In October 2003, I received an email that went something like this: “Hello, Lesley. Jo Packham wants to know if you’d be interested in writing a book about scrapbook quilts.” She had seen my Fragment fabric collages on my website and thought I would be the perfect author/designer for the book she envisioned. Dreams do come true, most often out of the blue and in ways you never imagined. The secret is that you must be prepared and ready to act when they are set in motion. Boy was I ready! I made the decision to return to college at the age of 47 to finish my degree, primarily to see if my writing was “good enough,” because someday I wanted to write a book about creativity. The opportunity to combine my art and my writing exceeded my dreams.
I created all the quilts for that book, Quilted Memories, in my “bedroom” studio. My workspace had to be cleared off every night so my husband and I could get into bed. Space was hard to come by in a house full to the brim with six children and my husband’s business office. A late bloomer, it was just few years before Jo’s email that I came to the realization that waiting for a real studio, or even a space to call my own, was not going to stop me from making the art that I had been setting aside. It was my house too, my needs were equally important. I took what space I could find, called it my studio and hit the ground running. I wrote and created artwork for two more books; launched a best-selling product for transferring photos onto fabric; wrote numerous magazine articles; was the arts editor for a craft magazine; exhibited in shows; interviewed, produced and recorded 77 artist interviews for “Art & Soul” radio podcast; coached other artists; and prepared for and travelled to teach workshops across the U.S. and worldwide, all from that bedroom studio.
It sounds like it all came easily, right? It wasn’t always like that. For decades, I carried an ache inside that went untended for so long that it left an empty space in my heart. As far back as I can remember, I longed to be an artist. I wanted to make art that would make your heart sing, just like the song, and the uplift in my heart that I felt when seeing art created by artists whose work really spoke to me. But how?
I married young and became a mother at 19, the same time quilting was experiencing a revival, or rebirth, in the U.S. The wife of my husband’s baseball coach introduced me to quilting and took me to the only place in the area that sold 100% cotton calico. Thanks to my mom, who signed me up for sewing lessons one high school summer and gifted me with a sewing machine, I already had a sewing machine and knew how to use it. I made my first quilt in 1971. The timing was perfect — quilts were hanging in museums as art, the art quilting movement was getting recognition. In addition to quilting, I tinkered with many crafts, doing a lot of one-offs and learning what I didn’t like. I took classes and read everything I could get my hands on. I was in an information and technique accumulation and absorption phase, narrowing my focus while I waited for the free time and space to create. I wanted to be ready when the time came.
It took me another 22 years to finally take my art by the hands and start creating. I’d been spending a lot of time thinking and planning, yet never actually doing. One day, in my deepest moment of despair, I asked myself, “What is it about other people’s art that makes my heart sing?” The answer came easily — color, texture, photos of people and text. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, everything I needed was with me all along. I had been collecting old photos, quotes, fabric and creating collages since my teens. It was all right there waiting for me. For myself and my sanity, I started making small stitched collages from fabric, photos and quotes printed onto fabric. Hundreds of them poured out in my little bedroom studio. I called them Fragments because they were made from fragments of fabric, words and images in every small fragments of time I could find. I still find comfort, joy and inspiration mixing color, pattern and texture to create Fragments and now, fabric poems. This simple process continues to sharpen my eye and continues to teach me composition, proportion, value and that inexplicable something that makes a heart sing.
“We wait, starving for moments of high magic to inspire us, but life is a banquet of common enchantment waiting for our alchemist’s eyes to notice.” — Jacob Nordby
A gift from 2020 was that I had the time to embark on a large series of quilts based on antique photographs, using the most modern of technology to bring them back to life and into the 21st century. It’s a personal project that allows me to draw on and incorporate all of the skills, knowledge, insight, vision and voice I have assembled over the last 20 years. I feel like I am both coming home and coming full circle, as there will also be another book published as a result of this passion project.
Fabric was my first love and has been a connecting thread throughout all of my work. I consider myself a mixed media artist because not only do I work with many mediums, including fabric, I also love to try new things and materials to see if and how they might become a part of my personal art lexicon and practice. I like the serendipitous results I get when I am able to give up control with processes like wet-cyanotype, eco-printing, snow/ice/low immersion fabric dyeing. I love these, what I call “Christmas morning” activities — something that you set up and let it do its thing while you work on something else and then come back to a surprise at the end of the day.
Come to think of it, I do have a dream studio — my entire home — indoors and out.
Creating art is a fluid process that doesn’t happen in only one room. I still don’t have the studio of my dreams. My room of my own is not as big as I would like. Yet, I have everything I need. I have come to realize that a studio is not the only place you can create. Your studio is wherever you are. When I am creating cyanotype prints and eco-dyeing, my studio is outside among the trees and at the kitchen table. When I am making quilts or fabric poems, I’m in my dining room studio working on the same table the family meals were served on before all my children had families of their own. If the weather is nice, I work on the porch. When it’s time to paint or print, I retreat upstairs to my mixed-media studio. And guess what! I still work on my bed, creating digital art on the iPad, as I wind down from a creatively full day. I have forever loved this quote by Ella Rodman Church: “There is no reason, either in prose or in rhyme, why a whole house should not be a poem.” I would add, there’s also no reason why a whole house should not be a studio.