MCAD Commencement Speech

05/16/16

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This past Saturday, I had the honor of giving the commencement address at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. This was a really amazing (and somewhat surreal) experience for me. That’s mostly because I never went to art college — not at MCAD or anywhere else. I am self taught, and didn’t begin my career till I was in my late 30’s. I am, for all intents and purposes, an outsider to the academic world of art and design. So it was such a privilege to be invited to speak at one of the top ten art and design colleges in the country. I am still pinching myself and feeling enormously grateful for everything that has happened in my life in the past 15 years that has led to this point.

The transcript from the talk is below.

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First of all, congratulations! What you have accomplished is profound!

I would like to thank everyone at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design for inviting me to speak to you today, in particular to president Jay Coogan and his staff who have been truly wonderful to work with.

It is really quite an honor for me to be standing here in front of you today. For one, I never graduated from art school. In fact, I never went to art school. And so for me to be here in this academic gown, dispensing wisdom, is the honor of a lifetime.

The path I took to become a successful working artist was unconventional, and I am grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had over the past 15 years since I began on this journey. I somehow managed to figure out how to make it as an artist. It took me a few solid years – likely much longer than it will take you.

And that’s because you are starting with a few things I didn’t have — enumerable skills, tools and relationships that will help you to build your careers with fantastic swiftness. Remember to cherish and take advantage of all of those things as you leave here today.

But also remember that the greatest challenges you will face starting tomorrow, have little to do with your talent. Sure, talent matters. It matters a lot. But I like to say that 10% of your career is your talent and ingenuity. And the other 90% rests on your energy and enthusiasm, your humility and perseverance, your professionalism and dedication to pushing through every bump in the road you will encounter.

While challenges are ahead (and that’s good news because without challenges, life is exceptionally boring), I have some very good news for you.

You are leaving one of the country’s greatest art & design colleges and entering the professional world of art & design at a time unlike any other in history.

There has never been a better time to be an artist.
There has never been a better time to be a designer.
There has never been a better time to be a maker.
There has never been a better time to be an innovator.

Never in history have there been more tools, more opportunities, more platforms, or more resources for creative people to build and sustain a career and to give back to the world.

Never in history.

The Internet has changed the landscape of opportunity for artists. How you make your work, how you share your work with the world, who will employ you, how you sell your work to feed yourself — all of that is vastly different than it was even ten years ago.

Ten years ago, I decided to leave my job and become a working artist. Unlike most of you, I was already in my late 30’s. I was self taught and had little idea what I was doing. I remember telling my parents that I was going to leave my career as a director inside a non-profit organization to pursue a living as an artist. They looked at me like I was absolutely nuts.

But with discipline and a commitment not to give in easily, over time I made a successful career for myself. The Internet was at the time becoming a space for artists to share their work and build connections. I began to use the Internet as my marketplace, my testing ground, my community, my publicity hub, and my feedback loop.

When I was launching my career, the barriers which once held artists captive until they landed the right job or gallery show, won a prestigious award or fellowship, or secured the right agent or promoter, were beginning to fade. Those barriers are almost invisible now, except at the highest echelons of the art world, and even there, they are growing dimmer.

Gone now are the days of needing an agent, a gallerist, or a handler to make it as an artist. Yes, galleries and agents are incredibly useful and important, with enormous history, knowledge and support. They are simply no longer gatekeepers for success.

Also, gone are the days when you had to move to a specific place — like New York or Los Angeles — if you had any hope of making it or finding a decent creative job.

Gone are the days when you had to choose between being an illustrator or a fine artist. An editorial illustrator or surface designer. An animator or a graphic designer. Today you can choose to pursue and thrive at any number of creative pursuits.

The Internet has created a space in which brave people have forged new paths that previous art, design and illustration paradigms never would have allowed. The rules that once dictated whether a person would leave art or design college and become successful are becoming obsolete.

Instead, the Internet has created a space in which you have the freedom not only to create, but to market and grow your art or design practice however you like –without needing the permission or hand holding of someone with more clout or experience.

This freedom is enormously exciting. I am sure many of you are feeling that right now. The excitement that comes with the vast potential of a creative career in which you can make a difference in the world? There is absolutely nothing like it.

But as with most things that leave us feeling exhilarated, it is also likely leaving you feeling frightened. Some of you are frightened of failure. Some of you are frightened, conversely, of success – of your own power. Some of you are frightened of being ignored. Others of you are frightened of attention. Most of you are frightened of competition, criticism, or not being able to keep up the pace.

