Take Back the View!

Last fall I noticed a small tree had seeded itself among the shrubs outside my studio windows.  Thinking it was a wild apple tree, I left it alone.  By this summer, it had revealed its true self — invasive Buckthorn — and had invited a grove of Sumac to join it.  I included “overgrown shrubs outside my studio windows” on a list of things I was tolerating (and that just might be blocking my creative process) during a recent class with Alyson Stanfield, but hadn’t made any progress with asking my husband or the local landscapers to deal with the situation.

I should have known today would be the day when I tossed Ted Orland’s The View from the Studio Door in my bag as I headed off to an appointment.    With real fall weather threatening after an extra month of summer, and rain storms moving in for the rest of the week . . . I came home from my trip into town and realized the time had come to take back my view!

I could have called my neighbor for help — at age 14 he’s already “tractor certified.”  Either that or exceptionally good at marketing his lawn mowing/landscaping services for someone who has yet to earn his driver’s license.  My husband also owns a tractor — he’s not officially “certified,” but certainly very competent — however, he wasn’t at home.  We have a chainsaw too, but after telling my 85-year old father he was not allowed to use his chainsaw while he was home alone, I thought better of trying ours for the first time.  Hell knows no wrath like a woman with a swiss army knife.  OK, it was a small landscapers’ pruning saw, but the view of the fall foliage from my southwest studio is now much improved — or at least it will be once I get back out there to wash the windows!

Take Back the View day, October 2010

What are some of the seemingly unrelated things that block your creative process?  And what are the first steps toward resolving them?  Tell us below …


Gallery Opening 101

My aunt always said I was the one who would jump into the deep end of the pool.  Not during swimming lessons at the local pool, of course — there, I was nearly always the last one in, and hated every minute of the mandatory summer lessons.  But when it comes to things that really interest me,  I am apt to go ‘from zero to sixty’ very quickly.  So I guess it’s no surprise that when I attended my first gallery opening the other day, I was there as one of the artists!

It was a delight to meet and mingle with the other artists, including the lovely and talented Karen Henderson, our Vermont representative for the Surface Design Association.  Karen’s hand-woven fiber art uses many surface design techniques to achieve subtle color and rich texture.   We’re shown here with Karen’s  After the Rain, a stunning piece which graced the postcards for this show, but is even more amazing in real life!

Karen Henderson, VT SDA Rep & MJ Russell

"Fearless" and "Fire in the Soul" (art quilts by MJ Russell, center)

"Timeless" & "UnBlock" (art quilts by MJ Russell, right rear wall)

As a former basket weaver I also loved the sculptural baskets by Tamara Wight.  Notice two wonderful baskets by Tamara in the center of the photo at the right, but you’ll delight  in discovering more all around the gallery if you stop by for a visit!

The fiber art exhibit at Creative Space Gallery runs through November 13, 2010.  Current gallery hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are listed on the Gallery’s web site.  I hope you get a chance to stop by!

Studio 50

For years I’ve toyed with the idea of a name for my studio.  The the list of ideas was long, but the need was never urgent.  I’d even thought about adopting a pseudonym to use for “the artistic me”  and using that in my studio name.  But the perfect name came to me recently as I prepared an art quilt for an upcoming exhibition.   The name, while perfect, has been a long time in the making . . . much like my life as an artist.  Here’s the full scoop:

Several years ago I had lunch with my colleague Billie, who remarked that I had an enviable life because I made a little time for a hobby or two on the side.   “A hobby???” I exclaimed.  “I’m overwhelmed — I’ll bet I have 50 hobbies and no time to do any of them.”  Given that challenge, I sat down that evening and began listing all my hobbies and interests.  I got to about 46 before resorting to a modest amount of creative license to complete the challenge. My “50 hobbies” became an inside joke among friends at my day job.

These “whims,” as my husband calls them, have ebbed and flowed over the years; some are abandoned relatively quickly, others linger, and abandoned interests sometimes return, but all serve as threads in my mixed media artistic life.  Gardening and cooking certainly blend well with my love of wine; but the real synergy is in my visual arts history.   In cleaning my studio recently I came across an essay from a writing class in graduate school, which gives further detail about this meandering path to my current artistic life.

With that background, and with advance apologies to the yoga studio with a similar name,  I’ll use Studio 50 as my informal studio name as I venture to new levels in my life as an artist.  Of course not all 50 interests will work themselves into my artwork, but they do shape who I am.  The symbolism of beginning to take my artwork more seriously as I approach 50 only reaffirms the appropriateness of this choice.

When did you first begin to call yourself an artist? I’d love to hear your comments!

Art Education

It’s been an art-full few days!

Saturday’s highlight was the Golden Acrylics demo by Kate Smith.  I’ve used acrylics for fabric surface design, but I wouldn’t consider myself a painter.  Yet I came away with a stash of open acrylics, assorted mediums, and a “how to” book.  Why am I not surprised that I’m planning to sign up for an acrylic painting class at the local craft school beginning in October?  I’m hoping this will be a great way to “prototype” quilt designs!

Kate Smith, Golden Acrylics educator at Artist’s Mediums 9/2010

Sunday featured “An Evening with Christo” at the Fleming Museum.  I’ve only seen the 1991 “Umbrellas” in California, but couldn’t miss this chance to see a retrospective slide show narrated by the artist himself, along with the museum exhibit.

Monday’s highlights included a book signing and Q&A with Art Biz Coach Alyson Stanfield.  Alyson was delightful, and it was a great event for meeting other local artists as well.  Alyson answered several questions for me that really helped me to reshape my view of blogs, Twitter and Facebook and she clarified some other misperceptions and concerns I had about art marketing.   I’ve recently taken two of Alyson’s online classes, so meeting her in person was a real treat.

