From conception to execution to exhibition, students at the Gail Harker Center for Creative Arts stretch their creative reach to find their own voices and expand their skills by experimenting with tools, mediums and concepts outside their comfort zones. We asked some recent graduates of Level 3 Art & Design about the impact the program has had on their studio practices.
About Gail and the Center:
If you want to know about the ins and outs (if you’ll pardon the pun) of stitch, then you want to connect with Gail Harker. Gail is a graduate (with distinction!) and was awarded a Licentiateship by the City & Guilds of London Institute. Gail’s experience with stitch as an art form is both broad and focused. She taught and verified for City & Guilds in the UK, then moved across the pond to found the Gail Harker Center for Creative Arts in 1995.
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Located in art-rich La Conner, Washington, the Center is dedicated to providing an enriching experience to learn and appreciate art, design, hand and machine stitch and other textile art forms. Artists of every level are welcome. The focus is on the development of individual expression in a contemporary context. Courses include textile art, color studies, machine embroidery, paper and feltmaking, multimedia art and more.
Some students find that one or two-day special interest classes work best for them, and that’s a nice way to test the waters. There is a growing variety of online courses, as well. What Gail and her Center are most known for, however, are the certificate and diploma curricula. Students are encouraged to not only work in class but at home between class sessions. Here are a few things that are important to learning at the center:
- Hands-on learning is emphasized, theory is provided.
- Students choose subject matter that interests them and has plenty of visual material available.
- Students use their own photographs and drawings as inspiration.
- Coaching and feedback are provided individually and sometimes in groups.
- Longer courses build on one another so that students advance to more complex work in each new level.
- Students develop their eye for good composition in addition to learning techniques and exploring new media.
The students return year after year and organize impressive exhibitions of their work. And they come back for more.
A recent exhibition of Level 3 Art & Design students’ work featured JP McConnell, Tesi Vaara, Ruth Lane and Ellen Meents. We asked them to share some of their thoughts on their coursework and development as artists thus far.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? What are your preferred mediums?
JP: I loved to sew when I was a child and made puppets, dolls and doll clothes. When I was a teenager, my mother became ill and I would console myself in my room by working with colorful fabric, thread and ribbons. Then I started to become interested in painting with wax and dyeing fabric to create simple batik designs. As a young mother I sewed creative Halloween costumes for my children. In recent years, felting captured my interest, and I found a welcoming community among fiber artists. My preferred mediums are fiber: wool, silk, linen and handmade paper.
Tesi: My preferred medium is textiles. In 2010, when I designed and created my first art quilt, I was hooked on the process but open to new opportunities and learnings. When I retired in October of 2015, I wanted to further my artistic education. I had taken classes from Gail Harker in the past. Her studio is only 30 minutes from my home. How lucky am I? When her Level 3 Art and Design course became available beginning in February of 2017, I had to give it some serious consideration. Did I want to commit to a 2-year course so soon after retiring? My desire to learn more about art and design as it related to my artistic work made the decision a no brainer. I was in and I have never looked back.
Ruth: Growing up, I did some craft activities but never considered myself an artist because I didn’t know how to draw or paint. About 11 years ago, I was looking for a creative outlet and discovered fiber art and felting. Soon after that, I discovered the Gail Harker Center for Creative Arts and began taking classes as often as I could. Along the way, I began drawing and practicing my drawing skills so now I no longer say “I can’t draw”. Gail has encouraged me to continue improving my skills and has helped to foster my creativity. My preferred medium is still fiber art in a mixed media style, but since finishing Level 3 Art & Design, I am enjoying painting, collage and other mixed media.
Ellen: My pathway as an artist has been a long and winding process. I have always been what I would call a maker, but not an artist. My current work is collage and paint combined with textiles. I especially enjoy the process of combining and layering all of the above to achieve different textures and effects.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
JP: Primarily, patterns and colors found in nature inspire me. I have traveled extensively to many diverse parts of the world and I use my memories and photographs to inspire me – Scandinavia and often even the various foods found in my larder. I am also particularly drawn to the ocean. Seaweed, water movement and ice patterns are some of my favorites.
Tesi: What doesn’t inspire me?? Color and shape intrigue me. Most of my work is geometric. I’m fascinated by nature, but so far my work doesn’t reflect that fascination.
Ruth: Nature and walking in the woods behind my house give me plenty of creative fodder. Trees are definitely a recurring theme as well as wildflowers, rocks, wildlife and whatever else I find in the woodlands. I study the forest floor, bark, lichen, tiny wildflowers, seed pods as well as twigs, leaves, antlers and feathers that I take home and study. Sketches appear in my journals and these themes continue to appear in my work.
Ellen: Layers inspire me, and I love translating the feeling of crumbling, peeling walls and wood as well as layers of nature and would say these themes recur in my work.
Describe your work on Day 1 of your first class. Now describe your work today. How has working with the Gail Harker Center influenced your work?
JP: My first day of class was exciting as I realized that there is so much to learn. The first few exercises were easy, basic and fun. It was like Gail was priming the pump for later complicated tasks by giving short talks and letting us talk about our experience and perception of art in our lives. I have always enjoyed working with the supplies and love working with color, so it felt safe and low key. I really enjoyed the excitement of the day! My work today is much more complex, and I am more confident after taking on the challenges that Gail assigned to us in class. Repetition helps me gain confidence and helps me relax into the flow of creation. Working with Gail has allowed me to quiet the sharp, critical voice that used to cause me to doubt my ideas and intentions.
