ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Creativity Coaching Training and the Creative Process

Several things happened yesterday that reminded me of my promise to write a blog post about my experience taking the Introductory Creativity Coaching Training with Eric Maisel. The first incident was a good one. In his e-newsletter yesterday, Eric actually quoted something I had said about his workshop in the article I recently had published in the SAQA Journal. Imagine that! America’s foremost Creativity Coach quoting little old me! But the second thing that happened yesterday illustrates the reason why I love Eric’s books and what they, and creativity coaching, can do for you.

I had been working on machine quilting the striped dahlia (still un-named) over the past two days. You can see the quilt top in my blog post of April 26. Today I came to that point I come to in nearly every work I make. I decided I didn’t like it, that it was sloppy, that the design didn’t work, that it looked awfully like everything else I’ve ever made, and on and on that inner monologue went down its self-deprecating path. Guess what? As a result of all my study into creativity, I now know that creating is a process with ups and downs. The tendency to have these kinds of thoughts is a normal part of the process, and if we don’t realize this we are destined to quit right there. Well I don’t usually quit, but I get distracted when the going gets tough.

Having the entire day in the studio I wanted to make the most of it. I was tired of the dahlia and annoyed that it wasn’t turning out the way I’d hoped, so I turned to other work. Next in line was an experimental piece I’ve been working on using my hand-dyed organza. I have been trying to capture that translucent look of Hosta leaves after the first frost. Well this was not a day to do anything too experimental. After my frustrations with the dahlia I had way too much invested in the outcome. If one more thing didn’t turn out to my satisfaction, I might want to distract myself on the computer for the rest of the day to avoid the anxiety resulting from making work that fell short of my vision. My other option was my Red Stool piece (blog post of April 11), still hanging unfinished on my design wall. I go back at it in fits and spurts. I have been avoiding it because it is hard and involves a boatload of work. But I do know that if I keep running away from the tasks involved in completing it, I will be magnifying them in my mind. I will get through it one leaf at a time and one stool leg at a time. After reading many of Eric’s books, taking a Coaching the Artist Within workshop and the on-line Introductory Creativity Coaching Training, I now know that I need to push through when such blocks hit. So I did. I kept on quilting the dahlia and now I am certainly happier with it than I was earlier in the day. When it is finished I will post a picture.

While I normally enjoy finishing pieces, I am already dreading the facing/binding step of this quilt as someone told me last week that the edge on one of my faced pieces is not perfectly straight. I do not consider myself a perfectionist at all. I prefer work that is finished to work that is perfect, but after this comment I can fully understand how creators can become paralyzed by perfectionism. This time I am going to try putting my facing seam half an inch from the edge rather than the quarter inch I have been doing. According to Kathleen Loomis, the half inch seam enables one to fold back the facing straighter. I do have a love of wonkiness these days over straightness, but if you are going to go wonky you should really embrace wonky and it should look like it was intentional. If one side of the quilt is only slightly wonky I do not think I will convince anyone that this is the result of anything more than sloppy technique.

So back to the Creativity Coaching Training. My training lasted 16 weeks and was conducted on-line. All coaches in training were assigned several clients, chosen from a pool of individuals who had contacted Eric and requested to be matched up with a coach in training. I chose to work with three clients after being warned by Eric that not all clients stick with the program or even begin the program. He says that it is just too scary for some people to confront their own defenses, failures, tricks and disappointments. And that is what we, as coaches in training, were encouraged to do during the 16 weeks. Each week we received an on-line lesson and were required to forward a written response to Eric and our classmates after reflecting on the week’s questions. The lessons forced us to look at our own selves as honestly as possible to engender a deeper understanding of the creative process.

