ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Friday, August 10, 2012

Guest Post with Anna Hergert: The Zen of Straight Sewing vs.Thinking Like Leonardo

Today, for something new and different, we have a guest artist. I am pleased to introduce you to Anna Hergert, a fellow Canadian textile artist and teacher.  We keep hearing about how we should get ourselves into the studio regularly, but Anna's thought-provoking article, The Zen of Straight Sewing vs. Thinking Like Leonardo, makes a convincing argument about why sometimes a break from the studio might be just what we need to gain perspective.  I hope you enjoy this article and leave comments.  Anna will be checking in and responding to your comments.

Anna is London City & Guilds educated with Diplomas in Art, Design, Contemporary Embroidery as well as Patchwork and Quilting. Her lifelong pursuit of the arts makes her a passionate and inspiring teacher. Anna is a teacher/lecturer with over 20 years of experience in the fibre arts field. Her innovative pieces have been exhibited nationally and internationally in solo shows and juried traveling group exhibitions.

Anna makes her home in SW Saskatchewan, north of Moose Jaw on scenic Buffalo Pound Lake with her husband Colin. She creates fiber art in her dream studio overlooking breathtaking scenery that serves as constant source of inspiration.
Polar Bear's Embrace, 2012 by Anna Hergert

Anna will be in Ontario for a few weeks as of later this month, and will be delivering a workshop and lecture for the Loose Threads group (this workshop is now full).  She will also be teaching a Kantha Embroidery workshop at Dragonfly Fabrics in Ottawa on September 15.  On this trip she will also be lecturing at the Ottawa Valley Quilters Guild on September 10 and the Common Thread Quilt Guild on September 11.

The Zen of Straight Sewing vs. Thinking Like Leonardo

There comes a time in every artist’s life when time away from the studio is the best way to gain perspective. As a teacher, I am away regularly and often for an extended period of time. I recently spent a block of time in the region of the Boreal Forest of east central Saskatchewan. I can hear the questions now: “Why would she go there and what might she find in that region?”

The short answer is: I took a photography workshop, taught a dyeing and art quilt design course and last but not least I spent a few days unwinding with friends creating charity quilts.

My first week was very intense with long hours spent “chasing and capturing the sweet light”. We rose at 4 a. m. to find the perfect sunrise, and finished at 9:30 p. m. after trying to capture the perfect sunset. The two hours of rest between breakfast around 8 a. m. and official class room start, to shed light on Photoshop CS6, was not enough to catch up on lost sleep. I am not a daytime napper and by the end of the week I was quite tired.

I had 24 hours to “recover” and shift gears which included some tense moments when a tornado touched down, about 1 km away across the lake, around the dinner hour on Saturday.

I put on my teaching hat during the early afternoon Sunday while setting up my studio space with sewing stations and a separate area for dyeing. It felt good to just push tables and chairs around and envision the space for a week of optimal learning and teaching. A motivated group of seven students arrived by mid afternoon to “claim” their space. Class started after dinner and continued till the following Saturday.

Best laid plans to stay creative myself during these two weeks only reached as far as keeping my blog updated with images and short reports. A handwork project I had brought along just in case some quiet time would present itself, never came out of the travel case. Pretty soon I became concerned that I was not producing something tangible and I began to question my decision to spend even more time away from home and my studio...

Once my two weeks at Kenderdine Campus at Emma Lake came to an end I was picked up by  three friends to participate in an annual “quilt till you wilt” gathering at Candle Lake. When I received the invitation it was made clear that there were no expectations - I was free to sleep, eat, read a good book, catch up on some correspondence, just walk the wooded trails or sit on the beach. I did all that... AND pieced three twin sized cuddle quilt tops in four days. I had brought along my very basic travel machine and for the first time put it through its paces.