And, if you are not careful (and I am certain that most of you have learned this already over the past few years), all that fear can leave you feeling paralyzed or creatively blocked.

The fear cycle can be vicious.

So you must learn to confront your fear. And part of confronting your fear is understanding on a deep level that everyone is scared.

Every single one of you, on some level, is scared.

Take comfort in the fact that you are not alone.

Legendary artist Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

I would hazard to guess that O’Keefe’s terror was connected to her deep commitment to putting new ideas and work into the world, not once or twice when it felt safe, but every single day she was alive.

As part of this next phase of your creative journey, part of your job when you get out of bed every single day is to tell your fears to piss off — or as the Buddhists might do, give your fears a giant bear hug.

You may even imagine that someday after you’ve got some years under your belt you will wake up and not feel scared anymore.

I’m sorry to tell you: that won’t happen either.

And that’s actually good news. Your fear makes you human. And fear is an integral part of the creative process. It’s an integral part of greatness. Of becoming great at something. Of being a great human being. Of becoming a great artist or designer.

And that’s because we cannot make a difference in the world without taking risks, without moving into new, uncharted territory, without forging new trails, without rubbing up against the status quo. Fear means you are doing all of those things. Fear means you are doing something right.

Develop a healthy relationship with your fear, and do not allow it to stop you from doing great things.

What a shame it would be if you hoarded all your ideas! What a shame it would be if you did not use your gifts!

It is, as writer Maya Angelou pointed out, in fact, your obligation to share your gifts. Fear, she said, “is not doing what you came here to do, out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself – for the time you take up and the space you occupy. If you don’t know what you’re here to do, then just do some good.“

You leave here today with a rich education, you are entering the world of art & design at the most exciting time in history.

These are enormous privileges. Use those privileges wisely, and do not become complacent.

Show up every day.

Show enthusiasm.

Bring energy to your work and your working relationships.

Remain humble.

Grow the strength to persevere through every hardship, rejection or criticism.

Conduct business with professionalism and integrity.

Use your superpowers for good.

And last of all, be patient with yourself.

I hope you will each leave here today ready to let yourselves shine brightly, to share your tremendous gifts with the world, to be brave, to make a difference.

There has never been a better time to be an artist.
There has never been a better time to be a designer.
There has never been a better time to be a maker.
There has never been a better time to be an innovator.

I can’t wait to see what you create.

Thank you.

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The Gutsy Girl by Caroline Paul

03/02/16

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If you are a reader of The New York Times or spend much time on social media these days, you might have seen this article a couple of weeks ago on February 20. The article was written by my friend, Caroline Paul, and it was Paul’s perspective on how we actually teach girls to be scared. “When a girl learns that the chance of skinning her knee is an acceptable reason not to attempt the fire pole, she learns to avoid activities outside her comfort zone,” Paul writes. “Soon many situations are considered too scary, when in fact they are simply exhilarating and unknown. Fear becomes a go-to feminine trait, something girls are expected to feel and express at will. By the time a girl reaches her tweens no one bats an eye when she screams at the sight of an insect.” Paul goes on to argue that when girls become women, “this fear manifests as deference and timid decision making. We try to counter this conditioning by urging ourselves to ‘lean in.’ Books on female empowerment proliferate on our shelves.”

The essay by Paul resonated with many. It was the most popular article in the entire New York Times for two days straight after it was published. But how do we go about changing the “scared girls” paradigm that permeates even progressive American culture?

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For one, if we are to encourage girls to be daring, just like we encourage boys, we need more resources. Thankfully, Paul has also just written a book for girls that aims to encourage and foster a sense of adventure. In the book, entitled The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, Paul shares not only her own greatest escapades (and there are many), but those of daring women and girls throughout history. The book also includes activities and writing prompts to get girls thinking about how they can be more daring in their own lives.

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{some of the Gutsy Girls featured in Paul’s book}

Paul, herself an adventurer, flies planes, climbs mountains and was the first female fire fighter in San Francisco back in the 1990’s (about which she wrote this best selling book). Paul grew up as a shy and awkward kid, but she was also enormously inspired by the escapades of athletes, knights and spies in the books that she poured over. When she began to act out adventurous scenes in her play, instead of stopping her, her own mother encouraged Caroline through allowing her to skin her knees — and then to get back up the next day and do it all over again, as if it was the most normal part of life. Soon, Caroline gained more confidence, which led to the kind of adult she is today. In her 50’s Paul continues to live through adventure.

