On Being Open

02/26/16

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{Quilt by Shawna Doering, entitled “Red Hot” which won my Judges Choice Award at QuiltCon 2016}

About a year ago in 2015, I got an email from a woman named Heather Grant. Turns out, the Heather who emailed me is the Director of Marketing & Programming for the Modern Quilt Guild. She wrote to ask if I would consider being a judge for the 2016 QuiltCon, a huge yearly show of modern quilts — the largest show of its kind in the world.

I am a fan of modern quilts and, feeling honored, I agreed to travel to Los Angeles in 2016 (where the Modern Quilt Guild HQ is based) to work as one of three judges for the event. Each year they choose three judges — two quilters and one artist or designer who is not a quilter (that was me). The judging for the show happens in January and the show happens in February. So, excited, but also thinking “ah, this commitment is so far in the future,” I signed an agreement last year with Heather and got back to my regular life.

Fast forward to early January 2016 — the beginning of last month. Nine months after I signed the contract, it was time to get on an airplane and travel to Los Angeles to do this thing I’d agreed to almost a year earlier: spend a week at the MQG offices & join fellow judges Scott Murkin and Cheryl Arkison to look at — and judge — hundreds of quilts. We’d be working 9-11 hour days to finish the judging on time.

In thinking about all of this, I had a moment of panic and out loud groaning: how the hell could I take a week off of work to go to LA to work 9-11 hour days to judge quilts? I had a new employee and a heavy workload in my own studio. Why had a said yes to this crazy endeavor? Clearly I hadn’t been thinking!

Somewhere in my internal huffing and puffing, I had a moment of clarity. And I made a resolve: I would treat this week as an intentional vacation from my work. I would try to have a positive attitude about the whole experience. I would be open.

I had, after all, been going through a difficult time. The late fall and early winter of 2015 was a time of unprecedented creative block & angst for me. I was feeling frustrated and uninspired in my work in a way I hadn’t in a long time, possibly ever. At least this experience away from my studio would give me time to reflect and be away from the frenetic busy-ness of my deadlines. Compared to that, how bad could it be to look at beautiful modern quilts all week? And enjoy some California sunshine?

So on January 18, I boarded an airplane, left all of my work behind with my studio staff and set off for Los Angeles.

I really had no idea what to expect when I landed in LA on that Monday. I tried to keep an open mind and positive attitude. If nothing else, I was in sunny and warm Los Angeles (and away from cold, wet and dreary Portland).

In this case, I am so glad I did. Judging Quiltcon was a life changing experience for me. Not the judging part, per se, but the immersion into the modern quilt aesthetic.

Let me explain.

As you can imagine, any artist who has the opportunity to look at the work of other artists intensively over a short period of time is going to begin to see their own work in a new way. It’s inevitable. If I had looked at (and looked closely enough to judge) 350 abstract paintings in three days, I might have felt overwhelmed or instantly would have tried to make comparisons to my own work (which is always a slippery slope).

But because I was looking at fabric quilts (and modern quilts for the most part have a very unique minimalist aesthetic), I experienced only joy and curiosity. I was so moved and inspired by the quilts we looked at, that even at the end of each long day of judging — which was admittedly tiring — I was energized with enthusiasm & insight.

As the three days passed, I began to see things like negative space, color and shape in new ways. And even though I was looking at pieced fabric, I began to feel super invigorated about getting back my own painting. I had new ideas. I felt inspired for the first time in a long time.

BAM.

Since my career took off in 2011, I have worked mostly in commissioned illustration for publishing, editorial, stationery, fabric and home decor clients. I absolutely LOVE this work, but in the process of building my illustration & writing career, I have mostly abandoned my fine art practice in the last few years. I have a gallery in NY who sells my original works when I have time to make them, but lately what I’ve been sending them has felt, to me, very sporadic, dry and uninspired.

Because I’ve made less and less personal work, I’d been feeling like a part of me had died. Would I ever make a painting on canvas that I liked again? Would I ever have a show of original works again? I’d been trying to get my painting mojo back but with frustratingly little progress. So in early 2016 I made a commitment that this year I would get back into making more personal work, maybe even work toward an exhibition somewhere, but I had no idea if or when I’d be successful at fulfilling that commitment.

Fast forward again to the day I got back from Los Angeles. Inspired and enthusiastic like I hadn’t been in ages, I went immediately into my studio and began bringing to life some of the ideas that had been floating around in my head all week. I ended up making three paintings that day (yes, in one day!) and was completely in the “flow” as I made them. It was amazing — and something I hadn’t felt in over a year.

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{Three of the new pieces in my latest series, inspired loosely by modern quilts and also by 1970’s graphic design}

Fast forward again to the following Monday. My gallery in NY emailed to ask if the gallery director and curatorial director could talk to me on the phone — they had something they wanted to discuss with me. So we made an appointment for Tuesday. Long story short: they loved my new series so much (after only seeing the three pieces I made Saturday on Instagram) that they wanted to organize a solo show for me in New York for this fall.

BAM.

I’ve been showing work with this gallery for over two years, but I have never had a solo show with them. In fact, I haven’t had a solo show since 2013.

More than the upcoming exhibition (which is exciting, yes), I am so grateful to feel inspired to paint again, and to have a focus again in my personal work.

And I owe it all to the kismet of the universe working in my favor — if I had not been asked Heather and her team to judge QuiltCon this year, I am pretty sure this never would have happened. I’m also pretty sure I never would have met the amazing people I worked with that week: Heather Grant, Executive Director Alissa Haight Carlton, fellow judges Scott Murkin and Cheryl Arkison, and scores of kind hearted and smiling volunteers.

So next time someone asks you to do something that seems interesting but will take you away from your “work” for a week, say YES. You never know where being open will lead you.

Have a great Friday, friends.

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