out on paper. I carefully planned as I dyed each color gradation. As time has gone by, I now do a very rough sketch of my concept. I mean really rough. Like scribbles. That gets me my general placement of elements. Beyond that, the journey of exploration takes me along. I follow the path.
Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
Kinda. Right now I have the foundation for a piece on my design wall. It is assembled and stitched. The next elements will require me to make and print some linocuts. So while I carve the linocuts I stare at the foundation. Many times the linocuts will inspire small works of their own. Or I might use them to print my “New Year’s” cards. (I don’t do Christmas).
Often I am making the screens for one project while using the previously printed fabrics to create my current piece. Breakdown printing (my current favorite printing technique) requires some forethought and planning. Making the screens is one project, printing them another, cutting them up and turning them into a quilt is still another. So I like to keep momentum going by being a step or two into my next project while completing the current one. Otherwise I lose time. I’ve had breast cancer twice. Time to create is precious to me.
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
That can be a challenge. Usually I know what my objective is and once I fulfill that, I call it done. One can always add more. But stopping before “too much” is a powerful feeling.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
When you see a picture of my “create” space you will die laughing. I used to have the most glorious 1100 square foot studio in a store front while we lived in the Ozarks. It had a dedicated “dye kitchen” that used to be the city newspaper’s darkroom. For the last nearly 6 years I’ve been crammed into parts of several spaces. My “dye kitchen” is a combination of shelves and table in a garage that floods like a leaky basement several times a year. My printing happens on an outdoor table covered in galvanized steel. The dining table which we also actually use daily for eating our lunch is my space to cut fabrics. My sewing space is also a mud room or butler’s pantry. Into that space I cram stacks of similarly colored fabrics I pull from for my projects.
I recently gave myself the challenge of 100 projects in 100 days. SAQA sponsored the idea. I was making a huge amount of purses and handbags. Each day a new project. Having the breadth of my last 6 years of dyed and printed fabrics at hand cut back greatly on the search for the right ingredient. I liken my sewing, ironing, fabric sorting space to working in a food trailer. In a floor space of about 2 feet x 6 feet I can walk between my machine and my ironing board. The rest of the room is full of shelves and cubes that store my fabrics, spices, sewing tools, pantry, etc. All the while, my 5 cats come and go. Fortunately, they are mostly outside animals who step in to warm up, eat or snuggle.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
First of all is my trusty old Bernina. I mentioned I married very young. Well, my first Bernina was my dowry. (Along with my dog). It was a Bernina Record 730. A few years later my mother stepped up her machine and passed along her Bernina 930. I also have a 1630 and a newer Bernina. Plus, I have a Janome and a Bernina serger (old one). But all my major work happens on the 930. I do all of my free-motion quilting on this domestic machine. It is over 40 years old and a total workhorse. I know it intimately and can use every single foot.
A cheap steam iron is vital (Black and Decker, $15, I think), an ironing board or padded surface, my cutting mat (which remains at my spot on the dining table and gets covered in a placemat when I eat.) and a design wall!!!! In my old studio I had 42 feet of 9-foot tall flannel-covered design wall I could spread out on. Today I have a pair of 2’ x 4’ linen-covered insulation boards I stack against the wall. Having a place to vertically hang my projects while creating is absolutely essential. Mostly I use pins to attach the pieces. I preferred my flannel-covered wall which loose fabrics would just stick to. Someday….