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The book is illustrated by Paul’s partner, the great Wendy MacNaughton, in her wonderful iconic style. The illustrations have an air of humor and sarcasm which is (like embracing fear) totally appropriate for girls (the flow chart about jumping off the cliff below is my favorite).

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About The Gusty Girl, from writer Cheryl Strayed: “Inspiring. The book of the year for daredevils, doers and dreams of all ages.” Do you know a girl (or grown woman) who would love this book? You can purchase a copy here or at your local bookstore.

Have a great Wednesday, friends, and don’t forget to JUMP.

CATEGORIES: Inspiration
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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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Recent Sketchbook Roundup

02/12/16

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As many of you know, drawing in my sketchbook is how I spend a lot of my time outside of my job as an illustrator. Recently, I’ve begun working in THREE different sketchbooks, all of which have different purposes and different paper — something for every mood! I’ve got my regular square format sketchbook with regular paper, I’ve got my moleskine watercolor sketchbook (which is fairly large) and I’ve now also got my “messy” sketchbook, which is actually just a vintage book about Germany that I’m purposefully painting and collaging in as a way to practice being messier in my art-making. Today I wanted to share some of the sketchbooks I’ve made since December.

You can follow along with all of my sketchbook escapades by following me on Instagram and you can also view past sketchbooks here on my website.

Do you want ideas for drawing in your own sketchbook? I teach two different classes on Creativebug to get you started. The first is simply called Sketchbook Explorations. And the other is called More Sketchbook Explorations. I recommend taking the first and then diving into the second.

Drawing and a book in a book can be a very liberating experience because you are not focusing on making a “finished” piece of art for framing or display. When your book is filled, it’s a wonderful experience to flip through the pages!

Happy drawing. Have a great Friday!

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Jude Stewart: Patternalia

12/14/15

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As most of you know, I love a good pattern — I love drawing them, I love designing them, I love decorating with them, I love pinning them. So I was really excited when my friend Tina introduced me to her friend, design writer & creative powerhouse Jude Stewart, who has recently written a fantastic history of patterns. It’s called Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns. This book is for the pattern geek in all of us. Have you ever wondered where stripes, plaids and polka dots came from? Do you squeal with nostalgia when you see a certain fabric or wallpaper pattern from your childhood? Do you wonder about the different kinds of patterns or some of the unwritten rules of pattern making? If so, I guarantee you will love this book.

Last week I had the privilege of interviewing Jude about Patternalia — why she made it and what it was like researching it. We also chatted about our own personal relationships to pattern (since we both love the topic). Today in my Interviews with People I Admire series: Jude Stewart!

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Lisa: Jude, first before we dive into the book, tell us about you. Who are you and how do you spend your days?

Jude: Professionally, I’m a writer who wears two hats. I run my own creative agency, Stewart + Company, specializing in content strategy and development for corporate clients. I’m also a journalist writing about graphic design and visual culture.

But professionally is less than half the story, right? On the personal side, I live in Chicago with the two most excellent dudes I know, my husband and 2-year-old son. I’ve lived a bunch of times in Berlin and plan on doing so again this summer. Right now I’m reading Agatha Christie novels like they’re going out of style…

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Lisa: You previously wrote a beautiful book about color called ROY G BIV. Tell us first a little bit about that book.

Jude: First off, thanks for the compliment! To explain the title, ROY G. BIV is a mnemonic for the order of the colors of the rainbow, and the book itself includes a few more shades than the “classic” rainbow, like pink, gray and black.

I like to describe ROY as a “Color-Choose-Your-Adventure”. You can read your way through the rainbow – each chapter is devoted to a single color – or you can hop around following the thematic cross-references that dot the book’s pages. If you’re curious to read all the ways color intersects with bugs or hallucination, ROY can scratch that itch for you. Patternalia follows a similar format. For both color and pattern, I found this a great way to provide a satisfying old-fashioned read while giving reader scope to explore their own interests in a potentially infinite topic.

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Lisa: Why a book about patterns? Why was this the next book you had to make?

Jude: A good chunk of ROY G. BIV deals with the history of material color – how natural dyes and artist’s pigments were produced prior to the invention of synthetic dyes. That topic bumps into textile history over and over, some of which overlapped with weaving techniques and patterns.

But I really got a running start on Patternalia when I wrote a short “patterns are back” trend article for Print in 2009. I thought it’d be fun to find several ways each classic pattern had been used over the centuries, with an eye towards discerning the source of each pattern’s personality. Well, I found a lot of fascinating material but also no one book that answered my questions exactly – which was maddening. If you’re a particular kind of curious, dogged writer, your next book really chooses you that way.

