You never forget your first time . . . you'd like to forget, but it's still living in your drawer somewhere.

I could have given up on Sunday at first glance.

No, that's not the same picture I posted a few days ago, just the same old story.
By the end of the day however, almost all the snow was gone, the birds were singing and the sky was blue. Such is springtime in Minnesota -- you'd better not rush to judgment because if you wait 5 minutes, you're going to have new evidence to consider.

When I first met my mother-in-law, I was certain we didn't have a thing in the world in common. So I decided to take a quilting class, because she is a devoted quilter and I thought it might be a good way to increase our common ground.

She is this kind of quilter:

a true purist -- thousands of hours of experience, opinionated about quilting and very highly skilled, so I knew that I was going to need to confine myself to hand-stitching and traditional patterns and methods.

But that was okay because I was pretty lousy with a sewing machine and also felt I was art-impaired and wouldn't be able to come up with much on my own anyway (I was 18).

The first thing I did was get a "B" on my hand-stitching assignment in class, which didn't make me at all happy because I thought I'd done a splendid job.

It's kind of a miracle that I stayed with it, actually, because I really don't like to do things I'm not good at. It's a character flaw that I truly regret, but can't deny.

Alexander Smith said,
"A great man is the man who does something for the first time."

I'm not sure what that means.

Does it mean that the person who does something for the first time it's ever been done is great? Or does it mean that any person who tries something for the first time is great?

I'm going to vote for the second, because trying things for the first time is quite difficult for me.

There's the possibility of looking like a fool, for one thing.
And the possibility that I'll never be good at it no matter how hard I try, for another.

Like with dancing. Just the way it is.

But despite my embarrassment at not being very good to begin with, I stuck with stitching.

I quickly came to enjoy everything about it: the history, tradition, and connection I felt with other women, the close mentoring relationship with my mother in law, the process, the product. Everything.

After a few years, I took a 10 year folk art detour and left sewing behind. Then one day I came across the work of British applique artist Janet Bolton,

and I was completely mesmerized.

Beehive and Wild Cherries, Janet Bolton

I had missed working with fabric but didn't really miss traditional quilt patterns. Janet Bolton's pictures were something I saw as a divine combination of the narrative style I loved with the process and medium I missed.

Arcadia Taking Tea, Janet Bolton

My sister (also a maker) and I decided that on our summer vacation, we would try following Janet Bolton's directions to create fabric pictures. This was going to be hard for both of us because of a tendency toward perfectionism, and Janet is a champion (and master!) of the imperfect.

The exquisite, intentional, perfectly imperfect.

And that was exactly what I wanted in my pictures.

We both brought bags of fabric scraps to work with. We decided to try making our designs by cutting directly into the fabric -- no drawing allowed. Sort of like when artists draw with their wrong hand; we thought it might help counter our inclination for exactness.

I chose a chicken because I had made so many of them in my painted wood-and-metal work, I thought I would be able to make a reasonably decent one without much trouble. But I guess that was really trying to hedge my bets against imperfection (read: cheating, and shooting myself in the foot as well), wasn't it?

Anyway, it didn't do much to help me.

Here's that first, funny fabric picture:

You can believe me when I tell you that there were no thunderbolts announcing that I had found my true calling. Lots of laughter with my sister (but also some secret crankiness because hers was so much better than mine!)

Which wasn't really a surprise I guess,
since she's always been better at most craft things than I am

but I thought that by attempting my signature (and popular!) chicken, I'd be guaranteed at least a little success. Silly silly me.

Oh well, surprisingly, I still got a reward!

No, not a prize, but just a little glimmer of -- something -- that made me want to keep trying.

I revisited the chicken a couple of years ago in homage to that first fabric chicken.

Still Life with Chicken and Pom-Poms, 2007

You can see I've had to abandon my quest for Janet Bolton's exquisite imperfection. I tried it for awhile (anyone who owns one of my early pictures can attest to that).

The Blue Party Hat, Janet Bolton

And yes, I still pine for it. But I gotta' be me.
And I guess I like tidy.

W.C. Fields said, "If at first you don't succeed,
try, try again.
Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it."

I hope I've learned that sometimes it's fine looking like a fool for a bit while you're working your way to something worthwhile.

Art = skill.
When you look it up in the dictionary, that's one of the first definitions you see.

But practice doesn't always make perfect.
And perfect doesn't always make art.

It's all a little confusing, isn't it?

So I suppose I'm just going to keep stitching.


Nancy said...

I love this. I will probably quote you in my next sacrament meeting talk. you are a genius.

Crazy for Art said...

Oh I LOVE Janet Bolton too! But I also love your work. I want to make pictures too but don't know how I want to go about it. Your story is very inspiring. I may have to save for one of your pieces. Those puppies are wonderful!

Amelia and Justin said...

Fantastic. I honestly didn't know about you and my mom getting together and making fabric pictures...Where was I?

It's nice to hear where it kind of all started :)

susan m hinckley said...

Amelia -- We did it at the St. George condo (one of them, not sure which) so you were probably in the basement watching movies with the other kiddies! We had all kinds of fun you never knew about . . . that's what moms do. :D

susan m hinckley said...

Oh, and thanks, Crazy, for your kind words. The best way to figure out what kind of pictures you want to make is to make some. You'll figure out what you like, what you don't, what you're not good at, what you're great at, and what is FUN for you. Then be sure to send me a picture!

abi said...

love the w.c. fields quote. i need to do something new and different. maybe something involving blow torches. so, where is my mom's fabric picture? i know nothing of this...

april said...

i kind of want to see your sister's pic too. your first chicken is amazing! i really enjoyed reading this. your so good at pulling me along and making me think and then giving me a great laugh - that w.c. fields quote was timed perfectly!! thanks for sharing. i was unaware of how you got back into stitching, so thanks for sharing.

VO said...

Ahhhhh, I've tried for years to work as loosly as Janet Bolton. No can do. There is some inate disability in my ability there.

Maybe because my mom (a pro seamstress) was so *exacting* in teaching me how to sew?

I so admire the ability and wish I could do that.

Allie said...

You go girl. You've found your own, very distinctive and tremendously pleasing style. I love quilting but I'm not a fan of piecing - I prefer the pictures!

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