As a scientist, Vicki Conley loved doing research. It was while “researching” for a new job that she took a pottery class and never looked back. But she kept looking forward, embracing art quilting, her new passion, after a chance encounter with another artist.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I have been a creative maker all my life.
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The only thing I can remember from the 1st grade was making a ball of clay, sticking my thumb into it, having it come back after firing and painting 3 coats of bottled glaze on it to make a candle holder for my parents. So I always say I was meant to be a Potter.
I grew up very crafty from getting craft magazines and making the projects in them, to making yarn animals and selling them to my friends. My most special possession is a small pair of high quality craft scissors my dad gave me when I was young, to keep me from always borrowing his.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I do think anyone can learn the skills of drawing, sewing or making pottery just as you can learn the skills of reading, writing, or math. A good teacher can make all the difference. However after listening to many many people over the years compliment me on my art and creativity and say they don’t have a creative bone in their body and couldn’t possibly do what I do, I kind of think creativity probably is a gift.
Why pottery and art quilting? How did you get started with each?
Up through the 8th grade I always planned to become an art teacher, then in the 9th grade I had one of those exceptional teachers who took an interest in my science and math ability. He changed the direction I would go through high school and college focusing on science.
Part way through my master’s degree in physiology I realized that what I really liked about science was the research part, the hands-on experimentation and that continuing on to a phD would only mean that I would have to teach and write grants. But I disliked both teaching and writing. So I stopped at the masters and looked for a job as a research tech. During that job hunting time I signed up for a pottery class just for fun and was hooked.
I worked in research for quite a few years until I had my first daughter, Shannon. Throughout that time, I continued doing my pottery, then quit my job wanting to become a stay-at-home mom. I started doing small arts and crafts fairs in Tucson, then when Shannon was two we moved back to New Mexico, a rural small town where there would be no chance of ever going back into research. My pottery business grew, doing more arts and crafts shows as the children grew.
Eventually, when they were both in college, I opened a gallery with a large studio attached and have owned that for 20 years. In about 2003 during the take down at a craft fair, my booth neighbor knocked a piece of pottery off my shelf and broke it. Her booth sold hand painted clothing and quilt patterns. She made paper pieced patterns of animals and all the AKC registered dogs. She gave me 1 of her patterns as recompense. It was of tiny tree frogs.
I shoved it in the drawer and about 6 months later decided to dig it out and try to read the directions and figure out how to do paper piecing. Then I was hooked. I always loved sewing and fabric but didn’t like clothes so hadn’t really sewed much since the kids had gotten older. It was really fun to get back into the fabric store and see all the wonderful prints available today.
How do you find a balance between pottery and art quilting? How are the pursuits different? And how are they the same?
I am a very driven, self motivated person and when I want to fit something in, I do. I structure my days with doing my art quilting from 6:00 to 8:00 in the morning, taking a hike or some kind of exercise then opening the shop at 10 and working in the pottery studio until 5. And then sometimes in the evening doing more art quilting. I have maintained this routine for 15 years. Now this year with Coronavirus my shop remained closed for a couple of months and this has led me to retire from pottery and go full time into my art quilting.
How has your experience as a potter influenced your art quilt work?
I have always made very functional pottery for the kitchen and the home. I never enjoyed art pottery at all. Always focused on what would sell, I found I made the same items over and over just to fill the shelves and the orders.
When I found art quilting, I said I don’t really want a new business and I don’t want to quilt for other people (I have a long arm). I want to make just what I feel drawn to make. Art quilting really fills the creativity niche in my life.
Does your training as a scientist influence your quilt designs?
Early on I did have a lot of influence in my work from the sciences but currently I’m really focusing on the natural world especially the national parks.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
As my husband and I travel I’m always on the lookout for interesting textures, scenes, and natural wonders and always thinking about how I could interpret them in an art quilt.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I do enjoy some improvisational work but always working toward an idea or theme. On the other hand my main body of work is the National Park poster art quilts. Those quilts have a definite plan. I draw my own designs, and they’re not copies of posters but done in the style of the historic WPA posters of the 1930s.
Your daughter Shannon Conley is an accomplished fiber artist. Do the two of you collaborate, share ideas and advice?
Although we don’t collaborate at all, we both reflect the influence of the southwestern desert and mountain landscapes. We do talk often and help each other with advice over the phone. I live in New Mexico and she lives in Oklahoma. I feel so fortunate that she took up this same medium with the same passion that I have.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process? Do you have separate spaces for pottery and fiber art?
The studio spaces are very different and have to be completely separate. I have an 1800 ft² pottery studio building, about one third of which is a gallery. Pottery is very dirty and dusty there’s no way to have the sewing anywhere near there. My sewing studio is a bedroom in the house. In that small space I have a long arm, two sewing machines, a design wall and a tall cutting table.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studios? How do they improve your work?
I need all my equipment.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I do use a sketchbook, some especially when traveling, and I often come back to those sketches for new pieces that I’ll start when I get home. I also do a lot of design work in Photoshop.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
In the pottery studio I always watch television, mostly soap operas and serial shows because I could just listen to them and not really watch. I either listen to audio books or classical music while I’m working in the quilt studio.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
Last year I visited Antelope Canyon in northern Arizona. It is a very narrow famous slot canyon with twists and turns of colorful rocks and no two views are ever the same. I had hundreds of pictures and found that just drawing the shapes from the photographs would be beautiful abstract designs. I have really enjoyed doing a series of those pieces this winter.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
My most recent challenge has been that my thermofax machine doesn’t seem to be making screens that will print well. My National Park quilts have printing with the park name and other information much as the posters of the 1930s. Since I was having no luck with the silk screens, I had to find another way to do the lettering. I started designing the foreground fabric in photoshop and then adding the lettering in photoshop and printing that fabric at Spoonflower. Finally incorporating that into the quilt with all my other piecework.
Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
Yes I enter many juried shows and I’m always happy when my work is selected. Themed shows always inspire me, and I enjoy seeing how my work could fit the call for entry.
Do you sell your work? If so, where can people find it?
Yes, I sell my work both from juried shows and from my gallery Pinon Pottery in Ruidoso Downs, NM, and from my website. http://www.vicki-conley.com/
I am a member of Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) http://www.saqa.com/ and have found that belonging to this global organization has filled a niche for me as belonging to a local guild does for traditional quilters. I also started a new group of art quilters called 4 Common Corners. We all live in the 4 corner states – New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Our inspiration comes from this area and we get together virtually via ZOOM meeting once a month. Check out our website. https://www.4commoncorners.com/
Interview posted June 2020
Browse through Vicki’s daughter, Shannon Conley‘s, amazing art on Create Whimsy.