For the past 14 years or so, I have taught for a week or two every summer at the Grunewald Guild, an organization dedicated to finding the connections between art and faith. They have lovely facilities in the Cascade mountains in Washington state – the original Grange hall for the Plain Valley (now their meeting hall and dining room), the delightful old one room schoolhouse (now the guild library, classroom, and dormitory), several other old buildings and a couple that were built by the guild. They are now celebrating their 30th year.
About a year ago, I was offered an artist residency at Grunewald, in the newest building on campus – the Fiber Arts Studio. We settled on September of 2010 and I walked around on air for several months in anticipation of a large chunk of time to actually work on my art without the distractions of my usual melodrama-type life. And then reality set in. I drive an old Volvo sedan, and there was no way I was going to be able to transport my studio, or even a substantial portion of it, up the mountain to the guild. I would have to do some planning and scheming to figure out how much stuff I could cram into the car. Which meant I would have to have some idea of what I wanted to work on while I was there. More planning. I must have changed my mind several hundred times, but then I decided to let some exhibition deadlines be my guide, and pack accordingly. At the last moment, with a little space to spare, I decided to toss in some Timtex and perle cotton, just in case.
I arrived at the guild mid-afternoon, got myself unpacked and moved into the studio. Part of the building is guest rooms, and I moved into the one right across the hall from the bathroom. (Everyone who knows why, raise your hand. I thought so.) By that evening, I was set up and ready to get to work. I was also exhausted, so I crawled into bed with a book, instead. I should probably say a word about books. I love them. And it’s very easy for me to get sucked into an easy chair with a cup of tea and a stack of books and not be heard from until the next year! I was there to work, but I also brought a stack of books in case I needed to take a break.
Those of you who work with sewing machines know that they can have a serious attitude problem, and will break down or just get cranky on you at the least convenient moment. Which, of course, is just what my machine did. Get cranky, that is. It would still sew, but only on certain combinations of materials. Not, of course, the combination of materials I needed it to sew on for the exhibition pieces I brought to work on.
After a couple of very frustrating days, I surrendered, and dug into my materials to see what else I could find to do. And that’s where the Timtex and perle cotton came in. I decided to spend my time exploring three dimensional structures with fabric, starting with some basic boxes, moving on to a shrine, and a couple of houses. I’ve done this before, but wanted to work out some more of the technical issues I’d run into. I learned a lot about what it takes to make these things stable, as well as how hard on your hands it can be to stitch through so many layers if you don’t have some needle nose pliers handy!
I also learned a bit about myself and how I generally respond to sound and motion. I have always had trouble being a student in a classroom full of sewing machines and people, and generally sit by the back door so I don’t bother anyone. I always thought it was the noise that was giving me trouble. But in the fiber arts building, there was noise that didn’t bother me at all. Staff people were coming and going, running the laundry equipment, moving things around, all of it usually out of my sight. But as soon as someone walked into the room, or stood outside one of the windows or doors (did I mention that the studio is 3/4 glass?) and into my peripheral vision, my motions got jerky – I’d move my head slightly and my hands would also move slightly. I got some really garbage-level quilting stitches if anyone else was in the room that I could see. It took me awhile to figure out to just stop everything instead of trying to keep going. Very instructive.
Over the course of 2-1/2 weeks, I managed to complete six 3-D structures, get some 12″X12″ collages quilted, finish a necklace which will be a gift, and figure out a few things about how I work and the difference between working in my own familiar surroundings where everything I need is at my fingertips, and working in a beautiful, but unfamiliar space, with limited access to materials. The limitations certainly spark some creative thinking, and that’s a very good thing. But there were things I had left at home that would have come in very handy while I was away.
A residency is probably not for everyone. You need to be able to start yourself up every morning, focus on the task at hand, concentrate on the reason you are there, buckle down and get some work done. On the other hand, a retreat might well be for everyone. Take some time for yourself, check into a motel for a weekend with a stack of books, walk on the beach or in the woods (take a bell – there are bears about!), eat and sleep well. Either way, you’ll return to your regularly scheduled life with a different outlook and a lighter step.
Be well, my little chickadees!