Straight sewing was the motto and while I rarely piece traditional quilts due to the monotony I surprised myself this time. I found I did not have to think too hard. The 2 1/2” precut strips from everyone’s stash were combined at random (at first!). Eventually I selected colours and textures to follow a theme, be it floral or a quilt for a young boy. I sewed and sewed for hours on end and soon began to realize that this repetitive activity became my meditation. I felt more and more rejuvenated, left the exhaustion behind and once the second quilt top was pieced I set myself the goal of trying my hand at # 3.

The constant straight sewing and joining long strips became my meditation. This Zen activity required little effort, allowed me to take regular breaks to capture the sunset and even a couple sunrise events while at the same time I felt productive and it prepared me for the routine I had waiting at home.

I find it difficult to set time aside for meditation, inner reflection and relaxation. There is always another deadline to meet, someone asking for advice or new work to be explored. In 1999, while perusing the art section at the local book store, a specific title caught my eye: “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”.  It proved difficult to turn my attention to anything else afterward. The book was well worth the investment and to this day I find myself regularly drawn to part two where the author explores the Seven Da Vincian Principles of Curiosità, Demonstrazione, Sensazione, Sfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita and Connessione.

Curiozità: We are born with natural curiosity. Curiozità builds on this natural impulse. It forms the basis of our desire to learn more! This curiosity is far from being book based - it is a natural inquisitiveness about how the world works. As adults we often lose this curiosity, equating it with child-like behavior. Get back in touch with your sense of adventure: explore your environment, take a picture of a tree, zoom in and examine the branches, the trunk, the bark, each leaf and the fruit it might produce. Life is continuous learning - be curious!

Demonstrazione: A great teacher leads by example. By introducing topics, study subjects and facilitating questions that examine and lead to independent decisions a teacher provides a safe environment for open discussion. Always challenge what you see, hear and feel. Ask yourself: Are your opinions and beliefs your own? Through reflection and constant evaluation you will demonstrate independence and gain confidence.

Sensazione:How do you experience life? Are you able to engage your senses fully? Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell constitute the keys to opening the doors of experiencing life! In photography, textile art, painting, music and even the culinary arts it is often assumed that the artist has captured the landscape, a harvest of fruit and vegetables in cooking, the light and sounds and so on. Let us not forget: Emotion is a vital ingredient of creativity! Without emotion your work has no “soul quality”. This emotional response is only possible when all senses are engaged to their fullest.

Sfumato: This literally translates into “Going up in smoke”and reminds us how important it is to keep our minds open in the face of uncertainty. It is the most powerful key in unleashing your creative potential!

Arte/Scienza: Throughout his life Leonardo was seeking to balance his thinking between science and art, logic and imagination. Essentially he advocated whole brain thinking. This brings to mind the topic of left brain vs. right brain thinking - I am sure you are familiar with this theory first explored by Nobel prize winner Robert Sperry. As artists we are often described as right brain dominant whereas a computer programmer or mathematics professor is pigeonholed into the compartment of left brain thinker. Today’s school systems pay lip service to the idea of balancing left and right brain activities, they fall short of reaching this goal in most instances. As a whole brain thinker a person considers all aspects of the subject at hand. Mind mapping (a method to generate and organize ideas) was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s habit of note taking. It can be used for personal goal setting, trip planning, problem solving, and any pursuit that comes to mind. Employing mind mapping will lead to becoming a more balanced thinker. Interested? Check out this website for more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map

Corporalita: This point is much on our minds in today’s society. Corporalita refers to the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise. Leonardo was much concerned with physical beauty and as a strict vegetarian spent time analyzing what to eat to ensure good health and longevity. He was 67 when he passed away on May 2nd, 1519 - a ripe age for Renaissance conditions.

Connessione: The recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena brings us to the seventh principle. I am continually fascinated by the spiral line. Imagine picking up a small stone and tossing it into a puddle or still lake. Observe the ever-expanding circles, the ripples they create and how these spread outward: This is a great metaphor for connessione. Leonardo is referred to as a systems thinker. This quote was taken from one of his notebooks “The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it.” This makes a great topic to meditate upon!

