ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Thursday, December 15, 2011

In the Beginning ... Getting your Work Out There!

As I alluded to in my previous post, I am going to talk about how I ended up becoming a career quilter. In so doing, I will also talk a little about the contribution of quiltmaking to my mental health and the importance of sharing your work with the world.

It started innocently enough. The year was 1996, I was emotionally distraught over my mother's Alzheimer's and recent institutionalization at a nursing home. Suffering from anxiety and depression, I sought an activity that would occupy my mind and focus me for a while.

I signed up for a beginner quiltmaking class at my local high school. I do remember thinking that quilting is hard, and way too precise, but I persevered. I think my sanity at the time depended on it. But then something happened. I got hooked on the fabric, I got hooked on the peace I felt while I was creating. I had tried meditation and yoga, but nothing quieted my mind and made the cares of the world go away like quilting.

I had a new hobby ... well perhaps more like an addiction. I joined a guild, some mini groups, went to as many quilt shows as I could, took all the classes I could, and tried a bit of everything one can try in quiltmaking. I was very, very prolific, even though I had a full-time job.

Sometime in the late 1990s or around 2000 I saw my first art quilts. I knew I wanted to do that, but had never been considered creative. I spent the next few years working very hard to come to a place where I was making my own original work. It did not happen overnight.

In 2003 I was invited to be Artist in Residence at our local quilt show. The Marketing folks for the Waterloo Quilt Festival happened to attend our show, saw my work, and I was soon invited to have a solo show at the St. Jacobs Quilt Gallery. Quite frankly, if I hadn't received that little bit of recognition, I don't know when I would have been ready to put my work out there? My solo show was well received, and after that I started entering juried shows.

Another important thing that happened was losing my job in 2003. That's really when I started teaching and began my business selling hand-dyed fabrics. After a year of this, I went back to work for another five years. Until my schedule got so full with a job, a part-time teaching job on Saturdays, making and exhibiting quilts, and running the hand-dyed fabric business. Bottom line is that I had to build that business up for five years before I could afford to quit my job.

This brings me to the subject of getting your work out there! That is really what it is all about. If you want to have a career with your quilts it is critical that the world see your work. But even if you dont want to have a career, there are all kinds of reasons to submit your work to shows: 1) the joy of it ... these shows bring joy and wonder, so how wonderful it is it to be a part of them; 2) Better to have your work in a show than on a closet shelf; 3) Validation; 4) Resume building; 5) The desire to win ribbons. I think the main reason I entered shows in the beginning was #1 above, for the sheer joy of being part of a show. I still feel that way, but now that my career is dependent on my quilts, I do it for the exposure and resume building as well. I can't say I've ever done it for the ribbons. Although they are nice, I am just happy to be part of the show.

I am sometimes asked by other local teachers, "how did you get that teaching gig" (so far from home)? It goes back to getting the work out there. If people don't know your work they are not very likely going to invite you to teach for them. So you have to get your work out there, and that means beyond your city or region. Remember that show I mentioned where I was Artist in Residence? At that show I won several ribbons in the art quilt categories. I will say, however, that there werent very many quilts in that category and they were relegated to the back of the room. I decided to branch out from there to enter in shows where art quilts were more celebrated. So I decided to be a little fish in a big pond, rather than a big fish in a small pond.

If you only show at the local fall fair or quilt guild, there is a limit to how many people will see your work, and your career will probably remain local or regional. What if the people who really love your work are not the ones who live in your own area? All the more reason to get your work out in the big wide world where there is a chance that someone who loves your work will see it. And if you want a career, that is really the best way to build it.

Yes, there is the risk that your work will be rejected. My work has been rejected in many places, so I just move on to the next place because my career depends upon it.


  1. Interesting posts. I was encouraged by 2 quilting friends to take it up in the mid-nineties, as therapy when my DH was beginning to suffer the complications of Type 1 diabetes that eventually took his life. "Cutting strips is therapeutic", they said, and I agreed. Still do -- so I sprinkle traditional piece work in among my art quilting. I also continue to knit (have since age 8) and embroider (age 10)...you never quite lose your first loves! I have also combined knitting and embroidery with quilting, which is sheer bliss.

    I would add a word of caution about putting work out there -- be balanced and moderate about it, and stop/take a break if it begins to be less about joy and more about obligation. Ask me how I know!

    Blessings for Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  2. What a wonderful post, Elaine. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!


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