My silk screens allow my printing to happen. I have about 20 blank silk screens I use for breakdown printing. Because my printing table is outside I have to remove the padding and be able to put it away. I have begun using 2’ x 2’ foam flooring sections as my under pad. I can store them easily and simply throw the fabric underneath my prints in the washer when I’m done printing for the day. My dyes are stored in the garage, and many are nearly 20 years old. But they work.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I began keeping a regular journal each night. I’m not terribly dedicated to writing nightly, but it does allow me to review my day and especially to note what I am happy about. I may note something that needs attention but generally it is validating in nature. I actually keep several notebooks. One is my quadrille notebook for daily notes, another is specific to projects I’m currently working on to document and record important info related to it. A third is a garden journal where I keep track of new elements added and draw out my plans (which seldom come to fruition). Once I jot down an idea, I seldom refer back to it. Just capturing it is usually sufficient to keep it prominent and usable in my mind.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Mostly I like to work in silence. If the talking in my head gets annoying I’ll play some music. If I’m working on a lot of free-motion quilting, then music is vital. It establishes a rhythm that makes the work go more smoothly. My husband is a jazz guitar musician, so I hear plenty of music in my background anyway. I enjoy female folk, Neville Bros, Amos Lee, and cello. I enjoy audiobooks but have had trouble accessing them lately.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
I have learned most of my skills either in workshops or from books and some online. We’ve often been very tight in finances, so learning on my own has been my usual solution. Fortunately, I am a visual learner and simply watching others usually gives me the needed info to jump in. I’m adventurous and willing to be uncomfortable while learning. Books and YouTube have been lifelines.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
Okay. The one I’ll walk you through is one of my latest. I did this as a response to a specific call for art. The call was for “The Artist’s Question Answered in Fiber”. I had already made screens for breakdown printing. But I had not chosen the colors I’d use to print. I wanted to create an abstract foundation in which to showcase my linocuts and tell the story. The overall question for me as an artist is “what if” and “how can I?” I wanted to raise awareness on the disappearing habitat for wood storks and other shore birds and even small amphibians, reptiles and turtles. I had a lovely opportunity to really study the visual scene of Anclote Estuary while awaiting my husband’s 2 cataract surgeries. The waiting room had a fabulous view. I spent 2 days drawing the general layout and details of certain areas.
So I knew I needed to use dyes found in nature: greens, blue sky, water, mangroves, ferns, tree trunks. I dyed about 10 sections of 12” x 36” 100% cotton. Then I sliced them into long strips, 2” wide. I couched down various yarns to add texture and vary the colorations. Then I chopped the pieces into sections 3-6” long and sorted by color and pattern. This became my palette.
On my design board I pinned the foundation to match my concept–an estuary with an acute sun angle, distant tree skeletons, mangroves, water that moves. After getting those sections loosely laid in I added in metallic. These are 2” x 2” sections of metallic fabrics I have tamed by fusing to interfacing. Interspersed, these break up the rhythm of the printed fabrics. I have used metallic in this manner for most of my art quilt career. (I’m sure there is magpie blood in me somewhere.) While laying out my foundation, I noted where and at what scale I wanted to add my linocuts. Some I already had, and it was a matter of finding the right scale for the location.
I carved my various wood storks, nighthawk, box turtle, leopard frog and shore birds and printed them on silk organza. As the images are just black ink, I also used Inktense pigments to add a bit of color. Once dry, they are color stable. I cut them out and fused them to the foundation. Using the same bunch of dyes I used to print my fabrics, I created a shibori fold and dyed the fabric for the back. I layered with cotton batting and pinned to baste. The first step was outlining the fused prints and then filling in with stitching. This enhanced particular areas–water got flowing lines, bushes got branches and leaves, palm trees got trunks and leaves with texture, sky got a radiant glow, pine trees got defined shapes. In the lower right corner I used my chop to sign my work.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
The tenacity of being creative. I had to wait until my kids grew up and we sold our business so I could really dive in and say this is MY time. I started taking clay sculpture classes and loved the textures. Then I saw that book cover with the Jacket as art (Jacket Jazz Encore) I never looked back. I knew I already had professional level skills in sewing and fabric construction. So adding in the basic understanding of design elements was pretty simple. I remember being totally intimidated by choosing fabric for a jacket and even thread color.
Finding time for ME has been the toughest part. For several years I was able to dedicate my time and energy to creating art quilts which I sold via juried art festivals nationwide. In 2007 my parents began to require caregiving attention and I stopped going on the road. Then we opened a farm-to-table cafe where I was the primary chef, and I had zero time for anything else.