In creativity coaching, we ask our clients to “put their dreams on the table”. It is often hard for struggling artists to say what we truly want because we may not be ready to make the changes we need to make or to face the demons we need to face. Many creators both want success and also fear it. If we are successful we have to accept what the success we worked for has brought. Sometimes that means we have to extend ourselves too much, work harder than we had hoped to meet deadlines, and learn to deal with the demands when everyone wants something at the same time. Sometimes it means having to deal with others’ reactions to our success, and often it means working when we are exhausted.

For many people it is easier to fantasize about being a successful artist than to actually do something. And so we come up with excuses. Mostly we convince ourselves that we don’t have time. But how many of us don’t spend an hour watching TV each day? So when we say we don’t have time it may be about something else or about our priorities. What we don’t realize is that often we are making a conscious choice about how we spend our time when we sit in front of the TV. We might also have so many ideas that we become paralyzed and do nothing. However, as Eric points out, not choosing is a bigger issue than choosing wrong. “The inactive artist is not lacking in time or talent, but has often only failed to choose and commit.”

For many would be creators, anything but creating is often unconsciously seen as their real work. In other words, the creating doesn’t happen until everything else is finished. I know all too well about this. I know how to do these other things on my list, but I don’t know how to make my next work or whether it will live up to my vision.

A creativity coach helps a client set goals and supports them while they work toward their goals. A coach asks questions that help facilitate changes that might be needed to reach those goals. A coach can make a client see that they are not defective when the negative self-talk starts, but that this is just part of the creative process.

One of the major things I have learned from Eric is that the successful artist may not be any more talented than the unsuccessful one, but the key factor is that they showed up more often. By that I mean they have a regular studio habit. I really see how important this is … even if only 15 minutes a day. I struggle with this because of my teaching and travelling schedule. But when I am home I struggle too. It took me two weeks after getting back from my most recent teaching trip to get back into a regular studio routine, but it is now happening!

Near the end of the afternoon yesterday an email came in from a friend in the US. She had received the latest Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine with my article in it. Because of our postal strike here in Canada, she had offered to scan the article and email it to me so I wouldn’t have to wait! Some of the negative self talk from my day in the studio spilled over while reading the article. I heard myself say some self-depracating things. As a result of Eric’s books and Creativity Coaching Training, I know that this kind of thinking (even if true) does not serve me at all. That is also what creativity coaching is about … asking clients to pay attention to the inner dialogue. When you give up, watch what you were saying to yourself just before you gave up. Learn to dispute it and question it and ask if it serves you??

At the end of our Creativity Coaching Training we were all encouraged to hang out our shingles as Creativity Coaches. I won’t be doing that yet, but I do hope to use what I have learned to move forward as an artist and to help my students meet some of their goals.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Things are happening in my studio! This week I finished, mounted and framed a new piece called "Exhale". It needs to be shipped to Haliburton this week for the Haliburton School of the Arts Faculty Show at Rail's End Gallery. All instructors are invited to submit a work for a show called "Breathe", that will run during the Summer Arts Program. Since the piece is relatively small (20"x24" plus float frame) and since it is going to be hanging in a gallery beside work in other media, I decided to frame this piece. Below is a detail shot:
I've also put in a number of hours this week experimenting and preparing samples for my new Threads class at the Summer School. As a result of all the studio activity here is the current state of my studio!
It might just be time for a little straightening up. I remember the days when I only had one large table. Now that I have two, they are both always filled up, proving that no matter how much space you have it is never enough! In the end it is always the studio between the ears that matters most.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kissing Joy

This morning when I looked out the window I was delighted to see that the poppies are blooming. A couple of years ago I finally captured some great photos of them in a way that inspired a quilt called Kissing Joy. The name was inspired by William Blakes verse,

He who binds Himself to Joy
does the Winged Life destroy...
But he who kisses Joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity s Sunrise...

Given the delicate and brief life of a poppy, it seems to me that encountering one, and even capturing a great photo, is a moment when you get to kiss joy.

For the photo below, I set my camera to Macro and placed it right up against the poppy.

