One of Timna Tarr’s quilts might use hundreds of fabrics to achieve the color variation and visual texture her work is known for. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for moderation, but by buying no more that 1/3-yard of any one fabric, Timna’s wide-ranging stash inspires creative problem solving without taking over her studio.
How long have you been quilting? How did you get started?
My mom, grandma, and many other family members are/were quilters, but growing up I certainly did not want to join in the tradition. I started quilting about 20 years ago after receiving a BA in Art History. My then-husband wanted to make a quilt. I knew the basics of quiltmaking and how to use a sewing machine, so we started making a quilt together. He realized quilting was not for him pretty early on, but I was hooked and have not stopped making.
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What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I have always done series work. Maybe this is a common trait, but I don’t realize I am working on a series until I am several pieces in. For many years I made quilts with circles on them, then I went through a series of map quilts. Now I’m working on a series of a dozen animal portraits. I am currently working on the 12th animal and have no idea where my work will go next.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
Only in the last several years have I thought of myself as a creative person. Growing up, I thought creative people were flighty, and inspiration just magically appeared in dreams. Now I know that creativity is not about inspiration, it’s about working and experimentation. The more I work, the more ideas I want to explore. When I am in a creative slump I do mundane tasks like fold and reorganize my fabrics. In that process, I find fabrics I have forgotten about or I see color combinations that interest me, and that will be enough to get me working on a new project. As I have gotten older, I realize that every job has creative aspects to it – you can be creative as an accountant or in a retail job. Creativity is solving a problem in a clever way.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I do think that some people are naturally creative, or maybe they grew up in an environment that fostered that creativity from an early age, so it seems natural. I believe that creativity is a skill that can be practiced and improved upon over time. For me, I know that I have only a certain amount of creative energy per day. On days when I’m working hard in the studio, I have no creative energy left for cooking dinner. On days when I hang out at home, I put more creative thought into cooking or in other aspects of daily life.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I am an improviser with planner tendencies. I will plan out the structure of a project before I start, but I definitely do not have any idea of the details. I’ve found that if I plan out a quilt from start to finish, the finished project is always more flat and boring than those projects that I allow to grow organically.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I’m known for my use of color. Most of my work is made up of simple shapes, but what gives the piece life is that I’m not afraid to experiment with color and to add lots of visual texture with hundreds of different fabrics in each quilt.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I am a finisher, for sure. I probably only have 4 or 5 UFOs. Usually I work on only one project at a time. But, eighteen months ago I moved my studio out of my home into a 700 square-foot space one mile from my house. Now that I have room to spread out, I find that I work on more than one project at a time and I am not finishing everything right away. I am not sure I like this development, but it seems to be a new part of my process.
How do you select and organize the wide variety of fabrics you use in your work?
I buy small cuts of fabric, just ¼ or 1/3 of a yard at a time. Fabric, like clothing, goes in and out of style, so I buy what I like when I see it. The advantage to small cuts is that it forces me to be creative with my fabric choices as I do not ever have much of any one fabric. I would rather use 15 different, but similar blues, in a piece than just one blue. I also know that in a year where it’s hard to find magenta, I have a stash of magenta waiting for me because I purchased it when it was popular 3 years prior. Plastic bins store my fabric – one bin per color. I sort my thread by use, and then by color as well.
Tell us about your studio set-up.
I divide the studio space into sections. My longarm quilting machine resides at one end, closest to the windows. The opposite wall houses large shelving units which hold bins of fabric, books, etc. The middle of the room is where I actively work. I have two large design walls with my sewing machines and a square work table between the walls. Plus I have a designated cutting table and large ironing board. I am the kind of person that forgets what she has if she can’t see it, so everything is visible in my studio. When my studio is tidy it’s awesome, when I’m in the middle of big projects, the clutter overwhelming.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Good tools make the work so much easier and more fun. I have older sewing machines that do not have all of the new bells and whistles, but are workhorses. I buy good scissors and discard them when they are worn out and can’t be sharpened any longer. It drives me crazy when I teach quilting classes and students are using dull, worn out scissors! For me, the process is more enjoyable when the simple tasks are easy.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
Freezer paper is my favorite quilting tool. I use it almost every day to make templates. It’s easy to draw on, easy to cut, and inexpensive.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
When I’m ready to get to work, I put on noise cancelling headphones. I listen to audiobooks and tons of podcasts, mostly political, interview, and comedy podcasts. I never listen to anything where I have to pay 100% attention, as I zone in and out of the story as I concentrate on my work.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
In every new piece I try to set up a challenge for myself. If I am not interested in the process, the viewer can sense that. The animal quilt series came about after I decided I wanted to make a photorealistic quilt, but I needed to construct it in a way that made sense to me. I knew that if I could break the photo down into 2” squares, I could figure out how to construct one square. And then I could make the next square, and the next, etc. Once I had squares I could sew them together just as I would in a traditional quilt. The first quilt that I used my Stitched Mosaics technique was “Up Close and Personal”, titled partly as an homage to Chuck Close’s work based on gridded photos.
Which current artists (fiber or other media) do you admire? What draws you to their work?
Two artists that are making amazing work focusing on maps are Valerie Goodwin https://www.valeriegoodwinart.com and Kate Tarling https://www.katetarlingtextiles.com. The work of Scout Cuomo http://scoutcuomo.com also fascinates me. Scout’s work is ethereal and just magical. I love following artists on Instagram that show their processes. Rarely am I as interested in the final product as I am in how the artist got there.
How can people contact you to teach workshops in their areas?
Interview published June, 2019.
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