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Lisa: I’m floored at the amount of information in the book! Tell us the process of researching the book. Where do you go to find all of the interesting pattern facts & history? How long did the research take you?

Jude: Ha, forever! Seriously, the research was a bit nutso. I gathered material for about six years total, gaining confidence as I progressed that this odd book could indeed be successfully written. I amassed all kinds of books that weren’t really intended for me: military histories, symbolism dictionaries, mathematics textbooks, textile histories galore… I also relied a lot on charming librarians and hitting up my husband (who’s a music historian) and our many academic buddies.

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Lisa: What is the most (or one or two of the most) fascinating fact(s) you learned while you were writing the book?

Jude: Well, all those military histories of camouflage were totally worth the slog. The story of camouflage is infinitely weirder and more fascinating than I’d imagined. Camouflage rose to prominence in WWI to protect military equipment from aerial reconnaissance – but then it expanded like crazy during WWII to encompass all kinds of of visual sleight-of-hand. It’s a story of inflatable tanks; decoy heads, tanks and cities; magicians sporting colonel stripes; jazzy warships – it goes on and (weirdly) on.

I was also pretty amazed at plaid’s history – more properly called “tartan”. (“Plaid” derives from a Gaelic term for a certain kind of woolen blanket, however it’s patterned. “Tartan” refers to the actual family of patterns.) Nearly everything you think you “know” about tartan is imaginary. Tartan was banned in the UK from 1746 to 1782 – which fueled the pattern’s rise in popularity. But nostalgia for the pattern also made its history fuzzy and rife with frauds. Several confidence men faked finding ancient tartan guides, and most of the “family tartans” we know today are invented, with little basis in fact.

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Lisa: When I was a kid, my dad, who is a mathematician and scientist, introduced me to fractals. I became obsessed with them, looking everywhere in nature for them. In some ways I think that introduction was the beginning of my interest in pattern that eventually led to a career as an artist and pattern designer. What was your first fascination with pattern or something pattern related?

Jude: Nice! Can I borrow that anecdote? 😉 But seriously: I recall a few patterns from my childhood intensely. A tiny bathroom of my grandma’s house in Louisville, Kentucky, was tiled in black-and-white hexagons that, to my eye, looked like interlocking pandas. Her living room was wallpapered Churchill Downs wallpaper. (Louisville is home to the Kentucky Derby, so horse-love is no joke there. (It only occurred to me later that there were three framed pictures of Secretariat, a Triple Crown winner from the 1970s, and maybe two pictures of grandkids.)

I used to love staring at patterns like these, sizing them up, then sizing them down in your mind’s eye, reverse-engineering how it was made, and – later on – the pleasant difficulty of parsing really complex patterns like Islamic tiling.

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Lisa: Once several years ago, I designed my first repeat pattern that was made entirely of interconnected lines. I used to have an illustration agent, and I remember when I showed this pattern to her she paid me the highest compliment: “I can’t tell where it begins and where it ends!” In other words, she couldn’t tell where the “repeat” began or ended. Making that particular pattern was one of the most satisfying things I’d ever done. You’re a writer & journalist, not a pattern designer. Did you have the opportunity in your research to watch a pattern designer at work on the computer or drawing table? Or have you ever attempted to make a repeatable pattern yourself? If so, what was that like for you?

Jude: I would L-O-V-E such an opportunity but haven’t yet had it. I have, however, interviewed many pattern designers about their process and gotten glimpses into how they work. (See my article Sensing a Pattern for Communications Arts.)

I also admire Islamic patterns for the very qualities you describe. That centerlessness is intended as an homage to Allah, who’s everywhere all at once. They also conceived of mathematics, design and spirituality as intertwined, a beautiful way to commune with a higher plane of existence. As I wrote in Patternalia’s introduction, pattern’s whiff of infinity is exciting to me.

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Lisa: What is your favorite pattern motif and why?

Jude: I really like black-and-white checkerboard. It’s clean, fresh, dynamic – it crackles with a certain electricity. It also conveys a surprising range of meanings across cultures. B&W checks can suggest speed (in racing flags), law and order (“Sillitoe tartan” appears on police uniforms in British Commonwealth countries, and here in Chicago), and spiritual protection (in Bali, you can drape B&W-checked fabric called wastra poleng over something you want to shield).

Lisa: Where can people find you on the Internets?

Jude: I’m at www.judestewart.com, but also tweeting up a storm @joodstew.

Lisa: Thank you Jude! I hope all the pattern geeks purchase Patternalia! It’s amazing

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