Of course on my walk in the garden this morning, three cats accompanied me. Here is Mudgie McMenace doing what he does best!
Johnnie, my retired studio assistant (now that he is blind) ventured into the garden too. He finds his way around by sound now, earning him the name Sonic Johnnie.
Kissabelle was too busy eating grass to raise her head for a photo.

Student Work

Over the last couple of months I have received photos of work from students or taken photos when I've met up with students again. It is my pleasure to present here a gallery of work by some very talented students!

First the poppies, because poppies are blooming in my garden as we speak (and another blog post about that is coming!) I have a two day "In Full Bloom" class where you get to make a quilt from your own floral photograph, or a one-day class where you use one of my designs. The poppy is always the most "pop"ular!! Barb Ramik sent me this photo of her poppy, all built and ready to be placed on a background. Luscious colours!
I was able to capture a photo of Greta Atkinson's poppy while teaching in Guelph (which is where Greta lives). Love how she has moved into the pinks in her poppy.
Heather Hager shows her finished quilt top from my Liberated Strip Piecing class. Love the curve of the central section and her bold use of colour!
Hilary Kelly is the first to send a photo of a completed work from my Liberated Radial Piecing class. This piece has lots of impact, and she has finished the edge with a striped binding that mirrors the colours in the radial design.
Janice Toonders shows off her piece from my Reflections class. Lots of movement and bold design.
Chris Burbridge sent a photo of her Reflections piece. Rather than add a border, she has effectively worked darker valued blocks around the edge to form her border. You can also see how different her results are just by the way she has turned her blocks.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Yesterday was the opening of The ArT QuILT ExPERIENCE in Cazenovia, NY. Cazenovia is a lovely town east of Syracuse, and about a 4 hour drive from Ottawa. The show of 64 quilts from 11 countries is split between two galleries, one at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park, and the other at the Reisman Gallery of Cazenovia College. The photo above is of the show catalogue, available for purchase at the show. The cover quilt is "Cityscape 9" by Beata Keller Kerchner of Reinach, Switzerland. It won First Place in the show.

Jonathan Holstein delivered a facinating lecture just before the opening of the show. Mr. Holstein is well known in the art world for launching a show of Amish quilts at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1971 that caught the attention of art critics. Holstein found that many of the antique quilts he and his wife, Gail van der Hoof, were collecting mirrored the design elements of abstract art seen in the New York art world at that time. He wrote two books, "Abstract Design in American Quilts" and "The Pieced Quilt: An American Design Tradition".

Here you can see Mr. Holstein and Bonnie Robinson (one of the organizers of the show) holding one of the works in the Holstein collection. He also spoke about the rigid boundaries that tend to exist in the western world between art and craft. Some other cultures have more fluid boundaries. I have much food for thought after this lecture!

So, on to the show now! Having just attended the Canadian National Juried Quilt Show a few weeks ago in London, Ontario, The Art Quilt Experience Show immediately reminded me how much better quilts show on gallery walls. The lighting in galleries is flexible and shows quilts off to their best advantage. The show was wonderfully diverse in style and there were many compelling works of art. Here are just a couple of my favorites. As to be expected of me, they are nature-themed works. The first is "Autumn Bluster" by Jenny Hearn of South Africa. Jenny also happens to be one of the artists featured in Masters: Art Quilts, and a master she is indeed! You have to see this piece up close to appreciate it. But it is also a work with major inpact from a distance.
This is "Pod" by my friend Betty Busby of Albuquerque, New Mexico. I love the elegant simplicity and movement in this piece, and the colour palette is similar to the one I'm starting to work with for late-season hostas.

My friend Jean used my camera to take a photo of me with my entry "Losses 2".