Tesi: Before Gail’s class, my work focused on using cotton fabric. Color, values, and movement were all created using fabrics and machine stitching. During our 5-day sessions every three months we learned how to use new mediums and techniques. I had never worked with most of the mediums and had only dabbled in a few of the techniques we learned. We did most of our class work on paper, but I could translate many of my finished pieces in the exhibition using textiles as the medium. I am excited to incorporate some of our learnings into my future work. I think I have a better color sense as a result of this course.
Ruth: I took my first class from Gail more than ten years ago. My work at that time was all over the place with little thought given to design or overall composition. It was awkward, jumbled and I was rarely completely happy with the outcome. Now, after a total of 5 courses and finishing Level 3 Art & Design, I am much more confident with design, composition and achieving a finished piece of artwork that is pleasing to me. Gail taught me a method of working through experimentation and sampling that gives me the ability to start with an idea and be able to create a finished composition. She continued to encourage my drawing practice and refinement of my drawing skills.
Ellen: I feel the work on day one of my class is different from today because throughout the course Gail would show us ways to look at a design and break it down many times, changing the original until it was in fact personal and representative of what our vision was. This was not present in my work on day one.
How have your classes helped you get started on difficult pieces – making the first mark or cutting the first piece of fabric or taking the first stitch?
JP: Gail taught me to relax and trust the process. I will say it again that she really infused in me a confidence that my ideas are worth pursuing and to just begin. The flow will happen. One may find that the outcome is completely different than the original intent. I learned so much by watching her work and mimicking her approach and style. She is truly gifted as an artist and an instructor. It is not easy to competently play both roles. One may be able to produce a fabulous piece of art, but not teach students how to do it. Gail demonstrates that skill consistently. The company of my fellow students played a large role in my progress. We all shared ideas and supported each other in our journeys.
Tesi: Previously I hadn’t done much sketch work. In this course I learned to draw out my design ideas. Drawing a design idea on paper really helped connect the idea to my brain. It also helped to generate more ideas and gave me a chance to try out different color schemes. Once I fine-tuned my design on paper, it was easier to begin working on my project.
Ruth: Gail teaches a system of starting from an idea and then working to develop a design for each project. Then samples test what colors work, what values to use, and how all the elements of design will work together. This gives every student a method of working through difficult or large projects. There is no need to worry about that first mark or stitch since it’s just a sample. Once the samples have been created, it’s much easier to see where a big project should begin and how to work through the various stages to completion.
Ellen: I think class taught me to begin with small samples before committing to jumping into a piece of work. This helps me to work out potential problems before I begin, making it easier to begin anew.
Tell us about pulling your work together for your Level 3 Art & Design Exhibition. What were some of the challenges and rewards?
JP: I learned to calm myself when I would feel the pressure and anxiety of “showing my ideas and creations”. It felt like I was exposing a part of myself. I felt vulnerable. However, the diversity of each student’s ideas, approaches and art pieces reinforced our uniqueness. The presence of my family and friends and the thrill of seeing it all put together and arranged for the exhibit was very gratifying. Gail taught us to stay focused, do the next thing in front of us and not to get too ahead of ourselves. She reminded us to be “mindful”.
Tesi: I learned so much from Gail on how to put an exhibition together! I made postcards of one of my art pieces for the first time using an online service. I learned how to use black foam core board as a backing to enhance my work and make it visually pop. Then I learned how to group my work together in a harmonious arrangement and place it on a wall at the correct height for viewing. The preparation for the exhibition was very challenging for me but I feel it was very successful. It was a good experience and a grand way to celebrate the end of this course.
Ruth: It was a challenging process to create our exhibition for Level 3 Art & Design. We each worked with Gail to choose the pieces that we would show. Then we cut foam core mounts for each piece. It was amazing how good the pieces looked with a small edge of black surrounding them. Then we decided as a group how to lay out the room, where the tables would be and where each student’s art would be placed. Then came the decisions of which pieces would go together in groups, how the pieces would be arranged, how far apart the pieces were from each other and many other details of hanging and displaying art in a professional manner.
Soon we were moving tables, covering tables with cloths, hanging artwork, arranging our journals and other work on the tables. It was a group effort and it was great to see the exhibition take shape with days of work going into the process. All of the hard work paid off when the exhibition opened and with a great turnout. The positive comments and questions about my artwork were exciting to hear. It was wonderful to interact with others who were interested in what I had created and how it was done.
Ellen: Pulling work together for the Level 3 Art & Design Exhibit gave me an amazing sense of satisfaction. Initially, I felt as if I just did not have enough pieces to display, but this quickly gave way to realizing just what I had accomplished and a sense of how much I had grown from the program.
Compared to when you first enrolled at the Gail Harker Center, how has your confidence changed as an artist? What in particular gives you the most satisfaction?
JP: I am not so concerned about what others think about my art and ideas. I am very much more relaxed and eager to push past my hesitation. I am also more comfortable about using the materials. In the past, I was taught that it is important not to waste things and sometimes when I made a mistake and had to throw something out, I would feel bad. I now press on and do not feel wasteful. I am comfortable using the medium to create a product or an experience. Both the process of creation and the anticipation of completion give me a lot of satisfaction. The beauty of the finished product is often very rewarding.
Tesi: I don’t feel afraid to try new things anymore. I think I have a better design eye and a better color sense. My focus has changed from worrying about what other people think about my work to what it is that I want to create, what message I want the viewer to receive. The sky is the limit!
Ruth: Gail is a compassionate instructor who has a real talent in bringing out the best in each of her students, no matter where they are on their creative path. Thanks, Gail – I appreciate the effort that you put into the center and all you do for the arts community.
Ellen: My confidence gained from the course is such that I am now comfortable calling myself an artist, and I get particular satisfaction from the knowledge that I can create an original design that is unique to my vision.
Learn more about Gail Harker Center for Creative Arts.
Published August, 2019.
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