Life takes interesting turns, and a stint teaching in Jordan for the Peace Corps ignited a passion for the geometric grids and patterns of Islamic art, transforming Tighe Flanagan from English teacher to quilter and designer. Tighe breaks down complex designs into piecing-friendly grids that he executes with precision. For everyone who has photographed a jaw-dropping mosaic floor as inspiration for a quilt design (you know who you are!), Tighe Flanagan not only dreams it – he makes it. And translates the details into a pattern for others to follow.
How did you get started making art? Why do you do it?
I’ve always been a creative person, making (and breaking) things as a child, exploring different types of visual arts. I didn’t start making textile art until 2016. That’s when I decided to dust off my sewing machine and try to make my first quilt. I don’t remember the specific motivation. Mostly I had sewn for DIY home décor projects like curtains and furniture slipcovers, so making patchwork was something new. And it was quite satisfying from the get-go!
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What inspires you to create? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
Once I started making my first quilt, I instantly saw that patchwork is really just working with a grid. And it got me thinking about what other geometric grids and patterns I could experiment with. A lot of my early quilts were all about exploring what was possible to do with fabric and seams, and then trying to push things further — by learning new skills, trying different techniques, or leveraging different technologies.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
My signatures would probably be complex (and precise) patchwork, typically with a saturated color palette. I really enjoy finding elegant solutions to seemingly complex pattern construction. I think smaller patchwork has more of an impact than large-scale pieces, and I don’t shy away from that!
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I am an over-planner. I like to make detailed plans, and then revise those plans, figuring out all of my materials and cuts before I start working in the studio. With a detailed project plan that I can follow along I can measure my progress. I find that these plans help keep me motivated, because I know exactly where I am in the project at any given time. I am more comfortable making changes in the moment when I know how those changes will play out. Having a plan makes any deviations from the marked route less scary for me!
How do the places you have lived in or visited influenced your creativity?
I have been fortunate to visit a lot of different places, allowing me to step outside my comfort zone and broaden my perspective. More recently, I’ve been able to connect with artists and teachers in different places through online communities and remote learning opportunities. Engaging with different communities of practice can be a creative recharge, spurring new ideas or reconsidering old (or half-baked) ones in a new light. There’s a vibrant community of Islamic geometers on Instagram, much the way that there is a large sewing and quilting community there as well.
Which came first? Your interest in Middle Eastern studies or your leap into fiber art?
I lived in Jordan for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, working at a local boys’ school as an English teacher. That experience got me more interested in the region as a whole, leading to my graduate studies at Georgetown University. So my interest in the Middle East (or Southwest Asia and North Africa) predates my work as a fiber artist. After nearly a decade of travel to different parts of this diverse region, I’m not surprised that I found inspiration in the rich culture and traditions, both historical and contemporary.
How does Islamic art translate to patchwork and quilting?
For me, patchwork and Islamic geometry are a natural fit. There is a rich history of decorative and ornamental arts across the Islamic world. Especially when it comes to mosaics and tilework. Once you start learning about different geometric constructions, it becomes easier to see the repeating grid, much like you see blocks in a quilt. But translating a pattern to fabric and seams has its own quirks; making a design sewable can often be a compromise between rigid geometry and ease of construction.
When you have time to sew for fun, what are your favorite things to make?
I really enjoy making garments, primarily for myself. I call this my selfish sewing. Learning new construction techniques is similar to my patchwork and quilting journey.
What do you do when you are not making art?
I enjoy living in my city, Washington, DC, where there is no shortage of museums or restaurants to explore. My partner and I have an English Mastiff, and we spend a lot of time with her and our friends. I used to travel frequently for work or for pleasure, but I don’t anticipate much international travel for a few years yet, until a more equitable vaccine distribution is rolled out for Covid-19 globally.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I am lucky to have a studio space in my home. I have a huge design wall which helps me stay organized with different projects, or display recent finishes. The adjustable height workstation that I built holds my sewing machine and also provides ample room for cutting and pressing. I have a nice bay window which gives me great natural light most days. My studio tends to be messy, and I organize projects in boxes to keep all of the templates and cut fabrics together.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My sewing machine is the main workhorse in my studio. While I’m lucky to have a top-of-the-line sewing machine, what really matters to me is having a large throat space. I usually stick to a straight stitch and have considered getting an industrial machine to increase my efficiency. Another tool that I’m glad I have is a printer that can do large (A3) prints. It’s so much easier to generate large templates and try out new designs quickly. I dream of having a laser cutter one day to make custom acrylic templates and even to cut fabric more quickly. I’ve started using the laser cutter at my local library’s Fab Lab, and there are so many possibilities that the tool unlocks! I’ve even cut out whole quilts with the laser recently, but that is a time consuming process.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I usually make my sketches digitally. If I’m analyzing an Islamic geometric pattern, I use a geometric graphing program so that I can work with precision. Once I have an exact drawing of the pattern, I import it into Adobe Illustrator. Then I start playing with repeats, cropping, colors, and scale.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
It really depends on what I’m working on. If I’m doing design work that takes some precision, it’s usually silent. If I’m chain piecing components for a quilt, I’ll listen to audiobooks, long format podcasts, or even stream some TV shows on my iPad — some friends got me watching old episodes of the Amazing Race on Hulu during the pandemic, which has been a fun escape.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
A lot of creativity stems from how we see the world around us; I think each person has a different take on things. I think we all naturally have creativity since we all have value to add to the conversations around us. But I think there is a skill in recognizing creativity and having the confidence to put it out there in the world. It can feel risky putting your work out for the public to see when it is a product that you made yourself. If folks don’t like your work, or point of view, it can feel personal. But it’s also great to get feedback, see what resonates with different audiences, and grow from the process.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
I tend to use a two step approach. I like to research and learn everything I can on a topic. If I’m sewing an inset seam, I will look at all the different YouTube tutorials I can find, read blogs, and see what’s available in books. Once I have learned all I can passively, it’s time to test things out. I typically jump into the deep end by starting an ambitious project, but you can also try out a new skill incrementally with small projects — a lot of folks like mini quilts for this reason. Research and experimentation!
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is my online shop and blog. I like to document different projects, like building my giant height-adjustable workstation that I have in my sewing room. I also am expanding my pattern and template offerings, which folks can explore in my online shop!
What do you hope the next year will bring?
I have some teaching and lecturing on my horizon, locally with the DC Modern Quilt Guild and nationally at QuiltCon 2022 in Phoenix. I will probably offer some workshops for remote students via Zoom as well since I think that’s one of the biggest silver linings of the recent global pandemic lockdown. There is no shortage of designs in my backlog, and I hope to be able to execute at least a handful of them in the year to come.
Interview posted November 2021
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