Guess what else I found in Cazenova? Luscious hostas just starting to bloom! Here's a picture I captured, which may just provide the inspiration for a work I have planned on Hostas in four seasons.
In the mean time, the hosta quilt I'm working on called "Red Stool" (a red stool in a hosta patch) is not going so well. I have to put it aside this week to make my work for the Haliburton faculty show. Hope that works out to my satisfaction!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Summer Day

I know it isn't officially summer yet, but here in Ottawa it is a perfect summer day IMHO! Days like this always make me think of Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day". At one time I used to have an inventory of poetry that has inspired me on my website. My website started to become too confusing and cluttered so I removed it. Mary Oliver's poems really speak to me because of her love and appreciation of nature. Here is her poem ... asking you in her last line what you plan to do with your "one wild and precious life"?

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

When Can I Call Myself an Artist?

My husband claims that I seldom answer a question directly. Typically my responses leave him more confused than before he asked! Likewise, I once had a boss who told me I had an annoying ability to see issues from all sides. Can I help it if I see the world in shades of grey (or shades of green if you have seen my hosta quilts!)? So you will need to keep all of this in mind when you read what I have to say. On top of that, this is a question that will never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, and certainly not by me! I merely offer my own thoughts and opinions here. I’d love to hear from you!

I have been asked this question by students on a few occasions, and after the most recent occasion I felt inspired to write on the subject. I realize I may be opening a can of worms. Please note that no one is saying that all quilts must be fine art to be valid, nor are we saying that there is anything wrong with craft. What I hope is that this post will spark an interesting discussion.

My short answer to the question “When can I call myself an artist?” is that it is entirely up to you to decide if you are an artist. You get to call yourself artist or not. However, you have to be strong enough to wear this title with confidence, and therein lies the problem.

There appears to be a lot of baggage associated with the word “artist”. Sometimes people think you are telling them that you are “special” or “good” when you use the label. To call someone an artist is often done to laud their talent and can be the highest compliment. The artist herself can often feel that the label is just too arrogant for her to use. My husband, being a modest kind of guy, has sometimes been embarrassed when I tell people, upon meeting, that I am an artist. He thinks only other people can decide if you are an artist and worries that I might seem self aggrandizing.

But consider what happens when I use the word “quilter” to describe my occupation. Invariably the person I’m chatting with responds with stories about their grandmother’s patchwork. Most people have a very limited understanding of what a quilt is, usually related to a cover placed on a bed. I use the word “artist” because I think it more accurately describes how I think and what I do these days. For a long time I called myself a Contemporary Quilter, but at that stage I would say I was still a lot more influenced by the work of others.

The decision to use the label artist came in 2006 and I did not personally have the constitution that could do this without outside recognition (I wish I did!). That was the year that the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery used a photograph of one of my works on the cover of their Summer brochure. This was not just a brochure about the Grand National Quilt Show that used to be held there every year, but was the cover for all of their summer programming. There has been further reinforcement over the years. For example, while I was hanging my solo show in one of the City of Ottawa Galleries two years ago, two young men walked by and I heard one say to the other “look at the artwork”. I think this is often the reaction of people who have not been fortunate enough to know about the art quilt world. A friend of mine sent her art quilt to an art quilt show at an art museum, and when she told another friend her quilt was in a show the friend responded, “that isn’t a quilt, that is art”.

I am not optimistic that we will ever come to an agreement on the definition of an artist. To answer that question, we have to first ask ourselves “What is art”? I belong to a couple of on-line groups where we all fear that the debate about what is art will raise its ugly head yet again. The word “art” is sometimes used so loosely now that it means almost nothing. On one side are those who see every creative endeavour as art. On the other side are those with such stringent criteria that almost nothing is art.

For me a quilt artist is someone who creates art, but simply uses the quilt as the medium for their art. The Free Online Dictionary defines an artist as:
One, such as a painter, sculptor, or writer, who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value, especially in the fine arts.
Many quilt artists, including me, would like to see quilts listed alongside paintings, sculpture, literature and music. This is what Studio Art Quilt Associates is all about … pushing the quilt forward as a fine art medium.
SAQA defines an art quilt as “a contemporary artwork exploring and expressing aesthetic concerns common to the whole range of visual arts: painting, printmaking, photography, graphic design, assemblage and sculpture, which retains, through materials or technique, a clear relationship to the folk art quilt from which it descends.”

