Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Joe the Quilter on Creativity

Sunday I took an amazing workshop with Joe Cunningham, a.k.a. Joe the Quilter. For a full review of the workshop qua workshop, please click here. Following please find pictures of the sixteen other 9 1/2" blocks I finished during class and some musings which might be called, "What I Learned about Creativity from Joe."

A guild member asked Joe whether his music influences his quilting, i.e. does his quilt musically. Joe answered that he quilts quiltingly. During the workshop I asked his a version of the same question, basically, does he employ this improvisational style due to his musical background. And the answer is no.

First, pre-20th century quilts by quilters with no documented history of musicality were improvisational. So you don't have to look outside the medium of quilting to ground your process in improvisation.

Second, Joe's relationship to music is in some sense based on virtuosity and external expectations - when he jams with a musician he really respects it is an anxiety ridden experience. But as a male in the female world of quilting, he is an outsider - no one knows what to expect from him. So he feels less anxiety. He finds quilting more freeing than music because of his outsider status. His improvisatory approach to quilting helps him turn off the judgmental part of his brain, which is hyperactive when he plays music.

His design process consists of placing fabric on his floor and taking away things until it pleases him. Joe doesn't have a design wall. But being well over six feet tall, he's probably far enough from the floor to get a fairly similar effect. He also uses a digital camera to view his designs.

Another benefit to - or side effect of - using a design floor instead of a design wall is that if you intend your quilt to be used, then it will most likely be viewed on a flat horizontal surface, not a flat vertical surface like a wall. I've heard from other quilt instructors who are also quilt judges that when judges look at quilts they're usually laid flat on a set of tables, like Joe's design floor. This tends to shift the judges' focus from the center of the quilt to the edges, which they can more easily see up close and get their hands on. And if you think of the quilts you use in every day life, you're probably very familiar with the top edge, but rarely contemplate the rest in much detail.

Another production aspect of Joe's process that impacts his creativity is his quilting. When he hand quilts he uses a standing floor frame and quilts from the outside in rather than from the center out, as one would with a hoop. Only a part of the quilt is visible at any one time.

This combined with the fact that he doesn't mark his quilts makes the overall quilting design less static and predetermined. It also makes finishing quilting more exciting because taking it off the frame reveals the whole quilt for the first time since he started quilting it. Also his frame set up basically limits him to quilting a 6" by 6' strip at a time, so many of his hand quilting motifs fill that space and repeat in rows.

When Joe rents time on a long arm machine, he takes a Jackson Pollack approach to quilting, moving the machine at random over the surface of the quilt. The result is dense all-over squiggles.
It's hard to determine whether this approach to quilting is due to a lack of interest in this stage of the process or developing improvisational techniques with a new tool.

During the workshop he mentioned that he'd like one of the long arm dealers to put his quilt top in one of their floor models so it could be quilted by all the different people test driving the machine. This leans toward lack of interest in the quilting phase. But it might be a step toward communal artistic production without mass production.

Joe calls some of his quilt designs conceptual. For example, for one of a series of quilts appliqueing bias tape to a whole cloth, he limited himself to using only the bias tape he could find at yard sales in one month. He only found four or five rolls of bias tape within those parameters. So it was a pretty spare quilt design. In another example of a conceptual quilt, he picked up a different Eucalyptus leaf off the ground each day and used it as a template for a fabric leaf which he then appliqued onto a whole cloth. This use of chance as a design parameter recurs in his work.

The workshop was essentially an exercise in conceptual design: apply a set of rules that will result in blocks. So what's the approach? It's a lot like Mona Brooks' Abstract Design Warm-Up from page 68 of Drawing with Children. Basically, you start with a piece of fabric approximately the size and shape of the quilt block you desire. We used a square, but I see no reason you couldn't start with a diamond or a triangle or a hexagon - any shape that can be tessellated. Then Joe presented two simple modifications to the block which totally reminded me of the Abstract Design Warm-Up's instructions,
Turn your paper in any direction you want.
Make three straight lines anywhere you want on the paper, but start the line on the edge of the paper and run it off another edge of the paper when you are done.

But where Abstract Design Warm-Up would just have you draw lines, in an exercise like Joe's each line would be cut with a rotary cutter and strips of fabric would be added before the next cut. Each cut is a creative act. Each fabric choice for a strip is a creative act.

The only thing that repeats with each block you make is the set of "rules" Joe set out for us (or that you've set out for yourself). How you execute that set of rules can vary with each block - so each block requires a set of creative decisions. Once you've squared up (or diamonded up or triangled up or tesselated shaped up - which, given the sort of odd shape you get from the improvisatory piecing stage, turns squaring up into another creative decision), the process of laying out the blocks was a heckuva lot more interesting than your usual quilt design as each block was unique. And Joe spent time with each student working through their layout. How rarely do quilt students get to that stage in the process so they can really get some practice?

We didn't know what the end result would be. He didn't show us a sample. Each student interpreted the set of rules differently, and Joe never steered anyone to a particular interpretation. Some people made every block identical. Some people used one fabric as the background fabric for every block, but executed the design prompts differently on each block.

I used the same three fabrics in each block and alternated which was the background to the block. I systematically differed each block based on the size of the corner triangle, the direction of the strip, and the width of the strip.
I was trying to make my blocks as different from one another as I could. This required some thought at the cutting, sewing, and squaring up steps. It wasn't truly just leaving it up to chance . . . which is so very like me.

I even fussy cut some of the strips to feature the design of the fabric.

Updated 10/18/08 to add: Joe blogged about the class and included a picture from the guild meeting of six completed tops from the workshop. It's a great picture that shows how different each quilt turns out even though they all started with the same design prompts.

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