Spotlight: Susie Monday, Fiber Artist and Teacher
Raised in a creative home, at the age of 9 with the gift of a “real” artist box, Susie Monday became an Artist-with-a-Capital-A. She believed it, and so it was true. Seeing creative possibilities in everything she pursues, Susie now explores color, texture and pattern as a fiber artist.
What is your first memory of creating something artful?
I came into the world making things. It’s just what comes natural. And making stuff was encouraged at home, whether in a sandbox or at the kitchen table with cookie dough or cutting and sewing doll clothes for my Barbie. But I became a self-identified Artist-with-a-Capital-A when Great Aunt Margaret and Uncle Ray sent me a “real” artist box. It was complete with brush, paints, oil pastels and a palette when I was about 9 years old. That was it for me, identity solved.
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What was your path to becoming an artist?
Besides the home-court advantage of being the oldest with “entertain the others (including the neighbor kids)” duties, I had the most wonderful arts education possible in a program at Baylor’s Children’s Theatre. This wasn’t a traditional acting-only theater class but a multi-media creativity-on-stage-and-off experience. We wrote and produced original work that was presented on a real stage to real audiences. We made costumes and sets with the help of college students, and by age 12 I was teaching younger children.
This is the foundation of my life as an artist. I learned here about the power of creative work, the joys of collaboration and the vocabulary of perception that lets us works creatively. That vocabulary (line, color, shape, texture, movement, rhythm, texture, space and sound) is still at the heart of my creative process. This philosophy and practice of creative work was at the heart of my artistic path. It started at age 12, growing through a career that took me through my 30s and beyond.
The director and my mentor, Jearnine Wagner, started a foundation and lab school located at Trinity University. I worked for and with the foundation until it closed in the 1980s (and earned a B.A. in Studio Arts and Theater), but the training and philosophy remain a tremendous influence on how I work as an artist and teacher.
(That’s me on the cover.)
I’ve managed to always have creative art-filled ways to make a living — first as a teacher and curriculum and product designer, then as a consultant and freelance writer, a children’s museum designer and director, a teacher trainer, a mainstream journalist and even as a nanny.
That last “job” provided 6 years to carve out the skills and marketing ability to be a self-employed artist. I decided at 50 that I should start working for myself to really become that Artist with a capital A!
Working through Julia Cameron’s Artist Way books with a weekly creative circle helped me make that leap. Also, I started studying with Jane Dunnewold and learning surface design and complex cloth creation. I took a course with Sue Benner and learned how to fuse and make art quilts. And look where all that got me!
What appeals to you about working with fiber?
I like working within the world of fiber arts; that world, more than any other, allows me to use more of my interests and acquired skills. I explore painting, technology, printmaking, embroidering, building, layering, embellishment and collage. Techniques include hand-dyeing, stenciling, stamping, screenprinting, fusing, machine, digital design, hand embroidery and hand quilting.
Rather than take a purist’s approach, I will cut up and use anything that comes to eye. Recycled skirts from the thrift store share space with Indian silks, dye-printed damask tablecloths, pieces of Oaxacan huipiles, baby clothes and designer scarves. Nothing is sacred and everything is.
How much of your inspiration comes from the world around you and how much from within yourself?
What grabs me most are conversations between color and texture, and the drama of pattern I see around me. The wind in the cedar trees below my windows, the Guatemalan and Mexican textiles in my studio drawers, the landscapes where I live and where I travel all inspire. But these external inspirations are evenly matched with internal narratives and the angels who come to me as I work.
Does your art have stories to tell?
For sure and not at all. Some of my work that I am best known for is narrative. The images reflect personal stories in my life, what I am musing on and where I am thinking.
Many of my art quilts tell spiritual and metaphysical stories that unfold in my life and women’s lives I observe. Some feature goddesses, saints, angels and altar-shaped pieces. But they are less about religion than they are about everyday occurrences: our hopes, dreams, frustrations, foundations and the resources we call upon in the secret spaces of the heart.
How do you prepare yourself for a session of creative work?
I just try to find the time. It’s easier when I am at home and within steps of my own studio. I try to get to there just after the morning round of routines that keep my body and soul aligned — hot tub, swimming when its warm, yoga and meditation.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Both, with a bias toward improvisation. My planning happens more on the meta level — thinking about my goals as an artist, working on systems that support my creativity, keeping up with quality input and inspirations, balancing life with my family and friends. Improvisation is what happens the rest of the way. I rarely sketch or make patterns though I do try little samples before big projects.
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
I don’t. Other than that I am a big believer in keeping my tools neat and easy to find and my materials not-so-much. You never know when two disparate things rubbing up against each other is going to give you an idea. But I do usually set rules or limitations for a specific project. Or I work from those imposed from the outside by a show entry requirement.
Here’s (below) a new piece that illustrates both improvisation and the value of things rubbing up against each other. This art quilt came to be when I saw two very different fabrics make an unexpected conversation with each other. (Shown in process and finished.)
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
With my hands!
Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I work in several series simultaneously. Currently, I work in some more abstract approaches. But I also still make some more narrative pieces. Especially when the abstract ones throw me a kink or get me in a loop. I love working in series (and several at a time). So I NEVER walk into the studio without something to work on
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Color and pattern are my big gifts to the work, and my narrative content is pretty distinctive, too. I love making large work. But I now am working on ways to do so within a few more restrictive physical realities. At 71, almost 72, I’ve by necessity cut back on screen printing and large buckets of dye. Though I still do surface design in a more restricted manner. I use my iPad for a lot of fabric design work and for whole cloth fabrics that I then collage on top of.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process? What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I have the studio of my dreams (it’s a converted two car garage with AC and great windows) and I am setting up an auxiliary studio at a river cabin we own (and rent out on Airbnb).
What’s essential: design pin wall, though I work on the table for designing mostly, table elevated to counter height, sewing machine (old Bernina I was gifted), LOTS of fabric, surface design, vintage, old thrift store clothing, etc. The best part is just walking in, working, then walking out without a need to clean up in between.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I almost hate to share that I turn on really lame reality competition shows on a wall mounted TV when I work. These shows (especially the sub-par apartment makeover contests and cooking shows) somehow keep my bad inner critic busy allowing me to work without a lot of ongoing negative feedback. So I try to keep making separate from critiquing.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I used to do more journaling and sketching. But most of what I do now is iPad app fooling around. However, I find that the 50-plus years of journals and sketchbooks are great fodder for new work. I tend to recycle a lot. So I’ve made several art quilts that came from digitally fiddling around with some sketches and paintings from years ago. I also often cut up and reuse older quilts in new pieces.
How does your environment influence your creativity? Would you be a different artist if you were working in, say, Paris or Nairobi?
FOR SURE! I love to work from local and regional images.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
BOTH — we are creative beings. It’s our human heritage, but a lot gets trained out of people in our culture. However, you can regain and strengthen your originality and creative gifts with good teachers, good self-talk, self confidence and courage, practice and coaching.
Why do you teach? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Teaching is as much or more in my nature than is making art quilts. I started young and never stopped teaching. So in some ways the reason I make art is to show that it can be done — that each of us has within us work, stories and art that can’t be made by anyone else.
My classes are both online and in person. I have a number of lectures on creative process and I also teach digital design with an iPad. I’ll be on the program at the American Sewing Guild conference in San Antonio in July 2020 and at the Houston International Quilt Festival in 2020, and then I have some openings for classes and workshops in my Fall, 2020 calendar and beyond.
Interview posted March 2020
Browse through more inspiring art quilt stories and projects on Create Whimsy.