For me self-expression is an important component of any definition of an artist. Wikipedia defines the word artist as follows:
Artist is a descriptive term applied to a person who engages in an activity deemed to be an art. An artist also may be defined unofficially as "a person who expresses him- or herself through a medium".
This notion of art as self-expression is definitely a modern notion. At one time in history an artist usually only created what he was commissioned to do by a patron, aristocrat, royalty or the church! There was little freedom of expression.

During my workshops I often ask students to introduce themselves and tell me and the class a little about themselves. I have noticed a tendency for quilters to place themselves in either the traditional quilt camp or the art quilt camp. I think there is a widespread misconception that anything that isn’t a traditional quilt is an art quilt. I don’t see it that way. I think that a contemporary quilt is a closer relative to the traditional quilt than an art quilt is. A contemporary quilt can still be made from a pattern or can be a copy of another quilt. A copy of an art quilt is not an art quilt in my books. Art is something that is your own vision. Naturally I then also have reservations about labelling quilted work that is copied from art in other media as “art”. Others may differ with this opinion. Photographer Harold Feinstein gave me permission a few years ago to use a photograph of his as inspiration for a quilt. The problem, as I see it, is that my interpretation would be too literal. I haven’t been able to bring myself to use the photo as I feel it is not my vision. Harold set up the composition and captured the light. I would be copying his art.

There are some who only see artists as those with formal art degrees. They are entitled to their views. One thing I will say is that if you are going to call yourself an artist it would be wise to study up on the Elements and Principles of Design and look at art in other media to train your eye. This is one of the areas I have had to work at and one of the weaknesses in some of my works. I recall hearing an IQA quilt show judge say that the art quilt category showed some of the poorest design of all the categories exhibited in Houston. Traditional quilt designs have stood the test of time and likely continue to be popular because they show strong design elements, but don’t always fall under the definition of art because they aren’t an original design.

It is your decision to call yourself an artist, but you must be strong enough to weather criticism of your work. The only way to escape criticism in life though is to do nothing (definitely not an option). I have been criticized for not putting stems on my poppies, for using photographs as inspiration, for creating realistic work, for using too much colour, for using green too much, for making too many hosta quilts. None of these bother me too much anymore. Learn to please yourself and stop worrying what others think.

Worrying about whether you are an artist or not takes a lot of energy. This energy would be better spent in the studio being creative (making art?) Go to your studio and dig deep and create something from your own vision.

I really love this definition of an artist by Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)
“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures”.
I think quilt artists do the same, but they do it with fabric and stitch. A bit vague maybe, but to me this definition says it all! No one can give you a foolproof definition of art or artist. There is something of yourself you put in your art that distinguishes it from someone else’s art. It is your style, and you cannot help but have a style, unless you are copying someone else’s work. I’ll leave it at that.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

MVTM Show and Ottawa Magazine

Ottawa Magazine has picked up on our show at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, however, the opening date is incorrectly listed as July 21, 2011. Please note that this is an error. The show actually begins September 21, 2011. We (Cathy and I) I will be posting further information as the date nears. If you click on the photo above you will get a larger readable version.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 2011 Newsletter

I've just distributed my latest e-newsletter, which you can access at this link. All of my previous e-newsletters are archived there as well. If you'd like to sign up to receive my e-newsletters in your mailbox, you can do so at this link.

Cover Girl!

The front cover of the July issue of Machine Quilting Unlimited has just been revealed and my name and article are listed on the cover. On the inside you will find my article "Art Quilting as a Career ", along with many photos of my work. Some months ago I was invited to be the featured "In the Art Studio Fabric Artist" for July, which involved writing an article and submitting photos. Read my story about how I turned my art quilts into a career. MQU is a subscription only magazine, but you can order back issues on-line.