How did I move from “sewing straight in a blissful Zen space” to “Thinking like Leonardo da Vinci”? Giving in to repetition provided me with the energy I need to recover from expanding too much of it during learning and sharing. This quiet time of reflection while the needle formed one stitch at a time across pieced strips that eventually formed a quilt top helped me to reflect and gain more insight into Leonardo’s seven principles:

1.  I became curious about the way the strips interrelated in texture and colour and how they were held together with the simple straight stitch. 

2.  Through constant observation, I learned that I can manipulate the placement and colour changes to create a more interesting and pleasing composition.

3.  I gave in to the natural surroundings and made a point of exploring reflections in the water, plant and insect life along the shore and the most amazing colour play in the sky.

4.  I let go of preconceived ideas and outside (self-imposed) pressures to embrace the experience. I enjoyed living in the moment!

5.  I took some time to put on paper what my priorities were going to be over the next month. This helped me in gaining perspective and allowing me to create a block of time to relax and enjoy the company, the location and the people around me.

6.  The principle of corporalita fell a bit short... When you put together 10 quilters, boundless ideas for food plans and a focus on sitting and sewing - exercise fell a bit short during the four days. The meals were gourmet and kept us all sustained for long nights of sewing! My exercise plan was implemented immediately after I returned home.

7.  The realization that everything in my life is interconnected with everyone else was ever present during my time away from the studio. Despite the fact that I did not create tangible art, I feel I have gained new knowledge and understanding, not to mention an intensified friendship with like minded people.

Thank you for letting me share!


Reference: Michael J. Gelb, How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci - Seven Steps to Genius Every Day; Delacorte Press, 1998.


  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  2. A real keeper; I will need to save and re-read several times to absorb all the good advice. Thanks!

    1. Glad you found this article worth saving. Feel free to comment here or on my blog anytime, Martha.

    2. I agree with Martha - I will reread this several times to take it all! One thing that pleased me: I had been feeling 'guilty' for working on traditional quilts and not producing art quilts, but it is indeed like meditation and gave my busy mind a rest.

    3. Karen - feeling guilty is counterproductive! The more you worry the less creative one becomes. Embrace everything you do. With each stitch, each seam, each block pieced we hone our skills. Not everything is art - or has to be art! My personal focus is on creativity! Baking and decorating a cake, arranging a flower bouquet - they are all acts of creativity.

  3. Lovely post Anna> I am always amazed at what beautiful prose you write considering English is not your first language. I do follow your blog and I can see you are a whole brain thinker. You have extraordinary talent and skills and I am hoping to be able to take a class from you next year.
    I too morphed from a traditional quilter to an art quilter but when ever I am stumped or feel stuck I will do a small traditional quilt, it really gets my mind working again, just stitching is meditative , quiets my mind and the ideas start bubbling up. By the way I still can't see how you can accomplish so much and be so prolific, I would imagine you have to have tremendous self discipline . Sigh, have to say I am lacking in that department.
    Thank you for sharing and I will print out your article it is certainly worth re-reading and sharing, Marilyn

    1. Marilyn, I am not sure how productive I have been so far this year. Teaching and mentoring have taken up most of my time so far! It will be early October before I can get back into the studio to produce. The good news: I have several concrete ideas for some large work - all I need now is uninterrupted time to create...something I look forward to!

  4. I am thankful to Anna for drawing attention to these seven principles of Leonardo Da Vinci in such a convincing manner.I can really appreciate their relevance while vacationing in a West Coast environment where they are so amply evident all around me,and also constantly illustrated in the activities of my two year old grandson. Thanks to you Elaine for inviting Anna to be a guest blogger at vacation time - a great time for the Da Vinci principles.

    1. You are welcome, Judith. I am glad the seven principles have struck a chord in you. Can't wait to talk about them with you in person. Happy holidays!


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