Between caregiving, remodeling our home to sell, moving across the country to be nearer our kids and grandkids, then having to go back to work (I drove for Uber), remodeling our current home to be livable and having 2 bouts of breast cancer, it has been a challenge to stay on purpose. I am finally done with activities that demand my time and can once again dive back in. The 100 days/100 projects was my effort to regain my momentum. It did the job and I’m happily working every single day on some aspect of my creative life.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think a certain level is there to begin with. Sadly, if not nurtured I believe it will go dormant. Nothing breaks my heart more than someone telling me they have no creative ability. To me it says others have told them lies in order to curtail that creative spirit, and they bought into the lie. Creativity is in every part of my life. From cooking, to laundry, to gardening, to creating fabrics, to making even the simplest of gifts. The wrapping paper, the plant container, the mailbox. If I am being creative, nothing is off limits for modification. Yes, it can be taught. Mostly one would teach to look for those opportunities. There is a soul nurturing aspect to creativity. It feeds my soul and gives me the oomph needed for the rest of life.
How do you get unstuck creatively?
Simply picking up my materials is often sufficient to erase any “stop.” If that does not work, I will begin to sort and put away my fabrics and supplies. Simply connecting with the tools, the tactile experience of fabric, or even a scribble will get me going. I never face a vacuum of ideas after touring an exhibition or walking into a supply store. The biggest trick is capturing enough of a concept that it doesn’t disappear forever. I feel like I am harvesting from the universe. I just reach out my hand and look at, compare, and decide to pass or store whatever lands there. There is no shortage of ideas. It is simply a matter of prioritizing them.
What is on your “someday” creative wish list?
I would love to design a garment collection and the fabric to create it. Also, I think a cohesive collection of art quilts whose focus is to raise awareness of our endangered flora and fauna–with sufficient beauty to bring people to understanding and powerful enough to get the attention of a corporate sponsor to tour the exhibition internationally. Getting to travel occasionally with the collection, talk to the public about worthwhile efforts to save habitat, and meeting other like-minded folk would be a spectacular way to bring my passions to life. I love teaching and sharing. Getting paid well to perform would be icing!
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
Oh boy! Sadly, it needs some serious work. I need to really get my current goals more clarified. At this point it’s mostly a portfolio of older work. To bring it up to date I need to document and upload my more recent work. I’d like to invite others to explore who I am and what I treasure. Mostly, after so many years of being seriously derailed from my mission, I just need to produce! I’m finally working on that now.
It would be good to have my website showcase what workshops I’d like to teach. I don’t see myself diving into the zoom classes as a teaching method. For those who have, bravo! But it is the personal interaction that makes it so worthwhile for me. I just don’t expect to get that from a zoom class. So, until the pandemic is less threatening, I’ll focus on my personal creative journey and invite others to join me.
If there would be a single lesson learned, it would be persistence of the love of creating. Every time I have had to step away for an extended period of time, it comes with a promise to myself to get back to it as fast as I can. It is a separate action to take deliberately. I am well aware that there are many forms of creativity. Being a chef in a farm-to-table cafe is definitely creative. As is gardening and remodeling my house. But it doesn’t satisfy my soul the way working with fiber does. I am content to work privately in my “studio” but sharing my work and skills with others fulfills the empty spaces left open in my heart.
Here’s an additional thought~ My favorite week of the year is the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The frantic is a bit settled and, finally, not a lot is scheduled.
I use this week to review the year and plan out my next one. I start by noting as much as I can of what I am grateful for. That way I begin with a full heart. I then look at what was less than ideal and note what would have been a better outcome or path. Then I look at each of my roles and what would be my ideal scene of each – self, wife, mother, partner, group member, protector of our environment, gardener.
Looking at each role I can see where I fit into my plan. Are there areas that need more education or skill improvement? Are there things I need to budget for? What areas have long runways (like grant applications and residencies)? What needs sharper focus? Are there exhibitions I would like to create something specific for? I look at my promotional actions. I note where I need to update my bio and exhibition list.
By New Year’s Day I generally have a pretty clear picture of what I am hoping for in the next year. Often, I have found that even without referring back during the year, I’ll have achieved most of what was on this rich plan. I encourage everyone to use this wonderful week to make decisions about the future. It is a powerful period.
Interview posted January 2022
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