Alyson Stanfield, MJ Russell, Kathleen Bergeron, Elissa Campbell

Lectures, demos, festivals, classes . . . what are some of your favorite ways to continue your art education?

Fall Equinox

There’s nothing like a full moon on the Fall equinox to signal a major transition, but this year seems more exciting than ever!  For the past year or so I’ve slotted my activities and hobbies into seasonal time blocks.  Some  loosely follow the calendar seasons; none follow the strict fiscal quarters that govern my day-job in finance.  But in this way, with rough timeframes and selected focal points for each season, I stand a better chance of fitting everything in.  I don’t feel guilty about not making quilts during the summer — summer is for gardening and fabric dyeing.  The fall/winter focal points include quilting and other “indoor” pastimes.

I’m a perpetual student, in that “back to school” is still a time of fresh beginnings for me. So September is the time to tidy up the garden, harvest & can the last tomatoes, put away the fiber reactive dyes and close down my back porch “wet studio,’ and clean up my main indoor studio in preparation for the fall/winter indoor quilting season.

This August I spontaneously enrolled in Alyson Stanfield’s “Get Organized” online class, which caused me to find clutter (physical, mental, psychic, and even electronic) that I never noticed before.  So, while I’m still chipping away at the task list I created in that class, I now boast a newly reorganized studio — even the closets!

Studio closet – after!

I put up a new design wall, relocated the business/computer, painting/collage, and quilting areas, and purged/revamped my filing system.  Whew!  There’s nothing like having systems, and creating the routines and habits that make them continue to work after the newness wears off.  I’ll share more on these new habits and routines in future posts, but for now I’m off to enjoy a roast chicken dinner — the perfect way to welcome autumn!

What are your favorite ways to celebrate the changing seasons?

Time-Release Genetics

Today I spent $25 on sewing thread.  About 20 spools of it, all sale-priced at 40% off.  No, I hadn’t run out of sewing thread, nor was I stocking up for a big project.  In fact, I don’t even sew.

Oh, sure, I know how to sew; I even own a sewing machine.  It’s stored away in a tightly sealed carton, a  relic from our last family yard sale.  At the end of the day, my aunt and my mother had secretly loaded the unsold machine into the trunk of my car.  They knew that I would need it, not necessarily then . . . but someday.  And now it lives in my basement — baggage from my past, safely packed and standing ready for wherever my future journey might take me.

My mother sews — prolifically and extremely well — which is probably why I don’t sew at all.  Like most young women, I have grown up to develop interests in anything but that which interests my mother.  To have common hobbies is to admit fate and acknowledge that, as women, we are destined to become our mothers.

Please understand that there’s nothing wrong with my mother.  She once broke her finger — at sixty-something years old, she’d had a minor incident while lacing up her shoes before aerobics class!  She didn’t give up waterskiing until she was in her early sixties, and that was only because the engine on the old family motor boat finally wore out.  No, she is certainly not a mother to be ashamed of.

She is in her seventies now, and still quite active.  Her retirement was given her time to organize her fabric stash, and the attic of our family home is now lined with rows of matching boxes  labeled with notations like:  wool- plaid, cotton- blue prints,  fabric-quilting scraps.  My mother’s love of sewing has been complemented by her Yankee thriftiness, and her fabric collection has grown steadily with each semi-annual sale at the local fabric store.

I’ve spent the last twenty years of my adult life trying any craft other than sewing.  Basketweaving led to knitting, crocheting, rug hooking, spinning wool, dyeing yarn and fibers, felting, and most recently, weaving.  I realize as I embark on this latest round of “fibermania” how dangerously close I am — flirting around the edges of the forbidden craft.  After all, what is woven fabric other than raw material for my mother’s hobby?  At first I made only scarves, which came off the loom as completed items.  But now I’ve begun to weave fabric yardage, wash and iron it, and store it away as if it were the end product.  Today, I decided to make some of this yardage into a set of tea towels; I cut the fabric strip into four sections, and realized I needed to hem them to prevent the edges from unraveling.  Rationalizing that “hemming” is not really “sewing,” I headed off to the fabric store for thread and a needle . . . because of course I owned not even the most rudimentary sewing supplies.

And there I saw the sign:  “40% Off!!!  All Threads!!!!” I don’t know what possessed me to seek out a shopping basket and begin to fill it with a systematic selection of neutral thread colors, then a dozen “common” colors that I might need for other projects, and then several spools of fancy threads made of rayon, with spirals of contrasting glitter.  After all, I had come to the store for a relatively modest purchase.  Was it the neon sale sign that made me do this?  Or something deeper?

As I reflected on my behavior, I thought back to a conversation I’d had recently with my friend Pat.  She loves delicate bone china and other Victorian finery, but her daughter always expressed nearly opposite tastes.  Pat relayed the story of the time she caught her adult daughter admiring an exquisite crystal vase in an antique shop, and how she teased her daughter mercilessly about this change of heart.  “Face it, Mandy,” Pat explained, “Daughters have time-release genes!”

I suspect this genetic theory is what led to my newly acquired thread inventory.  My yarn cabinet is already overflowing, but I carefully rearrange a shelf to make room for the new threads and organize them by size and color.

I hear the old sewing machine stirring anxiously from its cage in the basement as I begin hemming my tea towels.  And, not surprisingly, I find a certain bittersweet enjoyment in the task.

From the Archives . . .

© Mary Jane Russell 1999